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Citizenship and Governmentality

Nirja Gopal Jayal

By Partha Chatterjee
Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 173, Rs. 495.00


Some years ago, Partha Chatterjee had inserted a cautionary caveat into the civil society debate by enunciating the concept of political society. In the first three chapters of this book – the Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures delivered at Columbia University in 2001 – Chatterjee develops, elaborates and illustrates the idea of political society that has come to be associated with his name and scholarship, through an argument that also invites us to reconsider the concepts of civil society, state, rights and citizenship.   “Most of the inhabitants of India”, Chatterjee claims, “are only tenuously, and even then ambiguously and contextually, rights-bearing citizens in the sense imagined by the constitution. They are not, therefore, proper members of civil society and are not regarded as such by the institutions of the state” (p. 38). It is in the age of modernity, capitalism, the nation-state and democracy that the transformation of subjects into citizens, constituting the collective sovereign and invested with universal equal rights of citizenship, occurs, as does the idea of civil society –a sphere in which all citizens notionally act as free and equal members.   With the massification of democracy in the twentieth century, however, citizens get further transformed into populations. Populations are empirically describable by censuses and demographic surveys, the typical technologies of governmentality that insidiously marginalizes politics and classifies populations as objects of public policy and administration. This is how categories like the landless, refugees and the uniquely Indian invention of “below poverty line” population, are created and reified. Of course, there are overlaps between the world of formal citizenship and that of governmentality: as when these populations vote in elections, but one does not need to be a hardened cynic to recognize the instrumentalized nature of this exercise. As targets of governmental practices and policies, these populations are not what Chatterjee calls ‘proper citizens’, and subsist outside the realm of civil society, which remains an elite project.   In India, too, civil society is “limited to a small section of “proper” citizens” (pp. 66-67). Unlike civil society and the state, political society inhabits the realm beyond legality, and though existing since the colonial period (in ways recorded by the Subaltern Studies collective), has taken on a distinct form only since the 1980s. Chatterjee provides a detailed account of a mobilization that exemplifies the possibilities of political society. In these pages, we meet the residents of a squatters’ settle- ment called the Gobindapur Rail ...

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