Subaltern Voices: A New York nonprofit amplifies dissent through The Polis Project

Women hold placards during a protest against CAA and NRC, at Clock Tower, on January 30, 2020 in Lucknow, India. (Getty Images)

Suchitra Vijayan, a barrister-at-law from London who did her graduate studies from Yale, feels that increasingly institutions, journalistic organizations and thinktanks have disproportionately skewed towards the state and not towards the people.

The thought prompted her to think of the urgent need to democratize scholarship, produce in-depth, critical journalism and knowledge for and by communities in resistance.

“Whether it was in my time in Cairo, Afghanistan or Kashmir, it became very clear to me that there is a need for an organization that enables people to produce knowledge and work for community in ways that are not influenced by TRP or by propaganda,” Vijayan told this correspondent.

From this thought emerged the idea of a new initiative christened The Polis Projectthat would amplify the voices that are unique, critical, remarkable and yet underrepresented.

Polis, the Greek word meaning city and also citizens, was aptfor Vijayan as she and a group of like-minded young writers, scholars, artists and lawyers who formed the collective wanted to feed people with unbiased information and knowledge resources about burning issues of the day, whether in India or elsewhere.

“I wanted our organization’s name to reflect the disproportionate tilt of such institutions towards government and away from people and the word polis was perfect fit for me as the collective’s name,” Vijayan, the founder of The Polis Project said.

The 36-year-oldChennai-bornbarrister-at-law whowas called to Bar at the Inner Temple in London and did her graduate studies at Yale, conceived the idea and launchedthePolis Projectin May 2017 registering it as a nonprofit the next year in New York where she lives.

“Our work is committed to people. We definitely are not a think tank in the sense that we don't produce materials for the state, and we produce it for the people. Since it’s a collective, every person involved has a stake in Polis,” Vijayan said.

The Polis Project, thus represents and reflects a gamut of voices and views of both scholars and ordinary people, including artists, students and activists on the ground from various communities both India and the U.S and elsewhere and on issues ranging from Hindutva politics to how the mediamaintains its inexplicable silence on issues from state violence to hate speech and poor women’s rights.

A sampling of the articles, artworks, podcasts and interviews on its site attest to how the collective seeks to amplify critical voices from remote corners of India to college and university campuses in the U.S. or U.K.

In a piece titledPedagogy and Violence: Mapping the Everyday Politics of Hindutva, Akanksha Mehta of the University of London writes that during her doctoral research in 2013 and 2014 and talk withher Hindu right-wing research interviewees in suburban Mumbai and Thane,she noticed how people created a ruckus around Muslim neighborhoods warning them that India was and will remain a Hindu nation. Her observation was that the ritual of violence during a morning walk by small groups of Hindus marked and claimed a territory as Hindu and tried to terrorize those who were seen to be outsiders.

Subaltern Voices: A New York nonprofit amplifies dissent through The Polis Project

A protest in UP that turned violent. Below, Dalit Women’s Swabimaan (Self-Respect) Yatra in Kurukshetra.

Shivangi Narayan, who has written an article titled Predictive Policing and the Construction of the Criminal Brutality points out to the bias against the Muslim community in the Delhi police. She saysa crime mapping platform established by Delhi Police to algorithmically predict crime led her to conclude that police believedcertain communities in specific spaces are the reason for the rising crime in the city, even when facts do not corroborate such assumptions.

Nazimuddin Siddique and Roshni Sengupta have writtenprotesters in an article Assam: Anti-CAA protests and the silence of the mediaabout how the media remained silent during police violence on anti-citizenship.

Siddharth Narrain, a lawyer and legal researcher based in Delhi talks about the history of hate speech in India, and its current trajectories in relation to freedom of expression, social media and question of dissent.

An interesting perspective has been brought out by Vijayan in an interview titled How does Hindutva and the Gates Foundations Philanthro-capitalism affect #Reproductive Justice in India? In the interview with Prof. Kalpana Wilson she talks about the synergies and connections between Gates Foundation and Prime Minister Modi, and about the relationship between Hindutva fascism, neoliberalism and philanthrocapitalism.

Since its inception, the Polis Project has sought to achieve its goal of making sense of the world with its infinite injustices, inequality and violence, with the courage to reveal how existing systems, ideas, ideologies and the laws have failed people.

“We pursue this by adapting our storytelling, analysis and research to the newest, most innovative ways of spreading our work to the most engaged audiences possible,” Vijayan said.

The project breaks down complex social and political ideas into simple ways, through essays, podcasts, interviews and sometimes through the form of journalistic writing. It uses social media platform, especially for young people.

“People do not want establishment TV anchors and journalists to talk about issues affecting them. What they really want is smart and intelligent content given to them in a way they can understand and that is what we have done quite consistently in the last two years,” Vijayan said in an interview.

“We want to make people understandcomplex ideas, using our research methods and skills, how the state quietly does this, whether it’s in Uttar Pradesh or in Chennai, ” Vijayan said.Noting that this is not the usual kind of reporting, she said every day 50 to 200 people write to Polis Project, sharing their artwork and thoughts so their voices get amplified.

“Weare becoming useful not just by documenting, reporting and thus amplifying voices,but also reporting in a different way because we take positions in terms of, say Shaheen Bagh, which means that we also bring certain kind of moral ethical issues there, although what we do is not enough,” Vijayan said.

The Polis Project publishes subject area scholars and young writers who know the issues and are not the “establishment kind” of journalists, who usually get a lot of platform and are seen everywhere, Vijayan says.

In a recent post on its sitetitled ‘India’s upper-caste Hindu dominance risks a civil war that will outlast the Modi regime,’Uday Chandra, an assistant professor of government in the School of Foreign Service and based at Georgetown University in Qatar noted that at an all-India level, ethnic democracy operates in ways that are both similar to and different from the state level.

“Across contemporary India, particularly in the northern and western states, the protection of cows and Hindu women (“love jihad”) offer symbolic occasions for vigilantism. But the deeper aim … is to deploy these symbols to create a two-tier polity in which primary citizenship is the preserve of Hindus, defined as a single ethnic group to encompass Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs rather than a loose label for diverse ways of worship; Muslims and Christians, by contrast, are marginalized as second-class citizens,” Chandra noted .

Chandra, who is the recipient of the 2013 Sardar Patel Award for writing the best dissertation in a U.S. university on any aspect of modern South Asia, noted that, “This is the ideological fantasy of the Hindu Rashtra, or polity imagined by the Hindu nationalist icon VD Savarkar roughly a century ago.”

Chennai-based visual designer and part-time writer Smrithi Amarendran, who contributes to the project by way of her artwork, noted that the last couple of months have been chaotic in India with views from all corners, some empowering, some distressing, and others that are hostile and polarized in nature.

“I feel like I grew up in a different India. In the current state, the country is dividing friends and families on either side but is also beautifully unifying people with common thoughts and ideas across a more diverse spectrum.Are we going to be a country of inclusion or just a country of illusion?

“No great nation can sustain on one ideology. It always benefits from a mixed pot. What is evident though is that the tipping point was long coming, and I am glad it is here, and I do not stand alone,” she told this correspondent in an email message.

Vijayan had previously worked for the U.N .war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda and she co-founded and was the Legal Director of Resettlement Legal Aid Project, Cairo that gave legal aid for Iraqi Refugees. She also undertook a 9,000-mile journey, some years ago traveling the entire land border of India. Her first book “the Midnight’s Border” which took her to Kashmir, is being published in June this year.

To a question about if the collective seeks to amplify the voices of the Muslim and the Dalit community as well in the current environment of protests against citizenship, Vijayan said, “I think the Muslim and the Dalit communities are the ones who have always led these protests and for them the protests have been integrated to their existence and what we do is always worked with and amplified the two communities.

“For us, if you are going to talk about South Asia it is not possible to talk about South Asia without talking about caste, and anybody who engages with South Asia without talking about caste and marginalization is not talking about the region in any meaningful way. That is why we have always talked about the issue,” Vijayan said, adding that the collective works with Dalit scholars and builds network. Besides Vijayan, others associated with the collective include Asim Rafiqui, an independent photojournalist, Vasundhara Sirnate, a political scientist and journalist, Francesca Recchia, an independent researcher/writer, Michael Busch a New York City-based writer/researcher, and Bhakti Shringarpure, assistant professor of English at the University of Connecticut and editor-in-chief of Warscapes magazine who is on the advisory board of Polis.

She observed that in the past the Muslim community did not come out on the streets even after lynching and riots and even after the Babri Masjid issue, but the community came out on the street the moment the Indian constitution was touched.

“This means that the Muslims in India understand that once the constitution is altered it is going to take away completely anything that ever meant anything to them, and so for them the protests are a matter of life and death. One has no choice but to fight because fighting is no longer an option. This is also true to a large extent for many in the Dalit community because they will also be the ones who will be most affected by this turmoil,” Vijayan said.

She said she was hopeful that coalition between Dalits and Muslims will be the end of Hindu Rashtra. “If you think about it, the only coalition that can beat Hindutva is the Muslim and Dalit coalition. When resistance becomes a matter of life and death, I think their equations completely change and I think the Modi government is afraid, no matter how authoritarian this government is,” Vijayan said.

But she said she does not know if that will eventually happen or not.

“I don't know if India will remain at the end or it will balkanize, and I don't know what's going to happen at the end of this, but the protests in India against the government will go on. They are not going to stop.”

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