The designation of cremation sites are a fundamental part of Indian society and law. Apart from the performance of last rites, there is a clear separation of spaces for the living and spaces for the dead. These sites are commonly detached from residential neighbourhoods, markets, and roads – signs of everyday life and movement. The shifting of cremation grounds, therefore, often requires extensive communal and legal deliberation.
But the recent spread of images depicting open-air crematoriums, and more specifically, its spillage into adjoining parks, parking lots and roads are shocking in more ways than one. It is an erasure of the clearly demarcated spaces for living and dying. As a result, this systematic failure denies both the dignity of living and dying in Indian society.
While the ruins of a healthcare system are coverable, and actual numbers of casualties debatable, this overflowing representation of death beyond its demarcated areas has also challenged the current government’s sovereignty. As a political concept, sovereignty is the right to decide how and where one lives.
Apart from individual decisions and rights, governmental sovereignty is the mass management of these decisions. As the ultimate overseer, the Centre has increasingly sought to decide the mandates for both individuals and states. Defining ‘government’ as the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is a recent case in point. This centralised federalism blurs the sovereignties embedded in India’s constitutional structure.
In contrast, the overseeing of death, or necropolitics, poses its own set of problems and challenges. Introduced by the public intellectual Achille Mbembe to critique colonial and jingoistic governments, the term signifies the use of state tools for the destruction of persons and personhood. Interestingly, Mbembe also speaks of the living-dead wherein vast populations are subject to an in-between state, neither truly alive or dead.
The current erasure of the boundaries between spaces of living and dying is another form of this in-between state. Instead of a direct decision to subjugate vast populations to death or the state of the living-dead, the overflow of cremation grounds are a marker of precisely the opposite: the government’s abject failure in the proper management of life and death for its citizens.
This is our necropolitical moment. And it arrives just as individual and territorial sovereignties have been vanishing. The spillage and expansion of cremation sites are the clearest indication yet that the government has failed to protect the right to live and die with dignity. But whether we can remember this shock to our system and hold the government accountable after we crawl out of this in-between state remains to be seen.
With the peak for COVID-19 intentions yet to be scaled, the aftermath and final calculations of life and death seem distant. Meanwhile, these circulating images of cremation provide a stark contrast to the opprobrium directed at any questions on the production and transport of oxygen. Both failures in management of life and death have worked together in perpetuating a state of in-betweenness. India’s necropolitical moment is being lived by its citizens, and being witnessed by global media.
Moinak Choudhury is a PhD Scholar at the University of Minnesota.
Featured image credit: Reuters