Reading Time: 8 minutes


Who Sings the Nation-state is a provocative discussion on Nationalism and the idea of the state, between Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak. The discussion presents a view of the different kinds of contexts in which the category of belongingness called citizenship gets contested and maneuvered through. It discusses the challenges in theorizing political resistance.

Butler opens her section with a discussion of ‘statelessness’ and ‘state of exception’, by looking at the different connotations that the term ‘state’ brings to mind, including as in ‘a state of mind’, and thus links the term to the performative dimension.

Revoking a case of a street demonstration in 2006 in Los Angeles when US National Anthem was sung in Spanish by illegal immigrants, Butler then evokes the theories of Arendt and Agamben to observe that both their theories were not quite enough to understand this performative act of singing. (62)

‘Statelessness’ is a state (condition) that Butler observes as at once being contained and dispossessed by the state. According to Butler, “This is not bare life, but a particular formation of power and coercion that is designed to produce and maintain the condition of the dispossessed” (pg 5).

Reading Arendt’s idea of ‘statelessness’ in The Origins of Totalitarianism and analyzing her positions regarding what the ‘political sphere’ is in ‘The Human Condition’, Butler makes some observations. Butler identifies that ‘statelessness’ is important in contemporary conditions of the world and Arendt was perhaps one writer who explored the condition in detail in her own historical context.

It is Georgio Agamben who demolished this idea by pointing out that there are also ‘states of exception’ or conditions by which constitutions carry within them the rights of the sovereign to suspend constitutional protections. This becomes true especially in conditions where entire wars are waged against citizens in the name of national security

For Arendt, the basis of politics as public sphere was that of the Greek city-state, according to which there was also a ‘dark’ state occupied by the slaves, women and children and the disenfranchised foreigner, the people ousted from the legitimate rights of citizenship. For Arendt, this sphere that they occupied belonged ‘not the domain of politics’. (15) Writing half-a-century ago, and before the ravaging feminist idea that the ‘personal is political’, the distinction between public and private was cruder for Arendt.

For Butler these ‘dark’ ‘private’ conditions, by which certain sections of people are denied ‘minimal recognition’ for ‘social intelligibility’ not only disqualifies them for citizenship but also qualify them for ‘statelessness’. The stateless, are “not just stripped of status, but accorded a status” as they become stateless precisely by “complying with certain normative categories.” They are “produced” as stateless. This becomes especially important in the case of illegal immigrants who are incarcerated for laboring illegally, even as their labor is used by the state.

In modern conditions of power, states do not deprive freedom to persons but establish those categories that constitute freedom in such a way that its political elaboration and enforcement would supply the ‘status’ of non-citizens, one that qualifies to be stateless. This qualification, butler says is a juridical procedure through which subjects are both constituted and fore-closed. (The Aadhar enactment in India is currently an example by which citizens are being foreclosed as free for constitutional rights, including that of food, labor or education.)

Arendt’s understanding of refugee is that of the exile, one who has left a place and arrived at another, whereas immigrants are not dispossessed like exiles. Butler also cites many instances of ‘statelessness’ and stresses on the need for a ‘literature of the stateless’ just as there is a literature of exile. (In 2013, a poem by Ibrahim Al-Rubaish, an ex-detainee at Guantanamo bay had stirred up some controversy when it was prescribed in the syllabus of Calicut University. Even as established curriculums and canons still refuse to conceive of poetry as ‘political’, the 2006 anthology, “Poems from Guantanamo” from which the said poem was also taken, in fact, brought to question the official narratives of the state, through the voice of a few men who along with hundreds of others were in legal limbo in the prison of Guantanamo Bay).

The most important lesson to be gathered from Arendt’s critique of Nationalism, according to Butler, is her ‘refusal to mandate cultural familiarity as the basis of shared governance’. This let her not only to oppose Jewish sovereignty but also allowed her to seriously consider federation as an alternative policy, not only to defeat German fascism during the Second World War but also as a possibility for Palestinians and Jews.

The question of Kashmir, for example, is politically linked to the colonial history and the history of partition, but it remains an exemplary example of the notion of the state of exception. Even in global venues like the UN, Kashmir issue remains a contested one. What lies within the entire narrative of the struggle of a people for self-determination, is also the history of international diplomacy that both India and Pakistan had managed to accomplish. The two countries have now converted the issue as one of boundaries and borders, completely denying and negating the possibility of even a referendum for the Kashmiri people for self-determination. Much of the nuances of the political maneuvering that acted as a continuous catalyst for the crisis now remains lost.

Now, in a unilateral move, President of India has revoked Article 370 which embodied several special provisions for Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 (of the Constitution) is not some random historical blunder, as the government now puts it out to be. It is a clause in the mutual agreement between Jammu & Kashmir and India when J& K agreed to join the Indian Union. In the union, it is not necessary that all States should have the same relationship with the Union. There are two aspects to this decision to revoke the special status to J&K by the President. First, it invokes the original violation of international commitments India had made in the UN about the status of J & K and second, it violates the covenant between the two countries at the time of accession.

The Government suitably worked around the fact that Article 370 was placed under temporary provisions of the Constitution. The ethicality of this action is highly suspect. In the case of Article 370, the fact that the Constituent Assembly never recommended its abrogation makes it, in principle, a permanent provision. The Union Government is now discounting this important historical fact. Calling a fact, a ‘blunder’ is just another post-truth lie.

Except Congress, DMK, CPI and CPIM, most of the major political parties in India have failed to comprehend the assault on the Constitution, trampling of federalism, abnegation of international conventions, a total disrespect for internal democratic practices and above all, the subjugation of people of Kashmir that this unilateral show of political might entails.

While the regional parties have a special responsibility in upholding federalism and spirit of autonomy, they have miserably let down all those who trusted their good judgment on the nature and spirit of center-state relations within the Indian Union. It is appalling that when one of the more autonomous states in the Indian union is subjected to the worst kind of authoritarianism, they stand up to applaud the violation. They seemed to have missed out completely, the serious political, diplomatic, ethical and democratic contraventions involved in this Government move.

Democratic constitutionalism is often considered as a story of an ideal state in which sovereignty and its problems are overcome through contractarian forms of parliamentary government. It is Georgio Agamben who demolished this idea by pointing out that there are also ‘states of exception’ or conditions by which constitutions carry within them the rights of the sovereign to suspend constitutional protections. This becomes true especially in conditions where entire wars are waged against citizens in the name of national security (as in the case of Bastar or Jammu and Kashmir in India). Agamben’s formulations of ‘state of exception’ relied partially on Arendt. According to Agamben, the state exercises some of its powers to make a section of its own population stateless, or as ‘bare life’ as he terms it.

Agamben’s ‘bare life’, according to Judith Butler is a condition in which the “bios” of the person is no longer linked to her political status, or in other words, citizenship. By providing this interpretation to Agamben’s idea, Butler leads to observe that in ‘bare life’, ‘the very problem is that life has become separated from the ‘political’ or the conditions of citizenship. She says that this formulation presumes that politics and life join only and always on the problem of citizenship. On the other hand, she finds this as ‘jettisoned life’, a condition in which one is both expelled and contained and is “saturated with power”(pg 40). She suggests this as an entry point to discuss the massive problem of statelessness and to demand to find “post-national forms of political opposition that might begin to address the problem with some efficacy.”

According to Agamben, ‘state of exception’ is a condition as well as a strategy that has the potential to transform democracies to totalitarian states. The post 9/11 induced panic, for instance, leads to the detention of millions of non-citizens by the US for trial by the military commission. For Agamben this is not just an exception, but what involves the deep structures of our politico-legal existence.

‘State of exception’ is the third volume in his series comprising of Homo Sacer (1995) and Remnants of Auswitz (1998). It is not just an inquiry into the ubiquitous state of emergency in contemporary existences marked with surveillance, siege, military and police brutality, etc., but a ‘paradigmatic form of government’ that has its roots in the French revolution and even to the Roman Juridical concepts of Sovereignty. What Agamben does is to present a theory of law for the existence of human activity that is not protected by law. Agamben’s is a deeply tragic vision that signals toward slow disappearance of all effective political action.

In his thesis, Agamben first rejects two common approaches toward the legality of situations that permit the states to suspend the rights of citizens and others in the case as it may. The first approach considers this as a prerogative of the state, a task that according to the international law today is one that is ‘derogated’ to states. All international laws permit states to suspend citizen’s rights if there is an emergency, a larger than usual threat to the life of the nation.

It will thus be worthwhile to remember on this Independence Day that the Indian state had always played the politics of compromise with the majority religion within a legal limbo.

The second approach understands ‘state of exception’ as ‘extra-juridical’, something outside the rule of law, a pragmatic point where the state’s incapacity is recognized. According to this, the problems and dangers that could befall a state could be infinite and even beyond the sovereign capacity of the state. So there should not be any constitutional shackles or controls on executive action, nor should they be accountable to normal judicial mechanisms. Agamben rejects these two theories and says that ‘the state of exception is neither internal nor external to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concerns precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and outside do not exclude each other but rather blur with one another.

Agamben brings in many modern contexts of states of exception, ever since it was initiated in the French constituent assembly in 1789 as differentiation between ‘state of war’ and ‘state of siege’. He traces a history of its happenings in Europe and the US. He uses Carl Schmitt’s popular definition of the sovereign as ‘he who decides on the exception’ by means of which state of exception is a kind of permitted dictatorship. But Agamben moves away from any theory that holds ‘state of exception’ annexed to law, either as inscribed in it or as outside to it. For him, it is not a state of law but a state without law, ‘a zone of anomie’.

It will thus be worthwhile to remember on this Independence Day that the Indian state had always played the politics of compromise with the majority religion within a legal limbo. The veil was removed in the nineties with the demolition of Babri Masjid. The neo-comprador bourgeois who has been the beneficiary of the liberalization-privatization- globalization processes, had begun to support Hindutva religious majoritarianism directly, the gap that had emerged for a small span of time between the Indian State and the bourgeois has also collapsed.

As soon as the conflicts between them ended, the State now conspires with the bourgeois to loot its people indiscriminately. In the ultimate domain, the only gain that could have been available from colonial modernity was its liberal political promises and Indian bourgeois has thrown this as well in their retrogressive return into medieval rationalities aligning closely with Hindutva forces.

When we explore the history of these seventy years, it is quite shocking how, through their experiments with the liberal democratic promises, through their relentless crushing of political protests of oppositional civil society, Indian bourgeois finally has walked into the hands of majoritarian politics. It is indeed saddening and tragic to observe that after all the histories of nationalist protests, subaltern protests, regional articulations, and revolutionary reforms, what stares at us is the ominous prospects of a majoritarian state that throws to wind even the basic values of liberal democracy.

The state of exception has become the rule.

Dr. T T Sreekumar is an Indian writer, social and literary critic, and political analyst. He is currently working in The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad as Professor, at the School of Interdisciplinary Studies.


Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Notify of