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Strangers in the night

Wednesday, 26 February 2014 - 6:00am IST Updated: Tuesday, 25 February 2014 - 8:41pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

In this age of global capitalism, there is a growing need to embrace the estranged.

The tragic death of Nido Taniam; the racism and xenophobia of Somnath Bharti and the AAP; the rape of a Danish tourist in central Delhi. These incidents highlight the delicate question of the relations between the insider and the outsider, citizens and aliens, the familiar and the strange, hostility and hospitality. What is this notion of the “stranger” that we encounter with such hostility in our cities? How does one deal with the otherness of the stranger? The ‘Law’ through its very act of naming, constitutes communities.

The performative act of naming the “We” in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution — “We the People of India…” — plays that role of constituting a “We” as Indians, in opposition to the outsider. We situate ourselves in relation to the boundaries and negotiate about who should be allowed to enter and who deserves our hospitality. Our common sense notion of the ‘stranger’ is someone who is not known to us. But for Georg  Simmel, one of the most significant commentators on social identities, ‘strangers’ are they who have been encountered but not fully assimilated into the community. For Simmel, they are the ones who are within the community and yet have not belonged to it from the start.

The question of ‘strangers’ dwelling in the cities of India opens up the question of how these cities imagine the migrant worker, the North-East Indian, the Bangladeshi in the North-East, the refugees, the Caucasian or the Africans. One obvious characteristic of this imagination is the scapegoating of the stranger. The ‘strangers’ are blamed of causing moral violence and so are easily transmuted as scapegoats who threaten the equilibrium of the community. Threatened by problems, a stranger is constituted as a scapegoat and ousted from the community. For the philosopher Rene Girard this act of scapegoating and sacrificial violence is anthropologically, a classic means of restoring equilibrium to communities threatened by internally generated violence.

The infamous raid in Khirki village was one such act of sacrificial violence on the Ugandan women accused of drug trafficking, prostitution and moral depravity. The vigilantism of the mob was constituted upon the alleged statements such as “black people, who are not like you and me, break laws”. Responding to this in a language of Human Rights becomes futile and abstract. Human Rights in order to be considered a universal right, have to be emptied of all the specificity. Instead, negotiation and politics require thicker conceptions of differences that accord respect and dignity through mutual recognition.

This second point is a digression into the cosmologies of ancient India. Cartographic obsessions of territoriality existed then as well. Sheldon Pollock in his magnum opus Language of Gods in the World of Men analyses the Puranic treatise where Bharatavarsha remains a supra-regional entity, consisting of the descendants of Bharata. There are nine sectors that are like continents or islands, each surrounded by the sea. It is bounded by Kirata people in the east, Yavana in west, Andhara in the south and Turukas in the north — and in the middle reside Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras each living according to their respective occupations. The Bharatavarsha then is classified into a rather accurate classification and geographic divisions which includes the Himalayas, the seas, the rivers etc. There is considerable conceptual coherence, with defined boundaries that vary from time to time.

The point being, that the idea of boundaries was central to the Puranic geographies as well. “The border between the two is represented as a liminal zone, marking a transition to other lifeworlds where an altogether different physics of moral conduct prevails, along with an altogether different organisation of time.” This is not to deny that centuries of rich trade and cross-migrations are  central to the South-Asian history. What is interesting is the existence of both, the aforementioned cosmology as well as centuries of pluralism in simultaneity. Sadly, these cosmologies of the Puranic universe seem to echo our paranoia of the outsider and the stranger even today, while we are gradually losing the tolerance for that pluralism.  

But moving back to our current scenario, the legal dimension of strangers is encountered when foreigners enter national boundaries and are questioned in airports and in the long queues of immigration restrictions; or when migrant workers from Jharkhand and Bihar have to register themselves as migrant job-seekers in Kerala. It is still common to hear not just the right-wing Hindu groups, but urban middle-class Hindus, argue that Muslims are the invaders who forcefully settled in India; while several Adivasi and Dalits groups argue that they are the original inhabitants while Brahmins are the outsiders. This is the age of global capitalism that circulates workers across borders, sex workers across barb-wired national borders, and persons dislocated from one’s own home but working as domestic labourers in other homes. This necessitates a need to develop the imagination for encountering and embracing the estranged.  

It may be useful to make a distinction between two types of multicultural identities in order to distinguish the different politics involved — one category is where indigenous people and national minorities demand autonomy in governance because their minority status is a result of being coercively incorporated into the larger state. For example, in the case of Indians from North-East, this category of multiculturalism necessitates debates on greater autonomy and self-governance for the region. The second category is the case of immigrant multiculturalism where immigrants are viewed as those who “voluntarily” relinquish their native cultures by migrating. The example for this are the Indians from North-East who migrate to so-called mainland India. This category then mandates the need to demand fairer terms of integration through mutual recognition of difference. The experience of not feeling at home or feeling a sense of homelessness in one’s own body is crucially about feeling ‘estranged’.

The author is a Research Associate at Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bangalore

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