Poetics is Political: Politics and Poetics of Difference Across the Borders of the Nation-States

Papori Bora


For Palestine,[1]Dedicated to friends in Birzeit University, in Ramallah, who hosted me with amazing hospitality in the midst of occupation a few years ago.
in solidarity,
from the Northeast.

Northeast,[2]Baruah, Sanjib. In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford University Press, 2020. but Northeast of what?

Is it the name of a place? A region some might say, a borderland someone else might quip, a frontier.

Northeast, Northeast of India, Northeast to India, India’s Northeast.

Hills/plains, mountains, rivers, landscape, people.

India has, therefore, been at the center of politics in the Northeast–the political and imaginative space of politics and solidarity for small nationalities in the Northeast—some would say there are several sub nationalities, small nationalities, or just nationalities in the Northeast. Decades of armed movements for sovereignty have today led to an uneasy peace, after years of “peace talks”, some say we are on our way to development—we will finally catch up to India, and not lag behind.[3]Rao, Vijaya, Shambhavi Prakash, Mallarika Sinha Roy, and Papori Bora. Displacement and Citizenship: Histories and memories of exclusion. (2019). Tulika Books, Global Distributors: Columbia University … Continue reading

Indians in waiting.

Unable to speak to the mighty India except as I-n-d-i-a-n-s-in-w a i t i n g…

You have been included in the nation, clamour dominant nationalisms.

We speak, but can you hear us?

You need to get over your differences, says the mighty secular society.

We will speak to you when the human rights situation in the Northeast improves.

Now that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA)[4]A postcolonial version of a colonial law, enforced in the Northeast for more than 60 years, which allows extra judicial powers to the armed forces to quell sovereignty movements by curtailing rights … Continue reading has been temporarily removed, the human rights situation is much better, they say—you are on the road to progress, we just need to cut down more forests, take over your land for development.

But can you all just get along? Why can’t you all live together in peace?

Have you allowed us the peace?

To think, rethink, the terms of our own belonging and to you?

Palestine and the Northeast are not the same. Yet, the political condition of Palestine resonates with the Northeast—a global interconnected history of violence of colonialism and its aftermath in the life and politics of postcolonial nation-states, shared in histories of modes of governance, militarization, racial projects, and capitalist development. It is in the struggle against these power relations that Palestine and the Northeast can be thought together to rethink the political. How, for instance, do we think of democracy without prioritising the nation-state? It is in this light that I write today in solidarity with Palestine from India’s Northeast, both of which have a history of inequality perpetrated by the violence of the nation-state. A violence that disables articulation of justice in the language of law and rights, reflecting an inequality of speaking positions.[5]Bora, Papori. “Speech of the Nation and Conversations at the Margins of the Nation-State.” Interventions 17, no. 5 (2015): 669-685.


Submission Without Rights[6]Ophir, Adi, Michal Givoni, and Sari Hanafi. The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. New York: Zone Books, 2009.

The underlying rationality of the occupation regime in Palestine is submission without rights (Ophir, Giovani and Hanafi 2009). Here separation and colonization are not the end goals of occupation but modes of articulating submission without rights. These modes are different means of inclusive exclusion whereby even as they are subjects of the occupation regime, the Palestinians are actually rendered noncitizens of the Israeli state. This is because brutal violence is only one operational conduct of the occupation regime which does not represent the sophisticated means through which power is established (Ophir et al. 2009, 17). Modalities of Israeli control of the West bank and Gaza strip since the second Intifada in 2000 involve regimentation of movement, the fragmentation of space, the checkpoint system, creeping colonization, and extra judicial killings (Ophir et al. 2009, 17). Thus extreme violence and milder technologies of governmentality are mixed to produce the occasional eruptions of war and the ongoing course of submission, resistance, and peace talks that characterize the occupation as a special type of regime. Today’s violence unleashed on Gaza, however, points to the end of colonial government as it is “… marked [by an] ambition not to govern Palestinians but to wish them out of existence” (Esmeir 2023).[7]Esmeir, Samera. “The end of colonial government” in From the River to the Sea: essays for a free Palestine. Eds Sai Englert, Michael Schatz and Rosie Warren, Verso, Haymarket Books 2023.


Incomplete Citizenship: The Inclusive Exclusion of India’s Northeast

In contrast to the hypervisibility of Palestine in global politics, India’s Northeast which has been the site of sustained militarization by the Indian state has not received the same kind of international, or for that matter even national, attention.[8]This is also in contrast with the hypervisibility of Kashmir within the Indian nationalist framework that sees Kashmir only within the tussle between India and Pakistan. See Visweswaran, Kamala, ed. … Continue reading I argue that an inclusive exclusion defines the position of the Northeast, whereby it is both included and excluded at the same time from structures of governance and representation, thus occupying a (non) space within the Indian nation-state.

One illustration of this (non) space that the Northeast occupies in the Indian nation-state is the existence of the extra constitutional law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has been operational in different parts of the Northeast since 1958 to deal with ‘insurgency.’[9]Kashmir is the other place where this law is operational. Currently, the Act has been removed from several places in the Northeast keeping in accordance with the needs of the Indian nation-state and … Continue reading The AFSPA is a postcolonial version of a colonial law that became a permanent way to govern the Northeast.[10]Kikon, Dolly. “The predicament of justice: fifty years of Armed Forces Special Powers Act in India.” Contemporary South Asia 17, no. 3 (2009): 271-282. Also, see. Baruah, Sanjib. In the … Continue reading The constitutive effect of the AFSPA is that while the Northeastern subjects are included as citizens, the protection accorded by citizenship is incomplete and paradoxical.

This power relationship has produced two consequences: a deferred belonging  and an inequality of speaking positions which cannot be articulated in the language of the law or rights, given the primacy of the epistemic and political category of the Indian nation-state.


Failed Political Conversations

An inequality of speaking position structures the relationship of Palestine to the Israeli nation-state as well. The inequality of speaking positions structured by the foundational category of the nation-state, can only produce a history of failed political conversations. The political history of the Northeast demonstrates such a history of failed political conversations between the Indian nation-state and sovereignty movements in the Northeast who have claimed alternative national identities based on territorial claims in the Northeast. These peace talks have merely functioned as political techniques of conflict management for the Indian state, while the Northeastern rebels have used them to legitimise their political difference. “Thus, political dialogues that were meant to address issues of difference have failed to engage with the questions of political belonging of the region. Instead, they have reiterated notions of difference in the Northeast, which pits one nationalist group against another, within a framework that prioritizes the nation-state form” (Bora 2015, 671).[11]Bora, Papori. “Speech of the Nation and Conversations at the Margins of the Nation-State.” Interventions 17, no. 5 (2015): 669-685.

What we see in the context of Palestine is a parallel history of failed political conversations.[12]Karmi, Ghada. “The one-state solution: An alternative vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace.” Journal of Palestine Studies 40, no. 2 (2011): 62-76. Conversations meant to engage with the question of Palestinian independence and self-determination have not materialised given the unequal position of the two sides. A case in point is the Oslo Accords and its proposal for a two state solution. Today tells a reality where the two state solution proposed by the Oslo Accord of 1993 is no longer seen to be viable given the continued colonization, fragmentation, and occupation of the West Bank, not to mention the non-stop onslaught of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.[13]Ibid, Jeff Halper, Obstacles to Peace: A Reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict ( Jerusalem: Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, 2009). PLO Negotiations Affairs Department study, … Continue reading The Gaza strip before the present unleashing of violence was declared by the Human Rights Watch as an “open air prison” after Israeli enforced siege and blockade. Today, it is on the verge of being reoccupied.


“From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free”[14]‘From the river to the sea’: What does the Palestinian slogan really mean?, Aljazeera (Nov 2, 2023). … Continue reading: Challenging Inequality of Speaking Positions

Given this history of failed political conversations, and the foundational inequality that undergirds them, a few pertinent questions must be asked:

What are the conditions that make political conversation between two parties possible? Is there something about these conditions that impinge on the success of the conversation? Is merely speaking to each other the same as acknowledging each other, more so, if there is a foundational inequality in the two speaking positions?

[How do we] think about conversations and dialogues in situations where this foundational inequality in speaking positions has itself been engendered by the ways in which the epistemic and political category of the nation-state has emerged, that is, where this foundational inequality itself is entangled with the speech of the nation and the ways in which the state enforces such speech (Bora 2015, 670).

One way of thinking through these questions is to argue for democracy without prioritising the nation-state, to take a postnational position. As a group of South Asian scholars have argued, “…the postnational can be instantiated only by suspending the idea of the nation form as a prior theoretical-political horizon, and thinking through its impossibility, even while located uncomfortably within its bounds” (De Alwis et al. 2009, 35).[15]De Alwis, Malathi et al. “The Postnational condition.” Economic and Political Weekly (2009): 51-54. One can add that the attempt should be to think of a democratic state beyond ethnic and religious difference, which grants equality of rights to all citizens. Thus, Palestinian and pro-Palestinian protests today are articulating a different political vision than that of Israeli state sovereignty, based on the elimination of the Palestinian presence. Rather, the call is for political equality, an equality of speaking positions, where in speaking of democracy we do not prioritise the nation. This is a vision that is being articulated today in claiming equal political rights for all in Israel-Palestine.[16]Nadia Abu El-Haj, “ Zionism’s Political Unconscious.” Verso Books. (November 17, 2023).


The Right to Have Rights[17]Hannah Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Penguin Classics, 2017.

In a turn of events quite poignant is the inspiration that Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has provided to Miya[18]Miya means gentleman in Urdu but in Assamese it has taken the form of a racial slur. poets in the Northeastern state of Assam in their struggle against the exclusionary provisions of a Citizenship project, the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

Hafiz Ahmed writes, echoing Darwish’s poem ‘ID card’:

Write Down ‘I am a Miya’ [19]http://sunflowercollective.blogspot.com/2016/12/poems-miyah-poetry-series-curated-by.html
Hafiz Ahmed   


Write

Write Down
I am a Miya
My serial number in the NRC is 200543

I have two children
Another is coming
Next summer.
Will you hate him
As you hate me?…..

write
I am a Miya
I turn waste, marshy lands
To green paddy fields
To feed you.
I carry bricks
To build your buildings
Drive your car
For your comfort
Clean your drain
To keep you healthy.
I have always been
In your service
And yet
you are dissatisfied!
Write down
I am a Miya,
A citizen of a democratic, secular, Republic
Without any rights
My mother a D voter,
[20]Doubtful voter
Though her parents are Indian.

If you wish kill me, drive me from my village,
Snatch my green fields
hire bulldozers
To roll over me.

Your bullets
Can shatter my breast
for no crime.

Write
I am a Miya
Of the Brahmaputra
Your torture
Has burnt my body black
Reddened my eyes with fire.
Beware!
I have nothing but anger in stock.
Keep away!
Or
Turn to Ashes.

ID Card
Mahmoud Darwish
(1967)
(translated by Salman Hilmy)[21]https://www.wrmea.org/2017-november-december/id-card-by-mahmoud-darwish-a-translation-and-commentary.html

Write down:
I am an Arab.
My ID card number is 50,000.
My children: eight
And the ninth is coming after the summer.
Are you angry?

Write down:
I am an Arab.
I work with my toiling comrades in a quarry.
My children are eight,
And out of the rocks
I draw their bread,
Clothing and writing paper.
I do not beg for charity at your door
Nor do I grovel
At your doorstep tiles.
Does that anger you?

Write down:
I am an Arab,
A name without a title,
Patient in a country where everything
Lives on flared-up anger.
My roots…
Took firm hold before the birth of time,
Before the beginning of the ages,
Before the cypress and olives,
Before the growth of pastures.
My father…of the people of the plow,
Not of noble masters.
My grandfather, a peasant
Of no prominent lineage,
Taught me pride of self before reading of books.
My house is a watchman’s hut
Of sticks and reed.
Does my status satisfy you?
I am a name without a title

Write down:
I am an Arab.
Hair coal-black,
Eyes brown,
My distinguishing feature:
On my head a koufiyah topped by the igal,
And my palms, rough as stone,
Scratch anyone who touches them.
My address:
An unarmed village—forgotten—
Whose streets are nameless,
And all its men are in the field and quarry.
Are you angry?

Write down:
I am an Arab
Robbed of my ancestors’ vineyards
And of the land cultivated
By me and all my children.
Nothing is left for us and my grandchildren
Except these rocks…
Will your government take them too, as reported?
Therefore,
Write at the top of page one:
I do not hate people,
I do not assault anyone,
But…if I get hungry,
I eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware…beware…of my hunger,
And of my anger.

The addressee in this poem by Hafiz Ahmed are the Assamese people, the Indian state and Assamese jatiotabadi (nationalist organizations also called sub nationalist) organizations and civil society who prioritise the linguistic identity of Assamese. [22]Who is an Assamese and who can be an Assamese has been fundamental to these questions. Hussain, Shalim M. “Why Miyah Poetry (and not Char-Chapori Poetry)?” For lack of space, I can’t go into … Continue reading As an Assamese the poem is also addressed to me—an Assamese who does not have to prove her citizenship constantly, her lineage, her belonging to Assam—my name and surname are enough to demonstrate my belonging. I acknowledge this call of the Miya poets. Within the terms of this essay, they are claiming an equality of speaking positions. The poet claims, I will speak to you as a Miya—unapologetically: Yes, I am a Miya, I am proud, I belong, I labour, I toil on the land you call your homeland. It is only when the Assamese acknowledge the Miya identity[23]A police complaint was filed against the Miya poets for “portraying the Assamese people as xenophobic”. See: Sadiq Naqvi, 10 including poets, booked on charges of promoting enmity between … Continue reading—as a political identity— that the Miyas can hope to be equal citizens who don’t have to live in fear, constantly prove their citizenship and belonging to the land.[24]For a poetic history of the term Miya see, Hussain, Shalim M. “Why Miyah Poetry (and not Char-Chapori Poetry)?”

This poem and other poems by Miya poets was a response to the NRC—a massive bureaucratic exercise to register the names of all Indian citizens (only) in the state of Assam; a process mandated by the Supreme Court of India fulfilling a long demand of Assamese nationalists who have sought to define an Assamese through the Assam Accord signed between the Indian state and student representatives of the Assam movement in 1985, which was the culmination of the Assam Movement that sought to detect and deport illegal immigrants who had voting rights. I cannot go into the details of this long historical struggle and how Assamese nationalism[25]For more see, Baruah, Sanjib. In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford University Press, 2020. ended up defining itself primarily through an opposition to the “Foreigner” but suffice it to say that today the initial resistance to “internal colonialism”[26]Misra, Tilottoma. “Assam: A colonial hinterland.” Economic and Political Weekly (1980): 1357-1364. has morphed into a process that seeks to define in specific terms the meaning of belonging in Assam. 

Today the margins of the Indian nation-state have produced their own margins. Hafiz Ahmed’s poem is a powerful retort to the violence of this process of proving one’s citizenship. It strikes in its rawness by going beyond the legal language of citizenship that will ostensibly prove one’s belonging by radically claiming “I am a Miya,” a word that pejoratively connotes a racialized identity as a “Bangladeshi,” an “illegal immigrant,” a forever suspect category. In the Northeast perceived threats to ethnic identity have led to the specter of dispossession of thousands of citizens through the National Register of Citizens.[27]So far, the NRC has been conducted only in the state of Assam. But there are demands from other Northeastern states for a similar exercise. A case in point is the state of Manipur that has been … Continue reading Assam released the second Draft of National Register of Citizens on 30 July 2018, which has left out some four million people from being counted as citizens. The NRC has ended up being a process of discrimination which has further consolidated the racialization of the category, Bangladeshi—the Bengali speaking subject, dragged by the nation-state from the status of gentleman to a racial slur, caught between being refugee, citizen, and illegal immigrant. It is in this context that the protest poetry that has emerged in recent years as Miya poetry is powerful and significant. Hafiz Ahmed’s “Write Down I am a Miya” started reclaiming Miya as a radical political identity in Assam “[prompting] a generation of young poets to write across languages—Assamese, Bengali, English–about the fears of being excluded from citizenship drives, of being rendered a present-absentee in the land of their birth (Barua 2023).[28]Kaushik Barua. ‘We love life if we find a way to it’: Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s enduring absences, The Scroll, (Nov 25, 2023).

Can we accept this call? To rethink our modes of belonging and claims to “our land,” to recognize, rethink, and reimagine our sense of belonging to the place we call home? This essay is an invitation to imagining poetics as political across the borders of the nation-state and their margins.


Acknowledgements

Thanks to Abdul Aijaz for thinking of the title of this essay. The suggestions by Richa Nagar and Abdul Aijaz have been invaluable in revising this essay. Any limitations that remain in the essay are mine.


Suggested citation:

Notes

Notes
1 Dedicated to friends in Birzeit University, in Ramallah, who hosted me with amazing hospitality in the midst of occupation a few years ago.
2 Baruah, Sanjib. In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford University Press, 2020.
3 Rao, Vijaya, Shambhavi Prakash, Mallarika Sinha Roy, and Papori Bora. Displacement and Citizenship: Histories and memories of exclusion. (2019). Tulika Books, Global Distributors: Columbia University Press.
4 A postcolonial version of a colonial law, enforced in the Northeast for more than 60 years, which allows extra judicial powers to the armed forces to quell sovereignty movements by curtailing rights of Northeastern citizens with limited judicial review.
5 Bora, Papori. “Speech of the Nation and Conversations at the Margins of the Nation-State.” Interventions 17, no. 5 (2015): 669-685.
6 Ophir, Adi, Michal Givoni, and Sari Hanafi. The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. New York: Zone Books, 2009.
7 Esmeir, Samera. “The end of colonial government” in From the River to the Sea: essays for a free Palestine. Eds Sai Englert, Michael Schatz and Rosie Warren, Verso, Haymarket Books 2023.
8 This is also in contrast with the hypervisibility of Kashmir within the Indian nationalist framework that sees Kashmir only within the tussle between India and Pakistan. See Visweswaran, Kamala, ed. Everyday occupations: experiencing militarism in South Asia and the Middle East. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
9 Kashmir is the other place where this law is operational. Currently, the Act has been removed from several places in the Northeast keeping in accordance with the needs of the Indian nation-state and the dominant articulations of its nationalism, but it has not been repealed.
10 Kikon, Dolly. “The predicament of justice: fifty years of Armed Forces Special Powers Act in India.” Contemporary South Asia 17, no. 3 (2009): 271-282. Also, see. Baruah, Sanjib. In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford University Press, 2020.
11 Bora, Papori. “Speech of the Nation and Conversations at the Margins of the Nation-State.” Interventions 17, no. 5 (2015): 669-685.
12 Karmi, Ghada. “The one-state solution: An alternative vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace.” Journal of Palestine Studies 40, no. 2 (2011): 62-76.
13 Ibid, Jeff Halper, Obstacles to Peace: A Reframing of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict ( Jerusalem: Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, 2009). PLO Negotiations Affairs Department study, Israel’s Pre-emption of a Viable Two-State Solution (Ramallah, 2002
14 ‘From the river to the sea’: What does the Palestinian slogan really mean?, Aljazeera (Nov 2, 2023). https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/2/from-the-river-to-the-sea-what-does-the-palestinian-slogan-really-mean
15 De Alwis, Malathi et al. “The Postnational condition.” Economic and Political Weekly (2009): 51-54.
16 Nadia Abu El-Haj, “ Zionism’s Political Unconscious.” Verso Books. (November 17, 2023).
17 Hannah Arendt. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Penguin Classics, 2017.
18 Miya means gentleman in Urdu but in Assamese it has taken the form of a racial slur.
19 http://sunflowercollective.blogspot.com/2016/12/poems-miyah-poetry-series-curated-by.html
20 Doubtful voter
21 https://www.wrmea.org/2017-november-december/id-card-by-mahmoud-darwish-a-translation-and-commentary.html
22 Who is an Assamese and who can be an Assamese has been fundamental to these questions. Hussain, Shalim M. “Why Miyah Poetry (and not Char-Chapori Poetry)?

For lack of space, I can’t go into details of the nationalist question here. For more, refer to: Baruah, Sanjib. India against itself: Assam and the politics of nationality. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

23 A police complaint was filed against the Miya poets for “portraying the Assamese people as xenophobic”. See: Sadiq Naqvi, 10 including poets, booked on charges of promoting enmity between different groups, The Hindustan Times (July 13, 2019).
24 For a poetic history of the term Miya see, Hussain, Shalim M. “Why Miyah Poetry (and not Char-Chapori Poetry)?”
25 For more see, Baruah, Sanjib. In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast. Stanford University Press, 2020.
26 Misra, Tilottoma. “Assam: A colonial hinterland.” Economic and Political Weekly (1980): 1357-1364.
27 So far, the NRC has been conducted only in the state of Assam. But there are demands from other Northeastern states for a similar exercise. A case in point is the state of Manipur that has been embroiled in violence since May 2023 between the majority ethnic group and a minority ethnic group based on claims to national identity and land.
28 Kaushik Barua. ‘We love life if we find a way to it’: Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s enduring absences, The Scroll, (Nov 25, 2023).