THE TRUTH MACHINE: Policing, Violence and Scientific Interrogations in Indiaby Jinee Lokaneeta. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2020.
ON 30 September 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman from Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district died in a hospital after being raped allegedly by four men from the Thakur caste. The case sparked outrage owing to the police’s forced cremation of the victim’s body, and its apathy and inaction. But it also rekindled a public conversation on narcoanalysis after a Special Investigation Team constituted by the state government proposed to conduct narcoanalysis on the victim’s family. The proposal was criticized by legal experts – and senior advocate Prashant Bhushan referred to narcoanalysis as ‘akin to torture’ – but, perhaps instructively, met with approval from local Brahmin and Thakur communities who felt the ‘truth tests’ were needed to make the poor Dalit family tell the truth.
Jinee Lokaneeta’s new book, The Truth Machines: Policing, Violence, and Scientific Interrogations in India, while questioning the adequacy of existing theoretical frameworks to understand police violence as a site of state power in liberal democracies explores this question – whether these truth extraction practices are plain torture or rather a ‘techno-political’ solution to replace physical torture.
A professor in political science and international relations at Drew University, Lokaneeta reviews the emergence of truth machines (three forensic science techniques – narco-analysis, brain scans and polygraph tests for police interrogation) and deftly sifts through the interplay of law, science and policing to analyse the frameworks under which the relationship between state power and legal violence can be understood.
The slim volume builds on her previous work, Transnational Torture: Law, Violence, and State Power in the United States and India (2011), which looked at the nature of violence and state power in liberal democracies.
Thoroughly researched and buttressed with extensive field work and interaction with police officials, forensic psychologists, medical professionals, lawyers, activists, The Truth Machines interrogates the motivations of state and semi-state actors (the book refers to forensic psychologists as semi-state actors and compares it to the police, the state actors) for the expansion of these techniques. It questions the adequacy of the Weberian conception of unitary state action and explains the idea of a contingent state to understand everyday practices and contingencies among state and semi-state actors and its importance in analysing the relationship between state power and police violence.
The book traces the journey of these truth machines in India from its first use in the 1960s to individual practitioners working with the police to now when they are featured in Ministry of Home Affairs reports and Central Bureau of Investigation’s bulletins. Through interactions with police, forensic psychologists, academics, lawyers, amongst others, the book suggests varied motivations of different actors in the use of truth machines. Truth machines fit India’s desire to modernize, based on science and experts. She also contextualizes the growth of these ‘scientific’ techniques with the expansion of civil liberty groups, human rights movements, the constitution of the National Human Rights Commission post the Emergency and therefore the need of liberal democracies to respond to this by ‘managing’ its own violence. Some of the other motivations attributed for the prevalence of these interrogative techniques include the police’s need to buy more time for interrogation. To these are added the vehement defence of the success of these techniques by select forensic psychologists and tech companies born perhaps out of commercial concerns and patents, and court’s submission to technology as means of replacing physical torture which they have failed to curb.
One of the most fascinating aspect of Lokaneeta’s book is the remarkable ethnography of the state forensic architecture – the revealing interaction with forensic psychologists, their claims that their practice humanizes interrogations, their relationship with the machines, the therapeutic and scientific role of practitioners, their attempt to distinguish themselves from the police and their practices, the underlying commercial interests and the recognition of the claims of accuracy of these techniques by the state. These layered and intimate descriptions provide an insight into the multitude of factors that play into determining the emergence and expansion of these truth machines. These insights reveal that state actions are not as intentional as theories on state and police claim.
While lucidly explaining the forensic architecture, its expansion and motivations, the book also highlights the scientific community’s disavowment of these practices and the evidence of lack of scientific accuracy or reliability of these invasive and discredited truth extraction techniques. The 2010 Supreme Court’s judgement in the Selvi case made the involuntary use of truth machines unconstitutional, but the book rightly critiques the court falling short by allowing ‘voluntary’ administered tests in accordance with Section 27 of the Indian Evidence Act.
It is disingenuous to imagine that the court is not aware of the ease and frequency of custodial coercion. In fact, narratives of inmates who had participated in these tests and were subjected to slaps, pliers and worse attest to the fact that mental and physical torture is a part of these invasive and regressive techniques. The book incisively posits that while these techniques claim to replace third-degree interrogation, their real intention is to prevent custodial deaths.
The Truth Machine rightly calls out this allure of technology and scientific methods to save the broken criminal justice system. I was reminded of another current judicial-governmental obsession: video conferencing. In the last couple of decades, there has been a growing and unquestioning appeal for the use of video conferencing in criminal proceedings with claims of it being cost-effective, convenient and safer mode for ‘producing’ inmates for court hearings. Its growing popularity with officialdom exists despite the serious challenges it poses to fair trial safeguards. Just like with these truth machines, there are different motivations for its growth from different quarters, and the brunt of the consequences of these technological advancements is to be borne by those in custody.
The book, through narratives from survivors, civil society reports and court judgements, explains the inability at best and complicity at worst of the judiciary and medical practitioners responsible for safeguarding rights and preventing torture. While insights from the engagement with lawyers have added value, perspectives on the opportunity and ability (or its lack) of defence lawyers to participate and intervene in these sites of police violence would have been important to understand. The role of a defence lawyer during police interrogation – even though it’s a constitutional safeguard – has been often contested in practice and unpacking this denial (which could be due to lack of role clarity, lack of a mechanism or other factors) would have been a crucial insight.
An important aspect in the book is its reference to targeting by the police on the lines of religious identity. It describes the inhumane violence and indignity meted out in two high profile terrorism cases – the Mecca Masjid case and the Mumbai Blast case. These two cases etch a pattern of state violence of picking up Muslim men, subjecting them to torture, both physical as well as through the truth machines and on occasions simultaneously. However, limited engagement of the book with the systemic custodial, and everyday, violence that the state and the police inflict on people from scheduled castes, is a clear gap. Further, while it is encouraging to see such strong reliance on Indian scholarship for understanding police violence and use of truth machines, the book would have also benefited from greater reliance on anti-caste literature on police violence, especially given the disproportionate incarceration and higher susceptibility to everyday police violence of people from these communities.
This combination of thorough academic research, detailed engagement with academics and practitioners and rich ethnographic investigation of forensic infrastructure introduces us to the inner workings of another confessional site for interrogation and warns about the creation of newer confessional sites. It has also made us reflect that these sites of power and violence operate in queer ways and not necessarily through intentional state acts. How do these confessional sites hide or manage the violence? The book discusses the Foucauldian ‘scaffolding of rule of law’ which masks state violence through formal legality of procedural safeguards being met. So, the medical examination reports will have no mention of injury signs, the police records will indicate that the arrestee was produced before a magistrate within 24 hours as is mandated – on record no illegalities or violence has ever taken place.
Wahid Shaikh, the only person acquitted in the 2006 Mumbai Blast case, reminds us of the grim choices before the tortured: ‘aapko police ka torture bardasht karna haih. Yaad rakhiye tees din ka torture ya tees saal ki qaid.’ (To survive police torture, you must remember: ‘thirty days of torture or thirty years in prison’). By engaging with those who have felt these truth machines and the cruelty integral to their use, the author opens a pathway for officials, experts and civil society activists to open an informed conversation about uncritical acceptance of technological solutions to deeper problems of criminal justice – complicity, who is being targeted and the politics and prejudice that grounds it. Engagement with experience of violence can undermine the scaffolding and open up the dark spaces of secrecy which presently prevent accountability, remedy and recompense to its victims. But is anyone listening or will the truth always remain out there?
Senior Programme Officer, Police Reform Programme, CHRI, Delhi
CAPTURING INSTITUTIONAL CHANGE: The Case of the Right to Information Act in India by Himanshu Jha. Oxford University Press, India, 2020.
WHAT was essentially a privilege of elected representatives to the legislatures in India became the right of every Indian citizen through the adoption of the Right to Information Act in 2005. This momentous shift towards an accountable government requires an in-depth examination of why and how it came about. Himanshu Jha’s book views the adoption of RTI as a landmark of institutional change in the Indian state. He puzzles through the factors that allowed the Indian state to open itself up to public scrutiny when this would likely expose embedded vested interests. He poses two questions – What explains this institutional change? And how did it come about?
The author argues that the ‘RTI Act was the culmination of an incremental, slow-moving process of ideas that emerged endogenously from within the state’ while highlighting the importance of the state-society interaction through epistemic communities bound through ideational linkages on openness. He also shows that ‘global norms had both demonstrative and operative influence on the ongoing institutional change in India.’
His work complements other prior studies which emphasized peoples’ movements, the role of elite networks and civil society coalitions. A considerable amount of evidence provides a layered account of ideas emerging in the periphery of the state through the protests of opposition parties and a vigilant press. It also shows that the institutions within the state are not static but a considerable part of institutional change. Jha makes a significant contribution on how institutional changes came about in the developing world. Prior works have ‘primarily engaged with the advanced economies of the West’ and this ‘contributes to the larger corpus of literature on institutional change.’ Hitherto the focus has usually been on economic policy paradigms.
The book is well structured in five chapters wherein chapter one and chapter two provide a chronological account. In chapter one the author looks at developments within the state from Independence in 1947 till 1989 and chapter two from 1989 until 2005 when RTI was adopted. They reveal the churning within the state, especially within Parliament through debates, discussion and introduction of draft bills.
In chapter three, the author turns toward the judiciary and presents a comprehensive account of the jurisprudence around ‘Article 19(1) which moved categorically towards citizens’ (fundamental) rights and towards recognizing the right to know and to information as integral to the freedom of expression and speech.’ While the existing literature highlights the landmark cases, Jha provides a compendious account of judicial verdicts which capture the jurisprudence ‘from various vantage points, such as the press, national and sub-national politics, environmental issues, criminalization of politics, and probity in public life.’
Chapter four is the most substantial chapter wherein he traces the work of organizations and individuals who are also currently engaged with the promotion and protection of RTI. Here we find an exhaustive account of state-society interactions which he traces through the work of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the National Campaign of People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). The grassroots work of MKSS is recounted in a nuanced way which shows how the movement evolved and grew in strength, to compel the state to commit to provide access to information.
In this chapter he also argues that the ideas about openness, transparency and accountability demanded by grassroots movements resulted in a conflux of progressive elements from the press, bureaucracy, judiciary and academia resulting in an epistemic community which had the necessary expertise and knowledge to further the demand. This epistemic community managed to engage in forceful advocacy, deepening the discourse around openness and intervening in policy making by providing legal inputs. Throughout the book, several helpful tables encapsulate the findings of each chapter. Illustratively, a table (4.3) summarizes the policy recommendations pithily capturing the role of the epistemic community.
The final chapter shows how global norms of openness, transparency, and access to information had a demonstrative and operative impact on the indigenous process of institutional change. This makes a new contribution to the consolidating literature on the dynamics of norm diffusion through localization.
In situating state-society interaction the author argues that, ‘had the ideas within the state not moved favourably towards the norm of openness, the state would have dealt with the same social actors differently’, but this claim of how the state would have dealt with the social actors differently, is not interrogated in the book. Could this have depended on which political party coalition was in power – the National Democratic Alliance which passed the Freedom of Information Act 2002, but did not implement it or the United Progressive Alliance which adopted the RTI Act 2005 with an explicit commencement date written into the law?
While the author argues that the RTI Act is distinct from other rights-based legislation like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 and the Right to Food Act 2013 and the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) 2013 as it ‘does not represent policy continuity but rather a complete departure from the previous policy regime’, he hasn’t mustered adequate evidence to justify this claim of newness. The FRA and the LARR also have their origins in the colonial period and these legacy laws were severely contested in post-independent India, akin to the Official Secrets Act. The changes to the FRA and the LARR were in response to the pressure on the government by a multitude of progressive people’s organizations and movements in India. Maybe if the author had compared how the other rights-based legislations were adopted then his argument of an endogenous institutional change would have been more robust.
The author makes a strong case that this institutional change is irreversible on two counts – ‘that any government in power cannot withdraw this constitutionally granted legal right and a right that was non-existent prior to 2005 was systematically instituted with the promulgation of the RTI Act.’ While this is what one hopes would be the case, the author’s reliance on the norm of openness taking root and reaching a tipping point in 2005 begs the question – What happens if the ruling party adopts the norm of secrecy? To give an example, in 1993 the then Attorney General of the United States Janet Reno had issued a memo which directed officials to ‘apply a presumption of disclosure’ when implementing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was renounced by her successor John Ashcroft who went as far as to promise legal cover to agencies coming down on the side of non-disclosure. This is quite evident under the current administration in India, where despite the promise of Quest for Transparency by Prime Minister Modi, a slogan on the Prime Minister’s website, the experience of RTI requesters is one of delays, evasion and even non-compliance.
Overall, the book is a very valuable addition to the growing corpus of works on transparency and accountability and a very good read. The author’s diligence is clearly evident, and he provides a compelling narrative which will engage the reader’s attention.
Associate Professor, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat
THE TRANSFORMATIVE CONSTITUTION: A Radical Biography in Nine Acts by Gautam Bhatia. HarperCollins India, 2019.
The Transformative Constitution, released in 2019, has been a core topic of discussion amongst professionals as well as academics. It was also shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award for Non-Fiction. Gautam Bhatia is perhaps best known to many of us in the legal field as the creator of the wildly successful and influential blog Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy. Bhatia, an advocate practising at the Supreme Court of India has had a front row view of several cases of immense consequence. He is thus in a position to bring a unique practitioner’s perspective to issues with a distinctive academic flair.
In The Transformative Constitution, Bhatia undertakes impressively extensive research in the fields of legal history and constitutional design to present a novel way of interpreting the Indian Constitution. One doesn’t have to agree with Bhatia’s assertion that Indian judgments have broadly taken the ‘view of conservatism and continuity’ in order to appreciate his claim that the Indian Constitution is ‘fundamentally transformative’. Using the context of colonial era legislations and the debates of the Constituent Assembly, and the writings surrounding these processes, Bhatia argues that the judiciary has careened between the two poles of constitutional interpretation: living-tree constitutionalism and constitutional originalism. He proposes the middle path of transformative constitutionalism which is about creating a ‘framework that makes democratic politics possible.’ This innovative tool of constitutional interpretation neither ‘seeks to interfere with the democratic process’ nor ‘determine outcomes as opposed to the PIL vision of contemporary jurisprudence’ but with removing the ‘asymmetries in power’ by ‘deepening democracy in the public sphere.’
His methodology is as novel as it is ambitious. Bhatia chooses nine cases from the ‘detritus of the Indian constitutional cannon’ which fall neatly into the categories of dissenting opinions in Supreme Court judgments, High Court judgments overruled by the Supreme Court, and ‘ignored or marginalized’ Supreme Court decisions. Interestingly, he has been directly involved in at least four of these nine cases, including Naz Foundation. He aims to use these cases to highlight the ‘transformative vision of the Indian Constitution.’ Half of these cases are famous in the sense they have been read by all who have studied constitutional law while the remaining are truly those which many would not have encountered. This proves to be one of the many strengths of this book. Constitutional law syllabi across law schools are constrained by time and other practical considerations. Students and instructors mostly engage briefly with only the most important constitutional law judgments. Bhatia’s book then becomes a much-needed resource that can supplement outside-the-classroom learning of those interested in venturing further in this vast terrain. Not only is the subject matter new and unexplored, the method (sometimes dwelling on dissent) is equally unique, refreshing and perhaps most useful for practicing lawyers.
Reading the Prologue sets the book alongside Zia Mody’s brilliant and crisp10 Judgements that Changed India,which was an accessible compilation of comments on landmark constitutional law cases. Bhatia has also chosen nine landmark constitutional law cases but they feature on the margins of his analysis rather than being its centrepiece. The cases are used as pegs to decipher wider themes and ideas. The range of analysis not only includes Constituent debates and comments but also includes expositions by legal giants like Ambedkar, Dworkin, Munshi and the like. This book is essentially a compilation of essays on the topics dealt with in these chosen cases and not a comment on the judgments per se. It reads like a detailed constitutional law textbook which focuses on certain provisions of the Indian Constitution, providing an in-depth and well reasoned analysis of those clauses, with extensive reference to Indian and foreign judgments and doesn’t limit the scope of its enquiry to the nine chosen cases. One then wonders about the need to portray this book only as a story told through nine judgments when it is so much richer in its texture and more in its scope.
Part II of the book which deals with Fraternity seems to be the weakest link in this liberty-equality-fraternity chain. Bhatia is unable to establish why the chosen articles fit the category of Fraternity better than Equality and Liberty, where they are traditionally placed. His explanation that the categories are ‘not hermetically sealed off from each other’ and one can read one only in conjunction with the other two, is somewhat insufficient. The Preamble to the Constitution of India identifies four goals: justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. Bhatia also makes the claim that it is the individual that is at the centre of the discourse since ours is not a socialist Constitution. It then becomes difficult to justify the authorial intention to pick fraternity as the theme that better fits cases of discrimination by private entities rather than justice, even though it is clear that this constitutional trinity was chosen because it, in B.R. Ambedkar’s words, embodies the meaning of social democracy.
Does the transformative potential of the Constitution only reveal itself in the rights granting (or recognizing) provisions of the Constitution? Bhatia has chosen to concentrate his analysis on Part III of the Constitution of India which deals with the fundamental rights granted to citizens and persons. These articles justifiably garner most of the attention of constitutional law scholars, dealing as they do with some of the most fundamental aspects of human life. Nevertheless, it would have been interesting to see what Bhatia’s novel way of interpretation would have made of the other articles of the Constitution, for example the ones dealing with the imposition of an Emergency or those demarcating the separation of powers between constituents of the state, both vertically and horizontally. Seen in this light, Bhatia’s insistence to remain wedded to the liberty-equality-fraternity theme has precluded interpretation and experimentation in the often-overlooked corners of the Constitution’s text.
Bhatia is indeed very knowledgeable and this reflects in his broad range of analysis. This book is a dense read and usually uses a language that is peculiar and more familiar to law students and legal scholars. Providing a research scheme at the beginning of each chapter gives it the feel of a law review article. The arguments put forth and his unique take on the judgments, are such that will enrich and inform the understanding of the country’s Constitution for all. As he states early on – ‘the Constitution is for all to interpret’– and given how the judiciary has captured popular imagination, it would be apposite that more people, especially those not trained in law, are able to understand and imbibe Bhatia’s message. All things said, Gautam Bhatia’s book in an insightful and thought-provoking read. It is certainly a rich addition to the field of constitutional jurisprudence in India.
T.S. Eliot once remarked, ‘History has cunning passes, many contrived corridors.’ Ideas, issues and themes that had somewhat been settled in the past arise before us in current times. It is here that Bhatia’s book perhaps becomes most useful. The chronology of interpretation and application of philosophy and legal principles helps the reader to gain a unique and deep insight into the workings of the Constitution. It contextualizes ideas and arguments we hear each day, of constitutional values, equality and indeed fraternity. The opening chapter notes that ‘By reading our constitutional history against the grain, it is a vision that is open to us to retrieve and claim.’ This certainly is an interesting and, some might say, exciting proposition. It is also a perspective that one rarely encounters. Bhatia justifies this and inspires an innovative paradigm of thinking, both for academics as well as practitioners. The gaps that are left in judicial decisions – often ignored – are what seem to be most interesting under this new light.
Bhatia has many feathers to his hat – as a lawyer and a writer. He has recently explored the world of science fiction whilst also working on his authoritative blog. The hope remains that he will follow this book with contemporary ideas, to reflect the transformative nature of not just the Constitution but also the scholarly debates that nourish it in our times.
Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Law School and
KUKNALIM, Naga Armed Resistance: Testimonies of Leaders, Pastors, Healers and Soldiers by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M. Hongray. Speaking Tiger Publishing, Delhi, 2019.
REPORTING on terror and conflicts, for long a subject of heated debate, saw a fierce renewal when The New York Times reporter, Rukmini Callimachi, came under intense scrutiny for her podcast series Caliphate. The lead character of the award winning series, Abu Huzayfah whose actual name is Shehroze Chaudhry, was arrested by the Canadian police in September 2020 for impersonating an ISIS fighter.
If the explosive piece by the Times’ Ben Smith is anything to go by, followed by their official rejoinder, Callimachi’s editors were complicit in allowing falsities to creep into the series (possibly in her other stories too) for the sake of a morally righteous flavour of narrative journalism. Enunciating the challenges of reporting on an extremist group, Smith wrote, ‘If you get something wrong, you probably won’t get a call from ISIS press office seeking a correction.’
You won’t, unless you were reporting on the Government of People’s Republic of Nagalim, particularly the late Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah led faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), the political militant outfit that has been fighting for an independent nation for the Nagas since 1980. Beyond the estimated 5000 strong Naga Army that the IM commands, their Ministry of Publicity (MIP) deserves special journalistic attention and scholarly scrutiny.
Over the years, the MIP has blacklisted several news media outlets for publishing stories they believed were either fabricated or had misquoted their leaders. On 1 May 2019 they issued a statement blacklisting News 18 for failing to correct a quote by V. Horam, an Executive Member of the NSCN Steering Committee, saying it was ‘annoying the way News 18 dramatize Horam’s statement’ (sic). In another instance, the MIP blacklisted East Mojo, a regional news website, after it ran a report of an alleged meeting of Muivah and two Naga politicians over a change in chief ministership in Nagaland. Stating that the news came as a surprise, the MIP said, the group nevertheless ‘exercised restraint and showed courtesy to contact East Mojo to refute the report.’
The self-styled government(s) headquartered in Nagaland wields influence and operates all over India’s Northeast and beyond, in Myanmar, since the last 23 years after the NSCN entered into a ceasefire agreement. Of course, the Naga movement for an independent, sovereign state is much older, dating back to the days of the Indian freedom struggle.
In Kuknalim, human rights activists, Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M. Hongray offer previously unknown insights into the NSCN faction of the longest running separatist movement in the Indian subcontinent. The book features interviews with Isak and Muivah, the pioneers who led batches of rebels across Myanmar to be trained by the People’s Liberation Army in China’s Yunnan province. They were also the first to openly condemn the 1975 Shillong Accord signed by select Naga National Council (NNC) members with the Government of India. In the agreement, the NNC accepted the Constitution of India. In the absence of a statement from Angami Zapu Phizo, the father of the Naga nation, the NSCN became the flag bearers of the Naga movement, pushing for independence through years of jungle warfare and political negotiations.
Other leaders interviewed include V.S. Wungmatem, former Naga Army chief who is a crucial part of the peace talks today, and Thinoselie Keyho, President of the Naga National Council (Non-Accordists). Through first person testimonies recorded immediately after they came overground in ’97, each of the five chapters enlighten readers to their early life and personal journeys of finding and fighting for their identity that drove them to join an armed struggle for nationhood. The Naga struggle is particularly unique in that it is a collective call for an independent homeland as much as it is to consolidate their diverse tribal cultures, customs and languages under a single socio-political umbrella of Naga identity.
The chapters take us across the geography of the Naga hills in Manipur, where Muivah and Atem spoke of subjugation under the hegemony of the Brahmin Hindu Meiteis, the dominant ethnic community in the valley that made up the erstwhile Kangleipak kingdom, and the Sagaing division of Myanmar, where leaders like Nuri (Saw Saw) sought to democratize and modernize the Eastern Nagas to compete at par with the majority Burmese. Their testimonies bring to life the harsh realities of ethnic fault lines that run deep in a region, where the relatively nascent idea of nation state is still taking shape.
Reading these interviews may seem dated in the present discussion of bringing finality to the historic framework agreement signed between the IM and the Government of India in 2015. But these narratives need telling and had long been absent in the mainstream discourse about the Naga movement. Earlier writings are patted down mostly to artillery, jungle operations and Machiavellian games between several competing factions. However, traversing the violent escapades of the first batches of Nagas who crossed the border, and walked through the dense forests of Myanmar towards China, serves as necessary background to their demands for a separate flag and constitution. Without this context, their resolve, or ambition to unite, can easily be seen as reductively ‘unrealistic’.
Kuknalim, also fills a crucial gap in the historiography of the Naga movement through the stories of women nationalists like Khulu Eustar, a member of the National Socialist Women’s Organization of Nagalim who was married to the former Chairman, Swu. I had first read about Avuli Chishi Swu, who was among the 20 women in the second batch of 375 men led by Isak in 1974 to trek to China in Rashmi Saxena’s She Goes To War. Eustar’s journey in the first batch of women cadres held a pioneering moment for women stepping into the shoes of their male counterparts in the revolution.
The female gaze on their encounters in the jungle are some of the most engaging portions of the book, serving as a window to the complex structure of patriarchy and gender roles in a tribal society fashioning itself into a socialist, Christian republic. Unice Shatkamla, a Tangkhul Naga woman from Muivah’s village, Somdal, in Manipur took off for China with the Naga Army in 1976. Her interpretative visions of the future as an ‘oracle’ were patronized by senior Naga leaders. Yet her commander would repeatedly dismiss her in the treacherous trek, where they were evading and escaping the Indian Army, Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army. ‘The commander told me I was always scared and that is why I was always seeing the enemy but I told him, "Whenever I have seen the enemy, they have attacked us for real",’ she said. Yet, time and again Eunice was asked to ‘sit down’.
At best, Kuknalim’s contribution lies in being a collection of narratives of how ordinary people – students, intellectuals, preachers, wives – committed to a lifelong movement, not knowing how long it would last or if they themselves would survive. However, as a non-fiction anthology of a struggle that spans decades, its linear chronology of events and sketchy musings lacks sufficient context – illustratively, we are not told the reason for Atem’s contempt for Kukis. For those unfamiliar with the history and political development of the Indo-Naga conflict, the book is not a useful primer into a rather complicated and dense subject.
The book can be seen as a faithful record of the NSCN-IM, which in itself deserves a dispassionate and detailed look, but without fear or favour. Wherever points of dissonance appear in characters – when for instance, Eustar recognizes that Naga women don’t have land rights, an invested reader is left wanting for more tension, or nuance. Instead, it is quickly ironed out and resolved all too neatly for the sake of the larger Naga cause to achieve nationhood first. ‘We would like to lay down the foundation of our organization first and then slowly discuss the necessary problems’, Eustar told the authors even as she acknowledged it was a topic ‘not easy to touch.’
The authors do bring out some contradictions within the political discourse of the IM vis-à-vis angling for support from China, which Muivah appears to be far more in favour of than Isak, and its control of Tibet that the leaders were not permitted to visit. Similarly, the Naga allegiance towards the British – who after conquering their land, sought to ‘modernize’ them through education and Christianity – is riddled with ‘White man’ saviour hood in fighting for a unique identity of their own.
Historical figures of any hue must be subjected to proportionate doses of credit and criticism, sympathy and scrutiny – Kuknalim offers both but not nearly enough of the latter.
Of course, neither Isak or Muivah, nor any of the other characters documented in the book, are comparably as dodgy as Callimachi’s Abu Huzayfah. But if the ISIS suffers from a distortion of truth as an overreaching macabre force in the western media, in left liberal discourse the NSCN-IM holds an untainted revolutionary image, largely due to the international narrative cultivated by Phizo and Muivah.
Much of the historiography of the Naga movement suffers from the extreme binaries of decidedly pro and anti narratives of the NSCN. Kuknalim is sympathetic to only but a faction of leaders in the movement, no doubt the ones who have been steering the talks and have been the contemporary faces of it. But a book entirely based on interviews, where probing questions appear more rarely than they should, and information isn’t triangulated with other sources, is not Haksar’s most scholarly work.
Eunice the ‘Oracle’ once told the authors, ‘There is no stability on earth and the earth is shaking and there is a landslide. I see people trying to build a big church but it will not stand because the land is sliding down and people are scared and holding on to the branches of trees to prevent from sliding down.’
I only wish the authors had more narratives and voices on a house as divided as the Naga movement, including those holding on and others sliding down.
SEX AND THE SUPREME COURT: How the Law is Upholding the Dignity of the Indian Citizen by Saurabh Kirpal. Hachette India, 2020.
THE book under review, Sex and the Supreme Court: How the Law is Upholding the Dignity of Indian Citizen by Saurabh Kirpal, is an anthology of essays which explore the complex relationship between liberal law, individual identity and collective mores. With the object of foregrounding the nuances of this relationship, the essays focus on those judgements of the Supreme Court which deal with questions of sex and sexuality. The book traces the myriad interactions between law and the sexual to expose the transformative capability of the Constitution and the conception of constitutional morality. However, one has to bear in mind that until constitutional morality takes into account the lived realties of subjects, its transformative goals remains elusive.
The first part of the book begins by delineating the progressive history of decriminalization of homosexuality and reading down of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Saurabh Kirpal in his essay, collapses the distinction between act and identity which was the central thesis of Suresh Kumar Khoushal case. While doing so he, like the court, is silent on the question at hand which was with respect to interpretation of the term ‘against the order of nature’.1 Coming from a lawyer one would expect a more honest engagement with the letter of the law rather than an exclusive focus on ideals of constitutional morality and trans-formative constitutionalism. Further, in celebrating the judgment for its path-breaking stance, Kirpal forgot about the class character of the judicial reasoning. Ashley Tellis, an LGBTQI+ activist, asserts that the judgement is decriminalizing only private sexual activities, thus leaving hijra public sex unaddressed.2 Kirpal concludes that the ‘pride parades and social gatherings have increased’ which along with the ‘power of social media’ will bring about a change in the attitude of people. Such a position presents no critique of the neo-liberal character of these parades and contests for those who view them as exclusionary and elite.
In the same part, which deals with questions of autonomy and sexuality, Justice Madan B. Lokur discusses the NALSA judgement. The essay, rather than being a critical engagement with the judgement, dwells more on the institutional changes that have taken place since the judgement. However, an uncritical acceptance of the western definition of transgender people, as done by the court and the author, should be rethought in light of the ground realities of the transgender community in India.
The essay cogently lays down the developments in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu which manifest strong organizing efforts around voter cards, ration card and other rights. The essay argues that the Transgender Person (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 has diluted the progressive judgement of NALSA.
The next part of the book deals with the judicial reactions to the entanglement between the liberal notion of consent and communitarian assertions. The essays in this section examine the famous cases of Shafin Jahan, Sakti Vahini and Joseph Shine and Independent Thoughts. In each of these cases the apex court not only delve into questions of consent but also problems of desire, marriage and familial logic. The essays raise some very important legal question about the presumption of constitutionality in pre-constitutional laws, and the manner in which public-private divide subjugates the woman subject. However, the common thread in the arguments of both the essays is the neat binary between social morality and constitutional morality. In doing so the essays discursively construct constitutional morality as a realm which is impervious to the social. It is important to note that feminists have contended that a clear distinction between legal and the social is not possible as both of them inform each other.3
The essays while presenting a unified image of constitutional morality hide the contradictions and tensions that exist in the liberal law framework. For example, Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy celebrate the historic judgement of Joseph Shine, but they do little to acknowledge that marriage conceptually restricts the scope of intimacy until we start understanding marriage as inherently non-monogamous.4 Further, in case of Independent Thoughts, though the authors cogently make a case for deletion of the marital rape exception, difficult questions of child sexuality and the possibility of sexual governance which the subject matter raises, have to be asked. Or be it the doctrine of Parens Patriae (as presented even by the counsel for the respondent in the Shafin Jahan case) and its incompatibility with the assumption of a free human subject that the concept of constitutional morality is upholding. Unless these complexities are taken into account while engaging with the judgements, we would continue to flatten the contradictions immanent even in the Constitution of India.
The interaction and negotiation between individual rights and the institution of religion form the crux of the final part of the book. The issues of Triple Talaq and entry of women in the Sabarimala temple become the focal point of the study. Madhavi Divan in her essay on Triple Talaq highlights the manner in which a plea to hear the constitutionality of nikah halala or polygamy were rejected to make way for religious assertions. She contends that as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board had not claimed that triple talaq was an essential practice of Islam, hence the reasoning of Justice Kehar and Justice Nazeer is fallacious. Interestingly Divan points out at the constitution of the bench, which did not have even a single woman. Further, she asserts that the ‘issue of triple talaq has been examined almost entirely through the prism of personal law rather than from the standpoint of gender justice.’ Such insight goes a long way in displacing the patriarchal character of a judgement which is being hailed as path-breaking in the field of women rights. However, while dealing with the woman question, Divan creates a homogenous category of women. She states that ‘women constitute half of the population of every community, transcending the barriers of caste and religion.’ Such a position does not take into account the intersectional nature of the identity of a Muslim woman.
In Divan’s conceptualization of a Muslim woman’s identity, she turns a blind eye to the narrative of those women who would not have wanted to take recourse to a secular law. For example, an Islamic woman may contest patriarchal regimes of Quaranic interpretation at home, while at the same time articulating a sort of global solidarity.5 Further, she advocates the carceral stance taken by government with respect to criminalization of triple talaq, which again reduces the Muslim woman to a subaltern subject. The essay talks about Muslim Women only in broad strokes, thereby becoming another universalistic rhetoric which erases the multilayered narrative of the Muslim woman to one of victimization.
Mukul Rohatgi presents a very interesting analysis of the Indian Young Lawyers Association case (also known as Sabarimala case). He states that the apex court in this judgment collapses the distinction between public morality and constitutional morality. Justice Misra in his judgement, while dealing with the use of the term public morality in Article 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution, holds that ‘the term public morality has to be appositely understood as being synonymous to constitutional morality.’ Rohatgi maintains that in the same judgement Justice Misra asserts that ‘public morality must yield to constitutional morality’, thereby pointing out the patent contradiction. Such a close reading of the judgement shows the manner in which the judges get trapped on account of judicial verbosity. However, in the author’s narrative around Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution the woman subject is lost. Wouldn’t a discourse which advocates banning entry of women reinstate the stereotype of women as agents of contamination and fuel majoritarian anxieties about menstruating women in the so-called ‘secular and modern courts’?
The anthology puts together a comprehensive analysis of cases and is a diligent effort to create a database for understanding of legal processes. However, any critical work which deals with the complicated interaction between the Indian Constitution (with its rights based approach), and the hegemonic social realities has to acknowledge that the journey of constitutional law is full of paradoxes. It is important to recognize rather than repress the contradictions in the text of the Constitution. It is only through engaging and creatively negotiating with the tensions in the text can we hope to build a constitutional morality (in every case) which is more than just a transcendental conception. The only way to build a resilient Constitution is to truly understand the spirit of Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s last speech in the Constituent Assembly when he asserts that India is entering into a life of contradictions and in exploring contradictions one understands both the dynamism and the deficiencies of law.
Academic Tutor, Jindal Global Law School Jindal Global Law University, Sonipat
1. Ashley Tellis, ‘The Lack of Honest Toil’, Seminar 721, September 2019, pp. 67-72.
3. Pratiksha Baxi, ‘Legacies of Common Law: "Crimes of Honour" in India and Pakistan’, Third World Quarterly 27, 2006.
4. Latika Vashist, ‘Joseph Shine v. Union of India’, Newsletter ILI, 2018.
5. Upendra Baxi, Future of Human Rights. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2008.
THE MARGINALIZED SELF: Tales of Resistance of a Community edited by Rahul Ghai, Arvind K. Mishra and Sanjay Kumar. Primus Books, Delhi, 2020.
MARGINALITY as a part of social condition has had a long history in human life. Marginality as discourse is relatively recent, not more than two centuries old. The dominant pattern of the discourse has shifted along with the changes in the orientation of social science itself. As the 19th century telescope of social science was replaced by the 20th century microscope, one question on marginality acquired a new salience: is it possible to combine economic integration with cultural autonomy of the marginalized groups? In other words, do the marginalized groups have the option of achieving affluence without paying the price of cultural submergence? The dilemma is not easily resolved, either for the marginalized groups or for the social scientists. This dilemma is also at the centre of this important volume on the Musahar community of Bihar.
The volume has a generic theoretical component and a specific empirical component about the Musahar community. The Introduction to the volume informs us: ‘The Musahars are classified as SCs in Bihar and number around 1.4 million, accounting for almost 2.5 per cent of the total population of the state. Predominantly engaged in agricultural labour and casual labour at the brick kilns, the Musahars are mostly settled in the districts of Gaya, Nadwa, Munger, Bhagalpur, Purnea, Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Saran and Champaran. Apart from Bihar, the Musahars are also found in the neighbouring states of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal.’ (p. 10)
The specific empirical essays (Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 by Badri Narayan, Rafiul Ahmed, Sanjay Kumar and Arvind Kumar Mishra, respectively) have taken up specific issues relating to the economic and cultural life of the community. Chapter three highlights how the community has used its own cultural resources for effective social and political mobilization. Chapter five is a story of how change in the food preference of the upper castes towards pork has created economic and social opportunities for the pig rearing sections of the Musahar community. Chapter four talks about how cultural assumptions of the social and political elites often come in the way of successful implementation of welfare schemes meant for the marginalized groups such as the Musahars. Chapter six takes up the concrete life stories of the important leaders of the Musahar community (Dashrath Manjhi, Bhagwati Devi and Baleshwar Prasad) and the actual transformation of a Musahar settlement (Bapugram, pp. 141-44), brought about by the community with its own hard work. The concrete stories narrated in the chapter feed into larger generalizations pertaining to the complex relationship between the mainstream and the margins, the attempts at appropriation from the apex and resistance from the margins.
The big question is: why is it that the struggles of the marginalized groups for cultural freedom, social dignity, political empowerment and economic increments tend to soon reach a dead end or a ceiling in transitional societies such as India? Why is it that all the legitimate economic, socio-cultural and political aspirations often tend to cut across rather than facilitate one another? India’s record in this respect – though possibly better than some of the other developing countries – remains quite patchy. Many of the aspirations – political empowerment, cultural freedom and economic betterment – do not push each other up. Often one comes at the expense of the other, or also obstructs the other.
This is a supremely important question. The volume under review does not directly answer it but provides some data which should enable us to engage with the question. A clue to the answer may be found in the following matrix: Marginality under modern conditions is fundamentally different from traditional marginality. The traditional marginality was accompanied by entrenched hierarchy and segregation. The segregation was reinforced above all by culture and was thus not so painful for marginalized groups. The isolation fed into cultural freedom. Modernity destroys segregation and substantially alters hierarchy. It also erodes the cosiness of cultural cocoons and makes life really painful for marginalized groups.
Modernity does, however, offer compensation. It engenders mobility – social, economic and above all occupational. This mobility undercuts the foundations of rank and status and paves the ground for egalitarianism. The egalitarianism of the western world is rooted as much in economic growth as in mobility.
India, for various historical reasons, experienced not just ‘arrested economic development’ but also ‘restricted mobility’. The tidal wave of modern economic growth was simply not powerful enough to demolish structures of rank and status. As a result the restricted mobility has turned into a system of ‘rotation’. This system is marked by a rotation of social personnel in a basically unchanging social order. Rotation without mobility ensures that the circle does not enlarge (or enlarges ever so slowly) to reach out to the margins. The social structure is able to successfully accommodate incremental changes without the risk of breaking down. The interlocking circle of economy, polity and culture thus remains closed without the possibility of an exit route. This scenario necessitates struggles by marginalized groups but also ensures that these struggles remain at best only partially successful. The groups at the margins are thus doomed to struggle sometimes for inclusion and sometimes against it. The volume under review has highlighted, through its case studies, the enormously complicated nature of the struggles of the marginalized communities and their predicament.
Historian, Ambedkar University Delhi
KUDANKULAM: The Story of an Indo-Russian Nuclear Power Plant by Raminder Kaur. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2020.
Kudankulam is a location that concretized the dissent cartography of India – a cartography that otherwise paradoxically dons the embodiment of woman, bharat mata (Mother Bharat/India) while the women in India are ripped off their agency and raped every day.1 The protest that began in 2011 at Kudankulam is sustained by a blank slate in Our Lady of Lourdes Church and the bodies of fisher women (and men) of Kudankulam. Every day the fisher women of Idinthakarai mark on the slate how many days it has been since the protests began. In May 2011, the people of Kudankulam came together in tens of thousands to protest against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. Some say that the protest was a result of the roots of fear that spread from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, 2011. What Kudankulam: The Story of an Indo-Russian Nuclear Power Plant proves is otherwise: that the communities of Kudankulam have always resisted the plant and the plant was constructed without due regard to the dissent against the plant since its inception.
While many endeavours in understanding nuclear energy politics in India resort to political science analysis placing irradiation and nuclear politics between dissent and state, this book uses a variety of tools from anthropology, Science and Technology Studies, New Media Theory, postcolonial studies and political science to explicate the many layers of radioactive burdens experienced by people of Kudankulam. The book explores the ‘greater truth embodied in people and the environment’ about nuclear politics and irradiation experience (p. 3). As the reader turns page one of the book, Kaur states that the radioactive burden experienced by people of Kudankulam is ‘biomedical, ecological, economic, socio-psychological and political’ – a much need analytical clarity in nuclear studies that concern India (p. 2). The rest of the book slowly unravels the multiple layers of each of this layer imbued by casteist, religious and patriarchal politics, not only of the people of Kudankulam but also of the Indian state, its nuclear and non-nuclear bureaucrats and elites. In doing so, Kaur attends to the dissent localities of Kudankulam critically, by wrapping them in the concept of ‘criticality’.
First, the critical and ‘multi-situated’ anthropological approach locates the Kudankulam nuclear power plant (KKNPP) in its nuclearity2 and in India’s three-stage nuclear energy programme amongst its other locations with accessible language yet poignant words. The book then attends to both uranium based nuclear energy production at KKNPP and the thorium extraction from the monazite sands of Manavalakuruchi – a problem the southern coast of India that has the world’s largest thorium resources will have to grapple with, if not already, as the Indian nuclear state moves towards phase three of its nuclear energy programme in its usual poorly regulated fashion spewing radiation unabatedly.3 Second, she locates Kudankulam in its ‘criticality’ – a key take away for scholars interested in scientific and technological controversies, development politics and dissent.
Attending to both of the above points, the chapter ‘Nuclear Paradise’ brings together the nuclear essentials in the region that is its depleting, degrading and contaminated land and water and the emergence of the place itself as nuclear or the nuclearity of the region. The non-innocent approach of criticality through questions concerning irradiated essentials from a materialist standpoint is particularly refreshing in the field of nuclear studies that was otherwise ushered into questions of nuclearity placing importance in institutional analysis of nuclear energy. Through criticality, Kaur tweaks the concept of nuclearity to attend to nuclearity’s ‘backstory’ that involves ‘rare mineral mining, transport networks, other constructions, and commercial opportunities’ and enthuses novel engagement in the ‘frictions’ that emerges in ‘change’, ‘encounter’ and ‘transformations’ in ‘transnational’ and ‘(post)colonial’ nuclear spaces (p. 38; pp. 17-19). Criticality transcends the formal structures of nuclearity and attends to both the formal and informal politics of nuclearity. Reading through the pages that explains criticality, the reader will be left with the question, ‘has India reached its criticality?’ One also senses the missed opportunity of theorizing criticality from a feminist standpoint especially as the book attends to the gender politics and patriarchy in the region both before and after 2011. However, this book is not just for scholars and researchers.
Erudite conclusions on the muffling of dissent that is covered between Chapters 2 and 10 is conveyed using the humour, irony, cynicism embedded in the words of the people of Kudankulam, making it accessible for non-academic readers. The book attends to everydayness of living with sedition charges among others – over 9000 villagers of Kudankulam were slammed with sedition charges since 2011.4 It explicates how the burden of state excesses is borne by the people and has further constrained the social mobility of an already marginalized people. She further shows how the protest that was against state excesses and neglect was also constrained by the same, forcing people to bid a very complex farewell to their dissent against the plant and other mining activities in the region. Yet, the spark of anti-nuclearism hovers over in the region as the book’s concluding chapter narrates.
In telling the stories of dissent, marginalization and irradiation to larger audience, the book also locates the struggle in the wider context of New Social movements, Indian environmentalisms and in the background of the various cultures of dissent in the dissentious post- and anti-colonial Indian peninsular. Chapter 3 on Cultures of Dissent will attract the interest of scholars, students and activists studying social movements that concerns the intersections of new left and livelihood struggles, risk movements, anti-nuclear movements in the subcontinent and wider South Asia, nonviolence resistance and peaceful protests, the saliency of democratic values in enacting protests among others. The analysis transverses the ideologies, identities, tactics, strategies, action, demands and alternatives put forth by protest campaigns.
Chapters 4 to 10 also espouse a commitment to analyzing various scholarly conceptualizations about the nuclear and non-nuclear Indian state. After reading Kudankulam using concepts of deep democracy, coloniality and postcoloniality, mosaic fascism, governmentalities, slow violence, cultures of secrecy, the paradoxes of belligerent benevolence and ignorance/knowledge, nuclear exceptionalism, citizen science, Kaur’s analysis fructuously culminates in assessing Kudankulam via Mnembe’s necro-politics and Agamben’s bare life. The deep engagement with the manner in which the nuclear state ‘makes live’ and ‘lets die’ miners and people protesting against poorly regulated nuclear developmental projects taps onto the commoner’s conscience.5
By wrapping in the politics of ‘othered selves’ or alterity with necropolitics, the book attempts to showcase to the readers the violative, embarrassing and suffocating practices of India’s nuclear-industrial-military state complex against anti-nuclear dissent. At times, such practices also involve the forfeiture of basic health and biomedical infrastructures, as Chapter 7, Discipline and Deviance, shows. ‘Othered selves’ and necropolitics conveyed together enables readers to resonate with the painstaking and traumatizing experiences of necropolitical state neglect. As Gabriele Schwab writes, ‘nuclear subjects are traumatized subjects.’6 The necropolitical lens talks to a newness in reading India’s political systems which could be of interest to political scientists and humanities scholars. The reader, however, has to partake in the task of teasing out the conceptual work that seems distributed across the book.
The book, like many other books on environmental politics and injustice, time and again mentions state/industrial neglect of contaminated communities. However, ‘neglect’ exercised as a socio-technical tool (not just psychological) by the state and polluting industries to validate or invalidate illness experiences of contaminated communities receives little scholarly attention and analysis. It will be a particularly useful political and counter-hegemonic work for scholarship in India’s nuclear studies and Critical Nuclear Studies to attend to ‘nuclear neglect’ – a composite of things, bodies, knowledges and relations that are not cared for in order to maintain the theatric of nuclear nationalism or being nuclear.
As the text gets stuck in the quagmire of marginalization, necropolitical or otherwise, it branches out to contemporary topics of interests in Indian politics including Digital India, the toxygen (toxic oxygen) of media sting operations, politics of NGO and FCRA, Hindutva – thereby engaging the readers. In conclusion, this book engages both academic and non-academic readers by telling stories of everydayness at Kudankulam. It is a much-needed book on Kudankulam and the Indian nuclear-industrial-military complex that torques the lives of those it affects. Regardless of who reads this book, the stakeholders, especially the employees, technologists and scientists of the Indian nuclear-industrial-military complex including the Indian Rare Earths Limited, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited, must read this book. It’s innocent to expect any disruptions in their hegemonic apparatus after they read Kudankulam, particularly in a state of neoliberal and authoritarian Hindu nationalist politics, and that’s the sad state of nuclear and radiation affairs in the country.
Misria Shaik Ali
PhD candidate, Department of Science and
Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York
1. This review is being written in the background of New Indian states passing laws like the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2020 that undermines the agency of Hindu women in choosing their partner or religion.
2. In Being Nuclear, historian Gabrielle Hecht asks the question, ‘What things make a state "nuclear", what makes things "nuclear" and How do we know? Are the criteria for nuclearity scientific? Technical? Political? Systemic?’ See Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2012, p. 13.
3. See Itty Abraham, ‘Geopolitics and Biopolitics in India’s High Natural Background Radiation Zone’, Science, Technology & Society 17(1), pp. 105-122. doi: 10.1177/097172181101700106
4. Arun Janardhanan, ‘8,856 "Enemies of State": An Entire Village in Tamil Nadu Lives Under Shadow of Sedition’, The Indian Express, 12 September 2016. Accessed 10 November 2017. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/kudankulam-nuclear-plant-protest-sedition-supreme-court-of-india-section-124a-3024655
5. Michel Foucault, Societies Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College De France, 1975-76. Edited by Arnold Davidson. Picador, New York, NY, 2003.
6. Gabriele Schwab, Radioactive Ghost. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2020, pp. xiii.
THE BRASS NOTEBOOK by Devaki Jain. Speaking Tiger Publishing, Delhi, 2020.
The Brass Notebook is renowned feminist economist Devaki Jain’s memoir. Her life has been blessed with rich experiences given the freedom her father allowed her, which was unusual for the time. She had been fortunate that her Tamil Brahmin father did not impose the same restrictions and rituals upon her as he did on her elder sisters when it came to education, marriage, travel among others. Astonishingly she was even permitted by her father to stay alone in London after he had taken her there on an official trip as a companion.
Her trip was eventful; she managed to spend a few days with the then High Commissioner of India, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit. Later, Devaki attended a two-week seminar organized by the Quakers in Saarbrucken, Germany. There she met a Dane who persuaded her to accompany him. His plan was to hitchhike to England after taking a short detour to Copenhagen and then Sweden. Devaki agreed. Later she did an overland trip from England to India with another friend. She does remark in amazed wonder that ‘Looking back, it is surprising how little my father resisted.’ At this time, charmed by the idea of attending Oxford University, even though the admission process was over, she was admitted to Ruskin College, a relatively ‘new’ college that catered mostly to the working class and offered subjects like economics and industrial relations.
Years later when she met the principal H.D. Hughes and asked him why he had let her in, his reply was ‘Pure amusement …at the sight of this evidently upper class Indian girl in her early twenties, asking desperately to be allowed to study alongside men and women in their thirties with more than ten years of hard manual labour behind them. How, he said, could he resist such a social experiment?’
Devaki’s adventurous spirit permitted her to challenge her boundaries constantly. She did this even by marrying out of her caste to the prominent Gandhian, L.C. Jain, a Jain from Rajasthan. It was this very feistiness that enabled her to very early on in her life begin to question inherited traditions of culture and knowledge. For instance, in one of her earliest publications, an essay, ‘The Social Image’, that she wrote for Seminar (‘The Indian Woman’, # 52, December 1963, pp 20-23), she states categorically that the social image of women is mostly a patriarchal construct that is enabled by their veneration of the panchkanyas – Sita, Ahalya, Draupadi, Tara and Mandadori. She argues that this imagery fails to accommodate many women who fall outside ‘this Sita orbit’. This neglect creates both environmental and internal pressures. For example, the woman who stays unmarried and follows a career is considered an aberration. Instead she sought for the celebration of more rebellious women in the ancient Hindu traditions, women who stood up for themselves, and didn’t define themselves in relation to men: Amrapali, a cultured and worldly courtesan; Gargi, an ancient philosopher; Avaiyar, a Tamil poet and scholar, among others.
Later she was fortunate to have her values endorsed while she was enrolled at St. Anne’s College for her PPE course. Her tutors, Iris Murdoch, Peter Ady, Jenifer Hart: three supremely intellectual women, took her seriously as a fellow thinker – a respectful intellectual engagement. ‘I was a woman among other women, and we were bound by ties of intellectual sympathy. I was being valued for my intelligence, hard work and achievement.’ A bond of sisterhood that she learned to value later as an economist and at the helm of Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST).
Devaki Jain is known for recognizing the value of a woman’s labour in real economic terms, whether towards the national economy or in the personal space. It was a slow and methodical process as she accrued experience as an economist, first by writing The Democratic Alternative at Minoo Masani’s invitation. Later as a lecturer in the Economics department, Miranda House, University of Delhi, she taught public finance. She would often walk across to the Delhi School of Economics to converse with eminent economists like Amartya Sen, K.N. Raj, Sukhamoy Chakraborty, and Jagdish Bhagwati to name a few. By 1972, she quit the university and the Indian Council for Social Science Research (ICSSR) helped her set up a new field-based project on the unrecognized contribution of women to the economy. Later she was commissioned by Sheila Dhar, Director, Publications Division, to edit Indian Women, to coincide with the UN International Year of Women, 1975. Contributors included, among others, Andre Beteille, Veena Das, Ashok Rudra, Romila Thapar, and Qurratulain Hyder. Ester Boserup, working on women in African agriculture, demonstrated the significance of gender roles in social analysis. Ashish Bose, a demographer, presented for the first time the falling sex ratio in India. The ratio declined from 972 females per 1000 males (1901) to 930/1000 (1971), prompting Amartya Sen to coin the phrase ‘India’s missing women’. Women of many different kinds were described in ‘Indian Women’: nuns, teachers, nurses, students, matriarchs. Later the Government of India also set up a committee to report on the status of women in India entitled ‘Towards Equality’.
This project pushed her into exploring her hunch that ‘the official figures on women’s participation in work were seriously underestimating the facts on the ground; I also suspected that what lay behind this underestimation was a deep methodological flaw in the approach to measurement.’ Her proposal to Raj Krishna’s Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) brought together her two interests – growing fascination with women’s role in labour, and her specialization in statistics. Her findings that the measurements were all wrong and much of the time data on women’s economic contribution was not even being collected. She also discovered that the female work participation rates were in fact higher than participation rates for men amongst the landless in India, ‘landless’ being a proxy for extreme poverty. This challenged the long-held belief that the main breadwinner of a household was generally a man.
The string of accomplishments Devaki Jain garnered are endless. For instance, she was one of three women who was invited to participate in Julius Nyere’s twenty-eight member South Commission. It was constituted to give voice to the shared perspective of the South, drawn from the experience of Non-Aligned Movement countries, and not simply imported from northern models that may or may not be suited to the conditions of these societies. She has worked with various national and international agencies committed to a gendered understanding of economics. Her strong friendships with well known feminists like Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker, have only strengthened her perspective on women’s rights. In fact, it is the fundamental principle that she agrees with and so heartily endorses Walker’s view that there is no problem in being called a ‘feminist’ or a ‘womanist’, whatever it takes for women’s liberation to be recognized and for a woman to earn her freedom – that is all that matters.
In keeping with her strong characteristic of recognizing her self-worth and preserving her dignity, she documents the sexual harassment she faced from her maternal uncle and later by a well known Swedish economist at Balliol College, Oxford in 1958. She was interviewed for the job to be his junior research assistant from Asia to work on his magnum opus, a three-volume work on development. She had been interviewed at the home of the then Swedish Ambassador to the UK, Alvar Myrdal. Reflecting upon the incident in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Jain realizes that in 1958 she had no recourse to retribution as there is now for women who work for men and are sexually harassed. Different age, different rules. But why a doyen of feminism like her chooses not to reveal the name of the aggressor, when she doesn’t hide the specific familial relationship with her maternal uncle (who she also doesn’t name) is puzzling. At any rate, it was her choice to make and must be respected.
The title, The Brass Notebook, has been inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook where Devaki Jain uses ‘brass’ as for her it has warm associations with her childhood, but it is also ‘a hardier, homelier metal than gold. It represents not perfection or unity, but an honourable imperfection consistent with my own limits.’ This clearheaded understanding of what it means to be a woman, chart her own career and who values her labour were pathbreaking concepts then and to some extent are even now – nearly six decades later. The Brass Notebook is a snapshot of a life well lived by a pioneering feminist and an excellent role model for subsequent generations.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose
Publishing consultant, Delhi