Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Isolation envy?

This post is about my uncle, about xenophobia and about securitization.

My uncle is a Quaker. He has also been a key member of Quaker Peace and Service, through which Quaker volunteers work as mediators in peace-building efforts and facilitators of development projects. The Quakers are described by Elise Boulding as one of the historic peace churches, along with Mennonites and the Brethren. The Quakers and Mennonites have long innovated and practised non-partisan, humane approaches to peace-building and conflict transformation. My uncle served as a Quaker facilitator/ mediator in Sri Lanka and in Nagaland over decades.

But through all those decades, he visited India often also to be with family. With no problem.

Until last month. A frail octagenarian now, and retired from Quaker work for six years, he flew down with his daughter to visit his dying brother, but was turned away at Bangalore airport. On the grounds that he was a Quaker. He has learnt that he has been blacklisted and his OCI visa has been cancelled. Heartbroken, he is trying to find out why. The Indian High Commission in London, which granted his OCI visa, has no idea. He has written to Mr. P. Chidambaram, but how can we assume he will receive an answer?

There are two questions that arise. One that troubles my uncle: What intelligence about the Quakers has led to this? And one that should trouble all of us: The Quakers have been quietly working in peace-making for decades, why has this intelligence only now registered?

I am very sad that my uncle could not come and see his brother. As one grows old, family ties tug at us more strongly, and to deny siblings a last chance to meet is so un-Indian. 

I am also concerned that traditional pacifist groups like the Quakers are now falling into the same net as genuinely pernicious outfits. 

But most of all, I am concerned about the casual securitization of everything. Not new, not breaking news, but we all lapse into apathy, and I am choosing to speak up now. 

My uncle wants to know what intelligence has learned about the Quakers; but by blacklisting Quakers, the state has privileged information about them. It has securitized this issue, so that it can withhold information and we cannot (in spite of the RTI) actually extract it from the security establishment. And chances are at one level, our own instinct is not to push for it. 

But we should push. Because our own liberties are at stake. Because our identity as a political community is at stake.

So many questions to ask:

1. Why did my uncle and the Quakers get blacklisted now after all these years? Why were they blacklisted at all? 

2. Why are we so afraid of mediation as part of peace processes? It's not like we don't offer our services to others. It's not just foreign NGOs we are afraid of, but routinely our approach to conflict zones is to treat them like small-pox wards--keep everyone out, keep the problem in an airless tin for it to fester. Indian civil society has limited opportunity to work in conflict areas.

In fact, one of the questions we are asked over and over: Is your work political? Of course, it is. We are in the business of social change and social change is political. It is as if the state would like civil society to engage in charitable rather than civic work. 

3. Why are we so xenophobic? This is a theme to which this blog returns over and over again. 

Sixty years after decolonization, we are still afraid of everyone and their shadow. Whether it's foreign students and researchers, foreign investors, transnational NGOs, funding agencies, food chains.... you name it, we fear it. Our decision-making seems to operate on the assumption that foreigners are malicious and anti-India (whatever India means in any instance) until proven otherwise through mysterious measures. 

Such an unconfident people, we have become. And why that is so, is another question for another blogpost.

4. Why are we so respectful of  'security' that we ask no questions? Or accept that we won't get answers. In this case. On Koodankulam. On a dozen other areas. Every Indian political party handles democratic discourse by securitizing a question rather than engaging with it. And in the world's largest and noisiest democracy, we accept that, choosing to outrage instead over whether a remote Siberian village bans the Gita or not. 

My uncle's sad predicament prompted me to write this post but really, the questions are much larger. It's about who we are, who we are becoming and how we are content with ourselves... Like paranoid frogs in a well. 


Sam Barnett-Cormack said...

(For context, I'm a British Quaker, convinced some 6 years ago, ish)

I have no problem with the idea that my involvement with Quaker affairs (not to mention my connection with my fiancée's family) stopping me from getting clearance to, say, work at GCHQ. That makes sense, and funnily enough I wouldn't want to work at GCHQ.

For it to affect entry to any given country? That's insane. Has your uncle got in touch with The Friend (weekly Quaker magazine in Britain)? I think they might be interested.

Swarna Rajagopalan said...

Thank you for your comment.

I believe my uncle has now received permission to apply for a visa.