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India Should Be a Human Rights Concern for Japan

May 16, 2022
By 28804

Amit Singh, a 2020 Sylff fellow, is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. In this article, he discusses how Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s March 2022 trip to India was paradoxical in the light of the latter’s poor human rights situation. But Japan has the potential to influence that situation by using its financial leverage, he says.

*   *   *

The recent visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to India was a normal diplomatic trip that occurred under abnormal circumstances, given that the Indian government is waging an indirect war against its own citizens—the Indian Muslims, seculars, and liberals. Indeed, these are not normal circumstances for democracy and human rights in India. And signing trade agreements with a country that is currently on the list of countries at risk of genocide brings the human rights commitment of the Japanese government under question. Japan supports the idea that protecting human rights is the most fundamental responsibility of any nation and affirms that the human rights of all people should be respected, regardless of their countries’ cultures, traditions, and political and economic systems. In addition, it recognizes the importance of a thriving civil society and attaches great importance to dialogue with it. But even as Kishida shook his hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s scathing assault on human rights and civil society continued unabated.

Narendra Modi and Fumio Kishida in New Delhi 19 March 2022, Source: Government of India

 

Japan and India

Relations between Japan and India go back to the sixth century, when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. Since then, with the exception of some intervals, their relationship has continued to today.

In principle, both Japan and India are committed to taking bold measures to tackle challenges to sustainable development and global peace. But this task becomes even more difficult than it already is when democracies around the world are gradually overtaken by authoritarian and populist rulers who could seriously undermine the rule-based international order. Without strong democracies, it is hard to imagine a fair and just world. As such, the dismantling of Indian democracy should be a concern for Japan, an old ally of India that is connected with the latter through shared values of human rights, democracy, and the Buddhist precepts of nonviolence and peace.

Labeled as “partially free” and an “electoral autocracy,” India is currently governed by Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once shunned by Western governments due to his complicity in the Godhra massacres. Even though India’s being a secular democracy provides constitutional safeguards to religious minorities, Hindu nationalists do not support the idea of religious equality. Hindu nationalism is radically far right, and given its belief in Hindu supremacy, it is a dangerous mix of religion and politics; it supports the discriminatory caste system, negates racial and religious equality, and disregards the discourse of human rights. Since 1925, The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been India’s staunchest proponent of Hindu nationalism. The RSS is a parental organization of the current ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Modi was a full-time RSS worker in the past, notorious for his complicity in the Godhra communal riots when he was the chief minister of the Gujarat state in 2002. Since Modi’s ascendance to power in 2014, a consistent move to curtail freedom of speech, the right to dissent, freedom of press, and religious freedom has descended India into a state of “elective despotism.”  


Kishida’s Human Rights Diplomacy

Against this background, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida landed in India on March 19, 2022, to strengthen Japan’s special relation with its old ally, ignoring ongoing human rights violations in India. Interestingly, Kishida wrote an article in an Indian newspaper highlighting the commonality between two countries, noting that they are “linked by universal values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” During his visit, however, there was no scrutiny of the current human rights situation in India or constructive dialogue on the subject with the Indian government. Even though Kishida supports a forceful brand of human rights diplomacy and firmly believes that the promotion and protection of all human rights is a “legitimate interest” of the international community, dialogue on this “legitimate interest” was absent in his India visit, as if his government did not want to offend the Indian government. His human rights concerns seem limited to China, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

There is a strange paradox between the two countries: whereas Japan has consolidated its democratic political structures and developed policies for the promotion and protection of human rights, the Indian government is in the process of dismantling democratic structures, vandalizing independent institutions, and vaporizing constitutional safeguards meant to protect its citizens. In the 2020 Human Freedom Index, which ranks countries based on civil, economic, and personal freedom, India was ranked 111th. Another report by the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index highlighted the “democratic regression” and “erosion of civil liberties” in India. In the land of Mahatma Gandhi—who introduced “civil disobedience,” a method of peaceful protest, to the world—the criminalization of peaceful expression is becoming a legal norm intended to stifle democratic dissent.

Procession of Hindu religious nationalists during the Hindu festivals often turns violent.


Potential for Japanese Influence

Using its financial leverage, though, Japan can support human rights in India. As Japan is currently India’s largest aid donor, it could positively influence the Indian government’s hostile attitude toward human rights by adding human rights conditionality (in trade negotiations), that is, providing that preferences can be withdrawn in case of systematic violations of human rights. In this context, Japan could follow the example of mainstreaming of human rights in European Union trade policy. To make human rights more effective, Japanese academic Maiko Ichihara suggests that human rights assistance to non-state stakeholders  could play an important role in supporting human rights abroad. It should be noted that Japan’s entire international aid apparatus is currently built around government-to-government assistance, excluding civil society and the human rights community of the beneficiary country.  

Observing Prime Minister Kishida’s efforts to promote human rights domestically and globally, however, his silence on the human rights situation in India has seriously impacted Japan’s positioning as a trustworthy and credible supporter for human rights worldwide. His reticence on the human rights situation in India also questions his noble intention to promote freedom and democracy as a universal value.

While Japan had hitherto been reluctant to intervene into the human rights affairs of other countries, this is likely to change under the Kishida government with the creation of a new cabinet-level position of special adviser on human rights, who would coordinate mainstreaming human rights issues across Japan’s ministries and in its foreign relations. But in order to promote and protect human rights abroad, Japan’s human rights diplomacy must go beyond realpolitik in its foreign relations, and the country needs to be more assertive in matters of human rights, particularly with its old ally India. Without a “serious commitment to human rights,” Japan’s human rights diplomacy will be ineffective in bringing any real, intended change.  

 

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Politics of Anxiety and Faith: Hindutva in War with Gandhi’s Soul

February 24, 2022
By 28804

“Our target is to make India Hindu Rashtra by 2021. The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here...So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here."                                 
         (Rajeshwar Singh, RSS office-bearer, cited in Islam, 2020)

It was not long ago when communal harmony and religious pluralism were synonymous with India. Mahatma Gandhi united a deeply religiously diverse Indian population to fight against British rule. Gandhi, a religious Hindu, mobilized diverse Indian citizenry to an inclusive, tolerant, and religiously plural discourse which helped religious minorities affirm their faith in an inclusive India. Gandhi tried to address the ontological (in)security of religious minorities who were unsure about their security in a Hindu majority nation. The idea of Ontological security (Gidden, 1991) refers to a ‘person’s fundamental sense of safety in the world’, it includes a basic trust of other people and, it is intimately connected to emotions.

It is important to note, Gandhi was murdered on 30th January 1948 by a member of RSS (Venugopal, 2016) Nathuram Godse, who abhorred the idea of Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi's long-cherished idea of communal harmony was disrupted when Prime Minister Narendra Modi – a Hindu nationalist leader – rose into power in 2014. Modi moved Hindutva (also known as Hindu nationalism) from the political margins to mainstream politics. So, one can naturally ask, what is the relationship between Hindutva and Gandhi’s inclusive nationalism regarding ontological (in)security and, what different emotional atmosphere Hindutva create compare to Gandhi's interculturality. Possibly, an analysis of the emotional process inscribed in the ontological (in)security script could help to find an answer.

An ontological (in)security approach could provide an interesting insight into the emotional processes of Hindu electorates which has helped Hindutva populists leader Narendra Modi elected as the Prime minister of India and reconfirmed, despite knowing his complicity in the Godhra communal riots (The Guardian, April 7th 2020) when he was the chief minister of the Gujrat state in 2002. An ontological (in)security approach helps in understanding the emotional environment created by such extremist’s (Hindutva) ideology and its violent response against the ‘Others’. Hindutva thrives through the emotional governance (Richard, 2007) communication through emotional messages, and provides emotional security to an insecure Hindu electorate through religion and nationalism while stigmatizing Muslims and Christians. The ontological security approach considers that humans are security seekers by nature, they are always in search of stability, and security while seeking to reduce their 'fear' and 'anxiety'. In this context, 'religion' and 'nationalism' are the two most important identity-signifier (Kinnvall, 2019) which provide stability and security in times of the perceived crisis. 

The aggressive rise of Hindutva in the 1980s is a crucial turning point for a secular Indian state, which is on the verge of becoming a Hindu authoritarian state where calls for genocide of Muslims (Aljazeera news, December 24, 2021) and their mob lynching is normalized. Hindutva is radically far-right, hierarchical, authoritarian, and based on the idea of Hindu supremacy. On different levels, Hindutva seeks to repress dissenting views, expunging religious pluralism and secularism from the Indian political discourse. Religious minorities in India, currently, live under the constant fear of being attacked by Hindu extremist organizations such as RSS.

The discourse of Hindutva consists of a populist narrative of nativism, nationalism, and religion. Its appeal became particularly relevant in the time of perceived economic, social and political, or psychological crisis, in which ontological insecurity arises from the attempt to put identity and autonomy in question with anxiety, insecurity and alleged dangers (Laing 1965). In this context, Hindutva leaders frequently incite Hindus by portraying Muslims as rapist and violent, setting a narrative of fear that the Muslim population will take over India in fifty years (Soz, 2016), thus, Hindus will be a minority in their own country; this appears to create ontological insecurity among Hindus who may perceive that their religious identity and autonomy is in danger, thus, they react by supporting Hindutva extremists leaders, and sometimes are complicit in violence against Muslim minorities.

Hindutva followers with Hindutva saffron flag taking its procession in Varanasi.

 

The Indian case shows us how an illusion of ontological (in)security has helped Hindu extremism rise. Modi have been religiously polarizing Indian electorates; he invoked past traumas (Islamic invasion of India) and glories (fantasies of the greatness of the Ancient India and Kingdom of Rama) of a lost Hindu nation. In his recent visit to Varanasi at the Kashi Vishwanath temple, Modi invoked the greatness of the Indian (Business Standard, December 13, 2021) while underlining the atrocities perpetrated under the Muslim rulers; while laying the foundation stone for the Ram temple at Ayodhya, Modi again invoked (Indian Express, August 5, 2020) India’s eternal glory. Setting the emotional political narrative around restoring the Hindu temples in Kashi, Mathura (The Hindu, December 10, 2021) and Ayodhya are also parts of this ontological security; temples represent the symbolic superiority of the mythic spiritual glory of the ancient Hindu nation, and their fall at the hands of Muslim invaders represents national humiliation (national trauma) of Hindus. This narrative generates an atmosphere of ontological insecurity among Hindus who could vent their anger against Muslims. 

It shall be noted that the Islamic invasion of India (12th to the 16th centuries) and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 are some big events that are projected by Hindu nationalists as a historical traumatic event in their effort to generate narratives of constant rage, fear and, anxiety among the Hindu majority, which usually results in Islamophobia and, normalization of violence against Muslims. Central to such narrative construction (Kinnvall, 2016) are the collective identity and collective emotions, such as love for the nations or hate, fear, or disgust for the strange others such as Muslims. An ontologically insecure Hindu electorate demands unquestioned loyalty to its imagined nation, to its national history, and its sacred culture. Thus, these narratives of a sacred Hindu land became the objects of the people's imaginations onto which fantasies of national unity are projected to rescue the belief in the core and stable identities (Kinnvall, 2016) which is Hindu religion and culture. The use of violence, coercion and threats are justified by Hindutva to protect their core identities; because of this, Hindutva is also referred to as a muscular nationalism (Banerjee, 2012).

The re-invention of nationhood and religion (Kinnvall, 2019) in Hindutva discourse is aimed at 'healing' several ontological insecurities by which the Hindu majority suffers. Among such fears and emotional responses of Hindutva has been manifested in the forms of; Love-jihad, Corona-jihad (Milli cornicle, April 19, 2020) UPSC-jihad (The Print, November 18, 2020) mob lynching of Muslim (BBC, September 2, 2021) and Dalits, disrupting Muslim prayers (NDTV, December 18, 2021) vandalizing Churches (November 30, 2021) and boycotting Muslims vegetable (News Click, April 13, 2020) vendors and sellers.

Gandhi tried to heal public anxiety and insecurity through his inclusive nationalism. He mobilized people to gain political freedom from British colonialism. Nevertheless, Gandhian nationalism was not narrow or exclusive but meant for the benefit of the whole of humanity.  He tried to make public ontology secure through his idea of inclusive nationalism and intercultural unity. Gandhi believed in inclusive nationalism irrespective of religion, caste, and class. For Gandhi, nation was to improve the living conditions of the people (Patnaik, 2019) or to "wipe away the tears from the eyes of every Indian". Gandhi was inspired by the Hindu religious and spiritual values promoting Hindu ways of life, discipline, fasting method, and mental purity. His political actions (civil disobedience, fasting) were in line with the Hindu religious ideas of truth and non-violence. 

However, Gandhi was concerned about the deep communal tension among communities (Hindu-Muslims, Dalits-Upper castes, rich-poor), thus managing such tensions and averting serious conflict was on top of his political agenda. He believed that communal violence could trigger ontological insecurities among communities and could jeopardize the freedom struggle and communal harmony among them. His religiously plural discourse helped him create an ontologically secure environment and, cementing ties with Muslims and other religious minorities and lower-caste Hindus.

By employing an inclusive intercultural approach based on mutual respect and equal regard, Gandhi stressed the fundamental unity of all religions and tolerance for different faiths. At the ontological (in)security level, these methods, and processes reduced the anxiety and fear among diverse communities, assuaged fear of religious minority from the majority, and helped create a feeling of security. His idea to establish a ‘just society’ (Jahanbegloo, 2020) was also an ontological security provider to all Indians. Contrastingly, Hindu nationalists are instilling ontological insecurity among Hindus to exclude Muslims, to establish Hindu supremacy which has paved a way for an unjust society.

From the aforementioned discussion, it shall be clear that Hindutva, by creating an atmosphere of insecurity and anxiety has made the Hindu public ontologically insecure whereas Gandhi, tried to provide ontological security to the public by building an environment of religious harmony and intercultural faith. This shows that by looking into the emotional process enacted within Hindu nationalism through the idea of ontological (in)security it is possible to outline the major differences between Gandhian inclusive nationalism and the Hindutva exclusionary discourse.

 

References:

Banerjee, Sikata (2012) Muscular nationalism: gender, violence and empire in India and Ireland, 1914–2004 (New York: New York University Press)

Giddens A, (1991) Modernity and Self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity

Islam, Shamshul (2020) RSS founders 'endorsed' Nazis: It’s well-nigh impossible for races, cultures to 'coexist', Counterview, available at https://www.counterview.net/2020/09/rss-founders-endorsed-nazis-its-well.html

Jahanbegloo, R (2020) The Mahatma as an intercultural Indian, available at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-mahatma-as-an-intercultural-indian/article32747352.ece

Kinnvall, Catarina (2019) Populism, ontological insecurity and Hindutva: Modi and the masculinization of Indian politics, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, DOI: 10.1080/09557571.2019.1588851

Kinnvall, Catarina (2016) Feeling Ontologically (in)secure: States, traumas and the governing of gendered space, Cooperation and Conflict, Sage publication, DOI: 10.1177/0010836716641137

Laing R. D (1965) The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness, Penguin Psychology, Paperback

Patnaik, P (2019) For Gandhi, nationalism was based on understanding what was required for people to be free, available https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/mahatma-gandhi-nationalism-capitalism-marx-6054147/

Richards B. (2007) Politics as Emotional Labour. In: Emotional Governance: Politics, Media and Terror. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230592346_8

Soz, A. S. (2016) RSS Claims About Rapid Growth of the Muslim Population are Simply False, available at https://thewire.in/politics/rss-claims-rapid-growth-muslim-population-simply-false

Venugopal, V (2016) Nathuram Godse never left RSS, says his family, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/nathuram-godse-never-left-rss-says-his-family/articleshow/54159375.cms?from=mdr

Web resources:

Aljazeera: India: Hindu event calling for genocide of Muslims sparks outrage, available at

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/12/24/india-hindu-event-calling-for-genocide-of-muslims-sparks-outrage

BBC: Beaten and humiliated by Hindu mobs for being a Muslim in India, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-58406194

Business Standard: Kashi Vishwanath Dham is testament to India's culture, history: Modi, available at https://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ani/kashi-vishwanath-dham-is-testament-to-india-s-culture-ancient-history-pm-modi-121121300642_1.html

Indian Express: Ram Mandir Bhumi Pujan: Full text of PM Narendra Modi’s speech in Ayodhya, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/ram-mandir-bhumi-pujan-full-text-of-pm-narendra-modis-speech-in-ayodhya/

Indian Express: Delhi: Site of proposed church ‘vandalised’ in Dwarka, religious group returns to Punjab, available at https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/delhi-dwarka-church-vandalism-ankur-narula-ministries-7648358/

The Hindu: In Parliament, BJP pitches for Krishna Temple at Mathura, available at

https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/in-parliament-bjp-pitches-for-krishna-temple-at-mathura/article37917874.ece

The Milli Chronical: OPINION: Corona-Jihad of Hindutva vs Communists of Kerala

available at https://millichronicle.com/tag/corona-jihad/

The Print: ‘UPSC jihad’ show offensive, could promote communal attitudes — govt in affidavit to SC, available at https://theprint.in/india/governance/upsc-jihad-show-offensive-could-promote-communal-attitudes-govt-in-affidavit-to-sc/547415/

NDTV: 'Must Say Bharat Mata Ki Jai': Gurgaon Muslims Trying To Offer Namaz Told, available at https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/gurgaon-namaz-row-must-say-bharat-mata-ki-jai-gurgaon-muslims-trying-to-offer-namaz-told-2657225

News Click: Muslim Vegetable Vendor Abused, Thrashed in Delhi, One Arrested, available at https://www.newsclick.in/Muslim-Vegetable-Vendor-Abused-Thrashed-Delhi-One-Arrested

The original article is published in Alice news.
https://alicenews.ces.uc.pt/index.php?lang=1&id=37275

 

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Credence, Chlorine and Curfew: Doing Ethnography under the Pandemic

July 15, 2021
By 28933

If there is one profound truth about ethnography, it is that intimacy,
and not distancing, is crucial.

(Fine and Abramson 2020, 1)

 

Sara Nikolić, a 2020 Sylff fellow, has had to conduct ethnographic fieldwork under the coronavirus pandemic. In this candid account of how the challenge affected her, emotionally as well as in terms of the course of her research, Nikolić says the experience reinforced her love of ethnography and her belief that it is not interchangeable with other methods.

 * * *

Starting fieldwork and facing the most significant academic endeavour in a young researcher‘s life is probably never easy. Starting fieldwork in your neighbourhood may sound like a good idea—only until the first wave of the doubt to your research site, the ability to set boundaries and juggle the insider perspective engulfs you. However, starting fieldwork in a densely populated large housing estate under the “first wave” of a global pandemic never sounded like a good idea.

“The expected delay in collecting data will abort many ethnographies. COVID-19 and its future viral siblings may deter those who would pursue ambitious field studies”. However, my research is not really that ambitious. So I try. In weeks when the number of infected seem to be declining, when everyone around me is healthy and when I manage to overcome typical postgraduate insecurities, I keep trying.

These lines are a testament to my confrontation with the flagrant fact that it is not entirely up to me—that I have chosen to relinquish control. In that sense, this essay is an attempt to become aware, articulate and accept how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the course of my doctoral research. This essay is an intimate confession about waiting and learning patience rather than about concrete adjustments of urban ethnography methodology to the crisis that has befallen us. In the following lines I will try to reconstruct the pandemic induced research challenges that led me to reinforce my love of ethnography and the value-laden belief that it is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods.

Alterations in a two-storey residential unit in blok 70, New Belgrade. Photo: Dušan Rajić

 Strict curfew introduced by the Serbian Government in March 2020 prohibited people over the age of 65 from leaving the house and occasionally prohibiting younger citizens from leaving their homes for up to 84 hours. When a vibrant and pulsating city dies abruptly, when its citizens’ movement is more restricted than during the bombing, little of the urban life remains for us, researchers of the everydayness, to explore. In the COVID-19 urban landscape of Belgrade—and any other city—intimate, in-person human subject research was (unofficially) prohibited, making ethnography an almost impossible method. Not only did conducting research seem impossible to me at the time, but the very idea of denying the situation we were in deeply disturbed me. The repulsion was so strong that it paralysed me even to dare to approach my neighbours, the rare passers-by who enjoy the spring sun, or the “privileged” individuals who were allowed to walk their dogs, with a request to participate in the research that had nothing to do with our current lifeworlds.

 However, hundreds of photographs, dozens of folders, transcripts, voice recordings, several “smell maps” and a few new acquaintances testify that I have not given up. Nevertheless, for senso-biographic approach and focusing on smell-evoked memories of urban environment that form the backbone of my doctoral research, as well as for the informants’ photographic diaries not to become (only) testaments of life under siege by the virus, I had to wait for the “first wave” to come to an end.

 I don’t know what the smell of my building would be, before this, I would probably say mould from the basement or the smell of cigarettes in the elevator, but all I feel now is chlorine. It smells like a kindergarten. (M, blok 45, female)

 One of my main research interests—self-management in socialist era large housing estates—lurked behind every freshly disinfected staircase. Many buildings’ occupants self-organised into weekly or even daily cleanings to keep the entrances and corridors clean and their families or flatmates safe from the virus. In improvised protective equipment consisting of colourful scarves tied over their faces, rubber gloves and old clothes, armed with their buckets, rags, brooms and mops and the last remaining Domestos or any other chlorine-based disinfectant provided by the municipality, these female troops regained control of the space for the benefit of all. As if taking control of the cleaning schedule, maintaining a routine, following the prescribed steps and performing it together for a moment made the situation outside seem less uncertain.

Bestowing details of these events I recognised as an initiation into the house council simply seemed too intrusive. I hesitated and refused to keep a journal record about self-organized cleaning episodes and to reiterate muffled staircase gossip I overheard during these rites of passage. It almost felt treacherous as in a moment of crisis I perceived my role in the apartment building as a tenant, a neighbour and a girl next door—rather than a cold, rigid and objective researcher.

Therefore, a fellow researcher reading this essay could assume that the research’s explicit part—such as interviews—went better than sketching notes and palpation of the neighbourhood pulse based on informal encounters. A reader could also assume that I, being a girl next door, had no trouble recruiting my neighbours. However, that assumption would be wrong. The fact that I lived close by and was a few minutes’ walk from them, that I was a friendly face they saw on their evening strolls was simply not enough. Nor was the fact that I knew some mutual friends and shared the local references. Lastly, the incentives that I could offer under the Sylff fellowship were irrelevant and insufficient. None of that matters when the danger from an infection is so tangible, and your family members are chronically ill, or you are pregnant or homeschooling your children, or someone close to you has passed away. And on my part, as a vulnerable and empathetic researcher, I could not give up the contacts I built under those trying circumstances and the trust I gained. To this day, I haven’t been able to use some deadline as an argument to recruit new, healthy, childless or carefree informants instead of ones who expressed interest and indicated trust, but their participation was postponed due to objective circumstances.

Ethnographic kit under COVID-19. Photo: Sara Nikolić

As a trained ethnographer, I learned about great heroes who went into the wilderness, who “through toughness and perseverance . . . overcome entry barriers”. I, of course, looked up to them. I too wanted to become a hero who overcame the ethnographic odds.

The reality is that I was anxious, frustrated, and impatient. I envied colleagues who enjoyed moments of privilege where they “finally have time to write”. The rising academic pressure, the “figure-it-out-on-your-own” University policy, the “just send me any chapter you have, and we will count it an exam” helping hand of my professors, the crowdsourced documents that offer solutions for “avoiding in-person interactions by using mediated forms that will achieve similar ends” seemed to conflict with the immersion aspect of ethnography I strived for.

These attempts to stay loyal to the ethnography I believe in bring along many pursuits to establish contact with potential respondents, many cancelled or indefinitely postponed meetings, many unanswered calls and messages, and too many sympathetic shrugs. Moments of elation are quickly followed by ones of letdown and despair. I try to push forward. Sometimes I slip or get lost along the way. Sometimes I try to fix it, reinvent my entry strategy, and rely on snowballing instead of a more organic approach. Seeing that I am only halfway in the process of collecting “the deep data”, I cannot refer to the quality and density of the obtained material.

Working version of the “smell map” of Blok 45, New Belgrade. Source: Sara Nikolić

 We will take a walk outside, in the fresh air and try to grasp your neighbourhood’s smells, and we will both wear masks. It does not interfere with the quality of the recording—I often explain to my potential informants. Smell mapping while wearing (K)N95 masks, however, does not really work. Instead of fleeting but current and vivid neighbourhood smells that we could not detect while wearing masks, during our strolls we frequently evoked childhood memories intertwined with the ubiquitous scents of the area, such as linden blossom or sludge.

Ding dong! The sound of footsteps, the unlocking of doors and clumsy contactless greetings. Just there, I would usually insist on taking off my shoes, as is the epidemiological recommendation and custom in this area. Furthermore, as good hosts, as an expression of respect for the guest, they would insist that I leave the shoes on. After those initial negotiations at the front door, I would get a bottle of alcohol to disinfect my shoes and mobile phone upon entering the apartment. And then, still from a distance, a hand gesture to signal in which direction the toilet is so that I can wash my hands before the interview. When the weather was nice, we would spend visits to the apartment on the balconies or with the windows open, sitting within a reasonable distance.

On a sunny September day, when everything was going at a good pace, the unglamorous and petty disappointment came. It was caused by an informant’s rejection to invite me into his apartment for the final interview, although it was agreed in advance. Of course, I did not let the injured ego peek outside, so I played it cool. However, I was still ashamed of my feelings, of the vanity that flooded me. Why did I take it so personally? Wasn’t I the one who told him he has the right to give up at any moment and set boundaries in which he feels comfortable and safe? How could I not have understood the respect he had for advised physical distance? Have I forgotten that I am not merely a researcher but a possible vector too?

Object elicitation and disinfection in the informant’s apartment. Photo: Sara Nikolić

 Although I do not attach half the importance to this episode today as I did on that September day, it encouraged me to think about how many people passed through my apartment from March to September? Very few, and I knew them all. I trust them. I know how responsible they are, how much they follow all the recommendations, how much they care and how much they are in solidarity with the people around them. Is it possible that I was so upset because I interpreted this man’s responsibility or privacy as distrust? So what if he was distrustful? Don’t we all have the right to be distrustful at a time when we are in danger from an “unknown enemy”, when the media is co-opting military rhetoric, when contradictory information and mutually exclusive recommendations are coming from all sides? Aren’t we, citizens of a country that declared coronavirus “the most ridiculous virus in the world”, and shortly afterwards deprived us of freedom of movement, justifiably distrustful towards anything and anyone? Amidst growing distrust that surrounds us, how can we closely and intimately research something as personal as home, something as inseparable from issues of trust as community relations and self-organization?

 Much as we might adapt our research plans to alternative methods in the current crisis and agree to data-oriented techniques such as structured interviews, we must not forget the importance of the immersive experience and deep hanging out for ethnography. As this crisis helped me rediscover that ethnography is not interchangeable with other qualitative methods, I realised that the pragmatic choice to take time was ideological. The choice that was the only possible one, and the one that I needed—to embrace the vulnerable researcher within me and remain faithful to ethnography at the cost of breaking deadlines and delaying my studies. The choice to advocate for slow science. A science that is not an end in itself, a science that is not cruel and does not require sacrifices or preposterous heroic deeds, a science that does not exploit or endanger the subjects under study. That is science based on questioning and building trust instead of taking it for granted.


Reprinted from
https://www.ijurr.org/spotlight-on/becoming-an-urban-researcher-during-a-pandemic/credence-chlorine-and-curfew-doing-ethnography-under-the-pandemic/

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Role of Water in Geopolitics

July 8, 2021
By 28927

Eliska Ullrichova, a 2019 Sylff fellow, offers an overview of the concept of water wars and its implications. Given the rise in water scarcity—the major causes of which include overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change—diplomacy has an important role to play in easing tensions over water supplies and managing international relations, Ullrichova assers.

* * *

Water does not respect political boundaries and, therefore, may be a source of leverage for upstream riparian states over those downstream. However, it is important to underline that water encompasses not only rivers, which are primarily associated with it in international relations, but all surface and groundwater. Based on the concept of water wars and related terms, this short paper illustrates what role water plays in geopolitics.

Water might play a manifold role in a violent confrontation.

Water Wars

The concept of water wars identifies three dimensions of water in geopolitics. Firstly, water resources or infrastructure are prone to be casualties of a violent confrontation either intentionally or accidentally. As an example, pollution of water resources is a well-known consequence of a conflict. Secondly, water resources may be used as a tool in achieving one side’s political, economic, or military interests (Pacific Institute 2019). The weaponization of water was a dominant military strategy of the Islamic State (IS) to achieve its military and political objectives. The IS contaminated water supplies of its enemies and, in particular, used large dams—such as the Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates in Iraq—to either cut off supplies of cities downstream or flood the area above or below the river flow. In addition, the IS used water infrastructure, especially dams, as their military command headquarters or prisons. This hindered the capture of IS positions, because what adversary would lead an airstrike over a dam, knowing that doing so would devastate the surrounding area (Mazlum 2018; van Lossow 2020)? Thirdly, water may cause a dispute over control of water resources and, in the worst-case scenario, the disagreement could lead to an outright and violent conflict (Pacific Institute 2019).

Using dams in a conflict is one of the most common examples of water weaponization.

The third element of water wars—water as a trigger of a violent confrontation—is widely discussed in the academic literature (see Dinar and Dinar 2000; Spector 2000; Postel and Wolf 2001; Gregory 2013). Interestingly, scholars agree that, firstly, water-related issues tend to be a source of an intrastate conflict rather than an international one (e.g., Spector 2000; Postel and Wolf 2001). Secondly, outright strife is rarely triggered by a single variable; they are usually triggered by a set of issues, among which access to water supplies may be included (Postel and Wolf 2001; Farnum 2018). In other words, it is often difficult to classify a violent clash as a war over water, since many other variables alongside it may play a role in the confrontation. However, it does not mean that water is not a catalyst for a conflict at all. Examples can be found as early as 2525 BC in Mesopotamian times between two city-states, Lagash and Umma. Umma repeatedly refused to pay for renting downstream Lagash’s territory for crop cultivation in the water-rich delta of Tigris. In response, Lagash damaged the irrigation system leading to the leased area. Umma could not cultivate crops without water supplies and thus attacked Lagash, which resulted in several successive military confrontations. After the defeat of Umma, the water treaty was reestablished and the canal system reconstructed (see the water conflict map made by the Pacific Institute 2018).

A Solution to a Conflict over Water?

When water causes a violent conflict, the zero-sum approach can never resolve it in a long-term perspective. If a river represents the core of the dispute between upstream and downstream states, the conflict will not result in a situation where two countries no longer share the river basin. On the contrary, water creates interdependent geopolitical relations, and an outright and violent conflict over water supplies is therefore not a sustainable solution. It also goes without saying that, just as the concept of water wars indicates, water resources can be contaminated and water systems destroyed in a conflict that is likely to influence all interested parties. In general terms, wars always have harmful consequences for the environment, and water resources are not an exception. Another feature of water in geopolitics is that civilizations are entirely dependent on water resources, because human beings cannot survive without drinking water. Moreover, economic development is associated with water resources (e.g., agriculture and the energy sector). In other words, a violent conflict over water resources cannot lead to a zero-sum victory, and all involved actors would most likely lose to a greater or lesser extent. This is a fundamental reason why it is believed that wars over water will not occur in future decades more frequently than they did in history (Dunn 2013).

However, it is undeniable that water stress has been increasing due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change—the most significant causes of water scarcity—even in initially water-rich regions. Nevertheless, as I have discussed above, cooperation rather than conflict is a sustainable solution that could lead to a win-win situation. Therefore, water diplomacy, i.e., ʻusing diplomatic instruments with the aim to solve, mitigate or prevent disagreements over shared water resources for the sake of cooperation, regional stability and peaceʼ (Schmeier 2018), seems to be a promising path to fostering multilateral governance over shared water resources and ensuring water security. In view of these goals, the concept of water diplomacy is not limited to states but underlines the necessity of nonstate actorsʼ involvement that play a crucial role as mediator in negotiations over water-related issues, such as the World Bank, or that may provide essential information via monitoring (see, for example, Honkonen and Lipponen 2018).

Water stress has been increasing due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change.

Although there is a consensus in the academic literature that water will not become a frequent catalyst for a violent conflict, it is and will remain a source of tensions in international relations. High water demand from all sectors of human activities (households, agriculture, energy, and so forth) and the reduction of water resources due to overpopulation, overconsumption, and climate change are contradictory phenomena producing unsustainable environments within and among societies. Nevertheless, an outright conflict over shared water resources cannot end in a zero-sum victory. As such, diplomatic instruments are crucial tools for addressing increasing water scarcity and, therefore, tensions over water supplies. Water diplomacy, also called hydro-diplomacy, thus need to be an integral part of international relations more than ever.

 

References

Dinar, S. and A. Dinar. 2000. “Negotiating in International Watercourses: Diplomacy, Conflict and Cooperation.” International Negotiation 5 (2): 93–200. https://doi.org/10.1163/15718060020848721.

Dunn, G. 2013. “Water Wars: A Surprisingly Rare Source of Conflict.” Harvard International Review 35, no. 2 (fall 2013): 46–49. https://refnj2014.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/water-wars.pdf.

Farnum, R. 2018. “Drops of Diplomacy: Questioning the Scale of Hydro-Diplomacy through Fog-Harvesting.” Journal of Hydrology 562 (July 2018), 446–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2018.05.012.

Honkonen, T. and A. Lipponen. 2018. “Finland’s Cooperation in Managing Transboundary Waters and the UNECE Principles for Effective Joint Bodies: Value for Water Diplomacy?” Journal of Hydrology 567 (December 2018), 320–31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2018.09.062.

Von Lossow, T. 2020. “The Role of Water in the Syrian and Iraqi Civil Wars.” Italian Institute for International Political Studies. February 26, 2020. https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/role-water-syrian-and-iraqi-civil-wars-25175.

Mazlum, I. 2018. “ISIS as an Actor Controlling Water Resources in Syria and Iraq.” In Violent Non-state Actors and the Syrian Civil War: The ISIS and YPG Cases, edited by Özden Zeynep Oktav, Emel Parlar Dal, and Ali Murat Kurşun, 109–25. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-67528-2_6.

Pacific Institute. 2018. “Water Conflict Chronology Map.” Accessed March 24, 2021. http://www.worldwater.org/conflict/map/.

Pacific Institute. 2019. “Water Conflict Chronology.” https://www.worldwater.org/water-conflict/.

Postel, S. and A. Wolf. 2001. “Dehydrating Conflict.” Foreign Policy 126. https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/11/18/dehydrating-conflict/.

Schmeier, S. 2018. “What Is Water Diplomacy and Why Should You Care?” Global Water Forum. August 31, 2018. https://globalwaterforum.org/2018/08/31/what-is-water-diplomacy-and-why-should-you-care/.

Spector, B. 2000. “Motivating Water Diplomacy: Finding the Situational Incentives to Negotiate.” International Negotiation 5 (2): 223–36. https://doi.org/10.1163/15718060020848749.

White, C. 2012. “Understanding Water Scarcity: Definitions and Measurements.” Global Water Forum. May 7, 2012. https://globalwaterforum.org/2012/05/07/understanding-water-scarcity-definitions-and-measurements/.

 

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Normality Is an Illusion: Crisis Is Not

June 10, 2021
By 28804

In this article, 2020 Sylff fellow Amit Singh questions the concept of normality. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have redefined “normality” for India’s privileged classes, the very idea is an illusion for the marginalized, who live in permanent crisis. The pandemic, under which the state has done poorly in securing the basic needs of its vulnerable, “has exposed the fault lines of fragile Indian society,” says Singh.

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The disruption of daily life, due to COVID-19 pandemic in India, reminded me of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shock decision in November, 2016 to scrap 86% of India’s currency (demonetisation); the abrupt disappearance of cash crippled supply chains and led to systemwide job cuts, which made life worse for the poorest in India—disrupted their normal lives—in a similar manner, this health pandemic is also affecting. Due to COVID, Indian state, like others, faced an abnormal situation-suspension of normality. What does normality mean for the marginalised Indian population? Whom does normality serve? We need to ask this question. Well, for the millions of daily wage workers ‘normality’ may be an illusion.

During the Indian lockdown, hundreds of inter-state migrant workers have died and disappeared from the surface of society without any trace. What normality would have meant for them, I just wonder! Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2020) thinks their lives were not an exception to normal situation. Daily wage labourers, vegetable sellers, poor farmers, street vendors, homeless people—all are part of this normality of exception. They have been living in dire situation—abnormal life—being normal for them. These people from abject spaces, as Julia Kristeva (1982) would call them, survive on meagre daily wages, face police violence and receive apathy of general society on a daily basis; possibly normality is just an illusion for them.

India’s nationwide lockdown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has critically dislocated its migrant population. The pandemic is not a crisis situation clearly opposed to a normal situation; for thousands of inter-state migrant workers, unable to cope with hunger, were forced to walk to their villages, hundreds of kilometres, barefoot, with no food, and transportation shut down—with some dying during the journey—this crisis is permanent; they are not an exception of this so called normality. They have already felt the disruption of their daily lives so many times that ‘normality’ has lost meaning for them. Their lives have been hijacked by discourse of normality; making it appear that they are living a normal life like most of their compatriots. However, the fact is that they have been trapped in the circle of crisis by the State, by the Corporate, by the privileged middle classes. Mainly living in slums, they feel the crisis through extreme poverty, starvation, disease, and wage inequality; crisis, being an essential part of their lives, where the idea of ‘normal life’ is absent.

They are the invisible foundation of visible societies on which nation and state stand; from manual scavenging to farming, without them, Indian society would not function. For 450 million of India’s informal sector’s workers, life was never normal. Their existence mattered to the Indian State—I seriously doubt it. With no health insurance, poor working condition, crammed living conditions, lack of social security and low wages, their lives have always been in a permanent state of crisis—even in so called ‘normal times.’ During the lockdown, it was mainly the dead bodies of the hungry, the poor, the beggars, the unemployed, the migrant workers, women and children, were scattered all over the country. Even in normal times, they have been dying like that, due to starvation, lack of health care, malnourishment, burden of debt, state violence and caste discrimination. Nevertheless, it was during these abnormal times when their deaths get more attention and sympathy. However, those who are alive, would gradually die because of unemployment, rising inflation and inability to buy food. Paradigm shift, necessary for social change, is yet to happen in the Indian society. Indeed, the pandemic has deeply disrupted the lives of millions globally; however, it was the incapability of the leadership to deal with the pandemic efficiently which has exacerbated this crisis. Organised governmental chaos in India has led the humanitarian crisis of an epic proportion, has reproduced existing inequalities and exclusion of the marginalised population.

These are the times when the capability of the States to secure basic needs for their vulnerable population is being tested to the core. In such crisis, an effective leadership could navigate society away from impending disaster, like leadership in Portugal and New Zealand did. However, unlike India, in Portugal, a humane approach was adopted in dealing with the pandemic; people were given ample time to settle before national emergency was enforced (in India lockdown was brutally enforced only on four hours of notice), no one was brutalised by the police, and public transportation was totally free for all. However, I was sad to see that in Lisbon (where I stayed during the lockdown) how some Asian communities’ members, primarily Bengali Indians (Martin Muniz area), Pakistanis and Chinese businessmen exploited their Asian employees. Less payment, long hours of work, firing employees without any pay, coercion, disregarding work contract, are some of the human rights abuses. During the lockdown, Asian immigrant workers have suffered at the hands of their Asian employers. But, in normal times, they suffer the same fate on a daily basis. Normality, probably, is an illusion for them, but crisis is not. Pain, agony and frustration arising out of the crisis is very real for them.

Finally, it can be said that COVID-19 pandemic, maybe by nature is exceptional and temporary to the ruling elites and middle classes, however, for the millions of the poor Indian inter-state migrant workers, crisis is permanent. Pandemic has exposed the fault lines of fragile Indian society. It certainly has shown the Indian migrant workers that they are unwanted in their own country. How much such societies are able to sustain the forces of volatile disruption, only time will tell. COVID-19 pandemic may have redefined the ‘idea of normality’ to the privileged one, but for the excluded, marginalised and discriminated, comfortability of normality is just an illusion.

 

REFERENCES

Kristeva, J. (1982). Power of horror: An essay on abjection. Translated by Roudiez, L. Columbia University Press: New York. Retrieved from https://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/touchyfeelingsmaliciousobjects/Kristevapowersofhorrorabjection.pdf

de  Sousa Santos, B. (2020). Black Issues in Philosophy: Virus that is solid melts into air. Blog of the American Philosophical Association (APA). Retrieved from https://estudogeral.sib.uc.pt/bitstream/10316/89211/1/Virus_all%20that%20is%20solid%20melts%20into%20air.pdf

 

The original article is published in: Explorations, ISS e-journal <http://app.insoso.org/ISS_journal/Issues/October_2020> , Vol. 4 (2), October 2020, published by Indian Sociological Society.

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A Triple Crisis in the Indian Sundarbans

January 7, 2021
By 25159

The article describes how the people of the Indian Sundarbans delta, who have adopted migration as a means of survival in an ecologically fragile deltaic region in eastern India, have been affected by the combined impact of the global pandemic and tropical cyclone Amphaan, which struck India in 2020.

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Inhabitants of Banashyamnagar in the Sundarbans queue for disaster relief while trying to maintain social distancing norms to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Picture by Amartya Ray)

The word cyclone was coined in the city I am writing from, Calcutta. A colonial officer, Henry Piddington studied tropical storms peculiar to the Bay of Bengal and named them cyclones after the Greek word ‘kuklōma', meaning the coil of a snake. When in 1853, the colonial government decided to build a port in the lush green deltaic region south of Calcutta, Piddington wrote an anxious letter to the then Governor-General of British India, Lord Dalhousie, to explain how the plan might not succeed should a cyclonic storm strike. True to his word, fourteen years later, a ferocious storm razed the newly built Port Canning to the ground. Nearly two hundred years after Henry Piddington’s lifetime, the forested deltas of present-day India and Bangladesh, called the Sundarbans, continue to reel under severe environmental stress.

People began settling in the hostile climate of the Sundarbans during the colonial period when the British Raj decided to deforest much of the largest mangrove forest in the world, and the natural shield of the eastern portion of the Indian mainland against sea storms, for agricultural revenue. Because of their low-lying, riverine and coastal setting, inhabitants of the region have never been unfamiliar with the threat of cyclones. But those living in the ‘transition’ zone between ‘stable’ inland areas contiguous with the mainland and ‘core’ seaward areas of legally protected mangrove forests, remain most vulnerable to environmental hazards. Located along major tidal rivers, only 23 percent of the roughly 1.5 million inhabitants of the transition zone had access to safe water in 2011, while less than 2 percent could access storm shelters.

The region faces a basket of environmental hazards round the year. It experiences sudden-onset extreme weather events in the form of about nine cyclonic storms a decade, a third of which are severe. In the recent past, Sidr (2007), Aila (2009), Phailin (2013), Hudhud (2014) and Bulbul (2019) have struck the Sundarbans with cycles of immense destruction. In the background of recurring cyclonic storms, are slow-onset environmental hazards that people have lived with for centuries. Some of these, such as a rising sea level, salinisation of soil and water, loss of ecosystem services and failure of the ring of embankments built to protect the region from erosion have led to decreased access to safe drinking water, lack of food security and inadequate WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) facilities. Salinity in soil has reduced land productivity in a region primarily dependent on agriculture as its chief livelihood strategy. Salinity in water sources and lack of piped water supply have resulted in poor health outcomes and high diarrhea-related mortality, especially among children. This year, however, the people of the Indian Sundarbans face a triple crisis. In the fourth week of May, the deadliest tropical cyclone to have ever impacted the Bay of Bengal, Amphan, coincided with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the background of deep-seated impacts of slow-onset hazards.

The Sundarbans is celebrated as a World Heritage Site, a recognition accorded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to the rich biodiversity of the Indian Sundarbans in 1987 and of the Sundarbans of Bangladesh in 1997. But its 7.2 million inhabitants confront as part of everyday life a web of slow-onset and sudden-onset climate stress and socio-economic vulnerability that lead them to migrate from the region in search of work to adapt to  their hostile living conditions. There are also instances of environmentally-induced displacement in the region. The islands of Lohachara, Suparibhanga and Bedford have already submerged in the sea, while Ghoramara has shrunk to a fourth of its original size, witnessing the displacement of thousands to the neighbouring island of Sagar. Climate change and human activities such as tidal-based aquaculture and overexploitation of natural resources further aggravate the impact of environmental hazards in the region. In fact, sea level rise in the Sundarbans does not result only from eustatic processes, or the thermal expansion of sea water due to global warming, but also from isostatic processes, which is a local decrease in land level due to compaction of soil and deltaic subsidence. Isostatic processes contribute to about 3 to 8 millimetres of sea level rise in the region every year.

Environmental migration has no locus standi in international treaty law at present, nor are there any national legal provisions in place that can support or compensate migration from the Sundarbans. Policies on disaster risk management in India are limited to disaster relief that address extreme-weather events alone. They do not include instances of displacement or migration due to environmental stress. Additionally, environmental change cannot always be separated from other drivers of migration, and it is therefore difficult to identify environmental migration as a discrete phenomenon. Cross-country research has shown environmental migration to be a multicausal affair, with factors of extreme poverty, socio-political insecurity and environmental dangers reinforcing each other in driving people to move. It is no different in the case of the Indian Sundarbans, where the living standards of the people are grave. According to a household survey conducted after Cyclone Aila of 2009, in a typical group of thousand residents, 510 people, most of them children, were found to suffer from some form of malnutrition. The survey revealed three broad patterns of migration from the region: long-term migration to distant big cities in search of work, seasonal migration during paddy-sowing and harvesting seasons to neighbouring districts as farm labour, and short-term migration to the nearest big city, Kolkata, for informal employment in masonry, sanitation services and public works. Although these people are not called forced environmental migrants because the term does not legally exist, environmental hazards and climate change contribute to the absence of employment opportunities for which they migrate. Extreme poverty both arises from and contributes to their vulnerability to environmental hazards.

When COVID-19 broke out in March, India witnessed the imposition of a nation-wide lockdown with only four hours’ notice. Businesses shut, streets were emptied, factories stopped and workers were laid off. Over 90 percent of India’s population work in the informal sector, and migrants form a large share of it. With abject poverty at source and little income in big cities, migrant workers in India straddle extreme uncertainty and vulnerability even without a pandemic or its economic fallout. But with the COVID-19 crisis, loss of work, and the government’s stringent lockdown rules, they were left with no choice but to return to their home states.

From very early into the lockdown, special repatriation flights were arranged to bring back Indian citizens stuck in foreign countries, but no effective measure was undertaken to facilitate the reverse exodus of migrants from cities or to provide them with alternative sources for earning a living. In a recent report by the country’s central bank, push factors such as high cost of living in urban areas, loss of employment, uncertainty of the lifting of the lockdown, and limited access to social and unemployment benefits, combined with pull factors such as the onset of winter harvesting season, employment opportunities in public assistance programmes in their native villages, and wanting to feel secure with their families, acted as major drivers of the massive reverse migration of migrant workers. With inter-state transportation halted, millions of migrants began a long journey home with babies and bundles under their arms, an unrecorded number of them collapsing on the way. By late March, about 250,000 to 300,000 migrants had returned to the Sundarbans alone. This amounted to an increased threat of disease in the islands, loss of remittances in migrant households, increased pressure on natural resources and an overwhelmed local labour market.

When Category 5 cyclone Amphan struck Bengal and Bangladesh in the afternoon of 20 May this year, inhabitants of the Sundarbans were already neck-deep in trouble. With a surge of return migration, loss of jobs and inadequate public health facilities making living conditions dismal, the cyclone caused irreparable damage to life in the Sundarbans. The 111 mile per hour winds washed away huts, cattle, trees and electric poles, broke through the protective embankments that had been built around the islands and filled paddy fields with seawater. People thronged in school buildings and storm shelters despite fear of contagion. In a month’s time, the spread of COVID-19 surged from 3,103 cases and 181 deaths on the day of the storm to nearly 5,500 cases and over 300 deaths in the region by early June. The state government estimated over 28 percent of the mangrove forests to have been damaged. The storm ripped off the 100 kilometre long nylon fencing that had hitherto prevented tigers from straying into human habitations. Subsistence agriculture, the dominant livelihood for most inhabitants, was badly hit. The agricultural department of the government estimated heavy losses incurred by 1,08,000 farmers across 17,800 hectares of crop field. The surge of brackish water in fields and ponds killed off fishes and rendered fields uncultivable for years ahead. With hundreds and thousands of extra mouths to feed, man-tiger conflicts spiked as islanders began venturing deep into the forests in search of fish, crab, honey and firewood.

When Cyclone Aila had struck in 2009, able-bodied islanders migrated out in search of work. Their families remained behind, living on a thin flow of remittances. But with the devastation of Amphan, a global pandemic showing no sign of decline and an unprecedented surge of return migration into the Sundarbans in early 2020, possibilities for exploring economic opportunities outside the region— the primary means of adapting to environmental hazards at home— remain bleak. The state government announced 827,000 dollars in aid for rebuilding life in the Sundarbans after Amphan while the central government has released 130 million dollars from the National Disaster Relief Fund for the state of West Bengal. But short-term relief cannot reverse the damage caused by Amphan unless supported by forward-looking strategies of overcoming the triple crisis of slow and sudden-onset environmental hazards, poverty and COVID-19 that the region faces today. Some climate experts and economists point to the benefits of planned and managed retreat of inhabitants living in the transition zone to more stable zones over in-situ strategies of adaptation while others point to the dangers of extracting people from their land. But with inhabitants trapped in a public health crisis amid extreme environmental and economic vulnerability, migration will have to be managed and facilitated by the state instead of scraping by with local efforts of building resilience.

Acknowledgement
The author would like to thank her friend Amartya Ray for his insightful comments. He went to the Sundarbans along with his mother Chaiti Ghoshal with relief for 500 inhabitants of the village of Banashyamnagar on 4 June 2020. Both of them are film actors in India.

 

Reprinted from the IOM's special blog, https://environmentalmigration.iom.int/blogs/triple-crisis-indian-sundarbans

 

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The State and the Rights of Individuals: Pursuing Research at the Graduate Institute Geneva

April 16, 2020
By 25314

Using an SRA grant, Benedikt Behlert spent four months from September 2019 to January 2020 as a junior visiting fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, which proved to be highly beneficial for his PhD project on the administrative procedures required to protect human rights. 

*     *     *

My PhD project on “The Necessity of a Conversation between the Administration and the Individual: The Relevance of Procedure to International Human Rights” asks the question whether international human rights law requires states to have in place structured decision-making procedures for their administrative bodies. Such procedures are often perceived as a nuisance by the two sides involved—the administration and the individual confronted with it—and as an unwelcome hurdle in reaching their objectives.

The Maison de la Paix, home of the Graduate Institute Geneva.

This perception clouds the value of administrative procedure, however, which can protect individual rights against arbitrary state action. This protective potential is realized first and foremost by involving the individual in the decision-making process, such as by granting them a right to be heard and requiring reasons for a negative decision. This is the insight from which my normative analysis of international human rights law commences.

The different ways in which individuals are potentially confronted by administrative bodies are numerous. Beyond “everyday encounters,” such as when an individual applies for a permit, there are complex and sensitive human-rights issues like the ongoing “migration crisis” that highlight the relevance of this inquiry.

What does international human rights law say about the relevance of procedures for the protection of the rights of migrants and refugees? Does it require institutionalized procedures to examine whether a person’s claim for asylum is well-founded? What should such procedures look like? A thorough understanding of the general relationship between the laws governing international human rights and administrative procedures should help answer such questions about specific encounters between state administrations and individuals.

Comparison with Constitutional Rights

One chapter of my thesis draws inspiration from German constitutional law, in particular, the German doctrine of constitutional rights. The connection between administrative procedure and German constitutional rights has been discussed for more than 40 years. The ideas and arguments found in this discourse are by now well-developed, and given the striking structural and substantial similarities, they might provide valuable insights for human-rights-based arguments.

The goal of this comparative exercise was to learn something about the structure and nature of international human rights law, which will inform the subsequent part of my thesis where I try to construct an international-human-rights-law-based argument in favor of procedural rights and obligations.

However, looking for inspiration from one’s own jurisdiction carries a certain risk for the international lawyer. The outcome of research may be too heavily influenced by one’s own background and thus irrelevant to the international legal discourse. In order to avoid falling into this trap, I decided to write the part of my thesis focusing on the similarities and differences between constitutional rights and international human rights in a highly international research environment.

I had the great honor of spending four months at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva as a junior visiting fellow. With its very diverse faculty and even more diverse student body, the Graduate Institute Geneva—also a Sylff institution—was just the right place for me to get the inspiration and critical feedback I needed.

The view from my workplace at the Graduate Institute Geneva.

The Benefits of an International Research Environment

I reviewed pertinent German constitutional law literature and international human rights law literature during my stay. The vast number of resources available at the Graduate Institute and its library were a great help. Most importantly, however, I had the chance to talk to researchers at various levels—PhDs, postdocs, and professors—from different disciplinary and national backgrounds, both informally and in more formal settings. Everyone at the International Law Department was extremely welcoming and helpful. In numerous talks with members of the world-renowned faculty and fellow PhD students, I received valuable input.

Furthermore, I gave a presentation in a roundtable session at the International Law Department, which was followed by an engaging and stimulating discussion. Not only did all these talks enable me to think about the German ideas more critically, but they also helped me to find more effective ways to present my findings to an international audience, which is the eventual target of my thesis.

Beyond the direct benefits for my research, my time as a junior visiting fellow at the Graduate Institute helped to broaden my horizon more generally. Almost every day, a high-level event with leading figures of international politics took place in the grand auditorium, exposing me to many interesting and informed analyses of current issues and crises. The junior visiting fellowship thus enabled me to better perceive my research within the bigger picture of international studies. Finally, the support which the International Law Department and the visiting fellows office provided was outstanding, very personal, and made my stay comfortable and easy.

Being a junior visiting fellow at the Graduate Institute Geneva was a splendid experience. I am certain that my thesis will reflect the inspiration and input I received during my stay. I am immensely grateful to the Sylff Association for funding my stay in Geneva with a generous SRA award, and I can only encourage other fellows who have not done so to make use of the extraordinary opportunities the Sylff Association provides!

Jonction, the place in Geneva where the Rhône and the Arve meet.

Behlert's related article "Forced Migration in Transition: Perspectives from Social Science and Law" can be read at www.sylff.org/news_voices/27466/.

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The Greenhouse Enterprise

March 31, 2020
By 19669

Sylff fellow Sennane Gatakaa Riungu implemented a project to empower a local community in Kenya with funding from Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI). The project seeks to provide capacity building and agribusiness training for community members in Maara constituency, Kenya Riungu’s home community—to equip them with the tools and information needed to develop agricultural business enterprises. Aside from her professional work, Riungu has been engaged in empowering her home community with others for over 10 years by utilizing her vast networks outside the community. The result of the project found both great outcomes and challenges to be addressed to fulfill a long-term goal.

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In the words of Simon Winter, Senior Vice President of a non-profit organization for development: “If we’re serious about ending poverty and feeding a growing planet, it’s imperative that we focus on the 2 billion people who live and work on small farms in the developing world. Often, the best way to support these smallholders has less to do with things they can do to improve their farms and more to do with the systems in which they operate.

“What happens at the farm level is important, and farmers need access to knowledge that enhance productivity inputs and tools. But to create sustainable growth in agricultural industries, that can provide opportunities for increasing economic benefits for farmers now and in the future, we need to take a broader approach to development that targets the entire market system.” ( “Beyond the farm: Promoting agribusiness as a way out of poverty,” The Guardian, February 1, 2013) https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/feb/01/agribusiness-mozambique-cashew-farming

The Roots

Hailing from a community whose largest population depends on peasant farming for their livelihoods, I had a question that lingered in my mind continually: how can what is described by Winter and myriad other like-minded scholars become a reality? Maara is a constituency located in Tharaka Nithi County in the Eastern side of Kenya. Maara as a constituency has a population of approximately 78,000 per the 2009 census. Whereas the upper part of the constituency enjoys favorable climatic conditions, being on the windward side of Mount Kenya, the larger population engages in small-scale subsistence farming that yields only enough produce for household consumption. The majority of the constituents are unfamiliar with the agribusiness concept, which could make a big difference in their household income and improve their socioeconomic status if well applied.

Map of Maara constituency. It is one of the three constituencies in Tharaka-Nithi County

A view of Maara Constituency, Kenya.

 

Given the community’s physical location, the agrarian nature of its economy, and the educational levels of most of its population, I researched slowly and grew convinced that creating an agricultural business model that incorporates most members of the community will go a long way in assisting the community members in this area to overcome some of the major economic challenges that they currently bear—mainly poverty—and bring a new dawn of sustainable economic empowerment for them.

Prospects and Action

Together with some of the colleagues with whom I had seen the birthing of the Makuri Development Forum (MDF), a community based welfare organization based in Maara Constituency in 2013–2014 and a brainchild of a conference funded by Sylff Leadership Initiatives), we formulated the concept of providing a practical avenue through which some of the community members would gain knowledge and learn practical skills in agribusiness. The goal of the project is to provide a practical avenue for an agricultural enterprise model where community members can train and build capacity on agribusiness-related concepts with the long-term objective of establishing a sustainable agricultural enterprise hub for the younger generation in Maara constituency. Overall, the project aims at economically empowering the constituents in Maara constituency through agribusiness.

With the above focus in mind, we formulated a double-edged approach: On the one hand, members of the development forum who are connected with other community development organizations would attend an educational workshop that can provide them with relevant information on agribusiness as an economic enterprise. On the other hand, it was expected that a self-sustaining model of greenhouse farming as an example of a functional agribusiness enterprise would be set up within proximity of the community for all interested members to access and have a hands-on experience in this regard.

It has often been stated that most developing countries have a weak culture of entrepreneurship. To assist us in demystifying this myth, I contacted the proprietors at the East Africa Seed Company (EASEED), which has been successfully running agribusiness-related enterprises in Kenya for over 40 years. Fortunately the company’s director, Mr. Jitendra Shah, and co-director, Ms. Nima Shah, were willing to take on the risk of spreading their wings further to encompass the training element of local potential entrepreneurs in my community. Through the director and as part of their corporate social responsibility, EASEED has a goal of training at least 10,000 youths across the country on agribusiness-related enterprises. The Makuri Development Forum members were able to benefit greatly from this venture through a one-day training held on July 13, 2019. The agronomists from EASEED engaged gainfully with at least 60 members of the community-based forum. The company has further pledged to continue providing seeds and related farm inputs at subsidized costs to interested participating members and groups in the community. 

The training session held in July 2019.

A greenhouse set up in the project for practical training.

 

Following the successful training session, the gained skills were expected to be put to practical use. The community development forum engaged PHFAMS Africa, a professional horticultural farms advisory and management services organization, to conduct the construction of the greenhouse. The greenhouse was set up within weeks of the training session, and the first seedlings of tomatoes and capsicum were transplanted within 21 days after that. The first crop is in season, as can be seen from the photographs presented below, and has delivered in bounty as expected.

 

The crop in season, week 2.

The crop in session, week 4.

Tomatoes as of October 2019.

Tomatoes in early November.

Tomatoes on the day of harvest.

The Output

The impact of this work is already apparent in the community, with some of the community-based organizations already gearing up to set up more greenhouses in the locality. The desired outcome is that more greenhouses will bring increased economic activities in the constituency, which will lead to revitalization of the local business sector and the broader community.

The first harvest was made on a Sunday in the presence of a visiting SLI Program Coordinator, Ms. Aya Oyamada. It was expected that the harvest from the initial crop would be sold at very reasonable costs to the members of the community. Given the intricacies of storage of a bumper first harvest, however, this was transported to the capital city of Nairobi to a wholesale buyer who purchased the entire lot in one go. This included more than 200 kg of capsicum and over 100 kg of tomatoes. Subsequent harvests have been sold to the community grocers at reasonable prices.

The demand for the produce is very high, leading to quick plans of setting up a second greenhouse in the coming months by other group members. Other nonmember constituents have also shown great interest in this model of farming. At this juncture, the initial income will go toward the maintenance of the greenhouse for subsequent crops and continued demonstrations as a continuous effort to provide any additional information or required support to the members and other interested constituents. A second training session is scheduled for March–April 2020.

With the momentum gained, it can be projected not only that the presence of agriculture-based enterprises will rise in the community but also that there will be an increase in other income-generating activities, such as the setting up of agrovets and like enterprises that will in future cater to the foreseen demand of agricultural inputs and implements in the area. This in turn will translate to better incomes for the community members and significantly improved livelihoods in every other aspect.

The author with a basket filled with capsicum.

The Challenges

As expected with these kinds of projects, some challenges have also ensued. One of the major challenges that we faced in the initial construction of the greenhouse was the negative mindset held by the community members toward crops grown in a closed setup like a greenhouse. As mentioned before, the majority of constituents have been practicing small-scale farming for subsistence use for decades. This means that they have also used traditional methods of farming, in which the yields were low and a majority of the yield was affected by disease and pests. With the greenhouse setup, the output seemed too perfect for the community members. A crop that had not been attacked by pests was perceived as almost “unsafe” for human consumption. This is a myth that we are continuing to debunk through training sessions and smart farming method demonstrations.

The other challenge that we are thinking through is the development of a constant supply of produce for the market that we have now established. Our first harvest was sold in the capital city of Nairobi, which is about three hours away from the constituency. The first wholesale buyer has been asking for more produce, as he was impressed with the first produce that he bought. On the other hand, the local market has now awaken to the availability of a good produce in the neighborhood, and most of the grocery stores are also demanding more. At the moment, we provide at least a harvest every week for the local market. This means that we have been unable to supply on wholesale to our initial client in Nairobi.

With the interest generated from the produce, we are mobilizing resources to set up more greenhouses in the community with the other members from the initial founding groups of the development forum. The constant demand is a good sign that the agribusiness concept will actually pick up and become a sustainable venture for the constituents. Our five-year plan is to be able to establish not only a sustainable client base but also sustainable production of different varieties of horticultural produce for the market. Our current challenge is therefore a positive one: grappling with the high demand for the produce. We believe that with the sustained effort, we will be able to address the foregoing challenges to establish a business model that will elevate the status of the quiet community that lies in Maara constituency.

Youth in the community working in the greenhouse.

In summary, we can safely conclude that “We just need to think and act [in and] beyond the farm.”

 

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Forced Migration in Transition: Perspectives from Social Science and Law

February 6, 2020

In November 2019, we, members of the Sylff Mikrokolleg on Forced Migration at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB), hosted the conference “Forced Migration in Transition: Perspectives from Social Science and Law” at our home university in Bochum, Germany. The conference brought together researchers and practitioners from different disciplines to tackle pressing issues revolving around forced migration.

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The Sylff Mikrokolleg on Forced Migration

Our three-member organizing committee consisted of Benedikt Behlert, Corinna Land, and Robin Ramsahye. Benedikt and Robin are PhD students in international law at RUB’s Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV). Corinna is a PhD student at the Social Science Faculty. All of us are current or former fellows of the Sylff Mikrokolleg on Forced Migration at RUB. The Mikrokolleg was established in 2017 as an interdisciplinary group of four PhD students contributing to the field of forced migration studies from different angles through their individual PhD projects and through common projects like our conference. By now, it has assembled a network of eighteen members around itself, consisting of seven professors, three current Sylff fellows, and eight associates, two of whom are former fellows. Following the aim of Sylff to “nurture leaders who will initiate action to transcend differences and address issues confronting contemporary society,” the theme for this micro assembly of young researchers at the doctoral level was quickly found: forced migration, one of the greatest challenges facing the international community today.

An Interdisciplinary Conference Bringing Together Academia and Practice

Given the contemporary dynamics of human mobility, scholarly debates on “forced migration” gained new momentum over the last year. Controversial discussions often revealed a set of highly important challenges concerning theoretical, conceptual, and methodological approaches. They also confirmed that it was impossible to truly understand this multidimensional issue without intense cooperation between various disciplines.

Against this backdrop, our conference provided a highly necessary platform to discuss recent research findings and theoretical approaches. The fruitful academic exchange was enriched by perspectives of experts from the human rights and development practice who assured the real-world relevance of the debate.

Experts from humanities and law as well as representatives from civil society met in four consecutive workshops and raised yet unanswered questions at the heart of the matter: What is forced migration after all? How do we define it? How useful is distinguishing between legal and other categories? What is the role of affected individuals in forced migration studies? How can we mitigate the pressure to migrate? And what are our possibilities and responsibilities as academics and citizens to defend public discourse from ever more xenophobic and exclusionary voices?


Transitions of Concepts, Perspectives, Law and Space

Panel 1 chaired by Corinna Land, far right, examined the concept of forced migration in the present context.

Panel 1, titled “Transition of Concepts” and chaired by Corinna Land, reflected our interdisciplinary discussions as Kolleg fellows as to what our common project should focus on. It showed that the definitional clarity that a lawyer is trained to seek cannot be conjured out of thin air when it concerns such a contentious and complex term as forced migration. The contributions of all four panelists highlighted that forced migration is conceptualized today as an integral part of global social inequalities that continuously produce forced mobility. Focusing on the African continent, Serge Palasie, a practitioner with the nongovernmental organization Eine Welt Netz, presented a macrohistorical overview of reasons for such inequalities, drawing a link from European colonialist exploitation to contemporary hegemonic practices of states underpinning the global economic order. Christopher Boyd, a doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow’s School of Law, built on this approach with a critique of the international legal system. As “part of the problem,” international law cements hegemonic political projects as law and is thus inherently limited in providing solutions. Dr. Isabella Risini, an international law researcher at Ruhr University Bochum, equally emphasized the complexity of forced migration in a globalized world in which political, economic, and social questions are tightly interwoven and argued for a moderate role of international lawyers. Dennis Dijkzeul, professor of organization and conflict research at the IFHV, reminded the audience of the importance of gaining a wider understanding of forced migration processes through the actors involved, including states and, increasingly, networks of international organizations and NGOs.

Benedikt Behlert, right, moderates Panel 2, which provided insights for protecting individual migrants’ human rights.

Panel 2, called “Transition of Perspectives” and chaired by Benedikt Behlert, moved the focus from the broader notion of forced migration to individual forced migrants. It explored the rise of actor-oriented theories in law and social sciences transcending the longstanding image of migrants and refugees as passive beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance. The panel acted as a forum to discuss what agency these groups have in defending their interests. Legal scholars Dr. Itamar Mann from the University of Haifa and Dr. Ekaterina Yahyaoui from the University of Ireland, Galway, presented their approaches. Taking writer Behrouz Boochani’s account of life in an Australian refugee detention center on Manus Island in the Pacific as a starting point, Dr. Mann illustrated cases of judicial activism in favor of refugees’ human rights. Having himself brought a claim regarding detention practices against Australian authorities before the International Criminal Court, he provided insights on ways in which international law may be used to further migrants’ rights. Dr. Yahyaoui explored theoretical approaches to circumscribing actors in need of international support, based on the “turn to vulnerability” in refugee and forced migration studies. Criticizing this approach for its lack of nuance, she argued for increased consideration of substantive equality as part of the established human rights framework, coupled with the theory of intersectionality, which allows for engagement with individual experiences instead of schematic categorizations.

Panel 3 chaired by Robin Ramsahye, far right, discussed relations between disputes of land rights and forced migrations.


Panel 3, themed on “Transition of Law” and chaired by Robin Ramsahye, zoomed in on the specific scenario of land allocation within populations and ensuing conflicts as an important driver of forced migration. International litigator Lucy Claridge of Amnesty International provided insights into the Endorois case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. As counsel, she represented members of the Endorois community, who had been displaced by the Kenyan government, in their quest for restoration of their historic land and compensation. Professor Jochen von Bernstorff from the University of Tübingen assessed current efforts to recognize the right to land in international law and examined the structural implications of land rights for the broader framework of international law. Dr. Kei Otsuki of Utrecht University explored the notion of infrastructural violence, pointing to problematic aspects of progressive legal frameworks in reaction to modernization and resettlement, which ultimately contributed to legitimizing and formalizing displacement. Mariana de Martos from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle concluded the panel by analyzing the discrepancies between the law and its implementation through a case study of indigenous peoples’ land rights in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest.

Panel 4 chaired by Carolin Funke, far right, looked at the issue of migrants’ integration into their host communities.

Lastly, Panel 4, “Transition of Space” chaired by Carolin Funke, a post-doctoral researcher at the IFHV, opened the conference lens to the wider societal discourse. Both the findings of academic research and practical work on the issue of migration often seem to be drowned out by highly emotional and shrill debates, increasingly dominated by adherents of extreme positions. The panel contextualized these observations from the perspectives of academia, practice, and the media. Professor Ludger Pries of Ruhr University Bochum stressed that refugees and migrants are often either maligned or paternalized. He stressed that narrow views labeling them as intruders or target groups for transnational solidarity miss the mark, since migrants are actors in their own right, shaping their destinies. Building on this, journalist Isabel Schayani provided an account of her daily work covering the fates of migrants stranded on the European outposts that many of them first arrive at, as well as the lives of migrants who make it to Germany and endeavor to create a life for themselves. Complementing these perspectives, Claudia Jerzak from the University of Applied Sciences for Social Work, Education, and Care in Dresden presented examples of the process of integrating migrants into host communities through highly structured spaces, such as integration courses, and interchangeable, prestructured spaces, such as meeting cafés and self-organized spaces where refugees act as hosts and organizers.

Invaluable Experiences and Much Gratitude

The conference has afforded us a number of lasting experiences and benefits. Securing the funds for and organizing the conference sequence enabled us to familiarize ourselves with many tasks that are of crucial importance in the academic world. Having conceptualized several panels in form and content under an overarching theme, reached out to people and secured commitments of participation, organized international travel, and coped with several last-minute cancellations, we feel we have gained insights that can only be achieved through action. The interdisciplinary character of the conference, merging social scientific and legal approaches to forced migration, was initially challenging to conceive but turned out to be very beneficial. Throughout the phase of substantial preparation, we had to transcend our own disciplinary boundaries in delimiting the panels in a way that worked from the perspectives of both law and social sciences. We were glad to see that the conference participants did the same by engaging in fruitful discussions. Beyond the immediate exchange in the panel discussions, the conference enabled us to expand our professional networks and make valuable contacts through numerous occasions for informal discussions with our guests, many of whom we have arranged to stay in touch with for future cooperation.

We are indebted and very grateful to a number of people and organizations for the conference’s success. First, we would like to express our gratitude to the Sylff Association and the Tokyo Foundation for setting up the Sylff Mikrokolleg on Forced Migration and giving us the opportunity to research and express our ideas through their generous financial and administrative support. A special thank you to Sylff director Yoko Kaburagi is in order for attending our conference and encouraging follow-up exchange.

We also very much appreciate the help of RUB’s Research School, which sponsored the conference and continuously supported us with logistics and procedures, most importantly in the person of Dr. Sarah Gemicioglu.

We would also like to warmly thank all associate fellows and researchers involved with the Sylff Mikrokolleg on Forced Migration and who made valuable contributions to the development of the conference. We are glad to see that there is a lot of interest in our Kolleg and that many promising young researchers stand ready to take over and move it forward still.


Behlert's related article "The State and the Rights of Individuals: Pursuing Research at the Graduate Institute Geneva" can be read at
www.sylff.org/news_voices/27786/.

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Carceral Logics and Social Justice: Women Prisoners in India

September 20, 2019
By 19827

Rimple Mehta, a Sylff fellow at Jadavpur University, and her project partner, Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, an associate professor at the School of Development Studies of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, implemented a year-long social action project with funding from the Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI). Their project is intended to build a network with practitioners, scholars, and activists to work as a pressure group to ensure the rights of women prisoners in India and raise awareness beyond the network to change the negative perceptions around the issues at hand. In this article, Mehta and Bandyopadhyay write about their SLI-funded project.

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Women Prisoners in India

Women prisoners in India constitute five percent of the prison population. They are often incarcerated in wards within larger prisons for men. Women prisoner wards then become “prisons within prisons.” There are only a few all-women prisons. Once in prison the women are ostracized by their families, as they are perceived as breaking not only legal codes but also social norms, therefore doubly deviant. Ostracization by families means that their access to justice is limited. Seclusion through imprisonment is not just a physical seclusion but also an alienation from their familial and kin networks. This indicates their marginalization both within the institution and outside it.

Institutions like the prison in India do not receive adequate media or public attention because of the perceptions around crime and criminality. Although the ideas of incarceration have shifted from punishment to reform, in reality prison administration and the public beyond prison walls continue to be dismissive of any efforts toward reform and rehabilitation and of any attempts to talk about the concerns of prisoners and prison administration.

 

Conceptualizing Social Justice

Social justice for women prisoners in India is a neglected area but has been the focus of our research for a decade now. This project, although in continuity with our efforts, marks a departure in two ways: First, it expands the boundaries of research and understanding of the lives and contexts of women’s imprisonment through the inclusion of activists, scholars, social work practitioners, and administrators. Second, we have consolidated our previous ethnographic fieldwork experiences to move beyond the specificities of site and initiate discussions on advocacy around issues of women prisoners. One of the first steps toward social change, we believe, is reflexivity. While evaluating our research on women prisoners, we felt compelled to reflect on our positions and our location within the academic and certain disciplinary contexts. With years of research on, learning about, and understanding of women’s imprisonment, we were able to see the need to move out of the confines of our locations to collaborate with those who are engaging with similar issues in different capacities. The SLI award enabled us to put this idea to action.

 

Activities and Approach

The main foci of the project were to find and engage with those committed to bringing about a change in the lives of women prisoners and to open up a space for discussions on their lives. We have realized this by organizing meetings—in Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi—and a workshop titled “Carceral Logics and Social Justice: A Dialogue between Practitioners, Scholars and Activists” that brought together scholars, activists, social work practitioners, and administrators.

Most of the participants in the workshop contributed papers detailing their work and experiences with women prisoners to our book, Women, Incarcerated: Narratives from India. Through this edited volume we will be able to reach out to the general reader interested in women offenders, concerned citizens, and organizations working for social justice. The narratives of women prisoners from different parts of the country featured in the book will enable readers to access their lives and conditions of imprisonment, which are otherwise invisible.

Further, the book, as it moves beyond the constrained domains of academic disciplines, is written in a manner and style that are easy to connect with and enable a wide readership. In including various perspectives outside of academic research, we have broadened the horizons of knowledge and understanding about women prisoners in India.

Professor Surinder Jaswal, deputy director, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, speaks at the workshop in Mumbai titled “Carceral Logics and Social Justice: A Dialogue between Practitioners, Scholars and Activists.”

 

Dialogues

We were able to enter into multiple dialogues through this project. The process of organizing the meetings enabled us to understand the complexities and the challenges involved for those working on the ground to address concerns in women’s imprisonment. The meetings that we held in different cities brought forth diverse concerns from specific local contexts of women’s imprisonment. For instance, at the meeting in Kolkata, the absence of sanitary napkins and baby food for children in prison emerged as a major concern. When this issue was brought up in the Mumbai meeting, it was observed that this was being provided and was, therefore, not an issue of prime concern in that locality. At the meeting in Delhi, the need was emphasized for formalizing alliances to work on specific issues around women’s imprisonment.

The participants of the three meetings asserted the need for an online platform to share existing knowledge, brainstorm on emergent issues, and respond to crisis situations with regard to women prisoners. They felt that even though individuals and organizations were doing substantive work trying to push for reforms in the treatment of women prisoners, much of this work remained isolated efforts. Consolidation of this work through a larger and formalized network was suggested. The Indian Prisons Network (IPNet), for which these three meetings were held, was endorsed and has been initiated through this project.

The need for different people to speak at a common forum and the difficulties of doing so were highlighted in our workshop, which was organized with the contributors to our edited volume. The different ideological positions initially generated some discomfort among the participants. But the discussions stand testimony to the fact that the participants’ work was geared toward bringing out a change in the everyday lives of women prisoners. The papers in the volume lay bare women’s experiences of exclusion, marginalization, and violence and the ways in which incarceration intersects with different institutions in their everyday lives. The ongoing dialogues with our contributors as we edited the papers have added a qualitative edge to the way in which these issues of women prisoners have been represented.

In this entire process, we have also built stronger connections with some of our supporters and collaborators who have been actively working within the prison space. These connections have opened up the space to work toward making the prison more accessible to researchers and practitioners. The opening up of the prison through dialogue and writing disrupt the singular narrative of the woman prisoner as “mad woman,” “socially deviant,” and “morally bankrupt,” paving the way for empathy.

Uma Chakravarti speaks at “Carceral Logics and Social Justice: A Dialogue between Practitioners, Scholars and Activists.”

 

Looking Forward

The significance can never be overstated of the publication and dissemination of ideas in an area where information and knowledge are scarce and, even when available, are articulated only in terms of certain dominant and powerful narratives. Through this project we have attempted to communicate the lives, contexts, and treatment of women prisoners in India. By presenting multiple perspectives, we have countered the idea of a single narrative about a woman prisoner that rests on an assumption of breaking a moral code. We seek to continue this effort through more field engagement, research, and writing about prisons in India.

Moreover, this project has brought forth and strengthened the idea of experiments within governance and reform, such as the cultural therapy initiative in West Bengal. We would like to further explore and document these ideas, to see if there are other experiments in the country including documentation of the open prison. Advocacy initiatives through networking can further strengthen these activities, and we hope that through IPNet we will be able to harness the strength of a collective. Networking on an issue that has limited field accessibility increases the value of networking. We envisage that this may be possible because IPNet has adopted a multi-stakeholder approach, where individuals and organizations value empirical research and experiential participation in prison administration.