The multiplication of internal and external borders

An account of recent changes in India by Luca Congiamatti, Scuola Normale Superiore

If wars have changed borders, or in other words, if by changing borders wars have changed the world, then this also applies to the pandemic.” This statement by the political scientist Ranabir Samaddar describes the consolidation of nationalist forces that underlines the current crisis management in India.

The everyday experience of migrants is one of exclusion: by denying access to basic facilities in urban centres their visibilty becomes denied as well. They have to be brought home immediately. The boundaries existing in society are multiplied at the time of the pandemic, following the lines of race, caste, gender and religion.

Physical distancing immediately becomes estrangement, stigmatization of a body seen as sick and spreading of diseases, amplifying the condition of untouchability of the most vulnerable sections of society. The approximately 8.5 million migrant women employed in housework are unable to access any form of income. Additionally, the fear of potential sick body leads to further exclusions, anyone beyond those closed household doors could be a potential threat. Hence the condition of being excluded from work, cities and society. Data on domestic violence is difficult to obtain. The constraint of having to stay at home removes spaces of freedom from daily domestic violence and from the possibilities of self-determination. I talk to Nitish Mohan, member of the executive committee of the Students’ Federation of India. While we speak, our conversation gets interrupted by the ringing of his phone.

He reports that a student had just called him, talking of the psychical despair experienced after schools got closed, forced to make a long return journey yet being trapped within the borders of Gujarat. She found refuge in a predominantly Hindu female dormitory, where she is forced to suffer the stigma of the community as a Muslim on a daily basis.

The boundaries drawn by the citizenship law are especially targetting the Muslim community. The episodes of racism following the event organized by the Tablighi Jamaat organization immediately channeled the attention of Hindu nationalist groups in search of an enemy guilty of violating the national community by spreading the virus. All municipal institutions were quick in distancing themselves from from these events, forgetting these had been authorized by them. Some members of the BJP coined the term “Coronajihad” making it viral on the internet, while on television networks with a pro-government vocation reported about how this event was an act of conspiracy to destroy India. Propaganda did not stop just there. The grammar of the Muslim war against the Hindus is engrained in the institutional and political communications of the BJP. Suresh Tiwar, mayor of Deoria, a city located in the north of Uttar Pradesh, has circulated a notice asking not to buy fruit and vegetables from Muslim street vendors: branded as virus spreaders they do not get the dignity to exist. In the narrative, an enemy is created that spreads the virus by spitting on the goods, in order to decimate the Hindus. These are not just words, there has also been action. The fascist RSS groups took the opportunity to parade through the street with their saffron flags to mark their territory, to show who to have contact with and who should be excluded from society.

The nation-building project need of the BJP requires to create an internal community, defining its traits through the practice of exclusion, and above all it needs to define the external borders of the state: internal racism must be accompanied by the will of power of the nation, the indication of another enemy who wants to destroy the community from outside. Surely, there are hits against Pakistan even in a global health crisis. Just recently, Premier Modi tweeted “While the world fights Covid19, there are people engaged in spreading other deadly viruses. Like terrorism. Like fake news and videos mounted ad hoc to divide communities and countries “, indirectly hinting at Pakistan.
The other enemy is shared with Trump supporters in the United States: China. A survey conducted in March shows that trade relations with China are considered harmful by two thirds of respondents. Echoes of Trump’s labelling of the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus” can also be heard in India.


The contested network – Between self-organization and centralization

Although in a territory that is constantly under the control and arbitrariness of the police forces, spaces of self-determination emerge online. Virtual spaces for support and solidarity such as the Facebook group Caremongers India constitute one of the epicentres for sharing and overcoming vulnerabilities. Hundreds of requests for help appear daily, thereby making visible the challenges faced by sections of the population, denied their right of expression in other spaces. Problems such as finding food, medicine and the need for medical attention are discussed in the group.

The impact of the scarcity of essential goods is aggravated by the worsening of psychological conditions during the pandemic. The journey of hundreds of kilometers long and concerns about the health of your loved ones are just some of the elements of psychological distress for migrants. With the exception of the state of Kerala, there is hardly any institutional support. Social movements, grassroot organisations and NGOs are the ones present to provide psychological support via helplines.

On the other hand, the virtual space is the space in which the inequalities in the country collide. The gap is evident in the data referring to access to electricity in the country. Only 47% of the has access to electricity supply for more than 12 hours a day, while only 24% of the population has a smartphone and 11% have a computer. This data is also accompanied by the gender gap in access to services, given that only 33% of women have internet access in urban areas and 28% in rural areas.
While most government schools have closed down, those who can afford private education follow newly established online lessons and lessons on TV channels, thereby increasing gaps in access to knowledge even further. Finally, access to the internet is subject to the arbitrary power of politics. In recent Indian history there are numerous cases of blocking access to the network by the Federal Government, as demonstrated by the internet shutdown in the first four months of occupation of the autonomous region of Jammu & Kashmir – a region in which the network is still operating on 2G due to government interventions – and by frequent shutdowns recorded during popular uprisings immediately following the approval of the new citizenship law.

One of the greatest global discussions was about the need to control population movements through tracking applications. If at first the intervention on the subject was the scene of intervention of the individual federal states, for example with the GoK app launched in Kerala and developed with the collaboration of students and engineers. However, this was very soon transferred to the centre. But privacy laws in India are very lax. In recent years, the government has extended the objectives and sources of access for the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a database linking a vast number of personal information such as tax registers, telephone numbers and bank accounts. Many experts have feared the advent of a surveillance state in India, a possibility that becomes real with the obligation to install the Aarogya Setu tracking app for employees employed in the public and private sector.

The state will be shaped by the pandemic – even if it is unsure yet, how exactly it will look like afterwards – reviving long-lasting conflicts that have emerged during the history of the subcontinent. “The winner will be whoever will be able to demonstrate a better ability to reorganize the country in the face of the current disaster,” says Samaddar.

But this also opens up possiblities. Increased visibility of workers can also lead to a change in the political perspective in India.  

Read the Italian version here.

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