“Tear Down This Wall”: Borders, Limits, and National Belonging in South Asian Postcolonial Literature

In the context of Gayatri Spivak’s call to the literary imagination to de-transcendentalize nationalism (Nationalism and the Imagination 2010), this essay claims that the movement of peoples from South Asia to the West - broadly conceived - as represented in literary texts undoes the boundary consolidating work of state moves like Brexit and President Trump’s immigration bans, enabling us to imagine communities counter to the nation-states as theorized by Benedict Anderson. These novels imagine what Joseph Slaughter calls “a geocultural and geopolitical alternative to the Westphalian model of the nation-state and of national citizenship” (32). The migrant moves I discuss are not from the metropolitan center of power to the nations of the global South but are from the nations of the global South to the metropolitan centers of power as borders “are easily crossed from metropolitan countries, whereas attempts to enter from the so-called peripheral countries encounter bureaucratic and policed frontiers” (Death of a Discipline 16). This is the problematic border crossing that I direct attention to in this essay as this border crossing extracts a human cost. The human cost accrues from xenophobic exclusions which have their origin in what Sherene Razack pace Hannah Arendt calls “race thinking” which she defines as “the denial of a common bond of humanity between people of European descent and those who are not” (Razack 6; Arendt 161).

The literature of migrancy that I examine, articulates an alternate politics of accommodation by interrogating the raison d’etre of the bordered nation-state. Etienne Balibar theorizes the border as that “which isolates or protects communities, but which also ... crystallizes conflicts” (68). The border, in other words, produces an “exclusive community” which is predicated on the “politicized exclusion” of the “variations” of the “figures of the stranger, the pariah, the monster, the ‘sub-human,’ the internal enemy, the exile” (70 emphasis in original). Similarly, in Who Sings the Nation-State, Judith Butler reminds us of Hannah Arendt’s argument that “the nation-state ... is bound up, as if structurally, with the current expulsion of national minorities” (30). This reminder leads Butler to the observation that the nation-state finds it legitimacy through a dual move made up simultaneously of expulsion and containment or, as she says, the nation-state is a political formation “that requires periodic expulsion and dispossession of its national minorities in order to gain a legitimating ground for itself” (33). The literature of migrancy centralizes border crossing and, thereby, challenges both these forces of expulsion and containment; it de-transcendentalizes nationalism even when it finds itself caught in the hostile binaries of material history, such as 9/11 and its long aftermath. While literature, generally speaking, codifies cultural memory as Spivak suggests (Nationalism and the Imagination 13-14) and while it participates in a massive nationalist rememorative project by recording everything that the collectivity has experienced, the literature of migrancy also pushes its reader “towards the complex textuality of the international” (Nationalism and the Imagination 21). The novels that I refer to in this essay exhibit this kind of a comparatist impulse - even though they are all written in English and so do not enter the lingual memories of non-English worlds - but because they interrogate and “undermine ... the possessiveness, the exclusiveness, the isolationist expansionism of mere nationalism” (Nationalism and the Imagination 32).

While this task of interrogation is difficult for the postcolonial writer because the postcolonial nation is the fetishized sanctity on which the postcolonial subject/citizen rests a claim to indigenous legitimacy and belonging, there are several examples of migrant populations in the nations of South Asia. At the outset of postcolonial nation formation in 1947, the genre of Partition literature captured the agony of dislocation produced by the dismemberment that accompanied nationalist triumphs following the end of territorial imperialism. In recent times, South Asia has not been as fraught a locus of migrancy or migrant literature as Europe and the United States, although Partha Ghosh’s recent book, Migrants, Refugees, and the Stateless in South Asia (2016), estimates that there are 50 million migrants, refugees, and stateless people in the region who have lived in their adopted host nations for the seven decades since independence and have, for the most part, experienced either benign neglect or assistance. Ghosh gives the example of undocumented Bangladeshis in India who seem to be numerous but, as he says, little is known “largely because of the unavailability of hard data” (xii). However, from 2000 to 2015 the Indian Border Security Force has killed more than a thousand Bangladeshi civilians along the border. There is also the case of the continually displaced Rohingya. Reece Jones explains that “[t]he Rohingya are a Muslim minority population of more than 1.1 million who live in Rakhine State in the northwestern corner of Myanmar” (Jones 62). According to the government of Myanmar, the Rohingya are Bangladeshis who crossed over from Bangladesh. In 1982 Myanmar - then known as Burma - passed a restrictive citizenship law that limited citizenship to specific ethnic groups that did not include the Rohingya or to “people who could prove that their ancestors had resided within the borders of the country before 1823, which marked the arrival of the British” (Jones 62). The Rohingya could not document their pre-1823 residence in Myanmar and so they are “a stateless people without the rights of citizenship in Myanmar” (Jones 62). In the first four months of 2015, several boats full of Rohingya sailed for Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. They were and continue to be rebuffed by Thailand. Indonesia and Malaysia took them after a great deal of international pressure. The Bangladeshis in India and the Rohingya in Myanmar are compelling examples of refugee groups with incomplete or inadequate citizenship status. Despite the existence of these marginalized groups, the more compelling border-busting narratives seem to be primarily located in the excluding West where refugees from the Syrian war and other displacing forces have been regularly seeking safe haven.

The arrival of these refugees has polarized politics in Europe leading to national decisions such as Brexit. The West was not supposed to end up the way in which Brexit and President Trump’s bans have taken it. According to Reece Jones, through “the 1990s the dominant media narrative was the removal of borders in Europe” with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the lifting of the Iron Curtain in 1990 and the establishing of the Schengen visa which eliminated the need for individual visas for several European countries (Jones 16). This trend toward a borderless world, however, reversed direction in recent times as the member nations of the European Union sought an older norm of “place-based” belonging which depends on the codification of land into “a disciplined commodity, captured on paper” (Jones 166; 97). In order to administer bounded lands, Frontex, a border enforcement agency in Europe was founded in 2005. In some views, 9/11 triggered the move toward a world with militarized borders and consolidated a process that had started in the 16th century in England and was formalized by the treaties of Westphalia in 1648 that set up the boundaries for sovereign political power - separated from the sacred power of the Pope - by which the kings could rule their people. The principles worked out in the treaties of Westphalia were extended in the Berlin Conference of 1884 by which Africa was carved on the basis of ownership by European powers. Similarly, with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire following World War I,

Britain and France secretly agreed to separate areas of influence in the often derided Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 ... The legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, along with the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, the San Remo Resolution of 1920, and the Cairo Conference of 1921, shaped the boundaries of the European Mandate territories in the Middle East that became independent countries in the 1930sand the 1940s ... [However,] the boundaries of the contemporary states of the Middle East do not match historical political entities. (Jones 111-112)

These boundaries have, therefore, been subject to radical pressure from movements such as the Islamic State or Daesh, which in the post-9/11 world seeks “removal of the Syria-Iraq border as a triumph over the Sykes-Picot and European imposed boundaries” (Jones 112).

The post-9/11 world, thus, has produced “border militarization” by the West (Jones 39) and an assault upon the borders of the West and those created by the West in non-Western politics. The postcolonial writers that I read in this essay expose the idea of a bordered nation to scrutiny in the West by locating the persistence as well as the violence of borders understood as political limits in the West all the while preserving the sanctity of the nation imagined as cultural memory for the postcolonial subject, naturally forcing the question why the notion of nation seems to be at different stages of conceptual understanding in the global North and the global South. This question leads me to Homi Bhabha’s opening statements in “DissemiNation” where he says:

I have lived that moment of the scattering of the people that in other times and other places, in the nations of others, becomes a time of gathering. Gatherings of exiles and emigres and refugees; gathering on the edge of ‘foreign’ cultures ... gathering in the half-life, half-light of foreign tongues, or in the uncanny fluency of another’s language ... gathering the memories ... of other worlds lived retroactively; gathering the past in a ritual of revival; gathering the present. (139)

In Bhabha’s statement we see the doubleness of the migrant’s move which involves a scattering and a gathering - home and away, domestic and foreign, past and present. This doubleness may explain why the home that the migrant departs from is the clearly remembered nation as it has to be gathered up in memory even as the itinerant actor finds other domiciles, other places of belonging, and gathers in other national communities which are necessarily more labile on account of the doubleness of the migrant’s move. So, to return to my question about the differing notions of nation in the global North and the global South, I suggest - by way of answer - that the nations of the global South are etched in cultural memory that must withstand the assaults of colonial history rather as Partha Chatterjee postulated in his examination of anticolonial nationalism which “creates its own domain of sovereignty in colonial society” (Chatterjee 6). This cultural memory is channeled by the refuge-seeking migrant who seeks a safe place of material belonging in the host nation while also carrying a sense of home in the recesses of the psyche. The refuge-seeking migrant, thus, inhabits two homes at once and simultaneously.

 
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