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Issue 11

bestdressed

Film student, feminist and fashion enthusiast Ashley creates intricate and artistic portraits of her life as a young adult, trying to make it in a big city. 

Some of her most popular videos are her style guides, apartment makeovers and thrift shopping hauls + thrift flips. Thrift flips involve altering or ‘flipping’ clothing items bought from a secondhand or thrift store. The concept has become increasingly popular in the DIY and fashion circles of youtube, as vintage clothing (that can only be bought cheaply in thrift stores) became a huge trend. 

Her film background and editing prowess (she worked as a freelance video editor before creating her own channel) shines through, making every video uniquely memorable. Bestdressed also has the occasional video discussing politics, sexuality and mental health with refreshing candour, based on research and her own experiences. 

All in all, this is a great channel to watch for relaxation, upliftment, life advice, or all of the above. 

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Issue 11

100 Days of Biden

It has been over 100 days since President Joe Biden took charge of his administrative duties in the United States. The Biden administration has been highly optimistic by promising to meet an expansive agenda that includes controlling the coronavirus pandemic, enabling economic recovery, revising US climate policy and reviewing their health care system. Biden has also taken active steps to reverse Trump’s isolationist policies and his decisions, alongside  catalysing the process of restoring America’s place in the international community. With only 100 days of his term completed, Biden has taken some notable steps to meet his agendas. 

Within his first few days at the White House, Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organisation. He rescinded Trump’s Muslim ban, which restricted immigration from a host of Muslim-majority countries. He took the liberty to address US-China relations by getting on a call with President Xi Jinping to discuss climate change, human rights violations, and trade relations. The President has made it clear to the Americans and the world that he plans on restoring America’s position in the global community and that he is determined to get rid of the isolationist policies introduced by his predecessor. 

The Biden administration fulfilled their 100-day promise of providing 100 M COVID vaccinations within its first 50 days. Biden’s timing could not have been better – as infections were peaking and America’s vaccines were coming online because of Trump’s funding of Operation Warp Speed,  Biden utilised the opportunity to play the hero without having to put in all the work. Moreover, he recently announced that all adults in the US will be eligible for the COVID vaccine by April 19th. 

Biden is firing on all cylinders to ensure that repercussions of the pandemic can be contained, singing a $1.9 trillion relief package to fight the pandemic and restore the US economy. The relief package, currently Biden’s top priority, plans to send direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans. The bill also includes a $300 per week unemployment insurance boost until 6th September 2021 and steps ahead to expand the child tax credit for a year. The relief plan also allocates $25 billion into rental and utility assistance, and $350 billion into state, local and tribal relief. It puts nearly $20 billion into Covid-19 vaccinations. 

Biden’s plan to reverse Trump’s tax cuts on corporations has been championed by the Left, but the effectiveness of implementing this policy needs to be carefully considered.  Biden’s tax policy wants to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6% from 37% and the top corporate income tax rate to 28% from 21%. This move will allow the government to collect a tax revenue of approximately $4 trillion by 2030. President Biden claims that his administration will ensure American companies  contribute tax dollars to help invest in the country’s roads, bridges, water pipes and other parts of his economic agenda. The plan detailed by the Treasury Department would make it harder for companies to avoid paying taxes on both U.S. income and profits stashed abroad. 

While this move sounds good on paper, its effective implementation has several obstacles. Corporates with major accounting teams and an army of lawyers have continued to find safe havens and loopholes in tax laws to legally avoid paying taxes. A tax hike of this rate also increases the probability of tax evasion and tax fraud, which will undoubtedly lead to the creation of a larger shadow economy. Additionally, in a post covid world that has witnessed large scale unemployment, increasing taxes on corporations and high bracket earners is going to  push firms to cut costs, thereby creating disincentives for hiring. The increase in taxation may also push firms to switch gears and focus more on international markets such as Hong Kong or Singapore that offer lower corporate tax rates. While progressive taxation is ideally the way to go, the Biden government must ensure that its implementation takes into account all the limitations of the current system. 

The Trump administration focused on deregulation in the manufacturing sector to ensure productivity and economic efficiency, whereas Biden  promises to focus on sustainable development. As part of his election campaign, Biden had released a 10-year, $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan aims to move the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Biden’s climate change plan in total would cost the US approximately 2 trillion dollars, which he aims to fund by reversing Trump’s excess tax cuts on corporations and putting an end to subsidies for fossil fuels. While Trump focused on short-term economic efficiency, Biden’s plan is for the future. Switching to sustainable means of manufacturing is going to undoubtedly drive up costs for the American economy, but has the potential to  create middle-class jobs and ensure environmental conservation. 

Biden has had over 100 successful days since being sworn in, mainly because the bar set by his predecessor was quite low to begin with, but also because of his constructive policies. He envisions an America that will not be easy or cheap to achieve. While Biden’s plans cease to be as optimistic as “Mexico will pay for it,” they still are overreaching. The policies and infrastructural changes that Biden aims to implement would likely add to the 28 trillion dollar debt, but as long as the economy is developed in a constructive manner, there is hope for Biden’s America.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Program. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time. 

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).

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Issue 10

University Spaces: Where the ‘Personal’ Becomes the ‘Political’

Politics in India often termed as ‘unreasonable’ and ‘non-educational,’ restricts our perception of a successful education to that of studying science. These professional fields of study encourage students’ engagement with science and development, more than social and political advancements. Moreover, they are not primarily concerned with ensuring social justice or equality. Indian psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy refers to science and development as the two new reasons of state besides national security, that have emerged since WWII. Indian elites have treated science “as a sphere of knowledge which should be free from the constraints of day-to-day politics.” As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, confined to mere economic growth and transactional language of goods and service, the term ‘development’ leaves out the ideas of freedom, and democracy. Universities catering to these ideas of freedom and democracy act as influential spaces for student resistance movements, and motivates them to participate in national politics by upholding their liberal stances. 

Science Says, “Politics, You Stay Away”

Politics involves the establishment of an egalitarian society and requires a developing relationship with technology to ensure each other’s survival as well as their contribution towards resolving societal ills. However, the Indian middle-class have come to view technology as a “source of legitimacy for science” and as a way of tackling all complicated social and political problems. This perception of technology operating in a political vacuum is termed as technicism, according to Schuurman. It maintains the political domination of the apolitical, technocratic, modern elite upon decision-making processes. This notion of science and technology results in their promotion by Indian elites as apolitical, according to Nandy. At the same time, it marginalizes available social and political solutions, by extremizing their excesses, as well as associating credible politicians, academics, journalists, activists, and students as anti-nationals. Science and technology, therefore, serves as a sole “escape from the dirtiness of politics” for most Indian elites. 

Although science and technology are perceived in isolation from politics, the question arises –  isn’t politics everywhere – in our personal spaces as well as educational institutions? Educational spaces, especially university campuses in India have allowed for the most expressive manifestation of politics in the past as well as the present. This engagement with leadership within universities encourages students to actively participate in national politics and pursue it as a career. There have been various student leader-turned politicians in India – Arun Jaitley, Prakash Javadekar, Shashi Tharoor and Nupur Sharma, to name a few. Alongside Kanhaiya Kumar who contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections from Bihar’s Begusarai, Aishe Ghosh, the incumbent President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union stands as a Left-Congress alliance’s candidate in the West Bengal Assembly Elections. She says, “it is a big responsibility, but my politics will remain the same. The issues we fight for in JNU are an extension of what is happening across the country … I will carry these issues that I fought for in JNU to the people of West Bengal.” These narratives of students participating in national politics make one wonder, what is it about university campuses that produce eminent politicians in a country where most families are obsessed with wanting their child to pursue professional careers in science?

Technical Institutions in India: Technology and Social Empowerment?

The debates preceding India’s Independence, between political and scientific players entailed an establishment of a desirable relationship between politics and technology, however, their legacy appears to have been forgotten with time. The establishment of four IITs by the American team in India considered social patterns, political and cultural traditions as mere obstacles in their way, accompanied by the lack of imagination of the era to highlight the intersections of the two fields. Even though Humanities and Social Sciences were integrated into their curriculum, their scope remained limited thus, preventing intellectual culture, and the possibility of links between technology and social empowerment. 

The perceived free-of-politics atmosphere of the sciences is not to claim that technical institutions have never participated in national protests. Protests by students of IITs caste-based and religious discrimination is not unheard of. However, the constant monitoring of these spaces by state authorities seems to act as an impediment to their action towards other national issues. The existence of this vacuum is exemplified through a recent example, where a circular released by the IIT-Bombay administration warned its hostel residents against participating in “anti-national … activities.” The director called the Institute that “of eminence, with the primary purpose of producing high-quality engineering graduates and research that could be of help to the society at large.” 

It is crucial to note that these notifications arrived when students were protesting against the controversial CAA-NRC and the violence that occurred on university campuses like JNU, AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia. Concerned about its ‘scientific temper’ coming under scrutiny, the director further asked “its staff and employees to refrain from making statements that could ‘embarrass the relations’ of the institute with the central government.” Moreover, the desperate attempt of the government to control these institutions is evidenced by the news of the HRD Ministry issuing orders to technical institutions to keep a tab on their students’ social media accounts. The point here is not to focus on the legitimacy of this notice, instead, the possibility of its occurrence in the near future, with the most recent lateral surveillance and cyber volunteer programs. This incident marks the reduction of the intellectual agenda of the IITs to that of “suppliers” to the demands of the market economy to suit the goals of development, defined in technicist terms of industry, market and state. 

University Spaces As Challenging Hegemonic Structures

Universities either promoting a culture of politics or dismissing them is a consequence of the field of study and the cause that they stand for. Central universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, JNU, DU, AMU, HCU, Osmania and many more are often under attack for their anti-governmental stances. This attack is not confined to the students alone but is an intimidation process to label them as violent. However, their rigorous curriculum on arts, humanities along with sciences, allows for critical thinking and acts as a space for imagination enables students to engage with social and political subjects perhaps more than what one witnesses in technical institutions. It is these imaginations that lead to knowledge-production, that challenge hegemonic structures and present alternate narratives beyond the binaries produced by the status quo. Universities offering engagement with political science and related branches of study as a part of their curricula cannot survive without the collective aspirations of their students. Students function as enablers of resistance movements and engage with politics beyond socially constructed ideas of the term, furthering research possibilities within academia. 

“University works as a form of mediation between theory and practice,” claims sociologist Gaurav Pathania. Additionally, the space of the university acts as an equalizer. That is, it provides equal access to tools of resistance such as technology, digital media, and brings students from diverse backgrounds together within a common physical and social space for registering protests, which also fosters empathy amongst students. Apart from classrooms acting as a formal space for expressing opinions, it is the informal spaces within university campuses where “social education happens.” Hostels, dining halls, chai/dhaba spots, and libraries allow space for both interpersonal as well as ideological conversations. The expression of collective stances through art installations in these areas encourages others to contribute towards the cause at hand. 

Pathania claims them to be spaces where “private lives of people come together as public.” That is, where the personal becomes the political. These resistance movements, therefore, necessitate academic freedom in universities. Without the freedom to read and express ideas that do not adhere to the status quo, it is nearly impossible to extend these conversations to the realm of national politics. Understanding the intersectionalities of technology, society and politics, along with interdisciplinarity within academia is crucial to resisting the dominant socio-political structures in one’s daily life. The liberating space of a university complements major global movements, adding to their students’ ability to bring significant change through their political leadership. Instances of students becoming future leaders enhances the credibility of political academia, thus, erasing the notion of commonly associated “dirt.”  

Picture Credits: PTI

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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).

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Issue 10

Politics of Postering – What the Walls Say in Tamil Nadu

In this country, street art and public political messaging are a common phenomenon. The ubiquitous student union announcements, boldly written on walls; the company advertisements along railway lines; or even protest art that temporarily flares up, to be wiped out alongside the protest  – everywhere we turn our walls display something. In Tamil Nadu, cinema posters and political parties have taken over the walls. The parties, big and small, national, regional, local, they all publicise their presence and their leadership with messaging on walls. Today, there are only traces, removed for the most part in preparation for the elections. But they are a part of the state’s culture – colourful, bold, and anywhere the eye turns. What is most interesting about this practice is that no one party holds a monopoly over this perennial campaign – if it is a campaign at all. This article is only the beginning of the exploration into this world. 

From larger-than-life banners, to small party symbols painted on walls along roads, these political references are a part of the states’ everyday life. It’s impossible to go anywhere without noticing a political symbol, a word of glowing praise emblazoned onto a wall, or the smiling face of a political leader. Most pass these reflections of the state’s diverse political milieu without much thought. Yet wherever you turn, you’re sure to see them. 

Something very striking on some walls is the appearance of two arrows almost bracketing the initials of a political party, with the addition of a year and the word ‘reserved’. This year marks the next election, and every party stakes a claim to a certain area, to a set of walls preceding this election. This wall, once marked off, is the hold of a single party until the next elections with a selection of posters stuck there. On the other hand, a large patch of wall could be white-washed and on it, in the colours of the party are painted the title or name of a particular local political figure. This is often followed by the names of this leader’s closest followers in the region. It should also be noted reservation of space is a fluid process, and not a necessary first step. However, the prominence and number of posters and painted slogans depends on the parties’ prominence in the local region. 

Of the various methods used to display their existence in an area, I would divide these into ‘poster-culture’, ‘paint-culture’ and ‘banner-culture’. 

Poster culture allows for greater political freedom in the individual it features, though the person it highlights (let’s call them the protagonist) is more often than not one of the more prominent faces in the party – a legislature member or a party leader. At the same time, these posters allow one to trace the political legitimacy of the person featured – smaller faces that appear towards the top of the poster, usually deceased leaders. Sometimes, with younger or less prominent functionaries in order to demonstrate their rising fortunes, they are placed immediately below the party leader, as the protagonist. There may also be groups of people in the poster, with the size and space left around it displaying the individuals’ importance – this is usually in cases of a party putting out good wishes. The text of the poster reveals the allegiance as well as what the protagonist’s titles in the party are. It is interesting to see what the posters say as well, the many titles it ascribes to the political representative or party leader – a continuation perhaps, of the culture of courts and temple proclamations of kings. 

Paint culture on the other hand is for a more local audience. Hired painters first pencil out their letters and accompanying symbols, before painting them in. Every leader is addressed by a different title, which is the focus of these messages. Horizontally aligned, as opposed to portrait alignment posters, and brightly displayed in party colours, these are meant to popularize the leader rather than provide a message. These magnify the title and subsume all other details, so that one is focused on the title of the one being praised, accompanied sometimes by party symbols.

As for banner culture, these banners are temporary. Legally they have been banned, but they do appear on occasion when the chief minister or another individual designated a ‘vip’. This is dependent, unlike posters and paint, on the party in power.  Median banners that sit in the middle of a road, or cut-outs that loom large over it. These are for special occasions, to demonstrate loyalty by the affiliated party members of the region. Special posters may often be used as well, alongside, or instead of banners in places. 

For poster and paint culture, while the party in power in a particular area may have a proliferation of their art, other parties with local representation may choose to represent themselves nearby as well. It is not out of place to see the blue elephant of the BSP, an Uttar Pradesh party, opposite the ruling party, the ADMK’s local MLA’s name painted on the wall. It is most interesting to note however, that the national party, the BJP, focuses its efforts on drawing lotuses on walls, with the most minimal of textual messaging. On the occasion of the visit of the Prime Minister or other higher party dignitaries, there are posters that may appear, sponsored by local groups. But these disappear within days. 

 The DMK’s ‘rising sun’ symbol, with an individual’s initials on the top left of both signs, which interestingly appeals to voters in English 

These are all always in the local, dominant language: Tamil. English words that are used are written in the Tamil script. However, over the last few years some English has appeared here and there. 

 In essence the posters and banners are celebratory and public. The art is in praise of an individual. While a fleeting glance will just reveal the name of a political leader, looking closer at this poster culture can reveal a lot about the local politics, embedded into these messages. This article has touched the surface. While the politics of the state is a study in itself, these posters are in a way a unifying political action – every party with a presence has their own way of expressing themselves in wall art or posters, and the way they chose to do it gives us a chance to examine party politics in a nutshell.

Nandan Sankriti Kaushik is a second-year History student at Ashoka University. 

All images have been taken by the author. 

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).

 

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Issue 10

How Mamata’s Trinamool Broke The Glass Ceiling For Women In Politics

New Delhi: With 50 women candidates, or 17% of the 291 seats from where it is contesting a heated assembly election in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) has once again taken the lead amongst states that offer the largest space for women’s representation in politics.

In the outgoing assembly, 14% are women, well above the 8% national average across Vidhan Sabhas, though slightly below the 14.6% in Parliament and significantly below the 24% worldwide average presence of women in elected assemblies.

When Mamata declared ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that 41% of her party’s tickets would be given to women candidates, she translated her commitment to women’s participation in politics into action. If the rationale behind the “magic figure” of 41% appears unclear, it could simply have been that the “percentage was based on the number of women already in her shortlist”, said Tara Krishnaswamy of Shakti, a non-profit organisation that works to enable and increase women’s participation in electoral politics.

Of the 23 women who ran on a TMC ticket, nine got elected—the second highest contingent of women parliamentarians in the Lok Sabha, after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). That said, data suggest that while the TMC sails ahead of its opponents on this issue, the relatively higher participation of women in Bengal politics is part of a longer trend of gradual inclusion to which more than one party has contributed.

An examination of the profile of TMC women candidates over time also indicates that their inclusion in the party could well be the by-product of an instrumental approach to ticket distribution, rather than from the adhesion to a normative principle of equality that would prevail over electoral strategy.

TMC party members suggest that the inclusion of women in the party may be incidental to a selection strategy that does not consider gender to be either a particular advantage or an impediment to the party’s electoral prospect, even though Mamata has come out publicly in favour of women’s quotas.

“She is already committed to 33% reservation, but Mamata Banerjee has always tried to consider 50% women candidates,” said Dola Sen, the TMC MP in the Rajya Sabha, who has spent the last three decades as a trade union leader in West Bengal, and been a part of Mamata’s own efforts to develop and consolidate women’s solidarity into concrete electoral gains since the Nandigram and Singur movements.

Gradual Inclusion Of Women In State Politics

Since 1962, only 238 of the 4,119 individuals elected into the West Bengal State Assembly have been women.

Until the late 1980s, women barely made 2% of all legislators, a state of affairs to which both the Congress and the Left contributed equally. But starting in 1992 with the 73rd Amendment, which set up a three-tier panchayat system, women’s representation has risen steadily among candidates.

In the 2001 election, which took place after the split with the Congress and the formation of Mamata’s Trinamool Congress, women accounted for 9.5% of the members of the state assembly. From 1991 onwards, the percentage of women candidates has increased by about 1.5% in every election.

However, data gathered by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data shows that besides the TMC, other parties, especially the Left have also contributed to that rise.

For instance, even if the old generation of the CPM and its allies did not feel the need to extend their egalitarian views to women, the Left’s newer generation, led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, was more inclined to include women among their candidates. In 2011, the state’s Left combine, including Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Socialist Unity Centre of India, gave 49 tickets to women candidates–higher than the 32 given by the TMC. And, significantly higher than the national parties: Congress has not given more than 10% of its tickets to women candidates to date, and the BJP, which has been fielding more women recently, increased its number of women candidates from 23 in 2011 to 32 in 2016.

Mamata Banerjee addressed a public meeting at Nandigram on 18 January 2021/ALL INDIA TRINAMOOL CONGRESS

As it opened the door to a greater inclusion of women in politics, the TMC took the lead in the past three elections. The party has also received considerable publicity for its inclusiveness–perhaps by virtue of getting many more women elected than its opponents. Sixty-two women from the TMC have been elected in the past 15 years; the Left has managed only 111 women in 54 years.

Profiles In Diversity

In the patriarchal world of politics, women politicians get easily stereotyped. While much of the media focus is on the five actresses fielded this year by the TMC, few are paying attention to the 46 other women contesting.

An examination of incumbency data reveals that men and women politicians in the TMC share the same turnover.

It is still early to make pronouncements about the 2021 candidates, but an examination of the 2016 women candidates reveals that the TMC recruits a diverse lot of women candidates. In 2016, only two of the party’s 45 women candidates were film or television stars; 17 belonged to political families (mostly wives of politicians); and 14 got elected.

In terms of occupation, 14 were self-declared housewives; the occupations of the rest were split between education (nine), social service (11) and business (six), among others.

That Banerjee consistently manages to identify such a large number of women candidates in the first place also must mean that she assiduously scouts for talent and sends out feelers to find the right women to offer tickets to, Krishnaswamy said.

As far as we could determine from the 2016 candidate list, only three of the women had any prior experience in local municipal bodies. A few others also seem to have emerged from the party’s organisation or familial connections while 18 ran for the first-time. Another 22 had already been elected twice or more times.

The TMC’s 2016 women candidates were also varied in terms of caste: 19 upper castes, 13 in SC-reserved seats and two in ST-reserved seats. There were only three women candidates from a backward class background, while nine were Muslims. It is worth noting that the TMC is probably the one party that offers the most representation to Muslim women in India. Like their male counterparts, most of the party’s women candidates were highly educated (24 graduates and above, while two were 8th pass candidates).

One cannot conclude that the TMC recruits “a certain type” of woman candidate, nor can we reduce their inclusion among the party’s candidates to a publicity stunt. But it is evident that the party chief believes that celebrity and star power help win seats.

Banerjee has “good equations with youngsters not only from film but also TV stars. She goes to their marriages and celebrations, spends time with them,” said political journalist Jayanta Ghosal. As a result, she has developed strong personal attachments with ‘Tollywood’, he said.

But could the candidature of these celebrities appear exploitative at times, especially in constituencies where strong local female politicians have been overlooked in spite of years of grassroots work?

While giving tickets to celebrities is a formula that has generally worked well for the TMC in the past (especially in heavily contested seats where inner party rivalries are at work) it also raises questions about whether this is a deliberate strategy to keep complacent old-timers on their toes and balance whatever power challenges they may throw her way with newcomers who will be loyal.

Like all political leaders, Mamata, too, puts a premium on personal loyalty. “People who are new, have the least expectations. Most candidates talk about the party, Mamata’s achievements and schemes. No one is campaigning on the strength of their own work,” said Krishnaswamy.

Compared to most other parties, the TMC stands out by making women political actors rather than mere figureheads for electoral mobilization. Unlike other women chief ministers who work in a quasi-exclusively male environment, Mamata has surrounded herself over time with women contributing to party work or to the cabinet.

Five of her 42 ministers are women, some holding several important portfolios or portfolios not immediately connected to women’s issues, like agriculture, fisheries, SMEs or land reforms.

Her party’s organisation includes large numbers of women office holders, and many women play a prominent role in campaigns.

That Mamata has consistently supported strong women in politics and led by example, is no secret. Nor is the fact that the TMC is one of the only parties on India’s political map that seeks to consolidate women as a powerful vote bank through political participation, rather than sops.

Her genuine desire for inclusion of women in politics is evident, and her supporters say a result of her own political struggles. “Unlike so many other Indian politicians who are women, Mamata Banerjee never had a man helping her – with due respect to others, she is no one’s daughter, wife, widow or girlfriend,” said Dola Sen.

“Look at me, for example,” she said, “We are independent, efficient and competent politicians with or without reservation!”

Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science at Ashoka University and Co-Director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data.

Maya Mirchandani is assistant professor of Media Studies at Ashoka University and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

Niharika Mehrotra, an undergraduate student in the Political Science major, assisted with data collection

This piece was republished from Article 14 with permission of the author. 

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).

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Issue 8

Translation As Preservation: Understanding the Worlds Within Languages

Translation, for both of us has been an act of transgression. In our pristine Anglophone academic life, it has been a way to discuss and express in other languages, and marvel at the art of expression. We therefore talk about the process and politics of translation between Bangla and English, and think about the idea of preservation in various ways. What is lost in translation? What is gained?

Through months of trying to transport emotions, idioms and punctuation from Bangla to English, we’ve grown closer to our mother language than we’ve ever been. Alongside that familiarity has come the sense of inhabiting a world held only within the cadences and curlicues of this language. But this isn’t a sensation peculiar to Bangla. In every translation session, our classmates have brought metaphors and phrases from their languages that pose annoying, yet delightful, problems of translation. Working through those doubts has always felt like dipping our toes into the waters of a separate, thriving world. Something about these colourful phrases feels very private and intimate. Yet we’re pursued by the need to share the wonderful literature in the languages of the Indian subcontinent; to share the array of emotions each one of these narrative worlds make you feel.

Each language has its own perspective of time and place. These aspects come together to knit the sense of inhabiting a separate world. Both of us have primarily translated from Bangla into English, and can, therefore, only speak of Bangla. It is an experience that comes with doubts at every turn. By the end, we’re always left with two questions: have we done justice to the source text? Does it sound well in English? It’s always hard to reconcile both of them. The conflict mainly comes from the differing nature of both languages. English comes from a family of languages quite different from those spoken in the Indian subcontinent. Naturally, the rules of its grammar, its idioms and banter provide a distinctive way of understanding time and space, which might not always be compatible with those of Indian languages. Underlying this conflict is a colonial history that makes English widely accessible, but also necessitates promoting indigenuous languages. How then do we convey to a wider population what inhabiting the worlds of Indian languages feels like?

One can argue that after several years of being spoken and written in the subcontinent, English has become an Indian language, where the grammar is tweaked and several Indian catchphrases are fondly used in English sentences. This liberty to mould an imported language into something homegrown might simplify the problems of translation. But if this form of English is indeed an Indian version, how wide will be the readership that can understand it? It is a question we’ve argued over to no end.. Often, we’ve stubbornly wanted to retain the roughness and peculiarities of our source languages in our translated texts, protesting that some words are untranslatable, and English readers must work through the difficulties to enter this new world. But does that practice make the text more accessible, or does it further obscure its essence by producing puzzling sentences? 

Along the way, we’ve arrived at a compromise for Bangla. We try to make the translated text sound like a naturally English one, but use sentences that are the closest options for the source text. But the sense of time and space are located further within the structure of Bangla. The time the text is located in is denoted by the tense of the narration. In English, there is a clear demarcation between present and past tense however, in Bangla there is a slippage between both. Narratives are often written in between past and present, and jumps between these two time frames are not uncommon. The sense of time is, therefore, one that we carefully thread as translators of Bangla-English-Bangla.

But time and place aren’t just located in the tense of a text. They are embodied by the characters who live in that environment, and in some ways, that environment lives within them. How, for example, can we translate the banter of two boys living in an ashram in ancient India? Which is the more important question—preserving the archaism of their context, or making them sound like young and defiant adolescents?  

The act of translation is also an act of historical preservation. Translating Bangla texts into English opens up new audiences and new possibilities. A new kind of readership emerges. Translating texts whose publication dates back several decades helps revive its readership, and foster conversations between the changing tastes of readers. But with these possibilities comes the responsibility of representation. A work of literature can become the voice of a people through its language. It is always intimately twined with the emotions and experiences of a community which might be as mundane as lone words and phrases, but hold political undercurrents and the history of a language within them.

The seamless juxtaposition of both is fairly easy to glean for us as Bangalis. But the task of its reproduction inevitably becomes a personal one. Dissatisfaction over translated works probably arises from the intersection of the personal and the political. As translators starting out, we’re far from mastering the rules of the game. But for now, we rely on this intersection to guide us, to help us preserve what the work of literature makes us feel. While we fear losing much along the way, the gains have often been insightful. It is a long process, and often a frustrating one, but one that is exhilarating, leading us down new avenues.

Pratiti and Ipsa are members of Sandhi, an ever-evolving society at Ashoka engaging with language both academically and  otherwise. We are not dedicated to any specific language(s), or only to tangible languages at all. We think about language at various levels— the idea of language itself, the interplay between languages, the nuances within a language and much more. Currently, they are holding the 2021 edition of their flagship event, Bhasha Mash.

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).

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Issue 7

The Biden-Harris Campaign: Representation or Presentation?

On 20th January, as Joe Biden was sworn in as United States of America’s 46th president, Democrats celebrated Donald Trump’s departure from the office while also rejoicing in Kamala Harris’ entry. Kamala Harris, the vice-president with several firsts, has been the talk of the news cycles ever since she was picked by Joe Biden as her running mate, after she suspended her own presidential campaign in August.  USA’s first woman, Indian-American, Asian vice president’s candidacy has added onto the world’s fixation with US politics because of the position and the power the country holds in global affairs. It is extremely important to acknowledge and appreciate Harris reclaiming space where women, especially black and other women of colour are constantly overlooked, silenced and shut — as also noted by Harris in her speech. This joy gets doubled when one looks at it as a victory that comes off at the heels of an administration that has  enabled white supremacy. 

Though Kamala’s Harris’ entry is a historical win for the United States of America in most means, people of the country are looking at Kamala Harris unidimensionally, and reducing her existence to only her identity:  Indians, both in USA and abroad, have been quick to claim her as their own, just like they have always been with every successful member of the diaspora, with remote links that root them back to the homeland. The internet is flooded with people from all over the world, especially Indians reacting to someone who “looks like them” making a place for herself in a majoritarian white-male office. From people calling her “Kamala Aunty” to Mindy Kaling claiming that her toddler does not see a difference between Harris and Kaling herself, Indians, mostly Hindu, out of which a significant portion is upper caste, immediately appropriated every aspect of Kamala Harris’ existence to make it their own. Many feminists are referring to Harris as “girlboss”, a term most commonly used to describe women in power, that has been criticised time and again for straying away from activism. 

Such a reductionary approach to a politician is definitely not new but it is dangerous as it tends to be used as a weapon by the candidates to mask their intentions and mislead the voters into buying a revisionist identity. Kamala Harris’ campaign is often seen focusing on Harris “going back to her roots”, whether it is making dosas with Mindy Kaling or talking about the importance of idlis and festivals in her mother’s house, time and time again we have seen Kamala Harris’ identity been marketed as an identity tool to appeal to a particular kind of vote bank — the upper castes from the Hindu diaspora through quick and lazy surface level tropes. Identity Politics, that is crucial for bringing forward a diverse panel to avoid trampling of minorities in the country, is increasingly being misinterpreted and reduced to a marketing tactic that caters to the “feel good” sentimentality without actually bringing any tangible change. 

Representation holds concrete value, however, only when the candidate reflects back onto the struggles of the community they claim to represent. There is nothing about Kamala Harris’ candidature that separates her from her white colleagues and opponents. . It is extremely hypocritical of Harris to bring up her “Jamaican roots” and talk about smoking pot as a youngster and claiming to be for the legalisation of the same. when she saw around 2,000 marijuana related convictions during her term in San-Francisco.  All this is just talk that profits off people’s struggles by giving them a false sense of relatability when in reality it is hollow, keeps stereotypes alive,while enabling divide and rule of the proletariat. This kind of playing on the sentiments of the voters also helps the public hold their representatives less accountable — the marketing strategies of the campaign are rolled out in such a manner that only diverts all attention to just one part of the candidate, their persona, completely taking away the focus from their policies and ideology.  

During the peak of Black Lives Matter movement in America, the Jamaican side of Kamala Harris’ identity was brought out time and again. She called herself a proud black woman, talked about her experience as a black student in college, told the public about the societies she was a part of in college that helped her get a deeper understanding of her community and its struggles, she calls herself a “progressive prosecutor”. However, if one looks at her past actions, we can see how during her term alone in California, more than ⅔ of the men killed by police officers were people of colour, of which a majority were unarmed. She was also responsible for holding black men longer in jails when they were eligible for release just to extract cheap labour out of them. It is disheartening to see an important movement that seeks to bring resolution to racial disparity in the country being twisted to fit a political campaign and agenda, when the candidate does not comply with anything that the movement stands for. Kamala Harris’ campaign runs in a similar manner to that of any big co-operative, where they take people’s real struggles, and capitalise on them under the false pretense of bringing forward a social change — like how brands do with LGBT struggles during the pride month.   

Kamala Harris has also constantly referred to herself as a feminist beacon, who purportedly understands women’s struggles when her activites have shown otherwise. Harris has not done much that aligned with the feminist movement, more so, she has been dangerous to the sex workers and the trans community alike. In 2008, Kamal Harris opposed the Proposition K, which was directed at decriminalisation of sex work and prevention of STIs. She argued that Proposition K unfurled “a welcome mat for pimps and prostitutes to come into San Francisco”. Her campaign completely ignores this past of Kamala, which had put women into danger and continues to show her as a feminist crusader and a “girlboss” who would bring a fresh perspective and voice into the US politics. She willingness of people to selectively see their candidates as it seems fit to them, makes it even more convenient for the campaign to do so. She also claims to be pro-decriminalisation of sex work but has not even commented to make amends to this action she undertook as an attorney general. 

The Democratic party during the Biden-Harris campaign has shown exactly what happens when neo-liberals twist the identity politics model, and reduce it to a weapon that centres itself around one aspect of an individual’s identity and uses it as a ladder while aligning with interests do nothing to dismantle a pre-existing model, all the while disillusioning the masses into believing that they would bring some concrete and effective change. 

Madhulika Agarwal is a third year English and Media Studies major who is interested in literature by children and for children. When she is not lamenting over her tiktok career that ended before it could start, she likes learning about animals and reading books with good art in them. 

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).

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Issue 6

India and the World: Looking into 2021

“I firmly believe that 2020 will be known, not as a year of external disruption, but as a year of internal discovery, for our society and for our nation,” 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote these words for an exclusive article in the Manorama Yearbook 2021. While his words were meant to bring hope for India in times of crisis it also raised questions of how the pandemic altered the country’s position in the international community. 

Claims that India will be a superpower by 2020 have been thrown around by academics, economists and patriotic bhakts for over two decades. These claims can be traced back to India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium by APJ Abdul Kalam. In this book Kalam laid down his prediction of an India that would have eliminated poverty, have a high amount of women in the work force and would be an economic giant by the year 2020. These predictions could now be considered optimistic at best and completely delusional at worst. 

Coming into 2020 it was quite apparent that we hadn’t even touched the surface of becoming a poverty free nation. The World Economic Forum (WEF) released a report in January 2020 claiming that it will take seven generations for Indians born in low income families to even approach the country’s mean income. The 2020 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) identified 27.9% of the population as multidimensionally poor,  the number was 36.8% for rural and 9.2% for urban India. Even promises about the increasing involvement of women in the workforce has proved to be quite inaccurate. India’s female labour force participation rate fell to a historic low in 2018.  India is currently the most disadvantaged country for women participation in South Asia. Economic predictions about India becoming a super power also seem like a big joke. Coming into 2020 the country’s 5% inflation-adjusted growth was the lowest since 2013 and the 7.5% nominal rate was the lowest since 1978. The country that once had one of the fastest growing economies, has not seen success over the last few years mainly due to several blunders in national economic policies and actions. 

While the above numbers may just seem like confusing statistics they shed light on a much larger issue the Indian economy needs to counter. Low participation of women in the workforce doesn’t just shed light on the gender disparity that is evidently prevalent in the Indian patriarchal structure, but also showcases wastage of a large chunk of the country’s working population. 

A high poverty rate in the country’s population is a clear result of poor fiscal management on part of the government. The fact that a majority of the country’s workforce is employed in a sector that contributes the least to its GDP should be a clear indication that the Indian economy is in desperate need of a transformation. The record low inflation rates shows that the country is displaying minimal growth. All of these indicators point to one answer – India is nowhere close to being a developed nation.

India stepped into 2020 with an economic slowdown characterised by high poverty rates and increasing unemployment. The country was in turmoil as mass protests broke out in all states surrounding the people’s outrage towards the government’s discriminatory citizenship laws (NRC/CAA). This year was also not free of obstacles for the country, the biggest obstacle obviously being the COVID-19 pandemic. The Indian economy that was already suffering before the year started has taken massive hits, as the country has now officially entered a technical recession. The country is now faced with farmer protests due to the government’s new Farm Bills that potentially threaten the stability of their income. So what does all this mean for India’s position in the world?

The Indian economy took a larger hit than any other major economy. In the April-June quarter, the country’s GDP shrank by 23.9% , the worst contraction in its history. India also entered a technical recession for the first time since 1947. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculations showed that the Indian economy had taken a “uniquely” larger hit than most other countries. While their 2020 growth projections showed upward trends for countries like Bangladesh, China and Vietnam, India’s GDP dip due to the pandemic was more than double the global average fall. Infact China’s trade surplus widened to a record, gaining a 21% increase (for the month of November) in exports from a year earlier. 

The Modi government has tried to ensure the public that this fall in the GDP is temporary and promised that the economy will rebound rapidly, calling it a “V shaped recovery”.  In reality though this is quite unlikely. Sabyasachi Kar’s model predicts that it will take up to 2033 for India to get back on the pre-Covid growth path if the country’s GDP grows at a rate of 7% for the next 13 years. Another projection made by scroll.in shows that if India’s GDP grows at a realistic 6.1% instead of Kar’s 7% estimate, it will take almost three decades (upto 2049) for the country’s GDP to get back on a growth path. While the Indian government is planning on introducing policies to ensure growth, the country’s standard growth policies are being ineffective. States across the country are seeing a reduction in their capital expenditures (CAPEX) , this is mostly due to the fall in revenue due to the pandemic. This reduction in revenue and CAPEX basically means that the government isn’t investing close to enough money on roads, energy plants and other necessary infrastructure. An increased investment in infrastructure is peremptory if the country is to get back on its feet, and the current spending capacity of the states is only going to make post covid recovery much harder. 

Nirmala Sitharaman had stated that the COVID-19 pandemic was an “Act of God” which may result in a contraction in India’s growth. But India’s position as a potential superpower has been threatened for the last 6 years, and the pandemic has only acted as a catalyst for an economy that was already crumbling. While we can try to stay optimistic and hope that the government’s plans pay off, it’s almost impossible that the country can get back to the growth it enjoyed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

Picture Credit: “India Map 2 N” by Mark Morgan Trinidad A is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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).

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Issue 6

Politics of Viewership : What can Patriotic Films Tell Us?

While some films and shows have explicit propaganda and political alignments that they aim to put forward, there is content that handles the ideological waves shifting around us in much more subtle ways. With the global far right and Populist Waves gaining momentum, as observed in the administrations all around the world (recently disrupted by the fall of Trump’s administration in the US), is there a shift in storytelling on screen and how viewers converse with the content they are consuming? 

In the Indian context, we’ve had films like Uri (2019) being highly celebrated for portraying the valor of the soldiers for the surgical strikes in our neighboring country of Pakistan. The general conversations that the film provokes are not completely new, Pakistan has been in the cinematic realm since the 1947 Partition and has been villainized more so post the Bangladesh war in 1975 and Kargil war in 1999 – like in Border (1997) which is based on the Bangladesh Liberation  War of 1971. Films like this bank on the invocation of patriotism from the viewers, India wins at the end and the audience is rooting for the Indian soldiers to survive the war. But Border was released 26 years after the war that it was based on; by virtue of the distance of time it ended up making an appeal against war and the trauma it causes to soldiers and their families on both sides. Thus, the shift from Border to Uri lies in the fact that the latter’s audience was prompted to make a connection between the success of the mission and the upcoming elections, and the eventual re-formation of the BJP led government. 

Also, in light of the 2019 general elections – The Accidental Prime Minister (January 2019) and PM Narendra Modi (May 2019) are important to note. The former looks at India’s former PM Manmohan Singh and his term and the latter at the rise of Modi; the timing and the titles are enough to indicate the propagandist nature of the releases. 

The above-mentioned films were a little too on the nose about their affiliations and ideological leanings. But let’s look at other Indian films and how the patterns of invoking patriotism seem to be shifting. 

In the early days of our country’s independence movement, filmmakers were making films that would be against the empire, songs and stories based on the concept of swaraj. Nationalist agendas and patriotism were achieved in these through rebellion and attacking the ones with power. The British administration would fight back by trying to censor any inflammatory songs or messages, although language was an obstacle they had to get by first. Post-independence, films critiqued the conditions of the 1947 partition and the violence that had happened, and would continue to point out the corruption, unemployment and other vices that the government needs to deal with, while also celebrating the newly formed democracy. 

More recently, the quantity of sports biographical films, based on real life incidents and successes where Team India won and made its citizens proud has increased. Chak De India (2007) was a fictional narrative about the Indian women  hockey team winning the World Cup. But in the next decade, prompted by the success of Bhaag Mikha Bhaag in 2013, we had lieu of real-life sports victories – Dangal (2016), Saala Khadoos (2016), MS Dhoni: The Untold Story (2016) and Mary Kom (2014). Though Chak De India had an additional victory in the acceptance of Shah Rukh Khan as a Muslim coach – the patriotism had widened from being just a sports win to a reinstatement of India’s status as a multi-cultural, secular country. 

Fictionalized true life events make it easier for connections to be made between real and reel life politics, like with Uri. The conflation may or may not be co-incidental, the inspirational incidents may be old and the films new – but the rise in the top-grossing films that invoke patriotism only through real life wins indicates that the space for losses, for the state’s vulnerabilities being explored and exposed, has reduced. Dangal does mention the ill conditions of the country’s sports facilities, but such critiques are too far and too few. 

The biographical patriotic films aren’t limited thematically to just sports. Films like Mission Mangal (2019) celebrate the success of India’s space triumphs. And Pad Man (2018) pats the country’s back in terms of social awareness movements. Also, Parmanu:The Story of Pokhran (2018), based on the Indian army’s nuclear test bomb explosions in 1998. These are a stark contrast from films being made in the previous decade – films like Rang De Basanti (2006) and A Wednesday (2008) or even Nayak (2001) which implore patriotism through protest and rebellion. 

The branding of what it means to be patriotic has itself shifted for Indian cinema. 

The influence of populist waves, films seem to be choosing safer narratives, to only talk about the successes of India instead of critiquing the state and invoking the administration as an accountable figure in the context of nation making. The shift can also possibly be marked down to the lack of funding support or production feasibility of rebellious films and stories. Considering the losses that film productions can bear when they run into trouble with certain right-wing Nationalist groups (self-appointed protectors of the administration that is being critiqued) maybe playing it safe is the future for cinema.

Jaskiran is an English and Media Studies graduate from Ashoka University. She is now working on her capstone project on representations of terrorism and nationalism in cinema as a student of Ashoka’s Scholars Programme.

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Issue 5

The compass of war is centered right at home.

Why do people go to war? Is it a feeling of surrendering yourself to your country? Is it driven by necessity and socio-economic conditions? Is it a larger cause that drives you to condone and carry out violence, provided it is directed towards the ‘right’ target? Perhaps the reason cannot be boxed into a category.

Whatever be the motivation, through the conceptions of conventional war, a couple of themes remain ever-present. War distances you from you from your locale and loved ones. War puts you in danger. War puts involved parties at vulnerable proximities, oftentimes in very close contact with the enemy, it forces you to kill at close range.

With the coming of new technology, the perceived proximity with the enemy is being challenged. Let’s look at the case of the 44 day war in the area of Nagorno-Karabakh that erupted in September this year. Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to a peace deal after six weeks of conflict in the area. While the conflict has a tense history since the 1980s, the most recent spurt of violence left more than a 100 people dead. The deal, brokered by Russia, was signed on November 9. Correspondents like Robyn Dixon of The Washington Post have hailed drone warfare as the primary reason for Azerbaijan’s upper-hand in the conflict. Not only did it play an important part to help Azerbaijan gain military supremacy; the increasing use of drones in military conflict also provides a lens into the future of warfare. 

Nagorno-Karabakh has been a trigger for violence since the 1980s in light of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Here, the population is ethnically Armenian while the land is inside the international boundary of Azerbaijan. In 1991, the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians declared independence. They were supported by Armenia in the war that erupted after. The altercations ended  with a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The agreement was uneasy at best, leaving about 600,000 Azerbaijanis from Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding districts stranded away from their homes. 

Religious sentiments exacerbate historical tensions. It can be seen here as well.. The majority of Armenians are Christians whereas Muslims make up most of the Azerbaijan population. Both accuse each other of destroying temple sites among others.

It is in this context of such gradually heightened tensions that the 2020 violence has been different from all previous instances of conflict. Azerbaijan has used drones extensively to repeatedly bombard the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, Stepanakertl. Conflicts build on constructing the ‘other’, an entity which is different from you either politically, ethnically, linguistically, religiously; or perhaps, on all those counts. Technology such as drones in warfare make sure that while the ideas of othering don’t change, the effects alter drastically. 

Think of what Donna Haraway calls the ‘god-trick’. This idea, simply put, is the ability to observe everywhere while being situated nowhere. This has persisted in fields of study such as history; especially that which deals with putting onus like colonialism. If you are nowhere, then you cannot possibly be blamed. Drones seem to have brought this conception to reality and warfare in a concrete way. 

The drone, or any other similar form of aerial surveillance, enables you to emulate a God figure on two counts– knowledge and visuals. It is not simply about what you can see but what you can think to see. The sights which earlier were limited to God are now seemingly perfected by man. It is of course an illusion, however, as ‘nowhere’ isn’t really possible– everything and everyone has their own politics, their own biases and their own vantage points. Therefore, three crucial aspects are ignored– partiality, situationality and locality, all hinting at the limitations of human surveillance. What the technology sees is determined by people and has a humane character to it. Therefore, it is prone to the lens, view and context of the operator. Usage of the drone then is not simply about differences in what is seen, but schisms in technology, and knowledge itself. 

This problematizes two things– first, the proximity to your target and second, who your target is. Home becomes the axis to understand the changing nature of warfare as operation of such weapons does not need presence in the battlefield. What is it then that the drone can see? Both are inherently tied to the idea of ‘rightness’ that I mentioned earlier. The basic idea is that you only kill combatants in war. They are people who are driven by the similar motives you have for their causes and their countries; and with whom you enter into an unspoken contract– it is okay for me to kill you and you to kill me. The conversation surrounding ‘right’ targets is important as harm to civilians is seen as something outside the norm for warfare. The Agence-France Presse reported that in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia had recorded 13 civilian deaths in early October. Azerbaijan had declined to report military casualties but reported 19 civilian casualties. 

In addition, the language that unmanned vehicles use is rational. It depends on abstractions and identity markers. What follows is a purely techno-strategic discourse which ignores humane aspects in pursuance of ‘targets’. People are seen as kill-able bodies through the  reinforcement of stereotypes. When the reliance is on identity markers, the trope with which drones are hailed as the future gets punctured. They can no longer bank on their precision when they deal in generalisations and result in any number of civilian casualties. Geographies of security hence move beyond the battlefield. 

Drones then cease to be simply machines of aerial surveillance and combat, but also complicate the distance-intimacy nexus. So we have a situation where the stereotypes remain, the distance increases, and the financial ease gives way. If aspects of war ever were humane, leaving it to algorithmic artificial intelligence removes that element completely. 

Sanya Chandra is a student of History, International Relations, and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Image Credit: Pxfeul.com

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