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he field of Urban Studies has been grappling with the issue of dislocating its theoretical centre from Euro-America while maintaining a fundamentally materialist understanding of the urban question. One of the key tools in this quest has been the writing of situated histories of Capitalism in and from the postcolonies and global peripheries. In the Indian context, Guha’s Dominance without Hegemony has been a pioneering contribution in critiquing “the representation of the colonial project of the European bourgeoisie as a particularly convincing example of the universalist mission of capital” (Guha, 1997: 18). Guha proposed the dialectics of domination and resistance as a theoretical model to understand “the anomalies and contradictions which gave colonialism its specific character in India” (1997: 19), thereby also inserting ‘the subaltern’ as a key figure in Indian historiography. In Subaltern Streets, Arnold extends the spatial scope of studying the domination-resistance dialectic into the urban sphere with a particular focus on the streets, noting that “much of the precariousness that governed urban subalterns’ existence was acted out on, or even under, the street” (2019: 43). This scholarly tradition matures and comes to fruition in Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay’s Streets in Motion.
Bandyopadhyay develops a rich and multifaceted conceptual framework around the dialectic of motion and obstruction to write the urban history of twentieth-century Calcutta. In this telling of the historical development of a major colonial and postcolonial urban centre, both the universalizing tendency of capital and the civilizing mission of colonialism are confronted by the ‘obstruction’ of “repetitive, incremental, and collective actions” of “non-collective actors” whose “art of presence” (57) comes to “produce thriving urbanisms of many varieties” (72). Bandyopadhyay’s is therefore an invaluable contribution to the project of understanding capitalism from the margins as well as that of dislocating the notional centre of urban theory. As such, this is a book that is important for not only advancing the writing of urban history of the South but also for understanding the contemporary urban South. In the rest of this reflection essay, I will focus on two specific aspects of the motion-obstruction dialectic explored by Bandyopadhyay to draw out their relevance in understanding contemporary urban politics in India.
The first of these aspects is the idea of occupation as a central feature of obstructionism. Bandyopadhyay points to the unique character of the labouring classes in colonial Calcutta to explain the emergence of occupation as a mode of obstruction to the motion of capital from the very beginning of urban planning. Unlike many other prominent industrial urban centres of the time, Calcutta did not have a factory-based industrial workforce. Instead, its labouring classes were drawn from the bottom rungs of public and private sector service employment as well as self-employment – “transit and transport workers, coolies, domestic and office servants, police constables, municipal workers, shopkeepers, and street hawkers” (63). The streets were in most cases both the place of (makeshift) dwelling and the place of work for a large section of this working class – and therefore also the place of their organization and mobilization. In contemporary India, this fragmented yet spatially consolidated class character of urban centres has come to define all major cities. Benjamin (2008) describes the politics of these urban classes as “occupancy urbanism”. In this model of understanding Indian urbanisms, land is taken as the concrete starting point (as opposed to an abstract ‘economy’ in dominant urban theory) and the city is seen as a configuration of multiple, contested territories, with complex local histories.
Occupancy urbanism traces the various tactics used by the urban subaltern classes to strengthen their de-facto tenure and rights of occupation on urban land, including the manoeuvring of basic infrastructure such as water and electricity supply. This phenomenon has also been recorded in other ethnographic accounts of contemporary urbanisms in India (Björkman, 2015). Even second tier cities in contemporary India operate under similar logics as evidenced by recent ethnographies of the Indian Smart Cities Mission. Bandyopadhyay’s account of occupation as obstruction in colonial Calcutta and the “sabotage of public infrastructures” establishes the deep historical roots of this mode of claiming the right to the city in the Indian context. By giving us the framing of engineer-led installation of infrastructure as an act of facilitation of motion (for colonial capital) and its confrontation with commoners punctuating said infrastructure “to achieve practicability” as the dialectical force of obstruction, Bandyopadhyay opens up the possibility for us to understand contemporary urbanisms in India as a moment in a long history of resistance and negotiation by the urban subaltern.
The second aspect that Bandyopadhyay develops in the book is the idea of the cop-mob dialectic as a form of the confrontation of motion with obstruction. Drawing on records of communal riots in late colonial Calcutta, Bandyopadhyay illustrates how the spatial negotiations between the police and the rioting mob rendered the street into both ‘a territory’ and ‘a zoning device’. Police testimony on these riots revealed the impossibility of easy zoning of the city into segregated ‘Hindu areas’ and ‘Muslim areas’, further highlighting the partial and enforced nature of the logic of territorial partition that Bengal was subjected to at the time of independence. It was in the post-independence period that the self-segregation of Hindus and Muslims into more territorially defined communities reconfigured both the spatiality of the city and the nature of the cop-mob dialectic. More specifically, this period saw the absorption of the mob into the cop, and the incremental institutionalization of cop-violence as mob-violence, from the emergence of rioters in uniform in the 1960s to the installation of surveillance infrastructure in minority neighbourhoods in the 1990s. This historicization of a now ubiquitous reality enables us to see the shift in the role of the police as a force of motion for colonial capital, to its role as a force of facilitation for the Hindu nation. The dialectical force of obstruction now no longer comes from a riotous mob but rather from a motley crew of protestors consolidated by their oppression and impending expulsion from the body politic of the nation under Hindu nationalism.
In its most recent iteration, the obstruction has played out in the streets and the frontiers of urban India, in the form of the anti-CAA/NRC protests and the movement against new farm bills. These protest movements have reignited tactics of resistance such as sit-ins, dharnas, and other forms of mass occupation. As my own ongoing research shows, the spatiality of these protests is well thought out and carefully negotiated to maximize impact while minimizing threat of police action. The Hindu nationalist state nonetheless mobilizes its and bureaucratic police machinery to carry forth its motion in the form of eviction notices, unlawful demolitions, and bulldozer rule. Bringing a dialectical perspective to this analysis, rooted in motion and obstruction, makes evident the deep entanglements and co-dependency of the project of Hindu nationalism with caste supremacy, neoliberal corporate interests, and the authoritarian state. The obstruction to this juggernaut must therefore come from a heterodox union of feminist, socialist, anti-caste, and progressive forces.
As Bandyopadhyay shows in the latter chapters of the book, an urbanization without accumulation (or, what he calls “de-accumulation”) was made possible in Calcutta; and even when the subaltern caste-class groups were left abandoned to sustain this, the streets remained in their possession. In conjunction with recent protest movements, Bandyopadhyay’s scholarship therefore leaves us with an imagination of the street as a site of hope, solidarity, possibility, and perseverance.
Arnold, D (2019) Subaltern Streets: India, 1870-1947. In: Jazeel T and Legg S (ed) Subaltern Geographies. Athens. University of Georgia Press, pp. 36-57.
Bandyopadhyay, R (2022) Streets in Motion: The Making of Infrastructure, Property, and Political Culture in Twentieth-century Calcutta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Benjamin, S (2008) Occupancy urbanism: Radicalizing Politics and Economy Beyond Policy and Programs. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32(3): 719-729.
Björkman, L (2015) Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai. Duke University Press.
Guha, R (1997) Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Harvard University Press.
Srilata Sircar is Lecturer in India and Global Affairs at the King's India Institute, King’s College, London. Sircar's current research focuses on the knowledge politics and caste dimensions of urban infrastructure building in South Asia. With a focus on smaller urban centres, she adopts both archival and ethnographic methods to expose and dismantle the ways in which dominant knowledge regimes shape urban planning and development. She assumes an intersectional-feminist and postcolonial analytical stance.