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  • Chokepoint Manipur

    THE VERTICAL Chokepoint Manipur VOL. 2 ISSUE 1 REPORTAGE The many costs of internet shutdowns amid violence in India’s northeastern state. MAKEPEACE SITLHOU On the morning of July 19, 2023, my phone kept alerting me to WhatsApp messages, as it had done during the previous three months following the eruption of violence along ethnic lines in India’s northeastern state of Manipur. This time was different. It was a video accompanied by the following message: “If your blood doesn’t boil seeing this barbaric and inhuman treatment of fellow human being by Meitei goons, your conscious [sic] is equally morally dead. Period.” Before I could open it, other messages started pouring in, asking if I had watched the video. Others warned against circulating it over social media and messaging apps. Meanwhile, the 26-second clip of two women being paraded naked on the streets by a mob of men—groping and molesting the two while walking through paddy fields—had already gone viral. The incident recorded in the clip, however, was over two months old. On May 3, after the state’s highest court recommended that Manipur’s dominant Meitei community be included among the country’s Scheduled Tribe—a constitutional list that guarantees affirmative action for those included—the state’s hill tribe groups carried out mass rallies in protest. The same day, an attempted arson of a Kuki war memorial and the fire set on Meitei villages by unidentified individuals led to state-wide clashes between the Meiteis and the Kuki-Zo tribes. The two women, belonging to the Vaiphei community that is part of the larger umbrella of Kuki-Zo tribes of the Northeast, were assaulted by the street mob a day later. In some ways, these conflicts in Manipur demonstrate the Indian republic’s complicated politics of ethnic identity and claims for constitutional protection. Demands for affirmative action by regionally dominant groups is not unusual in India, as seen with the Pateldars in Gujarat, Marathas in Maharashtra, and, more recently, the Pahadis in Jammu and Kashmir. With regards to the Meiteis, who converted to Hinduism in the 18th century, its socially weaker sections already had access to the constitutionally defined Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Classes, and Economically Weaker Sections. These categories enable access to affirmative action as well as select government grants and scholarships. The demand to also be included among the Scheduled Tribes was initially a fringe cause within the Meiteis, with the Hindu Brahmins (the priestly caste at the top of the Hindu caste pyramid) of that community least open to the idea of being degraded to the status of a ‘Hao’ (tribal people). However, the project gained steam with the revival of the indigenous Meitei faith Sanamahism in the last few decades. The return to their indigenous roots has emboldened their belief that they were short-changed by the government, which didn’t recognize them as a ‘tribe' after Manipur was annexed by the Indian Union in 1949. The crisis has been further compounded by internet restrictions in place since May 4. Far from the state government’s stated intention to control “the spread of disinformation and false rumours through various social media platforms,” lack of access to the internet has resulted in a flood of fake news and rampant disinformation, where genuine footage documenting violence has often been depicted as ‘fake’, and where unverified rumors have been deployed to instigate sexual violence. In a civil conflict where the state government has unabashedly shown its loyalty to the majority ethnic community and the federal government has maintained the status quo, both physical carnage and the information wars are far from even-keeled. In this, Manipur has proved to be another troubling illustration of the Indian authorities’ habit of curbing internet access in regions seeing widespread conflict, where a choked information ecosystem has helped the powerful and hurt the politically weaker sections facing majoritarian violence. Background of the May violence In the months leading up to the May violence, a concerted campaign was already being led by Manipur’s Chief Minister Biren Singh, who hails from the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against the minority Kuki-Zo tribes, who were peddled as the key culprits of the underground drug industry and portrayed as ‘illegal immigrants’ from neighboring Myanmar. Although the Kuki-Zo tribes make up only 16 percent of the population, Singh had been stoking majoritarian Meitei sentiments of the tribes’ “sudden” decadal growth, particularly in the wake of the refugee crisis from coup-hit Myanmar, with no recent census data to back it up. This is despite the neighboring state of Mizoram, where the dominant population has stronger ethnic ties to the Chin refugees, bearing a much greater brunt of the refugee population. In light of the Meitei’s dominant demographics (they are over 50 percent of Manipur’s population) compared to their relatively smaller territorial spread (they occupy roughly 10 percent of the state that is in the valley), the chief minister preyed on the community’s insecurity over limited resources and supremacist notions of cultural superiority. By all accounts, viral, unverified social media messages and rumors of Meiteis being beaten, killed and raped in the Churachandpur hill district in part triggered the attacks in the valley. Subsequently, civilians, senior government officials, politicians, and judges belonging to the Kuki-Zo tribes from the valley were targeted. This led to retaliatory attacks on the Meiteis in the hill districts, although in much smaller numbers compared to officials and families from the tribes in the valley. Internet connections across the state of Manipur were switched off a day after violence broke out, which has killed more than 180 people thus far—with casualties growing by the weeks—and displaced more than 70,000 from their homes and localities, reducing them to ghost towns. A police complaint filed on May 18 in response to the public assault against the two women furnishes some details about the incident. An armed mob of up to a thousand persons belonging to Meitei youth organizations entered the B.Phainom village in the hill tribal district of Kangpokpi, where they vandalized and looted personal property. Seeking to escape the violence of the mob, five residents of the village, including the two women, fled to the forests; they were later rescued by the state police, only to be apprehended by the same mob that snatched them from police custody. “All the three women were physically forced to remove their clothes and were stripped naked in front of the mob,” the complaint noted, adding that “the younger brother who tried to defend his sister’s modesty and life was murdered by members of the mob on the spot.” Even before the video of the attack on the two women in Kangpokpi appeared on social media, the incident had been reported by two online news portals—on June 1 by, Newsclick , and on July 12 by The Print —as part of the coverage of the sexual assaults during the Manipur violence. However, it was finally the graphic video that brought national attention to the state like it hadn’t in the last three months. Kaybie Chongloi, a Kuki journalist based in Kangpokpi District where the incident took place, told me that no one knew of the existence of the video until the previous day when a driver noticed Meitei men watching it on their phones. “He had asked them to share the video via Bluetooth, and that’s how we got to see it for the first time,” said Chongloi. By the next morning, he added, the video had been widely shared across WhatsApp and social media platforms. It also compelled Prime Minister Narendra Modi to finally break his silence on Manipur, almost three months after the v iolence, calling the crime “ an insult to the entire country. ” Skewed media landscape Since the outbreak of violence in early May, a steady stream of photo and video footage has appeared on social media, showing private residences and villages being burned down, even capturing the collusion of state police in these incidents. Meanwhile, pieces of disinformation have been shared by verified Twitter handles of socially influential figures with global platforms. This includes, for example, Licipriya Kangujam, a young climate influencer managed by her alleged ‘con man’ father , and Binalakshmi Nepram, a women’s rights activist and recent scholar-at-residence at Harvard University. On May 4, soon after the violence started, Kangujam shared the video of a burning residence saying “illegal immigrants are burning the houses of our Meitei indigenous community in Manipur”. Hours earlier, however, Tonsing S, a Kuki-Zo scholar at Michigan University, had already shared the same video, showing a Kuki-Zo residential locality in the state capital of Imphal, from where his family had recently been displaced. Kangujam has also shared videos showing disruption and mayhem, which she squarely blamed on ‘illegal immigrant’ and ‘poppy cultivating’ Kukis. Meanwhile, although seen advocating for peace on national television, Nepram has also been culpable in spreading misinformation, with a clear prejudice against the Kuki-Zo tribal groups. This includes sharing fake news on landmines allegedly placed by an armed group in a Manipur village, despite the information being debunked as false (reverse-image lookup found that the photos used in the story were from Jammu and Kashmir). She has not yet removed the tweet. More generally, Meitei-owned outlets and journalists from the community, who dominate the media landscape in the state, have been accused of being compromised , heavily toeing the state line, which is against the Kuki-Zo tribes. Apart from the accounts of these well-known personalities, several blue check-marked accounts have surfaced on Twitter since May, thanks to Elon Musk’s new policy on paid accounts which abandons its previous verification process, which have furthered disinformation campaigns. Take, for instance, a right-leaning website with the twitter handle @dintentdata that shot to limelight during the Manipur violence ostensibly as a “fact checker”. Its origins and ownership are unknown but the account has toed the Manipur state government’s narrative, as illustrated in a thread that called Kukis “illegals” migrating from Myanmar who had weaponized themselves to target the Meitei community. In the initial weeks, the running narrative on illegal immigrants and the Myanmar crisis dominated the coverage of the violence in mainstream Indian media outlets like Deccan Herald and India Today as well as in international publications like The Diplomat and the Washington Post . Unequal internet ban As I reported for Nikkei Asia in July, vast amounts of disinformation have emerged from the Manipur crisis not only because of an internet ban but due to its uneven nature: it has offered privileged access to businesses and media close to power, mostly in the valley. Dedicated internet services remained selectively available to particular businesses in the valley and government offices, with the approval of the home department. Notably, in the midst of an internet ban, members of Manipur-based right-wing Meitei groups, such as Meitei Leepun and an armed militia, Arambai Tenggol, have been posting inflammatory hate speech on their social media accounts. “Refrain from creating chaos at Imphal, we can no longer attack them here,” announced Korounganba Khuman, the militant leader of Arambai Tenggol, on his Facebook account. Written in Meitei Lon, he added, “We have a plan, which you'll hear about in two days’ time. Let's work together on this. Let us fight with all our might for our land and identity.” No action from the state government has been initiated on such open invocations of violence against the Kuki-Zo communities. Meanwhile, Meitei Leepun’s founding leader Pramot Singh went on national television (in an interview with veteran journalist Karan Thapar in The Wire ), threatening to “blow away” the tribals from the hills. In the past, Singh has been associated with Akhil Bhartiya Vishwa Parishad, the student wing of the Hindu nationalist militant outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Both groups—Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun—have been openly endorsed by Chief Minister Singh and Leishemba Sanajaoba, the titular king of Manipur and a member of the upper house of the parliament. On July 25, Manipur state authorities lifted the ban on broadband services while retaining several severe restrictions. This included blocking social media websites, virtual private network (VPN) services and WiFi hotspots, while allowing for the physical monitoring of subscribers by concerned officials. Those seeking to access the internet under these conditions were required to sign an undertaking agreeing to the enforced monitoring by officials. After nearly five months of ban, mobile internet access was resumed by the state government on September 23, only to be soon suspended for the next five days amid protests after photographs showing the allegedly deceased bodies of two missing Meitei students surfaced online. The state government confirmed their death in a statement, but their bodies remain missing at the time of the publication of this story . A marketing professional from Imphal Valley, who asked not to be identified, said that in the early days of the internet ban, people were resorting to all sorts of loopholes: machine SIM cards used for digital payment (apps like Paytm and Google Pay), Vodafone VPN ports, and international E-SIMs like Airalo . “People would use SIM cards bought from other states, since Vodafone sim cards sold out in Manipur very fast at a going rate of INR 2000,” he said, speaking from an undisclosed location in the Northeast that he and his family have moved to temporarily. The IT company where his wife works had put her on leave during the shutdown weeks and was threatening layoffs to employees who wouldn’t come online. Sources from the area told me that local broadband providers in both the hills and the valley did not comply with the government order to switch off internet services. SAAG has accessed a copy of a state-government order that notes the “misuse of additional connection on whitelisted/reactivated” internet lines and reports of “accessibility of internet facility” in the Kuki-majority Churachandpur area. No such order was issued against any centers in the valley, even though the government eventually put a curb on all these loopholes. For five years, India has been leading the global record for the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the world with at least 84 cases recorded in 2022 , far higher than the war-hit Ukraine, which saw 22 shutdowns imposed by the Russian military after their invasion of the country. According to Software Freedom Law Centre ’s internet shutdown tracker , India has seen a total of 759 shutdowns since 2012, with Jammu and Kashmir experiencing the majority of the bans, and Manipur featuring fourth on the list. In June, a joint report on internet shutdowns in India, released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Internet Freedom Foundation , a digital rights advocacy group in India, found that the Indian authorities’ decisions to disrupt internet access were “often erratic and unlawful”. The report cited a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology report that concluded, “So far, there is no proof to indicate that internet shutdown [sic] has been effective in addressing public emergency and ensuring public safety.” Meenakshi Ganguly, the HRW South Asia director, told me that while authorities have the responsibility to contain the spread of incitement to hate or violence, and to combat disinformation, simply denying internet access can end up further stoking fear and divisiveness. “Without access to credible information, internet shutdowns risk the spread of rumor-based retaliatory attacks, perpetuating the cycle of violence,” she said. Missing outrage The role of fake news and disinformation in instigating violence, including sexual assaults, against tribal women in Manipur has been well-documented . However, despite videos of these incidents floating online after the breakout of the violence, neither local nor national media reported on it or verified and pursued these leads. Several weeks before the infamous Kangpokpi video of the two women being paraded naked was out, another clip of a Kuki-Zo woman begging Meitei women to let go of her was doing the rounds. Speaking in Meitei Lon, the Meitei women are seen instigating men to rape 29-year-old Nancy Chingthianniang, who was later interviewed by the UK-based Guardian , a few weeks before her video went viral again. She lost her husband and mother-in-law to the mob. Chingthianniang herself was beaten black and blue until she passed out. Seeing the video of herself instantly triggered her. “I felt scared like I was back in that moment even though I was not raped,” she told me over the phone. When asked how she felt about these videos of herself and the women paraded being circulated online, Chingthianniang said it was for the better. “Hoi ka sa, eh; I'm glad that it’s out,” she said. “Now people know what these Meira Paibis (Meitei civic activists known as ‘women torchbearers’) really did to us.” While the public responses to the viral Kangpokpi video was welcomed by the Kuki-Zo community, especially as it led to the swift arrest of at least seven of the accused, the heinous crimes against the community have not seen similar reactions. On July 2, two weeks before the Kangpokpi video was released, photos and footage of a severed head perched on a fence went viral on WhatsApp groups, shocking members of the Kuki-Zo community. The head belonged to David Thiek, a resident of Langza village in the foothills of the Churachandpur tribal hill district. He had been defending his village on the day when an armed militia from the valley attacked it. Thiek’s head was severed off and his body burned down to ashes, the remains of which were draped in the traditional shawl of the Hmar tribe that he belonged to. A few days later, Sang Tonsing, a 24-year-old social worker from the Kuki-Zo community living outside Manipur, saw the screenshot of a photo posted by a Twitter account titled ‘Nongthombam Rohen Meetei’ (now deleted) with the caption, “Killing of meetei by kuki militants [sic]”. The photo showed a man, his face digitally obscured by red brush strokes, holding a machete in one hand and a severed head in another. A copy of the photo downloaded from Twitter shows a time stamp of 5.45 p.m. on July 2, 2023. Suspecting the severed head to belong to Thiek, Tonsing and a group of other social-media savvy friends attempted to verify the photo, beginning with reverse image verification on Google and TinEye. The photo appeared original. Tonsing then began scanning the local Meitei news channels, particularly Mami and Elite TV, since these channels had extensively covered the chief minister visiting the Meitei-dominated Bishnupur district in the valley, bordering the Kuki Zo villages that were attacked. That is when he noticed the same outfit as was worn by the man in the photo: a dark-teal-colored full-sleeved t-shirt paired with brown track pants and a camouflage tactical vest. “There was no way that another person could be wearing the same exact outfit,” he said. But that wasn’t their only lead. The person seen on the news clip, whose outfit matched with that of the assailant in the photograph, was eventually tracked on Facebook. He was identified as Mairembam Romesh Mangang, the public relations officer or the security detail of S Premchandra Singh, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Manipur’s legislative assembly who represented the Kumbi constituency. Tonsing said that they instinctively thought to check the accounts of those associated with the MLA of Kumbi, since it was close to Langza village, where David was killed. “Secondly,” he added, “Kumbi is known to be a hotspot of Meitei insurgent groups where politicians conduct their financial dealings with underground groups.” The screenshot is now part of an investigation into the incident where members of the Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun are among the accused. SAAG reached out to Premchandra Singh, the MLA of Kumbi, who did not respond to the request for comment. (This piece will be updated as and when he responds.) While Tonsing and his friends may have made a plausible case of identification, what remains unexplained is why that photo was leaked online. His guess is one of three scenarios: one, someone from one of the Meitei-run WhatsApp groups carelessly uploaded it; two, there may still be whistleblowers among the Meitei groups who want the truth out; and three, which he thinks most likely, is that this was an attempt to manipulate the narrative in their favor as victims rather than perpetrators of the crime. Either way, he’s certain that more videos would surface once the internet ban is fully lifted. “Nowadays everyone’s got a smartphone and they are filming videos when they go to burn villages. Since these are mobs of 5000-odd people, they can’t control what people are shooting”, said Tonsing. Meanwhile in the valley, there have been news reports, albeit unverified, of missing Meitei individuals being tortured and killed in viral clips. In early July, hours after two cousins—27-year-old Irengbam Chinkheinganba and 31-year-old Sagolshem Ngaleiba Meitei from Kakching District—had gone missing, a video began circulating which showed two men being slapped and kicked, before being shot from behind. A BBC report noted that another video showing the shooting of a man surfaced two months later. While neither of the videos has been independently verified, the families of the missing two have identified the two men in the videos as Chinkheinganba and Ngaleibav. Similarly, the parents of a young teenager , who went missing along with her friend near the hill district, have identified their daughter in a clip that showed a girl being beheaded, allegedly by Kuki assailants. However, when SAAG checked the video, the perpetrators were speaking in the Burmese tongue, and not any of the languages or dialects native to Manipur. Videos connected to both of these disappearances surfaced only after the clip of the naked Vaipehi women made headlines. In our post-truth era, the conflict is not limited to violence in the buffer zones, but is also a war of perceptions on social media where fake news, morphed footage, and decontextualized information often seek to compound the confusion. Majoritarian manipulation Manipur is a state now divided like never before. Ethnic fault lines have always run deep, sometimes deeper and thicker than bloodlines despite enough instances of intermarriage between communities. The murder of a 7-year-old Kuki boy in early June, alongside his mother and his maternal aunt, en route to a hospital through the valley is emblematic of this. Even though the boy’s mother and maternal aunt belonged to the Meitei community, the mob made up of Meira Paibis and other Meiteis did not spare them and set the ambulance on fire after the murders. Local media operating out of Imphal and dominated by journalists from the Meitei community —or owned by politicians of the same community—did not report this incident, just as they ignored several other stories like the seven rape cases registered to date . Forget the tyranny of distance between New Delhi-based national media and Manipur, newsrooms based in the valley often don’t go and cover neighboring hill districts. In the present crisis, where Manipur’s Chief Minister Singh stands accused of orchestrating the violence against the Kuki-Zo community, with the majority-controlled media not covering the hills, and given only a partial lift on the internet blackout, the scales are tipped heavily against the minority tribes. In early September, in a report on the media coverage of the violence, the Editors’ Guild of India lamented how the Manipur media had turned into “Meitei media” and held the internet ban responsible for the media being overly reliant on the state’s narrative. Shortly after, two police complaints under sections of defamation, promoting enmity, and criminal conspiracy were filed against members of the Guild’s fact-finding committee. Meanwhile, rather than working to gain the confidence of the Kuki-Zo communities as their political representative, we instead find the chief minister getting into a late-night spat on Twitter, asking a Kuki-identifying user if they are from Manipur or Myanmar. As violence continues unabated in the “ buffer zones ” between the hills and the valley, where both communities live in relative proximity, rumors and disinformation remain rampant on both sides. In the din of contrasting narratives laying the blame exclusively on the other side, Spearcorps , an official Indian Army account on Twitter, has emerged as a neutral line for updates on the clashes. After days of speculation over the women-led civil-society group Meira Paibis aiding armed rioters to attack tribal villages by creating road blockades, the Spearcorps posted a tweet noting that “Women activists in #Manipur are deliberately blocking routes and interfering in Operations of Security Forces.” The post went on to appeal to “all sections of population to support our endeavours in restoring peace.” This new normal is especially significant in a state that has a long history of confrontation with the Indian Army, which stands accused of many human-rights excesses through the application of a special martial law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Naturally, the dominant Meitei community, its representative media and the state government see the army as biased in favor of the tribal groups, and accuse the armed forces of assisting Kuki "militants" . When I spoke to a source in the army who has been monitoring the security situation in Manipur, he argued that the neutrality of central security forces was evident in their assistance in the speedy evacuation of Meiteis from the hill districts. The only time that the local media had ever portrayed them in a positive light, he said, was when they reported the “rescue” of five Meitei civilians from Kuki “militants” (notably, Meitei attackers are often called ‘miscreants’ in these reports). “Except that it was the Kukis who had handed over the Meitei civilians to us in good faith,” he told me. But that detail never made it in any of the Meitei-run press. With such opportunities for solidarity that could have led to a ceasefire on violence and retaliatory attacks now looking increasingly remote, we find the strengthening of the Kuki-Zo tribes’ resolve to settle for separate administration away from the Manipur government. To be sure, the disturbing video of the Vaiphei women may have led to police action after weeks of inaction, and it has alerted the country and the world to the scale of violence. But on the home front, the civil war is nowhere near an end. In turn, it only fueled the war over narratives, where Manipuri social media was suddenly filled with posts asking Meitei women to come out with stories of their defilement. On August 9, the first police complaint of a Meitei woman alleging sexual assault was filed in the valley, in which the complainant said she was assaulted by “Kuki miscreants” on May 3, when Meitei houses in Churachandpur were being burned down. “The delay in filing this complaint is due to social stigma,” the complaint said. In the midst of all the suffering and counter narratives, Prime Minister Modi only took cognizance of the video, which he called “an insult to society,” while undermining the scale and context of the conflict in Manipur by equating it to violence in states like Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. Despite the terrible cost that the two tribal women had to pay with their dignity for Modi—and the rest of India—to finally take notice and speak up, he maintained his position as a BJP star campaigner rather than the leader of a democracy. Apar Gupta, an advocate who founded Internet Freedom Foundation, was apologetic in his tone as many have been while talking to me about Manipur, which happens to be my home state. Beyond the scale of violence that the viral video alone has revealed and the sore lack of access to relief and medical aid for the internally displaced, he sharply questioned whose interest the internet ban had served. “I believe beyond this individual specific instance, the internet shutdown has served the function of contouring our media national narrative,” said Gupta. “Manipur is burning, but we don't care.” ▢ SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Courtesy of Sadiq Naqvi, from Kangpokpi, Manipur. SHARE ARTICLE: Reportage Manipur State & Media Technology & Majoritarianism Tribal Conflict Kuki-Zo Meitei Indigeneity Scheduled Tribes Politics of Ethnic Identity Constitutional Recognition Social Media Disinformation Internet Crackdowns Media Landscape Internet Blackouts Kangpokpi Unverified Information Gender Violence Newsclick The Print Imphal The Guardian Deccan Herald India Today Nikkei Asia Meitei Leepun Churachandpur RSS Viral Clips Twitter Narratives State Government Narrative Majoritarianism Indigeneous Spaces Politics of Indigeneity Ethnically Divided Politics AFSPA Sister States Modi Meitei Peoples Local vs. National Politics Caste Tribes MAKEPEACE SITLHOU is an independent journalist based out of India and a recipient of several awards, most recently the Rocky Mountain Emmy for a documentary short, A Wall Runs Through It . Her work has been carried by several international and national publications, and she has reported from India, Taiwan, Australia and the United States. 3 Oct 2023 Reportage Manipur Disappearing Act 2 Apr 2021 ANONYMOUS Pakistan's Feminist Wave: A Panel 27 Sept 2020 COMMUNITY Universalism & Solidarity in a Post-Roe Landscape 23 Feb 2023 THE VERTICAL MORE LIKE THIS

  • The Uneasy Dreamscape of Katchatheevu

    THE VERTICAL The Uneasy Dreamscape of Katchatheevu VOL. 2 ISSUE 1 DISPATCH A dispatch from a church festival on a largely uninhabited island that has long been the site of a contentious border dispute between India and Sri Lanka. JEEVAN RAVINDRAN You can almost taste the excitement on the boat as it nears Katchatheevu, people craning their necks out of windows, and perching on the steps to catch their first glimpse of it. For most passengers, it seems to be their first time visiting the island—abandoned, uninhabited, and closed to civilians for all but two days each year for its annual church festival. Standing on some bags to gain height, I catch flashes of the island—a statue of the Virgin Mary encased in glass peeping out from some foliage; with trees for miles, and waves lapping the shore. The four-hour boat journey from mainland Sri Lanka to Katchatheevu is surreal. I’d never heard of Katchatheevu until November last year. From a sparsely-populated Wikipedia page, I’d learned the island was only open for visitors during its March church festival, so I resolved to go. Katchatheevu lies in the Palk Strait between southern India and northern Sri Lanka, a contentious and liminal space that has historically been contested between the two countries. Under British rule, the island belonged to India, and after Independence it became a disputed territory. In 1976, it was ceded to Sri Lanka by then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a series of maritime boundary agreements with her Sri Lankan counterpart, then President Sirimavo Bandaranaike. However, this decision has always been hotly contested by Tamil Nadu politicians ever since, who have long called for the reacquisition of Katchatheevu, ostensibly on the behest of Indian fisherfolk. In 1991, the Tamil Nadu Assembly adopted a resolution for its retrieval. In 2008, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu argued to the Supreme Court that the agreements on Katchatheevu were unconstitutional. As recently as last year, the 1974-76 maritime boundary agreements over Katchatheevu have remained hotly contested. Katchatheevu was closely surveilled during the Sri Lankan Civil War, which ended in 2009, suspected to be a base for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant group fighting for an independent state in the country’s north, from which they smuggled weapons. Since the end of the war, the island has been controlled by the Sri Lankan navy, with Indian fishermen allowed to dry their nets on its land. But conflicts between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen continue to rage around the space, with Indians accused of crossing the maritime boundary to poach in Sri Lankan waters. Many poor Sri Lankan fisherfolk returned to these waters after the Civil War, by which time they found a landscape dominated by Indian trawlers they could not compete with. View of the island from the boat. Courtesy of the author These unresolved disputes of land and livelihoods make the seemingly peaceable annual church festival even more intriguing, since regulations on movement to and from the island are abandoned for the festival. Pilgrims from both sides of the strait collide in a rare meeting point of communities who speak the same Tamil language but have historically met mostly under difficult conditions; the line between southern India and northern Sri Lanka became porous during the civil war as people fled Sri Lanka in droves as refugees. In centuries prior, hundreds of thousands of Indian Tamils were brought over to Sri Lanka as indentured laborers by British colonizers. Indian Tamils were denied citizenship by Sri Lanka upon independence; many were deported back to India, with others in a state of limbo for decades. Communities in both countries have thus experienced statelessness and rejection on the other’s land, making Katchatheevu a contested space, all the more significant as a fleetingly-inhabited melting pot of experiences and cultures. It becomes a rare waypoint through which the porosity of borders and violent history of the region can be seen through its visiting Tamil communities. Yet it remains a little-known and incredibly underreported place, with the specifics of its historic legacy rarely discussed in a wider context. Traveling with two friends on the boat, I try to glean as much as I can about Katchatheevu’s history. My friend and I befriend a fellow passenger. She tells us a story about how St. Anthony’s Church, the only building on the island, was built. A fisherman who almost died at sea promised God he would build a church if he was saved. After the fisherman survived, he stayed true to his word, and built the church using materials from Delft island, about two hours closer to Sri Lanka’s mainland. As we disembark onto a temporary and very shaky gangway assembled by the Sri Lankan Navy, which administers the island year-round, we spot a crowd already assembled on the shore—Indian pilgrims. For the church festival, all disputes and regulations are suspended, and pilgrims from both countries land on the island in a rare meeting point of communities otherwise totally separated by the Palk Strait. We are shepherded into four different queues for navy checks—Sri Lankan women, Sri Lankan men, Indian women, and Indian men. The Indian and Sri Lankan sides look each other up and down with bemused curiosity. On the other side of the checkpoints, Katchatheevu is wild and bare, untamed vegetation crowding the sides of a wide and sandy path. The early afternoon sun beats down heavily on us, and juice vendors have wisely set up shop to serve cold drinks to thirsty pilgrims. Families separated by gender wait for their relatives to come through the queue, and I spot an interesting exchange between two pilgrims from India and Sri Lanka that highlights how monumental the festival is as a reminder of the liminal space Katchatheevu occupies. “Where are you from, son?” asks the aunty from Bangalore, clad in a light brown sari, speaking in a dialect quite far removed from Jaffna Tamil. “Jaffna,” replies the young man sitting next to her in a collared shirt and trousers. “Where’s that? Sri Lanka?” the aunty asks. “You don’t know where Jaffna is?” he replies, looking shocked and slightly offended. “Yes, it’s in Sri Lanka. It’s world famous!” After our friend arrives, we trek towards the church to set up camp. Along the way, we spot pilgrims industriously clearing patches of vegetation to find a spot to bed down, and others who have come organized with lunch carriers and huge containers of water, because there is no drinking water available on the island. We select a spot just in front of the church, next to a trio from Colombo, and lay out the bed sheet I’ve brought from home. A few minutes later, a voice over the loudspeaker announces that the prayers will soon begin. St. Anthony, patron saint of the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka's north and India's south. Photography courtesy of the author. The nuns begin to chant repeatedly: “ Punitha Mariye, Iraivanin Thaaye, paavikalaa irukkira engalukkaaka, ippozhuthum naangal irappin velaiyilum vendikollumaame. [Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death].” The church itself is a rich cream color, with a statue of St. Anthony, patron saint of the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka’s north and India’s south, nestled in an arch just below its roof. Another statue, larger and more imposing, is positioned on a podium in front of the church. Dressed in brown robes with fair white skin and brown hair, St. Anthony holds a small child and looks out into the sea of pilgrims as they kneel on the ground and pray, many of the women covering their hair with lace veils and turning rosaries in their fingers. Indian pilgrims work their way through the crowd, distributing sesame sweets. One of the temporary stalls set up by vendors from both countries. Photograph courtesy of the author. I decide to wander through the temporary stalls set up by vendors on an otherwise abandoned patch of vegetation. Enthusiastic sellers assume I’m from India and quote me prices in Indian rupees. One salesman asks me to take his photo, and predicts that I’ll soon be headed abroad. He inspects my palm, and informs me that my first child will be a boy. I spot the tent of Silva, a pilgrim from Bangalore.His tent has both Indian and Sri Lankan flags pinned on the front. He tells me he’s been coming to Katchatheevu for the last nine years. “They’re always in brotherhood, no?” says Silva. “Nobody can divide it. They’re always binding, very lovely people,” adding that Katchatheevu inspired him to visit mainland Sri Lanka. I chat with a fisherman from Rameswaram who’s visiting for the first time with a party of four other people. He tells me Katchatheevu is well-known in his hometown, but not many people make the journey over. Soon, religious songs blaring over the loudspeaker begin to drown out our conversation, and the Walk of the Cross begins. Young boys clad in red and white robes stand at the head of the procession. A wooden cross carried on the shoulders of Reverend Fathers behind them towers overhead. Photograph courtesy of the author. As they walk, songs accompany their steps, and a huge crowd walks around the church’s perimeter as the sun sets, taking us to the beach where groups of men are bathing in the clear blue water, standing and laughing amongst themselves. Every time the cross stops, people fall to the ground behind the cross and begin to pray, and a sermon is delivered from the church’s pulpit by Indian and Sri Lankan clergy, in variously inflected accents that inform us where they might be from. Some sermons are pointedly political. They talk of the Sri Lankan Tamils forcibly disappeared during the civil war. Of mothers still looking for their children. Some mention the ongoing economic crisis Sri Lankans continue to face. Others appeal directly to the pilgrims, telling them to be more loving and accepting of others and the pain they might be facing. It’s during the Walk of the Cross that I spot the original St. Anthony’s Church, the one built by the saved fisherman. It is a sharp contrast to the new church, with a decaying facade with plaster peeling off it, but stark in its simplicity. Pilgrims stream in and out to pray to old statues of St. Anthony placed on a ledge, overlooked by a chipped wall hanging of Jesus on the cross. Others camp in front of it, chatting and watching the Walk. “We’re devotees of St. Anthony,” one man from Thoothukudi, India tells me, perched on a blanket with his friends. “We have a very famous church for him there on the seaside, and we go and stay there every Tuesday… We’d heard about Katchatheevu before but we never had the opportunity to come, so this year when we got the chance we decided we had to come.” They’ve decided to buy soap at the stalls as souvenirs for their family, and joke about how much more expensive tea is in Sri Lanka due to the economic crisis. But the conversation takes a serious turn when they ask me about conflicts between Sri Lankan and Indian fishermen, and they say Indian fishermen are really struggling and have been shot down when trying to fish near Katchatheevu, despite it previously belonging to India. “If it were ours, there would be no shooting,” one of them says. They say that India has “extended a hand in brothership” towards Sri Lanka, but it has been met with “disgraceful behavior” by the latter. However, they’re adamant that India shouldn’t try to reclaim Katchatheevu, saying it’s been “given and that’s it.” Once the Walk of the Cross is over, the mass takes place at the front of the church. I perch next to my friends on the blanket as the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary are chanted repeatedly in Tamil. I realize it’s the first time I’ve been to a mass in Tamil, and listen intently to the words, which seem to acquire a deeper meaning in my mother tongue. I find myself deeply, uncontrollably moved, tears streaming down my cheeks as the words wash over me. “Isn’t this so nice?” I say, turning to my friend after the mass finishes. It feels like she’s radiating a deep, calm, glow. Her hands are clasped in prayer. “Yes,” she replies, hugging me. “Thank you for bringing me.” Afterwards, there’s a procession of St. Anthony, with a statue carried through the crowd and around the island, flashing with green and red lights. The church is decked out in beautiful lights that lend it a Christmas feel, and there’s a festive feeling in the air as people go to light candles at a small cave-like shrine next to the church, cupping them carefully to avoid the wind extinguishing them. Throughout the day, there are also intermittent announcements of pilgrims’ prayers to St. Anthony—people asking for foreign visas to be approved, for marriages to be arranged, and for illnesses to be cured. The specifics of people’s names and locations are all divulged, and my friends and I wonder at people’s deepest wishes being revealed so publicly. We then use our meal tokens to claim food provided by the navy—a meal of rice and fish curry. Being a vegan, I’m obliged to go back to the stalls to buy myself a meal of rice and vegetables, unable to eat the food provided. After dinner, I get to chatting with a fisherman from Rameshwaram, who also talks about the lack of fish on the Indian side of the ocean, forcing them to travel into Sri Lankan waters. We exchange numbers and decide to keep in touch. We’ve been chatting on and off all day to the trio from Colombo who have camped next to us, and we end up talking to them until late in the night, exchanging life anecdotes and cackling with laughter while pilgrims snore around us. They tease me about my new friend, saying that I’m about to embark on a cross-border romance. When we finally decide to call it a night, the buzz of life still hasn’t stopped, with people walking around and talking in hushed tones, and the church lights still glowing furiously. “Pilgrims, please wake up and get ready. The mass will begin at 6 am,” a voice over the loudspeaker announces at 4:30 am the next morning. But people are slow to take notice, the mass of sleeping bodies not rousing itself awake until shortly before sunrise. Just before 6 am, the mass begins, and it feels noticeably more formal than the festivities of the previous day, with Indian officials present. Hymn sheets are handed round, and the atmosphere is solemn as people periodically stand to sing from their campsites. The morning mass at 6 am. Photograph courtesy of the author. Just before 9 am, the mass comes to a sudden end, and we’re told to claim our breakfast parcels, this time rice with dhal and soya meat curry. I only eat a little, conscious of the boat journey later, and then the announcements begin, telling us which boats are ready to leave from the island and urging pilgrims to make their way to the shore. The fisherman from Rameshwaram comes to say goodbye to me, prompting more teasing from my friends. People crowd the old and new churches for one last prayer, and I join them before we trudge back the way we came the previous day. At the harbor, the Sri Lankan side pushes and shoves to depart, and we manage to get onto the third boat after almost an hour of waiting. The boat journey this time is relatively more eventful than the first. About ten minutes in, there’s a sudden jolt and a loud bang, with a force beneath our feet that feels like the boat has just hit something. Over the next few minutes, the bangs and jolts intensify, and people begin to scream and cry. The floorboards of the boat have come up on its left side, and the seats jump up and down. I find my hands reaching out for my friends around me, both old and new, and we sit huddled in a circle, praying quietly under our breath while an elderly lady cries and calls out to St. Anthony for help a few rows behind us. I lose count of how many times I throw up on the way back—at one point we run out of bags, so I have to stand on tiptoe to vomit out of the window, sea water hitting my face as my stomach convulses. People call the boatmen to show them what’s wrong with the boat and beg them to go slower, but nothing seems to change. My friends try to contact the navy and we even get to the stage of waving my red kurti out of the window as a danger sign, but to no avail. It seems to be by sheer miracle that we make it back to Kurikkaduwan. On the bus back to Jaffna town, I chat to the fellow Katchatheevu pilgrim next to me, Baskar, his grandson perched on his lap holding a toy gun. He went to Katchatheevu the previous two years as well, when the COVID-19 pandemic meant only 50 pilgrims were allowed to attend. He tells me he made a promise to St. Anthony to visit Katchatheevu with his whole family if his daughter was cured of a serious illness that twelve doctors said she wouldn’t survive. “That’s her,” he says, pointing to the girl sitting in front of us in a green salwar kameez, holding her phone to her ear and listening to Tamil film soundtracks. “I told St. Anthony I would bring her to Katchatheevu alive. I had that belief.” Baskar, who works as a fisherman, said the economic crisis has made it difficult for him to attend the festival because of the higher boat costs, but he somehow had to make it work because of his promise to Anthony. “We believe that whatever sea we go to, he’ll save us,” Baskar says. “Because of my belief in St. Anthony, I’ve been rescued two or three times. Once I even fell into the sea unconscious after hitting my head. But because of God’s grace, I was saved.” Two years ago, Baskar says he met an Indian pilgrim who was so upset that the COVID-19 restrictions meant nobody else could come. This year, he met the pilgrim again with his family, and was so happy that everybody could come. “I told him, don’t worry, next time you can come with all your siblings and children,” Baskar says. “And this time I was so happy… Lots of people came and they were so happy… We speak happily with them. Last night, there were around 40 or 50 Indians and they were all talking and laughing with me so happily—they wouldn’t let me sleep,” he says, laughing. ▢ SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected A statue of St. Anthony, patron saint of the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka’s north and India’s south, is nestled in an arch just below the roof of the church. Courtesy of the author. SHARE ARTICLE: Dispatch Katchatheevu Sri Lanka Island Palk Bay Jaffna Tamil Tamil Diasporas Indian & Sri Lankan Tamil Communities Church Festival Rameswaram Border Dispute Fisherfolk Fishing Crisis Disputed Territory Pilgrimage Low-Income Workers Trawling Transnational Solidarities Internationalist Solidarity Sri Lankan Civil War Indentured Labor JEEVAN RAVINDRAN is a multimedia journalist based in Jaffna and London, with bylines in VICE , Reuters , CNN and more. She reports on human rights and politics. 16 Jun 2023 Dispatch Katchatheevu Chats Ep. 11: On Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change 19 May 2021 ANJALI ENJETI Scenes From Gotagogama 23 Feb 2023 THE VERTICAL Universalism & Solidarity in a Post-Roe Landscape 23 Feb 2023 THE VERTICAL MORE LIKE THIS

  • It's Only Human

    INTERACTIVE It's Only Human VOL. 1 SHORTS Content Warning: Flashing/strobe lights FURQAN JAWED Like having the imagination to envision oblivion. And make it reality. Special Thanks to: Varshini Prakash. Narration by: Jessica Flemming EDITOR'S NOTE: This multimedia piece, by graphic designer and artist Furqan Jawed, is the result of a collaborative effort, initially conceptualized as a story about the history of advertising & fossil fuel companies’ manipulation of the public across the world. It took place over a number of months, supplemented by reminiscences and stream-of-consciousness ideas by Varshini Prakash, co-founder and Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement, as well as exchange with editors Vishakha Darbha & Kamil Ahsan. Furqan plumbed the archives of advertising across a number of decades in India and the United States. The product was, at the time, an unanticipated, serendipitous, and surprising product of an inquisitive but seemingly-directionless collaboration. SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Our priority is to meet the needs of people on this planet. Not just workers. Not workers at all. SHARE ARTICLE: Shorts Climate Change Fossil Fuel Companies Advertising Electoral Politics Multimedia Multimodal Sunrise Movement Neoliberalism Performance Art Mimesis Anthropocene Satire Voiceover India United States Archiving Archival Practice Reminiscence Public History FURQAN JAWED is a freelance artist and graphic designer based in Brooklyn. A recent MFA graduate from the Yale School of Art, his practice focuses on the circulation of images and analysing the semiotics of representation within these images in the public and the private sphere. 26 Apr 2021 Shorts Climate Change Chats Ep. 12: On Ambition, Immigration, Class in "Gold Diggers" 21 Jun 2021 SANJENA SATHIAN Climate Crimes of US Imperalism in Afghanistan 16 Oct 2022 THE VERTICAL Universalism & Solidarity in a Post-Roe Landscape 23 Feb 2023 THE VERTICAL MORE LIKE THIS

  • Nation-State Constraints on Identity & Intimacy

    COMMUNITY Nation-State Constraints on Identity & Intimacy VOL. 1 INTERVIEW Author Chaitali Sen in conversation with Fiction Editor Hananah Zaheer. CHAITALI SEN I fight for a world without borders, but they're borders wrenched in reaction to colonialism, and fortified against the spread of English. It's interesting how capitalism homogenizes while making people want to put up walls. RECOMMENDED: A New Race of Men from Heaven: Stories (Sarabande, 2023) by Chaitali Sen SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Watch the interview on YouTube or IGTV SHARE ARTICLE: Interview Literary Solidarity Bengali Internationalist Solidarity Black Solidarities Satyajit Ray Statelessness Colonialism Language South Asian Women's Creative Collective South Asians Against Police Brutality Abner Louima Anthony Baez Literature & Liberation Diaspora Identity Community Building Post-George Floyd Moment Immigration Race & Genre Short Stories Fiction Avant-Garde Form Avant-Garde Traditions Emancipatory Politics Experimental Methods Rabindranath Tagore Mrinal Sen Separatism Tamil Separatists Punjabi Separatists Rajiv Gandhi Separatist Movements in India Indian Diaspora Syria CHAITALI SEN is the author of the novel The Pathless Sky (Europa Editions 2015) and the short story collection A New Race of Men from Heaven (Sarabande Books, January 2023) which won the Mary McCarthy Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in Boulevard , Ecotone, Shenandoah, New England Review, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult , and others. A graduate of the Hunter College MFA in Fiction, she is the founder of the interview series Borderless: Conversations on Art, Action, and Justice. 17 Dec 2020 Interview Literary Solidarity The Uneasy Dreamscape of Katchatheevu 16 Jun 2023 JEEVAN RAVINDRAN Experiments in Radical Design & Typography 12 Mar 2023 BOOKS & ARTS Chats Ep. 1: On A Premonition; Recollected 13 Nov 2020 INTERACTIVE MORE LIKE THIS

  • Rethinking the Library with Sister Library

    COMMUNITY Rethinking the Library with Sister Library VOL. 1 INTERVIEW Artist and activist-scholar Aqui Thami, in conversation with Comics Editor Shreyas R Krishnan. AQUI THAMI I really wanted to rethink what a library could mean, and show that most libraries are funded by monies that come from the exploitation and relocation of indigenous peoples. [Sister Library] is what comes out of that. RECOMMENDED: Support Sister Library , the first ever community-owned feminist library in India, here . SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Watch the interview on YouTube or IGTV. SHARE ARTICLE: Interview Indigeneous Spaces Feminist Spaces Decolonization Community Building Community-Owned Public Space Sister Library Sister Radio Kochi-Muziris Biennale Dharavi Bombay Underground Indigenous Art Practice Indigeneity Zines Pedagogy Public Arts Public History Archival Practice AQUI THAMI is an artist, activist, scholar doctoral candidate, and founder of Sister Library , South Asia's first community owned feminist library space. 21 Oct 2020 Interview Indigeneous Spaces Chokepoint Manipur 3 Oct 2023 MAKEPEACE SITLHOU Bibi Hajra’s Spaces of Belonging 3 Jul 2023 BOOKS & ARTS Pakistan's Feminist Wave: A Panel 27 Sept 2020 COMMUNITY MORE LIKE THIS

  • Kashmiri ProgRock and Experimentation as Privilege

    COMMUNITY Kashmiri ProgRock and Experimentation as Privilege VOL. 1 INTERVIEW Musician, Multimedia Editor Zeeshaan Nabi in conversation with Digital Producer Sana Shah. ZEESHAAN NABI Living in Kashmir, in an atmosphere so accustomed to murder, rape, disappearances—it's directly affected the way I perceive and interact with sound. A loud thud might be an interesting sound for many. It's traumatizing for me. RECOMMENDED: Imtihan by Zeeshaan Nabi, Qassam Hussain ft. Denis Thomas ( Meerakii Sessions, Season 1, Episode 1, October 2022) SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Watch the interview on YouTube or IGTV. SHARE ARTICLE: Interview Progressive Rock Kashmir Music Music Criticism Kashmiri Folk Music Contemporary Music Ramooz Dream Theater John Cage Ahmer Javed Experimental Methods Experimental Music Experimental Electronica Literature & Liberation Literary Solidarity Depictions of Grief Sound Occupation Genre Fluidity Genre Tropes Genre Intentional Audio Community Building New Artists Delhi Indian Fascism Zeeshaan Nabi is a composer, producer, educator, frontman of the band Ramooz, and founder of the label Meerakii Music. He is currently based in Delhi. 21 Dec 2020 Interview Progressive Rock Vol. 2 Launch Event: "Apertures" Album Release with the Vagabonds Trio 19 May 2023 UTSAV LAL · RAJNA SWAMINATHAN · GANAVYA DORAISWAMY Whose Footfall is Loudest? 24 Feb 2023 FEATURES Dukkha 4 Jul 2021 FEATURES MORE LIKE THIS

  • The Ghettoization of Dalit Journalists

    COMMUNITY The Ghettoization of Dalit Journalists VOL. 1 INTERVIEW Journalist and editor Sudipto Mondal in conversation with Non-Fiction Editor Shubhanga Pandey. SUDIPTO MONDAL People in mainstream journalism dismiss anti-caste media as activist. N. Ram goes to Tibet, comes back with a glowing story: that is not activism. But what Dalit Camera, Velivada, or Round Table India does is supposedly activism. —Sudipto Mondal SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Watch the interview on YouTube or IGTV. SHARE ARTICLE: Interview Bangalore Dalit Histories Journalism Activist Media Jogendranath Mandal The Pakistani Dalit Brahmanical Colonialism Love Jihad Kancha Iliah N Ram Rohith Vemula Dalit Media Dalit Camera The Hindu Bajrang Dal Ambedkar Students' Association P. Sainath Sujatha Gidla Investigative Journalism Hindutva SUDIPTO MONDAL is a Bangalore-based investigative journalist who reports on caste, communalism and corruption, and Executive Editor at The News Minute . A graduate of the Asian College of Journalism, he was a former reporter with The Hindu , and the Dalit Camera . Currently he is writing a book on the death of the Dalit research scholar Rohith Vemula and the 25-year history of the organisation to which he belonged, the Ambedkar Students' Association (ASA) . His reporting has appeared in The New York Times , Al-Jazeera, The Hindu, The Print, Hindustan Times, and many other outlets. 14 Sept 2020 Interview Bangalore The Craft of Writing in Occupied Kashmir 24 Jan 2021 HUZAIFA PANDIT Battles and Banishments: Women's Encounters with Heroin Addiction in Maldives 28 Feb 2023 FEATURES Kashmiri ProgRock and Experimentation as Privilege 21 Dec 2020 COMMUNITY MORE LIKE THIS

  • Experimentalism in the Face of Fascism

    COMMUNITY Experimentalism in the Face of Fascism VOL. 1 INTERVIEW Writer Meena Kandasamy, in conversation with Advisory Editor Aparna Gopalan. MEENA KANDASAMY There is a certain overpowering influence when this totalitarian power is coming to get you. Then you turn to the most absurd forms of storytelling and play. How do you laugh at untrammeled power? Either you are completely terrorized by it, or you completely delegitimize its authority by laughing in its face and doing the most absurd things. —Meena Kandasamy RECOMMENDED: The Orders Were to Rape You: Tigresses in the Tamil Eelam Struggle , the newest book by Kandasamy (Navayana, 2021). SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Watch the interview on YouTube or IGTV. SHARE ARTICLE: Interview Sociolinguistics Avant-Garde Form Experimental Methods Dalit Literature Dalit Histories Indian Fascism Tamil Tigers Auto-Fiction Bhima Koregaon Marxist Theory André Breton Absurdity MEENA KANDASAMY is an anti-caste activist, poet, novelist and translator. Her writing aims to deconstruct trauma and violence, while spotlighting the militant resistance against caste, gender, and ethnic oppressions. She explores this in her poetry and prose, most notably in her books of poems such as Touch (2006) and Ms. Militancy (2010), as well as her three novels, The Gypsy Goddess (2014), When I Hit You (2017), and Exquisite Cadavers (2019). Her latest work is a collection of essays, The Orders Were to Rape You: Tamil Tigresses in the Eelam Struggle (2021). Her novels have been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Hindu Lit Prize. She has been a fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program (2009), a Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow at the University of Kent (2011) and a fellow of the Berlin-based Junge Akademie (AdK). In 2022, she was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL), United Kingdom. Activism is at the heart of her literary work; she has translated several political texts from Tamil to English, and previously held an editorial role at The Dalit , an alternative magazine. She holds a PhD in sociolinguistics. 7 Sept 2020 Interview Sociolinguistics The Craft of Writing in Occupied Kashmir 24 Jan 2021 HUZAIFA PANDIT Fictions of Unknowability 28 Feb 2023 BOOKS & ARTS Kashmiri ProgRock and Experimentation as Privilege 21 Dec 2020 COMMUNITY MORE LIKE THIS

  • Everyone Failed Us

    THE VERTICAL Everyone Failed Us VOL. 2 ISSUE 1 OP-ED Solidarity failed when it came to a dire Afghan refugee crisis, decades in the making. ARASH AZIZZADA · IRENE BENEDICTO “A group of women leaders are badly in danger and one of them is my mom. I really searching for a person who can help us. They attack our home at first…. I hope you can help us. Every one of us really get depressed, please help us to get out of here.” THE BARRAGE of messages I receive, like the one above from western Afghanistan on almost a daily basis has not stopped, even a year later. Desperate daily emails from Afghans seeking refuge and safety flood our inboxes. Some are social activists, human rights defenders, former interpreters, and women leaders at risk of retribution from the Taliban. Other marginalized groups such as Hazaras and Shias have already been victims of ethnic cleansing by the Taliban and remain targets of ISIS attacks. Women activists have been disappeared by the Taliban authorities. Afghans seeking evacuation hold onto hope in what seems to be a hopeless situation. No longer expecting the international community to come to their rescue, for governments and institutions to do what they’re supposed to do, they rely on community organizers like myself and others. For two decades, America bragged about what it was building in Afghanistan. Last summer, the “Afghanistan project” was exposed for the facade that it was: a hollow rentier-state that only held ever legitimacy with Western donors and not with the Afghan people. Despite obvious bubbles of progress where hope flourished amidst the violence, the impending threat of a drone strike or Taliban suicide blast was always around the corner. Some rural areas were battered and mired in misery due to violence and poverty; others flourished, led by Afghan women and marginalized communities. The only constant was never-ending conflict. It seems as if the U.S. built a house of cards in Afghanistan, created in its own image, a house that started falling when the chains of dependency were challenged. The alliance with human rights abusers, the elevation of notorious pedophiles, and funding of endemic corruption brought back to power an oppressive, authoritarian regime that is erasing women, marginalized ethnic groups, and the disabled from public and daily life. The U.S. ran prisons where innocent Afghans were tortured. Entire villages were wiped off the map, and this was excused away as collateral damage. The U.S. spent years telling Afghans to pursue their dreams, break barriers, and challenge cultural norms. Then, it turned its back on them and betrayed them. Perhaps those of us who dreamt of a better Afghanistan were at fault for having expectations of a country whose very existence was kickstarted by genocide, a country where American presidents attempt brazen coups and its own citizens storm its political headquarters. The grim reality that we bore witness to these past few months is one that anyone who has paid attention to Afghanistan could have seen coming. There is even a U.S. agency–the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)--which is dedicated to overseeing how reconstruction money was used in Afghanistan. In report after report, year after year, quarter after quarter, SIGAR wrote about the ghosts that the U.S. created–schools and hospitals that didn’t exist and a 300,000-man army that only functioned on paper. The Washington Post even devoted a series titled “The Afghanistan Papers, ” to showcase how policymakers and Pentagon officials had lied and deceived the American people about its success and accomplishments for 20 successive years. Nobody cared. The failure to value Afghan lives, however, lies not just with policymakers and elected officials. Certainly, the list of those responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan is long, ranging from Afghan elites to American elected officials from both parties going back four decades. Administration after administration has deprioritized Afghan lives and centered the needs of American hegemony. Congress held hearings on Afghanistan and yet rarely featured any Afghans. Policy discussions on Afghanistan in Washington D.C. at influential think tanks left out Afghans entirely. Afghans were left invisible in an occupation that lasted so long that it became not the “forever war” but rather the “forgotten war.” Afghanistan had disappeared from the psyche of the American people. Even when SIGAR released a report on rampant corruption that was wasting billions or when the Washington Post talked about lie after lie coming from the Pentagon, America just didn’t seem to care. The right-wing was too busy destroying democracy, the Democratic party was too busy fundraising from defense contractors, and the anti-war Left was too white to put Afghans and other impacted communities at the forefront. In our own Afghan American community, too many in our diaspora were profiting off the occupation. Their kids will go to prestigious American colleges, while Afghan girls will not be able to go to school at all and are robbed of a future. An international audience did finally pay attention to us last summer. American media, though, centered on the feelings of almost a million veterans who served in Afghanistan rather than asking Afghans how a withdrawal would impact them. The images of Afghans clinging onto the bottom of a military cargo plane had the world hooked. What does it say about our humanity that it took those tragic images for everyone to ask what we can do to help? For just a few days, people across the globe valued Afghan life. But moments like that are fleeting–Afghan history is littered with broken promises. Some of us have read enough history to know that the international community will not learn the lessons of its failure in Afghanistan and begin centering on the needs of the Afghan people. The Taliban spends every day perfecting its repression while the world has moved on, despite empty tweets and statements of solidarity. Today, as a year has passed since the chaotic withdrawal, wide-ranging sanctions on Afghanistan and theft of Afghan assets by the U.S. continue to inflict immense pain on innocent Afghan people, causing a humanitarian crisis that will likely lead to mass-scale death through malnutrition and starvation, a policy that disproportionately impacts Afghan girls and women. The United States’ attitude remains the same: focusing only on self-interest, even if it harms Afghans, except now it is done through economic warfare rather than through bombs built by defense contractor companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Afghans deserve justice and reparations for the harm America has caused in my home country. Despite that vision for the future, what America leaves behind are closed immigration pathways and a desire to pretend Afghans don’t exist in the first place. Perhaps if a few more Afghans clung onto a plane leaving the Kabul airport, someone would care. ▢ SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Photograph courtesy of Arash Azizzada (November 2019). SHARE ARTICLE: Op-Ed Afghanistan Refugee Crisis US Imperialism The Failure of the Diaspora ARASH AZIZZADA is a writer, photographer, and community organizer based in Los Angeles, CA. The children of Afghan refugees, Arash is deeply committed to social justice and building communities. He co-founded Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress (ADEP) in 2016, aimed at elevating and empowering changemakers within the Afghan community. He recently co-launched Afghans For A Better Tomorrow (AFBT), and has focused on evacuation and rapid response coordination efforts in the wake of America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has written for the New York Times , Newsweek , and been featured on NPR and Vice News . IRENE BENEDICTO is an investigative and data reporter with ten years of experience working as a journalist. She has covered breaking news and written in-depth long-form stories, local and international news from eight different countries on three continents, including the political hubs of Washington DC and Brussels, and three investigative data projects on migration, public health, and social inequities. 24 Feb 2023 Op-Ed Afghanistan Chats Ep. 1: On A Premonition; Recollected 13 Nov 2020 JAMIL JAN KOCHAI Climate Crimes of US Imperalism in Afghanistan 16 Oct 2022 THE VERTICAL Universalism & Solidarity in a Post-Roe Landscape 23 Feb 2023 THE VERTICAL MORE LIKE THIS

  • FLUX · A Panel on SAAG, So Far

    INTERACTIVE FLUX · A Panel on SAAG, So Far VOL. 1 EVENT Four editors reflections on our beginnings in 2020 & look ahead. AISHWARYA KUMAR · NUR NASREEN IBRAHIM · KARTIKA BUDHWAR · SHREYAS R KRISHNAN FLUX: An Evening in Dissent Aishwarya Kumar moderated a panel with fellow editors Kartika Budhwar, Shreyas R Krishnan and Nur Nasreen Ibrahim to discuss our early interview series as well as reporting, fiction, comics, zines, and the broader community-building efforts that motivated us and continue to. Jaishri Abichandani's Art Studio Tour Kshama Sawant & Nikil Saval: A panel on US left electoralism, COVID19, recent victories, & lasting problems. Natasha Noorani's Live Performance of "Choro" Bhavik Lathia & Jaya Sundaresh: A panel on the US Left & its relationship with media in the wake of Bernie Sanders' loss. Tarfia Faizullah: Poetry Reading Rajiv Mohabir: Poetry Reading DJ Kiran: A Celebratory Set SUB-HEAD ​ ALSO IN THIS ISSUE: SHEBANI RAO A Freelancer's Guide to Decision-Making JAMIL JAN KOCHAI A Premonition; Recollected Watch the event in full on IGTV. SHARE ARTICLE: Event The Editors FLUX Aishwarya Kumar is a feature writer for ESPN and National Geographic. She is based in Hartford. Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a journalist and writer currently a Margins Fellow at the Asian American Writers Workshop, and a television producer formerly at Al-Jazeera and Patriot Act . She is based in Brooklyn. Kartika Budhwar is a literary scholar at the University of Houston, writer, and educator for Writers in the Schools. She is based in Houston. Shreyas R Krishnan is an Assistant Professor in illustration, comics, and visual storytelling at Washington University in St. Louis. 5 Dec 2020 Event The Editors Neha Mathew is a graphic designer and interactive artist currently a Graphic Designer at Laundry Service, previously at Creative Theory Institute. She is based in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Experiments in Radical Design & Typography 12 Mar 2023 DIVYA NAYAR FLUX · A Preface 5 Dec 2020 INTERACTIVE FLUX · Natasha Noorani Unplugged: "Choro" 5 Dec 2020 INTERACTIVE MORE LIKE THIS

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