Margins provide breathing spaces, for invention of rights, and make democracy vibrant.
Human Rights as a life world, and as a world of language and concepts needs a renewal. Words like ‘rights’ have frozen into the arid language of contract, losing the tacit ambience of hospitality and reciprocity. ‘Rights’, as a word, has lost its resonance with the sense of communitas or the commons.
Even the civics of rights has become impoverished. I remember at a seminar in Bengaluru a Jesuit activist spoke honestly saying, “I am tired of being a minority. I want to be a citizen with the rights and possibilities of citizenship.” Minorities, he felt, were passive entities, ever suspect under majoritarian rule. They had to continue to prove their loyalty, through a caricature of patriotic acts to be seen as citizens. The word ‘minority’ becomes a behavioural corset rather than a liberating civics. Difference is no longer celebrated and what the minority has to provide is a dull conformity. The word ‘minority’ condemns you to a permanent secondariness.
One senses this in exploring the world of the informal. COVID provided a normalisation of violence to the informal sector. The migration of workers, oscillating between home and work, was possibly the second biggest migration after the Partition of India in 1947. The informal too, for all its drama in coping and survival, is subject to increasing temporariness. The informal signals a liminal form of citizenship. One senses it in the way slum dwellers use the word ‘regularise’. It is as if they are waiting for the paradise of normalcy, which rarely comes as demolition almost always precedes normalcy.
As National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and others merged internal and external security, sustainability and its creative possibilities got swallowed up by security. Security is a symbol of the nation State and therefore, ‘environment’ becomes a secondary term. The official language of rights is soaked with such secondariness. One needs to rework political theory and the folklore of rights, to rework the possibilities of democracy. Consider just one word – the margin.
Also read: Constitutionally constructing nature
Re-understanding what ‘margins’ mean
The margin signals defeat, secondariness, silence, absence, an acknowledgement of an afterthought, and an add-on to the pomposity of the mainstream and the centre. The margin as boundary evokes threat and needs to be controlled. The idea of the margin as we use it today emerges from a zero-sum world of centre-periphery models. ‘Marginal’ evokes a sense of less than. But what if we read the idea of margin within the discourse of plurality and diversity. Each margin as a repository of difference becomes a source of future alternatives.
Marginal’ evokes a sense of less than. But what if we read the idea of margin within the discourse of plurality and diversity. Each margin as a repository of difference becomes a source of future alternatives.
Margins are not mere sites for defeated knowledges, but crystal seeds of futuristic imaginations. A margin is a reminder to the hegemony of the centre of words and memories it has forgotten. Margins as liminal entities often mediate between two worlds and offer the possibility of dialogue and hybridity. As a marginal, I am the potential other you could be.
Margins provide politics with spaces for invention. As a political scientist once said, “Thank God, India’s margins are large. Otherwise, Indian politics would be a standardised affair, an ode to uniformity.” Margins become odes to diversity, a futuristic agenda of alternative possibilities. Margins can be sites where one can be playful with current paradigms. But this sense of play, plurality and possibility is rarely available in the protestant language of human rights, turning it into a dismal science of current imaginations. Rights, margins and dissent get organically related. In that sense, margins sustain plurality. Democracy would be dull without it. Margins, especially creative margins, keep the world of diversity alive. They are sacred groves of the mind, not as monuments but as living, spontaneous hypotheses. They are sources for refuge.
Should the human rights discourse reorient how it looks at ‘margins’?
The current language of human rights reads the margins with the metaphors of vulnerability and impoverishment of enforced scarcity. The diversity of the margins may offer lifestyles we need to pursue for the future. The official language of rights needs to be more life-giving to sustain the margins as a site for the future, rather than a signal for scarcity. In a way, exile and margins go together to emphasize the cyclical nature of politics.
The diversity of the margins may offer lifestyles we need to pursue for the future. The official language of rights needs to be more life-giving to sustain the margins as a site for the future, rather than a signal for scarcity.
Margins have to be seen as trustees of the future; a society’s acknowledgement that there may be more than the solution to a problem. It provides breathing spaces, life worlds even, for a new set of rights to invent themselves.
Plurality as a grammar is more creative when margins exist. From defeated systems, margins create life giving possibilities. It is these life worlds that democracy has to seek desperately, instead of creating a uniform dullness through development. Rights as an official vocabulary needs to desperately pluralize itself to understand the world of margins through new discourses and the creativity of storytelling. Margins need a new language of democracy to embed themselves in the world of Rights. With margins, a system of rights can blossom into a commons, an India which democracy needs desperately to reinvent. The commons catalyses the margins into a world of refugees and possibilities.
Margins then create an inventiveness; forms of coping the Centre cannot dream of. It is such dreaming that democracy, stunted by majoritarianism, needs urgently. In a way, margins are to rights what the unconscious is to the self – a source of repair, resurrection and creativity.