Whilst reading one of the seminal works on nationalism, Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’, one comes across an unassuming footnote on one of the pages. The footnote speaks about one of the most inspiring literary figures in post-colonial world, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the last novel of his tetralogy- Rumah Kaca or the ‘Glass House’. The tetralogy was written by Pramoedya or Pram as he was more popularly known, during a 14 years’ long incarceration under the dictatorship of General Suharto in 1960s’ Indonesia. Throughout his life Pram fought and wrote against repressive regimes, be it the Dutch colonial rule, the Japanese colonial rule or the different post-colonial “Indonesian-nationalist” administrations that he witnessed throughout his life and time.
The book ‘Glass House’ as Anderson informs us talks about the case of absolute surveyability, the idea of no escape from the state’s watchful eye. Pram drew from his own experiences in writing his literature. Pram served a lot of time in jail on several occasions by the orders of different rulers or regimes. He had joined the anti-colonial struggle against Japan at an early age and subsequently got enlisted in the army to fight Dutch colonialists, got captured and jailed by the Dutch in 1947. It was here at the age of 24 that he began writing, efforts of which culminated in his first novel, ‘The Fugitive’ during this two years of imprisonment.
After being released in 1949 and becoming a committed writer, Pram refused to be complacent and continued to be critical of even the post-revolutionary Indonesian state. With leftist leanings in his political views, he slowly fell so completely out with President Sukarno by 1960 that he was jailed for nine months. This was followed by the coup in 1965, after which he was imprisoned for the longest period as mentioned before. Thus, Pram faced imprisonment at the hands of the colonialist, the nationalist and the dictatorship regimes.
That he was imprisoned for political dissent against various regimes was however not only what Anderson was referring to when talking about Pram’s experience with regards to the idea of total surveyability. What signified this idea for him was the Indonesian policy of Kartu Tanda Penduduk (KTP) or literally translated as Resident Identity Card. The idea of a residence certificate first originated in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial rule, continued during the Japanese colonial period as a card and carried over into the independent Indonesian period as well. This is the classificatory identity card that all adult Indonesians must carry.
Anderson calls this card as “isomorphic with the census”. While the idea of census has been internalised in the world today as natural, the very act of census survey perhaps should highlight the fact that citizens are truly living in times of surveyability. But what was most alarming about these cards was a special feature that took surveyability to a new level. As Anderson points out these cards had a feature of “special punchings for those in the sub-series ‘subversives’ and ‘traitors’”. One of the population groups who had to face the brunt of being labelled differently was the minority Indonesian Chinese group. For the longest time this group has faced social and political exclusion and stigmatisation, including through marking of their cards. One of the major reasons for Pram’s falling out with the regime was his support for this group.
Thus, from a card meant for enumerating residents or population it evolved as a tool to signify and stigmatise those who stuck out as a sore thumb for the independent Indonesian regime. Anderson points out (sarcastically) that “It is notable that this style of census was only perfected after the achievement of national independence.”
But here he makes a larger point regarding tools of surveyability. Regarding the intention of the colonial state in evolving the instruments of survey such as the census or other forms of identification he writes “the colonial state did not merely aspire to create under its control, a human landscape of perfect visibility; the condition of this ‘visibility’ was that everyone, everything, had (as it were) a serial number”.
From experiences of the post-colonial world it can be said that their continuation rested on the appeals of governmentality and smooth and transparent functioning of the post-colonial nation state albeit a bureaucratic one. Popular nationalist imaginings give way to arguments of functionality of the nation and people internalise this logic and stop questioning it. But as the Indonesian example shows the idea of total surveyability and the acceptance of its logic can be counter-productive too. In accepting or rather acceding to the watchful eye of the state unquestioningly, people can forfeit their sovereignty too, the very sovereignty which they rested in the nation state at the time of its formation in perpetuity.
Thus, dissent can be intolerable and get you marked. The possibilities of a surveillance state utilising any identification system to brand and mark its own people based on their political positions or socio-political or ethnic identities, are what emerge from the KTP example. Moreover, the more that this identification system is linked to various aspects of your lives, this branding or labelling exercise can be further used to control those aspects and thus your behaviour especially if it is dissenting in nature. Thus the nation state could not only survey and thus control you, it could also do so for your views. Pram realised the importance of the views and thoughts one held, as he famously said “Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it’s only in one’s heart…”.
Now there is some possible allegorical reading in there somewhere regarding a similar development brewing in another Asian country these days regarding identification cards and surveillance. Some lessons from the KTP experience are perhaps in order.