Journey through India’s borders: Why it all began

December 2011, Paktika Province Afghanistan


Commander Mahmud had previously fought against the Soviets, the Talibs and few others he called traitors. His stories changed a little every time he narrated them to me. He was a creature of a ruptured society, that required certain murkiness of character and malleability of beliefs to negotiate alliances and friendships with an unlikely spectrum of characters. In his new role he would recruit, train and command the Afghan Local Police. Created at the behest of and funded by the Americans, the ALP was a policy designed to “secure local communities and prevent rural areas from infiltration of insurgent groups.”


It was the very young, the poor, the orphaned, the uneducated and the disenfranchised who were regularly conscripted and forced to fight under threat of violence. One of the cadets, who looked no older than 15, said he regularly crossed into Pakistan to see his family and moved there every winter in search of employment. “My maternal cousin joined the Taliban”, he said, “They pay well for doing nothing. He had the gun first”.

Pointing to his gun he said, “these guns are not bad, either”. Young boys were being prepared for slaughter, the accidental recruit was meant to fight the accidental guerrilla across the border. The US sergeant in Sar Howza, brushed it off saying “it is an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem”. I repeated this to Commander Mahmud and he responded with silence.

The day I left Sar Howza, the commander had prepared a grand meal of goat and rice, and sent me away with words that betrayed his appearance. “Memory is a funny thing. It differs from the history you came here with.” On the road back to Kabul and for the next two years I thought about the palpability of an arbitrary borders and what it did to people. A border might create two distinct nationalities out of the same stock, but can it create a break with people and their past?


Nation states are an accidental eruptions of history. There is no inherent logic to the perimeter of the State’s territory, apart from that which gets legitimised by living. The territory that divides the citizen and the alien is messy. Yet these lines are imperative for the politics of statehood and statelessness, who belongs and who is excluded. It separates, us from them, it creates hierarchy and order, it consolidates and defines.

Jinah once remarked that, “India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a subcontinent of nationalities.” We are a subcontinent of nationalities, culture of well articulated borders is alien to us. Sovereignties and allegiances are multiple and overlapping, with frontiers and not borders as the reference.


Mortimer Durand and Emir Abdur Rahman Khan in 1893 signed the Agreement that created that Durand line, between Afghanistan and British India. The agreement, a single page document with seven clauses, created a frontier without identifying structures, not a border. Our proclivities towards ownership of property, homelands, the state and sovereignty have similarly remained multiple, disparate and disaggregated.

With the partition, something unique, unprecedented and disorienting had happened in the subcontinent. It created a new breed of people in the same way that America created new people in the 1781 with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation. This children of predicament, a new breed of people bearing the ideas that created them, but also the ideas of belonging and identities they have spawned since.

The clarifying violence at the moment of creation made the borders palpable, political and personal. Contested borders, territorial disputes, population transfers, communal strife, sectarian violence, self-determination movements have happened within the territory of the state. Externally, India went to war with Pakistan and China, intervened in East Pakistan in 1971 and Sri Lanka 1987.   All these events are traditionally described within the clinical framework of historical cause and consequence, that discounts the hemorrhage, that bleed into each other.

I instead stand with Thomas Carlyle when he says “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” These biographies are the finer details, that don’t fall into delineated categories of cause and consequence. A Bangladeshi man I met along the India – Bangla border remarked that, “The partition did not just happen, the war did not just happen. It is unfinished and on going.” I have since used his words as a prologue to many conversations. His words resonated with a Pakistani – American, with a Sri Lankan who remember landings in Dhanush Kodi years ago as a Tamil refugee, it resonates with Chinese – Indian’s interred at Deoli camp soon after the Indo-Sino war, it resonates with a Kashmiri Pundit, and with a Burmese refugee in India. How do we aggregate his experience and the experience of a million others who relate to him across ethnic, religious, political and personal lines. There is a genealogy to this resonance, that cuts across and through borders and gets inherited through generations. May be it is because we bear everything that was once alive in the lives of others.

Nietzsche once noted that only that which has no history can be defined. And yet the discourse of nationalism is aimed at creating a foundational myths about a Nation’s beginning, defining the people, its conflicts and its aggressors. While defining the “problematic other”, the state always cast’s them as actors in the discourse of conflict, stripped of history and agency. Stories that get circulated about them in capitals of power, are regurgitated and gentrified versions of reality. Defiance, resistance, militant anger and violence, are all clubbed together as a singular adjective and fashioned, as a conflict between two distinct groups, made of “us” and “them”. Complex and nuanced accounts, regularly become esoteric reductions and representation of whole groups of people, their history, memory and boundaries. Obligation towards ‘individual truth, is regularly and systematically undermined in these edges. Truth is neither altered nor silenced, instead setting limits to it, has become the greatest weapon against resistance.

“A nation is bound not only by the real past, but the stories it tells itself, by what it remembers, and what it forgets,” said Colin Thubron. We are at time when we have not earned the right to forget the past, yet around us is a vigorous effort to prematurely rewrite a singular history, that is fraught with multiple, competing narratives of memory.

Much of what I intend to say, and what follows is the genealogy of the Indian state and the archaeology of its people through stories. What other rhetorical device can seamlessly trek through flawed heart of history, memory and human nature? How do we best write about the ethical questions about people and their relationship to the state? Sadat Manto, whose intellectual legacy is tied to Indian and Pakistan, was one of the firsts, to write about the story of partition, as the story of the rape and abduction of thousands of women on both sides of the newly formed borders. He writes about bloated bellies, and asks a very poignant and provocative question, “Would the children of their misery belong to Pakistan or Hindustan? And who would compensate these women for their nine-month burden, Hindustan or Pakistan?”. These question will never have comfortable answers, but by asking them he transforms the marginal and second class citizens, into powerful and significant symbols. This endeavour in some ways takes lessons from that intellectual history.