Immoral Times: Vigilantism in a South Indian City

As I write, the Indian state appears to be flexing its majoritarian muscles through the joint implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). There is an excellent and balanced summary by Aruna Natarajan on the conjunction between the two processes, and why many people are opposing them published by Citizen Matters.

For many, the anti-Muslim exclusionary tendencies found within joint process of the CAA and NRC are the latest manifestation of a longer process aimed at creating a majoritarian state – an India for Hindus first of all.

My own modest contribution to understanding this process is a chapter (pdf) in the book ‘Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India’ edited by Angana P. Chatterji, Thomas Blom Hansen and Christophe Jaffrelot (Hurst, 2019). The book

“…traces the ascendance of Hindu nationalism in contemporary India. Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP administration has established an ethno-religious and populist style of rule since 2014. Its agenda is also pursued beyond the formal branches of government, as the new dispensation portrays conventional social hierarchies as intrinsic to Indian culture while condoning communal and caste- and gender-based violence.

The contributors explore how Hindutva ideology has permeated the state apparatus and formal institutions, and how Hindutva activists exert control over civil society via vigilante groups, cultural policing and violence. Groups and regions portrayed as ‘enemies’ of the Indian state are the losers in a new order promoting the interests of the urban middle class and business elites. As this majoritarian ideology pervades the media and public discourse, it also affects the judiciary, universities and cultural institutions, increasingly captured by Hindu nationalists. Dissent and difference silenced and debate increasingly sidelined as the press is muzzled or intimidated in the courts. Internationally, the BJP government has emphasised hard power and a fast- expanding security state.”

It’s possible to read an excerpt from Thomas Blom Hansen’s wonderful essay here and an excerpt from the introduction here. You can read my favourite review in The Hindustan Times, further reviews in Frontline & Asian Affairs (paywall) and a very critical one-eyed review in the Financial Express.

In my essay – Immoral Times: Vigilantism in a South Indian City – I explore moral policing in Mangalore (Mangaluru). Drawing on material gathered during 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork undertaken between 2011-2016 I argue that:

Neoliberalism and right-wing Hindu nationalism… complement one another as they both see divisions within society as unnecessary, if not pathological, and create bounded internal and external realms (e.g. the Muslim other, or the welfare agency) in their rhetoric of ongoing revolutionary transformation. However, and here we turn towards the source of trouble on Mangaluru’s streets, whereas the individualism celebrated by economic liberalism offers ‘freedom’ (whilst holding the market supreme and punishing those who disrupt it), the individual within a majoritarian vision is always subordinated to the good of the Hindu community. This entwines with a perceived loss of national sovereignty with the deepening penetration of global capital, leading to attempts at controlling ‘national culture’, more often than not in ways that uphold rigid conceptions of gender and sexual identities.

As such, and as I will detail below, there is an ethical tension at the heart of this Hindu majoritarian and market-led development project: the continuing ‘opening-up’ of the Indian economy has also opened-up ethical questions. The same groups who celebrate ‘India’s moment’ after centuries of national impediment due to Muslim, colonial and then ‘socialist’ rule are also often those who are deeply troubled by the effects of these changes in terms of cultural purity, gender norms, and youthful experimentation. Moral policing, I argue, is one of the ways in which this ethical tension reveals itself.

You can find versions of the chapter here as a pdf, on academia.edu and on research gate. I strongly recommend you ask your library to order the whole book, or buy a copy if you can afford to do so.

Finally, after reading my chapter (if you so wish), you might also want to read a review of the book published on the  Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) website by Kavita Krishnan. She writes in relation to my essay,

He suggests that the “joint rise of Hindu nationalism and pro-market/anti-state policies in India” since 1991 is both complementary and contradictory. Hindu nationalism, offering an order against the perceived disorder of a state captured by subaltern elements, flourished with the support of middle classes for “CEO-type governance”. Cook suggests that moral policing – instances of violence by Hindu majoritarian groups against young men and women partying together or against displays of inter-faith or inter-caste love – is symptomatic of an “ethical tension” between the majoritarian Hindu state project and the neoliberal development model (which, he assumes, is accompanied by liberalism in “morals”). But is neoliberalism really invested in a relaxing of patriarchal moral codes, and in contradiction to tightening patriarchal restraints and moral policing, as Cook suggests? I had suggested, in an essay ‘Gendered Discipline In Globalising India’ (Feminist Review, July 2018, Volume 119, Issue 1, pp 72–88) that there is a false binary between neoliberal globalisation and the increased attacks on women’s autonomy, both patronised by a Hindu majoritarian government. I had suggested that the organised attacks on women’s autonomy (coded as ‘protecting women’ from the risks entailed by autonomy) is not at odds with corporate-led neoliberal ‘development’. My essay had demonstrated how global and Indian corporations too are hostile to women’s autonomy and are invested in suppressing such autonomy to create a docile labour force – and this is where their interests and those of Hindu majoritarian groups coalesce. Women’s vulnerability in their personal and social lives contributes to their precariousness and exploitability at work. Women’s assertions of autonomy will not remain hermetically sealed in personal spaces of family, household, caste and community: they tend to to leak into workspaces, spurring unionisation and collective social and political action. The ideological and physical attacks on women’s autonomy by “moral policing” squads play to the anxieties of patriarchal social forces concerned with women’s growing visibility and assertion, as well as the anxieties of the political-economy of globalised neoliberal “development” that requires docility.

I think that Kavita misreads or over simplifies my point. I certainly do not assume neoliberalism is accompanied by a liberalism in morals. Rather I suggest that because in contemporary urban India there is no one coherent and dominating value system, for some young middle-class students there is a feeling of ethical ‘freedom’. Freedom here is understood as the freedom to ethically cultivate oneself through various techniques drawn from a diverse range of moral exemplars. This also produces a feeling of helplessness for many.  Here is where the link between the neoliberal state and the appeal of authoritarian movements makes itself apparent: the type of moral ordering offered by vigilante groups is accepted and quietly supported by many in Mangaluru because, at a time when cultural change has led to the opening-up of new possibilities for ethical self-cultivation, the actions of vigilante groups offer a sense of control for many who feel helpless to stop changes they dislike.

In any case, I thank her for the close reading of the chapter and look forward to reading her article in Feminist Review (which sadly, I did not know about when writing the essay).

Interview: Nation at Play by Ronojoy Sen

Covering sporting activities from ancient times right up to the modern day, Ronojoy Sen’s Nation at Play: A History of Sport in India (Columbia University Press, 2016) is at once broad in its scope, yet detailed in its analysis of key events. From football, to the Olympics, to cricket the book explores how sporting life changes in relation to wider societal transformations. I found it both highly readable, and packed full of the type of stories that appeal to sports aficionados.

You can listen to me speaking with Ronojoy here and here:

Interview: The Darjeeling Distinction by Sarah Besky

In this wonderful ethnography of Darjeeling tea, Sarah Besky explores different attempts at bringing justice to plantation life in north east India. Through explorations into fair trade, geographic indication and a state movement for the Nepali tea workers, Besky critically assesses the limits of projects that fail to address underlying exploitative structures. The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Plantations in India (University of California Press, 2014) is a readable and theoretically nuanced book that should be of interest to many.

You can listen to me speak to Sarah here and here:

 

Interview: The Writings of Pamela Price

The Writings of Pamela Price: State, Politics, and Cultures in Modern South India: Honour, Authority, and Morality (Orient BlackSwan, 2013) is a wonderful collection of ten essays by historian Pamela Price, that originally appeared between 1979 and 2010. The essays, as well as touching on the concepts of honour, authority and morality in different south Indian regions also broadly address questions of continuity and change. Drawing on debates from anthropology and political science, the book offers insights into how these above mentioned concepts shift across historical periods and how they appear in different linguistic and cultural regions.

You can listen to me speak with Pamela here and here:

 

Interview: Infrastructure Redux by Nausheen H. Anwar

In Infrastructure Redux:Crisis, Progress in Industrial Pakistan and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Nausheen H. Anwar explores double-edged narratives of development. Through detailed case studies of Sialkot and Faisalabad, as well as analyses of development in Pakistan since independence and the impact of liberalized trade policies on industrial labour, the book explores how ideas of both crisis and progress frame the country’s infrastructure.

You can listen to me speak with Nausheen here and here:

 

Interview: Patronage as Politics in South Asia by Anastasia Piliavsky

Does patronage always imply a corruption of democratic political processes? Across sixteen essays by historians, political scientists and anthropologists Patronage as Politics in South Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2014), edited by Anastasia Piliavsky, explores this question and many more across a range of historical and cultural contexts. The volume’s collective drive to ask difficult and theoretically nuanced questions about the role of patronage in South Asia, gives the book a coherence that plays wonderfully against the contributions’ eclecticism and diversity.

You can listen to me speak with Anastasia here and here:

Interview: Dehli, Pages From A Forgotten History by Arthur Dudney

Delhi: Pages From A Forgotten History (Hay House India, 2015) by Arthur Dudney tells the story of India’s capital and beyond through the lens of Persian literary culture. A lively read written for a mass readership, the book details the lives of poets and emperors along with the origins, rise and decline of Persian in the subcontinent.

You can listen to me speaking with Arthur here and here:

Interview: The Rani of Jhansi by Harleen Singh

The Rani of Jhansi was and is many things to many people. In her beautifully written book The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Harleen Singh explores four representations of the famous warrior queen who led her troops into battle against the British. Analysing her various representations – as a sexually promiscuous Indian whore, a heroic Aryan, a great nationalist and a folk symbol of indigenous resistance – the book critically discusses what wider issues are stake in these depictions of such a mythical and marginal woman.

You can listen to me speaking with Harleen here and here:

Interview: Recasting the Region by Neilesh Bose

In his new book Recasting the Region: Language, Culture, and Islam in Colonial Bengal (Oxford University Press, 2014), Neilesh Bose analyses the trajectories of Muslim Bengali politics in the first half of the twentieth century.The literary and cultural history ofthe region explored in the book reveal the pointedly Bengali ideas of Pakistan that arose as an empire ended and new countries were born.

You can listen to me speaking with Neilesh here and here:

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