Aditi Saraf, Ashoka University, India and Megha Sharma Sehdev, Tufts University, USA
Historically, pandemics are known to expand and extend the authoritarian powers of state. In India too, the central government has mobilised the colonial-era Epidemic Diseases Act — to authorise search and quarantine measures, as well as censor and criminalize dissenting voices. In what follows, we explore the state’s broadened powers of surveillance and policing in two frontier zones of South Asia: Kashmir and Punjab. Both regions are marked by long histories of resistance, and brutal state suppression including torture, violence and extrajudicial killings. In the Kashmir Valley, a movement for liberation from Indian rule has been ongoing since 1989. In Punjab, a militant separatist movement raged between the 1970s and 1990s before losing popular support, though many accounts suggest the movement perseveres, especially in the diaspora. The recent arrival of COVID-19 has served to augment and distort surveillance in these regions, folding them further into the ambit of state control.
In India, emergency measures against the pandemic followed on from months of widespread social and political tumult. As the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Wuhan, towns and cities in India were engulfed in protests against controversial citizenship laws. These laws were passed ostensibly to protect persecuted minorities from neighbouring regions, but in fact discriminated against Indian Muslims by undermining their claims to citizenship. Weeks before the lockdown, violent mobs rampaged through northeast Delhi, targeting and killing Muslims, while the police stood by, complicit.
Earlier in the year, the border state of Assam saw India’s first experiments with a 'National Register of Citizens' that sought to identify 'illegal' Bangladeshi migrants, described by the Home Minister as 'infiltrators' and 'termites'. Many individuals including those with papers were ruled out by the Assamese citizenship tests, a process that critics fear will be replicated throughout India. Prior to the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, in August 2019 the Indian legislative assembly revoked the nominal autonomy granted to contested, Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian constitution. The announcement came in the midst of a communications blackout imposed on Kashmir, accompanied by dozens of arrests and the further deployment of troops in the world’s already most densely militarised zone.
In a manner distinct form Giorgio Agamben’s (1998) formulation of power, Elizabeth Povinelli (2016) suggests that 'making live' or 'letting die' is irrelevant to the virus. Rather, the virus extends itself within the folds of variegated matter — going dormant, duplicating or mutating within and through meshworks of the living, the inanimate and the inorganic. Practices of governance that hinge on the distinction between life and nonlife are threatened by the virus, because it eludes the state's management apparatus and spreads a foreign 'geontic' mode. Contact tracing, heat maps and other technologies are used to detect this layered form that is seen to be sustained by illegible forces. For the state, the inscrutability of the viral assemblage — mobility, dormancy and hyperanimation taken together — invite measures that seek not only to produce life or death, but to manage conjunctures of the lively and the inert.
The 'viral modality' finds a parallel in state discourses of the terrorist. Dormant, mobile, non-human and death-dealing, the terrorist is the human figure who, like the virus, confounds the logics of the state. Biometric devices, X-ray scanners and data trackers are some of the technologies that constitute and detect this subject. While the conflation of 'virality' and 'terrorism' is prevalent in mainstream political discourse (Puar 2007), the terms have sharply converged in the ethnonationalist climate of India. They have also invoked different legacies of surveillance. IT cells and the mainstream media in India, for instance, have grafted the virus onto Muslim religious networks, developing terms such as 'corona-jihad' to label this internal other.
We argue that in both Punjab and Kashmir, dissident political subjects have long been imagined as uncanny conjunctures of the lively and dead, calling forth the violent excesses of the state. Past and ongoing surveillance pays close attention to the regenerative aspects of these movements, including mobile transnational networks, sleeper cells and the ability of the movement’s dead — its shaheeds — to harness the energies of the living.
People in Kashmir have noted that the state’s policing and surveillance practices, mired in illegitimacy, are a continuation of militarised counterinsurgency. Journalists and scholars observe that the pandemic in Kashmir is being treated as a law and order problem, rather than a public health issue. Arterial roads have been dug up and barricaded, preventing vehicles from traversing containment zones. Shops have been sealed, trade halted and vehicles impounded for defying government orders. The state’s clampdown on networks can be seen, as well, in the nine-month long internet suspension. Despite the extension of the lockdown and the need for information across distances, only partial restoration of internet services has been permitted, amplifying a sense of confinement. Unlike in India, where emergency pandemic measures may be considered unprecedented but timely, in Kashmir they are inextricable from a long continuum of practices aimed at suppressing the movement, and the expressions and livelihoods of a dissident population. At the same time, owing to a long history of war and resistance, alternate networks of mohalla [neighbourhood] committees and bait ul-maal [house of wealth/provisions] have also mobilised during the pandemic, ensuring the distribution of food and essential items.
Forms of virus tracking fixate on the movements of subjects across military and regulatory borders into frontier zones. With COVID-19, the threat of contagion is especially seen as attached to transnational pilgrimage and travel networks. Pandemic measures in Kashmir have included real-time phone tracking and heat maps for 'detecting' subjects and their itineraries. Public appeals have asked people to report on one another’s movements. For many, these inducements to report kin, friends and neighbours to the authorities are reminiscent of the murky practice of mukhbiri (Mushtaq & Amin 2020) that refers to informants who answer to the Indian security forces and betray the militant movement. In recollections of counterinsurgency techniques, the masked mukhbir appears in stories of cordon and search, pointing out suspects to the forces.
The state has also seized upon the lockdown as a pretext for initiating gunfights with militants in Kashmir. Given that their funerals become occasion for large civilian gatherings where aspirations for self-determination are re-asserted, the COVID-19 prohibitions offer a veil of secrecy for burials to be sequestered and unmarked.
The situation in Kashmir provokes a chain of connections to state violence and disappearances in Punjab throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the Punjab Mass Cremations Case, a Central Board of Intelligence inquiry revealed that over two thousand bodies were extra-judicially killed and cremated in Amritsar. Curiously, the Indian Human Rights Commission recognised the violation only through 'wrong procedure' in handling cremation, deflecting the disappearances, torture and human rights abuses that preceded. As Preetika Nanda (2018) argues, this delimitation of cremation rituals from the state's refusal to investigate circumstances of death was a selective form of knowledge-making and punishment.
In Histories of Postmodern Contagion, Christos Lynteris and Nicholas Evans (2018) suggest the dead should be seen not in relation to the termination of life, but through the participation of the corpse in social and material reproduction. The state recognises the power of the martyred body and secretly disposes of the corpses of men and women it has killed. It also seeks to manage their afterlives.
Rituals are deeply connected to the form of afterlife allocated to the dead. As Radhika Chopra (2016) writes, typical cremation rituals in Punjab involve a one-time munh-dekhna [viewing of the face] of the deceased. This viewing of the corporeal face, with its attached experiences and memories, gives way to a different view of the dead after cremation: as the benevolent ancestor. To ensure the split, families avoid taking photographs of the dead body and thereby enable the movement into ancestorhood. Chopra contrasts this 'ritual amnesia' to the ways that photographs of the dead circulate as counter-archive. Photographs of martyrs invite viewers into a repetitive munh-dekhna, or continuous memory. In this refusal to send the dead away, the subject is instead remembered for their intense enmeshments in kinship, sociality and struggle. Read in this context, the state’s fixation on cremation may be seen as disrupting the relationship between martyrs and their collective remembrance.
In contrast to Kashmir, the political landscape in Punjab is a shifting one. Memories of state violence shadow the present yet remain disarticulated from it. These echoes speak to the perseverance of memory and its power in contesting the state. At the same time, memory is precarious, maintained between formations such as homeland and diaspora, real and virtual worlds, remembering and forgetting.
Confronting a threat in which state violence is insidiously braided with biological risk may reanimate memories that have lain inert. Dwaipayan Banerjee (2020) writes that while pandemics expand authoritarian measures, such expansion also opens state practices to contestation, thereby exposing the 'moral illegitimacy of its use of legally sanctioned violence'. In tracking and eliminating contagion, nationalist surveillance depends on legacies of unruly subjects in frontier zones. As such practices oscillate from the margins to the centre, they impel us to consider what it means to endure a perpetual state of emergency in the shadow of the state.
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Aditi Saraf and Megha Sharma Sehdev
Aditi Saraf is Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ashoka University, Sonipat, India.