Archive and Access: Documents in the Time of Democracy

Posted by Rochelle Pinto at May 02, 2009 11:05 AM |
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This is the seventh in a series of blog posts documenting Aparna Balachandran, Rochelle Pinto, and Abhijeet Bhattacharya's CIS-RAW project, Archive and Access. In this entry, Rochelle Pinto introduces a sub-set of posts that will look at the political significance of public access to official documents on the internet.

Contemporary conflict over land brings together issues of land ownership, legal documents and technology in ways that make us examine the circulation and political significance of documents and information. If we assess the relevance of documents as evidence or as verifiers of truth in the midst of political battles over land, we are led to doubt the apparently inherent democratic promise of digital technology. Even where internet technology is accessible, for instance in the modernised villages of Goa, our belief that public access to official documents through the internet is a democratic gesture can be questioned. It would appear that this form of circulation or display need not have great political significance for contemporary movements, let alone the question of whether it has the potential to function as a politically liberating force. This implies that while there is a fulfilment of democracy in a technical sense, the political significance of a particular document and of the public domain in which it circulates can only be gauged from the way in which a dispute over land or over ownership of property, or about membership within a village, foregrounds one kind of document over another and constructs different kinds of public. In the case of current disputes in Goa around land that is, or was held by village level communidades or gaunkarias, there is not even a stable or singular legal meaning attached to the range of documents that circulate among the competing authorities and parties to these disputes. In fact, tracing the life and path of the different legal documents that are necessary to argue a case involving communidade land involves a tangle of authorities, repositories and disputing groups. The sense of publicness that is raised by internet technology requires us to question the kind of politics that endows the document and its publicness with political meaning.

In a national and possibly international situation where anti-state claims on land are often non-legal (whether in the form of ethical arguments or armed rebellion) the current conflicts over land in Goa are local in the sense of having specific attributes. Special Economic Zones (as also other prior forms of transnational economic flows) propagate a  delinking of life, labour, and capital from any fixed political entity, in as far as they claim immunity from national laws. Against this, the diverse claims on land in Goa (whether as familial disputes, environmental conflicts, livelihood arguments, belongingness and historical claims of being indigenous), raise overlapping claims and arguments about the relation between legality and politics, the use of internet technology within resistance movements and rights over land that are outside the domain of private property. All of these resonate with similar conflicts ongoing in other parts of the country, with some differences in the kinds of opposition generated. 

The overall thrust of the argument made here is that movements that are pitted against the state or the multinational entities it supports straddle various forms of state power. Currently, we tend to see these divided into the formal exercise of power through law, regulation, and systematization, and the exercise of power through non-legal and non-state entities and means. The widely perceived illegitimacy of the state requires it to engage in two forms of political representation – the one consolidating its use of governmentality through law, the other effecting its sovereignty through a substantive exercise and demonstration of power. The appearance of legality and the lacing through of all political processes with due procedure and due documents is important to sustain some measure of governmentality, while the domain of substantive politics requires that rule be maintained through overt coercion and expropriation. The two domains are not disconnected. The ability to amend laws by an act of government, without due discussion or consensus gives the state infinite licence to bolster its acts of violence with legality. The gap between these two domains provides an element of unpredictability and turbulence that generates the frisson of excitement for viewers (as against the sufferers) of Indian state politics. For, the sheer existence of forms of governmentality implies that those equipped to do so will demand the fulfillment of the liberal project that the state claims to be bound by. The Right to Information movement and the innumerable human rights reports and people’s courts are instances of the state being called to order within its own terms. If these calls threaten to jeopardise interests beyond a certain threshold, then substantive violence is enacted, more often than not exceeding the bounds of legality. Those who oppose the state but whose opposition is articulated within the terms of governmentality find themselves condemned to demanding justice or the restitution of truth over decades.  The success of the state however lies in its ability to negotiate both these forms of power, allowing it to insert itself into dominant global currents in politics and economy, while keeping its house in order at home. This gap and its bridging is made visible through a range of events, patterns and pronouncements. The unstable status of the document as the locus of truth and evidence, in the context of legal and political conflicts reveals this gap. Differing forms of punishment and justice are not the only markers of ill-fitting forms of power. Ethically admissible claims that are not based on rights, made by non-state entities that have no legal recognition are also caught on the side of all that lies outside the domain of modern statecraft. Internet technologies that work to make what was hitherto hidden or inaccessible more 'public' are necessarily inscribed within this network of quasi-legal, legitimate, illegal and illegitimate entities and practices.The working of technology then has to be understood through the idea of governmentality as a language of control and subversion. This is further qualified by the fact that the discourse around writing and regulation has always been viewed with suspicion by those who stand outside its circle of power.

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Rochelle Pinto