Reflections on Foucault’s lectures in The Punitive Society, especially in relation to my current research regarding Indian settler-colonial occupation of Kashmir, compel me to say that alongside thinking through the need to transform our punitive societies, we need to mark that we live in societies characterised by colonial impunity. The question of impunity brings us to the question of accountability. And while what constitutes accountability may differ according to contexts, we already live in an era where calls for accountability, justice & freedom are part of the process of naming those accountable.
We live societies marked by impunity for historical and present forms of colonialisms. This impunity is made possible through an international system of nation-states, a dense network of geopolitical alliances that enable, facilitate, and profit from the organisation of punitive societies.
It is important to remember, with reference to W.E.B Dubois’s emphasis on the organisation of society, that an international system of nation-states has been shaped by the processes of colonialisms and the trans-atlantic slave trade. These processes were catastrophic, characterised by massacres, land dispossession, weaponised epidemics, resource extraction through plantation economies that trafficked in iron-manacled slave labour, indentured labour, rubber, wood, cotton, indigo, tobacco, tea, spices and sugar. By the time Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) was published, the trans-atlantic slave trade which was making the wealth of European nations and their elite had been in operation for more than 240 years. There is still no public or official acknowledgement of the manner in which these processes were and are a holocaust, catastrophes wreaked on millions of people around the world.
To counter this impunity, the question of accountability of colonial and settler-colonial states of the past and the present is pervasive in debates regarding decoloniality and reparations. This question must also be complicated by the coloniality of contemporary (post) colonial states. I have argued in my research that the coloniality of (post)colonial states like India should be acknowledged for expanding an illegitimate sovereignty over peoples and regions who never ceded their sovereignty.
The story of Indian-administered Kashmir is of denied sovereignty, and since August 2019 settler-colonial political and legal structures have been formalised by the Indian state. To repress a sovereignty struggle, laws such as the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1990), the Public Safety Act (1978) continually provide an infrastructure of impunity. State sanction is needed for prosecution for the state’s indiscriminate violence. It is the state that continues to sanction extra-judicial killings or murders, rapes of men and women, torture, massacres, revolving door detentions, and enforced disappearances. The Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons have documented these forms of violence for the last few decades. There has never been a conviction. Impunity reigns.
In August 2019, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir was blatantly annexed by the Indian state through a siege, and a blanket communication lockdown with thousands of members of Kashmiri civil society arrested, many (even minors) tortured through night raids. In October 2020, the offices and homes of human rights defenders were raided under an allegation of terrorism which includes the activity of publishing ‘antinational and incriminating material to bring into hatred, contempt and disaffection towards the Government of India.’ The phrase implies that documentation of human rights violations is anti-national and a terrorist activity. No room is given to breathe, let alone dissent or speak.
‘We revolt because we can’t breathe’ said Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born revolutionary theorist of anti-blackness, and of colonialism. These words as Nigel C. Gibson points out, resonate with George Floyd’s last words, ‘I can’t breathe’ and with the longer abolitionist movement against state-sanctioned violence. Uzma Falak, Kashmiri poet and scholar, pays tribute to the resistant spirit of last words spoken by Kashmir’s freedom fighters.
‘Last words spoken, speaking, speak
in spite of, regardless, despite,
For Kashmiris, silence is not an option. Words and images are explosive forms of revolt.
These words by Fanon, Floyd & Falak form a chain of links between struggles countering coloniality across time, across space. Countering punitive societies through calls for abolition requires a ‘radical transformation of society and political economy’ says Ruth Gilmore Wilson. A radical transformation involves countering a network of militarised, carceral, international nation-states shaped by coloniality, as Angela Davis argues. We are witness to a spectrum of protests, movements, and sovereignty struggles that link these contexts. The global Palestinian BDS movement, for example, highlights transnational connections across the US, Australia, UK, Palestine, and Kashmir, demonstrating the transformation of punitive societies as an anti-colonial project.
The call for accountability, justice and freedom is also the process by which coloniality can be named and impugned. These calls may take liberal as well as critical activist forms through normative legal processes or through critique, and through digital and street activisms.
To listen to Foucault’s call to conceptualise a society where ‘power has no need for illegalities’, we need to join the chorus that impugns the coloniality of impune societies.