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State Agencies as Ethnographic Studies

Adnan Naseemullah

By Akhil Gupta
Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 368, Rs. 895.00


Social science research focused on South Asia has for a long time had a critical shortcoming: the state is almost never an object of study in its own right, but rather studied in conjunction with factors—caste and ethnicity, party competition, regionalism, social movements—in the production of social outcomes. In our research traditions, the Indian state is almost always treated as an ‘intervening variable,’ a mechanism that allows for the transmission of more popular factors to translate into outcomes of interest to academics and policy makers. As a result, the state is either treated as a monolithic ‘black-box’ or simmered down to essential archetypes: the distant Union ministry, the pro-market state government, the rent-seeking official, the inclusionary Panchayat.   In Akhil Gupta’s ambitious, wide-ranging and excellent book, the Indian state is both represented and unpacked into component representations, through a rich ethnographic portrayal of state agencies and officials and how they interact with citizens in the work of (largely ineffective) development programmes. Gupta takes as his point of departure the deep and important question of why the Indian state, for all its rhetoric of development and poverty alleviation, has consistently failed to alleviate poverty and the avoidable deaths of hundreds of millions due to malnutrition and disease. As Gupta indicates, the dismal picture of human development in India cannot be attributed simply to neglect, given the prominence of development in governmental discourse, or through failures of implementation, given the arbitrariness of outcomes.   Instead, Gupta argues that the failure of development can best be understood as structural violence against the poor, itself a by product of the ‘biopolitics’ (in a Foucauldian sense) related to the normalization of poverty and human suffering. Gupta uses the concept of structural violence self-consciously as a way of breaking through this normalization, even while admitting that it is mass violence without any particular agents or intentionalities behind it. Gupta breaks with theorists such as Foucault, Agamben and Gramsci by denaturalizing and disaggregating the state as a hegemonic concept but rather theorizing it as a collection of actors, ideas and representations that simultaneously present themselves as narratives and fictions through storytelling and the media and are represented by offices, officials, records, ‘camps’ and services. Gupta argues that the bureaucratic practices of state actors in development provide arbitrary, even absurd outcomes, and are thus deeply implicated in structural violence of Indian poverty, even while this violence is ...

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