Bans, Borders, and Big talk: Feminists Predict the Implosion of a Nation
By Rohitha Naraharisetty
No sooner did India revoke Kashmir’s special status in the Constitution in August 2019, than the Home Minister thundered with great bravado that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin also belong to India, and that “we” would give our lives for these regions. It has been a little over a year since, and we now find ourselves in a situation where previously undisputed territory – thousands of square kilometres of it, in Ladakh – has been occupied by China’s People’s Liberation Army. In June 2020, twenty Indian soldiers lost their lives at the Galwan valley in Ladakh during a similar incursion. The leadership, however, is eerily silent as the hyper-masculine war talk in light of these developments now becomes little more than a whisper. Meanwhile, TikTok and PUBG, along with several other Chinese digital applications have been unilaterally banned in retaliation, even as other trade relations continue and no proof has been furnished yet as to the ways in which these apps threaten the country.
This is a conflict which both parties seem to be waging on two different planes. While one occupies the realm of bolstered militarisation and seeps through borders that are now more porous than ever, the other floats along in the domain of internet apps which its own citizens use in the millions. The stated position of the Modi government on the app ban is that these apps were “prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state, and public order.” It seems pertinent now more so than ever to unpack these terms and reflect on their implications, seeing as their meaning appears less static than in recent times. With the deaths of twenty soldiers in the valley going unheeded, with the pandemic ravaging swathes of the country into total collapse, in whose defence are the apps being banned? What does defence mean when the defended are undefined? What is the state whose security is being protected, if not the people who constitute it? Who is the state?
Feminist international relations theory has long pointed to the fragility of the concepts of state, sovereignty and national security, and has posited that these are all gendered constructions. It is clear to see how, with the current dispensation especially, hyper-nationalism has been coupled with hyper-masculinity in order to produce a militarised national psyche which has allowed the current situation to come about. In 2017, during a similar standoff between India and China in the Doklam region, a diplomatic ceasefire was hailed as a chest thumping victory by the Prime Minister. The deaths of forty more CRPF personnel in the Pulwama region in 2019, and of nineteen soldiers in Uri in 2016 fuelled a bloodthirsty, nationalist frenzy which made terms like “surgical-strike” enter our national lexicon forever (even at present, the digital app ban in response to soldiers being killed in the Chinese incursion has tiresomely been referred to as a “digital strike”). The Balakot airstrikes in response to the former are famously ambiguous in terms of the casualties they are said to have caused, even as India crossed the border into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and proceeded to go into Pakistani territory, where previously the strikes took place from Indian soil. The response to all of these audacious moves in which agreed upon notions of territorial sovereignty were arrogantly violated has been jubilant, with the Prime Minister getting credit for empty retaliation against external aggressions that took real lives. Feminist scholar Carol Cohn explains the gendering of national security discourse using examples of muscular displays of force in various conflict situations, and has suggested that overt shows of physical or militaristic capability lends more credibility than diplomatic relations. She points out how leaders often assert this strength in crude and very obviously hypermasculine language on behalf of a nation (Donald Trump’s “nuclear button” contest with Kim Jong Un) in order to avoid coming across as vulnerable or weak. There was arguably no need, therefore, for any real purpose to be served by military responses; they were carried out for their own sake, as a means of bolstering the popular sovereignty of an authoritarian regime. A tautological situation thus arose where jingoism trumped territorial sovereignty in the name of national security, and no real effort was made to safeguard against similar situations in the future. As Ann Tickner noted in her book titled Gender in International Relations (1992), “Gendered depictions of political man, the state, and the international system generate a national security discourse that privileges conflict and war and silences other ways of thinking about security.”
Backed by this overconfidence and irrefutable popularity, with even films being made to celebrate previous retaliation efforts, the government now finds itself unable to act in the face of border tensions more aggressive than before, and therefore unable to speak for itself. To ask the question now as to whom or what such shows of strength, brute occupation and war talk serve with respect to Kashmir, which has been turned into a settler colony, would invite accusations of being unpatriotic. To ask why nothing is being said of territory elsewhere being breached would be being part of a “pro-China lobby”. When asking questions about why our borders have been breached and soldiers killed is considered more threatening than the fact itself, when the government is silent, when it in turn silences an entire region after annexing it, when questioning it is met with hostility, it is indicative of a corruption of the idea of the sovereign and a possible return to the divine right paradigm, where the sovereign is a single person, and that person is a Prime Minister who fashions himself in the manner of a masculine, benevolent patriarch. It also shows the acute fear of the collapse of the idea of the sovereign, rather than territorial sovereignty itself.
Indeed, the current standoff seems to be one that could have been altogether avoidable, had it not been for the machismo and displays of strength, both real and rhetorical, by strongmen leading the country into an international and humanitarian disaster. Cynthia Enloe’s groundbreaking work, Globalization and Militarism: Feminists Make the Link (2007) on the workings of masculinities and femininities in militarisation has predicted all this and more. The relationship between the nation state and the citizen is one that reinforces the public/private dichotomy with gendered implications; similar to how affairs within the domestic sphere of the home (often the site of masculinized violence) are largely absent from the considerations of the public sphere – the realm of politics and bigger, grander, more important issues. The State uses legitimate force against its own citizens in the interest of its security and, by extension, its legitimacy in the international domain.
The gender dynamics within and which make up the home are a microcosm of the gender dynamics within and which make up the state. In both cases, women’s labour is made invisible, cheapened, and taken for granted; and in both cases, some form of violence or the other is used to keep the status quo intact. This force, in the final analysis, is necessarily masculinized and very often militarized. With the hardening of these traditional boundaries between us and them, public and private, the state is able to exercise brute force over anyone questioning its authority internally even as actual borders on soil are being brought into question externally, maybe even because of it. It silences the entire region of Kashmir and correspondingly, turns it into one of the most militarised regions in the world.
In the face of less than desirable control over the border situation – the international – this is a state which doubles down on its own citizens in order to attempt to regain control and legitimacy over the domestic. What we now have on our hands, therefore, is a raging and uncontrolled disease devastating lives and livelihoods, the biggest migrant crisis since, ironically, the Partition, activists, poets and dissenters jailed, a collapsing economy, an unclear sense of inside and outside at the borders. Or indeed, what borders even mean anymore when the people in it are left in the lurch to fend for themselves against a dispensation unable and unwilling to alleviate the suffering of its electorate, answerable to nobody, and making a border crisis worse in the name of security which, for all intents and purposes, was never really there – as the pandemic has so glaringly laid bare.
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