Transformations of the Political

Transformations of the Political

Alva Bonaker / Arun Kumar / Maria-Daniela Pomohaci / Jana Tschurenev, Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), Göttingen
From - Until
24.05.2016 - 25.05.2016
Conf. Website
Mascha Schulz, Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft, Universität Zürich

The workshop “Transformations of the Political” took place on 24th and 25th June 2016 in Göttingen and brought together young South Asia scholars from Europe and India from various backgrounds such as anthropology, history, economics and literature studies to discuss how the political can be conceptualized and researched. It was the fifth Young South Asia Scholars Meet (Y-SASM), a format that aims at facilitating intense exchange of young scholars and advanced students with a research interest in South Asia.

The workshop organizers started from the assumption that the political is much more than formal political institutions. In their introduction to the topic, ALVA BONAKER (Göttingen) and ARUN KUMAR (Göttingen) pointed out that the need to rethink the political emerges both from academic debates as well as from current political developments. While in the academic discourse the approach has broadened, conceptually it is less clear what should be considered as “political” and where boundaries are to be set. But also current movements such as labour protest, student movements or identity politics raise the question on how we can think the political in contemporary South Asia. To what extent are these movements unsettling common concepts of the political? And what kind of politics are unfolding?

That the political can only be understood when going beyond the policy level was highlighted in the first panel which focused on sanitation and waste management. CHLOÉ LECLÈRE (Lyon) presented her research on rural sanitation and state interventions. While the hegemonic policy paradigm blaming the individual for open defecation focuses on behaviouristic approaches, her quantitative data suggests that the district characteristic play a considerable role for sanitation practices and facilities. Therefore, more attention needs to be paid to the administrative and local level. Differences between policy and actual implementation were also highlighted by KATHARINA PATEROK (Berlin) in her presentation on waste workers in Delhi. She argued that policies neglecting the informal sector within the solid waste economy have led to its further marginalization. In her research, she analyzes the interest and positions of multiple actors in the policy negotiations and asks under which conditions informal workers might gain political power. Both papers highlighted, as discussant RAZAK KHAN (Göttingen) pointed out, the political in its non-linear relation to law but also considered policy making as a socio-political process.

The second panel focused on issues of gender, labour and violence. SNEHA BANERJEE (Delhi) theorized her ethnographic data on commercial surrogacy in India. As “gestation workers” constitute both raw material as well as labour for this industry, the dichotomies of material-immaterial, productive vs. reproductive labour and public vs. private get blurred. The political, nevertheless, became very apparent in several additional aspects of her rich ethnographic data, be it in the role of state legislation that promotes India as a global hub of assisted fertility or the supervision and disciplining in the context of “surrogacy homes”. In a similar vein, CHANDNI MEHTA (Delhi) challenged a dualistic understanding of the division of labour in her presentation. Using a political economy framework Mehta showed, on the one hand, how “sex work” was kept out of the work regimes, but she also explored the impact of moral discourses that distinguished sex workers from proper “wives”. In their comments, MANJU LUDWIG (Heidelberg) and JANA TSCHURENEV (Göttingen) applauded the emphasis on the divisions of labour in the understanding of gender inequalities and pointed to the significance of disciplinary regimes and the politics surrounding the female body. JANNA VOGL (Erfurt) discussed in her presentation processes of local gossip and protest in the context of a gendered violence. She explored how concepts of justice and “women rights” are locally adopted, reinterpreted and contested by women in a slum in Chennai. Further, she highlighted interrelations and ruptures between global discourses, local NGO agendas and subaltern moralities.

The first panel on the second day engaged with questions of minorities and diversity in political mobilization. Based on ethnographic research ARNDT EMMERICH (Oxford) discussed Muslim minority activism in South Asia. Focusing on the shifting leadership, Emmerich argued that the Sacher Report 2006 and a changing discourse have led to new mobilization strategies. While faced with a general disillusion with the elites, the activism is linked to value-based politics leading to a re-emphasis of non-religious identities. The emphasis of leaders on inclusive development in order to improve the conditions of Indian Muslims has also lead to strategic alliances with other minority groups that are not without tensions, as with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement, for instance. DURGESH SOLANKI (Mumbai) discussed the continuity of caste discrimination against dalit conservancy workers in Mumbai. He proposed the argument that the symbolic re-appropriation of the caste symbol, the broom, for political mobilization by the Modi government, as well as by the Aam Admi Party – though they use it very differently – leave these caste hierarchies largely unchallenged. GAJENDRAN AYYATHURAI’s (Göttingen) comment and the following discussion debated under which conditions identity politics can be pursued in the name of a minority or ethnic group and why in other cases activists tend to frame their politics differently.

In the panel about refugees and the state, SMITA TIWARI (Delhi) discussed the state responses of Pakistan to the Afghan refugee crisis, arguing that refugee policies are to a considerable extent guided by foreign policy interests. While Tiwari focused on state policy approaches, HIMADRI CHATTERJEE´s (Delhi) presentation looked at the dynamics of a village at the edge of Kolkata that emerged from earlier waves of partition refugees. Understanding the namasudra refugee population as political actors, he explored how they contribute to processes of urban transformation but also engage in group mobilization by ritually re-imaging their agricultural past. In her comment MARIA FRAMKE (Rostock) emphasized the need to look at multiple layers in state policy responses and in processes of social negotiation.

LIPIN RAM´s (Geneva) presentation explored the relevance of notions of martyrdom for communist politics in north Kerala. Focusing on commemoration practices he discussed how discursive practices around rakhasakshi (martyrdom) serve to legitimize ongoing usage of violence and to create a cohesion by grouping together diverse kinds of enemies. XAVIER HOUDOY (Paris) provided an ethnographic account of how the state is experienced by the population in Arunachal Pradesh, a state classically considered at the margins of state power. He argued against a simplistic understanding of a weak state and highlighted the complex impact of the distant state – which is at the same time (with regard to its military presence) very visible – on the political and beyond. Both papers show that even if changing state formations and party politics are at the centre of research, the analysis must go beyond the level of analyzing formal politics to understand the political. In this vein KRISTIN PLYS (Göttingen) welcomed their approach of looking at the political rather than politics as a narrowly defined autonomous area, but also encouraged further theorization and deeper engagement with the theories we are using, for example the Schmittian framework of understanding the political.

The last panel focused on political culture in the context of architecture and arts. DANIELA CAPPELLO (Heidelberg) presented her research on the re-staging of texts and theatre performances from the Bengali avant-garde group "Hungry Generation" in the context of current student uprisings. The following discussion centred around the question whether the re-appropriation of what Cappello calls "radical aesthetics", inspired by the anti-establishment movement from the 1960s, should be considered to constitute a political act in itself or rather a performance of political radicalism targeted to a particular audience. GARIMA DHABHAI (Delhi) drew the attention in her discussion of the politics of aesthetics involved in the beautification project in the tourist city Jaipur to how historical narratives are purported in the selection of so-called “non-religious” art, which is officially promoted as “traditional” and “authentic”. Dhabhai contextualized these aesthetic politics with reference to global forces such as world heritage politics and recent national discourses – an analysis which the discussant AYESHA KIDWAI1 (Delhi/Göttingen) suggested to intensify by further investigating the linkage between these politics of urban reconfiguration and hegemonic political developments in India of different times.

Overall, the contributions to this workshop represented a wide range of approaches to various questions of the political. The discussion of “classical themes” (such as policy, state structures or party politics), as well as more “uncommon themes” (such as politics of the female body and politics of aesthetics) showed that the scholars are looking beyond commonly used approaches and try to figure out new ways of how to understand the political in order to be able to explain the phenomena we observe. It appears, therefore, that the transformation of politics in South Asia in the last decades also had repercussions on how the political is approached in academia. Interestingly, however, possibly due to the heavy underrepresentation of historical approaches in the papers, the question of how the unfolding of the political might have changed over time was only indirectly addressed in this workshop.

Conference Overview:

Alva Bonaker (Göttingen) and Arun Kumar (Göttingen)

Panel 1: Development and Dissent
Discussant: Razak Khan (Göttingen)
Chloé Leclère (Lyon): Community Project, Inclusion and New State interventions. The Case of Rural Sanitation in India
Katharina Paterok (Berlin): Power and the Pauper – Being an Indian Citizen. The Example of Delhi’s Waste Economy

Panel 2: Gender, Labour, and Violence
Discussant: Manju Ludwig (Heidelberg)/Jana Tschurenev (Göttingen)
Janna Vogl (Erfurt): NGO Activism and Local Protest against Gender Violence in a slum in Chennai, South India
Chandni Mehta (Delhi): Into the breach of ‘Sex Work’: ‘Labour’ and ‘Prostitution’ in the Field of Political Economy
Sneha Banerjee (Delhi): ‘Gestation Workers’ in India: (Re)Producing for the Commercial Surrogacy ‘Industry’

Panel 3: Diversity and Political Mobilization
Discussant: Gajendran Ayyathurai (Göttingen)
Arndt W. Emmerich (Oxford): Inclusive Development and its Dilemmas; A Study of Muslim Minority Activism in South India
Durgesh Solanki (Mumbai): Cast(e)ing the Broom: Politics of Broom

Panel 4: Refugees and the State
Discussant: Maria Framke (Rostock)
Smita Tiwari (Delhi): States’ Response to the Refugee Crisis in South Asia: Focus on Afghan Refugees in Pakistan
Himadri Chatterjee (Delhi): Refugee City: Lives and Spaces in ‘Transition’ at the ‘Borders’ of Kolkata

Panel 5: State Power and Resistance
Discussant: Kristin Plys (Göttingen)
Lipin Ram (Geneva): Martyrdom and ‘the Political’: the Case of Communist Politics in North Kerala
Xavier Houdoy (Paris): The Governance of the Margins: De-constructing the State in Arunachal Pradesh

Panel 6: Political culture and aesthetics
Discussant: Ayesha Kidwai (Delhi/Göttingen)
Daniela Cappello (Heidelberg): Radical Aesthetics as Resistance: Reading and Performing the Hungry Generation at University
Garima Dhabhai (Delhi): Crafting Cityscapes: Deciphering the ‘Political’ in Beautification Regime of Contemporary Jaipur

Concluding Remarks
Alva Bonaker, Arun Kumar, and Jana Tschurenev

1 The comments had to be read out, as Ayesha Kidwai was unable to attend the workshop.

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