Author: Ian M. Cook

Urban anthropologist. Budapest, Mangalore, Glossop

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 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).

Becoming an UrbanA Fellow

Are you passionate about sustainability and justice in #cities? Would you like to share your passion, knowledge and skills in a collaborative and creative way?

[yes and yes…?! perfect because…]

Apply now to become an UrbanA fellow (attending all 4 sustainable just cities Arena events) or to participate at the Rotterdam Arena event 28-29 Nov 2019.

Applications close 6 Sept. See

Opening Up the University: Teaching and Learning with Refugees

What principles might guide education programmes for refugees? How can a collection of texts inspire individuals, groups or institutions to start programmes (or to do them better)? How can we bring the experience and expertise of teachers, organisers and scholars into targeted dialogue with policymakers? Opening Up The University seeks to answer these questions and more through a collection of contributions from activists, scholars and students who happen to also be refugees, pedagogues and university staff.

The Issue

The question of access to universities for people with refugee status is often made out to be a subject for experts in education or integration. This may be, in Europe, a dominant way of addressing the question of how refugees may access and then flourish in higher education. However, there are other approaches and perspectives. These might come from solidarity groups and other grassroots movements, from teachers who work with refugees and other marginalised groups on a regular basis, or from those refugee learners who experience successful and unsuccessful programmes and interventions. These groups and their perspectives are not in regular and sustained dialogue with each other: policy worlds, activist worlds, learner worlds and academic worlds are often vastly disparate.  

One result of the lack of sustained cross-cutting conversations that acknowledge each other’s frames of reference, is that the subject appears curiously circumscribed – refugee access to higher education is not usually thought in relation to pedagogic development, including reform of curricula and teaching, nor for example to university administrative and governance structures.  Indeed it’s unclear to many people why the ‘problem’ of refugee integration into higher education should bring up these questions at all.

Our Response

In this edited volume, we seek to put in conversation different actors involved in the question of access to higher education for people with refugee status or those engaged in rethinking the university in related ways. Our aim in doing so is to convey some of the key principles in regards to refugee education; explore what types of ethos work in such contexts; and examine how pedagogic practice can and should respond. Furthermore, we want to be self-reflexively critical about the process of setting up and running a refugee outreach programme; inspire other groups and individuals who are considering creating their own interventions; and finally speak to policy makers and university administrators on specific points relating to the access and success of refugees in higher education in Europe today.

The volume builds on a conference held in March at Central European University’s Budapest campus where such conversations led us to think about refugee education in relation to pedagogic innovation, solidarity, university governance and administration, and national policy development. Thinking about the access of people with refugee status in relation to these different frameworks led to critical questions about how the issue can or should be thought in relation to curricular development, teaching practices that incorporate care and compassion, and also to the manifold challenges to universities as ‘producers of elite knowledge’ when they seek to include people who are marginalised socially, economically and politically.

We believe that thinking the issue of refugee access to higher education should be a holistic process and should further be seen as an opportunity to challenge knowledge production and its purposes.  

Call for Contributions

We invite contributions that seek to address policy, solidarity, pedagogic and other issues relating to how refugees may access higher education and how they may flourish therein. Interventions could focus on policy or pedagogic innovation, on the role of knowledge and its purposes, the role of the university in public life, as well as other related issues and questions.

We are happy to receive contributions of varying styles, genres and lengths (with an upper limit of 20 pages). We encourage creative, non-standard and alternative approaches and are also very happy to receive academic (or non-academic) essays, policy briefs, curricular guides, and so on.

Possible ideas: first-hand accounts from refugee students who have experienced education outreach programmes; annotated syllabi; examples of solidarity practice with refugee students to enhance access to higher education; examples of education programs for people with refugee status located outside traditional universities; comparative explorations of alternative education with other groups of marginalised people; theorisations of how opening up access changes and challenges knowledge production; manifestos or principles for access and success. 

Please email by April 29th with:

a) Proposed title

b) A one paragraph summary including notes on genre/style and estimated word length

c) A short bio

Editorial team: Cristina S. Bangau, Celine Cantat, Ian M. Cook, Marius Jakstas & Prem Kumar Rajaram

Open Call UrbanA: Share Projects on Sustainable & Just Cities!

This is an open call to all city-makers to share projects that address issues of (un)sustainability and (in)justice in cities. Are you a policy-maker, activist, entrepreneur, intellectual, citizen or otherwise engaged individual interested in making cities better? Are you curious about what others are doing? Please share your knowledge & experience with us and we’ll share the results with you!

Do you know of projects that address urban (un)sustainability and/or (in)justice and would you like to share those projects with the world?

Take this 5-minute survey now!

(A selection of) projects proposed through this survey will become part of our UrbanA database that will share (a selection of) projects, existing and new approaches to tackle urban (un)sustainability & (in)justice.

Image credit CEU/Daniel Vegel

About the UrbanA Project
The connections, tensions and contradictions between inclusivity, social (in)equality and ecological sustainability are sources of endless fascination and debate, especially in the context of cities and rapid urbanisation. This includes issues of green gentrification, climate justice, energy democracy, social housing and many others. In our UrbanA project on Urban Arenas for Sustainable and Just Cities, we synthesize knowledge and experience generated in projects that tackle urban (un)sustainability and (in)justice. Over the coming three years, UrbanA will organise a series of four blended Arena Events (online and physical) where we bring together city-makers from across Europe who (aim to) design and transform cities into sustainable, inclusive and thriving urban environments and want to learn from existing and new approaches.

What’s next? Survey results and beyond
The UrbanA-database that we build shares (a selection of) the proposed projects, existing and new approaches to tackle urban (un)sustainability & (in)justice. It is a starting point for distilling and co-creating knowledge on drivers, barriers, governance scenarios and policy recommendations for just and sustainable cities. The database and subsequent insights will be presented, deliberated and adapted during UrbanA’s Arena events and made openly available on UrbanA website over the coming years (2019-2021). While the UrbanA database will focus on EU-funded projects, we also welcome your knowledge of other relevant projects.

Share your project and/or stay informed about UrbanA
Do you know of projects that address urban (un)sustainability and/or (in)justice and would you like to share those projects with the world? Please let us know by filling in this short survey. Here you can also indicate if you want to stay informed of UrbanA’s outcomes and future events. For more information on UrbanA, take a look at the website in development.

Protest & Politics: Sounds from Budapest and Beyond

Do you remember your last protest? I do, because I spent the protest alone with my headphones on clutching a sound recorder. I was trying to avoid both the wind and the eyes of my friends, hoping they wouldn’t come over and say hello. I didn’t do this (only) because I’m anti-social, but also because I didn’t want to spoil the field recording I was making for a recently launched global sound map of protests.

I was hiding between bushes

The amazing project ‘Protest and Politics‘ is ‘the world’s first global mapping of the sounds of protest and demonstration’. The brainchild of Stuart Fowkes, a UK-based artist, it is part of his larger Cities and Memory website in which field recordings are collected and then remixed, providing both the original capture and a creative imagined alternative.

For the protest sound map he collected nearly 200 sounds, submitted by more than 100 contributors.

One of them, me, was at the ‘Nem adjuk a jövőnk, itt maradunk!’ (We won’t give up our future, we’re staying here!) protest organised by Nem maradunk csendben (We won’t stay silent) and Oktatási Szabadságot (Freedom for Education).

This was a protest at the end of a spring of protests organised in Hungary. The two catalysts were the attack against the Central European University (an independent university that the government introduced a law to try to shut down) and a law that sought to restrict the freedom of civil society. But the roots are much deeper, and include issues such as the squeezing of the free media, widespread corruption, gerrymandering and so on.

The protest itself was interesting sonically as the organisers decided to have a sound system at the front of the demo, with DJs playing. The group ‘Nem maradunk csendben (We won’t stay silent)’ had organised a big successful protest party a few weeks before where they alternated between music and speeches. I feel that Hungarian protests are – when compared with other countries – quite quiet. The sound system made it even quieter however, as people didn’t chant or sing much at all, even during the gaps.


Here’s my recording:

It was remixed by Stuart who wrote of his work,

I was fascinated by the idea that for whatever reason, protests in Hungary are quieter affairs than in most other places in the world (especially when you consider Hungary’s leadership gives its people plenty to complain about!). As such, I wanted to reflect this in the piece by creating a piece of ambient, almost relaxing electronica from the field recording (along the lines of Wolfgang Voight’s marvellous GAS project). Everything you hear here is from the field recording with no additional sounds. The melodies are sections of recording fed through vocoders and other effects, while the beats are from the protest’s sound system, hidden under a fog of filters to give them that dubby, ‘lost’ feel

You can hear that here:

I’m not sure I agree with Stuart when he says that, “if there’s one sound that defines the last few years and the age that we’re living in, it’s the sound of protest,” as he told WIRED, but it’s a good line for promoting the project and Protest & Politics has been featured in loads of places – you can hear him on the BBC World Service or read a write-up over at Mashable.

I think he was onto something  however when he told CityLab that, “sound can bring you back to a place or time in an instant in a way that probably only smell can rival.” Listening back to the recordings I made many months ago gave me a memory of an emotion that I didn’t even know I had.

Listening to all the different sounds also highlighted the amount of repetition – not only within one protest, but across them, something touched on in an interview for Cracked Magazine. I think part of it is that we’re connected to a global network of protesters and riff off each other, but also part of it relates to what’s engendered by the rhythmic patterns of walking (and, of course, what sounds good as a chant!). Of course there’s as many differences as there are similarities between the pieces and some of the variations between the different recordings – including the quietness of Budapest vs the loudness of the “casserole” protest in Canada – are commented upon in a piece on Atlas Obsucra.

You can (and should) listen to all the recordings here!

Interview: Rethinking Classical Indo-Roman Trade by Rajan Gurukkal

Rajan Gurukkal‘s Rethinking Classical Indo-Roman Trade: Political Economy of Eastern Mediterranean Exchange Relations (Oxford University Press, 2016) casts a critical eye over the exchanges, usually and problematically termed trade, between the eastern Mediterranean and coastal India in the classical period. Using insights from economic anthropology to recast the standard narrative of the time, the study explores ports and polity in south India as well as the different types of exchange relations in both the eastern Mediterranean and the subcontinent. A provocative, fascinating and deeply detailed study, the book is sure the shake up existing scholarship on the topic.

I recently spoke with Rajan for New Books in South Asian Studies. You can listen here or here:


Interview: Sonic Rupture by Jordan Lacey

Sonic Rupture: A Practice-led Approach to Urban Soundscape Design (Bloomsbury 2016) by Jordan Lacey offers a practice-led alternative approach to urban soundscape design. Rather than understanding the functional noises of the city as solely problematic or unaesthetic annoyances to be eliminated, Lacey instead suggests ways in which they can be creatively harnessed to give new expression to urban life. Featuring expansive theoretical discussions and detailed analysis of Lacey’s own work as a sound artist, the book proposes the 5 element sonic rupture model as a way to diversify our experiences of city life.

I spoke with Jordan along with my colleague and friend Dumitrita Holdis for New Books in Sound Studies. It’s a new collaboration between the Centre for Media Data and Society at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary (where I work) and the New Books Network.

You can listen to the podcast here or here:




What’s that sound? The sound of happy students swimming in dissertations, papers, exams? The sound of a faculty drowning in a marking tsunami? The sound of freshly unemployed academic precariats slowly floating towards insecure middle age with no job prospects, pension plan or direction in life…? Yes it’s the sound of summer!

But just because you’re sitting by the beach with your toes in the sea it doesn’t mean your brain can survive on just pulp fiction and pop music. You need some anthropological stimulation for those long summer days.
Luckily I just did a round up of the best podcasts from New Books in Anthropology for Allegra Lab (the amazing anthropology website). You can find the round up here or here


Featured photo by Colin Mutchler (flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Save Academic Freedom in Hungary: Defend CEU

You may have seen the latest cheerful news from Hungary this week! In a breach of the freedom and autonomy of higher education institutions in Hungary and around the world, legislation has been proposed to the Hungarian Parliament that would make it impossible for Central European University to continue operations within the country.

Specifically, the legislation would prevent Hungarian universities from delivering programs or issuing degrees from non-European universities on behalf of CEU. This is critical as CEU functions under Hungarian law as both an American and a Hungarian institution, and existing legislation allows for university programs and degrees from OECD countries (including the U.S.) to function through joint entities.

This legislation is discriminatory and strikes at the heart of what CEU has been doing for over two decades, in full conformity with Hungarian law. A press release with further details on the proposed legislation and CEU’s official response is here.

These changes would endanger CEU’s continued operation in Budapest and would strike a blow against the academic freedom that enables all universities, including those in Hungary, to flourish.

Personally, I’ve been at the university since 2008 (MA, PhD, Postdoc) and the university has allowed me the time and space for engaged, critical research and reflection. Not only does it offer fully funded graduate education to nearly all its students, but it is the home of cutting edge truly original research across a range of disciplines.

There are currently a number of grassroot critically minded actions planned – from teach-ins to protests – but there are also things you can do from wherever you are:

  • Send a letter to your members of Parliament or representatives to communicate your support of CEU and academic freedom worldwide. It has been suggested that if one of your MEPs is from the same group in the European parliament as Hungary’s ruling FIDESZ party (European People’s Party), it might be especially useful (sample letter available here)
  • Sign the org petition now circulating on-line
  • Write to to add your name or organization to a group letter

Interview: BITS of Belonging by Simanti Dasgupta

What links a water privatization scheme and a prominent software company in India’s silicon city, Bangalore? Simanti Dasgupta’s new book, BITS of Belonging: Information Technology, Water, and Neoliberal Governance in India (Temple University Press, 2015), explores the way in which the corporate governance of IT is seen as a model for urban development in contemporary India. Through ethnographic research into both a water privatization scheme and the practices of an IT company, Dasgupta reveals the similarities that cross-cut both domains as new and old inequalities are produced. Rich in detail and fascinating in its analytical drive the book opens up new avenues for thinking about citizenship and belonging.

I spoke with Simanti for New Books in South Asian Studies. You can listen to the interview and many others at their excellent website, or check it out below: