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Introduction: On the move

By Oishik Sircar

This volume of InfoChange Agenda takes on board an issue that marks every aspect of the politics, economics and cultures of human existence - movement. From the birth of nations, to fragmented transitions between tradition and modernity, to confrontations on resources, to ideological contestations on what constitutes development, to material experiences of dispossession and enrichment - moving populations have been at the core of meaning-making of human identities through the ages.

The paradox of the contemporary moment is that globalisation - whichever way we wish to understand it - impels twin processes of movement. On the one hand, mobility becomes a pre-requisite for economic success, and on the other you have populations forced to move, not for better opportunities, but to make way for the former. This issue of InfoChange Agenda attempts to map some of the trajectories of the resulting tension between differently located population groups, where both move - but one moves for its betterment, and the other is displaced to fructify that betterment. We will also examine whether the equations are more complicated: can there be empowering outcomes of displacement? And how do we gauge the cultural invectives that accompany movements: from racist impulses that 'mark' skin colour as the qualifier for refugee/immigrant protection in Northern countries, to specific targeting of indigenous populations as those which will have to bear the burden of development in the Third World?

Borders and others

How do we recognise displaced populations? And how does movement of populations signify either dispossession or enrichment? Central to this is the idea of space and territoriality. The advent of neo-liberalism - both as ideology and governmental practice - has curiously strengthened state sovereignty and the inflexibility of borders, while at the same time advocating a border-less world when it comes to allowing the flow of capital.

The inscription of borders - both material and mental - has become the premise of constructing dominant and marginal communities. Border crossings between the urban/ rural, rich/poor, pastoral/industrial, traditional/modern, white/black, North/South get mediated through the imaginary figure of the 'Other' who has the potential to contaminate, terrorise, stall progress and destabilise development.

Interestingly, the notion of borders gains significance only when we see border-crossings happening. Borders, thus, are not always material boundaries that demarcate spaces over which claims of exclusive territoriality can be made, but are also metaphors for dominance that gain meaning only because bodies cross them. If there weren't people performing the act of crossing borders (voluntarily or otherwise) - be they national in the case of countries, cultural in the case of communities, or economic in the case of SEZs -borders will have no significance.

Thus, it is not just the material existence of borders that makes us identify how subordinated peoples are displaced from locations of power, but the act of crossing them, or the potential threat of their penetration that makes us guard borders. The forcible evictions of 'Other' populations are thus an orchestration of a performance of exodus that reinscribes the power of the dominant population over a particular territory. The power of sovereignty, or the ability to guard borders, is not so much in making borders impermeable, but in wielding control over the kinds of bodies that get to move in and out of the borders. The partitions of India, the contestations over who can lay claim to Kashmir's territoriality, the post-conflict borderlines that got drawn in Eastern Europe, and the ongoing tension across the Israel-Palestine border are all instances where the preoccupation of the powerful has been not only in erecting borders, but being able to monitor who gets to cross them.

In the wake of September 11, regulating borders to take away the freedom to move has become a classic way of tackling 'terrorism' - and the increasing restrictions on immigration of people from the South to the North is reflective of that. The idea is to keep the 'Other' out, and being perversely oblivious to the fact that the state itself is complicit in unleashing brutal violence against its own citizens. A recent advertising campaign by the conservative ruling party in Switzerland is aptly representative of this move: the posters depict a group of white sheep on the Swiss flag kicking a black sheep off the flag, and emphatically declares, "To create security".

Similarly, if one considers the spatiality of modern cities, evidently visible are the locations occupied by slums - on the margins. The metaphoric centre of the city, to say the location of power and capital is seldom inhabited by homeless migrants - who live in makeshift shelters, under constant threat of the city municipality coming with huge bulldozers to raze their habitat in the name of beautification., or the state acquiring land in the name of industrialisaton. From the 1982 Asian Games to the 2010 Commonwealth Games - eviction drives in Delhi - to uproot inhabitants of Nagla Machi, and the Yamuna Pushta to turn Delhi into a 'world-class' city has resulted in the erection of borders within the city that demarcate the 'world-class' from the 'sub-class'. Identical has been the story in Mumbai and Bangalore where working class spaces of textile mills, and habitations of migrant workers, are being converted into glitzy malls, and IT parks, whose borders allow access to only certain kinds of people.

Urban borders take on a different meaning when they are drawn on communal/ethnic grounds, or on economic grounds in the case of SEZs or IT parks. The Muslims in post-2002 Gujarat, especially those perpetually displaced after their complete dispossession during the riots, or the Bihari working class migrants who have faced the ire of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai in the past, and a series of persecutions by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) this year, are reflective of a turn in displacement of populations that uses sectarian logic to buttress claims for capital accumulation on the basis of identity.

This claim of the identity of 'original inhabitants', which has marked the MNS violence in Mumbai, gets played out differently when the claim is raised in the language of 'common property resources' of adivasi populations. In the case of the former, the State's omission in stopping the violence marks its complicity in perpetuating sectarianism, while in the latter, its commission of forcible land acquisition becomes the marker of its commitment to development.

Significantly, whatever the nature of the movement -- be it the mass movement of refugees during war, or the eviction of adivasis and slum-dwellers because of industrialisation/modernisation/beautification projects, or the persecution of ethnic/regional minorities for the accumulation of capital, or the displacement of populations for exclusive zones for commerce, or the calculated surveillance of certain populations in an increasingly securitised State - all of them operate on the basis of marking out the 'Others' and forcing them to move, so that borders - real or imaginary- can mark the difference between 'them' and 'us'.

Citizens, refugees and belonging

What accompanies most forcible movements of people is a complete loss of a category of belonging that is a primary claim to human rights guarantees - citizenship. In the context of the holocaust in Europe, Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt identified 'membership in a human community' as the most important qualification for accessing any human rights. For her, the 'stateless' are those people who do not even possess the 'right to have rights'. However, in post-World War II international law formulations, the 'refugee' and the 'stateless person' are not synonymous. Though uprooted, refugees still possess a state of affiliation, but their citizenship guarantee is almost completely hollowed out because the very state that is expected to protect them as citizens becomes the reason for their persecution.

The loss of citizenship begins when people are segregated within their own countries on the basis of various identities - class, caste, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, location, language - in a way that impacts on their access to fundamental human-rights guarantees. This segregation does not remain a mere administrative device, but turns into a tool for structural exclusion, disenfranchisement and violence. That is the point at which the state suddenly turns into a particular kind of nation-state that wants to produce a population of people who think alike, profess the same political ideology and culture, or belong to the same ethnic, religious or linguistic community. Partitions bear testimony to the violence of nation-state formations, which are obsessed with borders and the marking of 'Others'.

Those who do not, or cannot, 'fit in' are either forced out or left out. The stories of the North Indians forced out of Maharashtra, farmers forced out of Nandigram, Pandits forced out of Jammu and Kashmir, the refugees stuck in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Lhotshampas in Bhutan, Buddhists in China-occupied Tibet, are manifestations of the violence of nation-state formations that dominate or eliminate. Their condition is that of existential aliens - where you are a target of persecution simply because you exist as a Muslim, or a Pandit. What follows this 'domestic' loss of citizenship is persecution: if you do not flee, you will die.

The acutest form of dispossession is experienced by populations of displaced people who are unable to cross the borders of the state in which they are being persecuted - be it because of their identity, or because of war, violence, natural disasters or development projects. In recent times there has been a dramatic escalation in the number of people in 'refugee-like' situations leading to populations who are either 'stuck' outside their country of origin without formal refugee status, or inside their own countries as internally displaced persons (IDPs). Unlike refugees, who have a legal regime to respond to their rights concerns (which is completely ad hoc in South Asia however), IDPs are in a state of legal limbo.

The refugee/displaced subject is thus perpetually in a state of 'becoming' a citizen - her existence is not denied by the state where she seeks asylum, but neither is she guaranteed full and equal citizenship. She engages with the state to claim her citizenship, but remains in the state of 'becoming' because the state will not constitute her a citizen until she gets 'disciplined' into being the 'respectable nationalist'. She is in a state of perpetual flux, stepping in and out of the 'shadow lines of citizenship', but not quite making it across into the realm of formal citizenship.

The refugee/asylum-seeker/undocumented migrant is devoid of formal citizenship rights, without access to the protective agency of a state. Her position is further down the hierarchy compared to the 'outsider' immigrant. Although the status of the refugee is well established in today's international law regime, most refugees who escape persecution by crossing international borders have virtually no human-rights guarantees, even when they reach their port of 'safety'. Indeed, they qualify to graduate from mere 'asylum-seekers' to 'refugees' only after going through sustained periods of incarceration in detention centres, and stiff-lipped interrogation by adjudicating officers who ab initio assume they are lying. Most get deported.

Feminised movements

Is forced displacement/migration always accompanied by dispossession? This causal connection is challenged when we consider women's migration. It is well documented that the majority of displaced populations in the world - be it refugees or IDPs - are women and children, and their disadvantage is exacerbated not only because of their displaced state, but also because of being women, and mothers. But at the same time their state of displacement allows them greater control over resources that enhance their agential capacities to chart survival strategies. In the absence of men, or where the men remain unemployed in refugee camps, women take on the role of the head of the family - in effect their state of dispossession also brings along the experience of empowerment.

This is nowhere better reflected than in the debates on trafficking, especially in the Third World, where policies have always conflated trafficking and sex work. This understanding progresses on the assumption that if women get trafficked, they are always forced into sex work. This has three major fallouts: one, it makes invisible the many other occupations that trafficked people, especially women, might take up; it denies women the agency that they can exercise to move on their own; and it does not address the violence and abuse women might face in the process of being trafficked.

Unfortunately, anti-trafficking laws do not address the reasons why people are forced/coerced to move illegally - they only restrict people's right to move in the hope of stopping trafficking in people. Such a move weighs heavily on the rights of women through the imposition of protectionist measures. It has made states impose minimum age limits for women workers going abroad for employment. In 1998, Bangladesh banned women from going abroad to work. The Nepal Foreign Employment Act 1985 prohibits employment licences for women to work overseas without the consent of the woman's husband or male guardian. Laws like these conflate women's migration with trafficking, where women moving for better economic prospects are suspected of being trafficked. Instead of creating enabling conditions for safer migration of women, such laws restrict women's migration altogether.

This argument is used especially in the case of Third World countries where there has been an unprecedented increase in the 'feminisation' of poverty and migration, thus leading to the assumption that since women are moving because of poverty, in essence it is not choice that they are exercising but circumstances that are forcing them to move or get trafficked.

Managing moving populations

The policy/legal articulations that address the rights of displaced/migrant populations still remain extremely inadequate in responding to the urgency of their state of dispossession. The question of their rights thus finds marginal space on the agenda of governments. What are of prime concern to the government are technologies through which moving populations need to be managed. While laws/policies that are put in place ostensibly claim to guarantee rights to the displaced, in actuality they operate as means through which new borders can be built around spaces occupied by the displaced. This is apparent in the ways in which refugee camps/migrant slums in metropolitan cities like Chennai and Delhi are clearly 'othered', and their inhabitants marked as outsiders - making it extremely difficult for them to find means of sustenance outside the camp space.

The captive nature of a camp space also operates as a process through which displaced/ refugee populations can be effectively kept under surveillance, to stop their 'infiltration' into the heart of the megalopolis. While the genealogies of resettlement, rehabilitation and repatriation have genuine humanitarian roots, the rhetoric of these terms in displacement policy actually suggests ways in which moving populations can be managed in ways that will neither burden the state economically, nor guarantee them the protection of human rights.

The articles in this issue confront these complicated realities of the experience of displacement and accompanying dispossession in myriad locations in India, and South Asia. The attempt is not to portray a linear narrative of the experiences and responses to the lives of refugees, IDPs and other migrants, but to contextualise the phenomenon of migration and displacement in a world marked by escalating xenophobia, the fear of the 'Other', and this very ideology's close connection with the neoliberal paradigm of development. The issue raises questions, points towards directions in which we can search for answers - and most importantly, recognises the discursive linkages between political economy and culture that have made borders the markers of identity.

Oishik Sircar is a human rights lawyer and independent researcher, and presently at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008