Book review – #Republic -Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. By Cass Sunstein. Princeton University Press; 310 pages; $29.95 and £24.95.

LAST June Facebook announced a change to its newsfeed. Henceforth it would rejig the way stories were ranked to ensure that people saw “the stories they find most meaningful”. But what does “most meaningful” actually mean? Posts from family and friends, apparently, as well as those users you frequently “like”. Your newsfeed should be “subjective, personal and unique”, Facebook went on, promising to work on building tools to give users “the most personalised experience”.

Cass Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard University and Barack Obama’s former regulation tsar, is one of Facebook’s dissatisfied customers. “Facebook can do better,” he writes in “#Republic”, his new book about democracy in the age of social media. Mr Sunstein is disturbed by some aspects of ultra-customised information, yet he shows himself a master of restraint in his criticism. He clearly wants to influence Mark Zuckerberg and other tech titans without alienating them. Although Mr Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, perhaps he can still pick up the occasional book by a Harvard professor—along with his new honorary degree.

In some ways, “#Republic” is a kind of Democracy 101, a review of the basic requirements for those who may have skipped the course. These requirements include, among other things, that citizens be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives—even, and especially, those they would not choose to see or hear. Unplanned, chance encounters—with a protest as one wanders down the street, or a competing argument aired on the evening news—help guard against “fragmentation, polarisation and extremism”. They ensure that people are not hearing only an echo of their own voice. They reduce the likelihood that people will be stirred to extremes, such as terrorism. And they promote shared information and experiences, making it easier to solve problems and govern in a heterogeneous society.

In some ways, “#Republic” is a kind of Democracy 101, a review of the basic requirements for those who may have skipped the course. These requirements include, among other things, that citizens be exposed to a wide range of ideas and perspectives—even, and especially, those they would not choose to see or hear. Unplanned, chance encounters—with a protest as one wanders down the street, or a competing argument aired on the evening news—help guard against “fragmentation, polarisation and extremism”. They ensure that people are not hearing only an echo of their own voice. They reduce the likelihood that people will be stirred to extremes, such as terrorism. And they promote shared information and experiences, making it easier to solve problems and govern in a heterogeneous society.

This is the positive side of the free- speech principle, Mr Sunstein writes. It means not only forbidding censorship, but also creating a culture where people engage with the views of fellow citizens.

In the digital age social media function as the public forums where ideas are exchanged. But when people filter what they see—and providers race towards ever greater “personalisation” in the name of consumer choice—democracy is endangered. People live in separate worlds. Even hashtags, meant to help users find information on a certain topic, lead them to different bubbles. Democrats use #ACA and #blacklivesmatter; Republicans use #Obamacare and #alllivesmatter. Partyism might be said to exceed racism in America, Mr Sunstein argues. Whereas in 1960 only 5% of Republicans and 4% of Democrats said they would be “displeased” if their child married outside their political party, by 2010, those numbers had reached 49% and 33%, a far higher percentage than those who would be “displeased” if their child married outside their race.

Mr Sunstein wants an “architecture of serendipity” to combat these forces: that is, media that promote chance encounters and democratic deliberation like the public forums of old. Facebook might design “serendipity buttons”, he suggests, allowing users to click for opposing viewpoints or unfiltered perspectives. Conservative news sites could feature links to liberal sites and vice versa, alerting people to material beyond their usual sources. A site like deliberativedemocracy.com—the domain is not yet taken—could offer a space for people of divergent views to discuss issues. Democracies should take their cue from Learned Hand, an American judge who said the spirit of liberty is that “spirit which is not too sure that it is right”.

It is not just up to Mr Zuckerberg, then, to foster a culture of curiosity and openness. Citizens must demand it, Mr Sunstein argues, and they must seek out those serendipitous encounters. “#Republic” is full of constructive suggestions. It should be required reading for anyone who is concerned with the future of democracy—in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Read More

Book Review: When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics. By Milan Vaishnav. Yale University Press; 410 pages; $40. To be published in Britain in March;

ALL politicians are crooks. At least, that is what a lot of people
think in a lot of countries. One assumes it is a reproach. But not in
India. Indian politicians who have been charged with or convicted of
serious misdeeds are three times as likely to win parliamentary
elections as those who have not. In “When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle
in Indian Politics” Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace meticulously tracks the remarkable political
success of India’s accused murderers, blackmailers, thieves and
kidnappers. Having been a symptom of India’s dysfunctional politics,
the felons are metastasising into its cause.

Sadly, this is not a book about some small, shady corner of Indian
politics: 34% of the members of parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha
(lower house) have criminal charges filed against them; and the figure
is rising (see chart). Some of the raps are peccadillos, such as
rioting or unlawful assembly—par for the course in India’s raucous
local politics. But over a fifth of MPs are in the dock for serious
crimes, often facing reams of charges for anything from theft to
intimidation and worse. (Because the Indian judicial system has a
backlog of 31m cases, even serious crimes can take a decade or more to
try, so few politicians have been convicted.) One can walk just about
the whole way from Mumbai to Kolkata without stepping foot outside a
constituency whose MP isn’t facing a charge.

Mr Vaishnav dissects both the reasons why the goons want to get
elected and why the electorate seems to be so fond of them. Their
desire for office is relatively new. After independence in 1947 thugs
used to bribe politicians to stay out of trouble and to secure
lucrative state concessions such as mining rights. It helped that
candidates from the dominant Congress party were sure to win a seat
and then stay there. From the 1980s, as Congress started to fade as a
political force, bribing its local representative became less of a
sure thing for local crooks. So in the same way that a carmaker might
start manufacturing its own tyres if it finds that outside suppliers
are unreliable, Mr Vaishnav argues that the dons promoted themselves
into holding office, thus providing their own political cover.

What is more surprising is that the supply of willing
criminals-cum-politicians was met with eager demand from voters. Over
the past three general elections, a candidate with a rap sheet of
serious charges has had an 18% chance of winning his or her race,
compared with 6% for a “clean” rival. Mr Vaishnav dispels the
conventional wisdom that crooks win because they can get voters to
focus on caste or some other sectarian allegiance, thus overlooking
their criminality. If anything, the more serious the charge, the
bigger the electoral boost, as politicians well know.

As so often happens in India, poverty plays a part. India is almost
unique in having adopted universal suffrage while it was still very
poor. The upshot has been that underdeveloped institutions fail to
deliver what citizens vote for. Getting the state to perform its most
basic functions—building a school, disbursing a subsidy, repaving a
road—is a job that can require banging a few heads together. Sometimes
literally. Who better to represent needy constituents in these tricky
situations than someone who “knows how to get things done”? If the
system doesn’t work for you, a thuggish MP can be a powerful ally.

Political parties, along with woefully inadequate campaign-finance
rules, have helped the rise of the thug-candidate. Campaigns are
hugely expensive. Voters need to be wooed with goodies—anything from
hooch to jewels, bikes, bricks and straight-up cash will do. Criminals
fill party coffers rather than drain them, and so are tolerated.

“When Crime Pays” can be grimly amusing. In 2008 government whips
desperate to avoid parliamentary defeat sprung six MPs out of prison
for a few days to get them to cast their votes, never mind the 100-odd
cases of kidnapping, arson, murder and so on that the MPs faced
between them. Some of the gangster-statesmen are straight out of
Bollywood films. A fan of a local politician at one point explains
that his man “is not a murderer. He merely manages murder.” Spare a
thought for the libel lawyers at Yale University Press, Mr Vaishnav’s
brave publisher.

If his book has a defect, it is that the author seeks only to answer
the questions for which he has data. This academic diligence is
laudable, but it narrows the scope of his survey to just one corner of
India’s political moral depths: there is precious little about
corruption in office, for example, beyond pointing out that MPs leave
office vastly richer than when they came in. Perhaps inevitably in a
case where the problems are so deeply entrenched, the book offers few
solutions.

But Mr Vaishnav does spell out the perils of India’s elevation of
lawbreakers to lawmakers. Constituencies represented by crooks suffer
economically. A bigger cost is in the legitimacy of the public sphere
as a whole when even MPs can flout the rule of law so brazenly. The
prime minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged to clean up the system, for
example by recently scrapping large-denomination bank notes, which he
thinks contribute to corruption. One presumes that the 13 alleged
lawbreaking MPs he appointed to his first cabinet (eight of them
facing serious criminal charges) all supported the move.

Read More

Disability and the media edited by Andrew Crisell

Disability and the Media forms part of the ‘Key Concerns in Media Studies’ series edited by Andrew Crisell and is aimed primarily at students and teachers of the media, although it will also have appeal to academic readers and disability activists and organizations. The authors were aiming to fill a gap for a general textbook on disability and the media by way of introduction to significant theories and concepts. They certainly cover much ground in a short volume and offer tantalizing glimpses into the power and reach of the media and its inevitable shortcomings. The book covers definitions of disability as well as some understandings of disability theory, and addresses access, participation, representation, production and consumption using a wealth of relevant and recent examples.

The initial chapters of this book explore definitions of disability and challenge the reader to interrogate the assumptions of commonly  used classifications and to explore the more nuanced meanings of what disability means. A case study of Miley Cyrus ‘twerking with dwarves’
(13) is used to illustrate a range of responses to the representation of disability in the media. Chapter Two offers a brief overview of disability studies, and both the medical and social models are referenced as a way to explore the social and cultural underpinnings of disability. Seminal texts by Zola (1989), Barnes (1992) and Watson, Roulstone, and Thomas (2012) are cited as central to these debates and worthy of further study for those who want to deepen their understanding. Interestingly, this chapter does manage to take us beyond the binaries of the medical and social models, of positive and stereotyped representations into cultural disability studies and the ways in which culture and language can both perpetuate the ‘otherness’ of (dis)ability as well as offering sites of empowerment.
Chapter Three looks at the ways in which the media and disability relate to each other. The initial example of the film The King’s Speech illustrates the power of the media to orchestrate conformity to the medium – to moderate a stutter – in order for the voice to ‘fit’ the conventions of radio. Ellis and Goggin go on to argue that the rapid development of the media and digital media has brought new challenges to some groups in the way that radio brought exclusion for deaf people and television brought challenges for the blind. The concept of access to, and participation in, the media are further explored through the advent of audio description to enable greater access to television for blind or visually impaired people.

A case study of the representation of disability in the news is offered in Chapter Four by considering the different ‘frames’ employed by news producers to detail the content of a news story, often portraying disabled people as deviant, disadvantaged or dependent. Ellis and Goggin also identify more progressive approaches such as the cultural pluralist model that allow for more positive framings, albeit still through the anchoring of certain meanings. The case study of the London Paralympics is helpful here in illustrating both a welcome focus on disabled lives and achievements, and a less welcome dominant discourse of the ‘supercrip’ model of beating the odds (although the
under-representation of athletes with learning disabilities is not acknowledged here). The rarity of incidental characters played by disabled actors is brought to our attention by the example of Breaking Bad, which is singled out for breaking ground as the character’s disability becomes less salient than the character himself in the cult television series. A less progressive example is given in the television series Glee, in which a non-disabled actor plays a character in a wheelchair dreaming of a cure. However, signs of progress and change are identified in comedy series such as My Gimpy Life and The Last Leg where disability culture is emerging and re-appropriating power by owning the jokes about disability.

Ellis and Goggin finally turn towards media ownership and the means of production as a less researched area where disabled people are completely under-represented. They argue that without the pervasive employment of disabled people, representations of disability are likely to be narrow, little understood and marginalized in mainstream media. While the industry is extremely competitive, relying heavily on short-term, temporary or freelance contracts, there have been some recent developments in areas such as community television, radio and new media which are helping to pave the way for people to develop skills and move into more mainstream media positions. The
democratization seen through the proliferation of social media such as blogging, tweeting and forum discussions by disabled people is challenging stereotypes and making previously unrepresented voices more frequently heard. In the conclusion to the book, the authors coherently summarize their arguments and identify challenges to disability and the media in relation to accessibility, representation, consumption, production and employment.

While Disability and the Media tries to be global in scope, it perhaps falls short in trying to do too much. The chapter on television, notably one of the shortest, can only scratch the surface of the images and programming experienced there. Advertising is not even attempted. A rich array of examples is identified for discussion but the representation of those with intellectual disabilities is explored less exhaustively. Ellis and Goggin demonstrate how far the media still has to go in relation to disability and that both the news and popular television offer very limited narratives and frames through which we come to understand versions of disability. The frustration that the authors feel is palpable as they surmise that the media have been ‘spectacularly crap’ (117; original emphasis) in their slowness to respond to the employment, representation, participation and consumption of disabled people. I would readily recommend Disability and the Media as an excellent introduction to some of the key issues in disability and the media for those seeking to join the debate.
Jacqui Shepherd School of Education and Social Work, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK

Read More

Book Review: India Exclusion Report 2015 by Centre for Equity Studies; New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2015

Uncovering exclusion in India is akin to the child shouting out the visible truth. Exclusion and discrimination in India is as old as the country’s history. It is a lived reality as much as it is part of our history; stratification and dominance run along the axes of gender, caste, race, ethnicity and class. The sheer adaptability of the process of exclusion in Indian society is what makes contemporary studies of it relevant. Does the process display an interlocked nature of inequalities along the axes just mentioned above—they do. What changes are the forms, the overlaps, and the mutually reinforcing mechanisms and this report presents formidable evidence of the same.

The roots of such exclusion in India date back to the premodern and far outdate the idea of a state, at least, the modern idea of the European state as a democracy and as a welfare provider, among other things. This distinction is important because the rise of the contemporary study of social exclusion is traced to the shortcomings of the welfare state in France in the 1960s.

Rene Lenoir,1 then a minister in the left-leaning Chirac government had come up with the identification of the excluded (Les Exclus: Un Francais sur dix, 1974—The Excluded: One French Out of Ten) in France. Lenoir identified a 10th of the French population as the excluded, based on socio-economic conditions. Lenoir’s list included people who were mentally and physically handicapped, suicidal people, aged invalids, abused children, substance abusers, delinquents, single parents, multi-problem households, marginal, asocial persons and other social “misfits.” The list can be read as one of people who were left out of the productivity calculus of a capitalist economy with a multiparty democracy; a sort of admission that things were not well in the post-war period of Western capitalism (also referred to by some scholars as the golden age of capitalism), and even more so with the functioning of the welfare state.

The departure point of social exclusion was also partly to do with the French intellectual dissatisfaction with the British concept of poverty.2 Thus, the term exclusion could signify multiple meanings and hence it becomes important to define it precisely for a coherent usage. Otherwise, Oyen’s (1997: 63) scathing observation on new research in this field becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, that is, new entrants are seen as proceeding to “pick up the concept and are now running all over the place arranging seminars and conferences to find a researchable content in an umbrella concept for which there is limited theoretical underpinning.”

The report under review builds its foundation on the idea of public goods and exclusion—it proceeds to ask “who, if anyone, is excluded—or adversely included—from equitable access to public goods, why and by what processes is such exclusion or adverse inclusion accomplished, and what can be done to change this to a more just and equitable set of outcomes?” (p 1). It is however this foundational aspect, which suffers from certain shortcomings, and I address these in the next
section. The report is broadly divided into four sections: Section 1 deals with the conceptual issues of defining exclusion and a deft overview of the entire report; Section 2 deals with inequitable access to public goods; Section 3 is a fascinating analysis of taxation through the lens of exclusion; and Section 4 maps some of the highly
disadvantaged communities and their disparate access to public goods. One of the most interesting features of this report is the acknowledgement of collaborative efforts, and the result of such cooperative research is there for all to see. Each chapter is well researched and extensively referenced providing a wealth of information for anyone analysing certain aspects of discrimination and social exclusion in India.

Conceptual Overview

Mander offers an exhaustive explanation on how exclusion is to be understood followed by an excellent overview of the report. I concentrate only on the conceptual overview. The first step the author employs is to borrow the specific notion of the public good and use it to generally define exclusion. This is not easy, as the economist’s (even the neoclassical) definition of public goods is quite precise and narrow, that is, a public good is one which is non-excludable and
non-rivalrous in consumption. For example, the air we breathe, or the street lights in our localities.

Employing this specific definition of the public good which employs exclusion, or more precisely non-exclusion, as a defining feature to conceptualise exclusion runs the risk of becoming a tautology. Moreover, it might not fit the broad spectrum of issues that needs to be covered in a report such as this, so the author takes the next step which is to differentiate from the economistic definition and to fall back on the greats (Rawls, Nussbaum), that is, the “tradition of social and political philosophy;” to define public goods which then includes “goods, services, attainments, capabilities, functionings and freedoms—individual and collective—that are essential for a human being to live with human dignity” (emphasis mine). These leads to more tautologies.

Mander further argues that it is not the intrinsic “publicness” of the good itself but something that is determined by the “political community at a particular point of time.” To be fair, the author is well aware about the obvious problem of unequal citizenship and the contested terrain of what is the political community and who then is a member of the “public.” So he then goes on to derive the “definition of public goods from the premise of equal human dignity of human beings,” but by this time he is probably aware that this definition will become an easy prey for critics, because in his own words it runs the “risk of turning into a tautology.”

As a way out of the tautological roller coaster, he speaks about the unshakable belief the authors commonly share about “human-ness.” The last line of defence is to appeal to an overlap with other “sibling ideas” such as human rights, human development and human security. This makes the definition suffer from the problem of additivity—one can bunch as many items together to make a definition and in the process it ceases to be a definition.

Here too, he employs scholars such as Gasper, Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen (who were articulating very specific concepts from rights to human development) to the defence of what by now seems to be a wish list rather than a conceptual definition of exclusion. In fact, Mander himself says so explicitly that “this list will grow” (p 3). One final word about the “public” in the Indian context and the perils of ignoring a theorist of Ambedkar’s calibre, specifically when one is trying to conceptualise exclusion is to reiterate what Ambedkar said not too long ago: “Caste has killed public spirit. Caste has destroyed the sense of public charity. Caste has made public opinion impossible. A Hindu’s public is his caste” (1936). So which public is Mander referring to?

The tautologies and additivities aside, the rest of the report bears testimony to an impressive level of research and scholarship.

Inequitable Access

There are three interrelated chapters in this section. The first on urban healthcare and exclusion by Nambiar et al, the second on urban water supply and sanitation by Anand et al, and the third on women’s exclusion from just conditions of work by Lahiri et al.

Chapter 1 provocatively titled “Who Cares?” brings out the multifaceted exclusions and barriers that the urban poor face in accessing healthcare. The tragedy of urban areas with a relative abundance of services, still inaccessible to the urban poor is brought out quite poignantly—but the question remains, who cares?

The trade-off is quite stark—more urbanisation does not necessarily translate to better healthcare facilities for the poor as it does for the non-poor in urban areas. In fact for the urban poor, the overlap of vulnerabilities may be exacerbated along other axes of exclusion like that of being a single woman or denial of access for women to just conditions of work, or special health exclusions of other major social groups, such as Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims or the particular vulnerabilities faced by the differently abled and homeless children. The chapter also highlights the stigma of homelessness or being a sex worker and how healthcare eludes these sections. It highlights the multiple morbidities suffered by the urban poor and links it to the denial of access to decent work for the same population.

Chapter 2 on urban water and sanitation points to the persistence of similar disparities as with healthcare. The fact that caste/tribe status has a direct link with access to drinking water is brought out—only 55% of Dalit and 57% of Adivasi households have drinking water within premises (the national average being 71%), similarly almost double the number of Dalits and Adivasis defecate in the open  as compared to the national average of 12%. Much of the same is also true for female headed households. The chapter nuances our easy understanding of exclusion by pointing out that there is no significant difference for location and exclusivity of water sources across religious groups unlike that which exists for the axes of caste and gender. The chapter brings to the fore multiple exclusions faced by vulnerable groups as with urban health and also to class and regional biases in terms of disparities.

Chapter 3 looks into the persistence of the most stubborn form of discrimination—the multiple burdens instituted by patriarchies for women workers. The underlying logic being that of undervaluing work done by women, and also to look into the processes which multiply such burdens for women across caste, class, religion and ethnic identities. nThe chapter focuses on the dialectical burden of being a woman under capitalism—on the one hand being defined in terms of a propertied notion that impinges on women’s freedom, exemplified by the vulnerability of singleness that has to be borne by some women and the paradoxical fact on the other, that this very singleness unsettles patriarchies as these women are outside the perimeter of their control.

Tax Regimes and Exclusion

This section is an analysis of a tax system for inclusive development titled “Some Aspects of Tax Incidence and Tax Mobilisation in India” by Malhotra and Kundu. The entire chapter is premised on the fact that tax is a burden for an individual (p 149), but the state has to rely on such revenue generation techniques (using direct as well as indirect taxes) to provision public goods.

The chapter effectively raises two primary issues, that is, whether India has been mobilising tax revenue in accordance to its developmental stature and whether India’s tax strategy exacerbates poverty and inequality.

The explanation requires a two-step process, first the authors establish that India has a low direct tax collection due to low declaration of income, non-collection of data, etc, which easily corroborates the oft-repeated observation of other scholars regarding “tax avoidance behaviour of Indians” (p 156). So the authors prove conclusively that the coverage of direct tax regime in India is incommensurate to the growing size of its economy.

Second, is the overt reliance on indirect taxes, which according to the authors are regressive since they fail to distinguish between a poor and non-poor tax payer. The authors provide empirical evidence that “significant proportions of the population are being pushed into poverty” because of the burden they face because of inflated consumption expenditure due to indirect taxation on such items. The authors give an interesting example by way of explanation, of no tuition fees to be paid by households for elementary education in public schools, and in some states, for the school education of girl students. There is, however, a cost to be borne by each household because they have to purchase pens, pencils uniforms, paper, etc—all these items come under the indirect tax regime. Hence, the government’s taxation policy on these goods could push a household into poverty in the process of providing “free” education to their children.

Overall, in terms of methodology, the use of income data is best for the kind of analysis the authors deploy, but they are forced (since the national statistical systems do not collect direct income data of households) to use a proxy—consumption data—which itself suffers from underreporting of inequality. The authors use the Tendulkar poverty line, which has been criticised for underreporting poverty.

Notwithstanding the methodological challenges (mainly leading to under calculation of the magnitude of poverty and inequality produced by such a tax regime), the authors manage to drive home the point about the abysmally low tax-gross domestic product ratio in India, the progressive but limited impact of direct taxes and the regressive nature of indirect taxes.

Thereby, the authors ask the important question of inclusive development and the tax burden. What might also be important is to read this in tandem with the fact that there are tax concessions for the corporates and which could very well be placed as evidence of a certain class bias of Indian democracy, since democratic governments do decide on tax rates! We shall come back to the inclusive nature of such a state in our conclusion.

Highly Excluded Groups

The next section looks at five of the highly excluded groups in India: Gandhi et al on single women; Hasan on the survivors of communal violence; Barbora et al on the survivors of ethnic conflicts; Premchander et al on the devadasis and John et al on the Jarawas of the Andamans.

Chapter 1 in this section deals with a diverse category—“single women”—which includes widows, divorced, abandoned or separated women, and never married women, all held together by the common kernel of patriarchal propertied notion of women. The agency that is imputed to such women in this chapter is a result of the fact that this is a “troubling” category since they “survive independent of male control.”

The chapter looks at how these exclusions are embedded and continue to reflect in design and implementation of state policy—implicitly in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, National Family Benefit Scheme, Short Stay Homes, Indira Gandhi National Widow Pension Scheme, Widow Pension, Targeted Public Distribution System, Integrated Child Development Services—and explicitly in the inheritance, divorce, and maintenance laws. The reduced priorities for women in the budgets and the multiple barriers faced by such women in male led panchayats and jamaats in different states are also mentioned.

Curiously though, a crucial theoretical understanding that the authors miss here is the concept of “surplus woman” as enunciated by Ambedkar (1916) in “Castes in India” where he establishes why society is troubled by the surplus woman as she threatens the very existence of the system of control.

The next chapter presents the actual working of the process of communal violence in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in western Uttar Pradesh in September 2013. Based on meticulous participatory research, Hassan points out that this violence led to 52 deaths and the displacement of around 50,000 people (mostly poor Muslims) from 74 villages and shows how communities surviving the violence in Muzaffarnagar have been the subject of discriminatory treatment due to the institutional bias of the state.

The resultant effect of such violence is the mass scale displacement that follows (in this case, the author claims that the figure could be as high as 50,000) and could result in a process of ghettoisation that evolves with the rehabilitation and resettlement efforts. There are similar lessons to be learnt from Jaffrelot’s3 brilliant work on the planned pogrom of the riots in Ahmedabad and the subsequent ghettoisation of Muslims who were resettled in the outskirts of Juhapura.

Barbora et al map the processes of exclusion faced by ethnic communities due to recurring cycles of mass violence in the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD) region of Assam, since 1990s. Th authors extensively trace the roots of such conflicts between the indigenous Bodos and the two set of settlers—first, the descendants of indentured labourers brought to the tea gardens by the colonial rulers from among the tribes of the Central forest region of India in the mid-19th century and the second, the entry of Bengali migrants (mainly Muslims), from what is now Bangladesh, for settled agriculture since the early 20th century.

The authors conclusively establish a fourth mode of exclusion—territorial—which plays a crucial role in the violence and delineates the exclusions faced due to insecurity, from relief and rehabilitation and exclusions from land and livelihood.

The following chapter is on one of the multiple vulnerabilities faced by devadasis and the inextricable link to the modes of subjugation perpetrated by the caste system. The last chapter is a “classic” case of adverse inclusion of the Jarawa tribe (or the Ang as they describe themselves) into the developmental concerns of the Indian state. This chapter clearly lays out the perils of such paternalistic policies of inclusion by taking the case of the Jarawas and points out to the most dangerous outcome of adverse inclusion, that is, the extinction of the particular group itself.

Pathways of Inclusion and the Question of Accountability

Each of the chapters recommends, often in great detail, the various pathways of inclusion that the Indian state can follow to include the excluded. It is a menu of choices for the Indian state, should it wish to follow.

For lack of space, I am not discussing the various pathways which could lead to inclusion; the interested reader is encouraged to look at the recommendations painstakingly put together by the researchers. I wish to bring to light one particularly troubling aspect of this otherwise progressive report: the higher moral claim of accountability which the chief architect of the report refers to in his overview.

It is quite clear that the nature of the democratic Indian state is producing such exclusions and it is to be held accountable. But what about the concrete role played by the unaccountable and unconstitutional bodies like the (erstwhile) Planning Commission, NITI Aayog, National Advisory Councils or Marg Darshak Mandals? It is after all these councils of the wise that coin the slogans of inclusion and harmony and push for policies that often paper over the exclusions perpetrated by the very government they advise.

One wonders if the diverse contributors to this report are bound by a kernel of shared normative and political convictions related to ideas of accountability and advice to the democratic Indian state. This brings us back to the fable regarding the emperor and his new cloth—it was after all the council of wise men who corroborated that the cloth the king was wearing in the fable was such fine muslin that nobody could see it. Much like the muslin of inclusion—sometimes all it takes is a child to pierce through the veneer.

Notes

1 See Sen (2000) for a historical trace of the coming into being of this concept in academia in the last few decades. According to Omtzigt (2009), the term was first used by the French economist, Pierre Massæcopy; in his report titled Les dividendes du progress (The Dividends of Progress) in 1964 and in 1965 by another French commentator, Jean Klanfer, who had published a book titled L’Exclusion sociale: Étude de la marginalitæcopy; dans les sociæcopy;tæcopy;s occidentals (Social Exclusion: The Study of Marginality in Western Societies).

2 See Silver (1994) and Arjan de Haan (2011) for a succinct analysis of this dissatisfaction.

3 See Jaffrelot and Gayer (2012) for details of such processes of marginalisation and ghettoisation.

References

 

Ambedkar, B R (1916): “Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis andDevelopment,” Indian Antiquary, Vol 41.

— (1936): “Undelivered Address to the Annual Conference of the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal of Lahore, Section XIII,” Selected Works of B R Ambedkar, http://drambedkarbooks.wordpress.com, accessed on 16 October2016.

de Haan, A (2011): “Rescuing Exclusion from the Poverty Debate: Group Disparities and Social Transformation in India,” Working Paper No 517, International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.

Jaffrelot, C and L Gayer (eds) (2012): Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalization, India: Harper Collin.

Omtzigt, D J (2009): “Survey on Social inclusion: Theory and Policy,” Report Working Paper, Oxford Institute for Global Economic Development, Oxford University.

Oyen, E (1997): “The Contradictory Concepts of Social Exclusion and Social Inclusion,” Social Exclusion and Anti-Poverty Policy, Charles Gore and Jose B Figueiredo (eds), International Institute of Labour
Studies, Geneva.

Silver, H (1994): “Social Exclusion and Social Solidarity: Three Paradigms,” International Labour Review, Vol 133, Nos 5–6, pp 531–78.

Sen, A (2000): “Social Exclusion: Concept, Application and Scrutiny,” Social Development Papers No 1, Office of the Environment and Social Development, Asian Development Bank.

Read More

Adivasis of Bastar –Leftovers of the Tribal India Culture.

Woodsmoke and Leaf Cups: Autobiographical Footnotes to the Anthropology of the Durwa by Madhu Ramnath; Delhi: Harper Litmis, 2015; pp 324, ₹399.

Sarkar teen parkar—adei thindana, narpitana, auru jiyam noipitana (The three qualities of government—to beg, to terrify, and to make the heart ache)  This is the essence of a reverse anthropology—an Adivasi view of the mainstream, literate world and its power structures—of how a tribal people in south Chhattisgarh perceive the behaviour of government people and their system, in their own language, Durwa—a language we have probably never heard of. As such, these words contain the essence of the hellish situation that has developed in the region during the last few years. Many books have been written about the civil war situation in Bastar. Many have analysed the Maoist conflict and the Maoist system of governance. Some are based on interviews and interactions with Maoists. This book goes deeper, in the sense that it presents us with the cultural system that was there before Maoists came on the scene, and the interactions with forest guards and other small-time exploiters who have long plagued Adivasi villagers. Presented not academically, journalistically, or governmentally, but in an Adivasi idiom of storytelling and anecdotes, spiced with a wild, vivid sense of humour.

Beating Heart of Tribal India
Over the last few years, people have viewed Bast—meaning the old district of Bastar that equals south Chhattisgarh, since what was Bastar has been increasingly subdivided into an ever-rising number of new districts (presently seve—through the lens of appalling human rights abuses, as epicentre of India’s Maoist conflict. People who have known Bastar longer feel intense anguish about the violent tragedy engulfing a region that used to be the beating heart of tribal India. Adivasi cultures existed here with maximum confidence and least disturbance until 2005, when that slippery entity SalwaJudum burst onto the scene. Reviewing this extraordinary book properly would have to begin with an aside on terminology, to wake us up to some fundamental questions. What is Bastar? What was Bastar? What has happened to the extraordinary wild forestland that was Bastar? This is a landscape that speaks, or spoke, Gondi, Durwa, and other ancient languages that most of us in cities are quite ignorant of. Extremely beautiful, expressive languages, that have a very different form “modern” languages such as Hindi and English, which formed through military campaigns of conquest across cultures. Which is a significant connection? There is a definite continuity between the military forces that rampaged to and fro between Hindustan and Afghanistan, where Hindustani formed as a language of commerce and command, and the camps of security forces proliferating across Bastar, where shouted commands mix Hindi, English, Halbi and Gondi, for those enlisted Adivasis who serve in the Koya commandos and other such units.

Anthropology of Power Abuse

This is a book of “deep anthropology,” giving what anthropology promises yet rarely delivers. It is an in-depth analysis of a tribal culture, and the complex cultural interactions through which outsiders can begin to understand such a culture—a tribal people whose name we have probably never even heard of, who live across the border between Sukma district of Chhattisgarh and Malkangiri district of Odisha—Odisha’s most Maoist-affected district and south-westernmost toe, where it dips down to meet the Godavari. Along the way, this is also an anthropology of ourselves, and of how “we,” the modern world of “educated people” are impinging on this culture that lived in Bastar. We may know all about the history of Naxalites and the Maoist war against the state. But this is the first book that shows the conflict through the eyes of the Adivasis it affects most deeply, and quite rightly, the conflict arises tangentially. What most prominent are the daily, weekly interactions and depredations of government officials, especially forest guards. Through accounts of these interactions, this book is also an anthropology of power and the details of the exercise of power.If the world of learning and academia operated as it should, this book should transform ways of writing and thinking about India’s tribal people that colonial anthropology moulded into a set formula consisting almost entirely of negative stereotypes—a cultural racism and dehumanising objectification that remains largely unchallenged by intellectuals, even from the left. Yet Woodsmoke and Leaf Cups is written with deceptive, disarming simplicity, unfolding the social structure through anecdotes, evoked through the cheeky subtitle Autobiographical Footnotes to the Anthropology of a tribe that most people have never heard of.

Telltale Details

Among many levels to this work, one is that of storytelling at its best—telling the story of tribal people’s daily life, and the interferences and abuses of power that come from government officials, politicians and other exploiters and manipulators of every hue. Language is central to this work, as well as this wild, Adivasi sense of humour, that mainstream anthropology hardly ever evokes—perception of the crazy contradictions at the core of the destruction called development, brought out through fascinating, telltale details, without the least bit of romanticisation. The violent side of tribal life is presented unsentimentally, from internal conflicts to the hunts and killing of animals that forms a thread through Adivasi culture. The Department of Mysteries,” whose lower officials swagger over Adivasi landscapes like small kings, is the forest department. For example, “Moya was carrying his bow and arrows, considered a man’s shringar, as decoration and for protection. On the way, he was stopped by the director of the National Park, and a few nakadars …”. Moya is taken to jail and a court case inititiated, since hunting is forbidden in the park. But who made this so? Who made the forest
department? How can anyone ban hunting when it is an intrinsic part of this culture since time immemorial? All too easily, in the embedded power structure that has grown up in Bastar! Another department with similar powers is the “rimni department” (revenue), and it often happens that a man will come to a village threatening people with jail and fines for cultivating “government land,” and then pretend to respond to entreaties, taking money to enter names in a book to rectify people’s land entitlement (supposedly!), for a few hundreds rupees only. Often these men are total imposters. Ramnath has fun with one such. “The rimni ‘official’ would get a meal of chicken, toddy to wash it down and hot water to bathe. The bathing was always a spectacle; most of these specimens who came were from Cuttack district, and bathed noisily in public, soaping themselves all over, including their hair, gargling and spluttering all the while, shouting orders to the children to pass the soap or fetch more water” . On this occasion Ramnath intervenes, and the whole village has some fun with this particular specimen.

Question of Land

<>Land is a massive question, and the book bears witness to rarely articulated yet vital aspect of the vast stuggles over land and territory that haunt tribal areas. For one thing, the book shows how the traditional hunt territories of the clans that make up a village constitute the actual, culturally recognised territory of a village that goes far deeper than any written record of ownership. As Marx and Engels recognised, what differentiates tribal from “modern” societies most radically is the prior importance of communal land over any form of private property. These societies are communist in essence, in their egalitarian norms of behaviour as well their forms of ownership and exchange. Many factors have combined to disturb this. For a start, other tribal groups come in who have been displaced and transitioned to a stage where their instinct is to clear forest as soon as they can lay claim to it, and the Durwas have suffered such incursions; where the leaders of incoming groups befriended up and coming Durwa youth; got them to
allow the new groups to settle and take over hunting territories; cleared forest, questioning the authority of Durwa elders, who had managed these tracts of forest sustainably as hunting territories “since time began.” And when “communist” politicians hold meetings nearby, sending out orders for people to attend rallies, and give out a message that all such land claims will be backdated to allow cleared forestland to be legitimised, and more forestlands to be taken over and cleared in this way, no force seems able to prevent this destruction. This story is told through many examples and levels, adding immensely significant detail to one’s deeper understanding of the forces at play. The backdrop of the Maoist conflict is not tackled explicitly, though Durwas live right in the heart of the civil war engulfing the region. To understand what has happened and what is really happening right now in this area, it is not enough to know the history of the Maoists and the state’s war against them. The norms of daily life, and the norms of interaction with government officials and other exploiters that embedded power abuse over generations need to be understood too, as village people have experienced and understood them, with immense wit and discernment, for a long time.

Journey into Tribal Culture

In terms of “anthropology,” the book offers what mainstream anthropology hardly ever gives us, for the simple reason that anthropologists’ notion of “data” is so superficial, and draws so little from indigenous perceptions. In this case, the author has immersed himself in adapting to life in a tribal culture for 30 years. For example, the book makes clear—supporting the ethnographic tradition in this—that in Durwa culture, there are two kinds of death—“good death” and “bad death” according to the written ethographic tradition! Of course, Durwas express this a lot more subtly and vividly: “There are only two kinds of death: chatta chayarana and bat-thel chayarana, dying on the mat, indoors, and dying outdoors …” These kinds of death are illustrated, with humour and compassion, through the passing-on of old acquaintances, in their journey into the great unknown. Along the way, and throughout the book, we get many examples of spirit possession—a fascinating subject. For the best part of 1,500 years any form of shamanic possession was outlawed as witchcraft by Christian institutions in Europe, including the inquisition—the ultimate censor! Between the years from 1300 to 1800 many thousands of people, especially women, were burnt at the stake as witches. As a result, the colourful forms of social behaviour, songs, dialogies and much more that take place during spirit possession represent the ultimate “banned knowledge”—the antithesis of moden, academically “legitimate” knowledge. Spirit possession is rarely described or analysed by anthropologists, largely because it demands huge linguistic skill as well as social familiarity with participants before one has any chance to even begin to understand what on earth is happening, let alone interpret it. Here too, the drama of spirit possession is rarely without huge humour, that lightens the atmosphere in the face of the worst misfortune,
including disease and death. This is a book highly recommended for anyone who wants to journey into a deeper understanding of the tribal cultures that currently face genocide in central India.

 

 

 

Read More