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Passage through India

Passage through India

A read of Modi’s India alongside Midnight’s Borders puts Modi’s nationalistic rhetoric in stark relief against the forces that have long threatened to tear India apart.

Mike Watson
Midnight’s Borders: A People's History of Modern India
by Suchitra Vijayan (Melville House, 336 pp., $29.99)
Modi's India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy
by Christophe Jaffrelot (Princeton University Press, 656 pp., $35)

During a visit to the ruins of the city of Gauda, Suchitra Vijayan ran across a honeymooning couple from Gujarat. “I salute our armed forces!” shouted the husband while his bride filmed him. “Our soldiers will take back what was denied to us in partition.” As he lamented the lost Hindu temple, which he claimed had been razed and built over at this site by rampaging Muslims, the nearby Border Security Force (BSF) guard declined to participate in this encomium and encouraged the Gujaratis to read the nearby placard. There, they would learn that no temple ever existed on this site, which had been the capital of Muslim Bengal before being abandoned four centuries ago. Undeterred, the newlyweds sauntered away, continuing to impress upon their audience their love of country and antipathy for Muslims.

This is but one of the many vignettes Vijayan recalls from the seven years she spent traversing nine thousand miles of India’s frontiers in order to write Midnight’s Borders. Although her stories come from South Asia, she argues that in a world filled with fraught borderlands, “they could take place anywhere.” All around the world “we shape nations out of imaginary, nonexistent lines—sometimes amputating communities or whole cultures to make way for a country—and we defend these lines with violence lest they cease to exist altogether.” As she sees it, “the borders we have established in many places cannot continue to exist as they are.” Her goal is to find in her interviewees’ “articulations a critique of the nation-state, its violence, and the arbitrariness of territorial sovereignty.”

Such a critique is strongest in the chapters describing her journeys along India’s borders with Bangladesh and Burma. In both instances, India’s security forces enjoy cordial relations with their foreign counterparts, the threat of international conflict is low, and the Indian government devotes most of its attention to smuggling and immigration. The line drawn between India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1947 was made with patently inadequate maps and was to be finalized in a later settlement. There have been few adjustments since then, which is a tragedy for many of the inhabitants of West Bengal: The line divides family networks and cuts across property lines, in some cases even bisecting towns. As agriculture and fishing have become economically uncompetitive, many of the locals have adopted a “food first and the rules next” attitude. Smuggling is common; corruption is pervasive; violence against Muslims is increasing; and many of the most ambitious residents have left to find work elsewhere.

The story is similar along the border with Burma, but with additional religious complications. Although many Bengalis there see national security services and local politicians as threats or nuisances, few of them clamor to secede from India. Nagaland, which is 90 percent Christian, has had a separatist movement since 1954, and India has yet to suppress the insurgency or accommodate the Nagas. For these Christians, the problem is not just that they fear losing their cultural identity, and not just that the Indian military has destroyed villages and committed atrocities during the counterinsurgency campaign. Bengalis can find work elsewhere in India, but as one Naga pastor said, “many of our children leave for the mainland, but never quite fit in. They face so much racism.”

Vijayan’s argument against borders has less force where India’s neighbors are more dangerous. On her way to Tawang, the most significant Tibetan Buddhist site outside of China, she travelled through parts of Arunachal Pradesh, which is disputed by China and India. That area, which China invaded in 1962, boasts an assortment of shrines commemorating a legendary Indian soldier who held back a Chinese onslaught for days before being betrayed by the father of a local woman he romanced, a sort of Himalayan Thermopylae. This story is as popular as it is disputed. The monastery’s older monks, who lived through a tribal revolt and the 1962 Chinese invasion, remember their sense of abandonment as the Indian military fell back. The younger ones protest dam construction projects and the military’s ongoing land confiscation. Many residents fear another Chinese invasion.

Near the Pakistan border, the picture is muddy. Kashmir still feels the effects of the insurgency that began in the 1990s, and the 2019 legislation that revoked Kashmir’s special status came with new limits on internet freedom and other civil liberties. The rest of the border, which the Indian government mined and fortified after the 2001 jihadist attack on the Indian parliament, is dangerous for infiltrating terrorists and innocent civilians alike. Some residents accept the new bunkers and entrenchments as an unfortunate consequence of living near Pakistan. The border was not necessarily safer before 2001: In 1965, farmers near the small border town Nagi learned that Pakistani troops were approaching and would arrive before the closest Indian army unit. The farmers, many of whom had survived the horrors of partition, removed the mufflers from their tractors and drove out, hoping that the Pakistanis would mistake their vehicles for the Indian military. They succeeded. There is a shrine nearby for Indian troops who died during the 1971 war, but nothing commemorates the farmers who defended the town a few years prior.

Vijayan fills Midnight’s Borders with gripping stories and poignant photos that testify to her determination and skill as a print and photo journalist, but her effort to show that India’s borders “cannot continue to exist as they are” falls short. As she demonstrates, many of India’s boundaries rest where colonial administrators intended to create a buffer zone or temporary marker for further negotiation, and the human costs have been high as a consequence. However, her focus on the border regions obscures the larger reasons behind international conflicts. A more rational boundary between Bangladesh and India would improve many lives, but moving the line a few miles in either direction would probably not halt the rampant smuggling and fears of further immigration that have made the frontier so violent. Moreover, while conceding all disputed territories to Pakistan and China would change where India builds its fortifications and lays its minefields, it would not resolve the many other sources of those conflicts.

What Midnight’s Borders does reveal is tremendous centrifugal forces in India and the state’s attempts to counter those forces. Separatist religious and ethnic groups highlight the challenge of governing a country with 1.4 billion citizens speaking hundreds, if not thousands, of languages and dialects, and embracing distinct cultural identities and traditions. This makes even basic tasks extremely challenging: The BSF recruits from southern India sent to West Bengal generally cannot communicate with the local population and need training manuals to understand the part of their own country where they work. Fears in Assam of Muslim immigration, and in Arunachal Pradesh and Rajasthan of invasion by foreign powers, demonstrate that a state that reacts to that bewildering diversity by ruling with a light touch may lose legitimacy among the people who want a stronger state to protect them from their neighbors. The inflated tales of heroism by troops and security guards may inspire some patriotism, but a country needs a stronger source of identity to remain united.


In Modi’s India, Christophe Jaffrelot explores Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to build that identity. Jaffrelot describes three phases of India’s postcolonial history. In the first phase, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress Party attempted to create a secular, socialist state, but he was stymied by his alliance with upper-caste “local leaders and regional heavyweights, the only ones capable of handing him a victory owing to their patronage networks.” After Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi instituted emergency rule in 1975–77, opposition parties courted lower-caste Other Backward Classes (OBC), and in the late 1980s they advocated “positive discrimination” treatment for government employment and other benefits as recommended in the Mandal Commission. Upper-caste Hindus turned to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which brought Narendra Modi to power in 2014. As Jaffrelot sees it, the BJP’s national populism has created an ethnic democracy that verges on authoritarianism.

The BJP is the modern manifestation of a Hindu reform movement that began in the 19th century as a reaction against Western missionaries and pan-Islamism. One of the most notable intellectuals in this tradition is V.D. Savarkar, who in Hindutva (1923) defined Hindus as a distinct ethnic group who live in the territory of former Vedic India, speak languages derived from Sanskrit, and participate in a shared culture. To Savarkar, Muslims are not part of this nation but can become so through a conversion process. Savarkar’s modern acolytes tend toward radicalism, in many cases forming militias and attacking secularists and other perceived threats to Hindu unity.

M.S. Golwalkar argued that Muslims must assimilate into Hinduism, remain within the borders of the Hindu state “deserving no privileges … not even citizen’s rights,” or leave India. Under Golwalkar’s leadership, the self-strengthening Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organization tries to transform Hindus psychologically and socially. For the RSS, controlling the state is primarily advantageous for minimizing government interference as it builds a nation on Hindu traditions through moral policing and mass volunteer organizations.

The RSS and the succession of political parties associated with it gained popularity among upper castes after the Mandal Commission’s reforms were adopted in 1990, but its appeal among other castes was limited until Modi’s emergence. The RSS has formed organizations for lower castes such as the Bajrang Dal, some of whose members played a part in the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992 that inaugurated the current fraught state of Hindu-Muslim relations. However, for all the talk among prominent intellectuals like Deendayal Upadhyaya about the “complete identity of interest, identity of belonging” among the castes, Dalits and OBCs tended to vote for parties that represented their economic interests.

Modi, who belongs to an OBC himself, has through his personal magnetism attracted enough lower-caste voters to propel the BJP to victory. Through rallies, old standbys like radio addresses, and high-tech use of social media and hologram projections, Modi has forged a unique personal bond with millions of Indian voters, many of whom wear his “Modi Kurta” style of shirt. During his tenure in Gujarat, he attracted urbanizing, upwardly mobile OBCs, which he dubbed the “neo-middle class.” He also depicted himself as a tribune of the people, defending them against hostile Muslims and a disdainful political elite. The nadir of this approach came after the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, when Modi claimed that calls for investigations were attacks on Gujarat’s reputation. As he grew stronger politically, Modi bucked the RSS establishment, repeatedly overruling them and defeating his rivals in the BJP.

Riding Modi’s coattails, in 2014 the BJP won a parliamentary majority and formed a government. The BJP performed best in Gujarat and the northern “Hindi belt,” in part because Modi sent his deputy Amit Shah to revamp the BJP’s operations in populous Uttar Pradesh; in the south and east, which historically have seen Muslims less as invaders and more as trade partners, BJP gains were minimal. Unusually for a socially conservative party, the BJP appealed more to urban voters than to rural ones, largely because Modi appealed to upper-caste young men frustrated by the lack of opportunities commensurate with their social rank, and to “neo-middle-class” OBCs moving to cities to try to break into the middle class. Over the next four years, the BJP either gained electoral control of or formed governing coalitions in twenty of the twenty-nine Indian states.

In his first term, Modi implemented a series of bold, dramatic gestures while his followers enhanced their moral policing activities. Western readers may be familiar with “demonetization,” when the government suddenly invalidated large-denomination rupee notes to ferret out corrupt officials and criminal gangs. In other instances, Modi’s attempts to give lower classes more dignity have taken shape through efforts to reduce open defecation by providing households with toilets, albeit not plumbing. While making highly visible gestures like these, he cut social spending as part of his “minimal government, maximal governance” economic program. Meanwhile, vigilantes bent on countering “love jihad” harassed Muslim men trying to marry Hindu women; thousands of non-governmental organizations lost their licenses to operate; attacks on churches and missionaries increased; and “cow protection” lynchings became dismayingly common. Rival power centers in government like the judiciary and the Central Bureau of Investigation gradually fell into line.

Modi’s economic program was not as successful as many had hoped, but terrorist attacks gave him a national security boost for the 2019 election. Jihadis based in Pakistan killed forty-one Indian police officers in an attack in Kashmir, and the Indian military responded with an air strike on a terrorist training camp in Balakot. Modi shifted emphasis from his 2014 economic messaging to a national security campaign and the BJP won handily, largely because of the 32 percent of BJP voters who claimed that they would have voted for another party if Modi had not run. This time around, the BJP gained ground in northeastern India, particularly in West Bengal and Assam. Shortly thereafter, Modi rammed the Kashmir legislation through parliament, where the vote was 370-70 in the lower house.

Jaffrelot claims that this legislation marked the beginning of the Hindu Raj (rule) in India. At the end of 2019, Modi passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which eased the paths to legal residence and citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, and Christian refugees—but not for Muslims. This too sailed through the lower house overwhelmingly. In the northeast, locals objected to the Indian government legitimizing foreigners on their land. Elsewhere, Indian liberals and Muslims joined hands to protest across the country. Police and militias cracked down on the protestors, and in early 2020 a series of anti-Muslim riots broke out in New Delhi. Later that year, the Supreme Court decided that the ruined Babri Masjid would be replaced with a Hindu temple.


Modi’s Hindu nationalism is the latest attempt to unify India, and it is not yet clear how successful Modi will be. The pandemic has taken an enormous toll on India, both in terms of economic performance and in lives lost, and making up those losses will require tremendous efforts. Modi’s style of dramatic maneuvers, while popular, risks creating a series of toilet programs—highly visible gestures that lack the underlying structural reforms needed to make them practically effective. At the same time, his brand of religious-based nationalism could not only spark insurgencies among religious minorities like the Muslims and Christians, it could also alienate entire regions like southern India. In most parts of the world, nationality is not defined by religion but by ethnicity and by language; a growing sense of Bengali or Tamil distinctiveness could threaten to tear India apart.

There is a long history of outside observers predicting India’s imminent disintegration, and many Indians are justifiably proud of proving those predictions wrong. The collapse of the formerly dominant Congress Party dramatizes how discredited liberalism is in many parts of India, as well as how limited liberalism’s impact has been on Indian society.

There is not another ideological alternative to Hindu nationalism waiting in the wings if Modi fails. The question is not whether it is good for Gujaratis to come to Bengal spouting nonsense; it is what keeps them coming peaceably at all.

Mike Watson is associate director of Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.

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