Suchitra Vijayan, India and USA

Warscapes Corona Notebooks

Suchitra Vijayan reflects on living in New York City as the "circle of death" begins to close in. She makes connections to the events in India and the ongoing struggle in Kashmir with a focus on precarity of life, questions of representation and the vulnerability of the body. 

This is Suchitra and I really want to start by thanking Bhakti and Warscapes for giving us the opportunity to think and meditate on what COVID-19 means for all of us. I live in New York City. And in some ways, it feels like living in the epicenter of the epicenter. And as most of you know in the last week, we have close to few thousand deaths, but also this week was particularly brutal. And in the last 3 weeks, it feels like the circle of death is closing in.

When I first started hearing about people have died, it was usually folks that I hear of, but I really had no connection to. But in the last few days, that has changed. Friends have lost loved and intimate ones, and it feels like we’re in this precarious position where we’re fighting for so many things at the same time. You’re not just fighting to stay alive, you’re fighting to stay alive in a system that is deeply flawed, that is racist, that is unequal, and moreso as you see these sanctions come in, our daily things that Trump does in the White House… You’re constantly caught between this moment of reality and that reality. No one quite knows what to do with this.

There’s a lot of anger and anxiousness and trauma, but we still haven’t found the way to truly understand process, but also respond in ways that makes sense for us.  For me, it’s not just New York, and because New York has been my home for almost, close to, 10 years now. And this is where I chose to make a life for myself. I am an immigrant in this city. I live in this city. I live in this city on and off since 2011. I chose to make my first home in this city. My daughter was born in this city. Just as much as I can take much of this city, this city is still only partially my home. My home still happens to be India. Madras, where I was born and raised.

For me, COVID-19 and this kind of closing yourself in also means that you become this warrior. You become this person who is a silent spectator to this calamity not only to the city where I live in, but to the city that is my home. And that is the sense of living in these two parallel nightmares. You’re living in two infernos, one around the physical space you occupy and one around your homeland, your country, your home, your friends and what’s happening there.

COVID-19 is simply exasperates many of the deeply problematic things that we live here for a while. For those who do not know, things had been on a dead spiral for a while. Last May, India’s last Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was elected back to power and then by since then, a series of things have happened. One in August in this year, unconstitutionally and unilaterally, the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir was illegally revoked and putting over 8 million Kashmiris in an unrepresented information blockade and curfew. Already exasperating is the occupation of Kashmir.

Before that, we had loss like UAPA, which used the drug quarantine lobby view, UAPA, was again amended, in which individuals can now be designated as terrorists unilaterally. And the body of proving that you’re not a terrorist falls not on the state, but on the individual. We also had NRCA Placing Act in India, which again is the largest state-mandated exercise of manufacturing an entire underclass of stateless people followed by the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act in India, which for all purposes, is India’s new law. And all of these events have happened one after the other.

Not just this year, but since 2014, I feel we’re constantly responding back to things, whether it’s India, where we have the Prime Minister Modi or under Trump. We’re constantly being hit by one bad news after the other. There’s an encroachment of similar foreboding that is the constant sense of being overwhelmed by everything else. And while I was in India, I was in India between December and February of this year. And just being in India was just overwhelming. As I got to India, it was then the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, which along with the NRC exercise, would completely and has already remade India from a second democratic republic to an autonomy. And I was part of the protests. It was just seeing how incredibly protesting feeling People’s Democratic Peaceful Protests were being completely crushed. We saw instances in which right-wing mobs not only resorted to violence but the state police itself became the source of violence with the worst being in UP, wherein my voice would be unsure…

In some ways, I’ve been struggling to understand what all of this means. What does that mean to think about power and time? What does that mean to think about our bodies and the fact we are now completely powerless in terms of everything. We no longer not only have control of our bodies, but we have no control on everything our body produces, whether it’s speech, poetry, desire…even the data you produce… Everything can be liable to be taken away. So, we’re only thinking in the space of precarity. And since I’ve come back… Since I came back from India, in the month of February, I was traveling in the United States and in various panels and conversations in speaking. And that one constant sense that I had in all of this was a constant sense of dread.

What do we do in all of this? And in some ways, I think COVID has only created a space for us to not only live through this anxiety, but also to kind of think about what all of this means. There’s a very famous painting by Goya that talks about reason, truth, history and time. And for me, I think that images have always been essential to thinking about certain things and one of it was how they first came into our history, our sense of reason, what it right and what it wrong. And then, once you’ve taken history and reason, I think the truth is already completely annihilated.

Now, I think COVID-19 is when they’ve come for time. Our time in this constant state of acceleration and deceleration. And how do we think through all of this and what comes next? Last year, at a keynote I spoke about how we need to radically remake things because in our lifetime, the world would be radically remade. But increasingly, it was not just climate change, COVID-19 has radically remade our world. I think I’m still trying to make sense of all that is happening and since Bhakti’s provocation to think through this, I’ve been trying to make sense as to how all of this works.

One of the things I keep going back to is the idea of representation because I think that is very close to and closely associated with and related to all of this because I think we all lost not only our capacity to control ourselves, but also our capacity to represent ourselves. And that became very clear when I started seeing images coming out of the recent pub rooms in India, where you saw these bodies being dredged out of these sewers. These bloated bodies, these mutilated body parts and increasingly, I kept thinking, how is this representation? What does this representation mean for a lot of us? The photography’s own function doesn’t actually exist anymore. And I simply kept thinking that all of this becomes a question of representation. And just as these dismembered bodies were found as little graphs. We’ve all become this dismembered that we have no sense of continuity, no sense of understand and make sense of things.

As I was just thinking through this, something else happened today, in which one of India’s foremost public intellectuals, Dr. Anand Teltumbde has been picked up. He will be arrested. He has been charged with two things under the UAPA Act, and on the 6th of April, he’s supposed to be… He’s supposed to be arrested. And what was the interesting for this whole case was the idea that a public intellectual can be designated and picked up under the UAPA Act without initially being straddled.

All the proof we immediately have is that there was a piece of paper that was found that had the word, “Comrade Anand” and that was enough to prove that this man was both a Maoist and was part of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister. While this being decided in the  Supreme Court of India,  the very fact that without proof, you can designate a well-known intellectual, a very well-known scholar and author as a terrorist and create conditions for his arrest, incarceration, and oppression. Simply layered for me what was happening and it’s not very different from what’s happening to Chelsea Manning in the United States.

So for me, things that I’m thinking about now are questions about complete autonomy of our body. And how does one get it? For the longest of time, I’ve been invested in thinking about violence and its relationship to justice. I think increasingly now, we have to think about violence and its relationship to freedom and about what that means. Thank you

Suchitra Vijayan is a writer, photographer, lawyer, political essayist, and a lecturer. Her forthcoming book Midnight’s Border looks at the making of political borders in South Asia. She is the founder and the Executive Director of The Polis Project.