Friday April 6, 2018

Bowl 001, Robertson Hall

9:15 – 11:15

Empire on Edge

Discussant: Ateya Khorakiwala, Princeton University


Zak Leonard, University of Chicago

Off the Rails: India Reformism and the Public Works Debacle

Colonial infrastructural improvements have recently come under scrutiny as vehicles of social, economic, and ecological dislocation. Historians concur that the Indian Uprising triggered a paradigm shift that led policymakers to further recognize the military advantages of public works investment. Even supposedly beneficial canals and irrigation projects mainly served to awe the native population, thereby concealing the state’s weak social foundation and limited revenue base. These studies have thus contributed to an instrumentalist narrative in which “the interests of Indians were incidental” in the planning of these works.

This paper will argue that the colonial preoccupation with public works could just as easily stem from anxieties over governmental inaction as it could reflect western technological triumphalism. In taking the East India Company and imperial government to task, metropolitan India reformers relied heavily on Great Indian Peninsula Railway promoter John Chapman and Madras-based engineer Arthur Cotton, a vocal proponent of canals. Lauded as visionaries and derided as “enthusiasts,” these rivals concurred that the administration was fundamentally resistant to change and should be subjected to enhanced oversight through the invigoration of public opinion. An advocate of limited government, Chapman approached associationalism as a universal catalyst for civic progress. Cotton, too, realized that efforts to “promote the real welfare of India” rarely originated from within the colonial government itself. By locating Chapman and Cotton within reform networks and charting the reception of their ideas, we may reorient their developmental schemes as forms of political censure against the internal structure of colonial governance.


Joppan George, Princeton University

Cartographic Anxiety: Mapping the North-West Frontier Province from the Air, 1919-1939

In a 1927 pedagogical manual, Reconnaissance Survey from Aircraft, Lieutenant-Colonel GA Beazeley appraised: “when in the air we have a pictorial representation of the ground below us similar to a map spread out on a table, and as the country passes under us we can draw in freehand […] [as if we were] being slowly dragged along the floor close to our chair.” Drawing on the experience of aerial reconnaissance from the western theaters of WWI, Beazeley was making a case for the topographical specificities of the frontier of colonial India as envisioned from the air. I propose a paper that investigates the cartographic anxiety of the colonial state, which stemmed from its desire to map the last square inch of its territory, to render it a finality of the cadastral purview. Cartographic anxiety, in other words, amounted to the consistent ‘discovery’ of inconsistencies in the maps produced previously. This anxiety, attendant on aerial policing fashioned by the Royal Flying Corps in the North-West Frontier Province during and after WWI, also occasioned knowing “the enemy” from above. With limited territorial access to the frontier, the airplane — an exemplary airborne panopticon — doubled the anxiety of the colonial state by scoping out the habits and habitus of the tribesmen. In the paper, I investigate the floating fieldwork of the airmen in surveying and surveilling. I parse the narratives of aerial expeditions and sorties; aerial photographs; and sketches made by a grounded aviator to illustrate the colonial anxiety in the North-West Frontier Province.


Meghna Chaudhuri, New York University

The People’s Capital: Fiscal Anxiety and State Developmentalism, 1870-1910

Contemporary governments, NGO’s and financial institutions’ actions in South Asia and the global South are marked by a deep-seated, and I argue, historically situated, anxiety regarding the economic habits of ordinary, often rural citizens. India’s recent and sudden move of demonetizing 98% of the currency in circulation might have been touted as a strike against black money and terrorism, but it was in fact the latest articulation of a historical anxiety regarding the lack of vertical integration of India’s hinterlands to global money flows.

I locate India within a trans-imperial network of scholar-administrators who sought shared solutions to famine and agrarian indebtedness using financial instruments to improve agriculture and inculcate a moral discourse of thrift. Peasants’ enthusiasm for cooperative credit in the early 20th century and paradoxical disdain for low interest state loans were historically specific responses tied to normative ideas around debt and speculation. These were the continuous object of policy from the 1870s as the state sough to inculcate the habits of economic individuation through financial instruments. This paper will highlight legislations such as the Agriculturalists Loans Act (1884) in Western India and state-backed life insurance for peasant proprietors in Bengal (1874-76) along-side official discussions around the viability of cooperative credit occurring between German, Irish and British-Indian officials. In doing so, it will reveal a longer history of contemporary fiscal developmentalism that sees the rural global South as the object of reform and highlight the anxieties lodged in the pedagogical impetus to teach agriculturalists to value how value is created seemingly out of thin air – that in order to expand at unimaginable rates, money must constantly be circulating at ever more abstract levels, in ways that damp notes, sewn into mattresses never can.


Zaib un Nisa Aziz, Yale University

Regimes of Angst: Imperial Responses to the Rise of Transnational Anti-Colonial Movements

This paper examines the response of the British imperial state, both within its colonies and in the metropole to the rise of this type of transnational activism. In doing so, it will show how imperial anxiety about the rise of subversive movements in the inter-war years created conditions for two phenomena. First, it led to the creation of new surveillance regimes as the state sought to police anti-colonial – particularly nationalist and communist thought and practice within the colonies and eventually in the metropole. The movement of spies, colonial operators, intelligence officials and police officers became the corollary of the transnational movement of radical actors to and from South Asia as well as other parts of the empire. Moreover, the desire to control such movement of British subjects led to larger debates on mobility and borders within the British Empire. Second, the propagation of anti-imperial ideas led to the state to invest in discursive regimes that instead sought to portray the British Empire as both legitimate and free. This was achieved by recruiting the help of allies within the colonies as well as sponsoring literature that celebrated imperial achievements as depictions of its progressive nature. This paper thus seeks to weave the history of the imperial state with the intellectual history of radical anti-imperial networks.


11:30 – 1:00   

Narrating Nature

Discussant: Divya Cherian, Princeton University


Sarah Carson, Princeton University

Disciplining Disaster: The Establishment of State Meteorology in British India

This paper examines the context in which the institutionalization of meteorology within a bureaucratic department emerged as an urgent imperial priority in South Asia. Reinforcing images of the region’s insalubrious tropical climate, extreme weather events in the 1860s and 1870s repeatedly reignited the existential crisis of the restructured British Indian empire. Influential men of science championed atmospheric study as a strategy of control against a fearful imperial discourse of disaster, inflamed by reports, rumors, images, and eyewitness accounts of famines and cyclones. The India Meteorological Department’s (IMD, f. 1875) first stated objectives were storm warning and monsoon prediction, both intended to inform the prevention of weather-related catastrophes. As they struggled to persuade the government to fund expansion of their observational network, the IMD’s scientist-bureaucrats advanced the notion of “power in infrastructure” that broadly motivated investment in public works. Rhetorically, imperial figures cast production of atmospheric knowledge as a benevolent social program, transforming their present anxieties into confidence of future mastery. As the Secretary of State reportedly stated in 1878, the imperial government had a duty to protect the people of India from the “uncertainty of the seasons,” a deferred promise that implicitly exonerated Europeans and their economic policies from culpability for these human tragedies. I argue that the imperial government advanced meteorological science primarily in response to events framed as environmental catastrophes. The IMD case study illustrates the mixed results of institutions of colonial knowledge-production; indeed, nineteenth-century meteorology was less a science of domination than of defense and disaster.


Madhuri Karak, CUNY Graduate Center

Outsiders, Intermediaries and Wild Men: The Production of Difference in an Indian Resource Frontier

Niyamgiri Mountain in India’s southeastern state of Odisha is home to 72 million tons of bauxite worth approximately $2 billion and the Dongria Kondh, a state-designated Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Over the past decade, motley local, national and transnational “outsider” actors have played critical roles in Niyamgiri’s anti-mining movement against the pervasive threat of land grab. The “outsider” also surfaces in Kondh historiography as an organizing figure in the meriah, a politico-ritual institution at the heart of outsider-Kondh relations in the Tributary Mahals, small Hindu kingdoms in Odisha’s mountainous southwest.

In this paper, I draw on the memoirs of two British military commanders, Samuel Charters Macpherson and John Campbell, to show how a range of outsiders were powerful arbiters of Kondh difference in the mid-19th century. As a precursor to violent conquest, the British recruited Hindu chiefs as intermediaries to access, manipulate and learn about the Kondh. Their work of cultural extrapolation reinstated evolutionary Victorian narratives of tribal wildness, closeness to nature and unfettered sexuality. However, chiefs were more interested in expanding their own spheres of influence than stamping out the “savage and impious” meriah, and administrators were in turn anxious, impatient and resentful of their dependence on wily middlemen whose aid and cooperation were key to forcing the will of the colonial state upon Kondh society. The hubris of frontier pacification was consistently undercut by uncertainty, a dynamic that resurfaces in the present-day anti-mining struggle, predicated as it is on negotiating and navigating Kondh difference.


Joya John, University of Chicago

From Affect to Climate: The Literary Atmosphere of Hindi Fiction

Coal is a key driver of modernity’s many infrastructures and also the site of a divisive global climate politics today. India’s energy infrastructure is primarily fueled by coal despite critiques of its extractive regimes and global environmental impacts. However, it would seem that coal still escapes social scientific analyses that are focused on management, governance and regulation of coal power. Between social scientific scholarship on energy infrastructures and environmental critiques of big infrastructure lies a domain of social experience of coal powered energy that is in need of a literary history.

I argue that a literary analysis of Hindi fiction in the aftermath of the oil crisis (1972-73) provides the opportunity for elaborating an important conjuncture in postcolonial India’s energy history. Such an analysis has been precluded by the predominance of narrowly defined principles of sociological realism with a focus on depictions of governmental neglect, illegality and exploitation in coal mining. I argue instead that both the affective and now climate-related impacts of coal exceed these prisms and call for new ways of reading literary atmospherics. The paper will demonstrate this thesis through an attention to narrative description and literary atmospherics of “coal time” starting with its extraction to its dispersal into the vast infrastructural matrices that shape public life.


2:00 – 4:00  

Fraught Frontiers

Discussant: Jack Loveridge, Cooper Union


Mahvish Ahmad, University of Cambridge

Anxiety as a Technology of Rule: The Violent Crafting of Subject and Territory in Balochistan

Balochistan has long been a site of existential angst for the state. The British feared that Russian, Ottoman, and German agents would rally anti-colonial ‘tribes,’ mullahs, and Communists against the Raj. Pakistan has feared Indian, Afghan, and American support for separatist Baloch. Its geostrategic position and oil, gas, and minerals exacerbate this anxiety, especially after a $46 billion Chinese investment to connect landlocked, southwestern Xinjiang to Gwadar Port on Balochistan’s coast.

This paper investigates entanglements of anxiety with statecraft in Balochistan in a contemporary moment characterized by extraordinary state violence: including disappearances, torture, ‘kill-and-dumps,’ ‘encounter killings,’ and army operations. To historically situate this violence, it refers to other, similar moments: a 1918 military expedition against those refusing conscription into the Imperial Army, and the 1973-1977 operation against insurgents protesting the dismissal of Balochistan’s first provincial government.

Based on a 10-month ethnography, and a close reading of newspaper debates with army and government press releases, this paper uncovers how anxiety about Pakistan’s present survival and future prosperity resolves itself by seeking and locating its object of fear in the figure of the Indian-funded Baloch. This displacement of anxiety produces what a schoolteacher called an ‘andha dhun,’ a blind fog: The overwhelming sensation that no one and nothing can be fully known. This ‘andha dhun’ acts as a “phantasmic social force” (Taussig 1991: 101), disciplining Baloch as they navigate a terrain constantly reconfigured by a state ‘fixing’ its anxiety through cantonments and checkpoints, changing alliances with militias, and sudden, unannounced violence.


Akshaya Tankha, University of Toronto

The Commemorative Monolith as Political Form: The Aesthetics of Naga Nationalism in Northeast India

Anxiety as an affective mode that shapes the power of the state and political subjectivities in contemporary South Asia is palpable in the built landscape of Nagaland. The indigenously-inhabited and predominantly Christian state in northeast India was home to a longstanding armed movement for political autonomy from 1953 to 1997 when the region’s principal “Naga nationalist” organization signed a ceasefire agreement with the Indian state. In the wake of the agreement, the emergence of new public monuments to the Indian Army and Naga nationalism in urban and non-urban spaces suggest that spatial and scalar visibility remain important features of competing claims to political legitimacy even today. This paper aims to analyze the commemorative monolith, a particular form that monuments erected to the cause of Naga nationalism assume, as a site and mode to engage the temporalities of “anxious belonging” (Middleton 2013) that prevail in contemporary northeast India. It will discuss the historical circumstances that led to the mobilization of an indigenous cultural form as the pre-eminent form for commemorating the Naga nationalist movement, its entanglement with Christian forms of memorialization and its appearance along state highways and in the proximity of areas frequented by tourists amidst political and economic changes analyzed elsewhere as the late liberal management of indigenous difference (Povinelli 2002; Comaroff & Comaroff 2009). By foregrounding the aesthetic as a form of politics that lies outside the arena of liberal recognition, I hope to deepen the scholarship on sub-nationalism in the indigenously inhabited post-colony.


Hayden Kantor, Cornell University

Fields of Suspicion: Caste Conflict in Rural Bihar

Bihar’s reputation as one of India’s most “backwards” states is in part shaped its history of caste conflict—the violence that has flared up between dominant castes and the oppressed. These caste tensions are rooted in unequal control of landholdings and political power. Bihar’s caste-based political violence that reached its zenith in the 1990s: the rising assertiveness of lower caste groups, which resulted in the tumultuous administration of Lalu Prasad Yadav; the Naxalite insurgency in many districts, and its violent suppression; the brutal counter-insurgency against lower caste groups led by the Ranvir Sena, an upper-caste militia. Today these histories are rarely referenced directly, yet discussions about caste inequality, justice, and the role of the state remain. As new patterns of education, labor, and migration reshape caste hierarchies, these conversations have taken on heightened significance in the rural hinterland of Bihar. This paper examines how differently situated persons – small-scale farmers, sharecroppers, and day laborers from castes at all levels of the regional caste hierarchy – experience and narrate these dynamics. Upper caste landholders are anxious about their ability to maintain control of their lands and continue to produce crops in light of recent efforts by landless laborers to improve their bargaining power. Lower caste groups, on the other hand, are distressed by the continued structural barriers and discrimination that block their progress. Both sides fear mistreatment, and this shapes many aspects of everyday rural life. Yet they must also forge personal relationships across castes to cooperate to ensure their livelihoods.


4:15 – 5:45

Numbering the Nation

Discussant: Sadaf Jaffer, Princeton University


Nikhil Menon, University of Notre Dame

Planning Anxiety: The Intellectual Infrastructure of India’s Five-Year Plans

In the decade following independence in 1947, India witnessed an explosion of national statistics and the installation of a vast statistical infrastructure. These years saw the creation of the office of the Statistical Adviser to the Union Government, the Central Statistical Organisation, National Income Committees, and bi-annual National Sample Surveys. My paper will argue that this burst of national statistics was a response to the Indian government’s anxiety about its capacity to centrally plan the economy. Planning required abstracting the economy quantitatively (to comprehend and intervene in it) and the rapid development of India’s social scientific and technical infrastructure was an answer to that call. The paper tracks the careers of P. C. Mahalanobis and the Indian Statistical Institute to reveal how the Nehruvian state’s planning anxieties led to decisive changes in the ways the nation came to be quantified.


Sayori Ghoshal, Columbia University

Counting on Anxiety: Numbers, Race and Religious Minority in Colonial India

Religious minority is generally seen as a political category determined by numbers. The act of counting people in a community makes the category seem self-explanatory and ahistorical. This, however, overlooks the ambiguity and contingency that inform the religious minority discourse. By focusing on the rise of enumerative thinking and the public articulation of anxiety around the religious minority status in early 20th century India, this paper narrates the formation of the minority discourse beyond its scope in political legislations. I draw my arguments from texts such as Upendranath Mukerji’s ‘A Dying Race’ (1909) and Brajendranath Seal’s Meaning of ‘Race, Tribe, Nation’ (1911). First, I show how anxiety is foundational to the emergence of the minority discourse and to its public life. Second, moving away from absolute numbers to focusing on enumerative thinking as a mode of rationality, reveals how the latter was harnessed even by the majority group (Hindus). Finally, I draw attention to the terms in which a community expresses anxiety and fear of one’s weakening and the other’s strengthening status – demographic data, reproductive rates, number of women abducted by the other community, etc. This opens up the possibility of seeing how notions of biological and thus racial difference inform the formation of the minority discourse. In conclusion, this paper argues that anxiety as a lens not only reveals a conceptual history of the minority beyond legislations but enables a history of the religious community itself as it comes to be informed by both religious and racial differences.


Aprajita Sarcar, Queen’s University

Hum Do Hamare Do: The Creation, Circulation and Afterlife of a Campaign

The paper explores the visual artifact that represented the national family planning programme in India: Hum Do Hamare Do (We are Two, will have Two Children). The campaign was created in 1967. It consisted of a couple with two children: a boy and a girl in an inverted triangle. The inverted red triangle, simultaneous to the campaign became the symbol of the international family planning movement. Tracing its creation and circulation helps unearth the assumptions of developmental modernity that guided its ideation. What is more interesting than its origin story is the way the mythical family within the inverted triangle, attained a life beyond governmental advocacy to become a cultural marker of modernity in postcolonial India. In many ways, it became a visual representation of the Indian middle class.

Anxiety of population explosion steered India to become the first nation in the world to have an official policy on population control. The worry of burgeoning numbers was tied to nation-building through an economic rationality- no matter ho much the nation was planning the economy, building dams, technological institutes and hospitals, the per capita income could not rise because of increase in population. This line of reasoning reverberated across politics of power blocs of Cold War. The paper knits this context into the narrative of the campaign and explains how it became a way for the idea of the small family as the modern family to retain legitimacy even through the years of forced sterilizations of the Emergency (1975-77).


6:00 – 7:00


William Mazzarella, Neukom Family Professor of Anthropology and of Social Sciences, University of Chicago

Approximately 52 Seconds: the Time of Prior Commitment

Saturday April 7, 2018

Bowl 001, Robertson Hall

9:00 – 10:30

States of Suspicion

Discussant: Ninad Pandit, Cooper Union


Maryam Sikander, SOAS, University of London

Colonial Punches: Print, Satire and Surveillance

This paper is a part of my PhD project that revolves around a late nineteenth century Urdu periodical published from colonial Lucknow. The periodical was called Oudh Punch (1877-1936). It was modeled after the British magazine Punch (1841-2002) that is remembered notably for its cartoons and that inspired a number of ‘Punch-styled newspapers’ in India.

With its habitual pot-shots at the figure of the ‘native gentleman’ Oudh Punch maintained its staunch antagonism to Westernization. It criticized, through verbal and graphic satire, colonial policies and legislation regarding increased taxation, famines, and press freedom. The proliferation of what Lytton Gazette called the ‘upstart Punches’ in India marked a new kind of visual literacy—cartoon as a medium of political engagement. Cartoon’s visual ambiguity—insisting on the multi-valence of truth— precipitated colonial anxieties. How did the vernacular Punches negotiate with constant surveillance of the Empire? Birthed under colonial tutelage, how were they ‘upstart’?

Within the larger narrative of The Vernacular Press Act of 1878 (wherein the colonial state could issue search warrants, seize printing machinery and storm premises without going to court) this paper seeks to illuminate the internal logic of satire that functioned as a tactic in face of colonial anxieties about native newspapers publishing seditious material. Fluctuations in the content of the vernacular newspapers was registered in the weekly translations prepared by colonial administration. Using these reports as a primary archive, this paper tries to unveil the nature of these colonial anxieties and the native rejoinder in print.


Pragya Dhital, IAS, University College London

Archival Anxieties: Banned Books in British India and the British Library

This paper will discuss the crisis of authority evidenced in an archive of banned books created by the Government of India from 1907-1947. The proscribed publications collection, held jointly by the British Library and the National Archives of India, is one of the largest archives of primary sources relating to any twentieth-century independence movement. The 1898 Code of Criminal Procedure had defined ‘seditious material’ as that likely to incite ‘disaffection’ towards the Government of India or ‘class hatred’ between India’s different communities, thus setting the two main grounds for book proscription during this period.

The banned literature in this collection, on the other hand, repeatedly refers to the Gandhian concept of satyagraha (truth-force). In presenting ‘truth’ and ‘facts’ in order to give lie to the paternalism of British rule, these texts often go beyond the bounds of propriety. The proscribed publications are also an archive of violence: full of graphic depictions of famine and war, police brutality, and exhortations to suffer and inflict violent death.

The charge of sedition is still on the statute books in India and remains controversial. In the charged response to recent sedition cases one can see parallels with colonial-era anxieties about terrorism and the divided loyalties of the marginalised, which resonate in many other contexts. This paper will look at how such anxieties are often expressed through combined circuits of information and misinformation (Robert N. Proctor), and complementary discourses of transparency and conspiracy (Harry West and Todd Sanders).


Ankita Deb, Jawaharlal Nehru University

An ecology of anxiety: 1970s Bombay Cinema

The publication of the ‘Report on the Enquiry Committee on Film censorship’ published in 1969, by GD Khosla, points to the overall anxiety of the authoritative state with Bombay cinema’s ‘disruptive’ presence in the public sphere. This report is an official public record that went on to argue the power of popular mainstream films in titillating audiences and creating a highly ‘corrupting influence on young minds’. I want to look at this moment of the state’s anxieties as an inaugural moment of the 1970s that engages in a different scale of seduction, both through mainstream Hindi cinema and circulation of images (through new lifestyle and film magazines as well as the burgeoning advertising industry). Brain Larkin in his mapping of the city of Kano (in Nigeria) finds that the ‘open ended immaterial excess’ of cinema poses a threat to the strict boundaries of Islamic law [Larkin; 2008]. The constant interference of the state in regulating cinema (and its technologies moving in the city) is an important point of reference for my paper. I would like to use his notion of the cinematic object that initiates a constant sense of anxiety within the state (and the ordered public sphere) to look at the new ecologies of cinema and its objects (through a new range of erotic image and music circulation) in the decade. I shall use archival and ethnographic material to locate this immaterial excess that the state is unable to contain through its laws on censorship.


10:45 – 12:15

Mediating Movement

Discussant: Deborah Schlein, Princeton University


Tupur Chatterjee, University of Texas at Austin

Anxious Landscapes: Gender and Urban Space in the Delhi “Multiplex Film”

One of the most pervasive aspects of Delhi’s post-liberalization psychopathology has been everyday violence, and especially against women. The city’s rape culture was given an exceptionally sharp global focus after the horrific gang rape of Jyoti Singh on December 16, 2012. Recent Hindi cinema has begun to engage with some aspects of the capital’s misogynist urban ethos. In this paper, I look at how the Delhi subgenre of the “multiplex film” has engaged with urban anxiety through a close textual and discursive analysis of two recent films—NH10 (Navdeep Singh, 2015) and Pink (Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, 2016). Specifically, I identify how the December 16 “trigger event” and Delhi’s notorious misogyny are finding newer modes of representation through the interplay of genre and exhibition space. In what ways do these films position and imagine the “multiplex viewer”? New engagements with the figure of the consuming middle-class woman and the public discourses that surround her sexual safety and navigation of space have taken a central position in understanding the present urban psychosis of the capital. I suggest that these films and the forms of spectatorial identification that they privilege are intricately linked to the gendered spatial politics of the multiplex and acute middle-class anxieties about the navigating the cityscape outside.


Kalathmika Natarajan, University of Copenhagen

The Privilege of the Indian Passport (1947-67): Caste, Class and the Anxieties of the Nation-State

This paper explores the history of the Indian passport (1947-67) as a document of postcolonial anxiety through which the Indian state sought to delineate and restrict the mobility of ‘undesirable’ Indians. Focusing on the little-known 20 year period of discretionary grant of passports, I argue that Indian authorities perceived the act of issuing a passport as a process of inscribing national identity onto an international stage and therefore sought to prevent the emigration of lower caste and class individuals who were liable to ‘embarrass’ India abroad. I examine continuities of the colonial state’s construction of the passport as a privilege for loyal, elite Indians by studying postcolonial British-Indian coordination over the grant of passports to define a mutually beneficial category of those seen as unworthy of accessing the sanctified realm of the West. As I will show, British officials viewed this restriction of migration at the source as a means of overriding the 1948 British Nationality Act, which recognised Indians as British subjects free to enter Britain. Meanwhile, Indian officials utilised this opportunity to assuage their anxiety of being humiliated in the West by a secondary class of citizens. By recovering euphemisms of caste and class in the diplomatic archive that inform insecurities about the ‘unsuitable’, ‘unskilled’, ‘pedlar class’ who were seen as lacking the dignity to travel as representatives of India, this paper is part of a larger attempt to situate caste as central to interrogating Indian foreign policy and India’s perception of the international.


Noopur Raval, University of California Irvine

Algorithmic Authority and the Remediation of Urban Space in India

Postcolonial urban spaces are layered temporal archives in that they bear material traces of State planning schemes, citizen movements and capital flows. When investigated temporally, they also reveal themselves as social interfaces, giving clues about the social and economic relations between coexisting communities of caste, religion and formal and informal production. Scholars of urban planning, bureaucracy and development have highlighted how processes of space-making produce and alter the social and economic relations between different urban communities. They have also illustrated the role of new and old architectural, planning and mobility technologies in mediating, asserting and re-allocating urban power. What do we then make of the role of digital, and especially algorithmic technologies in space-making?

This paper offers a discussion on algorithmic platforms as the latest among an array of authoritative actors within the city and its peripheries. Presenting ethnographic data on ridesharing drivers, driving for app-platforms like OlaCabs and Uber in Bangalore, the paper demonstrates how the arrival of these apps initiated a new chapter in the relationships between Bangaloreans as well as between Bangalore and its peripheries. Speaking to the theme of the conference, and in responding to gaps within critical software studies, the paper seeks to resituate algorithms within postcolonial material realities as an emerging form of governmentality. The paper gathers various aspects of ridesharing – its friction with taxi unions, anxieties around women’s safety and debates around public transport, to argue that ridesharing services, and generally digital platforms, reveal the city as a socio-spatial space but also simultaneously, set in motion new ways of governing urban spatial practice.


The organizing committee of the 2018 South Asia Conference would like to acknowledge the generous support of Aparajita Ninan for the image used above for this year’s conference. To see more work, write to the artist at aparajitaninan@gmail.com

 All images © Aparajita Ninan