FINAL POST OF 2018: People on the move and on the run: displacement & security through a South Asian feminist lens


Written by Meenakshi Gopinath, Shilpi Shabdita and Diksha Poddar, this blog post was originally published on the Gender Politics at Edinburgh blog on 13 December 2018.

“We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gestures, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.”Hannah Arendt, We Refugees(1943)

Each year, millions of people are forcibly displaced at astonishing rates from places they have regarded as home in search of shelter, safety, and freedom. As per United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) records, an unprecedented 68.5 million people are forcibly displaced around the world. Despite the swelling numbers and the magnitude of their trauma, they have generally remained in the periphery, not just in terms of spatial location but in terms of public consciousness.[1]Increasingly now, compelling visuals and testimonies of displaced communities from across the world have ignited an international outcry over the human cost of the migration crisis. This includes disturbing image of the lifeless body of a toddler washed ashore in Turkey while fleeing Syria in 2015 which was widely publicized with hashtags of ‘humanity washed ashore’.

Among displaced communities worldwide, possibly the most persecuted are those who are stateless, living on the margins of society, pushed to the ‘oblivion of rightlessness’[2]and most vulnerable to exploitation. They are seized within the protracted cycles of displacement and precarity, where “today’s IDP is tomorrow’s refugee, tomorrow’s refugee is day after’s economic migrant.”[3]And therefore, it will be insufficient to understand statelessness through the prism of state and law.[4]This article critically explores the interaction between displacement and security from a feminist lens, in South Asia.

The Rohingya in the South and Southeast Asian region, living in precarious situations as ‘Asia’s new boat people’, are one of the world’s most persecuted stateless communities. In recent years, the mass exodus of over 4,00,000 Rohingya from Myanmar reignited an international debate in South and Southeast Asia on issues of displacement, statelessness and the rights of refugees. Almost a year has passed and the plight of the Rohingya remains largely unchanged as they languish in inhuman conditions in the ‘camps’ and replete with everyday indignities, threats, fear, erasure of personhood, and the sustained violence of marginalization that epitomize the half-life of statelessness.

Within Myanmar, ethnic and national identities have effectively merged and intersected with political disempowerment and economic impoverishment of vulnerable communities. These issues are nestled within the context of Myanmar, Bangladesh and India’s historical linkages, porous borders and shared pasts, which are increasingly overlooked as the borders of these interdependent states increasingly hostile and inhospitable.

In mainstream narratives in India, the Rohingya are often described as a ‘threat to security and national interests’, ‘Muslim Bangladeshi infiltrators’, ‘illegals’, ‘victims’, or are attributed responsibility for adversely affecting strategic bilateral relations with Myanmar. The turbulent history of the region, coupled with the post-9/11 regime of securitization and the increasing currency of the discourse of terrorism and concurrent rise of Islamophobia, have combined to make the plight of the Rohingya precarious in ways that are difficult to redress[5]. Further, there are systematic efforts in the region to sanitize states by creating an ideal notion of citizenship narrowly defined by three attributes—Male, Monolithic and Majoritarian[6]. In this context, there is a need to exhort sensitivity towards the complexity inherent in issues of displacement and statelessness by moving beyond the paradigm of ‘security’ and reimagining a new vocabulary rooted in values of human dignity, interdependence, dialogue, respect for diversity, and compassion. Therefore, in South Asia, how can we begin a process of ‘Restorying’ and redefining the conceptual vocabulary of security, and move outside the framework of state and law[7]?

Prof. Shiv Visvanathan’s reflections on the limits of policy raise several pertinent questions. “Policy often destroys language, it objectifies the other person, it has no language for suffering or memory. When we say what is our policy, the moment of violence has already begun.”[8]What are the experiences that lead people to feel stateless, homeless, disadvantaged? How do we rehumanize the ‘other’? Where do we listen for the silences in narratives? How do we bear witness to the symbols of everyday resistance and resilience of displaced communities? How can we shift away from characterizing forced migrants as silent victims and move towards privileging narratives of the displaced to combat their state of voicelessness and restore agency? What is our language for memory, longing, belonging, the body and suffering?

In this context, there is a need for states to explore creative avenues of engagement at the regional level for the protection of stateless populations.

[C]an there be a policy for hospitality, a policy to be kind? … The pertinence and the impossibility of the question suggest for us, of course, the need for a dialogic approach to the issue of care and hospitality. New rules can be built only on such dialogic awareness that will tell us of the need for continuous conversation within the country and internationally; among shelter-seekers, shelter-givers, and the institutions of care and justice, including public and community bodies.[9]

This invites an iconoclastic recovery of the ideas of security — of what it means to be secure, what it means to be human, and above all, whether citizenship can frame the canvas of humanity.

Link to video:

About the authors:

Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath is an educationist, political scientist and writer. She is Founder and Director of WISCOMP and has served as the Principal of Lady Shri Ram College For Women, University of Delhi for 26 years.

Shilpi Shabdita is currently Program Associate, WISCOMP and holds a Masters’ degree in International Peace Studies from University of Notre Dame, USA.

Diksha Poddar is working as a Consultant with WISCOMP. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

[1]Paula Banerjee, “Editorial”, Forced Migration and Displacement Peace Prints South Asian Journal of Peacebuilding(New Delhi: Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace), Vol. 4, No. 1 (2012).

[2]Hannah Arendt, The Origin of Totalitarianism(New York: Schocken Books, 2004), 353-5.

[3]Rita Manchanda at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 15-16.

[4]Ranabir Samaddar at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar,People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 13-14.

[5]Madhura Chakraborty et al., The Rohingya in South Asia: People Without a State, ed. Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Ranabir Samaddar (New York: Routledge, 2018), 110.

[6]Paula Banerjee at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 18-19.

[7]Ranabir Samaddar at a Panel Discussion in New Delhi on 7 September 2018. See, Shilpi Shabdita & Diksha Poddar, People on the Run, people on the Move: Displacement, Security and Gender in South Asia(New Delhi: WISCOMP, 2018), 13-14.

[8]Opening Remarks by Prof. Shiv Visvanathan at a WISCOMP Roundtable titled (Re)Storying Kashmir: Exploring Possibilities for Constructive Partnershipsin New Delhi on 25 October 2017.

[9]R. Samaddar (ed.), Refugees and the State: Practices of Asylum and care in India, 1947-2000(New Delhi: Sage, 2003), 60.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: