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Book Review: Akhil Gupta’s ‘Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India’

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By EPM Swalih

Gupta, Akhil. Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham: Duke UP, 2012.

Recently, I was in my village office – Athavanad village at Malappuram District of Kerala in South India – to apply for a certificate for my higher education. I was stunned by the easiness with which the village officer calculated my father’s income. She asked a couple of questions. And then went on to produce a very important statement which would enable me to obtain a considerable waiver for my higher studies in Mumbai. The amount she entered was nothing near to my father’s actual annual income. It went considerably higher than the actual one. Though I did qualify for the benefits with this certificate, this experience embodies a concrete example of my arbitrary encounter with the state. As my reading of Akhil Gupta’s Red Tape progressed, the shock of arbitrariness returns to haunt me as a theoretical ghost which militates against the bureaucratic rationality which the modern state purports to claim. Gupta’s persuasive theorization of structural violence to understand the state makes sense to me exactly where I encounter the “state at the local level” in situations such as the one I mentioned. Perhaps most Indians can easily relate to such bureaucratic structural violence in his/her own body.

“Is arbitrariness itself a problem?” I ask self-reflexively. No, it could also be pro-poor. Why couldn’t it? But Gupta proceeds from a premise of more troubling questions than mine. They are questions about an apparent paradox that operate in post-colonial India, especially for the last two decades: How could a country with such a robust history of political participation continue to be ruled in a way that constantly exposes a large number of its population to premature death? How the crisis of poverty is rendered unexceptional and normal in everyday state-practices? How does one understand the state as a simultaneously inclusive and murderous political form? According to him, it is the continued production of indifference to the arbitrary outcomes that causes these premature deaths. The poverty that this indifference causes is violent precisely because the deaths resulting from it are preventable. Hence, he observes: “…to my mind, the more analytically perplexing question is why a mechanism – the modern bureaucratic state – that is the hallmark of  rational decision making systematically produces such arbitrariness.”

He subjects Foucault and Agamben to a radical reworking in the Indian rural context with the support of his rich ethnographic granularity. He argues that it is not just ‘biopolitics’ that helps us understand the perpetuation of chronic poverty and the actual violence inherent in it. Following Agamben he observes what we need is a theory of ‘thanatopoltics’ in order to explain a state of a state that continues to kill so many of its own people through the mechanisms of inclusion and caring. Contra Agamben, Gupta argues rightly that a state can kill through inclusion as it does through exclusion, which the former theorized rather famously in the context of the Nazi concentration camps. The common trend among scholars in the social sciences and humanities to find a refuge in Focault and Agamben is so pervasive that one could easily predict where s/he is going without producing anything of relevance. This is where Gupta’s study is different from other postcolonial scholars working within a western theoretical framework. He shows a unique way to engage with Euro-American theories. And that is why I began to love his work. His interrogation of the theories of governmentality, biopolitics, and sovereign ban results from his grounding in Mandi district of Western Uttar Pradesh, India. He compels us to think with Euro-American theories only if we are able to critically approach them. I find his attempts in ‘provincializing Europe’[1] as one of the most rewarding tasks ever undertaken by the postcolonial scholars. The scholars who grow up with an uncritical and unreflexive acceptance of Euro-American theories will continue to produce the imaginary Europe which has become the ‘reference point’ in our social analysis[2]. Hence, Gupta deserves full marks here and the reason being, to put it in a different way, his reluctance to purchase goods from the “Foucault industry,” which is contrary to the usual consumerist appetite found among the postcolonial scholars.

Red Tape also succeeds because it gets into the question of structural violence and poverty through the disaggregation of the Indian state. The methodological difficulty in studying the state has been by now famously theorized by Philip Abrams.[3] Gupta follows Abrams’ distinction between the ‘state system’ and the ‘state idea’ and the argument that the idea of the state is mobilized in diverse contexts and it is imbricated in state institutions and practices. It helps him to focus on the historical differences and the conjunctural specificities of the actual context he studies. The lucid and thick narrative derives its strength from this theoretical base which is incredibly unique and nuanced. He also points to the dangers of the commonly found analysis of the state and delineates the challenges that any study of the state poses: translocalism, pluricentered-ness, ubiquity, and reification. “Any form of the state is misrecognition,”[4] he adds persuasively to establish his point about the difficulty in studying the state. He successfully goes on to capture how the Indian state is culturally and discursively constituted, encountered, mocked, constructed, and represented at a very local level of its bureaucratic structure.

The parts following the Introduction – ‘Corruption’, ‘Inscription’, and ‘Governmentality’, respectively –are organized in a way that effectively communicates his new theory of the state in the finest tradition of ethnography. As he states, following contemporary French philosopher, Jacques Ranciere, that the poor people are his guides and he is engaged in an attempt to translate their everyday life[5] through situated ethnographic encounters. The chapters on corruption shows that the narratives of corruption also operate in a more fundamental capacity as a “diagnostic of the state” through which citizens, rights, and the state itself are discursively constructed. In the chapter on bureaucratic writing, from forms, files, and registers to statistics, inspections, and complaints, he charts how writing not only documents relevant happenings but fundamentally constitutes the state. This is because writing is central to the daily business of bureaucratic agents and serves to support an imagined cohesiveness of the state power. In the final part on governmentality, he juxtaposes his findings from his fieldwork on the ICDS programme of the welfarist state with the Mahila Samakhya programme of an apparently neo-liberal state, which celebrates the mantras of self-help, micro-enterprise and microfinance and the discourse of empowerment. Through this juxtaposition, he finds out how the continuity in the structural violence of the postcolonial state persists even with the growth-led face of the neo-liberal era. In the Epilogue, his jump from his field of Mandi district in the 1990s to the Maoist violence in 2005 appears less persuasive because for the latter, he apparently relies on the secondary sources. Gupta explains how the relationship of the arbitrary forms structural violence is connected with the state violence and the latter is legitimized in the form of developmental rhetoric. Gupta also predicts that India’s welfare programs will expand in tandem with its rising GDP and inequality as the nation-state faces increasing pressures to retain legitimacy.

To conclude, Red tape is a masterful achievement, no doubt, in the theorization of the state. But perhaps, the most important lesson that the book imparts to us is a very simple one: we need to engage with Indian rural much more thoroughly and responsibly if we want to understand contemporary India, instead of continuing to obsess with our self-cultivated middle-class preoccupations. As Gupta repeatedly reminds us, the poor people in rural locations know much more about the Indian state than the politicians and analysts know because they experience the disaggregated encounters with the state on an everyday basis. What we need to do is to listen to them and, may be, engage in a process of translation  as Gupta painstakingly does in order to resolve the paradoxes of a state that kills its own people through the purported  inclusion and care, thereby perpetuating indifference to the arbitrariness  and, hence, the structural violence.

EPM Swalih has just completed his Masters in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore and is currently based in Hyderabad. His current scholarly project is located  at the intersections between political and legal anthropology (with special focus on South Asia), Islamic Sharia, and Malabar Studies.

[1]Chakrabarty, D. (2009). Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (New Edition). Princeton University Press.


[3]Abrams, P. (1988). Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State (1977). Journal of historical sociology1(1), 58-89.

[4]I assume the word misrecognition is used  in a Bourdieuvian sense.

[5]Rancière, J. (2004). The philosopher and his poor. Duke University Press.

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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Inland Labor Migration in India” (Edited by Soma Chatterjee, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada) & “Debating the Disability Law in India” (Edited by Nandini Ghosh, IDSK, Kolkata & Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad).

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