06 May 2021

Ontological Security and Indian Nationalisms

Ontological insecurity is a function of national indeterminacy, where the ontological status of the national self is cast into doubt. So argues Meredydd Rix in his master dissertation. Taking the case of India, he shows how nationalisms, in as much as they posit a notion of Indian selfhood, have been defined by the constant need to navigate and banish indeterminacy, such as that caused by Bangladesh and Bangladeshis. His findings, which he details in this interview, won him the 2020 International Relations/Political Science Department Prize and are now published in open access as part of the Graduate Institute ePapers, thanks to the support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation.

How did you come to choose ontological insecurity as your research topic?

My research topic grew out of experiences working in India and Bangladesh, particularly in the border regions, in various capacities. The India-Bangladesh border fence is the longest border fence in the world, stretching the equivalent of Switzerland to Nigeria, and is part of a larger set of materialities, institutions and practices focused on creating and policing the border and so-called “Bangladeshi” migrants in India. I felt that arguments from security and economics were inadequate in accounting for this preoccupation with Bangladesh and Bangladeshis and that it in fact indicated the centrality of Bangladesh to Indian nationalisms. Noting the relative lack of scholarship on the role of Bangladesh in Indian nationalism, particularly compared to Pakistan, I felt that the significance of Bangladesh to Indian nation-building and nationalism had not been fully researched. Theoretically, I felt that the indeterminacy of the border and those seen to cross it posed an ontological challenge to notions of an Indianness, but I was uneasy with existing scholarship on ontological security because I felt it often conflates selfhood and identity, impeding a full account of ontology. I developed a critique of the literature and a different way of conceptualising and operationalising the ontological, which I sought to “test” through my research. 

So, how did you formulate your research questions and what was your methodology to test them?

My research sought to assess two broad questions: How could I operationalise ontological insecurity in a way that foregrounded questions of ontology and selfhood? How could I show that the indeterminacy of nationhood causes ontological insecurity in India? I decided to use a combination of corpus-assisted discourse analysis, tools from critical discourse studies and an analysis of legal frameworks and the materiality of the border to interrogate these questions. I created an eight-million-word corpus using Times of India and Hindustan Times articles from 2011 to 2019. This should allow me to show how Bangladesh is portrayed in Indian media (and more broadly), why it is portrayed in these ways, and so consistently, and what these portrayals do. 

What are your major findings?

I indeed show how these portrayals both bespeak an ontological insecurity surrounding the indeterminacy of nationhood, and are a way in which this ontological insecurity is dealt with, by reinscribing determinacy. Bangladesh and Bangladeshi subjects are constructed, there is concern over indeterminacy and, importantly, this is ontological in nature.

Ultimately, I find that the obsession with Bangladesh and of creating determinacy, which has preoccupied Indian nation-statism since independence, is intimately tied to the creation and maintenance of a sense of national selfhood, and that the indeterminacy and uncodability of India and Bangladesh continue to undermine this sense of selfhood, thus posing an ontological challenge.

Can you tell us what you are doing now?

I am currently working for the International Organisation for Migration on their cross-border emergency response in Syria.

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This e-paper was published thanks to the financial support of the Vahabzadeh Foundation. It reproduces Meredydd Rix’s master dissertation in International Relations/Political Science (supervisor: Keith Krause), which won the 2020 International Relations/Political Science Department Prize.

Full citation of the e-paper:
Rix, Meredydd. Putting the Ontological Back into Ontological Security: Indian Indeterminacy as a Challenge to Selfhood. Graduate Institute ePaper 35. Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, 2021.

Interview edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by S B Stock/