The new year started in India with a general strike that took place on the 8th of January. The 24-hour strike, with an estimated 250 million participants, was one of the largest in world history. It comes on the back of a swell of escalating seditious tensions, a response to the fascist policies of India’s far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the economic downturn of the country under their power.
Entering the new year is always a moment accompanied by reflection, but the rapidly changing political landscape in India intensified this for me. I’ve found myself turning inward to reflect on my identity, particularly in relation to the politics of my motherland.
My own ancestors are from the state of Tamil Nadu, in the south of India, which is where I was born. I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand with my parents when I was five, growing up near Te Awakairangi, in Naenae. The severing of parts of my cultural identity was a price we paid for being here. The languages and local cultural knowledges we came with were sidelined, and instead, I learned new ways of being in the world. I did not know then what I know now: we pick up the habits of pākehā settlers here in order to guarantee our safety and comfort. In order to feel settled.
We never really fit into these habits perfectly, though. We learn them through repetition, but there’s always a limit to this success. Racism doesn’t always let us get away with imitation, reminding us frequently we can never truly embody that one characteristic common to all pākehā settlers: whiteness.
Coming up against whiteness as a visibly racialised person feels like reaching for something, but you can never quite close the gap. I’ve found you can either play this game, keep trying to reach the same standards set by others, or you can reorientate yourself to find new ways of being in the world, unmediated by the demands of colonial power. Ways that refuse the racialised hierarchy established to serve no-one but those at the very top.
However, such a process of reorientation cannot simply amount to turning the other way. A hasty reclamation of traditions once forgotten brings with it the risk of fetishisation. There is a tendency within some diasporic communities to hold on to certain, superficial parts of our cultural identities with rigidity. This potentially reifies conservative elements of our cultures, rather than allowing them the organic fluidity of a process that takes a life of its own through its collective enactment. The need for this reclamation is definitely understandable – to varying degrees depending on the circumstance, migration to a colonial context has a kind of trauma associated with it. Nevertheless, there’s always a common experience of transplant shock, the kind that comes when you re-root a plant.
One of the biggest risks of fetishising parts of our cultures is the depoliticisation of our diasporic identities. If we connect to our sense of ethnic and cultural histories purely through performance or ritual, where does that leave our connection to the politics of our homelands? For many, being on new lands is an opportunity to practice culture without politics, effectively evading accountability for the politics of our countries or, at least, the homes of our ancestors. Many of us take to this opportunity with ease, open seas affording us a physical distance that translates to a political one.
When I invoke ‘politics’, I don’t mean in a parliamentary sense. Of course the official citizenship of diasporic people are varied, resulting for many in an inability to participate in the parliamentary politics of our ancestral lands. And for many, displacement at the hands of the British indentured labour system has meant different relationships to nationhood and citizenship entirely. I mean ‘politics’ in a different sense, the kind of politics that occurs despite the parliamentary co-option of the political will towards freedom for all people, into an institution dominated and controlled by a political and economic elite. A politics without borders.
I wonder how we might hold a distinct diasporic politics that can contain a vast plurality of political and ethical obligations. The kind that advocates for social transformation and justice in both our new homes and our ancestral lands, in spite of temporal and spatial distance. I wonder how we might conduct ourselves in a settler colonial context, as a people who know intimately the spiritual, cultural, and genocidal violence that colonialism entails. The kind of identity that can transcend the borders and institutions that we’ve come to let define our place in the world. As Nisha Ramayya writes, ‘the relationships between the experiences of those subjected to that colonial violence – directly, globally, and intergenerationally – are obscured by contemporary dominant narratives about borders, nationality and immigration, and the methods of their enactment.’ A reimagining of identity, then, might be of urgent political importance in the times we find ourselves in today.
The Carribean poet and scholar Édouard Glissant writes about the figure of the errant in his book Poetics of Relation (1990), which sketches a relational terrain as the grounds for identity. The errant, writes Glissant, lacks a ‘totalitarian root’ – a root which takes stock all upon itself and kills everything around it. This kind of totalitarian root is what western civilisations are founded on, claiming a dominant and static relationship to land and others. Instead, he imagines the errant as having ‘rhizomatic roots’ – a system of roots, entangled and enmeshed, spreading through ground and air. Rhizomatic roots are still roots, still embodying the idea of rootedness, but are open, mobile, and constantly in motion. This conception of rootedness forms the basis of Glissant’s poetics of relation, a state of being-in-the-world in which ‘each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other’.
For Glissant, it’s the very journey through a path thus far unestablished that politicises errantry, because it forces the errant’s identity into being contingent on their journey and those they come into contact with. Identity, then, is transformative at its very core, because it is constantly renegotiated in relation to others in time, space and place.
Glissant’s notion of errantry doesn’t renounce the origins of the errant, nor gives them definitive access to their new lands. Instead, rhizomatic roots allow for the relationship between identity and roots to evolve according to contingencies, responding meaningfully to the messy contradictions of contemporary life that we embody today. It pushes the phenomenon of identity beyond what we are identified as by colonial capitalism. Instead, it uses identity as an entry point into the political, by freeing it from our bodies, and emerging instead in flux with the bodies around us, with our history and futures, and with many lands. As Glissant says, a poetics of relation is ‘nothing other than the search for a freedom within particular surroundings.’
Some experiences of errantry are invoked as a result of forced exile. If exile acts as the severing of a root, the forcible removal of peoples from their homelands pushes them towards the errant path. Of course, Glissant’s focus on exile derives from his own specific roots, in the Caribbean. But his work makes me think of another tale of exile: the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana.
The story follows Rāma, the seventh incarnation of the god Vishnu, one of three deities that stand front and centre of the Hindu pantheon. Banished for fourteen years from the kingdom of Ayodhya, for which he was next in line to lead as king, Rāma embarks with his wife Sita and brother Lakshman on a journey that includes the defeat of Ravana, the ten-headed king of Lanka, with the aid of the mischievous monkey-god Hanuman. After fourteen years of exile, Rāma, Sita, and Lakshman return to Ayodhya for Rāma to reclaim his place as the king of Ayodhya.
Last year marked a historic, tragic moment in Indian politics. Ayodhya is linked to its eponymous, present-day counterpart in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and has been a site of heavily contested political dispute for decades. A little history: the Babri Masjid is a mosque that has stood in Ayodhya since the 1500s, built by the Mughal emperor Babur. In 1949, two years after India’s Independence from British colonialism, an idol of Rāma mysteriously appeared inside the mosque, after which a Supreme Court ruling barred Muslims from access to the mosque, but allowed Hindu priests to conduct prayers in one area.
Anand Patwardhan, a documentary filmmaker who has covered the dispute extensively, notes that, prior to the emergence of the idol, there were many sites in Ayodhya that vied for the title of Rāma’s birthplace. In the years after Independence, some started claiming that the Babri Masjid was that place, sparking a feverish conflict around who has the right to pray there. A further unverified claim emerged about the existence of a Hindu temple that was destroyed in order for Babur to erect the Babri Masjid.
Patwardhan points out that the original Sanskrit Ramayana was relatively unpopular until it was translated into Hindi by the poet Tulsidas in the 1500s. Before that, only scholars and priests had access to Sanskrit writings, making it extremely unlikely that there would have been a temple dedicated to Rāma at that time. Further, there is no mention of a temple for Rāma ever existing in any of Tulsidas’ writings. Regardless, framing the Ayodhya dispute around the right to pray obscures the underlying issue: the steadily escalating, murderous violence of the fascist ideology of Hindutva, or Hindu supremacy.
On 6 December 1992, the BJP, in conjunction with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the right-wing ideological parent of the party and a nationalist paramilitary organisation for a Hindu rashtra (a Hindu State) – led a riot that saw over 150 000 Hindu extremists charge to the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Someone climbed the dome of the mosque and raised a saffron flag. Armed with hammers, axes, and a politicised religious fervor, the rioters destroyed the mosque. The act sparked riots all over the country, reaching a total death toll of around two thousand people.
Two years earlier, from September to October 1990, LK Advani – a senior leader of the BJP considered by many one of the architects of modern Hindutva – led a march from the west to the east of India. This was an important precursor to the mosque’s demolition. The journey mimicked a pilgrimage, the intention of which was to stir up momentum in favour of the rebuilding of a temple dedicated to Rāma at the site of the Babri Masjid. Navendra Modi, India’s current prime minister, coordinated the logistics of the procession. This journey, called the Ram rath yatra, rode on the wave of violent anti-Muslim slogans and narratives. As documented by Patwardhan, the procession was led by Advani’s air-conditioned Toyota truck, which was dressed up by a Bollywood set designer to resemble Rāma’s war chariot.
I want to return to the present. This year marks the Supreme Court verdict on the Ayodhya land dispute. The case had sat with the Supreme Court since 1992, and finally in November, the decision was made to award the site in question for a temple to be built where the Babri Masjid once stood.
The Supreme Court verdict comes after earlier last year in August, the special autonomous status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked. Kashmir, a majority Muslim state, came into contention during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 – a violent parting gift from the British upon Independence. Acceding to India (instead of Pakistan) was on the condition that Kashmir would receive special autonomous status under the Indian Constitution, giving the state the ability to have its own constitution, flag, and regulate land ownership. Still, tensions between India and Pakistan saw Kashmir acquire one of the world’s most heavily militarised borders, and today it is one of the largest military occupations in the world.
Arundhati Roy has called the state of Jammu and Kashmir India’s ‘unfinished business of assimilation’, arguing that, before 1947, India was a diverse place made up of over 500 independent sovereign territories, 780 languages (at last count), and hundreds of independent indigenous and tribal communities. Since Independence, with the British construction of a unified Indian nation hand-in-hand with the RSS’ agenda of a Hindu rashtra, India’s political landscape can be read as the militarised effort to assimilate all areas and peoples into the fold of a particular vision of a nation state. This vision has been inherited from the British colonial imaginary.
The truth is that the spirit of colonialism doesn’t leave when one country stops occupying another. Roy writes that while the horrifying violence of Partition caused a ‘deep, unhealed wound in the memory of the subcontinent’ (the way that borders do), the project of assimilation continues the unfinished business of Partition:
In India, the project of assimilation, which goes under the banner of nation-building, has meant that there has not been a single year since 1947 when the Indian Army has not been deployed within India’s borders against its ‘own people.’ The list is long – Kashmir, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Hyderabad, Assam.
Each of these regions represents a milestone in the murderous, genocidal dream of a Hindu rashtra.
On 21 December 2019, across the Indian Ocean and nestled comfortably in the waters of te Moana nui a Kiwa, a small group gathered in a different place they call home. Migrants old and new, friends, family, and comrades emerged in Aotea Square in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland). Similar gatherings were held in Kirikiriroa (Hamilton), and Narrm (Melbourne), all as a show of solidarity with protests rapidly erupting across India. These protests are a response to last month’s latest phase in India’s project of assimilation: the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), two government initiatives that Roy has called an exercise in the ‘manufacturing of statelessness’.
The CAA is an act that denies Muslim refugees from neighboring countries eligibility for Indian Citizenship. The latter is a registry for all citizens, already put into practice in Assam, requiring them to lodge official documents proving their ancestry. The Act disproportionately effects Indigenous, trans, Dalit, Muslim and poor people, who don’t have these documents. As of August, up to two million people in Assam have been excluded from the NRC, and run the risk of being declared stateless. The BJP has expressed enthusiasm for rolling out this exercise across all of India.
In the march I attended, people from the Indian diaspora articulated their passion with resounding clarity, extending their solidarity to all those affected by the new changes and to the insurgent movements taking place at this time. One of these includes a recent incident at Jamia Milia Islamia University in New Delhi, where a student-led protest against the CAA and NRC saw extreme instances of police brutality against the protestors. The campus was stormed, staff and students were beaten, and tear-gas was let off by police in classrooms. Students have been detained and injured in the hundreds.
To be able to stand with other diasporic Indians in solidarity with the insurgent spirit of those back home left me feeling incredibly emotional and overwhelmed. One speaker noted that the times we find ourselves in today demands the same vigilance as the antifascist movements in Europe in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Given that RSS leaders have cited Mussolini and Hitler as sources of inspiration, I do not think this is a far-fetched opinion. The rising tide of fascism is a global phenomenon, and we have seen this year its relentless acceleration across the world. But, as Aimé Césaire is careful to remind us, fascism is simply colonialism turned inwards. The organic connection between fascism, imperialism and colonialism requires us to pay the necessary attention in order to locate their complex links. The manifestation of fascism in India does not occur in isolation from its manifestation here, in Aotearoa and Australia, where different projects of assimilation have been ongoing for 250 years.
Césaire also observes that ‘there are no allies by divine right’. This is a question posed directly to us, whatever our identity. How will we choose to be allies in a world set alight by the sadism of those in power? For us in the diaspora, to throw off the shackles of assimilation in our new homes would be a good start. And in turn, to respond meaningfully to the urgent need for social transformation that lies ahead of us, confronting the violence of fascism, colonialism, white supremacy and imperialism face-to-face.
Glissant had already made the connection between imperialism and relational identities, arguing that ‘imperial peace is the true death of Relation’. In the spirit of the poetics of relation, then, long live the fight against imperial peace, which wins only when we surrender ourselves to the colonial capitalist and imperial logics that try to determine for us our sense of self, in both its individual and collective utterances. Still – if what Glissant says is true, that peace for an empire comes at the death of meaningful relation, then it is morbidly ironic that the figure of the errant in India, Rāma, has become the symbol for imperial peace.
My own identity, caught in the contradictions of colonial capitalism, gives me an entry point into re-imagining politics mediated by a poetics of relation. Many of our identities are composites characterised by histories of errantry, which may be our greatest strength. Embracing this meaningfully would entail a transformative mode of being-in-the-world, that transcends the borders between nations as well as communities, opens up a different consciousness of the self and the collective, and builds solidarity over the open seas – a kind of pelagic relationality that at once opens up and collapses time and space.
For 2020, my wish is for our anti-fascist work here in the South Pacific to kick into gear, ready for the kind of internationalism the world needs today – and simultaneously, for a deeper commitment to the struggles on these lands we’re on.