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he lively exchange that follows is united in sensing the unmistakably political charge that propels Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay’s Streets in Motion (henceforth SIM). As each of the participants points out, SIM inventively combines archival and ethnographic methodologies to demonstrate the kind of inter-disciplinary (or as Anwesha Ghosh delightfully puts it – “indisciplined”) methodology needed to unpack the street in the Global South. As a result, we find that the street offers puzzles aplenty, but also new theoretical insights that hold great promise. At stake in developing these insights is the way in which a deeper understanding of the street can better orient us to the prospects and possibilities for democracy and equality emerging from the various urban rebellions of the Global South – from Hong Kong to Lima.
Bandyopadhyay’s framework for understanding the modern street begins with capital’s insistent need for motion. Motion is capital’s restless search for speed of circulation and ease of movement – a necessity of urban life and a manifestation of the “involuntary tendential aspects of society and the economy” (15). An opposing force to this drive to motion is embodied in a variety of figures – most centrally in SIM refugees and hawkers – whose agency appears as obstruction. Obstruction is contingent, underspecified by the dictates of motion and of variable efficacy. Viewed through the dialectical interplay of motion and obstruction, the urban process structured by the drives of capital reveals an irreducibly contingent and historical aspect. This innovative motion-obstruction dyad forms the compelling framework for SIM and the central concern of this book forum.
Each contribution in this collection probes how the politics of the street might be viewed as the interplay between motion and obstruction. This is the area of sharpest and most productive agreements and disagreements. Sushmita Pati’s contribution, for instance, poses a question about the relationship between motion and majoritarianism. Bandyopadhyay’s clarification leads him to point out that obstruction is not always benign, and that motion must not be understood only in terms of state-activity; motion can be established through the agency of subalterns as well. Forcible occupation of public space carried out by refugees in post-Independence Calcutta (jabardakhal) emerged as a durable form of obstruction. Jabardakhal, however, was Janus-faced. It’s more utopian side appeared as a claim of the urban poor on urban space (jabardakhal as class) as they struggled to create a commons in which life could unfold with dignity. The same moment and actions, however, also took the form of Hindus pushing out Muslim proprietors to leave a more religiously homogenous neighbourhood (jabardakhal as community). Bandyopadhyay points out that obstruction though it was, Jabardakhal as community is better seen as a moment in which obstruction reinforces motion. The motion-obstruction dyad has no straightforward unfolding.
If struggle in SIM takes the form of obstruction, all contributors share a sense of the attributes of the agent of that struggle. This is an agent quite distinct from the emancipatory working class, a collective actor that emerges at the point of production. Whether perceived, as Srilata Sircar suggests, as the “urban subaltern” characteristic of the global south, Ghosh’s “range of actors and communities rendered precarious and vulnerable”, Pati’s more specific identification of “hawkers and refugees”, or Bandyopadhyay’s own “non-collective actors”, each is pointing to the fact that the agents of obstruction in the modern city are fragmented, variable and precarious. Ghosh suggests that Ahuja’s work on roads is a precursor on which SIM builds. I’m enthused by the possibility of reading SIM with a different moment of Ahuja’s work – his more recent explanations of how industrial working class victories created the structures of the welfare state which benefitted formal and informal sector (Ahuja, 2019). SIM opens up an intriguing (alternative? complementary?) trajectory in which the welfare commons is created by the informal sector.
That commons and the activity that creates, nurtures and claims it is the other shared terrain in the exchange The politics celebrated here treats space in a fashion fundamentally opposed to the individualizing and commodifying politics of capitalism. It is striking, then, that each commentator in this forum reveals a unique inflexion of a politics of the commons that inheres in SIM. Sircar’s “occupancy urbanism”, Pati’s “public things” and Ghosh’s sense of everyday life as common resources can be seen as carrying distinctive emphases and actions – stubborn refusal, active imagination of a larger public weal and the ethos of a quotidian modus vivendi. Among other things, this points to the kaleidoscopic range of the politics of the urban commons, a range that is only extended when the politics of the common is placed in less flattering light. As mentioned, for Bandyopadhyay and his interlocutors, an altogether darker aspect to this shared politics of obstruction also exists – the ever-present possibility of exclusionary community formation in the form of Hindu nationalism.
The theoretical inventiveness of SIM is further indicated by the range of filiations commentators have identified. For Pati, SIM is an exploration squarely within the terms of Marxist urban geography. Indeed, Bandyopadhyay’s insistent materialism – the interest in the physical characteristics of streets and the ways in which struggles over physical and economic resources are centred in SIM – do lend themselves to this kind of reading. In contrast, Sircar places SIM within the lineage of a Subaltern Studies inspired post-colonialism, and a post-Marxist left populism. For this, too, one can find some justification. In the present exchange, Bandyopadhyay reiterates his debt to Ranajit Guha’s postcolonial classic Dominance without Hegemony, and in SIM to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay on “Two Histories of Capital”. Sircar underlines also the convergence with left populism in suggesting that “obstruction… must therefore come from a heterodox union of feminist, socialist, anti-caste and progressive forces.” Perhaps Bandyopadhyay might agree, but he adds a crucial rider – that “obstruction acquires durability only when participants can develop a consistent world outlook challenging motion’s hegemony.” At any rate, the centrality of movements to these discussions prevents the matter of theoretical lineages becoming an exercise in scholasticism and allow theory to dialogue richly with tactical and strategic perspectives of and in struggle.
SIM ends with the suggestion that there is a break between the politics of the 20th century street and that of the twenty first century. This forum suggests that the theoretical heart of the book – the motion/obstruction dyad, as well as its rich historical readings – continue to offer resources for democratic hope.
Ahuja, R (2019) A Beveridge Plan for India? Social Insurance and the Making of the “Formal Sector”. International Review of Social History. 64 (2): 207-248.
Bandyopadhyay, R (2022). Streets in Motion: The Making of Infrastructure, Property, and Political Culture in Twentieth-century Calcutta. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anish Vanaik is the Clinical Associate Professor at Purdue University, USA. He is the author of Possessing the City: Power and Politics in Delhi, 1911-47, Oxford University Press, 2020. He is a historian of South Asia with a particular focus on the political economy of cities.