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The Urban Turn

This is a transcript of symposium on urban history held in December 2002 with historians and sociologists Gyan Prakash, Jairus Banaji, Sujata Patel and Rajnarayan Chandavarkar. You can also download the PDF of the transcript.

This symposium was organised by PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research) at the Bombay Paperie, Mumbai. Thanks to Shonali Sarda for transcription and Neeta Premchand for hosting the event.

GYAN PRAKASH is Professor of History at Princeton University, U.S.A. and a member of the Subaltern Studies Editorial Collective. He is the author of Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labour Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge, 1990), Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India (Princeton, 1999), and has written several articles and edited several volumes on colonial history and historiography.

JAIRUS BANAJI is a historian and independent scholar based in Mumbai. He worked with unions in Bombay through the eighties, when he published, with Rohini Hensman, Beyond Multinationalism: Management Policy and Bargaining Relationships in International Companies (Delhi: Sage, 1990). His most recent book is Agrarian Change in Late Antiquity: Gold, Labour, and Aristocratic Dominance (Oxford, 2002).

SUJATA PATEL is Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at University of Pune. She is the co-editor, with Alice Thorner, of Bombay: Metaphor for Modern Culture and Bombay: Mosaic of Modern India (both Delhi: Oxford India, 1995), and, with Jim Masselos, of Bombay and Mumbai: The City in Transition (Delhi: Oxford India, 2003).

RAJ CHANDAVARKAR is a historian and is Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies, Cambridge University, U.K., where he is a Fellow of Trinity College. He is the author of The Origins of Industrial Capitalism in India: Business Strategies and the Working Class in Bombay 1900-1940 (Cambridge, 1994) and Imperial Power and Popular Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1890 (Cambridge, 1998).

“The Urban Turn” (December 2002)

SHEKHAR KRISHNAN: Welcome everyone, on behalf of PUKAR. The panel discussion at The Bombay Paperie tonight is called “The Urban Turn”, which signifies many different things to many different people. What we wanted to do tonight was to honour the people who are sitting here, four distinguished historians and sociologists who have worked on Bombay in one aspect or the other. Continue reading The Urban Turn

Democratic Politics and Economic Reforms in India

Originally published in Contemporary South Asia, vol.10, no.1, Carfax Publishing, Bradford, U.K., 2000.

Rob Jenkins, Democratic Politics and Economic Reforms in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

For better or for worse, in most countries of the post-Cold War world, a fairly generalised packaging of liberal-democratic state institutions and neoclassical market economics has now achieved hegemony as the prescription of the possible future. A host of international financial and trade institutions, aid agencies, global policy elites, and their state and non-state apparatuses now debate the dynamics of making “transitions” to this model, and the “reforms” necessary to “complete” this effort successfully. Neoliberal ideology constructs this as a universal and ineluctable process, eliding the complex politics of market-oriented reform by trumpeting an ideal notion of democracy, almost entirely emptied of meaning.

This recent book attempts to analyse this contingent, political dimension of the change in India’s development strategy since 1991, examining the commitment of governing elites to market reforms in a long-established democracy. Their commitment is by no means inevitable and irreversible, India’s liberalisation being undertaken in a competitive political system, where powerful interests could pose obstacles to thwart market reforms, unlike other “transitional” societies in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia. In this, Jenkins intervenes in debates on the relationship between democracy and market liberalisation, arguing for the importance of political incentives, political institutions, and political skills.

Continue reading Democratic Politics and Economic Reforms in India

The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour

Originally published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, Fall 2001.

Jan Breman, Karin Kapadia, Jonathan Parry, eds., The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour (Contributions to Indian Sociology, Occassional Studies 9). New Delhi and London: Sage Publications, 1999.

Marking both a renewal of interest in labour studies and an important disciplinary shift, the publication of this anthology is a significant event. Introduced by Jonathan Parry, the fourteen essays by sociologists, anthropologists and historians in the volume include two “book-ends” introductory and concluding reviews of the respective literatures on the “organised” and “informal” sectors of the industrial economy in India, both by Jan Breman. These chart the shifts in labour studies from the narrow emphasis on the tiny formal sector of the economy — about workers’ “commitment” to the industrial setting, measures of productivity, the social profile of formal sector workers, and trade union strategies — to the much larger and unwieldy “informal” sector of the economy, incredibly neglected by research scholars. While questioning this dualism in the study of economic activity in India, Breman raises questions about the formation and coherence of the working-class or proletariat as an identity and analytical category, the diversity of forms of wage labour and industrial production — from home-based to small workshops to large factories — and the multiplicity of workers’ identities in both formal and informal occupations.

Continue reading The Worlds of Indian Industrial Labour

The Metaphor of Middle-Class Scorn

Originally published in Satyam Online, 1 March 2000.


In his first few years occupying the Chief Minister’s chair in Bihar, Laloo Prasad Yadav was found of recalling that, in his father’s village, the local upper-caste leaders would sit in similar thrones, and his father could not dare to come near the Brahmins and sit on a chair like them. That would have signified equality. His father and other backward and lower castes had to approach their caste superiors as humble supplicants, their faces averted and backs hunched, and sit at the feet of the lordly Brahmins.

Laloo’s claim to power, he seemed to be saying, was not just based on the boring details of parliamentary procedure such as the number of votes he or his allies polled. Rather, he incarnated the inversion of the brutal caste and feudal hierarchies of agrarian society, the awakening of the wretched of the earth. His rustic idiom of political expression, the discourse of the masses, was the only language he knew how to speak, and one that he took to the heights of the state, whose all-important symbol was the gaddi of power.

The Symbols and Substance of Power

What he did with this power is another story, one that we all are familiar with. As with the recent Assembly election, the middle-class is always ready to write off Laloo as more symbolism than substance. Our media never tires of representing him and his followers as corrupt and glowering peasants drunk on a power they for some reason seem not to deserve, considering Bihar’s present ills — the massive scandals, caste and class warfare, criminalisation and administrative collapse that have become synonymous with Yadav raj. When several years ago Laloo was hauled off to jail on corruption charges, his wife became an object of similar scorn. She was condescendingly portrayed as a hoodwinked pativratta, running the state from her kitchen, with too many children than is considered decent.

Why this particular hatred and fascination with Laloo, when there are thousands of other equally loud-mouthed and corrupt politicians who are deserving of similar derision? Laloo first came to power standing defiantly alongside his former colleagues in the Janata Dal, all of whom had risen simultaneously with the new politics of lower caste and lower class empowerment, in the legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan’s social justice movement and V.P. Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission reservations. While early in his reign, Laloo provided housing to the masses and made other pro-poor overtures, most importantly through his example showed them that the could control their own destinies.

Democracy and Insubordination

His irreverance is legendary — planting vegetables and grazing cattle in the prim gardens of the Chief  Minister’s official residence, or chomping a huge paan and regally spitting while conducting interviews with posh journalists from Delhi. A new type of politician of the television age, Laloo craved such opportunities, the chance to caricature himself for the camera, as the unreconstructed Other of the mannered and educated classes, the veritable metaphor of Underdevelopment — the oily and uneducated peasant whose spittle just stained your finely starched kurta.

While the middle-class elites would turn away in disgust and fear of this jungli, it is mistaken to see these performances as signs of a villager who could not forget his backward ways — it was a clear message to the poor that their way of life was as powerful and meaningful as that of the elites.

Laloo always knew that he was both the object of fascination of the better-off — because the Other always conceals the repressed desires and anxieties of the Self — as well as their worst nightmare, because his antics reminded the middle-classes of their irrelevance in a democracy where only numbers count, and even the media can’t hide that depressing fact. If Bihar is, according to the recent NDA slogans, a jungle raj, then Laloo styled himself the jungle ka sher.

Jab tak samose mein aloo rahega, tab tak Bihar mein Laloo rahega

It remains to be seen whether Laloo’s brand of insubordination will ever bring a real change to the lives of the poor. It seems not. But last week, Laloo’s staying power was again roundly underestimated by every political formation in the country.

While unlike the aloo in our samosa, one day Laloo might himself go, he and his ilk have had a permanent effect on our democracy, a change that it would be foolish to ignore. Political and social institutions are never neutral. For the powerless, the state is synonymous with the dominance of certain castes and classes whose hegemony are made to seem permanent. When the hierarchies on which this control of institutions are themselves swept away through the logic of popular democracy, their institutions might similarly be shattered. In regions like East UP and Bihar the social order, based on the brutalities of poverty, casteism and landlordism, is being overturned with an equal amount of ferocity and violence, and not a little showmanship

American Grand Strategy

This was an extended two-part series on the relationship of India and the United States, on the eve of the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton to India in mid-March 2000, published in the erstwhile Satyam Online news service.

The rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was the central geopolitical anatagonism of the half-century that followed the conclusion of World War II, fifty years which also parallel the experience of India’s Independence. And with the collapse of the Soviet and state socialist regimes in the early nineties, India and the world have entered a new geopolitical era, an age whose contours are only becoming clear now.

The Policy of Containment

The guiding strategy of American foreign policy-makers and defence experts throughout the Cold War had been the policy of “containment”, premised on a turn-of-the-century geopolitical theory which had in fact been essayed not in America, but in England, by the strategist Halford Mackinder. Adapted to the Cold War, Mackinder’s famous theory of heartland and rimland states was the essential ingredient in American geopolitical thinking.

Continue reading American Grand Strategy

The Historical Past and Political Present

Originally published in Satyam Online, 24 February 2000.

Constructing contingent memories as authoritative, and transforming the many threads of the past into a coherent narrative, the discipline of history is one of the most important fields of modern social thought. As an endeavour of the present, with its ongoing debates and revisions, history is inevitably concerned with claims to present-day power and representation. The controversies which have recently dogged the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) in the past several years are thus not simply an academic issue, but a fight for control of our collective memory and identity.

Let us not misunderstand this dispute, as many have, as one between the “Western” and “Indian” versions of history. Nor is it really a fight over saffron or secular historiography. While no one can deny that the intensified assault on administration, education and public life by the Hindu Right in the past few months is a terrifying phenomenon, this issue goes beyond simple ideological postures and academic methods.

Sarkari or Sarvajanik History?

Last week, two volumes of the ICHR-sponsored Towards Freedom series of books on the freedom struggle, edited by the noted social historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar, were withdrawn from publication by the Oxford University Press under official pressure from the nodal ministry for education, Human Resources Development (HRD). Continue reading The Historical Past and Political Present

To Privatise or Saffronise?

Originally published in Satyam Online, 12 February 2000.


In the past several months since the NDA coalition has eased itself into the saddle of governance, our media has waxed eloquent about a newfound stability of the ruling alliance. The easy passage of the bundle of reform bills in the Winter Session of the Lok Sabha was advertised to the public and to the world as a prelude to a new round of liberalisation.

The showcase of the much-awaited “second generation” of economic reforms will be the upcoming Budget Session, to open at the end of February. Compared to the messy coalitions of years past, it seems now that the BJP confidently straddles the centre of the Indian political fulcrum. However, amidst the booming bourses and the hype around the visit of US President Bill Clinton, we should not be misled. The events of the past several weeks, notably the protests over Deepa Mehta’s film Water, and the announcement of the privatisation of Modern Foods and Indian Airlines, all give clues to the real fragility within the ruling party. The connection between these two events is not just incidental — Arun Jaitley holds both the Information & Broadcasting portfolio as well as that of Disinvestment.

Sanskriti or Swadeshi?

Last week, on the banks of the Ganga, one never heard a whisper of that other inflammatory slogan of the Sangh, opposing foreign economic domination and calling for swadeshi. This would have been truly radical, and dangerous for the new regime. We can rest assured, through Vajpayee’s “liberal” stewardship, that the strident slogans of culture and Hinduism will increase, and the politics of class will be silenced as the next wave of reforms approaches.

Earlier this month, political pundits were surprised to see the Prime Minister hitting out at Pakistan on several counts — for trying to disrupt the economy by flooding the country with counterfeit currency, by claiming that India was ready to match any nuclear threat in kind, and demanding the return of Occupied Kashmir. To this was added Vajpayee’s blessing of the RSS as a cultural and not a political organisation, to which the Governments of HP, UP and Gujarat responded by lifting the ban of their employees participating in the RSS.

Vajpayee’s tilt to the Right had less to do with these issues, than with an internal tussle in the BJP ranks, between the hardline saffron faction controlled by L K Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the so-called moderates, represented by Jaswant Singh, Arun Jaitley and others. Central to the Prime Minister’s calculations now is keeping this unwieldy ship together, to navigate it through the unrest that will be generated by the next wave of reforms.

Sabre-rattling against Pakistan, and the free hand given to the extremist wing of the Sangh Parivar as seen last week in Banaras, has placated the hardline saffron faction. And most importantly, it has wedded them to the agenda of privatisation favoured by the so-called BJP liberals.

Privatisation and Saffronisation

The showpiece of the new economic policies will be the privatisation of the public sector, foreshadowed by the two test cases floated earlier this month by Jaitley, and the further retreat of the state from its basic responsibilities towards the poor — subsidies to basic commodities which are now being cancelled; the WTO-dictated removal of import duties on basic food products which will have disastrous consequences for farmers throughout the country; and the withdrawal of responsibility for primary services like health and education, which the BJP Vice President J. Krishnamurthy has claimed the state has no business in providing.

If, according to Arun Jaitley, the state has no business providing bread for the people, and Krishnamurthy claims that the state should free itself from ensuring their literacy and health, one might ask whose Government is this then?

On the eve of the new Budget, the RSS and VHP could have mobilised its ranks on these issues, which redound most centrally on the livelihood of the masses. Instead they chose a soft target like Deepa Mehta.

This has saved the BJP from a major schism on the eve of one of the most important Budgets to be tabled in several years, one that will crucially determine India’s terms of engagement with the global economy. But one wonders what makes a bigger difference to the beleagured people of Banaras. Is it the rise in the prices of basic commodities, the further erosion of social services, the attack on organised labour — all of which will be floated in the new Budget — or the cultural sensitivity of an English film that will probably never be screened outside of some major Western and Indian cities?

Watering Down Water

Originally published on Satyam Online, 8 February 2000.

Even those of us of liberal political convictions must sometimes admit it. Something quite interesting happened in that majestic city by the Ganga this week. In times when it seems that politics is less about principles and ideas than about populism and pay-offs, when someone, anyone, takes a principled stand, it is touching.

Thus when the Sangh Parivar decides to blow up a few bombs to cock a snook at the nuclear monopoly of the great powers, it warms what is left of our nationalist heart. When they take out their ire against the arrogant moral universalism of Christianity by smashing a few churchs and torching a few missionaries, there is some pride in that defiance. Of course, such cynical vandalism is not about defending national sovereignty or our cultural integrity, as we all know. It is more about upper-caste vote banks and simple hatemongering. But we should be  equally aware that neither the nuclear powers, nor the Christian missionaries, nor Deepa Mehta and her snobby liberalism are blameless. Continue reading Watering Down Water

The Arrest of Dara Singh

Originally published in Satyam Online, 4 February 2000.


This week has been an eventful one politically. The arrest of Dara Singh, implicated in the murder of the missionary Graham Staines and his two children, a Christian clergyman and a Muslim trader named Rehman, is of course a welcome, if somewhat belated development, since the attacks on Christians began to intensify more than a year ago.

What is curious is not just how long it took to arrest Dara Singh — who, despite being available for newspaper interviews, was able to evade the authorities for a full year — but the timing of the arrest. Some cynics point to the upcoming Orissa assembly elections and the Congress’ impending doom in the state, in the wake of the super-cyclone. To the cynic, this is a perfectly acceptable reason for the speedy arrest of Singh after administrative inaction for more than a year. While this won’t go very far in convincing Orissa’s shattered voters of the promises of “good governance” equally important was another event announced late this week.

The Timing of the Arrest

The dates for the visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to India in mid-March were finalised only two days after the arrest. This was also coincident with Gladys Staines, the murdered missionary’s widow, emerging into the public eye to release a book in Bombay and speak to the press about her husband and sons’ murder by a functionary of the Sangh Parivar. In the politics of U.S. Presidential visits to foreign, especially Asian countries, this assumes significance.

In 1998, Clinton was beleagured by pressure groups, many associated with the Christian Right in the U.S., to halt his diplomatic overtures towards China, whose Government takes an exceptionally strong line on the “anti-national” and subversive activities of missionaries and Christians. Short of cancelling his visit, many groups and Congressmen wanted him to meet with Christian dissidents in China.

With Clinton’s visit to India imminent, the White House perhaps wants to avoid the similar embarrasment in India, and the BJP-led Government has obliged its new strategic partner, eager to do business with the U.S., without the meddling of lobbies which continue to hound China’s patrons abroad. If Gladys Staines were ever to meet Clinton, it would tarnish the much-touted cliche of India;s tolerant and secular culture.

Proving the Secular Credentials of the Government

The arrest of Dara Singh, then, is no demonstration of the secular resolve of the Central Government. Other recent developments bear out this conclusion. In U.P., the recent statements of Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta approving the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, and the recent passage by the UP Assembly of the Regulation of Public Religious Buildings and Places Bill, which prohibits the building of any temple, mosque, church, or gurudwara, without the permission of the Government. Additionally, this legislation sanctions the demolition of these structures if they are built without first seeking the state’s permission. Passed in the wake of the IC814 hijacking and amidst the media-generated hysterics about ISI infiltration of the country, it will further enable the harrassment of minorities.

In Gujarat, similar trends are evident in the decision of the State Government to allow its employees to openly claim their affiliation to the RSS, and the equally shocking display of the Gujarat Chief Minister in khaki shorts, accompanied by Union Home Minister L K Advani, swearing allegiance to the Hindutva storm-troopers. We can thus safely assume that next Christmas, when Hindu extremist groups want to terrorise tribal Christians in the Dangs, they police need not even keep up the pretence of protecting all citizens regardless of their religion.

The writings of one of the Sangh Parivar’s senior ideologues should make the core of the Government’s beliefs clear. In his latest book, Harvesting Our Souls, Arun Shourie, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP and Minister at the Centre, comments approvingly on the policies of the Chinese Government towards its minority Christian community. These policies include a ban on all foreign missionaries, the requirement of registering with a State-run Church affiliated to the Communist Party, and the haunting of minority groups as presumably anti-national.

Recently in Orissa, according to reports by John Dayal, convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, the Centre has been continuously warning Christian organisations and groups in the tribal belts of Orissa to obey the Anti-Conversion Act, a legislation which violates the fundamental right to freedom of religion in article 25 of the Constitution. But considering that this week’s other story, in which the Government showed quiet contempt for the President’s warnings against tinkering with the founding document of our Republic, these new developments seem consistent with the real character of the BJP-led Government.

Making Democracy Meaningless

Originally published on Satyam Online, 27 January 2000.


If one thinks back about the hype manufactured around the golden jubilee of Independence in 1997 — hype which nonetheless failed to create more than a flutter and a grumble in the public heart — it is surprising that Republic Day this year passed with little more than the standard commemoration.

In the history of modern constitutional democracies, the fiftieth anniversary of the Indian Republic is an occasion equal to, if not more important than, the attainment of Independence from British rule. But every year, we are treated to the pompous display of newer and more sophisticated weaponry, the silly self-congratulation, decorating of heroes in an ongoing war against our largest neighbour and against sizeable portions of our own population in the name of “national security”. All of these questionable and disgusting rituals have little to do with the actual meaning of the Republic. Continue reading Making Democracy Meaningless