Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


[First published in The Hindu dated 11/11/17]

Fifty years after India’s first Naxalite uprising, the Maoist movement today has nearly disintegrated, with several movement leaders now dead, arrested or having surrendered. Ajay Gudavarthy’s edited collection of essays raises the vital question at this juncture: Is violence necessary for revolutionary change in a democracy? While not being completely dismissive of the ideology or the exigencies driving the movement on the ground, the book presents perspectives both from within and outside the Maoist movement illuminating its raison d’être as also limitations.

An Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Gudavarthy sets the tone for the book in the introductory essay outlining arguments in favour of, as also critical of Maoist violence. While acknowledging that violence is seen as a less viable strategy in allowing for contesting ideas in a democracy, he argues that Maoists are in armed conflict with the Indian state because while democracy initiates a complex process of inclusion and exclusion, there continues to be a minority that is necessarily structurally produced, which the promise of democracy fails to lure. For Maoists, revolutionary violence is a necessary mode of political mobilisation to counter the structural violence of the current political system.

While democratic sensibilities urge us to disapprove of such violence, Gudavarthy reminds us of the other forms of violence endemic to Indian democracy such as caste and religion-based violence. Raising this in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the author argues that citizens in Gujarat elected the same government that oversaw the riots thrice. Yet, why is Maoist violence represented as more endemic while other forms of violence are seen as episodic, he asks? Various essays in this volume revisit this logic of revolutionary violence.


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[First published in Biblio – A Review of Books dated Jul.-Sep. 2018]

It is ordinary people who often make history yet historians typically focus only on the victors and the leaders associated with popular social mobilisations. That is the reason why Magsaysay Award-winning social activist Aruna Roy decided to narrate the story of how ordinary people from the fringes of society – daily wage labourers, marginal farmers and small shopkeepers – in rural Rajasthan helped shape the demand for and saw through the passage of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation in India. During the Chennai leg of the promotional tour of The RTI Story: Power to the People the former bureaucrat-turned-activist told me that her main purpose in putting this book together was to give credit where it was due: to celebrate the common men and women who had participated in the nearly two decade-long struggle to get the RTI law passed. It also explains why Roy has not claimed solo authorship for the book but jointly with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) Collective, the civil society organisation she co-founded with activist Nikhil Dey and trade unionist Shankar Singh in 1987. As the narrators state in their Introduction, “The RTI narrative is a celebration of ordinary people and their immense contribution to strengthening the pillars of democratic justice in modern India.”

Read the full review HERE

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Rights to the forest


[First published in The Hindu dated 15/4/17]

Rights to the forest have been among the most contested subjects since colonial times. In Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania and Mexico, Prakash Kashwan uses a comparative political analysis approach to show how India, Tanzania and Mexico, with their varied forestland regimes, have negotiated the conflicts arising out of claims to forests for subsistence, industry and cultivation. In the process, the political scientist based at University of Connecticut in the U.S. shows that the state cannot always be the best arbiter of forest rights.

Kashwan’s thesis was supervised by political economist Elinor Ostrom at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her scholarly work investigating how communities succeeded or failed at managing common pool (finite) resources such as grazing land, forests and irrigation waters won her the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009. Ostrom’s work marked a departure from the fundamental Lockean economic principle that private ownership of property incentivised economic actors to ultimately act in the general interest of society. She demonstrated rather how community ownership of common pool resources resulted in better management of these resources.

Kashwan deploys this idea in the context of forestland management. Using the case of Mexico, he shows how the country’s community-oriented approach to forest governance, fares better when it comes to addressing questions of environmental conservation and social justice (of forest dwellers), compared to India or Tanzania, where the state reigns supreme.


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[First published in The Hindu dated May 21, 2017]

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.

– William Shakespeare


Cover of the book. Picture credit: Amazon.in

While reading the “unconventional” biography of Indira Gandhi — Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature — one cannot help but wonder if the mantle of her father and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was thrust upon her after all. For, in more than one instance, the author of the book, Congress leader and former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh presents private correspondences of Mrs. Gandhi with her friends to show how the ‘Iron Lady of India’ had a softer side to her personality that yearned for the mountains and proximity to nature.

“I get a tremendous urge to leave everything and retire to a far far place high in the mountains.” Mrs. Gandhi is quoted as writing to her friend American photographer Dorothy Norman in 1958. In 1959, when she became Congress President, she is quoted as writing to a friend: “This heavy responsibility and hard work has descended on me just when I was planning for a quiet and peaceful year…”

Ramesh defends his decision to singularly portray the environmentalist in Indira Gandhi in his book: “A naturalist is who Indira Gandhi really was, who she thought she was. She got sucked into the whirlpool of politics but the real Indira Gandhi was the person who loved the mountains, cared deeply for wildlife, was passionate about birds, stones, trees and forests, and was worried deeply about the environmental consequences of urbanization and industrialization.”


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First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, Vol. XVII Nos. 9&10 Sep-Oct, 2012. (Accessed online at http://www.biblio-india.org

Why is the India story a paradox of high growth rates on the one hand and abysmal human development indicators on the other? The Indian welfare state, with its innumerable development programs, is supposed to have wiped poverty out, but somehow for the 65 years since its independence, chronic poverty has continued to mar its progress report. Anthropologist Akhil Gupta sets out to solve this puzzle in this academic tome which is the product of years of fieldwork conducted in the lower level bureaucracies of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s idea of biopolitics and Agamben’s work on the state of exception, Akhil Gupta theorises the inability of the bureaucratic apparatus to successfully realise the goals of ambitious development programs as a form of structural violence that allows the poor to die through indifference. This embedded violence results in the procedures of bureaucracy subverting its own best intentions, he says. The central argument of the thesis is that bureaucratic action repeatedly and systematically produces arbitrary outcomes in its provision of care. He develops his theoretical position by drawing upon insights from fieldwork experiences. For example, the author uses a rather typical case study of the manner in which bureaucrats use guesswork to determine the age of eligible beneficiaries to allocate pension for elderly people in a camp, which results in not all eligible poor persons receiving the benefits of the programme. Gupta points to the sheer contingency underlying the workings of a supposedly highly rationalised, bureaucratic state as Max Weber had originally theorised it to be.


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