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Panel 2: Mapping Subaltern Modernities in Neoliberal India

Chairs: Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Alf Gunvald Nielsen and Anand Vaidya


TWO sessions:

1. Wednesday 21 Sept, 10.00–12.00
4. Thursday 22 Sept, 09.00-11.00

VENUE: Ombudsmannarummet, Akademiska Föreningen (AF), Sandgatan 2, Lund



The Subaltern as a Political Voyeur? The landscape of shifting political allegiances in an Indian slum – An Ethnographic Account

Tripta Chandola

Consider these political predicaments: Shakeel, a devout Muslim and staunchly opposed to the BJP (Bharatiya Janta Party), the largest right-wing national political party in India, nevertheless campaigns for Chandrashekhar, a friend,  contesting the Delhi municipal elections, 2013, on a BJP ticket whilst sternly maintaining his vote is safe with the Congress party, the largest and oldest political party in the country; Nagma, a feisty Muslim woman with close connections to the local “goons” chose not cast her vote during the 2014 general elections, as the said “goon” had requested her to cast it in favour of the BJP candidate from the constituency, a party which she is vehemently opposed to; and, lastly, Munni Khala who cast her vote in favour of the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) during the 2015 Delhi State elections. Beyond and besides the matter of deliberations of accountability, development, discontent, among others concerns, this choice was exercised to keep the promise extended to the campaigning BJP workers, who had wanted her to swear on the Quran that she will vote for them. She refused to swear on the Quran, but promised them that she will not vote for the Congress. AAP had not been in the bargaining deal.

These are but some of the accounts, encounters and experiences of the residents of Govindpuri, a slum settlement in Delhi, exercising their franchise in electoral processes from the most immediate and localised, Municipal Corporation of Delhi elections, to the highly distant and abstracted general elections in India to decide the government at the centre.

I have been conducting research in Govindpuri since 2004. During this period, I have observed involvement of the slum-dwellers of elections held at different jurisdictional levels (council, state and general elections). In the proposed paper, drawing from these insights, I want to attempt a nuanced understanding of what informs the vibrant, dense and contested political landscapes the urban poor inhabit, here representative in the constituency which the slum-dwellers form. The questions regarding why and how the poor cast vote has been poignantly addressed (Banerjee, 2015), from which an understanding and speculation about who they vote for can be arrived at. More often than not, whilst the urban poor's agency in exercising their franchise is recognised (manifest in the turnouts during elections and the acknowledgment of them as a constituency which cannot be ignored) there is a tendency to generalise their participation in a collectively arrived political consciousness which is devoid of processes of internal, introspective and individual reflexivity. Lacking the “bourgeois” vocabularies and an identifiable “traditional” intellectual among this constituency, a certain political naivety, which can be easily manipulated, is thus reckoned to be the informing principle for the urban poor to cast their vote. Is the urban poor, as a category of the subaltern, then a mere political voyeur whose attention is easily distracted with the promises of the fantastical lands the best magician has on offer?

The outcome of the Delhi State Elections, 2015, has however, even if momentarily, ruptured this framing, compelling (and perhaps promising?) alternate possibilities. The residents of Govindpuri, representative of the constituency of the 'naive' and 'malleable' urban poor, revealed an “organic” political self by rejecting BJP, the same national right-wing party in whose spectacular victory in 2014 to the centre they were recognised as an important constituency. In the proposed paper, I do not intend to undertake an archeology of this event nor is the attempt to further respond to the questions of 'why', 'how' and 'who'. Instead, drawing from Gramsci I will engage with the 'particular conception of world' (2009:9) of politics, being and becoming political which the residents of Govindpuri inhabit which contribute “to bring into being new modes of thought” (ibid). In doing so, besides the promises (and/or its acutalisation) of 'roti, kapada, maakan' (food, clothing and shelter), the classic socialist-era refrain of the political parties to reach and engage the poor, I will explore the broader cosmos of the residents of Govindpuri – the emotional, aspirational, impulsive, intuitive – to unveil the “organic, political” self of the subaltern.


Live and let die: The morality of land rights in the Indian 'City of Joy'

Tone Sissener

From Permanent Settlement to land redistribution policies, from scams and grabs to distress sales and forced evictions, stories of conflict over land dominate the media and popular imagination. “Land is not at all an issue”, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee repeatedly tells the industrialists, but land certainly is and has always been an issue, or, to be more specific, the question of land rights. Every section of the population is affected: tenants and landlords, the rural poor, and the urban elite, and views of various interest groups are voiced: the growth-obsessed and the anti-capitalists, environmentalists and developers, business and civil society; and of course politicians, policymakers and law enforcers. However, the views less voiced or discussed, popularly as well as academically, are those of the landed gentry, or more specifically, those representing old urban property rights. In this paper, I argue that these views represent a moral breakdown. Looking at recent cases of land grabbing in urban West Bengal, the theoretical framework for an anthropology of moralities as proposed by Jarret Zigon and others are found useful for understanding the experiences of changes in relation to land rights. The paper concludes that in a situation of going from a moral past to an immoral present everything goes, even killing.



Agonistic imaginations: Modernity, democracy and the politics of the poor in contemporary Bihar

Indrajit Roy

The material presented in this paper analyses poor people’s political imaginations as they negotiate dominant classes’ social assumptions in rural Bihar. On the one hand, their imaginations envisage a break with prevailing hierarchies in social relations. On the other hand, they interpret their religious beliefs in egalitarian terms while also emphasise their communal identities to bolster their egalitarian claims.

How do we analyse the imaginations that animate their practices? Do the religious idioms that constitute their imaginations represent a continuity with their traditional inheritances? Alternatively, do the egalitarian ideals informing their imaginations reflect the diffusion of modern institutions, embedded as these are in colonial and postcolonial statist ptojects? Are egalitarian imaginations derivatives or mimicries of elitist ideals and statist projects? Or, might analysts consider the possibilities that poor people’s contested interpretations of their traditional inheritances incubate modern social imaginations? In this paper, I question the assumption that poor people’s political imagination are rooted in tradition. Side by side, by exploring endogenous egalitarian impulses among subaltern groups in India, I seek to interrogate the widely-prevailing notion that ideas associated with modernity are the preserve of and emanate from elites in the political-economic sphere of the Indian state.I first introduce readers to the analytic disjunctions between democracy and modernity before providing an outline of the debates over the production of modern and traditional identities in relation to the possible emergence of civil society in postcolonial contexts. Thereafter, I develop a narrative of the egalitarian imaginations expressed by the rural poor against the hierarchical presumptions of the dominant classes. Attending to these imaginations are the institution of cultural practices and representative institutions that might appear to antithetical to modernity.  I conclude the paper by reflecting on the agonistic dimension of poor people’s political imaginations.


Growth Infrastructures, Land Use and Resistance in Goa

Kenneth Bo Nielsen

Thirty years ago the anthropologist Robert Newman wrote that capital in the Indian state of Goa is formed primarily through the destruction of land, and not from the careful use of it. With the intensification of India’s integration into the global economy and the unfolding liberalisation of the Indian economy over the last quarter of a century, Newman’s observation rings as true today as it did three decades ago. Rampant, and often illegal, iron ore mining for export markets has done considerable damage to large parts of Goa’s environment; successive government regional plans for land use have illicitly sought to free up land for non-agricultural purposes, especially for the globalised real estate economy; special economic zones in the neoliberal model have been introduced (only to be abandoned again); and the tourist industry in the coastal areas lays claim to large tracks of land, destroys protective sand dunes, and generates unmanageable amounts of waste.

This paper is concerned with analysing how these transformations in Goa’s political economy, and the concomitant destruction of nature, have been resisted on the ground. Towards this goal the paper focuses on an ongoing controversy over the acquisition of app. 2,250 acres of land in Mopa in north Goa for a new greenfield international airport. The building of greenfield airports is part of a larger, national policy emphasis on so-called ‘growth infrastructures’ that are, for example, the key to the much-promoted ‘Make in India’ programme that seeks to further integrate India into the global economy and transform the country into a globally recognised, innovative, world-class nation. The materiality of such growth infrastructures facilitates circuits of capital by allowing for the exchange and circulation of goods, ideas, waste, power, people and finance; but, importantly, it simultaneously conjures up new aesthetic and affective desires and possibilities and fundamentally reconfigures relationships with land and resources by moving people away from agrarian mores and alternative possibilities for development. The paper analyses how the proponents and the opponents of Mopa airport have used discrepant, potential desires, possibilities, and reconfigurations of land-based identities in framing their agendas.


Bargaining for a Place: Queering Modern Imaginations of India

Dhiren Borisa

Navigating through the deeply associated contours of the imaginary and the geographical real- the project attempts to understand and map cities as lived ‘safe’ spaces of expression of sexuality and freedom. It negotiates through image of India as a fast paced globalised developing economy and the modern images that ‘Queer’ attempts to produce as ruptures in the understanding that treats ‘sexual minorities’ as items of western influence and import. With growing visibility of the queer movement in India (as it intersects with the transformative process towards modernity that India envisages), the often silenced episodes of gender violence have also found surface; triggering both support and adversaries. Looking through the lives of queer students in India within the context of university campuses in Delhi, and the covert homophobia that dictates the lives of queer (given the socio-politico-legal complexities), the pressures of home and the spatial familiarities - we attempt to see how emerging campus queer support groups produce spaces of acceptance within places that confine and define their movement and mobilities? Further, it investigates queer identities at two levels of intersections of caste and gender and attempts to outline the ‘progressive’ in the places thus created.

How bodies as carriers of stigmatized identities - of being queer and dalit given the ever pervasive casteism in the spatial logic of India, puts the queer subject in conflicting position of choosing one identity over another (within ‘progressive’ spaces in the real as well as the virtual and everything in-between), where margins at the same time are sites of resistance but further marginalisation? It is to look into how the counter-imaginations that ‘queer’ promises to create as a new entry into the language of social change stands haunted by archaic sites of oppression and stigma that surrounds certain caste identities in Indian context?

Also, how spatial experiences differ for the visibly queer (often trivialized through the lens of being in overt non-conformity with their gender identities) and cis-gendered persons? The study maps through ‘walking the city’, the space created through queer performativity (cross-dressed men not necessarily hijra)) as a challenge to heteronormative imagination through crowded streets and public transport in Delhi. While a hijra is a common sight on Indian streets often at traffic signals begging; an educated cross-dressed man/woman becomes an interesting tool to assess the way the imaginations of city spaces are being challenged and changed.


Conflict in Bodoland and Politics of belonging in the intricate world of categories

Chetna Sharma

This paper is an attempt to explore some complex and unavoidable links that exist between ethnic conflict in Bodo area of Assam and the modern governing practices of granting autonomy under Vth and VIth schedule rooted in Colonial cartographic principle of fixing particular ethnic identities with definite territories. This policy has been further perpetuated by post-colonial Indian state generating ethnic divisiveness with disastrous consequences.  Indian state governs through creating different categories like Schedule caste, Schedule tribes, other backward caste and categories within categories for example hill tribes, plain tribes, adivasi. The categories are important because they determine access to different level of protective discrimination, the result is struggle of communities for inclusion in certain categories and also violence against them due to their exclusion from certain categories.  

The Bodo conflict in Assam emerges through multi-faceted contestation against state, against domination of Assamese nationalism and clash with other peripheral identities. While The Bodo upsurge resist the appropriation by the dominant Assamese it attacks other non-dominant identities of the region.

In context of my field experience I would try to argue how the response of resistance of adivasi, Bengali, Koch, muslims against exclusion by Bodos goes into redefining themselves as legitimate settlers of the place. The wrath of the Bodos as the majority community fixes them as subaltern as they are treated as outsiders in the area.

This paper is an attempt to probe whether resurgence of ethnic sentiments and revitalization of ethnic identities is an inherent aspect of modernity? How the intricate web of state imposed categories and administrative policies institute a new narrative of the region steeped in strict ethnic differentiation? What happens when different groups negotiate with state to stake their claims in context of territorial autonomous structures that reflect dominant group as the sole repository of political power?


Negotiated Modernities: Everyday Life of Muslims in a South Asian City

Anasua Chatterjee

This paper attempts to engage with the everyday experiences of Muslim groups as they try to negotiate a rapidly changing world in Indian cities. Muslims, across urban spaces in India, remain a largely marginalized and segregated community often occupying spaces that are carefully marked out and set apart from the quarters of the dominant Hindu communities. Often described as Muslim ‘ghettoes’ such spaces carry an entrenched social stigma that negatively characterizes both the physical space as well as those who reside in them. These spaces are also generally congested and squalid, with a visible lack of social and civic amenities. Due to the resilient prejudice borne against the community by immediate society, and the not so hidden Hindu majoritarian approach of the state, most Muslims, apart from a small section of the highly affluent ones, have no option other than to negotiate the twin facts of living in a communally defined social space as well as responding to the demands of rapidly modernizing urban spaces on an everyday basis. Drawing from data collected in the course of ethnographic fieldwork in a Muslim neighbourhood in Kolkata, a city in eastern India, the paper describes the many strategies and tactics adopted by ordinary Muslim men and women as they to move to-and–fro between the vastly different worlds of their neighbourhoods and the mainstream liberalizing urban landscape. In particular, it explores negotiations made in the areas of employment, education and local politics as the vast masses of lower and lower middle class urban Muslims of India attempt to lay claim to the city in the course of their everyday lives.


Resident Welfare Associations and the (un)making of Subaltern Agency among the Valmikis in Delhi

Aditya Mohanty

Interrogating the praxis of power in a postcolonial metropolis necessitates a diagnosis of identity formation and its cultural and economic correlates. At a theoretical level, primarily following Gramsci’s formulation of civil society as an entrenchment of a ‘bourgeoisie’ hegemony, scholars like Chatterjee (2004), more often than not, straitjacket political agency in such contexts as a class-based derivative. Following this schema, studies on the state of representational democracy in neo-liberal Delhi by scholars like Lama-Rewal (2007) and Ghertner (2011), Kundu (2011) and Corbridge et al (2005) have used the neo-Gramscian ‘civil society vs political society’ formulation as a heuristic device for analysing contestations over/in public space. Howsoever, in recent years, scholars like Heller (2007) and Holston (2007) have gone on to explore the greyer spaces of political mobilization in everyday life and the ways in which a certain variant of middle class interests have been amplified but with a co-option of identity based politics. On this pretext, the proposed paper attempts at an ethnographic investigation of the socio-cultural, economic and political strands in a Valmiki Colony in Delhi viz., one located in the city centre (viz., Mandir Marg area). Seen from an urban anthropological point of view, the study proposes to see (a) as to how do conflating/conflicting identities (one caste based and the other class based) impact the bases of citizenship on one hand and (b) how does that in turn influences conduits of political representation. Interestingly thus, the paper uses the concept of ‘difference-in-itself’ (Deleuze 1994) to make sense of at a theoretical level, as to how has the rise of a caste-class consociation and the growth of a hegemonic middle class for instance, engendered an ossification of a neoliberal ethic that throws open new challenges for democratic governance.

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