Zainab Bawa works as an independent researcher on issues of urbanism, governance and impact of technology on political practices and institutions. She is collaborating with Servelots to assess how communities can participate in creating and using information and communication technologies. Zainab is also a Research Fellow with the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) in Bangalore. Here, she is analyzing why and how the Internet has become a crucial space for enforcing transparency in politics. In the past, Zainab has collaborated with Sarai-CSDS (New Delhi) to study emerging issues in urbanism in India, with Praja Foundation (Mumbai) on developing a handbook for citizens on urban governance in Mumbai and with CASUMM (Bangalore) to study the impact of urban reforms and restructuring on poverty. Zainab is pursuing her Ph.D. from the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS) in Bangalore. Here, she is working on how the creation of property and the spate of land acquisitions in Indian cities is impacting political and economic practices and social networks that existed around land and locality. In the past, Zainab has traveled extensively and has worked collaboratively with researchers in Kashmir and in Bangladesh on issues of space, conflict, violence and their impact on society.
3 December 2008, Bangalore
Zainab Bawa is a good friend of a good friend of mine. We had only written some emails before we met in which Zainab was so kind as to give us advice how to solve some issues we had to deal with while being in India. While communicating with her I realized that the subject of her PhD research is interesting for our research question in which we try to find out about the nature of witnessed presence in relation to systems design. Zainab is looking at how land changes shape and intention when perceived from different perspectives, and this change of perspectives is also influenced by how people witness and are present in each other's lives. We decided we would come over for dinner and in between cooking we managed to interview her for half an hour. Zainab Bawa has been part of several projects in which technology, social structures and political conflict were in the focus of attention. Especially the analytical way in which she reflects upon her own personal experience, makes Bawa's contribution valuable because it shows how the experience and understanding of the social environment deeply influences how people witness each other and experience being witnessed as well. The experiences Zainab Bawa had in Srinagar in Kashmir during a period of high political tension, while doing research into youth, violence and conflict, show insight in how technologies may contribute to these conflicts or not.
In her PhD research Zainab Bawa takes the standpoint that 'land' is a very physical and material entity, and yet there are so many levels of relationships that evolve around land: political relationships, social relationships, and cultural relationships. These relationships keep on influencing the way in which the land is seen by various kinds of entities like governments, like the people appropriating the land, middle class citizens, people in business and industry. Bawa looks at all these complexities to argue that the construction of property, which has become the keystone of modern citizenship, actually does not work the way it has been thought of in the past. These complicated relationships actually produce a lot of avenues to negotiate and this is what keeps politics going. When a literal situation around land changes, when people move, also social economical and political relations change as well as structures of empowerment and emotional ties.
Social relations, architecture and the environment around shape an individual when growing up. However, it seems that when people are involved in conflict, and feelings of discomfort, anger and resentment determine how one is capable of relating to others, all sense of space disappears. Even a large house can offer no space in such a case. Especially during adolescence, youngsters are in conflict with their parents; they have to find their own way and at the same time social rules as well as religion tell people to respect and obey their parents. Bawa was part of a research project in Srinagar in Kashmir that focused on youth, violence and conflict, looking at personal space as well. Based on the experiences she had in Srinagar, she concluded that when relationships and the social and emotional space are dominated by religion, that this adds more violence to the conflict. In such a case young people seem to have two ways of responding to these conflicts. Some decide to turn completely inward and shut of the rest of the world, which is a kind of violence that you choose to commit on yourself. Others decide to rebel, which is also a form of violence one is subjecting one self to, because this involves a lot of emotional and personal conflict.
As one witnesses another human being, one also judges the other human being. And this is again even more so when religion has a strong impact on social and public life. Being an independent woman in Kashmir Bawa found that judging and witnessing seem to be parallel processes. Only through conversations in which trust grows between human beings, judging may turn into understanding. Also when working in a slum situation Bawa found that there are so many complicated dynamics at work, there is witnessing, there is judging, there is trust and there is distrust. There are moments of crises and moments in which something is in danger or some opportunity is there. And in those moments trust can change into distrust and vice versa.
When transposing the issue of witnessed presence to the online world Bawa talks about her experience with the blog she wrote in which she presented her ethnographic research on the squatter communities in Bombay. To Bawa it was important to give a voice to the squatters. Even though she narrated the story in the third voice, a few times her own emotions could be heard in the report and some middle class readers of the blog started to comment that their concerns of security were not taken into account, that they were labelled in certain ways and the reactions were very emotional. Bawa solved the issues by organizing a meeting in real life and subsequently started offering other perspectives in her blog as well.
In another project Bawa was involved in, the government wanted to offer civic services through an online system. This was the Online Complaint Management System (OCMS) which was a centralized complaint management system that allowed citizens to lodge their complaints through phone, fax, personal letters, visits, etc. and all of these were entered into a centralized complaints system, despatched to relevant officers/departments responsible for resolving them. This, in turn, helped to better civic services. The team Bawa was working with was thinking of the online space as the space of democracy, citizenship and negotiation. It turns out that this is not as straightforward as it was imagined to be. There are so many stakeholders – citizens who hate their neighbour, politicians in need for attention, administrators not doing anything effectively and more - trying to use the online space to make their own claim, negotiate in their own way and to escalate a conflict and so. Among other things, this shows that the relation between land and space and the online world, between the real and the virtual, is not dichotomous, argues Bawa. It all flows into each other.
The effect of this flow between different realities became very clear for Bawa when the state of emergency was called in Kashmir and the Indian government decided to shut down Internet completely. In December 2001, following the attack on the Parliament in New Delhi, the Indian government decided to shut down Internet in Kashmir because apparently, the attackers were from Kashmir and they had sent emails to each other. This happened before Bawa first visited Kashmir. When she went there in March 2002, the Internet was still shut down, cyber cafes were operating surreptitiously and this was a great source of agitation for youngsters. How citizens witness the state and the state witnesses its citizens through these technologies shapes the relationship that the citizen has with the state and that the state has with its citizens. Therefore online platforms etcetera are part of that witnessing and judging in a certain way. The Internet has become one of the mediating spaces of the relationship of the citizen with space and when the governments shutting of that avenue, it aggravate citizens more Bawa found. Where the state treats Internet as a medium, for citizens it is actually a utility, and above all a space, a window to the world one really needs in times of hardship.
The following is an edited transcription of the conversation. Film fragments of the conversation are included to illustrate parts of the transcribed text.
CN: I understand that you are working on a dissertation on Land, and how land is shaped by many things. Can you describe your research?
ZB: My research is looking at the question of land. I try to point out how land is a very physical and material entity, and yet there are so many levels of relationship that evolve around land: social relationships, political relationships and cultural relationships. These relationships continue on influencing the way in which the land is seen by various kinds of entities like governments, like the people appropriating the land, middles class citizens, the corporate and industry etcetera. I think it is important to be able to talk about these relationships around land primarily to argue that the whole construction of property actually does not work the way we have theorized and imagined it in reality. There are so any relationships around land which are parallel and which cross cutting each other and that continue to define ownership, claiming something as intimate as land being your place, questions of identity for example. Therefore I look at all these complexities to argue that the construction of property, which has become the keystone of modern citizenship, actually does not work the way it has been thought of in the past. These complicated relationships actually produce a lot of avenues to negotiate and this is what keeps politics going. This is briefly what I am trying to look at, but of course my dissertation is in a very initial stage, but I am confident that it will develop as I go further.
CN: How do these relations become visible in moments of crises?
ZB: Let me tell you a little story that is part of the field research I did in Bombay. When literal situation around land changes, when people move, also social economical and political relations change. At the time I was involved with the resettlement of squatters to new houses, given to them by the government. It appeared that the quality of the new house seems not to have improved at all in the experience of the inhabitants. The squat was seen as a place of poverty and squalor, but there are so many other structures that work in a slum. The new house even though they now own it, there are different social relationships around it, and a different commercial place, while for example political leadership in the community moved along with the community. Also a lot of people lost actually employment when they left the slum. So now they have started to squat the streets around their new houses and began to sell vegetables over there. Especially for the women, who also collaborated in earning a living, the loss of social structure of the slum made them loose their income as well. And this is not only about the cash;the women also lost structures of empowerment and emotional ties.
CN: Can you also describe the terrorist attack in Mumbai in your terms?
ZB: It has been hard for me to think about the attacks for me. I have not been in the city for a long time and yet I have a strong intimate relation with it, which is still there. I have no television in the house, and I choose not to have one because I get depressed with the news coverage. I do have access to the Internet and one can read all these voices of anger and I got really optimistic …
CN: I mean the line of thinking of there is hotel, owned by the Tata family, hotels are taken over by guests by intention, than attack, suddenly hotel is taken over by terrorists, army security forces…
ZB: Places of attack are symbol of the spirit of the city. The hotels stand for entrepreneurial spirit of the city. With the railway station many people have an emotional bond with.
CN: Can you elaborate on how in a specific place - a house, a group of apartments or a street nut not too big –how the relation gets shaped because one person sees another because of witnessed presence?
ZB: I will take this from my own personal experience and why I got interested in space and this whole issue of ownership etcetera. If you go to Bombay you realize that people live even in the little house that they have, and these are really small houses because real estate is so expensive in Bombay. And I lived with my parents and my sister in this house where there is just one bedroom, which of course you share with your parents for a long time and then you realize at some point that you have to get out. That is one aspect of the physical space. But then also the fact that growing up in adolescence you are having fights with your parents. Even if you did have a room of your own there is still this kind of discomfort and anger and resentment that you have against your parents and your parents have against you. Even is a small house these relationships get shaped. I moved and used to travel to Kashmir when my relationship with my parents was most turbulent because you are this kind of rebellious teenager who does not want to listen to your parents. It was quite interesting because the first time I went to Kashmir I was so struck by the fact that every house I went to in Srinagar was large and yet there was no space because people were also in relational conflicts with their parents and despite the fact that you had a room to yourself, you had your father in the house who was as representative of the government (in Delhi) and the soldier in the street. Despite the fact that you have such a large space, which you call your house, in Srinagar there is really no space in that sense because you are unable to claim that personal space for yourself. I think that it is really family and the specific house of yours and these interactions that take place between the people in your house and the architecture of your house and the space available to you, that then start to really make you who you are. That is the place of politics.
CN: So you say that the sense of space is not connected to the real space. What happens at the moment that there is large space but conflict is happening? What happens at that moment?
ZB: What happens at that moment is that either you turn completely inward and shut off from the rest of the world, which is a kind of violence that you choose to commit on yourself because you are unable to claim, or you decide to rebel, which is also a form of violence you are subjecting yourself to, because that involves a lot of emotional conflict, personal conflict etcetera. I remember for instance that when I used to visit the universities in Srinagar that some of the girls used to come and cry and say "I can't write poetry", because despite the fact that we try hiding our poetry books in the house, there is still an uncle or a father who finds the poetry books and says 'O but religion does not allow you to write poetry because you are female'. And you realize from here why and how violence tends to get committed. Those violence's are emerging from a certain practice of space and your responses to the violence is also shaping the various spaces around you.
CN: Lets pursue this. We talk about conflict and space and witnessed presence? You say there are two that come from that. One is that you go inward. What happens when you go inward? What happens to your perception, to your senses, your sense of survival, and your cognitive skill?
ZB: Again born from my experience in Srinagar, we worked on a study on youth and violence and conflict, looking at personal spaces etcetera. We found that when you go inward you also begin to doubt your own self and at the same time formulate your convictions so strongly to say this is it. And at the same time you are always in a process of self-doubt. And this is what we witnessed happening to the youth over there. Where if they were unable to pursue something and decided just to go inward they continued to be with the subject they were interested in, but as a personality they would constantly be doubting whether this is right and this is wrong, and whether this is committing violence against my parents into this whole atmosphere of violence.
CN: How would you describe them, the people who shut of in general terms?
ZB: I met about three of four of them and I found that these are extremely intelligent people but they are constantly struggling with their own selves. Because there is this constant conflict because yes my conviction is right, my beliefs are right, and yet, am I doing the right thing if the social norms do not approve this. I mean am I right in thinking about Marxism if my parents don't agree and the social norms say you should be obeying your parents and religion says you should be obeying your parents. In a conflict situation there are also a number of factors that are influencing the conflict, like religion but that may take us into another domain. But very quickly, in Srinagar your relationships and the social and emotional space is very much dominated by religion and that adds more violence to the conflict in a certain way.
CN: So than witnessing becomes judging? When to people meet they negotiate the space in between, you give some space and you get some space. How would you describe space in these terms in a religious context?
ZB: In Kashmir it would be judging in a way. It would not matter if you were part of the conflict or not, if you are Kashmiri or that matter. But if I, as an outsider from Bombay, as a third person, would interfere for example, the situation would change and a serious debate would evolve. If I am in a situation with a highly religious person, and he is from that situation and I am coming as an outsider, there is still some judgement on his part towards me, while I might try to understand him, but at some point I am judging that person as well. But for instance when I was in a situation of college students sitting and discussing something and I am still the outsider, than it may be a different situation, which may transform from judging towards understanding.
CN: Where does it switch? At what moment does witnessing change into judging?
ZB: I think when you continue to keep on talking. I do not know whether judging follows witnessing, these things might actually happen parallel at some point in time.
CN: How do you do that? What senses do you use?
ZB: The first time I met a very religious man in Kashmir, we were having a discussion on faith and religion, and the person kept saying that he comes from very religious background and that he can't accept certain positions, and there was not so much judging happening at that point in time, I was capable of seeing what he was trying to say and he would try to understand what it would be to be in my kind of situation, and a few days later he admits to me: "I actually loves poetry and music but my religion does not allow me to do so". How this transformation takes place, I think it really has to do with ability to talk. That is where the switch is beginning to happen.
CN: So trust evolved between the two of you?
ZB: Yes indeed, but also when you are in a slum situation where there are so many complicated dynamics at work, there is witnessing, there is judging, there is trust and there is distrust. There are moments of crises and moments in which something is in danger or some opportunity is there. And in those moments trust can change into distrust and vice versa.
CN: If you compare this dynamic of the slum to your experiences in your life online?
ZB: When I started to put my ethnographic research online on a blog in the public domain, I found it is also matters how you are able to narrate something. What was critical to me was to write with the voice of the other person rather than my own voice. And that became the mediation between the reader and me. This is a third person story. The story was about squatters and I was giving them a voice and that is where the conflict started when the middle class readers of my blog started to comment that I did not understand their concerns of security and all. In the beginning it was a lot of emotional reaction of them, because they accused me that I was labelling them in a certain way. Than I said we should meet and talk about this and than their story also went up on my blog
CN: So you solved the conflict by meeting in real life and showing other perspectives as well?
ZB: That is right.
CN: There is the land; there are social relationships and the online world. How do you see these streams collide form the perspective of conflict and trust?
ZB: I was part of this project in Bombay where we did try actually to help citizens to complain about their civic services through an online system. So they could interact with the government through the online system. A lot of people started to complain about how their was a violation in their building, an extra floor was created in the building or someone had extended his space into the other person's space. In the beginning we were very happy that there were so many people using the online system to complain. Eventually we realized that these complaints did not get solved in reality. Sometimes people were using the online system to express their grudge against a neighbour who had actually never encroached into the space. Sometimes the politicians would use the system to try and make sure that certain services do the work for the poor people. It was a very interesting experience. The team I was working with was thinking of the online space as the space of democracy, citizenship and negotiation. It turns out like this in some ways but not as straightforward as we imagined it to be. You have so many stakeholders trying to use that online space to make their own claim and negotiate in their own way, to escalate a conflict etc. Now the whole talk about digitizing land tenures, in fact this whole relation between online and land, is not dichotomous. It starts to throw up new kinds of dynamics. Also the research done by one of my peers shows that the relationship between the real and the virtual is that it all flows into each other. Also regarding conflict this is interesting, when I was studying in Srinagar at that point in time the government of India had closed down Internet for the Kashmiris. There had been a parliament attack in New Delhi and it was suspected that it was done by Kashmiris and that they had used the email to communicate with each other so the government said, No Internet for the Kashmiris. And already the Kashmiris are upset because they don't have much opportunity to communicate with the rest of the world, and now you also close down their Internet. It is not just about Internet shutting down; it is about a much deeper antagonism against the state. The Internet becomes one of the mediating spaces of the relationship of the citizen with space and they are even shutting of that avenue, you only aggravate the citizens more in that situation. You are telling them we will do the worst that we can.
CN: And than what happened?
ZB: It is interesting because the Internet is officially shut down, but we had to check our emails and we found that the cyber café's were still running quietly. Of course it was very expensive to check your email than. Over a period of time the band was restored, and Internet was again accessible in Srinagar. It is also interesting that in Kashmir cell phones actually came very late because there was the fear of how cell phone technology might be used for terrorist attacks. And of course there was a physical infrastructure problem. I think that these kinds of technologies also shape the relationship you have with the state and that the state has with its citizens. And how the citizen starts to witness the state and the state starts to witness the citizens through these technologies. Therefore in these online platforms etc. they are part of that witnessing and judging in a certain way.
CN: So you could argue that the State treats Internet as medium, while for the people it a utility?
ZB: And as space. When in that situation my close friends and me were communicating via email. It was sometimes accessible to them, it was sometimes accessible to me, and that communication was very critical. And that was mediated by the Internet; it was not just a utility. Through the Internet we were able to communicate with the rest of the world and in that sense the Internet was a space for us.
CN: How was the witnessing happening at that situation?
ZB: I can't say much about it. Internet was restricted to very few people, it was very expensive and yet it was a window to the world.
CN: Thank you.