The Subcontinent Above and Below Nation-States: Introduction


Welcome to the 45th issue of The Funambulist. Similar to our 32nd issue dedicated to Pan-Africanism (edited by Caroline Honorien, Margarida Nzuzi Waco, and Léopold Lambert), it is a volume where the editorial line has been articulated and curated by the current members of our editorial team: Shivangi Mariam Raj and Léopold Lambert. Home to one person out of five on the Earth, the Subcontinent and its multitude of political identities inform our inquiry in these pages. Our relationship to this region is wildly different: one of us lived there (between Uttar Pradesh and Delhi) her entire life until up to a year ago, before moving to Paris to join The Funambulist, while the other only lived a very small (yet formative) portion of his life there (in Bombay, specifically). The limitations posed by these positionalities, with which we had to negotiate throughout the editorial process, is the centrality of present India in our imaginaries; a centrality we attempted to strongly resist in the elaboration of this issue.

Resisting this centrality, however, does not only consist in featuring contributions from and about Pakistan, Kashmir, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Another aspect of this attempt can be found at the core of the editorial line we propose throughout this issue: a reading that simultaneously goes above and below nation-states.

This simultaneous movement can be summarized in two clear goals: the recognition of a geographical identity proper to the whole Subcontinent, as well as the distinction of a multitude of specific political movements throughout this large territory, regardless of the so-called national borders that fragment it. 

Following the beautifully formulated proposition of Ali Raza in this issue’s pages, according to whom “Pakistan is a moment,” we approach nation-states with this evanescence in mind. We also understand that this specific moment of partitioning (and the 1971 one that set Bangladesh free from Pakistan) started with the 1947 independence of India from British colonial rule (Goa waited until 1961 to be free from the Portuguese administration, also Puducherry and other French colonies on the subcontinent in 1962). However, narratives that presuppose a uniformity within the Subcontinent (or at least of colonized India) during the British Raj appear to us as fundamentally lacking the territorial complexity that characterizes numerous local particularities of the colonial administration—between the various areas directly administered by the British and the varying size of the “princely states.” 

The emergence of modern nation-states on the Subcontinent relied on lines drawn arbitrarily and lines subsequently maintained with violence. As such, gilded narratives of nationalism have preceded even the existence of some of these nation-states, presenting them as inevitable, committing under their banner crimes that uphold the myths (and taboos) governing their creation.

Postcolonialism remains a temporal fragment that only a few within the region can claim. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh declared their freedoms in the 20th century, and Nepal and Bhutan embraced democratic forms of governance almost a decade and a half back. Yet there remains amid this lattice of nations, an undercurrent of stateless nations running from Kashmir to Eelam, galloping along the Hazaras, the Ahmadis, the Balochs, the Dalits, and the Nagas, to flow through the Lhotshampa peoples, the Adivasis, the Miyahs, the Rohingyas, and the Gujjar-Bakarwals, scuttling across Khalistan, Dravida Nadu, and Dandakaranya. The line between these nation-states and stateless nations is a confession of the price being paid for the sake of territorial integrity.

Constellation Subcontinent Funambulist
Space-Time Constellation of the Subcontinent. / Diagram by Shivangi Mariam Raj (2022).

When we question the artificiality—or let’s say superficiality—of these borders, we do not harbor any nostalgia for an imagined past (or any revisionist jump back to antiquity) where the region was a singular cultural or political unit.

Divided across kingdoms for centuries, the Subcontinent stretched for the Maurya Empire from present-day Kandahar to Amravati, while the Mughal Empire did not measure its coordinates from present-day Mizoram to Thiruvananthapuram. Similarly, under the Guptas, the Cholas, the Delhi Sultanate, the Chalukyas, and the Kamarupa control, the borders holding and shaping this region were routinely rearranged, with nothing linking one end to another, except for the conquests of their rulers. It was on this heterogeneous and fragmented landscape that the British and other European colonizers established their control, bringing contrasting, contesting ethnic, linguistic, and religious communities together—perhaps for the first time ever—under one dominion. In fact, it is the dominant communities, such as the caste elite, who came to be the closest collaborators of British colonizers in the region, intent on maintaining these social stratifications which had thus far allowed them unbridled power and influence.

Marked with these disruptions and discontinuities, the Subcontinent then offers to us a spatial continuum that can help us examine and expose the constructed, imposed, and concealed continuities, which have maintained the fictions nation-states have been narrating about and to themselves. As such, it is possible that the Subcontinent, considered in its entirety, could reveal something to its parts that nation-state geopolitics fundamentally fails to do.

1947 falls as a blood-soaked interval in the timeline of the Subcontinent. Celebrated in grand, statist narratives of India and Pakistan as the year of “independence,” it was in fact, also when the liberation of Bangladesh was stalled by two decades, when Kashmir was handed over to new colonizers, and when several alternative aspirations for independence were stifled. The Partition of the Punjab and Bengal provinces was a whirlwind that swept up all life, leaving tens of millions displaced, turned into refugees, fleeing from fire, hunger, and massacres. On both sides of the line, over a million died.

The story of a coherent, unified liberation struggle against the British Raj finds its challenge in BR Ambedkar and MA Jinnah. Both, with their respective demands for separate electorates for Dalits and a separate state for Muslims, questioned the Hindu imaginarium that the Congress, under MK Gandhi and JL Nehru, sought to carve out. It was not the infamous British “divide-and-rule” policy that catapulted the region into Partition, rather the divided aspirations on how future independent rule would look like. Once again, the specter of “unity” haunts the region, where enforced uniformity is being written as the will of the “Hindu nation.”

Come to think of it, “unity” is just an arrangement of lines, toyed around with by a handful of British officials and Hindu bureaucrats, who later destroyed most of the papers concerning their adventures. Yet the tyrannical myths they have created demand of their citizens—most even older than these states—papers to prove that they belong to their homelands. Do they forget that home precedes a homeland?

These haphazard lines demand more violence to legitimate their whim into the shape of a nation-state. At the time, over two-fifths of the Subcontinent was under princely domination, with the British presence limited to that of a suzerain, and had to be compressed into cartographic fantasies. When Junagadh was annexed with brute military force by India, despite its prince opting for accession to Pakistan, Hyderabad witnessed killings of tens of thousands of Muslims by local Hindu elite, with the support of Indian military forces under Operation Polo in September 1948. Jammu and Kashmir was among the largest princely states in the Subcontinent, where ruling Hindu and Dogra forces killed over 200,000 Muslims in Jammu, using ethnic cleansing to alter its demography forever. As Muslim rebels in neighboring Poonch established the independent state of Azad Kashmir, clandestine deals among the British, the Maharajah, Sheikh Abdullah, and Indian politicians pushed the Valley into a fresh colonial inferno. Using “tribal invasion” from the North-West Frontier Provinces as an excuse, India airlifted its troops into Srinagar on October 26, 1947, thereby turning into a colonizer barely two months after its independence. Similarly, jostled among competing Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonizers, Ceylon fought for its independence, only for its conservative elite to uphold Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism and commit, within just a decade of its freedom, war crimes against the Tamils who found their freedoms stolen.

Today, each nation-state on the Subcontinent relies on these lines to define its uninterrupted identity and distinguish itself from another.

With the exception of Bangladesh, which declared its refusal against this continuity by establishing an independent state in 1971, all the current borders—prolonged by nuclear weaponry, heavy military presence, dense razor-wire infrastructures, and surveillance technology comprising electro-optic sensors, radars, and micro aerostats—are colonial carryovers, flaunted as victories.

Map Subcontinent Funambulist
More than a definitive, objective cartography, this map of the Subcontinent constitutes a vision where the borders and nomenclature across past, present, and future are kept in a floating state of uncertainty, revealing the fundamental imperfections as well as arbitrariness of designating geographies and identities in the region. One could say that, for better or worse, this was the map we had in mind when editing this issue. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2022). / Please note that Subcontinent-based publication Himal Southasian had pioneered this form of representation showing the South at the top of the map with a cartography of the Subcontinent by Subhas Rai dated from 1998.

Upon a closer look, these colonial traces can even be found diffused across all the major bureaucratic, military, and judicial configurations of the region. Often citing “threats” to their “security and sovereignty,” states want their accumulated symbology to be rendered more visible, thereby necessitating the invisibilization of those on its ideological or territorial periphery. This involves enforced disappearances in Kashmir, Bangladesh, Punjab, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Balochistan, Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka, Chittagong Hill Tracts, and Nepal. To its extreme end lies the spectacle of extrajudicial killings often euphemized as “encounters.” This is where a hyper-visibilization of state power is used to conceal some of its core beliefs, such as how some bodies are classified for elimination —in their words, sacrificed, as their regulated morality would have them frame it—over and over again to vindicate all that the state parrots about itself.

One of the reasons why we refrained from calling this region South Asia is because such directional symmetry would be an imposition on certain communities which, for example, find greater resonance with South-East Asia. In fact, it would be pertinent to note how in 1937, when British colonialists made Burma a separately administered unit, they contemplated attaching Assam, Manipur, and Tripura to it. Today, the region demarcated as the “North-East” of India touches less of India, and shares more boundaries in common with Burma, Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal. All the eight states constituting this region resisted integration with the Indian Union, and were eventually attacked and annexed by a callous military apparatus. Several indigenous movements continue to demand their sovereignty, stolen twice from them by the British and Indian imperialist projects.

It is always the borderlands that animate the line, whose peoples remind us where and how exactly a line has been drawn. They tell us that a line is not just some frontier between arrival and departure, between citizen and foreigner, between legal and illegal, between the national and the notional.

They tell us that, under a line lies somebody’s home, somebody’s ancestral memory turned into a festering cartographic wound.

Beyond these grand maps, lines are present all around us: cleaving a neighborhood into ghettos, turning critical inquiries into blasphemy, ridiculing anti-cisheteronormativity into a death sentence. These lines sanction manual scavenging in the streets of Dhaka and push ecocidal quarries through the forests of Samtse, while assailing the workers in Thoothukudi. These lines call themselves “secular” and “fraternal,” but practice amnesia in a mob. Lines that have been etched over bodies, lines that bear the fatalist determinism of life and death, lines which punish touch as caste transgression. These lines are pervasive, devouring the waters, forests, and lands of indigenous peoples from Jharkhand to Andhra Pradesh, from Niyamgiri to Phulbari.

In this issue, as we go above and below these nation-states, we find a way to disobey these lines with our dreamings, our collective imagining of how these parts are radically reconfigured, parts which are otherwise held tight and smothered. In this dreaming, we are among the peoples of Kashmir and Eelam, defining and nourishing their futures of self-determination, we are in the impossible inhabitable rebellion of Shaheen Bagh, and we are in Begumpura (“land without sorrow”)—a stateless, classless, casteless society, as envisioned by Sant Ravidas in the 15th century. 

In the following pages, the conversation between Ali Raza and Fatima Anwar deconstructs the monolithic narrative of the Pakistan state, and gives way to the epistolary exchange between Nilanjana Bhattacharjee and Veewon Thokchom reflecting upon the imposition of national borders by the exogenous states of India, Bangladesh, Burma, and Bhutan on indigenous territories of the “North-East.” This meditation on how bordering is coded in language is further strengthened by Zohra’s photographs, which expose how India’s occupation machinery barricades time in the daily lives of Kashmiri people. Anushani Alagarajah reminds us that the Sri Lankan national narrative, in its Sinhala supremacy, would never make any room for Eelam Tamils, even in the midst of a simulacrum of revolution. Her demand for the frontiers of skies and the ocean to break open is echoed in Afreen Fatima’s assessment of the gap between home and homeland for Muslims in India. In a critical refusal of the neocolonial projects in the Subcontinent, Richard Kamei chronicles a brief history of the resilience of Naga nationalism and Yemberzal draws maps of Kashmir in a way that colonial authorities have always prohibited.

The history of every nation-state is always contested by the memories and mnemonics of its margins. While Mehrub Moiz Awan reveals the multiple transphobic nationalisms operating in Pakistan today, Siddhesh Gautam documents a historic meeting between Dalit Panthers and members of the Black Panther Party to show us that despite casteist atrocities becoming a nationalist pastime in India, dreaming is always possible. In the same vein, Anu Muhammad and Parsa Sanjana Sajid have a detailed conversation on the construction of a massive coal power plant in the largest mangrove forest on the Earth, and how it threatens the many lifeworlds it hosts, cautioning us how none of these models of nation-states would survive if capitalist greed continues to inform their organized ecocide. 

Since the last fourteen years, the erstwhile Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan have chosen a journey with democratic forms of governance. These fierce journeys have mostly been documented with dominant figures as their leaders. However, as Nepal Picture Library illustrates, women have been a fundamental part of these histories, and will continue to shape their shared futures, as Yangchen C Rinzin celebrates growing political representation of women in Bhutan. 

In the past, our issues entirely dedicated to a specific space-time (Turtle Island, Palestine, the Paris Commune, and Algeria) have been built around the relationship of these places with the rest of the world. This present issue is different. While it does not deny the importance of the Subcontinent’s relationship with its diaspora (its pluriversalities formed by varying legacies ranging from indenture to immigration) and, more generally, with the world—something should be said about its relationships with its direct neighbors, i.e., Tibet, the Uyghur Region, Afghanistan, Burma, the Maldives, and the part of Balochistan under Iranian sovereignty. However, this issue thinks of the Subcontinent as a world in itself, both in its wholeness and in its millions of particularities. The conversation we had with Shobana Shankar helps us end this issue with crucial questions pertaining to global relations—not between states, but between peoples. The question of colorism in particular and the never fully verifiable hypothesis of a Black Subcontinent that Dravidian people would materialize, constitute provocations that can help us reflect both on race and caste locally, alongside global Blackness. The history of political solidarity between some parts of the African Continent and Dravidians drawn by Shobana contributes to an alternative understanding of South-South exchange, beyond the official state histories that fetishize moments like the 1955 Bandung Conference or the current statist use of the “decolonization” nomenclature in order to legitimize destructive and, at times murderous, violence aimed at minoritized populations of the Subcontinent conveniently designated as “colonizers” or “invaders.” Knowing that a considerably large part of our readership does not live on the Subcontinent, our ambition for this issue is for the several political movements and cosmologies described here—a handful of trees in an endless forest—to surge in our readers’ political imaginaries. ■