Rimple Mehta is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University. She has previously worked at the School of Social Work, Tata Institute for Social Sciences, Mumbai and School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata. Her research and field engagements broadly focus on women in prison, refugee women, and human trafficking. She engages with questions of borders, citizenship and criminology of mobility. Her paper titled “So Many Ways to Love You/Self: Negotiating Love in a Prison” won the 2013 Enloe Award and was published in the International Journal of Feminist Politics. Her monograph titled “Women, Mobility and Incarceration: Love and Recasting of Self across the Bangladesh-India Border” was published by Routledge in 2018. Her latest co-edited volume published by Orient BlackSwan is titled “Women, Incarcerated: Narratives from India”. She has worked with women in prisons/detention in Mumbai, Kolkata, Sydney and The Netherlands.
This interview was conducted over a video-call and has been edited for clarity.
Shreya UK: Good morning, Dr Mehta. Thank you so much for joining us for an interview with Parichay. I want to start with trying to understand how you ended up studying Bangladeshi women in Indian prisons. What led to this particular book – and scholarship – in the first place?
Rimple Mehta: Thanks, Shreya and thanks also to the Parichay Team for inviting me for this conversation.
Actually my work with Bangladeshi women in prison goes back a long way. I started as a social work student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. As a part of my field placement, I was placed in an organisation called Prayas, which was working in prisons in Mumbai. I started as a student social worker and started looking at the various issues that confront women in prison – whether it was in terms of health issues, or connecting them to their family members or supporting them in accessing Legal Aid. So there were a whole range of issues that I was working on.
In between all of this, the Bangladeshi women started coming and speaking with me because I knew Bengali. Initially, it was just in terms of conversation or just spending some time because it was difficult for me to do anything about most of the issues that they came up with, such as connecting them with their families in Bangladesh. They did have legal aid but their cases were slightly more complicated. So initially it was just about spending time and having conversations. And then the issues started emerging through those conversations. There were issues with regard to how they come to India; at what point they are arrested by the police? What happens with regard to their legal cases? How are they sent back to Bangladesh? Do some of them end up coming back to India?
These questions remained with me, even after I finished my field placement. I went on to pursue them as a part of my PhD, because I just felt there was absolutely no information available, no knowledge around the experiences of these women. And so I decided to work on it. That’s how it started.
SUK: Tell us a bit about the point you mentioned earlier: how and why did these women cross the border in the first place? Secondly, how did their mobility emerge from gendered notions of freedom?
RM: There are a whole range of reasons why people from Bangladesh come to India. There are also a whole range of ways in which they come to India. Because my doctoral work was in prisons in Kolkata, the women I met with were largely women who were single – single in the sense that they travelled across the border alone. They did not come with their families. They were much younger, most of them were between the ages of 20 to 25. They came for a variety of reasons. Some of them came looking for work. Some of them said that they had been trafficked. And some of them said they wanted to see what India looked like.
In fact, a number of women actually challenged my questions when I said in the conversation – did you come looking for work, for a better life? They said, ‘Rimple, if Bangladesh can feed me till the age of 16,17,18, then they can feed me even after that. We do have aspirations of different kinds. We do want to make a better life, and hence we’ve come here.’
But I’ve increasingly seen in the narratives of women who cross borders that gender based violence is really a key factor – a contributing factor to their mobility – which forces them out of their country – whether it’s violence in the natal family, in the marital family, or at the workplace. A number of these women were working in the garments factory in Bangladesh. There is also trafficking within the country, and so many of them would move away to find a more safe place to live in.
Gender based violence, thus, becomes a key factor in making that decision to move across the border. Apart from the fact that some of them said that they had aspirations to make a better life. But we need to see those aspirations in the context of marginalisation and violence that they experience.
SUK: Dr Mehta, you talk about gender based violence and how that often forces [Bangladeshi women] out. But once they cross the border and are eventually arrested, I’m sure they face a very different sort of violence. How do we understand the gendered aspects of immigration and incarceration? Do you think these two processes go hand in hand, especially in the borderlands but also beyond? I’m asking this question in context to something Uma Chakravarti says in the foreword [of Women, Mobility and Incarceration: Love and Recasting of Self Across the Bangladesh-India Border]. She talks about the prison gate as the border. It is in this context, I want to understand – does the border, or the immigration process produce incarceration? Or vice versa? And how do they, if it all, mutually reinforce one another?
RM: I think most of these women’s lives were along the spectrum of gender based violence, which was furthered by the different institutions, whether it was the family, the state or the prison, and more broadly the criminal justice system. Because the nature of violence that they experienced was closely linked with their gender identity and the position within the gender hierarchy. Whether it was in terms of their expectations as a woman within the family. Whether it was in terms of their national identity, and what they were expected to do because they belonged to a particular nationality.
I think that the intersection of borders and incarceration had a deep impact on their everyday lived experience. It completely worked as a nexus, which created what I call the ‘incarcerated immobility’ for their everyday life. It gives the notion, you know, that they’re moving, they’re moving across the border, they are crossing but that mobility is constantly juxtaposed or is confronted with different kinds of borders which continue to incarcerate them. So it’s almost like a mirage. It seems like it’s happening, the freedom is there. They keep moving towards this idea of freedom. But at each step there is a border which incarcerates them.
SUK: How did you get into the field of border studies? Was that something you had in mind when you first started talking and working with Bangladeshi women? And since you do talk about these multiple borders – in your book, you make a distinction between political and social borders. Could you tell us a bit about how [these Bangladeshi women] distinguished them, what is the merit of understanding this distinction as well as the way they are interlinked?
RM: Actually I had absolutely no inclination or even understanding of borders, or border studies, and that was not something that I thought of when I started working in the prison.
In fact, like I said, while working in the prison, I wasn’t really focused on ‘Bangladeshi women’, or foreign national prisoners. Once I started engaging with them and their narratives in prison, one of the things that I realised is that I will not be able to understand their lived experiences in prison unless I listen to and understand their experiences of the border, their narratives and understanding of the border. So that’s how the border came into the discussion and that’s how it became a part of my conceptualisation of their experiences.
When I started speaking with them, most of their narratives actually start with, ‘And when I crossed the border…’, because that was the key point in their life which actually changed the direction of what they were aspiring for and what they thought they were crossing the border for. It’s that moment which led them to being in prison. So unless I understood that moment and that experience of the border, it was not possible for me to understand what their life in prison meant. That’s how the border came into my research.
Not only did it come into the research but also their narratives really expanded my understanding of borders. It was borders at different steps. Just even crossing the border or the boundary of their home and then, crossing the political boundary or the border of the country – they could see the various levels that they had to cross before, what they saw as, aspired freedom. Only to then be incarcerated in another country. So that’s how the notion of social and political borders came up, especially when they were talking about the experiences of gender and gender based violence. These connections between the social and political borders became more pronounced.
But more than that, I think what was really intriguing for me is the way they conceptualised the political border and how they understood the relationship between India and Bangladesh. Some people might read their narratives and refer to them as being naive or say ‘Oh, they are not educated so they don’t understand.’ But actually if one reads through the narratives and the layers within that, what they are doing is challenging the heteronormative idea of the state itself. They’re doing that, not only by crossing its borders and aspiring to have a better life, but they’re also doing it through the way they conceptualise it; through the way they challenge the idea of neatly drawn [on the map] militarised borders and the ways in which they build relationships across these borders. Thus, indicating to us that there is an idea of fluidity and fuzziness which can be adopted in our understanding of states and borders. When they keep referring to the relationship between India and Bangladesh over a period of time, they’re doing what we could also call, a sort of historical analysis.
So I do see a lot of theorisation within their narratives. They are doing it, both conceptually, as well as through their mobility – they challenge the idea of the state. I think we have a lot to learn and understand. It’s almost like they’re providing us a vision of what a state might look like
SUK: Can you tell us a bit about the legal framework, under which they are detained and how that governs their detention?
RM: Again, there are different states, different circumstances, under which they are arrested. If I were to just speak about the women in Kolkata who I met, most of them were arrested under the Foreigners Act. That was the only act under which they were arrested. But the women I had met in Mumbai often had different cases, along with the Foreigners Act or the Passports Act.
I think this also has to do with the histories of migration for particular groups. So for instance, in Mumbai, a lot of these women had been there with their families, over a period of time. Hence, their narratives were different from the women in Kolkata who, like I said, were much younger, they had moved across the border alone, not along with their families, and had not been in India for a very long period of time. That’s why it’s possible that since the women in Kolkata were arrested soon after their arrival, it was only the Foreigners Act which they were charged under. While the women in Mumbai, who had been there over a period of time with their families, had different charges attached to be names based on vulnerable contexts they might have found themselves in, and then hence became associated with some kinds of crime.
SUK: Can you tell me if this common Bengali identity somehow plays a role in how the experience of women in prisons in Kolkata might be different from those in Mumbai? I’m asking this because I remember reading a paper which analysed why Bengali immigrants in West Bengal are received differently as compared to Assam. I wonder if this Bengali identity somehow surpasses nationality and if so, what are the different ways it affects the experience of navigating these prison systems?
RM: The experiences of women in prisons in Kolkata and Mumbai were definitely different. But I don’t think that in either of the spaces, even if they are Bangladeshi within West Bengal, that there is no hierarchy. I think we always find a way to create several layers of hierarchies. So even though, in terms of the Bengali identity and linguistic similarity, the women could communicate with the prison staff and other women within the prison, there was still the hierarchy in terms of the national identity. And that was very very clearly demarcated. The other women in prison, who were Indians by citizenship, always saw the Bangladeshi women as what they said ‘nogra’ or dirty. The prison staff would always refer to them as, again, dirty, or sexually very aggressive. They were assumed to be always creating trouble within the prison. So those hierarchies were deeply embedded within that context as well.
While in Mumbai, it was different in the sense that even if they were Bengali women, they would probably come together with the Bangladeshi women because they could speak the same language as opposed to other women in prisons in Mumbai because they’re either speaking in Marathi or Hindi or other languages which the Bengali women did not understand. Even the prison staff in Mumbai cannot speak in Bengali so then the language becomes a way in which the Bengali women and the Bangladeshi women come together.
And in Mumbai or in other parts of the country, as we now know, the Bengali and the Bangladeshi – especially the Bengali Muslim and the Bangladeshi identity – is constantly converged as if they were one and the same. So that happens within the prison context as well. If one gets into the nuances and the layers of it, one understands the hierarchies that are deeply embedded, but also the points of solidarity which women find in a different context.
SUK: Yes, that’s very interesting. Going back to how we were talking about Bangladeshi women in Kolkata or in Mumbai and how they reimagine the state or the boundaries of the nation states. Can you tell us about how their experiential knowledge conflicts, or perhaps even conflates, with the legal knowledge – if it conflates at all? Secondly, what exactly are these re-imaginations and what do they offer to us when we are trying to understand or study nation state, how they work and how they define themselves?
RM: In terms of how it’s different from the legal definitions, it’s this idea of fluidity of the border – the border not as this one straight line which one cannot cross. It is the fluidity and the fuzziness which they adopt, which is completely different from our idea of the state right? I won’t say our idea of the state but the legal idea of the state – the political idea of the state. Which is, the need for boundaries – which we also need to acknowledge and recognise goes back to our colonial past and the way colonial borders were drawn in our context. Which, as we know, was drawn on a piece of paper and a line was drawn across it. And so that’s one thing.
But the other ways in which they conceptualise, they really challenged the heteronormative idea of the state. One of the ways in which they do it is by building these relationships of love when they are in prison. And they build those relationships with both men and women who may be Indian by citizenship, knowing fully well that they may have to go back to Bangladesh, and these relationships may not continue. That they may not be able to continue to experience these relationships. They get into them with a certain kind of hope of continuity. I think that’s a really important idea for us because they create this, what I call in the book as, a ‘love nation’. Thereby, putting forth to us how we can look at borders in terms of relationships and affect with the hope of continuing them across what we create as borders – which they, on the other hand, conceptualise as fluid borders.
SUK: Can you tell us a bit about how these conceptions then blur the lines between what we comprehend as illegality or immortality, in context to your frameworks on ‘bhool’ and ‘aporadh’? How do they facilitate, allow or help these women navigate the prison system?
RM: Like I said, they bring to us this idea of fluidity. The reason why it’s important for them to live with this idea of fluidity and this idea of a fuzzy border or the fuzzy nation state, is because their experiences just do not fit in the definitions of what we have created for sovereignty, for state borders or political borders.
So, the only way to live for them is to live by creating an idea of nation; conceptualising an idea of a nation state for themselves. One of the ways in which they do it is by looking at the spectrum of ‘bhool’ and ‘aporadh’. ‘I can understand that I made a mistake but how does it become a crime?’, they would say. Which again, I think, is questioning the larger idea of this illegality which is emerging all across the world. We see that we have more migrants, refugees and displaced people in the world right now than ever before because of all that is going on- wars, climate change, violence, human rights violations, unsustainable development projects etc. So the context of a lot of these mobilities, is really the context of marginalisation and of different kinds of vulnerabilities. But when people move, it’s the idea of illegality that they’re confronted with. But in that context these women are challenging the idea of the crime of moving across borders, given their realities.
That provides us an important direction to understand that mobility, not just across the India-Bangladesh border, but in different contexts where mobility occurs due to different kinds of vulnerabilities. Different reasons for displacement are constantly addressed by the destination states in terms of illegality or legality – their definitions of legality and illegality.
SUK: So how does this idea of legality or illegality then affect morality – and not just for these women who are in prison but also the prison guards who are working there? How do they understand and navigate the moral grounds of such as immigration-incarceration, or say ‘crimmigration’?
RM: I think this goes back to the gendered idea of the state and the institutions such as the prison, and specifically with respect to the lived experiences of women. So one of the things that the women constantly heard from the prison staff was: why do you come to India? Do you not have food in your own country? Do you not have ‘maan-shonmaan’ (honour)? Why do you come here? And the assumption was that they come here for sex work. So, morality plays a very strong role, especially when you cross borders. That you’re probably just coming here [to India] for sex work. Or you clearly have very low morals and you cross the boundary of your nation. In terms of a gendered analysis for women, this added stigma and taboo with regard to crossing the social and political borders becomes deeply entrenched with the idea of legality and illegality.
SUK: There’s a part in your book where you use the word ‘emotional lives’ of these women. I wanted to understand how different this ‘emotional life’ is from the other aspects of their life, and is there a need to understand this emotional life independently? What is distinct or particular about this emotional life and how does it add to our conceptualisations of not just women in prison but also specifically Bangladeshi women who already exist within a very politicised context?
RM: The reason to highlight emotional lives or embodied experiences is to show people and their narratives from a different positionality, one which is different from this idea of legality and illegality.
This is because most of the discussions, especially around people moving from Bangladesh to India, centre around whether it’s legal or illegal. Or whether they are taking our jobs. Or how do they impact the security or sovereignty of the Indian nation-state? So what I really want to do is shift our focus and see from the standpoint of pain, the standpoint of emotional experiences of these women, and then does it look different for us? Does the idea of the nation state then look different? Do these people then look different?
We know the narratives that are created around Bangladeshis in India, right? The word that is largely used for them is ‘infiltrators’. There is a certain narrative that they steal our jobs. That they are terrorists. If it is specifically about women then these women are believed to come in here for sex work or they are only seen as victims who are trafficked. So what I’m trying to do is shift that narrative and see from a different place. What happens if we look at the embodied experiences of these women? What happens when we look at the emotional lives of these women? Do we look at them differently? That’s the idea I’m trying to put forth.
And I think that idea not only enables us to look at these women differently. It also enables us to look at our relationship with our neighbouring countries. It also helps us to look at our idea of sovereignty, and even largely the South Asian identity. What does it mean for that?
SUK: Do you think these women see themselves the same way? Do they make a distinction between their emotional life versus other things? How do emotions fit into their everyday life in prison as well as before they were imprisoned? How would these women answer this question?
RM: I’m not sure if they make that clear distinction. It’s more in terms of the way I’m reading and interpreting the narratives.
But the emotional aspect is clearly highlighted in each aspect of their life, whether it’s in terms of what they experienced when they were faced with violence; whether it was in Bangladesh or whether it was in India. Or the context which necessitated this mobility. All of this is being expressed in terms of a lived experience – of an emotional experience. I think reading and understanding and listening to those emotional experiences is extremely important for us.
Like I said, one of the experiences that they highlight the most is the idea of love. How they navigate the idea of love, within the prison, but through the different stages in their life, and make meaning of their experiences of violence through the understanding of love and their experience of love.
SUK: Yes, do tell me a bit more about these conceptions of love. How do they play out? What does this love look like in everyday practices amongst the women? And how does this then go back to your larger theory on the ‘love nation’?
RM: Again love was not one of the things that I was going to look at, or even had anywhere in my realm of conceptualization or understanding when I started working in the prisons. It was the women who challenged me to think and write about it.
One instance that I will never forget and was a really important learning moment for me was when one of the women came back from the Court and told me about this man who’s been professing his love for her in the few times when they met at the meeting area in the court. But that particular day, he apparently tried to hurt himself and banged his head against the wall because she just would not respond to his professions of love for her. By then I was really familiar with them and there was a good rapport between us. So I said, ‘But it’s fine, you don’t have to worry or feel guilty about it because you’re going to go back to Bangladesh, and he will not come after you there.’ There was another woman who was there, sitting around. She turned around and she looked at me. She stared into my eyes and said, ‘Do you really think love stories in prison end in prison?’
That was a learning moment because that’s when I realised that actually a whole lot of their narratives were evolving around love, which I hadn’t paid attention to. So when I went back to the recordings, I observed. That’s when I noticed that each time I asked them a question on violence, they would stop me or they would try to divert the conversation and be like, ‘Why do you want to hear those experiences? Let me tell you about my love story. Let me tell you who I love or what I’m doing to attract someone’s attention.’ That was the point when I started thinking about love. And, even listening. I think it’s also important for us as researchers to constantly be tuned into what’s coming up. This also relates to your previous question on why highlight their emotional lives.
I think it really came from them. As if they were saying, ‘Just don’t keep talking about our experiences of violence. Just don’t represent us as victims. We are here, trying to make meaning of our life. We are engaging in relationships of love, which we believe can continue across the border. Which we don’t think will end once we leave the prison.’
That ties to the idea of the ‘love nation’ that I was talking about. That the realities they are in, they are constantly viewed only through the lens of legality and illegality, or the straight lines the borders are assumed to be. They, on the other hand, are creating a conceptualisation of a nation state which is based on the idea of love which continues across the border. I think that’s very important for us to listen to and again, look at from a very different standpoint.
SUK: Considering how a lot of women also left behind their families when they were crossing the border, owing to some form of gendered violence, do you think their narratives somehow blur the binary between violence and love? Do you think there’s a sort of fluidity in which they understand their relationships with their families and people they live with in the prison system? How do they navigate this particular relationship between violence and love? What do they make of it when the two somehow permeate the same space, that is, finding love in the prison system or experiencing violence within the family?
RM: I don’t think that there can be any blurring between their experiences of violence and love. I emphasise on this as well in my writings. Whenever we read resistance – and in this case one of the ways in which we read their experiences of love is resistance to the heteronormative idea of the state, the monotonous life of the prison and a completely asexualized life of the prison – we have to see all of this resistance in the context of their experiences of violence and marginalization. It cannot be seen in a vacuum or understood without this context.
So, I would say that apart from their expressions of love, everything else that they do to resist the idea of the nation state, the normative practices within the prison – all of this resistance has a context of violence. They are resisting but also making meaning of their life where there is very little to hold on to in terms of any kind of external support.
One of the things that I also talk about is the continuum of violence that they experience. The perpetrators change at different points and stages in their lives. Like I said, it can be the family, the state, within the prison or more broadly the criminal justice system. The perpetrators change but the continuum of violence is what constitutes their experience. It’s in that context that they’re resisting, and it’s their resistance which shows us not only the cracks within our understandings of the nation state, family, the criminal justice system, but it is also showing us different possibilities. It’s showing us where we can move, and what kind of alternative imaginations we may have.
SUK: Can you tell me about what the scholarship was like in the field of border policing, detention, immigration when you were setting out to do research? When these ideas of love and affect came up, what sort of vacuum were you trying to fill, or if there was a vacuum at all?
RM: There is, first of all, very, very little engagement within the prison in the Indian context. Very little. There is only a few works available for us to engage with. It was a vacuum. Mahuya Bandyopadhyay’s book, Everyday Life in a Prison was something that was available. It was a starting point for me to think that something like this is even possible. That some work has been done. And of course, Prayas’ work really helped me to contextualise my understanding.
There was very little research available. And it was, again, only from the understanding of the prison. Since I started working with Bangladeshi women, I had to engage with the idea of the border. I had to look at migration as well as what’s happening in terms of ‘foreign nationals’ and how we are looking at them. There was a complete vacuum. That was one of the reasons why I decided to do this work because there was so little known about it at that point in time. This is when I did my fieldwork as a student of social work in 2008. At that point, we were not discussing the issue of Bangladeshis in India the way we are discussing it now.
So there was support available from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, within which was Prayas and then Mahuya’s work. That is how I started. What I kept as my focus was the narratives of the women and just taking the lead from there. But the other space which really helped me is the Border Criminologies Network, which was also coming up around that time. It came about around 2013 because next year it’s going to be 10 years. I got associated with the network almost from its inception. And that’s where it opened up the world for me to look at the interconnections between the prison and the border and the space of criminology of mobility.
That’s where it started but again, at that point, I almost felt like, within India, I was just speaking to myself. There wasn’t a community that I could really speak to. But in the international space that discussion had started. Now I see that even within the Indian context we are using words like ‘crimmigration’, which has been there for a while, within the network and all the work that the network does. There are a lot of people who have started working in this area in India. When they get in touch with me to know a little bit more or to get a little more context, it’s absolutely fascinating because we really need more work in this area.
But one thing which I really think about and I think it has a lot to say about us as researchers or people who work in the field is: when do we start looking at a particular issue? Is it only when it takes on political attention? Only when it becomes absolutely necessary because legal provisions are being put in place or mechanisms are being put in place or institutions are coming up. Is that when we start looking at marginalised lives?
At different points and different political parties have dealt with the issue of Bangladeshis very differently. None of them have actually been forthcoming about it. This particular group has been used by different political parties for their purposes. But, when did we start looking at it? And why do we always need to wait for that political discussion to erupt and then to start focusing on these issues? If I started this in 2008, I know that this issue existed even before that. It’s just for us to sort of keep looking at spaces of marginalisation, whether they are in political discussion, or not. Whether they are part of election debates or not. Just looking at the amount of work that has come up now makes me wonder how, when and why we focus our attention on particular issues at particular points. And I think it’s really important that we do it beyond the political debates. Of course we need to respond. We need and we should be in that reactionary mode. We also need to be a little more forward thinking in our work, I think.
SUK: Definitely. That is actually a really interesting point. But that also makes me wonder when we talk about marginality, how can we study or address the concept, as researchers, without necessarily only focusing on those who are being marginalised? And once we ask this question, one realises that power does not really exist in a binary between those who are marginalised and those who are marginalising. So, in a sense, we are always in a hierarchy of marginalisation.
How did you work through this hierarchy when you were studying the prison system? You were not only dealing with the women who were in prison but also the prison guards, people who worked in as well as enabled the prison. How did you navigate this space? How did they interact among themselves? How did they make sense of this fluctuating dynamic between the marginalised and the marginalising?
RM: I think that there are two questions there. One is how do we understand marginalisation and marginal identities considering that there is a hierarchy within that. But for that I would say that we really look at reality from different standpoints. It’s very important for us to engage with people who are at the receiving end of institutions and power, to say it very broadly. We have to see how it impacts different groups of people. With respect to the Bangladeshi women, through their narratives, we are actually able to see the cracks that exist within our understanding of families, state and institutions within the criminal justice system. So when you look at institutions and structures from a different positionality, it gives a very, very different picture of reality. So I think that’s why it’s important for us, as researchers, to keep looking from different spaces because, again, it goes back to the importance of lived experience. This is what lived experience tells us, that no matter where we look from – anywhere else we look from – it will not be the same. So the first thing is, the importance of lived experience.
The second part of your question is how do we navigate that when we go in as researchers? I think for the prison space in particular, there is a lot that we need to navigate when we enter that space. That is because you are also under surveillance as a researcher – constantly. And you also have issues around access. You wonder if you will even be able to go and speak to the people because there is so much opacity around these institutions. Access, therefore, becomes a big issue for us. So you navigate that. On top of it, you are also trying to work that out with the women that you’re speaking with. In my case, definitely my identity as an Indian citizen was constantly also coming up in the narratives of these women. It was not only my identity as an Indian citizen but more importantly, my identity as a non prisoner – a person who can keep going out. The women would often say, ‘We’re telling you all this but you can go out of the prison, I can’t. But since you can go out of the prison – you do this for me. You tell me what’s happening in the outside world. You tell me what people are discussing about us.’ In prison work, especially, where there is this binary of a prisoner and a non-prisoner and the non-prisoner researcher can go out of that space at the end of the interview, you can consciously work towards mitigating this hierarchy. But that binary remains at that point in time.
But I think one of the things that you said is really important. Even if this binary exists and we are trying to understand the lived experiences from different positions of marginality, one thing that we really need to be careful about – and do this in a conscious way – is not assume that power impacts only those marginal identities. The idea of the nation-state, the idea of sovereignty, the idea of legality and illegality impacts not only people who are not citizens. It also impacts all of us. It impacts the idea of security. We see that even within the citizens that hierarchy can be created because of this certain idea of state security. So, as long as we understand that we are all actually impacted by this, and not just isolate that one particular person with the idea of saving that particular person. If we move beyond that idea of benevolence and look at the structures and the way power is implicated in these structures, it will help us work through the hierarchies, and not just again victimise certain people in our narratives but try to address it from a structural position.
SUK: How did you address your own positionality as a researcher? I am asking this question in context to the ways you were received in the prison. What did the prison guards think of you coming in and going out? Did they ever ask you questions? How were your interactions with them? How did that make you understand or contextualise how power works within the prison system? Is it really concentrated in one particular group, identity, or rule?
RM: I’ll answer this in the context of the work that I’m doing now in prisons in Sydney, because that’s when I realised that as a researcher your positionality keeps shifting based on where you are working. In prisons in Mumbai, I was still seen as a student social worker, but in Kolkata I was seen as someone who’s pursuing higher education, who’s probably more ‘enlightened’ and hence needs to be respected. So the prison staff did extend that kind of treatment to me. But one of the things that constantly kept confusing them is why someone like me would want to spend so much time in prison. This was a question which came up very often. They would say, ‘You’re from a good family. You can do so many things with your life. Why are you here for almost a year coming every other day to spend so much time in a prison?
There was that and but I think after a point you also become invisible. You become a part of that space, and then there isn’t that much attention that is given to you. You come and you go. That was my experience in the Indian context. But the moment I started working in a prison in Sydney, I realised that just my positionality as a person of a particular colour makes a whole lot of difference.
That’s one level. But with the women, again, it’s the context. In the Indian context, the Bangladeshi women were still able to build some solidarity with me but they always saw me as an Indian citizen. But in this context, in Sydney now, the women from the Global South look at me in a particular way, and draw that kind of solidarity.
For me, as a researcher who knows the privilege that I come with, I think it’s very important to constantly be aware and reflective of what I am doing in the field. How does it impact the women that I’m working with? Where do I sit with them? What time do I go to meet them? Because in an institution, all of this, ultimately impacts them because they continue to live in that space. Do I do it at a time when they’re supposed to be locked in? Will that help them come out at a particular time or will that mean that they will have to be locked in for longer? So, I have to make such calculations around time and space in a way that it doesn’t actually add to their experience of marginalization and discrimination. In that space, that struggle is really constant – even for me, as a researcher – to live with the reality that you are going to be walking out of that space. Then what do you do?
The other dilemma which all of us as researchers are confronted with is – is this going to provide an immediate resolution or solution to some of the issues that women are facing in the present, right now? Or is it a work in progress that will have broader policy implications, which will then trickle down? These are these challenges that you’re constantly working with. But one thing which constantly helps me navigate the hierarchy between me and the women I work with is to be reflective, and to centre their experiences and their narratives within whatever decisions I’m taking or whatever I’m doing.
SUK: When you set out on this endeavour, what did you think was the utility of this scholarship? Given the ongoing debates on citizenship and immigration, do you think the initial purpose or the concerns you had going into this project has changed or shifted? Is there any difference as compared to when you were starting out?
RM: Like I said, it’s not a new issue. We have just decided to foreground this in all our work now. But it’s been an ongoing issue. Some of the lived experiences in terms of how they are sent to Bangladesh or the uncertainties of their life within India, have been an ongoing issue for a long period of time.
I can only imagine that now with all our attention, it’s probably just going to get harder for some of these women. This is because of the discussions around the issue of trafficking, legality and illegality, the citizen, and the foreigner. So these binaries are only getting deeper. It’s really crucial for us to then ask ourselves: where are we looking from? Whose voices are we highlighting? It’s very important that we don’t – again – just speak to the broader narratives and the discussions but that we really centre the lived experiences.
The voices of people are going to be impacted by these changes that have taken place in the recent past. I definitely think that the uncertainties and the fear of survival is heightened, at this point, because of all the changes that have taken place.
SUK: Have you gone back to the correction homes in Kolkata or the prisons in Bombay after your research was published? You talked about how those women would say, ‘Oh, what do they talk about us?’ Have you told them the sort of things you write? Have they engaged with your work? What have their opinions been on how you write about them and how that work is then received?
RM: Back when I was still doing fieldwork and I had started analysing and writing, I did take some of the writings back to ask the women, ‘What do you think? I’m writing this,’ and share my ideas. So I was able to do that. But, as you know, it’s really difficult to access the space so it has been difficult, particularly after the release of a film by the BBC, one that included an interview from a person within the prison. After that, a lot of guidelines were put in place for prison researchers as well.
That’s the other issue that we have in terms of access. When people from outside the context come and research, it has all kinds of implications for our work and the way we can foreground the realities of people. So, access has been difficult but it’s in progress.
SUK: What did they say when you came back with your initial writings? How would they respond? What did they feel about it? Did they feel happy that their stories were being heard? Did that impact your relationship with them or what you represented to them?
RM: The part of the work at that point that I was able to take back to them was again their narratives of love. So when I shared with them that I’m writing this and this is what I’m thinking about, some of them wrote another couplet or they told me the starting sentences of a love letter. They added to it and sometimes they dictated to me, saying, ‘You write this.’
One of the women also said, ‘Oh you’re writing about love, then you also tell them that there are a lot of young Bangladeshi women in prison and winters are approaching. We need a lot of comfort, if you know what I am saying.’ It was the turning point in terms of understanding the emotional lives and central to which was their experiences of love that really shifted our relationship as well. But the tension that ‘you are going to go out and I’m still going to be here’ constantly stays. This tension is also fundamental to our relationship – no matter how much they trust me and no matter how much I try to be aware of the power hierarchies and work through them.
SUK: You also mentioned working within prisons in Sydney. Somewhere in the book, you also talk about studying detention centres in the Netherlands. I was wondering what it was like studying these different places. I wanted to know if you found any similarities or dissimilarities between how crimmigration works in ‘Global North’ versus the ‘Global South’?
RM: Yeah, this is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot – especially after I’ve just finished the fieldwork for a project I am working on – that is, just how similar the narratives of women are. I spoke about the challenges that I have as a researcher and how my positionality changes. The positionality of women also changes and different countries have different laws and we can put in different theoretical lenses to understand them. But the core issue of women’s mobility – especially visible mobility that is actually constantly bordered and incarcerated – seems to resonate across these different places that I have worked. That for me is very sad actually at one level. That gender based violence still is one of the major issues because of which women are moving across borders. And as a consequence of that they find themselves in different kinds of vulnerable contexts. Then that paves the pathways to the prison. So, this similarity really tells us a lot about gender and the nation state, and also family.
So much so that when I was making a presentation, based on my previous work [with Bangladeshi women in India], people in the audience actually thought I was talking about my work in Sydney. That for me was really striking because there is so much similarity. That’s why I feel that the strong, powerful voices of the Bangladeshi women really reaffirmed for me that that voice has a lot to offer. Not only for an understanding of the India-Bangladesh border, but for our understanding of border controls, the idea of the nation state, and how we look at mobility across borders. I think it has insights for a much broader context than just the India-Bangladesh border.
SUK: Is there any merit in comparing crimmigration across the ‘Global North’ and the ‘Global South’ – without necessarily assuming them as strict binaries? Secondly, how do we understand this new focus on ‘b/ordering’ in South Asia when its practices have been almost innate to these countries since 1947?
RM: I definitely think there’s merit in trying to draw from and understand different concepts and theoretical frameworks that have come up, say in the Global North. Like crimmigration. We are borrowing that idea from there. And I myself have done that. Like I said, when I started this work there was a complete vacuum. This field of criminology of mobility opened up for me a really different area to explore, to understand and to engage with discussions. There is merit and value in that.
But I don’t think we need to keep falling back to that concept. We really need to understand how it applies in our present context, specially because we are actually just on the way to formalising a lot of these processes. That formal link between migration policies and looking at the criminal justice system is still being established. We are seeing that detention centres are coming up. So we are at that stage. So we should start from where we are to understand the directions that we need to take. For which, we need to listen, to borrow ideas, read more, engage with ideas that are coming up in different places – but not just limit ourselves to that or keep only quoting that or falling back on that. I think we have a lot of space to contribute to those ideas and we should utilise that by looking at it from different standpoints.
SUK: I think your research actually does prove that because the women you speak to have such a perceptive idea of India’s border politics, of the way it impacts citizenship as well as the criminal justice system. At one point, one of the women you interviewed asked a question, ‘Why can’t they just send us back? Why are they continuing to feed us and keep us here? If we have done something wrong, why can’t they send us back?’
I wanted to understand how these women, first of all, critique or perceive the social, political and economic infrastructure of the prison system? What do their perceptions reveal about the infrastructure? How does it actually work? What sustains it? Why does the government keep them? Why does it not send them back?
RM: I think they are challenging that idea. They are really questioning this state and asking – what is it that you get out of doing this to us? Considering that we committed no other crime – we have not harmed another person – what is your moral ground to keep us here? That is the question they ask.
But the way I interpret it is that the state is creating the Other. Creating someone as a threat to the idea of the nation state helps you secure your identity as a citizen. To secure your identity as a citizen, you constantly need the ‘Other’. So I think that’s the moral ground on which all nation states actually create the image of the Other. That’s what we’re seeing whether it’s in terms of the representation or discussions around refugees, people seeking asylum, people who were referred to as illegal migrants. All of these discourses, and the way that are represented – even in the media, if you see the words that are used to represent different groups of people who are migrating for different reasons – is creating them as a threat to the idea of the nation state.
So, when you create the Other as the threat, you put mechanisms in place to constantly feel secure. This actually is also going to impact the citizen. The systems of surveillance and the idea of security, justified by the nation state, are impacting and creating hierarchies within the idea of citizenship as well. It sustains itself by creating the idea of the Other.
SUK: That’s an excellent point. Going back to something you said in the very beginning of the interview – do these women come back? If they do, how and why? I ask this in context to a particular incident I came across in a book – which also featured in the newspapers years ago – about this one Bangladeshi woman who had been detained in Delhi and sent back to the border. Yet she came back some six-seven times. I wanted to know if you encountered similar stories and what was the reasoning that you were provided?
RM: So actually one of the reasons why I ended up taking this up for my doctoral studies is a woman that I met again in the prison in Mumbai. It was the same woman I met after a few months of her being sent back. She was back in the prison. That’s when I understood that they are deported, then some of them again find their way across the border and they come into India. It is in pursuit of an idea of freedom. It’s really looking for a better life, whether it’s in terms of their social life, their economic life, or even their emotional lives. It’s that search for freedom and that idea of freedom that they constantly look for which gets them back to India. And this is, of course, specific to some women but there are instances where women are trafficked across the border as well. Their circumstances are different.
SUK: Have you noticed the use of technology in border practices in the areas you’re working? Have you encountered it during your research or after? And what do you speculate will be the impact of increasing use of technology in crimmigration processes in South Asia?
RM: One of the research projects that I worked on was looking at child marriages across the India-Bangladesh border. I did a few interviews along the border areas on the Indian side. That is when I observed the use of technology. A number of women when they came here and they were married – they had a child marriage – were not always aware of the implications of this mobility due to marriage. They did not know the implications of their marriage on their citizenship. That they would not be able to go back to meet the natal family. One of the ways in which they kept connections with their family was through the use of WhatsApp, through internet and social media platforms. I think that helped them sustain the wider kin relationships as well.
So definitely there is a use of technology across the border. Some of the work that I have also been doing is near the Rajasthan-Pakistan border. There too, I have seen the use of technology, just to create that understanding of continued relationships. Even though we know that the context of that border is completely different and it’s much harder for communities on that side to remain connected with each other. India-Bangladesh border is still open in many parts but it’s not the same for the Rajasthan-Pakistan side.
I was with one community in Barmer speaking about Partition and how their families were separated by the border. Just then someone got a call and they said, ‘Look, he’s my kin and he’s in Pakistan and we are still connected.’ So I think technology has still made that possible. But at the same time, like you said, technology is also being used for surveillance of communities and building evidence for certain communities against certain communities. I think that’s only going to increase, and we again have to be mindful of how it impacts different people. Like I keep emphasising, we need to keep looking from different positionalities to see its implications.
SUK: Dr Mehta we have come to the end of the interview. Is there anything you would want to add or ask?
RM: I think the questions were really really interesting and it helped me think through some of the issues. The only thing I would say is that, as researchers it’s really important for us to be transparent with our methodology and constantly explain and be open about why we do what we do. Where are we looking from? We have to be mindful of the kind of analysis and interpretation that we make, being aware of where our voice comes in, and where there are representations. So, that for me is key in terms of our ethical practice towards research but also the communities that we work with.
SUK: Definitely! Thank you so much for your time.