Sitting in Bristol, across (physical) borders from family and friends in India during the COVID19 pandemic, I have been thinking about how social hierarchies have been prescribed around me. I have a fuzzy memory of being a child and going to a nearby area where families of domestic workers live, mostly oppressed caste families. One day, my parents found out and told me to not go there again. “Play in ‘our area’ only”, they said. They had concerns about “safety”, but I felt conflicted. Those children were exactly like me.
Growing up in a middle-class privileged caste household in India showed me how certain spaces and events in the world create social inequalities between people depending on who they are and what spaces they occupy based on social hierarchies—gender, religion, race, class, caste, and so on. Many privileged-caste homes in India have separate cutlery and seating spaces for the oppressed caste domestic workers in their house, for example, even though these homes might give the impression of treating their domestic staff well. Doing charity, holding large scale prayers over a loudspeaker, and building larger-than-life statues of Gods and saints is okay, but actual attempts to resist hierarchies between “us” and “them”, to challenge the histories of structural exclusion, are not entertained. Coming to understand this was not easy as it came with a realisation that inequalities are to be sustained not opposed. We may only extract from, not interact with, “them”. This is the reason I could not play with “those” children. The concept Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam or “The World is One Family” taught in our “moral science classes” in school seemed like a sham.
Recent political events in India have made social inequalities more visible and caused extreme violence and suffering. Many work to resist this by making themselves visible in the public sphere through teaching, writing, protesting, and other forms of mobilising. This then creates conflicts in the private sphere where social hierarchies may be strictly enforced and practiced. For instance, my friend’s family is giving her a difficult time because she worked tirelessly doing relief work for the anti-Muslim Delhi pogrom in February 2020, and the nationwide protests against the repressive and discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of December 2019 that aimed to determine citizenship based on religion. Her parents feel that because of participating in the protests and in the relief work, she does not care for them and is supporting the “other” religion. Another friend’s landlord is not happy because he brings home the “other” oppressed caste person even if it is just for a few hours to distribute food. I and others have witnessed messages encouraging hate crimes and religious bigotry in WhatsApp groups and social media platforms.
Resisting social oppression is difficult precisely because these “other” people and their bodies are not supposed to occupy “our” spaces. Those resisting can be seen as “space invaders” – entering, moving, and creating dialogues in spaces they are not meant to occupy. People are therefore beaten, stigmatised, arrested, and attacked with impunity. Recent examples demonstrate this. Many academics, students, protestors, and writers have been detained and arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (Amendment) (UAPA) in India because they participated in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act and other protests in India. Under the UAPA, individuals can be designated as terrorists arbitrarily. In practice this means that people can be singled out and humiliated because they dare to resist social oppression. They must be put back in place. The recent backlash against an advertisement showing inter-faith harmony (it was ultimately retracted following the mass protests by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists) is an example of growing intolerance against any effort to resist social hierarchies. The far right in India is clearly exploiting the spatial and temporal limits on access to the state, the law, and to collective action due to the Covid-19 pandemic by spreading hate speech and false information, as appears to be the case in other nations as well, such as the USA. As a result, targeted acts against certain oppressed communities have increased. These acts play on common historical forms of structural exploitation, concretise social hierarchies, and encourage communal hatred by repeating the same misinformation over and over again.
Thus, resisting social hierarchies and their borders that structure space is no easy work. Besides the possibility of threat and arrest, it takes an emotional and mental toll. Our personal lives are at stake when we attempt to dismantle hierarchies. Families break, friendships are lost, relationships are at stake. It can get alienating. Just to ask questions becomes “risky labour”. We are bound to feel worn down, exhausted, and depleted. Nonetheless, throughout the world, social movements have continued to show resistance to capitalism, injustice and structural oppression. Hours are spent on organising protests, making placards, arranging for food and water at protest sites. Great efforts are put into mobilising digitally or physically via door to door campaigns, writing circulars, designing brochures and letters, holding teach-ins, and providing safe spaces. Resistance requires attempting to transgress structural borders by defending rights, equality and physical survival, but by also recognizing the mental and emotional labour involved. In the current political climate, characterised by the rise of fascism, an inhuman suppression of the marginalised, and the spatial limits placed by the Covid-19 pandemic, how can we continue to resist social oppression?
Feminist writers such as bell hooks, Audre Lorde and many others have provided an answer to this in their work on the feminist practise of collective care, wherein care (through resistance or protests) should not be seen as one person’s or one family’s or even one community’s responsibility. The collective idea of care means that more people can share the work of care. This implies solidarity and support systems along with personal and social connections across social hierarchies. These spaces are even more important to those not accepted in their birth families due to their life choices around activism. The protests against the CAA in Shaheen Bagh in India have demonstrated this by showing how a Muslim-women-led protest holding the state answerable for the systemic exclusion of minorities and state oppression can unite people across communities. Such collective spaces can become meaningful sites of interconnectedness and resistance. With our effort, they can even be sustained amidst the burdens of homemaking, the emotional toil related to exclusion, and the threats to physical safety that make collective action necessary.
Tagged: #Affect #Borders #Class #Colonialism #Domesticity #Economy #Emotional labour #English #Gender #Geopolitics of care #Housing #Migration #Mutual aid networks #Race #Religion #Self-care #State power #Surveillance
Bristol, UK & India
Pankhuri Agarwal is a PhD Researcher in Sociology at the University of Bristol. Her PhD research is a multi-sited ethnography of how internal migrant workers in the informal sector navigate the legal system in India. She focuses on their experience of time, structural violence, and rights to critique anti-trafficking interventions. She tweets @Pankhuri_A