2012: Participants and Abstracts

After Subaltern Studies

Organizers: Gyan Prakash, Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of History, Princeton University
Rohit De, doctoral candidate, Department of History, Princeton University
Rotem Geva , doctoral candidate, Department of History, Princeton University

Sponsors: This conference was made possible by the generous support of the Princeton Institute of International and Regional Studies, the Program in South Asian Studies at Princeton University, the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University, the Princeton Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Princeton Department of History, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies.

Participants and Abstracts

Roger Begrich, Johns Hopkins University, “Local Legitimacies of Laws and Livelihoods: Adivasis and Alcohol in Jharkhand”

Building on my ethnographic research on illegal liquor circuits among adivasis in Jharkhand, this paper will discuss the role law plays in the relationship between the subaltern and the state. The point of departure for my reflection is a raid in a village near Ranchi, where mahua liquor is produced by a majority of the households. While large distilleries were closed down by the excise department in the course of the raid, a young adivasi I call Gautam was able to convince the commanding officer that many families produced the liquor solely for their subsistence and sold just enough to make ends meet. He and the other small-scale distillers were finally let go scot-free. Gautam explained this evident gap between the law on the books and the law in action with the fact that the excise officer was, like him, an adivasi. The officer’s tolerance for this violation of the law could thus be understood as an expression of solidarity (empathy with the predicaments under which livelihood needs to be maintained beyond the bounds of legality), or as a sign of cultural recognition (what has been used since time immemorial is ‘traditional’ and can therefore not be criminal). But the lacking implementation of the prohibition of mahua production is among adivasis also seen as an expression of a conspiracy against their communities: keeping adivasis drunk is a way of keeping them submitted. This is where the state’s enemies step in: Maoist insurgent groups are enforcing total prohibition in their spheres of influence, thereby actively enforcing the spirit of the laws banning the sale of customary liquor, which the state frequently ignores. The Maoists thus manage to enforce the state’s legal norms in a quasi extra-legal space, and receive widespread support for this amongst the population. This scenario requires an analytic distinction between legal rules and legal norms, or between different registers of legalities. It also raises questions about the local legitimacy of law and state (and Maoists). My paper will address some of these questions.

Yael Berda, Princeton University, “Categorizing populations – forms, spaces, and emergencies: the mundane administrative legacies of colonial rule in India and Israel”

The historiography of a population is not only written by scholars, articulated by politicians and educational materials in public schools, is it also constituted by the administrative categorizations and classification that people experience in census questionnaires, filling out forms for I.D cards, or when their passports and identity are checked at airports and border passages. The official form, in which a single box is checked, demands a choice, determined by a person or the state, of assuming an administrative collective identity.On the basis of these categorizations of groups rights are granted or denied, determining not only political and social status but also affecting people’s daily life through facilitation or denial of the right of entry and exit into the state, property rights, rights of marriage and family unification and access to public services.Practices of monitoring borders, control of population movement, classification of subjects and segregation of groups, issuing identity cards, constructing maps and processing passports are central to political regimes as they are constructed and experienced by both civil servants and the public. As part of it’s administrative toolkit, the British colonial state exacerbated racial and religious hierarchies yet this strategy of inequality undermined the universality and impersonality that Max Weber identified as core principles of an “ideal type” bureaucracy, in which civil servants are supposed to provide services to subjects “sine ira et studio” (Latin for “without scorn or bias”). In colonial states, governance by “the rule of colonial difference” between rulers and ruled is central yet unaccounted for in organizational theory. I argue that colonial bureaucracy follows a different set of principles than Weber took as his model.By contrast with the rational-legal form of bureaucracy in which officials were constrained to operate impersonally with universal norms, colonial bureaucracies featured wide discretion, flexibility, secrecy and separate laws for separate population groups.  This bureaucratic model has shaped the administration of population management in the postcolonies, where old sets of categories of formerly subject populations persist, through emergency regulations, administrative practices and organizational routines. In this paper I attempt to offer a comparative organizational account of population management practices in India and Israel to explore the role of these practices in constituting the relationship between the subaltern and the state.

Eric Lewis Beverley, State University of New York, Stony Brook, “Laws, States and Subalterns in Imperial Borderlands”

Even during the height of British rule in South Asia (c. 1900), the subcontinent abounded with frontiers where colonial territories jostled against enduring spaces of native political sovereignty. Imperial borderlands were sites of overlapping and friction between multiple legal regimes, a scenario which produced problems and opportunities for states, officials and populations. Colonial officials sought to flatten this uneven political geography by pushing past the formal jurisdictional boundaries of imperial legal power. This expansion was justified by avatars of the colonialist historiographies that in a previous era legitimated political conquest, and variants of a ‘prose of counter-insurgency’ that sought to narrativize and naturalize the Raj’s repressive state apparatus. Part of my current project situates colonial discourse from this era of imperial consolidation and intensification within a fragmented political geography of empire. In this context, law became a key instrument and idiom of state power, and the multiplicity of legal regimes framed the social worlds of subaltern groups in frontier zones.My paper examines the discursive and jurisdictional making of a key internal frontier: the border between Hyderabad Princely State – a massive, autonomous Muslim-ruled state surrounded by colonial territory – and Bombay Presidency – a major constituent unit of British India. In the late nineteenth century, Raj officials mobilized classic orientalist discourses of civilization (European, colonial) and barbarism (native, Muslim) to justify the extra-territorial extension of various institutions (police, surveys, excise, judicial). For their part, Hyderabadi officials invoked treaties guaranteeing their sovereign authority to check colonial encroachments. These claims effectively limited the Raj’s capacity to regulate, surveil and interdict mobile people and commodities in the borderlands. Tracing a missing survey team, changing regulations on controlled substances (liquor, salt, firearms, opium, ganja) and attempts to police communities allegedly given to habitual criminality, this paper probes the limits of colonial judicial power across the Hyderabad frontier. In doing so, I seek to unravel the imperfect correspondence between colonial counter-insurgency discourses and repressive state practices, and to reconsider the workings of legal sovereignty in the modern subcontinent and the colonial world.

Ritwik Bhattacharyya, Princeton University, “The Interface of Aesthetics and History in Ranajit Guha’s Late Works”

The proposed paper intends to take a plunge into the late works of Ranajit Guha. Guha’s latest work in English, History at the Limit of World-History (New York, Columbia:2002), is the beginning of a phase in his career that has seen his intense focus on the area which can be said to constitute broadly an interface of historiography and aesthetics.In Guha’s own words The Interface of Aesthetics and History in Ranajit Guha’s Late Works we can characterize this late project of his:

“The argument in this little book …continues in a direction taken some twenty years ago, but does so at a depth not sounded in my work until now.”

This depth is achieved by debating Hegel’s philosophy of history. While Guha intends to join issues with Hegel for excluding all but the West from his account of World History or for including them only by subordinating them to Europe, he offers an alternative notion of historicality based on his views of everyday life and its experience. Guha discusses an essay by Rabindranath Tagore , ‘sahitye aitihasikata’, using it as an example that transcends the pitfalls of the Hegelian philosophy of history by its emphasis on the role of creativity in representing the past. Arguably, a celebratory account of Tagore’s own creative genius is offered by Guha as an incipient counter discourse to history.

Partha Chatterjee’s reading of Tagore as the author of a certain nationalist discourse in the Bengali essay “rabindrik nation ki?” offers us an important contrast to Guha’s approach. Unlike Guha Chatterjee decidedly puts less of a premium on the uniqueness of poetic vision and creativity and emphasizes the poets’ participation in a discourse whose rules have already been set. Chatterjee in his book Proja o Tantra (Kolkata, Anushtup:2008), consistently poses the argument for the necessity of foregrounding the mundane everydayness of the world of political society as opposed to the everyday experience captured through poetic visions.

The paper would discuss the divergent notions of everyday life that have emerged through the previous decade in the works of these two giants of subaltern studies and would ask what significance the rift between Guha and Chatterjee holds for the projects of rethinking History’s role as a discourse purportedly legitimized by the state for its own purpose.

Neilesh Bose, University of North Texas, “South Asian Literary History in the Wake of Subaltern Studies”

Pioneers of subaltern studies, such as Ranajit Guha and Partha Chatterjee, have critiqued the colonial and nationalist historiographies of India through an emphasis on language and literature produced during the colonial era. Chatterjee in particular has nuanced this critique, notably with a recent discussion of popular culture in a Gramscian frame, but scholars of modern South Asia have been remarkably silent about the implications of subalternity within language, a subject of concern to Gramsci as well. Outside of subaltern studies, recent studies of language and literary history in modern South Asia, in Punjabi, Telugu, and Tamil contexts, have been remarkably silent about subalternities produced by colonial and post-colonial vernacular consciousness. One remarkable blindness in South Asian subalternist writing has been the metonymic insertion of the colonial vernacular forms (forms of Bengali written and cultivated by Bengali caste Hindus, for example) as a representation of the “colonized” without any consideration of the myriad non- modern forms of language and literature that existed within resistance to such colonial hegemony.  In my paper, I combine a critique of both of these approaches through an examination of Bengali Muslim literary history in the colonial period, and in particular, the creation of a movement to challenge the dominance of caste Hindu literary practices. Rather than simply recuperate the Bengali Muslim form or position as an alternative to caste Hindu literary practice, I seek to open a discussion of how subalternities within the linguistic field in modern South Asia have been understood and challenged. Though the bulk of the paper focuses on Bengali Muslim literary history, I conclude with comparative notes from the Telangana Telugu and Arabi Tamil contexts.

Megan Brankley, Princeton University, “Separate States but Parallel Paths?: Religion and Constitutional Law in India and Pakistan”

In July 1947, the Indian Independence Act ushered India and Pakistan into their respective and overlapping constitutional moments – periods of political imagination and creative compromise that laid the legal foundations for both post-colonial states.  Although much historiography on the Subcontinent recognizes Partition as the definitive break between the political and ideological orientations of India and Pakistan, this paper deploys constitutional legal history in order to underscore the cross-border conversations and remarkably similar trajectories of Indian and Pakistani constitutional provisions concerning, of all things, religion-state relations.  Emphasizing the mutual dependency on the Indian Government Act of 1935, the paper first traces the intertwined histories of constitution writing in South Asia, linked by shared colonial experiences and Pakistani borrowing from Indian political discourse.  In particular, I examine the constitutional visions of Abul ala Mawdudi and Muhammad Asad, arguing that even among the most ardent Islamists, the colonial legacy of liberal legalism thrived.  By looking at liberalism and religious reformism side by side, the paper advances that a rights-oriented discourse of negative liberty, enshrined in the “Fundamental Rights” of both constitutions, collided with the creation of interventionist states with explicitly religious reformist agendas in India (with its abolition of untouchability) and Pakistan (with its commitment to “enable’ Muslims to live according to Islamic teachings).

After outlining the interconnected nature of Indian and Pakistani religion-state legalism, the second half of the paper chronicles the remarkably similar constitutional cases of the Satsangi in India and the Ahmadiyya in Pakistan.  Building particularly on Veena Das and Partha Chatterjee’s work on Indian secularism from the 1990s, I seek to add Pakistan to the conversation.  Therefore, by following these two landmark cases, the paper argues that, struggling with the dual mandates to protect individual religious rights and to enact religiously reformist visions, the Indian and Pakistani supreme courts have both assumed the power to demarcate the boundaries of the majority Hindu and Islamic communities respectively.  How do we situate these parallel constitutional legal histories within the narrative of post-Partition divergence?  What, if anything, can a transnational constitutional history teach us about post-colonial religion-state relations more generally?

Nishaant Choksi, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, “The Bongas’ Marks: Phonological rationality, Scriptmaking, and the re-enchantment of Santali writing”

In Santali, as in many Austro-Asiatic languages the word to write (?ol?) signifies, in addition to scripted language, ritual diagramming.  These diagrams are often used to mediate between people and the bongas, Santali spirits that inhabit the landscape.  Other diagrams, such as those marking places belonging to specific Santal kin-groups are also called ol.  However, as these written marks are not associated with an abstract phonological system (mark=phoneme), it was not considered by Europeans as legitimate “writing.”  Colonial missionaries, first encountering the Santals in the mid nineteenth century, assumed the responsibility of developing a script for this unlettered language.  In doing so, they were first and foremost concerned that the script be phonologically accurate.  This is not only because they recognized that the Santali language contained sounds which were not found in the dominant Indo-Aryan languages, but also because they believed that written language’s use lay in transparently reflecting the spoken language.  Debates around the feasibility of scripts for Santali were governed primarily by a phonological rationality that stripped written marks of socially significant meanings.This paper will examine both the Santali reaction to the introduction of phonological writing in the late nineteenth century by European missionaries, and relate this to the attempts by Santals to develop and propagate their own scripts for the Santali language in postcolonial India (stretching until the present).  Using Santali language documents written by Santals at various colonial missions, it will argue that the introduction of phonological writing engendered a crisis between Santals and the bongas, and these crises involved negotiations in which writing both enhanced and curtailed ritual power.  I will then link these historical arguments to attempts by Santals in postcolonial India to create new scripts for their language as part of political movements for self-determination.  The proponents of these new scripts argue for their legitimacy based simultaneously on their phonological “correctness” as well as their social and ritual relations with bongas, ancestors, and community.  I claim these scripts signify “composite literacies,” in which a phonological rationality intersects with a much more extensive social and ritual logic governing the production of written marks. 

Kushanava Choudhury, University of Pennsylvania, “This is Not Modernity”

According to the National Sample Survey, 92% of India’s workforce is employed in the “unorganized sector.” Two decades after Liberalization, employment in the informal sector dominates both rural and urban India. In Calcutta, even on the rolls of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), umbrella union of the CPIM, hawkers outnumber factory workers 2 to 1.  If the majority of India’s economy is unorganized, informal or illegal, those negatively-defined concepts cease to have any power to describe reality. Formal and Informal, Legal and Illegal, Modern and Non-modern – these dichotomies have little conceptual value in places where the majority of social and economic life takes place on the side defined by what it is not. More broadly, they fail to describe South Asian social reality. In an exchange with Foucault, the artist Magritte (“This is not a Pipe”) explained that his work aimed to show “the revelatory limits of forms.” Much like Magritte’s Pipe, in this paper, I argue that forms such as “Legal,” “Formal” or “Modern” limit our ability to see large-scale social and political realities in South Asia when they do not fit Western conceptual categories. I begin with a set of empirics to develop a theory that builds on Heidegger’s concept of “modernity as a world picture,” Foucault’s archeology of knowledge, and the Subaltern School, which was a reaction to the epistemic hegemony of elite historiography. Recent neuroscience research on perception by Richard Gregory demonstrates that “top-down knowledge” – our concepts and ideas of the thing we are seeing – do 90% of the work of perception. The mind sees not what is in front of one’s eyes but rather what one is prepared to see. I argue that when our first concepts and world pictures emerge from elsewhere, we cannot see large social phenomena which do not fit our top-down knowledge, no matter how many times we experience them. Thus, we need new ways to generate top-down concepts with descriptive power in South Asia.

Pankhuree Dube, Emory University, “The Politics of Authenticity: Gond Art and the Indian Modern, 1866-2001″

How does the tribal artisan negotiate with capital logics of market and state? Subaltern Studies provided a critique of unified narratives of global capital. The story of capital in bourgeois political economy and nationalist Marxist historiography was challenged by the incitements of Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty who conceptualized capital through flows, discontinuities, interruptions. Chatterjee’s argument that any impediment to the flow of capital is translated as pre-modern has serious implications for tribal artisanal labor; it suggests that any aspect of labor not subsumed by capital logic is then represented as primitive or feudal. Indeed, contemporary tribal artisans face precisely these sorts of characterizations of their labor. It is ritual work, rendered anonymous because it harkens back to traditional practices.In 1981, Gond artist Jangarh Singh Shyam was ‘discovered’ by a state museum. He left his village for the city and went on to exhibit his work worldwide. Today, Gond art commands high prices in the international art market. Yet Shyam, as the most famous Gond artist, was forced to confront the transnational circuit of subaltern commodification. In 2001 he worked for the Japanese Mithila Museum. Housed within the museum, his passport was confiscated and he was forced to produce art. Upon learning that his visa had been extended without his permission, Shyam allegedly hung himself from the ceiling of his room.

Shyam’s Gond community of Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh has historically been a key site for debates about adivasi labor. During the colonial period, the Gond artisan was constructed as pre-modern, prone to criminal wildness. Up till 1952 when The Criminal Tribes Act of1871 was repealed, the movements of itinerant Gond artisans were monitored through a system of compulsory registration and passes, which specified where the holders could travel and reside. In the transition from colonial to post-independence India, anthropologist-administrator Verrier Elwin lived in Mandla District and advised Nehru on how adivasi artisans could insert themselves as workers into the life of the modern economy.

By exploring the nationalist debates between Gandhi, Nehru and Elwin about tribal artisans and their role in the modern economy, I use the figure of the Gond artisan to open up questions of political economy. How might his art practice offer a glimpse of a history that interrupts capital logic?

Arvind Elangovan, University of Chicago, “The 1935 Act and Benegal Narsing Rau: A Secret History”

In this paper, I argue that there was an extended, secret history of the Government of India Act, 1935, one that did not play out publicly but rather unfolded within government circles both in India and in Britain. A central character in this history was an outstanding, yet relatively unknown civil servant, Benegal Narsing Rau (1887 – 1953), who was primarily responsible for implementing the Act by revising the existing statutes to conform to the principles of the new Act. In this process of what seemed to be a routine administrative activity, Rau engaged in a spirited and substantive debate with the colonial government on the principles of the 1935 Act, an exchange that the colonial government neither expected nor was prepared to answer convincingly.   As a consequence, what emerged was the colonial government’s retraction from many of the stated principles of the Act in light of the questions that Rau posed. The dynamic between Rau and the government in this process constituted a distinct history of the Act with significant consequences that became more visible at the time of the transfer of power and the making of the Indian constitution, a little more than a decade later.Such a project as this, namely thinking about a civil servant like Rau and revisiting an imperial event like the implementation of the 1935 Act, has benefited from subaltern studies’ stimulating impulse of critiquing colonialism and nationalism equally. Building and departing from some of the critical tools of subaltern studies, my paper seeks to highlight the rewards of revisiting the ‘official’ archives in order to explore the multiple possibilities contained in the final years leading up to the emergence of postcolonial India.

Maura Finkelstein, Stanford University, “Industrial Debris:  Ruin and Rumor in the Mill Lands of Mumbai”

In November of 2009, Dhanraj Spinning and Dying, the last privately owned textile mill in Central Mumbai, experienced a devastating fire that completely destroyed the buildings and machinery used in the production of cotton thread.  While this fire was officially ruled to be accidental, it follows in the footsteps of decades of industrial fires, many of which are suspected to be the result of arson. As workers picked through the mill’s debris in the months following the fire, rumors circulated throughout the charred remains of their livelihoods, producing a thick cloud of anger, regret, loss, dispossession and insecurity. Otherwise stifled and deferred, the burning of Dhanraj released reactions well known to disenfranchised workers throughout the city, unemployed since the textile strikes of the early 1980’s. For this small employed population, however, relative realities were reduced to rumor and speculation within the gates of the smoking mill.In this paper I argue that the existence of a semi-functioning mill such as Dhanraj allowed for the a romantic narrative of working class grandeur (associated with the height of the textile industry) to linger upon the landscape of Mumbai, obscuring present realities of post-industrialization and a restructuring class system. Through rumor and ruin, these anachronistic workers confronted a reality their employment had shielded them from: the transformation of working class enclaves into sites of middle class consumption and their pending evictions from the island city. This paper considers how narratives of displacement and disappointment trace the temporal and spatial configurations animating the wreckage of post-industrialization in contemporary Mumbai.

Nabaparna Ghosh, Princeton University, “Of memory and critique: Imagining city space in Bot-tola and Nationalist discourse of colonial Calcutta”

Textual representations of colonial Calcutta in street literature and nationalist discourse articulate very different visions of city space. In mid nineteenth century town improvement schemes inflected topographical changes producing a city culture.First published from under the shades of huge banyan tree, or the Bot, Bot-tola texts grew in contravention of the ongoing linguistic purge. Heavily proscribed by the colonial state, Bot-tola texts were amusing accounts of everyday life in the city. They were a class-critique of the city from within, retrieving spaces by walking the streets. The authors saw in the changing streets of Calcutta a moral declension and the growth of a class of lumpen bourgeoisie, the “Yaar”.  The colonial urban in these texts was retrogressive; Calcutta was Kolir-kata or the city of the dark ages (koli=dark age).

The Municipal gazette, in mid twentieth century, published an organized articulation of nationalist imagination of city space. In these writings there is a complete disavowal of Bot-tola historiography and a reversal of the apocalyptic vision of the city. In its place, there is an institutional adoption of city space as redeeming. The “Citizen” is here, an antidote to spatially produced class difference.  By construing the city from its critique, this paper will argue that nationalist articulation of collective memory was selective. The popular and the everyday found no place in the nationalist renditions of modern city space. The lived experiences of a population, so well articulated in Bot-tola texts, could not inflect nationalist writings as a historic precedent. The Bot-tola narrative of urbanity as alienating was superseded by a nationalist faith in city space as aesthetic and liberating.

Megan Hamm, University of Pittsburg, “The Triply Subaltern Sex Worker: The Problems of Silence and Voice in Sex Worker Activism and Ethnographic Research”

Gayatri Spivak has famously asked the question “Can the subaltern speak?,” arguing that speech is not possible for the subaltern woman. In this paper, I consider the problem of voice (and of the equation of voice with power) in analyzing the ways in which sex workers in Shivdaspur, a small red light area on the outskirts of Varanasi, U.P., represented themselves to me. While conducting ethnographic research with activists seeking to aid sex workers in Shivdaspur, I was continually confronted with the problem of sex workers’ voices and the content of their speech in my attempts to understand and evaluate such activism. Indeed, evaluations of many of the staples of the activism of the NGO that was the primary focus of my research – educational programs, unionization and collectivization, decriminalization campaigns, and controversial (and problematic) “raid and rescue” activities – hinged on a simple question: What sort of activism do sex workers want done on their behalf? More pointedly: What sort of activism would they like to engage in? How might they like their lives to change?

These questions, however, proved impossible to answer. The sex workers in question, as well as the rest of the red light community in Shivdaspur, were happy to talk with me about many things, but not about their work. Although some would eventually do so, the majority of the women with whom I interacted felt that their work was not worth speaking about. Constructing their narratives about their lives around themes of family, children, and house-keeping, they created a silence about sex work that is collusive with those assumed to be their oppressors (brothel keepers, police, customers, perhaps activists). As such, in this paper I grapple with the question of how scholars relying on contemporary ethnographic and interview data should interpret silence on the part of their subaltern (and doubly, or perhaps triply-subaltern) interlocutors: Is their silence itself a form of speech, and if so, is it possible to know the content of that speech? How do scholars, and should scholars, engage with questions about the subaltern that the subaltern themselves refuse to ask?

Jason Jackson, MIT, “Institutions, Economic Interests and Policy Preferences: Insights from Subaltern Studies on the Political Economy of Foreign Direct Investment in India”

Subaltern studies has been a powerful force in the humanities and social sciences and has brought critical theoretical, analytic and methodological insights to studies of political economy. It has forced political economists, particularly those working on the subcontinent but also in other developing country settings, to confront the discipline’s reliance on elite historical sources and perspectives, as well as the role of culture in social and economic change. In this paper I bring these critiques from subaltern studies to bear on my dissertation research on the political economy of foreign direct investment in India.This dissertation focuses on the politics of foreign direct investment (FDI) policy in India from the end of the colonial period, through import substitution to the current period of economic liberalization. Foreign capital has been viewed with skepticism in India since the colonial era and the entry of multinational firms provoked a strong backlash from leading Indian industrialists as well as subaltern groups including labor, farmers and forest dwellers in the early stages of the India’s economic reforms. The initial reaction from Indian capital seemed consistent with dominant theoretical predictions that developing country firms, long shielded from foreign competition by protectionist policies, would oppose FDI policy reforms. Yet today many of these same capitalists are pushing policymakers to accelerate the pace of FDI liberalization. My dissertation investigates this puzzle by addressing the following question: Why are domestic firms actively supporting liberal FDI reforms? What insights can subaltern studies provide on the changing relationship between domestic and foreign capital, subaltern groups and the Indian state?

The dissertation examines the process through which FDI policy preferences of domestic firms, the government and key subaltern groups have changed over time, from resisting openness to FDI that would maintain a protected market to promoting liberalization of FDI policy and greater entry of multinational firms. It draws on archival research and multiple rounds of fieldwork to critique dominant rational-material political economy theories that naturalize economic interests and preferences by suggesting that economic agents’ policy preferences are malleable and are constructed through an endogenous process of social interaction, particularly under the conditions of uncertainty that characterize periods of institutional change and economic reform. These moments of indeterminacy present opportunities for agency by competing subaltern and elite actors.

A view from subaltern studies provides a nuanced understanding of economic nationalism that goes beyond the nexus of large capital and the central Indian state by revealing fractures in the meaning of nationalism and the implications for political action within and across the state, capital, and subaltern groups. This has deep historical roots. Labor militancy played a crucial role in mediating the relationship between domestic and foreign capital, and the post-colonial and later Independent state from the 1920s onwards, and labor remains a central actor in the complex interplay between collaboration and conflict amongst domestic and foreign capital that persists to this day.

Subaltern studies reveals the extent to which the separation of nation and state was reflected in scholarly literature by the separation of political economy and culture. The subaltern studies critique thus provides an excellent entry point for bringing culture into political economy, which sits well within current theoretical moves in the discipline and is one of the central theoretical contributions of my dissertation. This dissertation utilizes the inter-disciplinary opportunity provided by the ‘institutional turn’ in social science to develop an endogenous theory of preference formation that rests on three mutually constitutive but analytically separable components. It argues that there is an inherent indeterminacy in competing economic development theories, salient nationalist narratives and conceptions of the role of technology in development that provides opportunities for economic actors to influence preferences and shape the rules that govern foreign firms’ participation in the Indian economy. This theory of preference formation rests on the power entrenched in narrative and discourse that is purposively deployed by economic agents representing the state, domestic and foreign capital, and subaltern groups. These discursive conflicts are not limited to elites; I draw insights from subaltern studies to show how each of these three components are used as tools of resistance by labor, forest dwellers and other subaltern groups that are affected by state and capital led industrialization projects. This resistance has a crucial impact on the negotiation of the foreign and the domestic, and is central to understanding the dynamics of the Indian political economy. Adopting the analytic lens of subaltern studies reveals internal processes of social and political fragmentation alongside external processes of capitalist consolidation and transnational capital accumulation evident in India’s economic reforms and its participation in the wider process of neoliberal globalization. An analytic perspective informed by subaltern studies reveals the implications for that relationship in the current moment of economic liberalization, particularly given the impact of social movements and other forms of resistance. This provides a richer and more realistic picture of the post-reform Indian political economy than that of a triumphant ‘India Inc.’ The policy arena and the market are zones of contestation where subaltern and elite actors compete to establish dominant positions.

Beatrice Jauregui, Cambridge University, “Can the Constable Speak? State Subalterns and Postcolonial Police Protests”

Police are rarely considered subalterns in anything other than the military sense of the term. If police are considered at all, institutionally or individually, they are usually conceived as constituting a violent, self-serving, hyper-empowered monolith. But in many places, especially in postcolonies, and especially in postcolonial India, the vast majority of police are anything but obviously and always empowered. Constables, in particular, who comprise more than 90% of the lowest-ranking masses of police, are expressly barred from official intervention of any sort without receiving explicit orders from “superiors”. This sometimes-legal restriction is associated with others, including governmental bans on subordinate police forming professional associations or joining trade unions, and on their engaging in any form of collective action that might deemed “political”, including and especially a bandhor strike—this, in the face not merely of notoriously abysmal working conditions, but also of en masse and routinized abuse by various powerholders of this group of state agents, whom legal historian UpendraBaxi almost 30 years ago categorized as a “despised minority”. Based on ethnographic and historical analysis of (mostly failed) attempts by Indian police constables to voice grievances regarding their living conditions and general maltreatment by senior officials and the public at large, this paper asks what the historiographic reconsiderations inspired and compelled by the Subaltern Studies movement can do for understanding the complexities of police practice specifically, and the postcolonial state more generally. Beginning with an oral and archival historical examination of two major police uprisings in Delhi and across Uttar Pradesh, in 1967 and 1973, respectively, and then bringing these incidents into conversation with contemporary efforts by some police to form unions “from below”, I argue that the police multitudes in India represent a uniquely disenfranchised sub-citizenry, an ironically impotent mass of agents. It is hoped that this analysis may begin to interrogate or perhaps even invert some of the most pressing questions raised by Subaltern Studies scholarship regarding the relationship between state legalities and vulnerable subjectivities.

Tariq Omar Ali, Harvard University, ““Mofussil” Economic Ideas:  Conceptions of Jute in East Bengal, ca. 1920s”

In this paper, I look at poems and pamphlets about agrarian political economy and jute cultivations published in the jute tracts of eastern Bengal during the 1920s. The publishing industry in towns like Rangpur, Nilphamari, Mymensingh, Faridpur, Dhaka, and Comilla were particularly active during the period, churning out many more publications in the 1920s than it did before World War I.  The authors of these works were generally educated and middle-class residents of the delta, who worked as salaried clerks in government offices, lawyers’ and doctors’ offices, or for zamindars.  Their publications were financed, patronized and endorsed by local notables, usually large landowners.  These authors, their patrons and the publishing industry I will argue constituted a mofussil intellectual scene.

I focus on two genres of mofussil literature.  First, I look at “boyans”, a form of spoken poetry with rhyming couplets of even measure.  A number of boyans addressing jute cultivators and critiquing the delta’s jute economy were printed in mofussil east Bengal towns during the 1920s.  Second, I look at pamphlets advocating social, economic and religious reform in the delta.  These poems and pamphlets constituted a critique of the colonial agrarian economy and promoted visions of a better agrarian society. Their ideas were formulated both in conversation with the agrarian countryside and with metropolitan Calcutta.  The mofussil was an intermediary space, in between the metropolis and the hinterland.In the paper, I attempt to complicate the elite-subaltern dichotomy with the spatial categories of the metropolis, hinterland and the mofussil.  I focus on the commodity jute not only because it was a dominant theme in the mofussil intellectual scene, but also because the production and circulation of the commodity underpinned Calcutta’s dominance over the deltaic jute tracts. The mofussil was an intermediary space, neither metropolis nor hinterland but in-between and in contact with both.  Elites and subalterns came into contact in small towns in the agrarian delta, and out of their interactions arose distinctively mofussil political and economic ideas.  These ideas, I will argue, constituted an anti-colonial nationalism that was in conversation with but markedly different from metropolitan, elite nationalism.

Ninad Pandit, Princeton University, “The “new left” and popular politics”

In this paper, I will examine in what way the academic left in India has changed its relationship to popular politics, from the later writings of the Subaltern Group like Politics of the Governed to the present time of popular mobilizations in the Hazare movement.The apparent successes of the Hazare movements, the rise of Naxal groups and the decline of the party left in Bengal and Kerala have forced a group of academics/activists in India to rethink the relationship between popular mobilizations and politics. A key insight into this transformation is a manifesto for a “new left” in India by Marxist scholar JairusBanaji and others (End of the Left in India? EPW. June 4, 2011) which argued, “the defeat of the Left parties does not mean the defeat of the Left” and stated that the Indian Left is really the countless organizations and individuals that have been fighting for social justice. The letter ended with the proclamation that the Left will “continue to flourish” as long as Indian democracy “remains broken.” This negative framing of the Left as a corrective to Indian democracy has also resulted in a negative relationship with politics itself; prominent members of this ‘new left’ debated with Subalternists on Kafila.org on how it can intervene in and benefit from the Hazare movement, rather than lead it.

While the early Subaltern Studies collective targeted nationalist and colonial histories from the Left to uncover suppressed narratives of popular resistance, this new group has set its sight on the historiography of the mainstream Indian Left itself, both in attempts to distinguish itself from it and simultaneously seeking to transform it. At the same time, this group has turned to political activism for social change, with mainstream movements as its vehicle. This represents a new stage in south Asian scholarship, which draws upon the later Subaltern Collective, and yet has a markedly different relationship with popular politics. In this paper, I will examine this transformation by way of journalistic work by academics/activists of this “new left,” and attempt to locate it within the changing fortunes of the Indian Left in the last decade.

Pooja Parmar, University of British Columbia, “Law ‘after’ Subaltern Studies: Claims, Histories and Meanings”

The focus of my doctoral research is a legal dispute in which almost everything that mattered to those who started it appears to have been eclipsed. The dispute began in 2002 with Adivasi protests against excessive extraction of groundwater by Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Ltd. in a village in Kerala, and has since received widespread local, national and international support. In the mean time, litigation that emerged from this dispute has slowly made its way to the Supreme Court of India with numerous stopovers at various courts and administrative offices. Drawing on extensive original research, my dissertation juxtaposes the multiple accounts of this dispute as narrated by the Adivasis who began the protests, by activists and politicians, lawyers, judges, as well as the accounts that emerge from media reports and legal records. This juxtaposition enables a closer look at the ways in which meanings are gained and lost as claims originating in contested, layered, histories are given legal expression within narrower frames. This workshop is an opportunity for me to reflect on the manner and extent to which my engagement with legal pluralism (especially the idea that law and narrative are inseparably connected within each normative world, and it is the narratives that locate claims and give them meaning), and with the processes and practices of translation is informed by my readings of Subaltern Studies, and the ways in which this project is “after” Subaltern Studies.

Jeff Redding, St Louis University, School of Law, “The Case of Ayesha, Muslim ‘Courts,’ and the Rule of Law:  Some Ethnographic Lessons for Legal Theory”

In this paper, I aim to challenge the simplistic disparagement of non-state Islamic systems of law that has established firm roots in contemporary rule of law ideology and theorizing.  I will do so by creating bridges between legal anthropology and legal philosophy, demonstrating the crucial – if deliberately obscured – importance of the former to the latter.  In this respect, rule of law ideology has tended to ignore actual mechanics and procedures of law, not only in legal venues outside the state’s direct control, but also in the state’s courts themselves.  With respect to non-state legal venues – and especially non-state Islamic legal venues – such ideology understands and describes the practices and procedures that it finds in these non-state venues as crude and under-developed at their best, and illiberal and violative of the rule of law at their worst.Other scholars’ work, focused on a wide variety of jurisdictions, has vividly demonstrated the various transformations and mutations that any state’s ‘ideal legal procedure’ experiences as it is put into real-world practice by a state’s courts and judges.  In this paper, I make a somewhat converse move, demonstrating how a non-state Islamic legal venue behaves in ways which are highly evocative of rule of law ideology’s idealization of state courts and how they (should) operate procedurally.  In this way, I provide another case-study confirming Partha Chatterjee’s thesis about the “mutually conditioned historicities” of elite and subaltern domains – including state and non-state legal arenas (Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments:  Colonial and Postcolonial Histories 13 (1993)).  To do so, I closely examine the circumstances and experiences of an Indian Muslim woman, ‘Ayesha,’ who recently used a Delhi dar ul qaza to exercise her Islamic divorce rights in India.

Emily Rook-Koepsel, University of Oklahoma, “Naming Politics: Defining All Indian Democracy”

In his 1949 speech to the Constituent Assembly announcing the completion of the Indian constitution, B.R. Ambedkar argued forcefully that India’s neglect of caste discrimination, minority rights, poverty and class inequality amelioration, and gender equality meant that despite passing constitutional political equality, India could not yet claim that it was a national democracy. Democracy functioned as a ‘shibboleth’ of political organizing in the 1940s and 1950s, with support for democracy being necessary but not sufficient to an organization’s national content. Thus the consistently stated desire to revisit the meaning of democracy, even long after the constitution had been ratified, by several non-state ‘All India’ organizations, suggests that investment and meaningful participation in democratic governance differently defined was part of a contingent vision of Indian citizenship for minority activists. This paper attempts to consider the ways that organizations sought to engage with democracy as a mode of making a more fluid and accessible state. Specifically it considers the goal of organizations like the All India Women’s Conference and the All India Scheduled Caste Federation to use professions of support for democratic principles and the unity of India to attempt to ‘reconstruct’ an Indian national state that was more available to minorities, more flexible in its priorities, and more variable than the Indian state under negotiation in the Constituent Assembly.The depth in subaltern studies to look beyond the anticolonialist move to assert a fundamental, all-encompassing India, has allowed for recognition of difference and the way state represses it. Thus, the reconceptualization of the idea of minority by linking it to questions of power, voice, and agency has allowed scholars to rethink the claims of minorities about not only the quantity but also the quality of representation. I am interested in the role of minority organizations that recognized their status as minor, but argued for a vision of India without a corresponding ‘brute majority.’ My larger scholarly project follows these threads by foregrounding how minority organizations actively attempted to redefine the political vocabulary of democracy and unity to press for recognition and participation in the state on their own terms.

Nadia Sartoretti, University of Geneva / Princeton University, “Locating the Nation: The Politics of Place in Contemporary Bombay Cinema”

India is currently undergoing a paradoxical process of reclaiming a forefront position in the global power configuration: this process has meant adopting and integrating norms, values and models into its vocabulary and practices that India earlier contested if not shunned, while at the same time asserting its own norms, values and models. Given this context, which values and norms are prominent in India today?This paper discusses and situates pluralized narrations and images of the nation in popular contemporary Bombay movies. Given the fact that a spatial or geographic inscription is crucial to nationalist narratives, this paper focuses, in particular, on the “localization” of the nation.

Cinematic narrations, like narrations offered by any media, are built out of images that are fully constructed or modeled. Choices in framing, character’s types, and even locations reflect the very subjectivities from which they emerge. This paper will explore the concrete locations represented in Bombay movies approaching this topic from three different set-ups: the urban, the rural and the regional.

This paper will show how urban environments appear as environments with particular attributes (places where to succeed, where to live in wealth) but remain most of the time deprived of geographic inscription. If Delhi or Bombay are sometimes openly called upon, the direct references to them are rather marginal. This paper will question the possible creation of an imaginary and cohesive “Hindustan” through contemporary movies. In this perspective it will discuss the fact that cities appear mostly through interior settings: living rooms, coffee places and restaurants. This paper will also question the relative absence of skylines or street views.

In addition, it will address the representation of villages as loci of tradition and personal roots (Swades) or as the birthplace of nationalism (Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey). Finally, this paper will discuss the fact that some regions are singled out. Rajasthan, for example, is linked to Indian history and to the birth of Nationalism (Veer, Jodha Akbar). Kashmir is closely linked to the idea of purity of the landscape, held as a metonymy to represent the Indian territory as a whole, as well as a remainder of the problem of terrorism (Lakshya, Fanaa).

Do these localizations express more than relatively classic and somewhat stereotypical modernity and nationalist discourses? This is the issue that this paper will address.

Suzanne L. Schulz, University of Texas-Austin, “Reconsidering the Film Enquiry Committee Report: State Governments and Public Feelings”

The Report of the Film Enquiry Committee (1951), coordinated by the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, has long been considered the key expression of national film policy in the first decade after Independence. While scholarly perspectives on the report have tended to stress the centralization of cinema regulation through a consolidation of the Central Board of Film Censors and the ensuing establishment of a Film Finance Corporation, the report is also rich with regional detail, illuminating variations in and between particular territories of production and distribution. Here, I begin to examine the report and its associated correspondence from the perspective of post-Independence Lucknow, the administrative capital of Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and an area of considerable importance to the Indian state and film industry due to its extensive exhibition sector. Despite scant film production in the state, U.S. Gupta, the then U.P. Commissioner for Entertainment Tax and Betting, argued that U.P. deserved a more central role in film policy-making, saying: “Production is certainly important here but more important is the ‘market’ for such production.”Repeatedly stressing its ability to convey the needs of the region with regard to cinema exhibition, the U.P. government advised the central government to steer clear of constitutionally-protected “state subjects,” asserting both a territorial right to, as well as a privileged understanding of, the areas of taxation, building safety, and the maintenance of law and order. 
In addition to these mandated areas, officials also frequently purported to translate “public feelings” into national cinema policy, a claim that justified the state government’s banning of films deemed local threats to law and order.  I consider here three publically contentious issues that emerge in the Enquiry committee documents as well-empathized by state government representatives: the construction of new cinema halls, the public display of “obscene” film posters, and the intervention by police in cinema exhibition. I argue that the Enquiry Committee’s claim to recognize and convey sentiments from specific communities and neighborhoods of Lucknow regarding these three issues highlights tensions between local, state and constitutional legalities as well as correspondences between physical places of exhibition and territories of sentiment.

Nishtha Singh, Princeton University, “Delhi: The Emperor’s City”

In the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire broke up to make way for several regional polities in south Asia. Effective control even over the Mughal capital Delhi passed to the Marathas in 1782, and then to the East India Company in 1806. I argue that in the period that Delhi declined as capital of a vast empire, it also became the focus of a strong local patriotism. There were several axes around which this local Delhi identity– Dihlviyat (Delhi-ness)— congealed.  In this paper I will be discussing the Mughal Emperor/royal family as an important pivot of Dihlavi identity.Mainstream historiography on Delhi has highlighted the political impotence and the financial bankruptcy of the last Mughal emperors. But their importance in the socio-cultural life of Delhi, and their role in giving Delhi a distinctive identity has either not been explored, or has been categorically denied by scholars such as C.M. Naim.  This paper will discuss how the Mughal Emperor and the Lal Qila became important city institutions in eighteenth and nineteenth century Delhi.

Through practicing a kind of routinized charity, and through its institutionalized, as well as informal, support of many arts and learnings (ilm and hunars), and forms of entertainments identified with the “traditional” Indo-Muslim culture of Delhi, the Red Fort emerged as an important pivot in the socio-cultural life of Delhi. Moreover, many everyday routines and annual celebrations in Delhi also came to be intrinsically tied to the Red Fort. Such activities on the one hand brought the Mughals closer to their subjects, and on the other, generated the perception that they were doing their best to uphold indigenous ideals of good ruler ship. In the Indo-Muslim conception of ideal ruler ship, gift giving, charity, distress alleviation and support of learning and piety were considered important kingly duties. The Mughals were seen as rulers, who despite their penury, attempted to uphold their kingly obligations. By contrast, East India Company rule, with its ideas of laissez faire and ‘small government’ was notoriously frugal, standing for the most part, quietly aside, even when calamities such as famines visited the city. These opposing Mughal and British approaches, and the perceptions they generated, became particularly important during the Revolt of 1857. While the Mughal badhshah became the symbolic rallying point of the Revolt, Company-rule, among other things, came to be indicted for being out of sync with native expectations of good governance.


  1. Benjamin C. Baer, Princeton University
  2. Radha Kumar, Princeton University
  3. Andrew Liu, Columbia University
  4. Elizabeth Kolsky, Villanova University
  5. Karuna Mantena, Yale University / Institute for Advanced Study
  6. Durba Mitra, Emory University
  7.  Gyan Prakash, Princeton University
  8. Rahul Sagar, Princeton University

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