Version classiqueVersion mobile

Putting the Ontological Back into Ontological Security

Meredydd Rix

5. Non-Discursive Evidence

Texte intégral

1In chapter four I showed how Bangladesh is constructed through discourse in such a way as to create determinacy and ontological presence for the Indian nation. I also explored the collapse of this determinacy and the concern with the challenge of identification that emerges from the hypervisible-yet-invisible Bangladeshi. In this chapter I will link the granular evidence presented in the previous chapter and place the analysis into a bigger picture. The discourses analysed are of course a small part of a larger set of discourses, processes, materialities and power relations, all of which are crucial in understanding ontological insecurity. The analysis of a discourse needs to be explored within the social and material contexts of which it is a part. Deeply imbricated in the production of meaning are various institutional and material structures. Although there is not the scope to explore these in great detail, in this chapter I explore some of these structures and imbrications, looking in particular at the materiality of the border and its fence, at the development of citizenship law, and at the practices of citizenship testing.

5.1 Border Anxiety

2Much of chapter four was dedicated to analysing an anxiety that pervades the border. This anxiety is visible not just in discourse, but also materially. The construction of the border fence and the violence with which it is policed do not appear to respond to a substantial material challenge; they are in fact evidence of India’s ontological insecurity. Here, I explore this further. I first show that the obsession with the border does not appear to be a proportionate response to a material challenge, raising the question of how to account for this obsession. I then show that the border is in fact an attempt to produce the determinacy the nation alleges exists, and that the border and the fascination with its transgression are a function of the indeterminacy of the Indian subject. In doing so, I suggest that the border itself institutes a particular way of seeing that makes indeterminacy visible and challenging.

3The Indo-Bangladesh border fence is the world’s longest, at around 3,200km. It is double-fenced, with a border road facilitating troop transport, and the government is now upgrading the border using floodlights, lasers, cameras and motion sensors, with outposts every 3.5km.1 The fence is guarded by the world’s largest border force, the BSF. The border itself is one of the deadliest in the world in terms of deaths caused by security forces (HRW, 2010).2 Yet it is not clear that this enormous investment in the border is a proportionate response to a material challenge. As discussed in chapter one, the argument that the border is a response to insurgency, terrorism or the economic burden of migrants is hard to defend. Indeed, the anxiety over the transgression of the border seems to far outweigh those acts of transgression. For every person who was arrested trying to cross the Bangladesh border in 2019, two articles in the corpus were written on Bangladeshi migrants. This suggests that there is a distinct obsession with Bangladeshi immigration above and beyond the actual issue.

  • 3 In 2013 the arrest rate was 209, jumping to 2,455 in 2014 when the BJP came to power (The Wire, 202 (...)

4Indeed, the BSF only detected 1,351 ‘infiltrators’ in 2019 (The Wire, 2020). In contrast, the US apprehended more than double this number every day along its border with Mexico, despite Mexico having a smaller population (US CBP, 2020). This signals that not many people are trying to cross, that these attempts are not that effective, or that corruption means that the number is under-reported. The infrastructural and institutional investments along the border suggest that efficacy is not a major challenge, and while corruption is well known, even if the BSF let five people in for every one person apprehended, that still amounts to only around eight thousand people who enter in a year.3 My point is that the expense and the obsession with the border, and the prevalence of the discourse on ‘infiltration’, do not seem to be reflected by a substantial material challenge. What then accounts for this obsession?

5The obsession with the border and its inviolability derives from the need to conceptually separate India from Bangladesh, and to understand the borderland as a zone of determinacy. The border is exactly the point where the indeterminacy of nationhood is starkest, and where the distinction between self and other is seen to implode. The indeterminacy of the Indian nation means that the supposed Bangladeshi migrant becomes a spectre that is always present yet invisible. Consequently, the issue of migration takes on an outsized role in Indian politics, as the number of ‘suspected Bangladeshis’ far outnumbers the number of actual Bangladeshis. As a result, the border seems more porous than it is. This returns us once again to the indeterminacy of the Indian nation. The challenge is actually from within. The Indian nation, haunted by the Bangladeshi, comes to be haunted by itself. The inability to code its own people reveals the indeterminacy of nationhood and selfhood in South Asia.

6What the nation comes up against at the border is the fiction of its own presence. The inability to find a border in the borderland suggests that the hailed nation is not underpinned by the presence it alleges. The history of the border is one of gradual ‘disciplining’, of converting ‘recalcitrant peoples’ into citizens and foreigners (Samaddar, 1999). As discussed above, the forms of belonging and territoriality that have come to characterise South Asia (and nation-statism more generally) were far from intuitive in the region that was gradually bisected after 1947. Understandings of territory and belonging continue to deny the logic of nationalism in the border region, and it is this refusal to succumb to national determinacy that gives rise to the violence of the border (and arguably statism more generally) (Chaturvedi, 2005; Krishna, 1994).

7Importantly, however, there is a particular way of seeing that the border produces. Just as, for Foucault (1977), the materiality of the prison produces a particular gaze or way of seeing, so the border and its fence produce a particular gaze, a way of looking at space and at movement (and ultimately a way of understanding ontology). The gaze that the border gives rise to is one that naturalises the idea of determinacy and division and, concomitantly, of difference and presence. In this perhaps counter-intuitive way, the border fence as a material object renders visible the indeterminacy and ambivalence of the now-margin. The border in this sense produces indeterminacy. Ethnographies of the border have revealed the anxiety those tasked with guarding it derive from its indeterminacy. Krishna (1994: 515) for instance recalls:

The sector commander of the BSF… was similarly irritated. He asked: “How can we stop the infiltration? We do not understand Bengali. These people speak the same language, wear similar clothes and look no different. It is impossible to differentiate between a Bangladeshi and an Indian. Also, many live in houses adjacent to each other.” In his own words, the arbitrary and violent production of a “border” by the Border Security Force becomes transparent. In the face of a reality that does not allow him to distinguish a "Bengali Indian" from a "Bengali Bangladeshi," the commander is forced to rely on the production of an alternative border - that of the nation-state and of citizenship. Commander Shahal angrily concludes that "Indians should be issued identity cards immediately." Given the impossibility of producing difference out of religious, regional, linguistic, and physical characteristics, he plumps for nationality. Yet, in the subcontinent (as elsewhere), the differentiation of nations supposedly rests upon some combination of precisely these "essentialized" characteristics.

8There is an ontological insecurity here about what ‘nation’ is. There is an anger and a frustration that the ontology of nation is inconsistent and incommensurable with a ‘reality’ that is uncomfortably ambivalent. This ambivalence is a kind of radical alterity to this ontology; it cannot be captured in the terms of ‘difference within equivalence’, and thus by value, metaphysics or identity. The border guard, frustrated by the ambivalence of supposedly essentialised markers of nationhood, decides instead that documenting all Indians is the only way of creating the determinacy desired. This reflects the analysis of documentation in the previous chapter. In the absence of the determinacy of the subject, determinacy is delegated to the arbitrary assignment of documentation, as if the nation as an idea is cohered and derives its presence from the possession of an ID card. Where is the 7,000-year-old history here? Where are the people in whose blood the colour of India runs? Where is the spirit of Indianness that Gandhi asserted and Nehru hoped for? They are nowhere, or else everywhere. As Samaddar (1999: 58) wrote, “either the glorious nation is today a thing of the past along the border, or this is a border… which does not respect the nation… In the eyes of the state, the border thus threateningly expands/shrinks inward and the nation becomes an object of elegy”. The inability to find a border in the borderland signals the possibility that the border does not exist at all. If there is no definitive line dividing them, what then separates the agential and progressive India from the anarchic and impotent Bangladesh? Just how far into the Indian nation does the Bangladeshi reach? To lose the border is to lose the presence of the nation, for it bespeaks a breakdown in the ability to differentiate, and thus see the self. The violence of the border and the state’s attempts to discipline ambivalence must therefore be read in this context.

5.2 Citizenship Law under the Spectre of Indeterminacy

9Linked to the border and the task of dividing Indian from Bangladeshi is citizenship law. The anxiety that derives from the uncodability of Bangladeshis and Indians is very evident in the development of citizenship. Citizenship laws are precisely that instrument that designates inside from out, self from other; they are designed to create and represent determinacy. In India, almost all major changes to citizenship laws since independence are marked by an anxiety over the indeterminacy of so-called Bangladeshis (Roy, 2010).

10Much like territoriality, the concept of citizenship in India did not emerge ‘fully formed’ in 1947. The Constitution, which came into effect in 1950, established the notion of Indian citizenship but it was not until 1955/1956, almost a decade after independence, that the first Citizenship Act was passed and Citizenship Rules were framed. These years therefore represent an interregnum where citizenship was just an incipience (Roy, 2010). Before this though, travel and residency documentation had already sought to create determinacy out of the indeterminacy of Partition migration (Roy, 2016). The documentary regimes that emerged and the problems encountered in their implementation fed into the eventual framing of paper rights, and the understandings of citizenship and belonging that ensued.

11India’s first Citizenship Act (1955) was an archetypal jus soli framework, according citizenship to anyone born in India. In 1986 this was amended, following the Assam Agitation against Bengalis (when the term infiltration began to be applied), restricting citizenship to anyone born in India with at least one Indian parent. Article 6a specified that anyone from ‘the specified territory’ (defined as Bangladesh) who entered Assam after 1971 (Bangladeshi independence) would not be accorded citizenship. Already in 1986, the jus soli notion of citizenship had begun to give way to jus sanguinis precisely in order to try and differentiate between Bangladeshis and Indians. As Jayal (2013: 22) notes, “the policy imperative to control illegal immigration from Bangladesh led to the contraction of citizenship law into an increasingly descent-based principle”.

12The next substantive amendment was in 2003, when citizenship was restricted further to anyone born in India, at least “one of whose parents is a citizen… and the other is not an illegal migrant” (Citizenship Act, 2003). The inclusion of this clause was specifically in response to perceived Bangladeshi ‘infiltration’ and the continued need to police the difference between the two nations (Roy, 2008). The amendment was presented by the BJP but enjoyed cross-party support. The justification for further restricting citizenship was explicitly to stop Bangladeshis and their offspring (both Hindu and Muslim) becoming Indian. The aim of these changes was to create a clear boundary between Indian and Bangladeshi, even if it meant excluding many people considered part of the nation. A nation willing to render stateless millions of people born in India, to Indian parents, is a nation that is convulsed by a distinct anxiety. The brutality of this parallels the brutality shown towards indeterminate subjects, Bangladeshi and Indian alike, that was explored in the last chapter. The contempt and violence with which ‘suspected Bangladeshis’ are treated, like many marginal groups in India, is justified as necessary to the project of nationalism, security and development (Khanikar, 2018; Kaviraj, 2005; Eckert, 2005).

13This amendment sought to create and maintain determinacy by keeping Indians ‘pure’ and preventing intermarriage that would advance the crisis of indeterminacy. Indeed, this is evident even in the detention of ‘declared foreigners’, who are kept in the same gaols as Indian criminals, but are not allowed into communal areas so as to prevent their ‘mixing’ with, and corrupting, bonafide citizens (Mander, 2018a). The idea of keeping the nation pure by preventing the children of Bangladeshis from becoming Indians is absurd. The nation’s seeming amnesia towards centuries-old familial ties is part of a larger process of post-Partition alienation in the region. In South Asia, the need to make Partition final has defined much of the national project, from before the constitution, through to the present (Roy, 2014). The need for borders and citizenship to be final in South Asia is intimately linked to the need for national determinacy as a precondition for a national self.

14From 1948 the Indian and Pakistani governments began making migration increasingly difficult, particularly in the west. From July 1948 people traveling from West Pakistan to India required a permit, and approval from both governments, which became increasingly hard to get (Roy, 2014). In 1950, when the constitution was framed, the need to declare Partition as final figured heavily, particularly in the stipulation that anyone who had left for Pakistan after March 1947 (before Partition) but returned to India would not be considered an Indian citizen. What is evident here is the need to make Partition final, to discipline movement and belonging and create national determinacy. Much of the politics of nation-building in the last 70 years has been about a continued need to create closure and finality. The gradual ratcheting of citizenship is evidence of this. The ontological framework of nationhood (that the ‘nation’ exists and has a presence), is undermined by a scenario of constant migration where the indeterminacy of the nation becomes obvious. Ontological security can therefore be traced back even to the constitution, in the need to stem movement and create finality, as a precondition for determinacy. Increasingly restrictive citizenship amendments thus represent a continuation of this.

15The 2003 amendment also introduced a form of overseas citizenship to people of Indian heritage. It accords citizenship to anyone who is a child or grandchild of someone who was eligible for citizenship in 1950, as long as they are not the children or grandchildren of “a person who is or had been at any time a citizen of Pakistan, Bangladesh or such country as the Central Government may… specify” (Citizenship Act Amendment, 2003). Originally the government specified 16 countries as eligible, but quickly expanded this to all but Pakistan and Bangladesh (Jayal, 2013: 101). It is no coincidence that these two countries are the countries of Partition, where the problem of indeterminacy is most profound.

16The development of Indian citizenship law traced through its various amendments clearly shows a preoccupation with Bangladeshi migrants as the driving force behind the framing of who counts as Indian. The definition of an Indian as enshrined in citizenship has been repeatedly and consciously determined in relation to the Bangladeshi, and the need to somehow institute a clear boundary between Indians and Bangladeshis. The repeated changes to citizenship law bespeak a wider difficulty in determining who belongs and who does not. The liminality of the border causes anxiety over the extent of the nation, and of the national self.

17This liminality has led to changes not just in citizenship, but also in documentary regimes. The border commander quoted above was clear about the need to provide ID cards in order to make determinacy possible. Incidentally, the introduction of the Aadhaar biometric identity scheme in 2009 was justified partly on the pretext of maintaining the determinacy of Indians in the face of Bangladeshi migrants (Arora, 2019: 42). The idea was to create a uniform form of identity that would rationalise determinacy and enable the easy verification of Indianness. Of course, the introduction of Aadhaar cards was about far more than indeterminacy, but it is not the first identity document produced at least partly with Bangladeshi migrants in mind. An earlier attempt at ID cards, undertaken in 2003, was also launched explicitly to produce determinacy, with the cards initially being issued only in border regions.

5.3 Identifying the Spectre, Looking for Determinacy

  • 4 There is little clarity on the standard of proof required under the Foreigner’s Act. The NRC noted (...)

18As Assam is the place where this indeterminacy is most contentious, the repeated attempts to banish it and institute a Manichean divide is further evidence of an anxiety over the difference between the Bangladeshi and the Indian. In 1983 the Congress passed the Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal (IMDT) Act replacing the colonial-era Foreigner’s Act exclusively in Assam. The act followed the Assam Accord which mandated the government to find and deport illegal immigrants. While the Foreigner’s Act places the burden of proof on the accused,4 the IMDT Act placed the burden on the plaintiff. The justification for the IMDT Act was that it “‘protected the genuine Indian citizens’… by introducing ‘an element of judicial scrutiny to determine the citizenship of a person’” (Sonowal vs Union of India, 2005). Under this act it became much harder to accuse someone of illegality, and harder to prove such accusations in court. The government, in an affidavit defending the IMDT Act in the Supreme Court, argued that “but for the element of judicial scrutiny thousands of Indians would have been deported” (Sonowal vs Union of India, 2005). The government here acknowledged the indeterminacy of the nation in Assam.

19In 2005 the IMDT Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This was justified “on grounds of restoring to the Union its constitutional duty of protecting the state from external aggression” (Sonowal vs Union of India, 2005). Those liminal communities, immigrants or not, thus become framed not just as ‘illegal’ but as bodies whose very presence represents an act of aggression against India and Indianness. The court, adopting the rhetoric of Assamese chauvinists, referred to demographic changes (i.e. an increase in Muslims) in Assam as a security threat to the Indian (read Hindu) nation. Indeed, according to a Congress Party report, Bangladeshi ‘infiltration’ was part of a larger plan to create a ‘greater Bangladesh’ annexing a large portion of India (Roy, 2010: 114). The idea of a plot to create a Bangladeshi ‘lebensraum’ is oft-touted (Samaddar, 1999: 19) and General Rawat, Chief of Defence Staff, recently referred to this as ‘proxy warfare’ (Rawat, 2018). These narratives signal an acute anxiety over the presence of hypervisible-yet-invisible Bangladeshis, and the struggle to come to terms with the existence of Indian (Bengali) Muslims. Once again, the indeterminacy of the border is a source of ontological anxiety.

20For decades, Bengalis, Hindu and Muslim, have had to repeatedly prove their citizenship in Assam, first before the IMDT Act. Later, in 1997 the Assam Government updated the electoral register, marking those unable to provide proof of citizenship as ‘D’ or ‘doubtful voters’ and removing them from the register. Around 370,000 people were classed as D voters (Bhattacharyya, 2005). The IMDT Act created eleven ‘Foreigners’ Tribunals’ where D voters’ (and many others’) claims to citizenship were assessed. Since the IMDT Act was withdrawn the number of tribunals has increased to 100. Of the 200,000 D voters assessed by tribunals by 2005, 98.2% had been found to be Indian (Bhattacharyya, 2005). Many of those who were declared illegal were done so under ex parte orders, where they were declared foreign in their absence from court (often because they did not receive notice) (Mander, 2018a).

21The 2003 Citizenship Amendment also mandated the creation of the NRC which was completed in 2019. With over 53,000 employees in 2,500 test centres, and at a cost of over $160 million US dollars, it was a gargantuan exercise. The aim of the NRC was to create a list of verified citizens and illegal immigrants, with the burden of proof resting with the citizen/infiltrator. The final list released in 2019 omitted 1.9 million people (likely to reduce following appeals) and the government is building ten detention camps for ‘illegal immigrants’ (Mander, 2018a), although they have repeatedly asserted that those excluded will not be detained. The BJP made extending the NRC nationwide a 2019 election pledge.

22Doubtful voters, or more appropriately, doubtful Indians, epitomise the status of poor Bengalis (and indeed many others) not just in Assam but throughout India. The NRC, the Foreigners’ Tribunals, radical transformations in citizenship law, as well as the materiality of border fencing and detention camps reveal the deep anxiety surrounding the border, physically in land and bodies, and conceptually in terms of an imagined community. What the NRC has revealed is the challenge/aporia of demarcating self from other. With many in Assam and throughout India lacking documentation, what the nation has come up against is the fiction of its own presence. If nations are natural and self-evident, if one can truly speak of an inherent Indianness, and if borders really do demarcate one ‘imagined community’ from another, then the act of distinguishing Bangladeshis from Indians should be unproblematic. The very fact that it is not marks the fiction of a national presence. The challenge to codability posed by the so-called Bangladeshi causes deep anxiety over the meaningfulness of nation, threatening the ‘imaginability’ of the community, and of the national self.

5.4 Biopolitics and the Production of (In)determinacy

  • 5 Indeed, “the institutional agencies… entrusted with the task of developing these areas spends more (...)

23The state and nation’s policies of exclusion also have the effect of materially and psychologically producing a border and reinscribing determinacy. Assam is one of most peripheral parts of India, and the chars or sediment islands in the Brahmaputra River, on which most Bengalis in the state live, is a periphery of a periphery. The people who live here have almost no government interaction beyond the incessant policing of their right to reside. Seventy percent live below the poverty line (double the state average), and basic government services are all but non-existent (Chakraborty, 2014).5 In this context, most people are undocumented purely because of their marginality in relation to the state. As Chakraborty (2014: 115) notes, “The char areas are geographically ‘alienated’ from the ‘mainland’ and psychologically ‘detached’ from the ‘mainstream’” because of their victimisation by Assamese politics – a detachment and alienation that is self-compounding. This state- and nation-enforced exclusion produces these liminal communities as outside the nation; their poverty and separateness from the ‘mainstream’ are then used as evidence of their Bangladeshiness. This is of course only possible because of the powerful stereotype of Bangladesh as underdeveloped, as explored in chapter four.

24This is the case not just in Assam, but throughout India. Bengali and eastern Indian migrants in cities like Delhi and Mumbai are often accused of being Bangladeshi and face frequent intimidation by police. Starting in the 1990s with Operation Pushback, deportation drives have been common (Ramachandran, 2003). In 2001 a public interest litigation was filed in Delhi High Court alleging that as many as 3 million Bangladeshis were residing there illegally. The court upheld the petitioner’s allegations and instructed the Delhi Police to deport 100 illegal immigrants a day. Deportation drives ensued though they were unable to reach their target, and most of those deported were done so without proof of their illegality (Kapur, 2010: 166; Roy, 2010: 98). Indeed, even deportation is not what it seems. Given Bangladesh’s longstanding policy of not accepting deportees without proof of citizenship, and with the Indian state unable to definitively prove their origin either way, the government is usually compelled to surreptitiously push them across the border, which is largely unsuccessful (Sen, 2003; Ramachandran, 2003). Similar drives have taken place in other parts of India over the last two decades. Largely though, because of the practical impossibility of proving illegality, the bureaucracy involved in trying to do so, and the difficulty of deportation, the state prefers to periodically terrorise those they believe to be Bangladeshi, destroying homes and beating suspects (Ramachandran, 2003: 638). Just like in Assam, those identified with Bangladesh, whether Bangladeshi or not, become excluded from the state and nation and this exclusion is then used as evidence of their foreignness.

25This precarity is also a key reason that Bangladeshis have become spectral. Unlike Nepalis whose status in India is legal, the incessant vilification of Bangladeshis forces them to live underground (as those who have tried to study or work with them [myself included] can attest [e.g. Ramachandran, 2004; Das and Ansari, 2018]). The irony therefore is that the very production of the border has the effect of blurring it; the policies implemented to increase determinacy end up producing the very indeterminacy they seek to combat. The search for ontological security, ends up undermining itself.



2 The BSF agreed to cease the use of excessive force and did for some time. There is evidence that the number is now rising again (Odhikar, 2019).

3 In 2013 the arrest rate was 209, jumping to 2,455 in 2014 when the BJP came to power (The Wire, 2020). This suggests that the BJP has been more aggressive in border-policing, which is in line with their rhetoric and election promises. These figures also suggests that there was corruption in 2013, but that it was cut substantially from 2014. Even assuming corruption is still widely prevalent, they suggest that it is already greatly reduced.

4 There is little clarity on the standard of proof required under the Foreigner’s Act. The NRC noted that voter IDs, Aadhaar Cards and passports were not acceptable proof, and for citizenship to be meaningful presumably the standard of proof required must be uniform. Because the standard is therefore high, it is hard for people to prove their citizenship ‘beyond doubt’. In UK law, from which the Foreigner’s Act derives, a claim to citizenship is established “if the evidence that it exists outweighs, however slightly, the evidence that it does not. Any requirement that applicants/claimants produce ‘conclusive’ evidence of their status, or establish their position ‘beyond doubt’, sets the standard too high” (Home Office, 2019: 5). This is not the case in India, where proving citizenship is thus much harder, and so many can be wrongly declared foreign.

5 Indeed, “the institutional agencies… entrusted with the task of developing these areas spends more than 70 per cent of its allocated budget on revenue expenditure for its staff, leaving meagre amount for development activities for the people residing in the char areas” (Chakraborty, 2011: 57).


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search