Categories
Issue 3

Everyday Forms of Geopolitics

We think geopolitics is all about international politics, where nations and national governments are involved. Many disputes over geographical borders are not even bilateral issues between two nations-states; there may be a third and fourth party in the backdrop. Former foreign secretary, Amb. Shyam Saran explains in a recent article how the U.S. forms the third angle in the present military stand-off between India and China in Ladakh. He says, “[China] has started looking at most issues through the prism of the more confrontational relationship it has today with the US. It is looking at India also through that prism and is telling the US, this is a country which cannot even take care of its borders, and you are thinking of this country as a major component of your security relationship in this region”

Yet, geopolitics can also shape the personal and social lives of individuals and communities. The geographical location of the border influences decisions about marriage, local elections, commercial exchanges, cultural expressions, regional unities and transnational affiliations. A recent book by Sara Smith called Intimate Geopolitics discusses how in Ladakh today, matters of the body and the heart, of love, marriage and romantic relationships, become caught up in larger questions of nations, borders and geopolitics. When geopolitics enters the intimate spheres of our lives and governs our deepest emotions – who we may love, trust and befriend, it becomes intimate geopolitics. It affects daily movements, trade, occupations, politics, and domestic relationships. 

In Kashmir, parts of Manipur and other militarized zones of India where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is in place, war becomes indefinite, routinised and normalized to such an extent that people living in these regions become used to the everyday violence, killings, abductions, and random detentions. These places form, as anthropologist Haley Duschinski remarks, zones of exception and social abandonment, where violence is normalised and invisibilised to the rest of the country.

In Ladakh, Sikkim, or Arunachal Pradesh in the Himalayan borderlands of India, home to many Tibetan Buddhist communities, the situation is slightly different. Geo-strategically important in India’s border war with China, these Himalayan regions have been marginal in the national cultural imagination and yet, important for national security. In post-colonial India, different governments have tried in their own way to integrate these populations into mainstream political, economic, and cultural networks, through development, education, and other forms of soft state power. Berenice Guyot Rechard shows in her book Shadow States how development has been a means of establishing a benevolent state presence among these border people. The Indian state has also encouraged and funded Buddhist cultural traditions locally as a method of integrating and keeping these populations within the gravitational pull of the nation.

Yet, problems remain and resurface from time to time, whether it is the form of friction between identities, naming of local place-names, and loss in livelihoods such as yak-herding or tourism. Many of the local Tibetan Buddhist communities have historical and cultural connections with Tibet, through trade, religion or political alliance. When India and China emerged as new nations in the 1940s, both embarked on their individual projects of nation-building and border strengthening, leading to the political-economic integration of the border communities on each side. After the Chinese annexation of Tibet and subsequent border war between India and China, the Himalayan communities on the Indian side were integrated more tightly within their Indian political identity. Over the years, these Himalayan Buddhists have found it strategically necessary to show their Indian allegiance by distancing themselves from Tibet and the Tibetans. This has created a conflict within them as they reconcile their historical connections to Tibet with their contemporary political ties to India.  

Further, the military presence in these border regions affect the communities in different ways. In Arunachal Pradesh, many local Tibetic names have been replaced by Hindi names or names of Hindu gods and goddesses, because the army people, unused to Tibetic phonetics, renamed the places where they settled in and spread out their settlements. This has led to a wiping out of cultural landscapes because every place-name comes with a story or legend, and as these names are erased, places lose their cultural moorings. Land and livelihood are also affected when armies move in. In many high-altitude regions, where the Indian army has built firing ranges, yaks, an economic mainstay for many of the Himalayan Buddhist communities, have lost their grazing pastures. With army build up, tourism, which is the main source of contemporary income for these communities, also suffers.

As the battle for borders rages in the high glaciers of the Himalayas, the local communities living in these borderlands fight their own battles. As armies descend on the border zones, and diplomatic channels are simultaneously activated to defuse border tensions on the ground, the people who live in these borderlands are often forgotten. Geopolitics infuse into their everyday lives and livelihoods, making war a felt experience even for those not in war uniforms. Their struggles are more of an everyday form of geopolitics.

Swargajyoti Gohain teaches Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University, India. She has published widely on borders, state, culture, politics, and Tibetan Buddhist communities in Northeast India and the Himalayan region.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Categories
Issue 3

A Life on Our Planet: an appeal to all of us, on nature’s behalf

The rusted insignia of the hammer and the sickle. Walls rotting, cracking into pieces like soil during a drought. Chairs sitting in abandonment. Among a sea of tattered books and a room of shattered glass, emerges the 94-year old naturalist and broadcaster, Sir David Fredrick Attenborough in his new documentary A Life on Our Planet. Standing in the ghost town of Pripyat, abandoned by civilization almost 60-years ago as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, David Attenborough begins an intimate address of his witness statement. 

He reminds us that while the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, “a result of bad planning and human error”, was a disastrous event in human history, it is only one tragic example from a long list of errors made by us. Human mistakes, perhaps no less harmful, continuously occur across the globe. These errors have overrun the natural world and led to a steep decline in the planet’s biodiversity. Just as Chernobyl did, is the Earth too heading towards becoming uninhabitable? 

Though Attenborough humbly appreciates how extraordinary his life spent exploring the wild has been, his experiences through time have taught him that the wild is finite and needs protecting. He describes how centuries ago humans had arrived at a stage where their “predators were eliminated and diseases were controlled.” Once we felt that there was nothing left to stop us, our wants grew endlessly and we kept exhausting the Earth in an unsustainable manner. 

The documentary highlights a trajectory of instances where the growing demand of our species has led to the ruin of the non-human world: deforestation of the Borneo rainforest, the decline of  Orangutans, animals pursued to extinction, overfishing, warming of the Arctic summers, depleting freshwater and the turning of coral reefs to white. While the bleaching of coral reefs is mistaken to many as a beautiful phenomenon, it is a tragedy draped in white as it signifies the dying of the reefs. But there’s more to the documentary. It isn’t just another story about the global decline of nature. 

Although the documentary begins by acknowledging how we have threatened the stability of our planet, it goes further to show that there is still hope for us. We stand a chance against our own mistakes if we find ways to live sustainably and reintegrate back with nature. Using the comfort of Attenborough’s voice to intimately describe his experiences in the wild, the documentary seems to invite its viewers to be concerned about the environment not out of guilt, but perhaps out of responsibility. The documentary attempts to evoke a sense of collective consciousness toward our planet’s climate crisis. 

Throughout history, collective consciousness has played a role in bringing about change in different realms of society. In the environmental realm, such an instance of change is mentioned in the documentary when Attenborough describes how people’s perception towards the killing of whales was changed in the 1970s. Many environmental groups pushed the agenda against the whaling industry which sparked widespread public discussion on the issue. The harvest of whales was eventually made a crime as a result of the formation of shared consciousness revolving around the issue of whaling. 

Since the development of collective consciousness can have such a profound impact, it is natural to question how such consciousness is created in the first place. What unites people to form similar beliefs? Are there particular sources that help in the creation of collective consciousness? Have these sources transformed over time? How can we create a collective consciousness in today’s world? 

Before attempting to answer these questions, let us first look at the origin of the concept. The French theorist and sociologist Emile Durkheim was one of the first to coin the term. He recognised that while people had individual moral principles, they were often bound to one another by culture and shared a sense of solidarity with each other. 

According to Durkheim, the phenomenon resulted in a set of beliefs, ideas and principles which was shared collectively by many individuals in society. One of the biggest driving forces for the development of collective consciousness was the fact that it created a sense of belonging among people. 

Over time, the source of collective consciousness changed. In his book The Division of Labour in Society, Durkheim suggests that primitive and modern societies followed different models of solidarity. Primitive societies followed a “mechanical model”. People in such societies were united by shared beliefs, religious practices and ideas. This was a time when people’s attributes were homogeneous in nature, they didn’t work in different economic branches. Thus, people in primitive societies were mainly similar to one another. They shared unifying experiences.

The forms of collective consciousness we see today have been influenced by the attributes of modern society. Durkheim terms the social integration of such societies as “organic solidarity”. Modern economies are based on the division of labour and this creates a whole range of classes. People now have different jobs, believe in different gods, practise different religions and in general have very different experiences. However, since people have specialised roles in society, they are bound to be dependent on each other. The dissimilarity, the heterogeneity among people has created solidarity as a result of a high level of interdependence. 

Even though it seems that people now lead very individual lives, we still have found ways to express ideas and build collective consciousness. In the early days of modern societies, the advent of mass communication was one of the biggest sources boosting the dissemination of ideas widely and quickly. Different forms of the media gave us ways to not only to express our ideas but also created spaces where we could affirm them. While the media was initially used as a means to distribute ideas, it also became a means to influence the existing ones and create new kinds of ideas that shaped the consciousness of the collective. 

Even in the case of whaling, radio, television and print media were widely used to create the collective consciousness. Songs, films and literature on Whales grew to such an extent that Whales became popular personalities. People started viewing whales as creatures that needed to be protected. Thus, the media played an important role in building collective consciousness against whaling. This eventually led to the growth of anti-whaling activism. 

As technology progressed, we experienced a shift in the source responsible for the expression of ideas. In today’s world, that source is the internet. In the past, collective consciousness emerged from sources such as holy scriptures, traditional beliefs or big media houses. Now, with the power of the internet, all those with access to the internet have the ability to influence and shape the collective consciousness with varying degrees. Every element on the internet exists with the possibility of being a part of the collective consciousness.

David Attenborough’s documentary A Life on Our Planet, has come out in times where the internet is perhaps the most important source for shaping the collective consciousness. But he started imparting his influence much before the advent of the internet. 

Back in the 1950s, people didn’t know what Pythons, Pangolins and most other animals looked like. He was one of the first people to bring documentaries of the wild and the natural world to television screens. For those of us who have been fortunate enough to have regular access to television, we have grown up watching Attenborough’s documentaries and listening to voice. His appreciation of the natural world has been contagious and has inspired many. Thus, when a personality like Attenborough publicly immerses himself in ecological activism, he comes with the powerful ability to push the collective consciousness to care about the planet. 


Along with changing times, Attenborough too has updated by taking some of his activism online. He now uses Instagram to raise awareness about climate change. His latest documentary landed on Netflix, a popular streaming platform especially among the youth. Although his activism through these different platforms contributes towards the creation of collective consciousness towards the environment, it is up to us to manifest our consciousness in a way that can bring about change.

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).