The burden of security: Exploring spatial regulation of religious offence and the geographies of enforcement
My contribution to the Indian Cosmopolitan Alternatives project looks at a specific modality of regulation of religious offence, namely the spatial control of shared and contested religious compounds through their securitisation — a term that includes both the measures used allegedly to secure a place, and the discourses around danger and threat that sustain and justify those measures. To what extent can security measures implemented by the Indian state to prevent communal violence at sensitive and controversial sites be seen as forms of top-down cosmopolitanism? How are threats and the needs for security narrated, perceived and lived at the very sites of its staging? Are securitised spaces necessary in a cosmopolitan city?
My work seeks to provide possible answers to questions such as these by examining the case of the Kashi Vishvanath temple and Gyan Vapi mosque compound, located in Banaras (Varanasi). This area has embodied spatial contestations and issues of public order for centuries, but a consistent deployment of security forces was begun by the National government after the demolition of the Ayodhya Babri masjid in 1992. During and after the Ayodhya campaign, in fact, the compound was targeted by Hindu ‘rightist’ groups as one of the next places to be ‘freed’ from the Muslim presence, and the Gyan Vapi mosque was threatened with destruction.
Despite the rich scholarly literature about Banaras — a city projected as highly iconic and inevitably present in discourses around national heritage — this central compound has received little attention. It is a complex and discontinuous space to which urban and national authorities, as well as a variety of local actors attach various meanings. An analysis of this space, then, can provide a means through which to discuss the role of shared and contested sites in cosmopolitan cities and to interrogate the nexus between practices of security and the projection of heritage.
The work entails a reconstruction of the history of the area as a space of controversies and an analysis of narratives around security. Through an ethnography of the space, comprising dialogues with the multiple actors, observations and experiences of the various boundaries that criss-cross the compound through my own gendered body, I explore ways in which such a securitised space shapes the lives, religious experiences and relationships of its multiple actors, in terms of liveability, mutual respect and the every day practice of social order.