The Disappearance Project: An Introduction

In Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, an authoritarian government enforces all sorts of disappearances—not just of people, but of ideas, objects, lands, everything; and every memory of them. In a moment of haunting dispassion characteristic of Ogawa’s world, the narrator asks her friend, “But what if human beings themselves disappear?” The old man, who has long accepted the terrifying ways of this society, responds, “You have to stop worrying about things like that. The disappearances are beyond our control. They may have nothing to do with us. We’re all going to die anyway, someday, so what’s the difference?” While Ogawa sets her contemplation on memory and enforced forgetting in a mysterious and almost dream-like island, by engaging with the disappearance of things rather than people, the book lends itself to the understanding of state practices deeply rooted in grim political realities.

A decade into India’s authoritarian turn under Narendra Modi, the country has witnessed numerous disappearances—of the due process of law, seen in the instances of bulldozer demolitions; of the right to assembly and conscience, seen in the denial of public spaces for Muslims to pray; of land and the forest rights of indigenous communities, seen in the allocation of mining land to the Adani and Vedanta Groups. The dystopia of Ogawa’s fiction does not rest on the police state’s ability to enforce disappearances, but that once it chooses to disappear something, it vanishes from public memory. While the Modi government remains incapable of vanquishing public memory, its control over the state and its people ensures that the majority are at best, resigned to these disappearances like Ogawa’s old man, or at worst, complicit in them.

The term “disappearances” has traditionally been associated with individuals, and in a political context, with the state practice of making persons disappear. Disappearances enforced by or with the sanction of the state have long been associated with colonialism, slavery, genocide or autocratic regimes. In a control society, the intentional rendering of bodies as delinquent and their systematic erasure serve the interests of the state. Acts such as lynchings, forced disappearances, police encounters, custodial killings, and incarcerations are legitimised, as reflected in contemporary India’s felicitation of Hindutva vigilantes and pride in Adityanath’s policing model. While conventional understanding of disappearances typically pertains to physical absence, the Polis Project seeks to expand this notion and document the Indian state’s policies and practices of disappearances through three primary lenses: of bodies, of lands, and of minds.

In Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe offers a perspective on the erosion of civil liberties that is worth examining to understand the state’s scope and power to enforce such disappearances. Instead of solely attributing it to rights violations, Mbembe suggests that democracy itself carries remnants of colonialism. While fundamental rights are upheld during the day, Mbembe metaphorically describes the nocturnal aspect of democracy as involving the use of constitutional provisions for colonisation and the suppression of dissent through penal measures. In postcolonial democracies, control, oppression, apathy, and abandonment are ingrained in their sovereignty. Therefore, viewing India as a nation that has departed from democracy, given the pervasive influence of violence and the takeover of institutions by oppressive regimes, would not be unreasonable. The emergence of technologies and data infrastructures would perhaps also push the Indian society where civil contracts are taken over by debt culture, with rights and liberties wrenched, bodies reduced to codes, numbers and data that can be warped, emaciated and made to exist to the necropolitical logic of the state.

The disappearance of bodies is a well-understood subject, and the Indian State’s enforced disappearances of bodies takes various forms. While many of these are widely reported, this project will focus on policies and practices surrounding the disappearances of bodies that are often undocumented, overlooked or not understood through this lens. Enforced disappearances observed in forgotten conflicts and civil war zones, forced displacements from land due to economic policies, fatalities resulting from poverty, extrajudicial killings, and incarceration in detention centers and prisons, would all fall under the category of bodily disappearances.

The disappearance of lands is an equally important state practice that requires close scrutiny, because through the alteration of landscapes, it can effectively ensure the deprivations of rights, lives and livelihoods. This is possible through actions such as the dispossession from ancestral lands leading to forced migration, and subsequent lack of security or land rights; the colonisation of indigenous lands; and the amendment of policies designed to protect land rights and the environment, such as the Forest Rights Act and the Biological Diversity Act.

Perhaps the least studied disappearance—and therefore more dangerous for it—is that of the mind. Through the proliferation of surveillance capitalism, facilitated by artificial intelligence, the state-sponsored manipulation of minds is a subject that demands closer attention and understanding. Journalists, political analysts, and academics have extensively scrutinised the BJP’s sophisticated social engineering tactics, encompassing intricate data-collection methodologies, leveraging social media as potent propaganda tools, the ideological integration of Adivasis into the majority narrative, and the crafting of region-specific Hindutva narratives. While the technological and political manipulation of social norms have been researched, it is important to understand these phenomena through the lens of the manipulation of psyche, and how techniques such as micro-targeting falls within this overarching theme of a disappearance of minds.

In this milieu, The Polis Project deems it imperative to chronicle the disappearance of memories, policies, documents, information, institutions and systems that once served as lifelines for the populace, juxtaposed with the stark realities of state violence and excesses. The project will document and analyse instances of erasures, denials and replacements, in the statecraft of disappearance.

The above essay
is a part of