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State, Community and Politics

Geetika De

By Roma Chatterjee and Deepak Mehta
Routledge, New Delhi, 2007, pp. xii 201, Rs. 550.00

By Jonathan Spencer
Cambridge University Press,Cambridge, 2007, pp. xiii 203, price not stated.


The rise of the ‘political’ to prominence is arguably one of the most distinctive features of contemporary anthropological discourse. To be sure, analysis of political action, attitudes and processes in what Clifford Geertz once described as, ‘forming nations and tottering states of Asia, Africa, and Latin America’ had always been the mainstay of research in political anthropology. However, with the advent of innovative theoretical and methodological frameworks and far-reaching changes in these societies, fundamental questions such as what constitutes the political and politics in such societies are being asked anew. The two books reviewed here—one a monograph and the other a ‘state of the art’ survey—are examples of these disciplinary trajectories.   Living with Violence: An Anthropology of Events and Everyday Life is an ethnography of life in Dharavi, a shantytown in Mumbai, framed by the riots of 1992-1993 following the demolition of the Babri Mosque. It provides an account of events of those fateful weeks in the voice of the protagonists to present an ethnography of ‘communal violence’ and follows it up with an analysis of ‘modes of rehabilitation and procedures of governance that both precipitate and follow the riot’ (p. 1). The authors situate their study broadly within the recent anthropological trend of investigating everyday forms of state that explores its realization in mundane and routinized activities such as ‘corruption’, ‘bureaucratic negotiation’, ‘patronage politics’—in short, in ‘business as usual’.   The book attempts to construct a genealogy of communal riots rather than a historio-graphy of it. The authors prioritize genealogy over historiography. For them, in marking the event of riot in time and space, historiography totalizes the experience through providing an all-encompassing language for the riot to be represented in people’s discourses. A genealogy resists these totalizing temptations and strives to provide a more nuanced account. To achieve this end, they deploy the methodological device of ‘voice’ as used in the work of anthropologist Veena Das to problematize the representational relationship of language to the events that took place, and to explore the verity of experiences outside the form of representational language. These devices helped the authors to generate more individuated accounts, and allowed them to distinguish between ‘the public voice’ of the collective and the ‘individual voices’; the former articulating ‘generalized social interest’ and the latter speaking of ‘private and therefore selfish concerns’ (p. 22-3).   As Veena Das has observed in her foreword to this book, ‘...

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