In December 2019, Shaheen Bagh, a stretch of land in Delhi located between a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood, upper class residential areas and a link road across the river to the eastern side of the capital, became the emblematic site where people – led by the women of Shaheen Bagh, mothers and grandmothers – assembled, traversed by some thought.
This thought, during the days and months to follow, was primarily represented by the words “citizen” or “citizenship”. Against the unjust CAA and the communal manipulation of law by the government, the just, constitutional and moral “citizenship” seemed to be the superior conceptual posture adopted by the protestors.
This counter-position didn’t satisfy me because if thought was the force that moved and assembled bodies, then “citizenship” was simply not thinkable enough either with respect to its intensity or its degree of truth. Yet the preamble and the profile of the citizen didn’t cease to be evoked in the noblest ways during this time.
In January 2020, I found myself writing a broken, episodic account of the history of citizenship in India and elsewhere, showing that there was something inconsistent about this notion. Citizenship couldn’t itself be authorised by citizens. Indeed, the far more frank name of this inconsistency was “people” – “people” were far more exposed to their internal contradictions – “people” could declare universal principles of democracy and yet concretely manifest the heterogeneity of class, caste and other measures of difference to the point of antagonism. In contrast, the apparatus of citizenship seemed to formally void the thought of contradiction and really hide it.
I wrote what I did at a certain distance from Shaheen Bagh and the other sites of protest. Due to a physical disability, among other reasons, I was not able to be much present in these demonstrations. However, soon as I wrote the text, I handed it to over to Sukriti. She is a student of politics I have had long discussions with for several years now, and she was generous enough to accept my invitation to enter the torture chamber of my handwriting. Sukriti survived to ratify my thesis and its episodic demonstration.
Coincidentally, just about then I was invited to speak at Shaheen Bagh as part of a lecture series on citizenship. Two colleagues had already spoken in the earlier weeks and when I reached Shaheen Bagh around midnight to speak at that hour because of tactical reasons chosen by the organisers, I didn’t know what to expect. The reality of the experience was an exemplary leveller of our schemas of day and night, rest and activity, normal and exceptional.
If a situation was exceptional, it was always so, by day, by night, at work, or when resting. At the same time, the evaluation of this exceptional character must be made by those who are living this exception through their capacity of thinking – a capacity activated by day, by night… I had no hesitation to speak to the people there based on my notes on the history of citizenship, from Ancient Greece, Rome, French Revolution and the Constituent Assembly proceedings between 1947 and 1950 in India.
I said, “If Shaheen Bagh is a kind of renewed Constituent Assembly – Shaheen Assembly – then the most contemplative, urgent and capacious version of the Constituent Assembly must be a kind of Constituent Bagh.”
In March 2020, Shaheen Bagh transmitted a strange, if still popular, solitude. The coronavirus had been declared the source of a pandemic. The world had turned “official” through and through, saturating nearly every space with its mortal substance and meaning. This was factually to be expected, but this fact of the virus was itself inserted into an impure historical situation with other facts, nay truths.
At that stage, the “fact” of the virus seemed to make us uniformly mortal. Yet the truth of Shaheen Bagh’s continuing solitude still blocked a crucial part of the city. In the meantime, the rest of Delhi geared up to enter into a lockdown. Between the political blockade and the civic lockdown, there emerged an incommensurability which expressed itself in a range of reactions.
The protestors continuing to assemble in Shaheen Bagh, though thinning in number, were divided between their radical, emancipatory desire and their efforts to convey their sense of civic responsibility. The rest went through a spectrum of responses, from bewildered to enraged: when all of us were now part of an exceptional situation, how could there be exceptions to that exceptional situation?
I felt a certain instability in the solid chorus against Shaheen Bagh’s public solitude. If the pandemic was the official status of the world as exceptional, then this status was already decided. There was nothing to be thought here – even while all of us were enjoined to change our “being-in-the-world”. Change itself was apparently not a matter of thinking; it was supposed to be so obvious that why waste one’s time thinking about it.
While the exceptional solitude of Shaheen Bagh lay in the challenge that for everyone who was there, spoke there, silently stood there, or from a distance, participated in its solitude – the exception must be decided all over again. Nothing could be taken for granted. And every particle of the world of Shaheen Bagh must be as much particles of thought. I like to call this “constituent thought”.
However, it is exactly when the virus granted the world an exceptional, official status that the very possibility of deciding and creating new and exceptional worlds by an inconsistent people, by an impure “us”, is destroyed. As my friend, Aniruddha Chowdhury, whose philosophical intelligence needs just an aphorism to say it all, puts it: it is when the world is rendered uniformly official that “world” as well as “being-in-the-world” are destroyed.
At that threshold in March, what still demanded to be thought and declared in its being-thought – universal principles of a just society and an equal life – more and more lacked body, while bodies separated and assembled in their separation across spaces were almost entirely emptied of anything thinkable, any capacity for “principles”.
So then, staying at a distance, committing to isolation, in this measure or that…
Actually, this commitment grows clamorous, oh too clamorous an isolation! Yet, isolation, nothing but isolation…This is the impasse I put on record while never ceasing to traverse the same. As surely do others, so many of whom I have compared notes with in these last months.
Someone asked recently: What is it like to make notes in a state of being by oneself over a long time? My answer is to change the question: What is it to be alone, by oneself, over time?
It is to make notes, keep making notes. And to make notes is always to compare them with others. Strangely, a comparative passion passes through us in our isolations. Comparing notes is also particularly fascinating because it reveals, different modes of how isolation could be given a certain duration to convert it to solitude.
And solitude is of many kinds – starting from the solitude of the solitary note-taker, we can imagine the erotic solitude of the Two and further the popular solitude of politics. This comparative passion, no doubt, flows thickly across phone lines and internet spaces today – in my case, more the former than the latter.
Excerpted with permission from Now It’s Come To Distances: Notes on Shaheen Bagh and Coronavirus, Association and Isolation, Soumyabrata Choudhury, Navayana.