The Power of Place

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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.

Still Far to Go: World Refugee Day in India

2013-Malischewski-100x100By Charlotte-Anne Malischewski

Today marks World Refugee Day. The number of refugees worldwide is at an 18-year high and the UN high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters that, around the world, a person is forced to flee every 4.1 seconds.

While much of the world’s attention is placed on the crisis in Syria and countries which continue to produce huge numbers of refugees such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, there is much to be concerned about when it comes to the plight of refugees in South Asia.

No country in the region is party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951 or to the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1967.

In India, the central argument against ratifying the 1951 Convention is that it is too much a representation of European ways of addressing European problems to be effectively implemented in India.  Presently, India is not bound by the provisions of these key tools of international refugee law. That said, 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 one another”.   So, the principles of refugee law are often adopted in India, but the state is not bound by them in the way that a signatory country would be.

To make matters more ambiguous, India has no domestic refugee policy. Because there is no legal framework for asylum, the UNHCR conducts refugee status determination for asylum-seekers from non-neighbouring countries and Myanmar.

In an address in honour of World Refugee Day, Dr. Shashi Tharoor (former Minister of State for External Affairs and now a  Member of Parliament who spend much of his career working for the UNHCR) said:

“It troubles me that a country with our proud traditions and our noble practices remains neither legally committed nor obliged to do anything for refugees, even if we behave humanely in practice. I think it is high time the Government reviewed its long-standing reluctance to sign up legally to what it is already doing morally. The Convention and the Protocol involve no obligations that we have not undertaken voluntarily.”

To say that the convention is in keeping with existing Indian intentions towards refugees, to draw parallel’s with India’s ancient historical of acceptance of migrants, or even to demonstrate that the current situation is inconsistent with constitutional principle is useful in trying to convince the powers that be to sign the convention, but to say that India is already doing morally what it would be required to do legally if it signed the convention is somewhat misleading. It masks the fact that India is not only resisting signing the 1951 convention, it is resisting implementing an effective legal system of refugee protection – period.

It’s been a year since the government committed to new long term visa that all refugees are suppose to be able to apply for, but those on the ground are not seeing the benefits of these new visas. An article in The Hindu today tells the story of refugees from Myanmar still waiting to hear from the Foreigner Regional Registration Office about these long-term visas. In it, a UNHCR official is quoted as saying:

“The Government of India has committed to allow all UNHCR-registered refugees in India to apply for long-term visas, which will also allow them to work in the formal sector and enrol in any academic institution. The process is slow and it is not clear how long it will take for all refugees registered with UNHCR to obtain them. So far, according to our information, refugees from Myanmar and some Somali refugees have obtained them. Refugees from other nationalities have also applied but have not received them yet.”

If India is to live up to the “heritage of diversity” Dr. Shashi Tharoor celebrates, it has a long way to go.  Signing the 1951 refugee convention will likely not be enough, because as a product of post-War Europe it is ill-suited for the South Asian context, but it could be a start.  A regional mechanisms is another option. A mixture of the two might be ideal.  Ultimatley, though –  while the means are many, the need is clear.

India needs to to implement a legal framework for refugee protection that is in keeping with international legal norms and responsive to South Asia realities and then, it needs ensure that these laws become practice.

As an advocate of the Supreme Court of Hinda and  human rights activist, Rajeev Dhavan, said five years ago on this day:

“India needs to review its ambivalent refugee law policy, evolve a regional approach and enact rules or legislation to protect persecuted refugees. This is one step towards supporting a humanitarian law for those who need it. As a refugee-prone area, South Asia requires India to take the lead to devise a regional policy consistent with the region’s needs and the capacity to absorb refugees under conditions of global equity.”

For those forced to flee and  now stuck in a legal lacuna, India’s history of hospitality is meaningless.  They need legislated rights protection mechanisms and active efforts to ensure social, political, and economic inclusion in the present.

How should an activist be?

By Jihyun Rosel Kim 

Before I began my internship, I was told it would involve mostly research. That statement is technically true – the majority of my time here was spent wrestling with Quicklaw, writing memos, or making information charts. However, one thing I’ve learned about the Legal Network is that it is truly committed to the issues identified in its mission statement, and will speak out in various ways.

1. Quiet action at the Court of Appeal

On June 15, staff of the Legal Network and other members of the community (including members of the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure) participated in a “quiet action” campaign at the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Court was scheduled to hear an appeal on a case involving HIV status non-disclosure (R. v. M.), where both the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario (HALCO) were intervenors.

The "HIV Positive" action at the ON Court of Appeal

At trial, the judge ignored case law by not applying the significant risk test (i.e. a person living with HIV must disclose his/her status to the partner when the sexual activity poses a “significant risk of bodily harm”) set out in R. v. Cuerrier. Instead, he charged the defendant with aggravated sexual assault simply on the ground that the defendant did not disclose his status. Although the defendant stated he used a condom (which further diminishes the already-low risk of HIV transmission), the trial judge said it did not matter whether the sex was protected or not.

To demonstrate to the Court that people living with HIV and their allies were concerned about such overbroad use of criminal law, the Legal Network organized a t-shirt campaign—members showed up to the courtroom all wearing the same t-shirt with the logo “HIV Positive” at the front. There were about 18 people at court, and since the assigned courtroom for the hearing happened to be a smaller one, we effectively filled the gallery.

Unfortunately, the Court decided to stay the appeal, to wait for the Supreme Court decision on HIV non-disclosure (R. v. D.C.; R. v. Mabior) later this year. Even though it was a bit anti-climactic, one of the justices did take notice of the audience uniformly dressed in “HIV Positive” shirts to address us directly, and say that he realizes these issues are important and that he will make sure to rule on the issues carefully once the Supreme Court decision came down.

2. Action around cuts to refugee health care

At the end of April, Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced changes to the Interim Federal Health Program, which would effectively cut most supplemental health care benefits for refugee claimants, and all access to government-funded health care services for failed refugee claimants (who may reapply to stay in Canada under humanitarian and compassionate grounds). The only exception would be when the claimant’s health condition presented a “public health risk”—such as HIV. As of now, the public outcry seems to have made Kenney’s office backtrack a little bit from their initial cuts these days, but most of the cuts still remain.

On June 18—the national day of action to protect refugee health care—the Executive Director emailed everyone about the protest in Toronto, and encouraged everyone to attend the protest with him. So later on that day, I went to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada office on St. Clair Avenuewith a team of policy analysts and the ED of the Legal Network, and joined a few hundred people who were chanting “health care for refugees!”

Through participating in these actions, I’ve learned about the joys of being out on the streets with other people who believe in the same things as I do, which offers tremendous comfort in times where laws and policies seem to be going to a dark place. These experiences won’t appear on my CV as things I accomplished, but they nevertheless had a big impact on my outlook on activism and effective advocacy.

And for that intangible feeling of joy that came from connecting with other like-minded people who are committed to making things better, I am very grateful to the Legal Network.

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