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f you look outside the window at the right time when the Orange Line of the Metrolink train pulls into Los Angeles’ Union Station, your eyes pass over the men’s central jail that stands across the street. A few blocks down, the metropolitan detention center and federal courthouse sit almost adjacent to the Japanese American Museum, where the exhibition on display is called “Under A Mushroom Cloud: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Atomic Bomb.” The back wall of the Geffen edition of the Museum of Contemporary Art that abuts the Japanese American Museum is covered by the words of a work by feminist political artist, Barbara Kruger: “Who is beyond the law? Who is bought and who is sold? Who is free to choose? Who does time? Who follows orders? Who salutes longest? Who prays loudest? Who dies first? Who laughs last?”
This neat architectural orchestra of incarceration and cultural capital feeds a geography built to absorb shocks. A terrain where the lavish excess of the Walt Disney Concert Hall occupies space a stone’s throw away from the impressively designed headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, reputed to be among the most racist in the country. In this space—where the art world eats into zones of racial abandonment like Skid Row—generic buildings and aesthetic flourishes combine to create such a complicated labyrinth of paradoxes that nothing truly outrageous could ever happen in Downtown LA.
Ensconced in this landscape, a little after 11am in late-December 2019, a motley group gradually gathered in Grand Park, the protest and leisure spot facing City Hall, to demonstrate against the ongoing political turmoil in India. As I walked there from Union Station, armed only with an issue of The London Review of Books that had kept me company on the train, I didn’t know quite what to expect. But the prospect of occupying space with an assortment of largely like-minded folk was enough. We were gathering to raise our voices against the legislative illegalization of millions of Indian citizens, primarily Muslims, through the ratification of a Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA,) soon to be followed by the implementation of a National Registry of Citizens (NRC.) The CAA extends citizenship to virtually all religious groups (except Muslims) fleeing religious prosecution from India’s neighboring, largely Muslim-majority, countries. The NRC seeks to develop a registry of citizens to account for the entire population of India.
While the Indian government now insists that the NRC and CAA are not connected to one another, in practice the state’s nightmarish vision would ensure that once Hindus are granted citizenship, Muslims without the requisite paperwork to prove their status as citizens will be rendered stateless. In the words of political scientist Niraja Gopal Jayal: “If the former is carving out paths to statelessness for disfavoured groups, the latter is creating paths to citizenship for preferred groups.” Indeed, a few months ago, home minister Amit Shah himself emphasized this intimate link between the NRC and CAA with his by-now infamous instruction: “aap chronology samajhiye” [you must understand the chronology]. The chronology in question was helpfully spelled out in a tweet from his official account: “First we will pass the Citizenship Amendment bill and ensure that all the refugees from the neighbouring nations get the Indian citizenship. After that NRC will be made and we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” Hence, few are moved by Shah and his regime’s recent efforts to convince people that the CAA is a benign instrument of governance with no link to the NRC. The fallout of implementing either legislation remains to be seen. However, given the fact that millions of Indians—regardless of their religious affiliations—possess no paperwork to prove either their religion or citizenship status ensures that despite its Islamophobic intentions, the laws will likely impact Hindus, Muslims, and others equally.
Such thoughts doubtless weighed on the minds of those who assembled in Grand Park on that sunny December morning. The capacious nature of these attacks against all Indians helped give the occasion the kind of momentum more politically fractious issues don’t allow for. If the more liberally inflected among us could vent about how the CAA and NRC violate fundamental principles enshrined in the Indian Constitution, those with radical proclivities found space to voice substantial critiques of the Indian state’s continuing reign of terror in Kashmir. While some were energized by the prospect of standing proudly next to the national flag, others could find comrades among a small number who didn’t want to link their dissent to national symbols. The signs people carried were clever, their energies didn’t dissipate, and strangers found time to share outrage as well as a joke or two. Differences were, for the most part, put aside.
I’m sure I was not alone in thinking that it is difficult to be far away from things that matter at times like these. Sometimes, it is difficult enough that even people like myself, often suspicious of community and sites of public enthusiasm, find themselves holding signs, shouting into the air next to a random assortment of strangers, and clinging to abstractions—capitalism, the state, fascism, the idea of India—to make sense of a moment that, in appearing to be so very simply explained, actually somehow eludes explanation. By this I don’t mean to suggest that concepts like capitalism and fascism are inadequate for understanding what is going on in India. But the Modi government’s ideological program has been crystal clear since he was first elected to office in 2014. It was largely this program that powered his emphatic reelection in 2019. In all of that time, with the exception of a few sporadic or contained protests, there was no outbreak of dissent across the country. As a result, the extent of popular anger against the CAA and NRC caught the ruling party off guard. However, it is perhaps fair to claim that it also caught activists and political opponents unawares. Which is to say: while it is not surprising that a Hindu supremacist state would try to disenfranchise Muslim citizens, the way events played out was surprising. And as India hurtles from those protests, to continuing everyday casteist, communal violence, and the impending explosion of coronavirus in the country, I am less sure than many allies that we fully understand the logics and affects underwriting events as they unfold.
Unsurprisingly, then, those thrilling two-odd hours in Grand Park gave way, eventually, to an anxiety; a looming sense that perhaps things are more precariously poised in India than some of us who dream, (in one perverse form or another,) of social transformation are capable of admitting. Of course, the truth is, nothing someone can say from “here” will be adequate as a response or a comment or an engagement with what is going on “there.” At the same time, it is also true that for me, as for many others gathered in the park, “there” is also “here.” Whether we are in the United States as students, workers on visas, or second-generation Indians, some connection to “home” remains even as we build other homes or spaces of respite and refuge in less familiar worlds. In this way, political differences notwithstanding, those gathered in Grand Park perhaps shared a sense of spatial entanglement with the figure of the conservative, Hindutva-supporting Non-Resident Indian. All of us, despite occupying different ends of the political spectrum, dearly hold on to fictions—the fiction of India, most prominently of all—as a way of staking claim on a place we still believe is ours.
Demonstrations are intriguing occasions for fantasy; times when one’s otherwise limited capacity to act, to influence a course of things, appears magnified—even oversized. And precisely because they are occasions for fantasy, those involved in them tend to resist diagnosis in those terms. A desire for “real” politics undergirds the logic of occupying the street. Nonetheless, for me, being in the middle of things has always carried a sense of ongoingness, of not quite knowing how the event I am caught up in will play out. When, long ago, a part of me hoped I could become a proper political subject, I latched on to scenes of enthusiasm and public dissidence as clarifying moments; times when distinctions between friends and enemies became palpably visible, or could be enforced with clarity. Now, with the weariness of someone who recognizes themselves as a failed political subject, I find it harder to foreclose ambiguity, to follow an instinctual desire for clarity I know is never quite there.
In this frame, it is perhaps worth remarking on the fact that neither of the two most fascinating actors centrally involved in the crisis in India today help draw the easy binary distinctions on which much of politics turns. Mamata Banerjee, the working-class, populist-lite present chief minister of the state of Bengal, occupies the position after having removed an alliance of Communist parties that governed the state for 34-years. She exemplifies the possibilities and difficulties offered by certain strains of post-ideological politics, and in the initial days of the protest against the CAA and NRC, led gathered crowds with rousing slogans (like the ones towards the end of this video,) projecting an inclusive, progressive vision of citizenship the likes of which Indians scarcely see articulated as boldly by mainstream politicians. As Bengal hurtles towards an electoral confrontation with an ascendant Hindu Right in 2021, she will become one of the key players, both nationally and in the state, defining the shape of the counter-politics to come.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Hindu-Right formation known as the Shiv Sena—which cut its teeth in communal, anti-labor politics during the 1980s—is, today, rebranding itself as a party of the future. So much so that one of its most prominent leaders and the present chief minister of the state of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, compared police brutality on protesting students in Jamia Millia Islamia University to the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (one of the most infamous episodes of state violence and excess in colonial India.) One cannot, of course, make an equivalence between Mamata Banerjee’s party, the Trinamool Congress, and the Shiv Sena since they hold onto very different imaginaries of India. Nor does the Shiv Sena’s enthusiastic support for these protests indicate that the party has left divisive anti-Muslim politics in the past. But these tendencies do point to a churning in Indian political culture that those making clear distinctions between warring factions can miss, overlook, or underplay—tendencies that, dark as this thought is, it could be necessary to keep an eye on if we are to exit the seemingly endless present conjuncture.
“A space had to be opened inside the existing world in order to put the camps in it,” writes Rudolf Mrázek in his astonishing book, The Complete Lives of Camp People: Colonialism, Fascism, Concentrated Modernity (2020: 143.) Locating camps within a history of light and enlightenment, Mrázek cautions against thinking of such spaces only as dark, unknown, invisible, or hidden. Camps are often built in broad daylight, in plain view of those who will eventually be housed in them. Witnessing the events unfolding across India today, I cannot help but feel that such a clearing—“a space ... inside the existing world”—is being created before our very eyes. From literal detention centers being constructed with breathless anticipation in various parts of the country, to the metaphorical detention of thought by an unrelenting, fascist ideology-police, if we are unable to see the camps springing up all around us, it’s not because they don’t exist, but because we choose to look away from them.
When, in February 2020, I went back to India after a long hiatus, the overwhelming feeling of unease that had seized me in Grand Park became even more palpable. Despite a significant, broadly progressive electoral victory against the Narendra Modi dispensation in Delhi, and quite remarkable, inspiring protests by Muslim women in places like Shaheen Bagh and Park Circus in Kolkata, the riots that broke out in the national capital during United States president Donald Trump’s visit at the end of the month seemed to have been foreshadowed for a long time. Everywhere I went, whoever I spoke to, brought forth a subterranean affect of dread which refused to leave me alone. The election campaign in Delhi had been one of the most (rhetorically) violent in recent memory, with partisans of the Hindu Right targeting their political opponents in the most divisive, communally-charged, religious terms. Internal divisions within the left did not help matters. Something unpleasant was simmering just beneath the surface of the everyday. When it finally happened, the orgy of violence that gripped Delhi—the likes of which the city had not seen since riots following the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984—continued for three days before an uneasy calm was restored. Few have any illusions it will last. This, I have been thinking since then, is what a slow, attritional civil war looks and feels like.
Between media stories of burning homes, destroyed businesses, dead and injured people, as well as intimidated journalists on the one hand, and random sirens emanating late at night from ambulances or police vans outside my house on the other, anxiety was suddenly no longer merely hanging in the background. It became as thick as the atmosphere itself. A few days prior, when my mother and I were having lunch with a grandmother I had not seen for a few years in Kolkata, the question of citizenship and the anti-CAA/NRC protests inevitably reared its head. We spoke about how delicately things were poised, about how enmity was fast becoming an organizing principle of social life in India, about how lawyers, activists, and dissident voices were being locked up for unending stretches of time under the aegis of “unlawful activity” or sedition. At one point, addressing my mother, she said, almost in an effort to convince herself: “I have to believe India will see the other side of this darkness one day. But perhaps not in your generation ...” I’m not sure I felt very confident it would happen in mine either.
One of the unfortunate fallouts of living amidst paradoxical architectures is realizing how deeply what Jennifer Terry calls our “attachment to war” suffuses everything—bodies, concepts, languages, and ways of being in the world. Thus:
“War need no longer be announced by an official declaration for the general population to be in a continual state of attachment to war. It is phrased in a political grammar of xenophobic security against a racialized figure of terror and through which emotional attachment to the state of war permeates myriad affective ways of being. So being ‘at war’ is a constant feeling and a continual state of being that is forged by many quotidian activities” (2017: 10.)
War machines so enamor us or frame our lives that we often do not even realize how such attachments form. “There is no way to be unattached, no such thing as postwar society—unless we begin to intervene in this naturalization and begin to think otherwise,” Terry continues. Nonetheless, as her work eloquently shows, intervening to conjure an otherwise is a thankless as well as ceaseless task, prey to the exhaustions, pessimisms, and world-weariness that most projects of social transformation demand. Words like “militarization” attempt, in this context, to stabilize and clarify uncertain ground, even as differences between civilian and military, art and conflict, belonging and expulsion fast disappear. When I cast my eyes on the jail next to Union Station and recall going inside the building once, I think also of Barbara Kruger on the MOCA wall, of the peoples, landscapes, and ecologies sacrificed in the settling of Los Angeles, and of all the ways in which “here” and “there” are, ultimately, intimately connected. Confronted by such a landscape, it is little surprise that those struggling against the status quo lunge, repeatedly, for clarity. Believing one knows the operational logic of events on this scale, thinking one has fully grasped how a society is coming apart at its hinges, offers some therapeutic comfort at a time of persistent paranoia. Such affects can become minor forms of empowerment when all other forms of power, access, or influence are lost.
In the end, irrespective of whether I have anything intelligible to say about the continuing precarity of the situation in India, I am confronted, repeatedly, by the limits of language, by an impoverished vocabulary of the political that has us reach for the comfort of known things: us and them, here and there, action and inaction. Especially in turbulent, uncertain times, when the very question of “knowing” can be put to the test. Such Wittgensteinian thoughts might, like any thought, lack the urgency politics demands. Guilty as charged. But as Jonathan Rée reminded me on the train, many of Wittgenstein’s insights were forged as much in conditions of war as in the university (a distinction itself worth putting under further scrutiny.) A sign, perhaps, that—even as we take to the streets to defend what remains of countries, constitutions, and cultures we collectively inhabit—it could be worth resisting the desire to distinguish the urgency of politics from the supposed abstraction of language, especially when confronted by an enemy that dwells in that distinction.
In addition to Charmaine Chua and the editors of this forum, author would like to thank Anneeth Kaur Hundle, Muneira Hoballah, Fiori Berhane, Cameron Hu, Williston Chase, and David Theo Goldberg for comments and conversations informing these reflections.
Anirban Gupta-Nigam is a postdoctoral scholar with the University of California Humanities Research Institute where, in addition to managing an initiative on liberal arts literacies, he writes on the intersections of race, infrastructure, and intimacy.