I would like to thank Sapana Doshi for organizing this forum, and for her lucid and generous introduction to my work. I would also like to express my deep appreciation to Vinay Gidwani, Asher Ghertner, Sallie Marston, Elizabeth Oglesby, and Sapana Doshi for their critical engagement with my work. 

Arbitrariness, Structural Violence, and State Theory 

It is a pleasure to respond to such a rich, insightful, and generous set of commentaries. I am extremely grateful to all the authors for the incisiveness of their critiques as well as for the fact that each of them read Red Tape so carefully and constructively. Let me begin my response by first saying what I will not try to do, which is to point out all the places where I feel I have been misunderstood. It is by now a commonplace of poststructuralist theory to note that all readings are “misreadings”, in that each reading is a creative act in which readers bring their own archive and knowledge to interpret the text in front of them. I am not averse to pointing out what is factually incorrect, but if something has not been communicated clearly, then the fault lies more with me than with my readers.

In responding to each individual, I will take up some of the larger themes that cut across the critiques, and address them in a way that speaks to other objections, too, although there is no way that I can possibly address all the interesting questions that have been raised in this forum.

Let me begin with Vinay Gidwani’s and Elizabeth Oglesby’s questions about the book’s engagement with Agamben and Foucault. As Gidwani notes, there is a sense of exhaustion in the literature about Agamben, because so much has been written about him in the last decade. Is it even possible now to say something interesting using Agamben? I was trying to ask the question of what these ideas are good for, and what it is that they help us do when we look closely at a part of the world that is far from Agamben’s knowledge or expertise. As Red Tape progresses, it becomes more and more clear that the intellectual apparatus on which Agamben’s theories are constructed is of limited use in thinking about poverty in India. However, Agamben’s work is good to think with; when, at the start, I invoke the poor as a possible example of homo sacer, it is only to draw attention to the fact that their deaths occur outside of the framework of violation and restitution that constitutes death as a sacrifice. I also find appealing the idea that the death of the poor should be understood as a form of killing rather than the more passive construction of them as being exposed to death. Agamben thus helps me in lending a critical edge to the deaths of the poor, and allows me to harness the anger and moral outrage that I feel, and that I try to invoke in my readers as well. However, in understanding the killing of the poor in India, I do not follow Agamben in what Gidwani calls his “ontology of sovereignty”. I thus end up arguing that his framework is rather limited in thinking about situations where people are killed with impunity outside war zones, real and imagined wars against terrorism, and so forth. As Oglesby notes, I advance many different critiques of Agamben in different chapters of the book: that the notion of sovereignty is too absolute; that juridico-political constructions such as the sovereign ban depend on state institutions for implementation, and cannot be thought independently of such institutions; and that the fundamental premise of juridico-political exclusion does not in fact do justice to the situation of many (although not all) poor people in India. The paradox, rather, is how to think about their killing in a democratic regime where their inclusion is the norm, and where ad-hoc negotiations between ruling regimes and community groups are the norm (Chatterjee, 2004).

A second issue that is brought up by Gidwani concerns the nature of arbitrariness, a point also articulated very clearly and forcefully by Sapana Doshi. As Doshi points out, there appears to be a contradiction between the claim that some groups, namely women, children, lower caste, and tribal people are killed at higher rates, and that bureaucratic processes are arbitrary in their consequences. I fear that I must bear the responsibility for not clarifying and underlining the relationship that I see between what I term “arbitrary” outcomes and those that are systematic. Briefly put, my position is that most people who are killed by structural violence are the victims of systematic discrimination: the chapters on corruption and on inscription seek to document some of the banal processes of government that result in such horrific violence, but which also serve to hide such violence in plain sight through biopolitics (the satisfaction of documenting how many people have crossed the poverty line, how many have received benefits under the BPL scheme, how many new houses have been constructed under the housing scheme, etc.).

The problem of arbitrariness emerges within a different, and much narrower, context. It has less to do with systematic discrimination because it only applies to situations where there is only one category of recipient: landless, older people above 60 years of age; pregnant women below the poverty line; people without a pucca home, etc. If we consider the housing program aimed at scheduled caste people, arbitrariness arises when some, desperately poor, scheduled caste people get a house whereas others who are in an identical structural position do not. I think that we have fairly well developed theories of interests and patronage to account for why those with more power are able to systematically siphon off development funds intended for the poorest. What we lack is a theory that can explain why some people receive welfare and others who are very similarly positioned do not. This happens despite the fact that the state is committed to the biopolitical project of counting and classifying the population minutely, and despite the fact that the rationality of bureaucratic process does not favor one recipient over another. This is admittedly a much smaller problem politically, but a more vexing problem theoretically. I do not claim to know how to theorize this phenomenon, but I raise the question because I think it needs much more careful thought, and because one cannot account for it in a theory of the state that stops with systematic discrimination. So I am not by any means downplaying or rejecting the idea that structural violence acts on specific groups; I agree that there is nothing arbitrary about that, and that we can account for it in terms of class, cultural capital, the interests of bureaucrats, the capture of benefits by elites, and the like. Perhaps I could have done more to emphasize that in the book, but I think the ethnographic evidence certainly underlines the mix of the systematic and the arbitrary that characterizes forms of structural violence on the poor.

Ghertner’s commentary emphasizes the recentering of the domain of expert knowledge, an extremely interesting trend that harkens back to the immediate post-Independence period. Despite the continued importance of the Planning Commission, there was a growing suspicion of expert knowledge in Mrs. Gandhi’s era. There was a partial reversal under Rajiv Gandhi, when Sam Pitroda was made head of C-DOT and various technological commissions were started. But Ghertner is quite correct to point out that there has been a sea-change of attitude with the rise of Information Technology (IT) in post-liberalization India. Technocrats now enjoy the kind of legitimacy that they rarely have had in the past, but it is a different kind of technocrat and a different kind of technology than in the past: not the nuclear scientists who will bring modern science to the country, but businessmen with technical acumen who will bring the latest production technologies and product innovations to India. And this process varies regionally: in Karnataka, for instance, IT business leaders have the kind of legitimacy that enables them to participate in the highest levels of policy making over domains that they know little about, such as urban planning.

Ghertner points out that I insufficiently question the official rates of poverty, given that the government has significantly “reduced” poverty by manipulating poverty statistics. That raises a larger question about the relation between statistics and biopower that is also raised by Gidwani. I did not pursue the question of the “cooking” of poverty data except insofar as I juxtaposed it to World Bank data, which does not follow the Indian government’s data so closely, and therefore reports a much larger proportion of the population under the poverty line. I did not follow this statistical sleight of hand because the intellectual and moral argument that I wanted to forward could be made without quibbling about the data. My point is that even if we accept the Indian government’s claim about the declining numbers under the poverty line, why are the numbers so high after twenty years of growth in which annual rates of growth have been over six percent? Even if one accepts the official statistics, how can this state of affairs be ethically justified?

Gidwani raises the question of the uses to which statistical data is put, suggesting that it is the desire for development, rather than the quality of demographic data, that might account for the success of the machinery of development. The reason why the ethnographic material on the collection of statistics is so interesting is because data collection is so big a part of the writing practices of state officials, and it lends itself to the idea that if data is collected, it must be used for surveillance by a panoptical state. This is one example of theory traveling a little too easily, and only when one examines what happens to the data, and how it is used, that one realizes that we are very far from the biopolitical world that Foucault imagined obtained in eighteenth century France. Perhaps, then, it is the desire for development, as Li suggests, or perhaps it is non-calculative modes of governmentality, as Ghertner argues, that are in operation. In Postcolonial Developments, I argue that the desire for development, as articulated by state officials and agencies, is almost never adopted wholesale by the putative subjects of development, but often altered, and its meanings significantly changed. I wonder also if what Ghertner calls non-calculative modes of governmentality, the sizing up of a poor peasant by an official, which then leads to a haughty and dismissive tone, is not simply something that is learnt by state officials on the job, but learnt by children in homes when speaking to servants, or upper-caste villagers when dealing with lower-caste ones. As Doshi suggests, there is a wider field of social relations through which the structural violence enacted by state officials on the job “goes without saying” and is invisible to them and others like them.

Next, let me come to the important and unsettling point that Marston raises in her commentary. If I may be permitted to somewhat reformulate the point she raises without necessarily providing an answer, it would be that what she is really asking is what kind of project theory building is, or should be. Drawing on a variety of post-structuralist perspectives, from Derrida to Deleuze and Guattari, Marston takes the position that what we should be aiming to specify in theory is how material conditions unfold between bodies and their situated practices, and that the state comes into being when it is “instantiated in sites and moments when bodies, doings and objects come together.” As Marston herself points out, the ethnographic vignettes in Red Tape do indeed attempt precisely this kind of project.

I do not mean to evade the critique by responding to her questions with more questions, but I do wonder what it means to do “theory” in this way, and what a theory of the state developed from this position might look like. Marston does not give us any concrete examples, and I suppose she might even be asking us, like Foucault famously did, whether a theory of “the state” is even possible, or desirable? I struggled with this question for some time, but I eventually saw the force of Stuart Hall’s point that it is important to attend to the state because it is an institution that condenses contradictions. Perhaps if we think rhizomatically like Deleuze and Guattari, then the nodes or knots where the rhizomes connect even in their dispersal may be important sites which demand our attention. I also wonder if one can write a book about the state and not attempt to construct an alternative to “state theory” as it has come down to us from sociology, political science, and more broadly, the liberal philosophical tradition. The difference between my approach and the one that Marston recommends may lie in the fact that I think it is important to attend to the operation of those knots which represent machines for the stabilization of difference. Of course, it will always be true that differences proliferate beyond any efforts to stabilize them, beyond the projects of categorical thinking, bureaucratic forms, and statistical aggregation. The ethnographic evidence in Red Tape clearly shows both the project of containing and organizing difference by diverse agencies of the state, and the continual undermining of this project in its very enactment. All of this is to both acknowledge the seriousness of the critique, and my own sense that the issues that Marston raises require serious thinking and debate in the years ahead.

Doshi finds that the last two chapters do not fit as well with the rest of the book because they deal with neoliberalism and the ways in which the state has dealt with tribal groups and women. Since my ethnographic work was on the local state involved in the administration of rural welfare programs, the data in the Epilogue that deals with tribal groups is from secondary sources. The kinds of structural violence that I observed in studying the programs that I observed ethnographically were of a different nature than that involved in anti-Maoist state violence, or the displacement of peasants from their land for infrastructure projects and SEZs. The Epilogue in particular pans out to make a broader argument about post-liberalization India, and situates the new welfare programs in a bigger picture that ties it to overt state violence against tribal groups.

Doshi makes an important point about my use of categories of exclusion and inclusion in the book. My use of “exclusion” arose out of my critique of Agamben’s use of the term: I contrasted his idea of the homo sacer with the Indian situation, where the poor are included in projects of development and the politics of the nation-state, and yet killed with impunity. However, as Doshi points out, inclusion is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and in opposing Agamben’s ideas, I may have inadvertently created a mirror-image of exclusion, rather than a differentiated notion of inclusion which accommodated gradations. The ethnographic evidence presented in the book in the chapters on corruption and forms of bureaucratic writing make this clear enough, but the theorizing trails the ethnography in its acknowledgment of the difference-producing effects of inclusion by welfare programs.

If the Epilogue appears to take off in a slightly different direction, it is because it gestures towards my next book about the political economy of post-liberalization India. In that work, I intend to focus on land issues as being the key to the transformations that are occurring in India today. Such a project will take me further towards an “interest-based” argument about the Indian state. The idea will be to sketch a big-picture conceptualization of contemporary India in a short book, and, as an anthropologist who has affinities to cultural geography, offer an interpretation that might not be the kind of thing that a political scientist or economist might come up with, but which nevertheless speaks to those kinds of theorizations. 


Chatterjee P (2004) Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press.