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Understanding Collective Action and Violence in a Post-Colonial Democracy


Seminar on 'Understanding Collective Action and Violence in a Post-Colonial Democracy’

1.The workshop on ‘Understanding Collective Action, Violence and Postcolonial Democracy’ organized by Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (CRG) in collaboration with Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla in New Delhi on 19-20 March 2011 serves as prelude to the proposed ‘Workshop’ on ‘Collective Action and Violence in a Postcolonial Democracy’ to be held at Shimla during 26 to 28 September 2011. The main objectives of this Workshop will be:

(a)To closely probe and empirically investigate the relationship between democracy and violence in the specific postcolonial context of India;

(b)To interrogate and put into scrutiny the received notions of democracy and violence and their interrelations and to find out whether the specific postcolonial context demands newer modes of theorizing their relationship;

(c)To frame a possible agenda of Dialogic Democracy that promises to look upon violence less as an aberration and more as a step to emancipatory politics

2.While democracy’s claim to pacification and social ordering is regarded as an integral part of its normative architecture, its association with collective violence in a country like India is too empirically well-established to be disputed. Violence, according to its normative claim, is always located outside the democratic domain implying thereby that its recurrence marks less of - and ironically at the same time a direct threat to - democracy. Democracies are called upon to ‘manage’ ‘tackle’ or ‘deal with’ it not necessarily through democratic means. Democracy harbours no obligation towards those who do not observe its rules. The perspective immediately changes insofar as one proposes to define collective violence as a form of collective action and most importantly as a means of collective claim-making – which democracies can ignore only to their own peril. The problem lies in the fact that the term ‘democracy’ is reserved to qualify a state, a government or a regime rather than the makers of the claim as its subjects. We therefore need a claimant-centred approach rather than a state or regime-centred approach and methodology.

3.What is called ‘Postcolonial’ has more to do with politics than merely a time sequence - for it recasts time in general and the ‘Colonial’ and the ‘pre-Colonial’ in particular - in ways that only suits the present. Deconstructing the ‘Colonial’, demands that we have the requisite cognitive tools to appreciate its perpetually ambivalent nature. The extraordinary violence – its sheer physicality – that Colonialism does to the social fabric is, to say the least, always in an uneasy relationship with its ‘democratic’ promise of rights and representative institutions etc. The ‘Postcolonial’ in this sense is far from being a decisive break with the ‘Colonial’ – it is precisely the practice of living and constantly negotiating with it. Historicizing the ‘Postcolonial’ is therefore a strategic tool meant for interrupting the colonial present. How does, for example, the postcolonial democracy’s claim to represent the ‘nation’ and take ‘care’ of its welfare sit with the rising incidence of violence that is endemic in it? The ‘Postcolonial’ also constructs the ‘pre-Colonial’ in its own way. The lament that the penetration of market forces into the society of the indigenous communities that admittedly did not know of it – thanks to the neo-liberal policies not only goes against the grain of historical research but its ascription of ‘primitiveness’ to a host of indigenous communities albeit unsuccessfully keeps them outside the orbit of market, market-led developmental processes and developmental democracy emerging during the last couple of decades.

4.The Workshop also gives us an opportunity to question the received notions about democracy and the various analytical frameworks that are deployed to understand the relation between violence and democratic politics. Charles Tilly’s seminal writings show that democracies have historically emerged in Europe as regimes of coercion and violence, while the proto-democratic states too functioned almost like racketeers and gangsters. His contribution lies precisely in redefining democracy as ‘politics’ – as ‘politics of contention’ - and not merely as an entrenched form or regime. If democracy as a regime has the effect of ‘governmentalizing’ social relations by ruling, monitoring and chiseling its population, we have to understand that democratic institutions cannot always subsume democratic politics. Does Fanon’s notion of ‘holy’ violence, through which the ‘wretched of the earth’ create a therapeutic space for themselves in the face of intense violence and exploitation, serve as an appropriate category? At the other end of the spectrum, we need to keep in mind Hannah Arendt’s famous caveat that even counter-violence can slide into the same impulses as those of the power. How do we situate ourselves in this veritable theoretical maze while trying to grapple with the postcolonial context in India?

5.Democratic politics springs at the interstices of governmentality – on the margins and in spaces that bear the traces of its cracks and fissures. Thus, when we propose to examine the relationship between violence and democracies, such marginal categories as women, dalits and tribes (a term used freely in official circles and popular parlance without any of its necessarily pejorative meanings) become pertinent.

6.Are all forms of power experienced historically sustained by patriarchy? Every issue that demands democratic state to engender and accept norms of equality, justice and care - is a woman’s issue. Patriarchy remains the core paradigm of state and social organization. The democratic state fights as it were within itself – with one part invested with a reasonably strong democratizing mission and another comprising the unregulated regional and local patriarchies scuttling and blocking any such reform. Khap panchayats serve as a case in point. Would privileging democratic institutions to quell traditional local patriarchies be a pyrrhic victory? Often women’s agency sanctioned particularly in indigenous societies dwell on the ‘natural’ order of family and motherhood. Is it possible for feminist politics to take advantage of this otherwise ambiguously defined state?

7.The ambiguous nature of such established democratic institutions as elections, parliament, assemblies, panchyats etc. deserve a particular scrutiny. These are conceptualized as an efficient and successful organ of social pacification, wherein inequality and exploitation do not always lead to violent retributive movements. But deliberation and pacification may be entirely complicit with the democratic state’s will to violence. They are not mutually exclusive. Pacification, when one-sided, implies violence. The aim here is to smother the antagonisms otherwise triggered by economic unevenness and inequalities associated with the functioning of neo-liberal policy regime. The new accent on development in developmental democracy is meant for including democracy and development by appearance, while implicit in the package are processes of militarization and coercive centralization. Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (1958) is only one amongst many such examples. Similarly one can raise the question of whether elections are becoming a theater of self-assertion and violence particularly by the marginalized groups and communities. Viewed in this light, elections are more about community entitlements, moral codes and claim-makings (rather than abstract notions of citizenship and individual rights). This notion of ‘silent revolution’ has been challenged by those who view elections as a grand carnival that comes once in five years in the otherwise drab and dreary life of the subalterns. What about election violence and turf war that is visible in contemporary West Bengal? Is election then the greatest aporia of our democracy?

8.One cannot be overly optimistic about the democratic state’s capacity for absorbing and subsuming democratic politics. More often than not, the fragmented and localized nature of community-ethnic-regional claims and violence against the injustices of the democratic state are exploited by the very state to create the necessary façade of ‘aberration’ and ‘exception’ that sustains its broader claims to legitimacy. Democracy with its claim of being latched on to the polity as a whole thereby shoots down the essentially locally anchored claims and contentions. In short, democracy and the politics of violence it frames and interacts with, according to this perspective, emerge as a sphere of constant ‘becoming’— towards a possible emancipation. Democratic institutions and democratic politics are thus implicated in an endless process of dialoguing. Democracy is not a being but a process of eternal becoming. The greatest challenge of democracy is to come to terms with its own normative architecture. The alternative to democracy therefore can only be democracy itself.

In sum, the discussion in the ‘Workshop’ is expected to revolve around the following five themes:

(a)State-Building and the Histories of violence

(b)Approaches to the Understanding of the Relationship between Legality and Violence in Postcolonial Democracies

(c)Patriarchy, Gender, Democracy and Violence

(d)Democratic Institutions, Social Inequalities and Violence

(e)Collective Actions, Violence and Dialogues

10.There will be two presentations on a single theme to be followed by discussion both by the designated discussants and the participants. In all, 20 participants will be invited to contribute to the proceedings. Each presentation will be based on a paper written well in advance by the respective author for fruitful discussion. The participants will arrive on the afternoon or evening of 25 September 2011 and will depart on 29 September 2011. Of the 20 participants 10 will contribute papers (2 per theme) and 10 will be discussants (each per paper).


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