Conversation with Suchitra Vijayan, Barrister-at-Law, Political Analyst and Writer

suchitra_vijayan_headshotSuchitra Vijayan is a writer, lawyer and a political theorist. She studied Law, Political Science and International relations, and was trained as a Barrister-at-Law.

She previously worked for the UN war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. She co-founded and was the Legal Director of Resettlement Legal Aid Project, Cairo that gives legal aid for Iraqi Refugees.

As a graduate student at Yale, she spent two years researching and documenting stories along the contentious Durand Line. She was embedded with the ISAF forces – 172 infantry brigade, in Paktika Province, Afghanistan conducting research on key kinetic terrains in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Since graduating from Yale she has been working on her first book about India’s Borders.

She regularly writes about war, conflict, politics, literature and photography and her work looks at theories of violence, war and human nature. She is a columnist at Warscapes, and writes regularly for The Hindu. Her long form essays, reviews and photo essays have appeared in Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, Himal South Asian, Africa is a Country, and The Sunday Guardian. She kindly agreed to have a chat with me [Avani Chokshi, Editor]. Following are the excerpts from the interview.

Q: Can you tell us about the insights you gained while working on the study pertaining to the Durand line and your interaction with ISAF forces in Afghanistan?

A: I started researching Afghanistan as a graduate student. I had always wanted to go to the Durand line (which is the Afghanistan-Pakistan border) because I was studying insurgency in these border areas. I was embedded with the US ISAF Forces in the 172nd Infantry in an outpost in the Paktika province. Initially, my thesis and research work was to look into why the counter-insurgency strategies had failed in these areas in spite of the amount of money spent there. I realised that my theoretical hypothesis was very different from what was actually happening. Even counter-insurgency strategies require a certain understanding of history and politics. I discovered that the way the local population had conceived itself was completely different from what the official documents contained. There can be no single format for the local population to understand or represent themselves. People’s ideas of history and family are very local; they tend to vary depending on who and where one is. Knowing that there can be no way to win in a counter-insurgency strategy when no one in the Afghan state has any idea how the people imagine themselves was, for me, the most fascinating aspect. One of the reasons for this disconnect is that the Afghanistan government has never acknowledged the Durand Line. Also, the Pashtun tribes and ethnic groups see themselves within this space very differently; they have never respected the Durand line. Going back to how Mortimer Durand derived the line, it appears that there was no actual border marker. He basically just stated that certain land would be Afghanistan, and other land would be British India. There are no signifying markers to clearly define this boundary.

This basic idea of the disconnect between how people imagine themselves to be and how the State imagines them to be became the basis of not only my studies on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border but also for my Borderlands Project. This history is often subsumed within the much larger context of politics and is never really written about.

Q: Some believe that bodies like UN war crimes tribunals are futile exercises that achieve very little. From your personal experience of working with them, do you think such tribunals can help ‘right the wrongs of history’ so to speak? Do you think an alternative framework might provide a more effective remedy?

A: It is my belief that the tribunals have been marginally effective. For instance, the tribunal in Rwanda handed the World’s First Genocide Conviction in the world. It convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu, mayor of Taba township for nine counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and rape. A larger understanding of genocide exists because of the judgments given by the tribunal. But having said that, their effect is very marginal, because I believe that eventually there is no justice. My experiences with people in Yugoslavia and Bosnia, and with the war crimes tribunal showed me that the people do not believe that justice has been served. Their sense of justice is absolutely different from how an international convention views justice. Most war criminals are still out. Take the case of a person living in a village, whose neighbour killed her family and is now back in the same community; a body like the International War Crimes Tribunal cannot do much for her. In places like Bosnia, Serbia and Rwanda, people have a deep sense of distrust for these tribunals. They do not believe they have been served justice, which means the tribunals have not fulfilled their purpose. Where there is some sense of justice, we allow society to heal in some way and move on. Tribunals actually entrench trauma and violence and are therefore  remain ineffective.

Of course there has to be an alternative framework, because today’s system is not working. This must start with an understanding of communities. Some communities understand justice very differently from other communities. For example, the war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia is in the Hague – very far away from Yugoslavia. The tribunal for Rwanda is in Arusha, Tanzania. There are the local Gacaca courts, but eventually the communities have to deal with it on their own. We need to have a much larger effort to ground these kinds of justice mechanisms within the community, which means that the local legislations must have some way to address this. The method of establishing any justice mechanism must depend on the circumstances because the problem with the international community and international justice is that outsiders are often given absolute control over how a local community has to survive and heal. Local communities through the local political leadership have to come together and make these decisions; it is not an outsider’s place to do this.

It is very important for us to actually decolonize ourselves from the idea that somehow there is an international form of justice – there isn’t. Our forms of justice have become highly neo-liberal. Looking at the number of people who have been indicted by the ICC one can see that there have been a disproportionate amount of African leaders on that list, but no Henry Kissinger. The problem is that the neo-liberal order punishes one kind of genocide and not the others. Even today the Armenian genocide is not termed genocide; it is very contentious. For a long time, the Clinton administration refused to call the Rwandan genocide as genocide. To believe that the international community or the international humanitarian law can actually serve justice to these local communities is highly problematic and it is something that has to be interrogated not just from people in Washington DC or Paris or Rome but from small places within Rwanda or Bosnia or Herzegovina. That is where I think an alternative mechanism has to come from and it depends on the idea that the international convention is highly problematic. When the Nuremberg trials were coming up, we were told that the crime of Holocaust was so heinous that we had to invent a new crime. I think that we have to invent new legislations for finding justice locally. I do not think that the international conventions are actually helpful or will help in the future given the position they have taken.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Resettlement Legal Aid Project, Cairo and how you came up with it?

A: I co-founded this Project with Barbara Harrell-Bond, a professor at Oxford who had also founded the Refugee Studies Department at the American University, Cairo and Jeffery Hancuff (who is now an economist and a Buddhist Monk). This was in 2008 when the number of Iraqi refugees coming into Cairo had increased. Barbara had already founded AMERA, another refugee legal aid organisation in Cairo. However, we were not sure if AMERA would continue to be able to accommodate Iraqi refugees. This was because in Egypt, while one can apply for a license to start an NGO, the authorities can shut it down anytime during the pendency of the application. Egypt has been in a state of emergency for the last 25 years. We wanted to start another NGO so that if AMERA was shut down, its work could continue. There were close to 5000 or more Iraqi families who were refugees in Egypt and required legal aid and resettlement. The Project started because there was no other space that could meet their legal needs. RLAP was started out of Barbara’s apartment in Garden city Cairo. After the first few weeks, we got a small space within a St. Andrews Refugee Services.

Q: As the founder of the NGO ‘Lines of Grey’, can you tell us about the significance of its name and the nature of work it undertakes?

Lines of Grey is an NGO only because it needed funds. It started in Arusha when I was working for the war crimes tribunal. There was a shelter for street children near by and I used to go there all the time. I wanted to teach those children photography. It started with me just taking my own money and buying these children cameras so that they could take photographs. I was just 23 years old and I had no idea about running an NGO. I do not know what the kids got out of it but I really got a lot out of it by seeing how these kids look at images visually. A lot of them had never seen themselves; they had never seen a mirror. A lot of them started taking self-portraits and that was their photograph. It was their photographic archive. Maybe if I did it now I would have done it very differently. I simply wanted to spend some time with these children and teach them. When I moved to Cairo, I did some of this with the refugee kids I was working with there. It was an opportunity for me to engage with the local community. I am a photographer; and I love to teach and children are a great way to understand the society and the community. So, Lines of Grey was less of an NGO and more of a personal experiment, which at some point in time, I did not have money to run. Giving it NGO status meant that friends could contribute, or give cameras, for it. I was able to continue till I was in Cairo but after that I could not because I had to start graduate school and since then I actually have not lived in any single place for a long time. Again I am not sure what the kids got out of it, but for me it was absolutely fascinating.

Q: Moving on to your Borderlands Project, What are the objectives you want to achieve? What have been your findings on the effects of borders on human life?

A: I started the Project because my work in Afghanistan had been fascinating, and I wanted to see how India stood up to the same kind of interrogation. I have increasingly found that India is not a state. It is a culmination of many nationalities, some of which do not prefer to be a part of India and some of which have been given ideas of what India means. In relation to this Indian imagination, it is beyond the historical narrative, it is beyond Gandhi, beyond Nehru, its beyond sensibilities of nationalist history making. Huge parts of our population, especially border population, do not imagine themselves as quite Indian because a lot of them have seen the brunt of not just violence but legal trauma and other things, and that is the reality of it. They do not imagine themselves to be Indian the way you and I imagine ourselves to be Indian, because you and I have a very different sense of belonging to the Indian Nation State. We have denied them citizenship, we deny them their rights, and the fact that they have their own right of self-determination is something that is never talked about. Talking about it is treason. Those are things that new generations of Indians should understand to interrogate. They should be given the opportunity to understand what India means – is India truly democratic and secular? If we are truly democratic and secular, would we keep many populations under the subjugation that we are keeping them in, whether it is through the AFSPA and other things or PSA in Kashmir, or anything else? Forget the border, just go to Naxalbari and Dantewada, and see what we are doing to our own people, our own subjects that we may so call, forget others who do not consider themselves a part of the Indian union whether in political imagination or social imagination. It is time; India has been independent for long enough and we are no longer a young democracy. We should be mature enough to come to terms with the idea of state formation and nation and national formation. If in some ways, my book is an attempt to opens up that space, I do not think that it will be a large one, simply because the trajectory that India is taking today is becoming deeply majoritarian. People refuse to even listen to others’ arguments; one only has to go to Twitter to understand how insensitive and majoritarian we have become. Perhaps with this book, this idea will open up a little space for people to think that there is a world beyond us, beyond this educated English speaking middle class that sees India as India Rising. I think that is the value of the book. If not, I had a jolly good time for the last three years. I have seen and done things, and made friends and did things that most people in their lives cannot dream of and I think that is enough.

Q: You have previously spoken about the India-Bangladesh Border, and the differences in the dynamics of social organisation in a village right on the border, and in one 20 miles from it towards India. Can you explain what sort of these differences actually are?

A: The villages on the border are obviously going to be in a lot more trouble and are going to be a lot more contentious as against one, which is 20 miles away. This is like trying to make a difference between Gaza and Ramallah. Both Gaza and Ramallah are in occupied territories, but obviously in Ramallah, things are slightly better. In communities that live in bordered porous territories, somebody very close to the borders has seen much larger wrath of the Governments. They have to deal with negotiating not just the militarisation and securitisation but even identity, because their family might live two miles from them, but across the border, which they have to cross all the time. Maybe somebody who lives 20 miles away might feel safer, due to slightly lesser militarisation or border fencing. But eventually these places are getting highly militarised. In India, the rhetoric is that a few million Bangladeshis are coming in every year but again we have no idea what the real data is. India is increasingly spending money on fencing and militarising these borders. Militarisation and fencing come with their own set of problems and I think social organisation is then completely based on what rights exist within the small and enclosed space. While I believe that life is definitely harder for one on the border, everything must be seen in the much larger context of militarisation.

Q: You have talked about your visit to Arunachal Pradesh for the Borderlands Projects, and you have noted that it is now becoming highly militarised. In light of this, what are your views on the India-China relationship?

A: This is a very contentious territory. How India views its history with China is very different from how China views its history with India. India sees 1962 as a key pact of the trail whereas China sees it as simply asserting what it feels is its own. So, it is very hard for two countries to come to an actual agreement when both see the histories very differently. Having said that, I think both sides committed a lot of blunders in the early years – India’s policies were ushering in things early on and China’s act of aggression (not that India has not been aggressive- it has). India’s policy has a long history of taking itself as a righteous victim and that is the reason today we feel this need to prove ourselves and these are all equally problematic. Look at China’s policy; they are highly territorial. China has acquired large parts of Central Asia simply by negotiation. What was then part of Russian territory or Central Asia is now China’s because China has done a very good post territorial acquisition because it has taken its time. It has stretched its arguments over and over. With Arunachal Pradesh (and Aksai Chin and parts of Kashmir which are also in contention), both countries will continue to militarise without actually asking the local population what they want. China will not ask what Tibetans want and India will not ask what the people in Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh want. This is the problem which has never been discussed in the ambit of foreign policy because we do not consider the local population themselves to be active participants in foreign policy. This, to me, is highly problematic. Why are the wants of the local population completely left out of the discourse? This is never asked and its answer will affect how the military can, or does, mobilise in these areas. I think the question itself is very contentious because it takes out the people from the equation.

Q: You have previously spoken about repression and resistance in Kashmir. As a political theorist having an experience of ground realities as well as exercises in political manoeuvring, do you think that allowing self-determination of the Kashmiri people is the best way forward?

A: Absolutely! The only way forward is to recognise Kashmiris right to self-determination. I have made this position absolutely clear. There are only two positions one can take. The first position is that the Kashmiri population has historically (by historically I mean, going back 200 years) been denied both the historical agency of a right to rule themselves. They have been denied freedom and they have been sold as slaves, literally sold as slaves, from the British to the Dogra kings and to others and they have not had the right to self-determination since then. The Indian state is only a new form of the manifestation in terms of oppression. With this position, one believes this population has the right to freedom and self-determination. By freedom, I do not mean cultural freedom or freedom within the Indian Union. They have their own right to self-determination, independence and an independent state. How they conceive of that state, whether it is with India, without India, with Pakistan, without Pakistan, is their choice. That is their absolute right. The other position is the opposite position; it is that these people do not have this right and I do not take this position. There is no grey in the Kashmir issue or the Palestinian issue. One either believes that there is a group of people who have been deprived rights and they have the right to have that right and demand and fight for that right or one does not believe that.

Another thing that I find problematic is that even the very small section in India that supports self-determination for the Kashmiri population often somehow feels that it has the right to tell them what they should do and how they should do it. Our only job is to stand in solidarity. How they conceive of themselves is absolutely for them. How they imagine themselves as a nation, how they imagine themselves as a State, and if they imagine themselves as a State, whether their allegiances lie with Pakistan, whether it does not lie with Pakistan, whether it lies with us, whether it lies with someone else, that is absolutely their prerogative, and not ours. That is the position I have always been clear on and that is the only position I can take. Any other position for me is the very status position and it is absolutely an act of occupation and that is what India does. India occupies these places. Eventually it is going to degrade us and it has degraded us to a large extent. This is my answer and this is where I stand. Young India should be more vocal about this position, as well, if they believe in it because people who take the other side seem to be a lot louder.

Q: You have been extremely vocal about the constant literary censorship carried out by politically backed Hindu activists and caste groups. Do you think it is time that the Supreme Court took up this issue in light of the obvious fundamental rights violations that underlay such actions? Do you think that such a judgment would bring any real change?

A: I think the problem goes back to an origin. When Jinnah says, Muslims need parity and not partition, we did not agree with that. Yet, when Ambedkar himself later disagreed with one idea, then we were ready to bring identity and communal politics into our Constitution. Today, our Constitution has become a communal and identity based policy. The question is how do we get ourselves out of this colossal mess? The change has to be constitutional. That is, perhaps, the only way that this country can move forward. My stance does not rise out of any great faith in the Indian Constitution – I am increasingly beginning to think that our judges are puppeteers to a much larger cause. Even if we believe that the constitution is the way forward, how do we go forward? How do we make opportunities equally accessible to the most downtrodden of our country’s people and at the same time not turn it into communal casteist politics? I think the Supreme Court must intervene and should intervene because our Constitution is perhaps the only defence we have. If we believe the ideas of constitutional morality exist then it has to be the vanguard of defending those rights. But how do we go forward? I have absolutely no idea.

We have politicised and communalised our constitution, and made it completely caste-based, from the Shah Bano judgment to the judgments on extending reservations over and over. I am not a person against reservation; I am against the way reservation has been implemented politically. The idea of reservation has to be re-thought and it has to be rethought with better census figures, better figures from the creamy layer. This is not just a legal act, this is an anthropological act, this has to be a political act, this has to be a historical act in which people acknowledge where they have come forward, how far they have come and how far they have not come. All of this has to happen in tandem and that will not happen in our country simply because there are too many vested interests within the political establishment which exercises a disproportionate amount of control over our constitutional bench. If anyone today tells me that our constitution bench is not politically influenced, I will not believe it. I look at it and it is absolutely appalling. Ambedkar said that he does not trust these men to be the silent guardians of our constitution because very few of them have the kind of intellectual or the moral dignity or courage to take it forward. We are in a political mess and I have thought about it for the last 20 years of my life and I really do not know what the way forward is. But it has to be one that is done in tandem. We need to understand how caste has evolved, we need to have a better anthropological, sociological understanding of caste based incentives. We need to understand how caste based incentives affect political participation, we need to understand how political parties mobilise because of this and then we have to systematically dismantle every single one of these incentives that makes this current situation inviolable. That is the way to go forward and it will take time. Like the Civil Rights Movement, these things take generations. But who will make the start, I have no idea. I look around and I feel there is just no one to do that, intellectually or politically. I am sorry I have given more of a rant than a solution.

(Special thanks to Mansi Binjrajka (Associate Editor), Amrita Ghosh (Research Assistant), Shreya Mishra (Research Assistant), and Tejas Popat (Research Assistant) for their assistance in conducting and transcribing this interview)

Image courtesy here

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