On Finding Family

2015 De Santi JessicaBy Jessica De Santi

On my second weekend in Kolkata, I went to a street dance battle.

A few parts of the above sentence require some explanation.

First: as a member of Montreal’s street dance community (though with much less involvement than I would like, such is the life of a student) and a lifelong dancer, I was not looking forward to a summer without dance. So, a few months before leaving for Kolkata, I asked my mentor whether he knew of any lockers in India, especially in Kolkata. He was able to connect me to a couple in Mumbai, who then connected me to some lockers in Kolkata. As it happened, on my second Sunday in Kolkata, there was both a locking class and a battle, so I took the opportunity and went to both.

Locking class with Locking Kira

Locking class with Locking Kira; Author’s photo

Second: dance battles are arguably an integral part of street dance culture, and hip-hop culture more generally. To oversimplify almost unforgivably, hip-hop culture finds its roots in Black and Latin communities, particularly the Bronx, in the United States in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. While most people nowadays associate hip-hop with rapping (or MCing), there are three other main elements of the culture: graffiti, DJing, and breaking (sometimes known to outsiders as breakdancing). The dance battle comes out of this culture, and provides a space for direct competition between dancers to determine their “ranking” in the community. Nowadays many other street dance styles, such as house, locking, popping, and waacking, also incorporate the dance battle into their respective traditions/styles.

The battle I went to was called Cypherology, a name which itself evokes other aspects of the culture: the cypher, a coming-together of dancers who take turns dancing and exchanging at the centre of a circle; and the suffix “-ology,” literally “study of,” a recurring theme for street dancers: our commitment to studying our style, that we are students of the dance and of the culture and that we should always seek to learn and expand our knowledge.

The organisers of the event were apparently told ahead of time that I, an out-of-towner, would be dropping in to see the battle and to say I was welcomed with open arms would be an understatement. I was given the opportunity to share a bit of my dancing with the other dancers, including a spur-of-the-moment locking showcase battle against 3D_Lock, a Kolkata locker, which is one of my favourite exchanges I have ever had with another dancer. He was one of the dancers I had been connected to through the Mumbai dancers, and had convinced me to come to the battle. Dancing the same dance with someone who learned it on the other side of the world to me represents one of the best aspects of street dance: its ability to bring people together to share in something we love, no matter our background or our training, or even where we are from. Street dance truly does create a global community, and for the first time I truly understood what that meant and felt like.

Building families across oceans: 3D_Lock and Jess. Photo courtesy of 3D_Lock

Building families across oceans: 3D_Lock and Jess. Photo courtesy of 3D_Lock

What was even more inspiring for me was watching the battles.

Montreal has an impressively strong street dance community – the city has earned the nickname Funktreal – and I was incredibly fortunate to be able to enter into the community by learning from some of the best dancers in Canada, and arguably in the world. The scene in Kolkata, being younger in both age of the scene and age of the dancers, is still building that same base. Despite the age and experience difference, the vibe at Cypherology was incredible. It was humbling and inspiring to see so many young dancers demonstrate so much passion and energy for their dance. Being in a room full of dancers, dancing, and great music, for the first time in the two weeks I had been in Kolkata, I felt at home.

In the culture, we often talk about the importance of values such as peace, love, unity, and having fun (see supra, but also here for a live representation). At Cypherology, on the dance floor and in conversation with other dancers, I saw, felt, and breathed those ideas, for which I am truly grateful.

Third: the street dance battle was in Kolkata, a city separated from the country where hip-hop was born by several thousand kilometers of ocean, politics, and culture. Despite the massive separation, an underground culture originating in oppressed communities in the United States has not only made it to India, but it has flourished. Thanks to globalisation and the proliferation of internet availability, dances that were once localised to particular cities in North America have reached decades into the future and across continents. As this global community continues to grow and to connect, the other scenes out there are going to need to watch out. Kolkata’s holding it down, and they’re coming for you.

The Power of Place

http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/327/cache/street-kolkata_32764_990x742.jpg

Street Scene, Kolkata
Source: http://images.nationalgeographic.com/wpf/media-live/photos/000/327/cache/street-kolkata_32764_990x742.jpg

There are cities that you visit. Shining lights, framed portraits, manicured parks, picture-perfect moments. And then there are cities that you feel. The dust between your toes, the hazy, thick heat that envelops your body, those looks – some of joy, others of despair. To walk the streets of Kolkata is to feel. It is to register the way in which the extremes play out in the daily lives of the strangers that surround you – the begging child and the extended hand, the young student from Presidency College rushing to the library, the corporate Tata executive passing through security barriers, and the tourist, that perpetual outsider, looking in and observing the daily celebration of human existence with all the good and bad that that existence entails.

To walk the streets of Kolkata is to also appreciate the relevance and importance of place – those physical spaces imbued with history, memory, and meaning. To inhabit a place is to move beyond the crushing sea of humans, the honking horns of Park Street, the rickshaw wallahs jostling for space on the road, and those historic buildings wilting in the heat, tragic reminders of how nothing is immune from the rain, the wind, and the ticking hands of the clock. For Somini Sengupta, Kolkata as a place represents both the parochial and the modern. She writes, “India’s first global city, it is littered with the remains of many worlds: the rickshaws that the Chinese brought; an Armenian cemetery; dollops of jazz left by Americans in the war years.” (Note: In 2001, Calcutta was renamed Kolkata to match the Bengali pronunciation of the city name).

In my opinion, one of the best examples of this “littering” is the South Park Street Cemetery. In use from 1757 to 1840, the cemetery is the resting place for hundreds of British men and women who took up the colonial mission of the British Empire (serving in occupations as diverse as jail-keeping to school teaching to coopering). Venture off the central path and push past the jungle cover to discover the grand rotundas, soaring pyramids, and sober plaques. Rub your hands along the cold stone facades and read the names and descriptions of these people of a bygone era. There’s the large white pyramid in the center that belongs to Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society and one the foremost scholars of ancient India. There’s also Grave 363, containing only the following epitaph – “A Virtuous Mother (died 1825).” These markers offer us a glimpse into the colonial past of Kolkata. They also prompt us to extend our analysis and consider the ways in which individuals stake their claim to a particular space and attempt to make it their “own.”

Through an internship with the Calcutta Research Group, I’ll be taking up elements of this analysis as I explore the content and character of the claims (to housing, to water, to education, to citizenship) made by refugees and the displaced on the spaces of the city. The first part of this exploration will be historical – I hope to carry out an archival study of the lived experiences of refugees who settled in and around Calcutta following the events of the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence (when East Pakistan seceded to become independent Bangladesh). Throughout the conflict, over 10 million people crossed the border into India, with the majority settling in and around the city of Calcutta (Bandyopadhyay 2000 37). To appreciate the sheer magnitude of this movement, consider that 12 million refugees were uprooted in Europe in the wake of the Second World War (35). While scholars have documented the state’s administrative response to this influx, very little has been written about the lived experiences of the refugees in the camp setting. The second part will be contemporary – I plan on analyzing the current urban design policies governed by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority and asking what space (if any) is afforded to the displaced and the refugee.

Even though I haven’t yet formulated my theses or generated working hypotheses, my general hunch is that place matters when we think about the claims made on the city. That hunch might seem quite basic and obvious but I think the exciting and worthwhile intellectual pursuit lies in interrogating what it is about city space that makes it distinct and relevant as we think through if and how the displaced and the refugee claim rights to the space of the city. The ‘distinct’ and ‘relevant’, I believe, emerge from both the content and the approach. In terms of content, there is a renewed focus in the academic literature on cities, particularly the cities of the Global South, and what cities have to say about the larger nation-states in which these cities are located. According to Sassen, “After the long historical phase that saw the ascendance of the national state and the scaling of key economic dynamics at the national level, the city is once again today a scale for strategic economic and political dynamics” (2005 357). Consider one possible application. By situating the lived experiences of the refugee within the urban context of Kolkata, we should be able to better understand the crises of Indian national membership while rethinking the notion of the ultimate claim itself, that claim being citizenship (Holston and Appadurai 1996 202). In terms of approach, there is a push to move beyond the famous midnight hours of 14-15 August 1947 (India’s moment of Independence) and embrace both a postcolonial methodology and an integrated analysis (instead of divorcing India from the regional dynamics, attention needs to be paid to the plurality of voices from the region).

Even though the city represents just one strategic type of place, it is one that I think offers a powerful conceptual framework to work through these questions of recognition and entitlement, culture and identity, inclusion and exclusion. The Calcutta of 1971 and the Kolkata of 2014 thus challenge us to respond to the key question posed by Sassen – “Whose city is it?” (1996 206).

References:
Bandyopadhyay in Bose “Refugees in West Bengal” Calcutta Research Group 2000, 32.
Holston and Appadurai “Cities and Citizenship” Public Culture 1996, 187-204.
Sassen “Whose City Is It?” Public Culture 1996, 205-223.
Sassen “The Future of Urban Sociology” Sociology 2005, 343.
Sengupta “A Walk in Calcutta” New York Times April 29, 2009.

How Indian Law Produces Statelessness

By Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

While at the Calcutta Research Group, one of my tasks has been to look into the legal aspects of statelessness in India to compliment the extensive archival and field work conducted by the CRG over the last three years in mapping the statelessness situation in India. In my research, I learned that India has numerous legal provisions with actively produce statelessness.

Wait a minute, what’s statelessness again?

Article 1 of the 1954 Statelessness Convention, a stateless person is one “who is not considered a national by any State under the operation of its law.”  Since that definition is now widely understood to be customary international law, meaning it should be applied by all states including those not party to the convention and Article 51(c) of the Indian Constitution provides that India “shall endeavour to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in the dealings of organized peoples with another,” it follows that, regardless of whether or not the state accedes to either statelessness convention, this definition of statelessness carries the weight of law in India.

So, those who do not have a legal bond with any state are unambiguously de jure stateless. When this narrow definition is applied, however, it usually only covers those who are not automatically granted nationality at birth by the application of state legal instruments, those without nationality who are unable to obtain it through establish legal provision for its acquisition, and those whose nationality is revoked or terminated for any reasons and who do not have a second nationality.  Indeed, the 1954 Statelessness Convention definition precludes those with a legal bond with a state without ensuring that that bond carries with it particular rights, entitlements, or guarantees.  Because there is no universal standard for citizenship or nationality and because discriminatory laws, policies, and practices can mean that citizenship is experienced unequally between those citizens of the same state, it is possible for those with citizenship to experience it in such an ineffective manner that their experience mirror that of those who are de jure stateless.

The term de facto stateless, therefore, exists to describe the position of those who fall within the large range of people whose lived experiences are essentially of statelessness, but who do not form a part of the smaller group of people able to satisfy the de jure  definition.  While the term carries no legal definition and there is no clear consensus about its meaning in the literature, the term is generally used to refer to those who are unable to disprove the assumption that they have a nationality and those whose legal bonds of nationality is ineffective.

Isn’t that a bit restrictive?

Yes, I think so.  This definition rests on an assumed binary opposition of the citizen or national against the stateless person, which fails to account for the complexity of lived realities. In practice, many stateless people are unable to have their status recognized as such and legal bonds of citizenship are not always effective. States generally operate with a presumption of nationality, which makes it impossible for those whose nationality is unknown, but who have not been found to have established that they are without nationality to access protection as stateless people. Additionally, many states have demonstrated reluctance to classify certain people as stateless and others do not recognize the stateless status of those whose citizenship they have denied.  Matters are substantially complicated when the effectiveness of a person’s nationality are considered.

Ok, so how is it that Indian law produces statelessness?

A number of explicit provisions in the Citizenship Act of India, 1955 provide legal means by which a person in possession of Indian citizenship may lose that legal bond. First, renunciation (under section 8) entitles Indian citizens to renounce their citizenship even if by doing so, they would become de jure stateless and can deprive children of their Indian citizenship on the basis of their father’s actions in such a way that may leave them stateless until they reach the mandated age to resume their Indian citizenship by declaration. Second, termination (under section 9) leaves open the possibility that those whose citizenship is terminated end up de facto statelessness, because there is no guarantee that the non-Indian citizenship that has been voluntary acquired is an effective one. Finally, deprivation (under section 10), in no uncertain terms, provides for creates statelessness by prescribing it as punishment for certain action and inaction.

So, what’s to be done?

Simply put, India must stop legally sanctioning the production of statelessness. It should revise its citizenship laws such that citizenship cannot be revoked from those who would be rendered stateless by such an act.  It must, however, be remember that addressing statelessness in India, like elsewhere in the world, is not merely a legal question. The existence of effective rights and entitlements goes much beyond the courtroom to the political arena and socio-cultural milieu.

Settling in at the Calcutta Research Group

2013-Malischewski-100x100By Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

When I first arrived at the Calcutta Research Group, I found a large, unmarked dark brown door, chained shut in a residential area.  I wondered if I had come to the wrong place, but I had double checked the address last night and I was certain that I was the address I’d written dow.  So, I sat down, crossed my fingers, and waited.

It took a while to settle into my internship, partly because I am the first McGill intern to have a placement with the Calcutta Research Group and partly because “intern” has a different meaning here than it does in North America. Luckily, though, once I realized I was here more as a visiting researcher and I began to get to know the other folks in the office, what started out a bit confusing and very unknown turned into a fascinating experience.

The Calcutta Research Group was founded in 1996, emerging from a gathering of 400 peace activists from the sub-continent who came together in support of the peace movement in West Bengal.  It started out as a forum for young public activists and socially committed researchers and is now well-known for its research and publications, courses, dialogue work, and library. Over the years, the CRG’s areas of research have evolved.  They now work on issues relating to partition, borders, displacement, migration, conflict, peace, governance, democracy, autonomy, and social justice with a special focus on gender, class, the environment, labour, and minorities.

PP Pile - DemocracyRefugee Watch Yellow Pile copy

Because the CRG has been dependant on project-based grants and funding, it has never achieved the level of institutional stability required to retain researchers on a long term.   Yet, somehow, despite the financial insecurity that comes with being a public institution without any formal affiliations to the government, a university, or a political party, the CRG continues to produce an impressive collection of books, an array of reports, and a bi-annual journal.  The neat thing about the CRG is that it’s not just a research centre, it’s also a network of scholars, activists, and institutions across India with connections around the world. The list of people who have come to deliver lectures or teach modules in their winter course is quite impressive.

Books layed out

At the office, I am working on a legal brief on statelessness to assist the centre in tying in legal aspect to their three-year statelessness study, which is soon coming to a close. So, I’m putting together a document that discusses the international legal framework on statelessness as well as the regional and national legal mechanisms available for the prevention and reduction of statelessness and the protection of stateless populations in India. Like everyone else here, I also lend a hand on various project, grant proposals, and presentations on topics such as rural migrants in cities and post-conflict realities for women in India’s northeast.

It might have started slow, but the only thing that’s still slow are the computers. There’s no lack of work to be done. And, thanks to Mohan-da, no matter how busy it gets, cups of darjeeling tea are a plenty!

Orientation Course Posters

[The photos in this post are ones I took for an audiovisual presentation I am developing for the CRG about their work.]

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