October 1, 2010 : Dhaka
Today is a day of great sadness and of joyful celebration. We are gathered here to remember Kamaljit Bhasin Malik, or Meeto, as many of us called her all her life. It is almost 3 years since her passing. Her unexpected death has left a void in the lives of all those who knew her and loved her. I thank Meeto’s mother, Kamla, for having the vision to create a space such as this, to honour Meeto’s memory by honouring another young south Asian woman, Akeela Naz, for her tireless efforts for land reform in the Punjab in Pakistan. And I thank you all for joining us this evening which is an event of south Asian solidarity and an affirmation of the bonds of feminist friendship and political commitment to the vision of a just and peaceful south Asia that bind many of us who are here today. Kamla, on behalf of all the Sangaties who are here this evening, as well as from those who could not be with us today, I bring you our warmest greetings. We grieve with you on Meeto’s loss and we celebrate the vision of sisterhood and feminist solidarity with which you have inspired us for so many years.
Today is truly a celebration of south Asian solidarity. We have a young Pakistani woman in Bangladesh receiving an award in memory of a young Indian woman. And you have me, a Sri Lankan woman, standing here and speaking to you this evening.
We know the history of our region well. We know the ruptures and tensions that have been an integral and inevitable part of our post-colonial existence. We know the bloodshed and brutality that we have inflicted on one another in the name of real and metaphysical borders and boundaries. We know how difficult it is to move beyond these ruptures. We know how the politics of identity create selective histories that consistently and systematically push us apart. In all our countries the call for subordinating one ethnicity or language or religion to another leads to divisions and separations that rend our communities apart and pit brother against sister and mother against son.
And yet, thankfully, there is also a community of women and men to which we belong, a community that will not give up on our dream of a south Asia in which everyone can live free of discrimination and violence. Meeto was a part of that community. And as we honour her memory, we reach out to each other to reaffirm our shared histories and cultures, to rejoice in the beauty of it all, and to renew our commitment to keep the flame of solidarity alive.
Meeto Malik was many things: a dancer, a lover of art and music, an intrepid traveler and explorer. She read widely and was curious about everything in the world around her. She was a very loving and kind person, especially kind to children and to animals. She used to tease my daughter Subha about a T shirt that she wore as a child which said Commit Random Acts of Senseless Kindness. In her brief adult life, Meeto was above all a historian. In a brief and brilliant academic career she demonstrated a keen analytical mind combined with a deep and principled ideological perspective of history which she studied as a way of looking at the past in order to understand the present.
There is an article that Meeto wrote about the Census in colonial Ceylon while she was working at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo, which I admire greatly. In it she begins a process of unraveling the process of categorization of the population of the island during the colonial period as a way of understanding the contemporary political reality of Sri Lanka in which three ethnic categories have gained primacy. She looks at the process of conducting a census of the population as a method of constructing identities and pointed to the first modern Census of 1871 in Ceylon as a historical ‘moment’ that, and I quote, led to the eventual emergence of enclosed, monolithic, reified identities. According to Meeto’s analysis of the information she gathered through her research into the Census of 1871, the colonial regime saw the people of Ceylon not as a collection of individuals but as a collection of groups defined on the basis of race or religion. This, in turn, she says, made it extremely difficult for the post-colonial state to conceptualise the nation in relation to any sort of civil society since all social groups, all habits of thought and all traditions of politics were seen as emanations of groups identity and essentially of bodily difference.
The categorization of the people of Ceylon through the Census was critical because the data generated by it became the basis for the distribution of political power, government patronage and access to education and employment. In Meeto’s article she looks at the ways in which the Census defined people as belonging to this category or that, through time. The 1871 Census listed 72 nationalities and 24 races as living on the island of Ceylon. By 1881, there were only 7 races left, although the list of nationalities continued to be 72. In 1911, there were only 11 races identified in the Census listing, and no nationalities. As Meeto describes, the aggregation of identities was politically charged, as the introduction of forms of representative government from the mid 19th century onwards saw the local population learning to emphasize identities in order to gain political voice. Looking at ethnic difference in contemporary Sri Lankan politics, Meeto observed that the separation of the Tamil community into Ceylon Tamils and Indian Tamils in 1911 divided the population, while the erasure of the differences between Low Country Sinhala and Up Country Sinhala populations in 1922 consolidated the Sinhala people, allowing for the majority/minority divide between them to be more pronounced than it had previously been.
As she develops her own perspective on these processes of homogenizing communities, Meeto looks at the fate of hybrid or syncretic communities. She notes, for example, the slow disappearance of the category of Tamil Buddhist from the social and political arena. The records show that the Census of 1891 counted 16.5% of the Tamil population in the Western province as Buddhists, but by 1911, the Census was not accommodative of this category. The same fate befell the category of the Tamil speaking Sinhalese. All categories that were of a ‘mixed’ or hybrid nature were amalgamated into either one or the other of the overarching categories of Sinhala and Tamil. This practice was also true of the children of mixed marriages; in the beginning they could belong to the category of either one of the parents, never both. By 1946 the criterion for determining race was firmly fixed as being that of the paternal stock. This process of homogenization is fundamental to the nationalist imagination which, as we experience it today, generates politics of discrimination and exclusion at every level.
Many feminist scholars are taking these discussions on identity formation, statehood and citizenship forward to interrogate the diverse ways in which how one is defined as a citizen and as belonging to a particular nation state determines one’s access to justice and rights. As feminist activists we explore the phenomenon of the female citizen, the one who is marginalized because of the sexualized nature of the social contract, according to Carole Pateman, the social contract that defines the relationship between rulers and the ruled in modern democratic societies through instruments such as the Constitution. The challenge of creating structures of government and governance that would accommodate the complexity of multiple identities is an enormous one. Our friends in Nepal, for example, confront this challenge today as they struggle to create a new Constitution. As social activists who grapple with the impact of globalization on women and men and the environment, we see how the forces of globalization encourage governments to think of new ways of governing and of valuing different categories of its subjects. Continuing discrimination and marginalization of women and of those sections of the population who are less in number – minorities – or who live outside the heteronormative framework – single women, lesbians and gays – are common factors in all of south Asia in the 21st century.
The concept of flexible citizenship as introduced by Aihwa Ong is very useful to understand the impact of another aspect of globalization: that of having vast numbers of our citizens who are in fact transnational by virtue of migration and displacement. Ong argues that transnationality is not necessarily detrimental to the notion of the nation state. Instead, she explores the individual and collective agency that results in the large-scale flow of people, images and cultural forces across so-called national borders. According to her, these transnational subjects symbolize both the fluidity of capital and the tension between national and personal identities. The experiences of women in these situations most often point to the dynamic relationship between victimhood and agency, whether it is women who migrate to work as domestic workers or women who become radical political activists and armed combatants. As transnational subjects they challenge patriarchal social norms, gaining some degree of economic independence and empowerment, going through difficult, exploitative and sometimes violent forms of employment that some researchers liken to servitude or a new form of slavery.
As states deal not only with shifting populations but also with the challenges posed to its own decision-making power due to the influx of direct foreign investment, for example, the issue of sovereignty becomes key. States face challenges to state power from groups and movements that question the state’s monopoly over the meaning of citizenship. In all the states of south Asia, we see pockets of territory of the nation-state that are put outside the normal juridical order – Free Trade Zones or Special Economic Zones are a good example. We also find some functions of the state – for example care of the displaced or maintenance of public security – being privatized and handed over to non-state agencies.
I am going to conclude my presentation tonight by returning us to Meeto, to her abiding interest in the issues that we have spoken about this evening and to her contribution to the academic and activists worlds we inhabit. In closing I offer you a glimpse of a South Asian vision that is the creed of Sangat, the feminist network that binds many of us here together: a vision that we collectively created in 2008 to call for the promotion of a regional identity that goes beyond the politics of hegemony of nation states and that rejects destructive parochial nationalisms, a vision that confronts the historical inequalities among us, that understands how these inequalities are maintained and sustained, and that creates new and equitable ways of achieving transformation.