By Nivedita Menon

Foucault has had enormous and wide-ranging influence on Indian scholarship, (and scholarship on India), but I am going to focus here only on one concept – governmentality. This concept has implicitly and explicitly shaped some very significant work trying to understand the shape, form, nature and content of “modernity” in India. I will take up two such bodies of work: first, a debate among a number of scholars (largely historians) about the nature and impact of colonial intervention in the 18th and 19th centuries, and second, Partha Chatterjee’s take on the idea of governmentality, through the lens of which he reworks, in the context of postcolonial democracy in India, conventional political theory understandings of the civil society/political society distinction.

To begin with, a short account of Foucault’s argument about “governmentality.” (Foucault 1991).

In the late 16th and early 17th C, the “problematic of government” (88) emerges, which can be clearly distinguished from “sovereignty”, the concept that had concerned political theory until then. Earlier, from the Middle Ages to the 16th C, there had been a “juridical principle” that “defined sovereignty in public law: sovereignty is not exercised on things, but on a territory and consequently on the subjects who inhabit it…” In contrast, what government has to do with is not territory but rather a sort of complex composed of men and things. The things with which in this sense government is to be concerned are in fact men, but men in their relations, their links, their imbrication with those other things which are wealth, resources, means of subsistence, the territory with its specific qualities, climate, irrigation, fertility etc…men in their relation to other kinds of things, customs, habits etc…” (93)

“To govern a state will therefore mean to apply economy, to set up an economy at the level of the entire state, which means exercising towards its inhabitants, and the wealth and behaviour of each and all, a form of surveillance and control as attentive as that of a family over his household and goods.” (92)

Legitimate sovereignty is about ensuring the common good, which Foucault points out, consists of a state of affairs where all subjects obey the laws, accomplish the tasks expected of them, respect the established order. “This means that the end of sovereignty is circular…The good is obedience to the law, hence the good for sovereignty is that people should obey it…” With government, we see “emerging a new kind of finality. Government is defined as a right manner of disposing of things so as to lead not to a form of the common good…but to an end which is ‘convenient’ for each of the things that has to be governed. This implies a plurality of specific aims: for instance, government will have to ensure that the greatest possible quantity of wealth is produced, that people are provided with sufficient means of subsistence…In order to achieve these various finalities, things must be disposed…” (94-5)

With sovereignty, the instrument that allowed it to achieve its aim (i.e. obedience to the laws) was law itself. But with government, it is not a question of imposing the law, but “of disposing things” – “that is to say, of employing tactics rather than laws, and even of using laws themselves as tactics – to arrange things in such a way” that certain ends may be achieved.

However, until the early 18th C, this doctrine of government could not develop, because of the great crises of the 17th C (97). Also because of “mental and institutional structures”. As long as sovereignty remained the central theoretical question and principle of political organization, the “art of government” could not be developed. “Mercantilism, the first rationalization of the exercise of power as a practice of government” (97), was blocked by the fact that it “took as its essential objective, the might of the sovereign”, (98) it sought, not to increase the wealth of the country but to allow the ruler to accumulate wealth. (98) “The instruments mercantilism used were laws, decrees, regulations, that is to say, the traditional weapons of sovereignty.”

It was in the 18th C that things changed. The new factors were demographic expansion, an increasing abundance of money, expansion of agricultural production. (100) It was due to the perception of the specific problems of population, and to the isolation of “the area of reality we call the economy”, that the “problem of government finally came to be thought, reflected and calculated outside of the juridical framework of sovereignty.” And statistics becomes the major technical factor of this new technology.

Unspoken here by Foucault is the role of European imperialism and colonialism in bringing about the transformations in Europe in the 18th C that made governmentality practicable. Indian scholarship inevitably does focus on this factor, but such a focus does not, I think pose a challenge to Foucault’s theory of governmentality so much as it lights up a dark corner indicated by it.


The debate among historians of India that I focus on is over whether there is a sharp break between pre-colonial and colonial India as far as identity formation is concerned. It is generally recognized that the colonial census intervened critically in processes of identity-formation. What is interesting is that Foucault’s understanding of governmentality undergirds both positions in the debate (at least implicitly) – the disagreement lies elsewhere. At the risk of flattening the contours of a rich and complex debate, I will broadly sketch the two major positions.

One kind of argument holds that modern community identity as we know it today was produced by the colonial censuses and other official enumerations of the late 19th century. Sudipta Kaviraj, for instance, argues that people who lived in pre-modern social forms, while they had a strong sense of community, did not define themselves primarily in terms of their difference from other groups, and did not perceive themselves as belonging to only particular communities and not to others. It was the mechanisms of modern governance introduced through colonial rule that reconstituted the meaning of community along the lines primarily of religion, sharpening the hitherto “fuzzy” boundaries of overlapping community identitites (Kaviraj 1992:20-21). “Modernity does something quite fundamental to the logic of identities, to the ways in which people fashion self-descriptions.” (Kaviraj 1997:27).

Dipesh Chakravarty argues that although pre-modern government too used statistics of produce, land and revenue, it was not systematic or regularly updated in the way it was with modern government. This systematic, regular process of census-taking, which the colonial government introduced, led to the hardening of community boundaries and the fixing of religious and caste identities. The “fuzzy” boundaries of pre-British times became, through enumeration, distinct and discrete. Further, the logic of modern electoral democracy, the fight for numbers, operating at every stage of the nationalist movement, meant that “communities” had a vested interest in enumerating and clarifying their boundaries. The logic of modern competitive politics was such that people came to fit the categories that colonial authorities fashioned for them. Dipesh Chakrabarty goes so far as to argue that the fact that these identities in contemporary India are based on religious categories is a result of the reification of “religious identity” by the British. Had the British picked language as a criterion of community demarcation, he holds, the result would have been conflicts along the lines of linguistic community identity (Chakrabarty 1995:3377). Ayesha Jalal too states that it was the various provincial censuses of the 1850s that made religion the central factor superceding all forms of social relationships. (Jalal 2003:40, cited in Guha 2003:150)

The position counter to the one outlined above contends that colonial authority was not the exclusive source of community identities as they are constituted today. Rather, a “critical public” was already in place in India, as C.A. Bayly for example, argues (Bayly 1994:9). This public was the body of intelligentsia and administrators who represented the views of the populace to the rulers during the late Mughal rule and afterwards. Thus, this argument emphasises the agency of this indigenous domain of social and political critique in constituting identities of various sorts. That is, the colonial state only took over and took further, existing ways of constituting the self. The precolonial state did not simply extract revenue from a society composed of “a harmonious mélange of syncretic cults and local cultures. Both as a revenue extracting apparatus and as an accumulation of knowledge, the state in immediate pre-colonial India was more formidably developed than this suggests.” (Bayly 1999: 368 Cited in Guha 2003:162)

Sumit Guha, who shares Bayly’s understanding, in a recent paper, focuses on enumeration, acknowledged as a crucial process in state-building and identity formation. His purpose is to establish that the Mughal empire, by the late 17th C, already had begun the process of enumeration, and its administrative practices were widely appropriated by contemporary and successor regimes. In short, “the warm fuzzy continuum of pre-modern collective life was not suddenly and arbitrarily sliced up by colonial modernity. Local communities had long dealt with intrusive states that had penetrated along, and augmented, the fissures in local society.” (2003:162)

What is fascinating about Guha’s paper though, is that his rich evidence in fact goes against his stated theoretical position. Again and again we come across evidence from his own work that shows how colonial modernity marked a break with previous ways of identity-formation. For instance – “The political norm in pre-British times was that of vertical ties of subordination…So fewness, exclusivity, was the point of honour…The mature colonial regime inevitably undermined these structures. Vis-à-vis the colonial masters, distinctions among black people were not hugely significant to the average British official.”(160). Further, the gradual emergence of institutions of representative democracy, however limited, meant moves towards homogenization of communities in order to establish “majorities”. “Thus 20th C changes in the political system required a homogenization of communities whose dominant elements had previously sought to differentiate and structure them. The relevant communities increasingly came to be religious in character.” (161)

He shows how political anxieties of the colonial regime impacted on census categories – the 1945-6 census was conducted in a period of outbreaks of insurgency among forest tribes. The Governor of Bombay, in order to ascertain “turbulent and predatory” classes, proposed that “instead of the confused medley of communities”, the next census should classify people into 8 groups which, apart from 7 religious and caste groups, would include “Wild tribes”. (158)

Tellingly, he draws a link between the “Western race-science project”, which grew “with the world-wide spread of colonial science” and the use of the machinery of the GOI by ambitious young ICS bureaucrats, to generate the ethnographic data they needed. This is particularly evident in the all-India censuses of 1901 and 1911, says Guha, which “apparently revealed” the existence of different races.

Radhika Singha is another historian who places herself on this second side of the debate. She studies colonial law – the creation/transformation of criminal jurisprudence and in more recent work, the “drive towards legal rationalization”, that locates the female subject “for various projects of colonial governance” (2003:87). Again, I am struck by how Radhika’s own painstaking, rich and detailed research shows that colonialism, far from introducing no break at all in contemporary indigenous modes of thinking, economy and social arrangements, rather made the move towards erasing the kind of ambiguity and multiplicity in existing forms of jurisprudence – the situation so clearly evoked by Sumit Guha in the paper we discussed above. Of course in this process it had to work with existing notions of identity, but as she demonstrates, the colonial intervention decisively transformed indigenous notions and brought them in line with the requirements of modern legal discourse.

In one of her essays (Singha 1998) she takes great pains to refute an argument, attributed primarily to Ranajit Guha, that colonial rule was “an absolute externality”. She holds that “new conceptions of sovereign right had to find expression through existing agencies of order and information” or as the editors of the volume in which that essay appears put it in the Introduction, “Denying…that the colonial judiciary began with a tabula rasa, she (Singha) shows nonetheless how both resistance from and cooption by indigenous ruling elites shaped the edifice of Anglo-Indian justice” (S. Guha and M. Anderson 1998). Thus both the editors and Singha set up the contours of an argument that they are concerned to refute – this argument is apparently that colonial power acted upon a tabula rasa and reshaped Indian society out of thin air. Now who exactly makes such an argument? In Singha’s paper, Ranajit Guha is quoted as making the argument mentioned above, that colonial rule “had no mediating depth”, and provided no space for “transactions between the will of the rulers and the ruled” (in his paper in Subaltern Studies volume VI, 1992). This perspective, argues Singha, would not take us very far “in examining the realignments of agency, and the reorientation of cognitive structures involved in the construction of colonial law.” She concedes that Rule of Law under a colonial despotism was riven with contradictions, but nevertheless it provided the legitimacy for British rule – a despotism based on law was said to be better than the arbitrary oriental variety. She also concedes that the colonial magistrates and judges while displaying sympathy for indigenous norms of patriarchal authority and values of masculine honour brought these norms (as they did other indigenous norms) into line with the legal claims to superiority of the state. That they engaged with indigenous norms at all, (resulting in the “realignments of agency” she refers to above) in her own argument is understood to be in order to ensure that the standardized procedures of British courts would not be threatening to Indian elites. Thus, all persons of “high caste and rank” were exempted from taking a religious oath in court and could use an affirmation instead. Singha sees this concession as “ironically introducing a certain ambivalence into the principle of equality before the law.”

I find interesting the word “ironic” used in the context of the ambivalence in the Rule of Law as introduced by the British, for it appears to me that this refracted operation of Rule of Law was the only possible form a colony could have. And how is this argument so different from Ranajit Guha’s which we discover on going back to the paper cited, refers to the “fear which haunted so many of the more perceptive British observers during the second quarter of the 19th century…that the regime’s isolation from the people under its rule would gravely undermine its security” (243) and therefore adopted the political strategy of persuading the indigenous elite “to attach themselves to the colonial regime.” (242) After such an argument therefore, when Ranajit Guha says that the colonial state was “structured like a despotism” (as opposed to a bourgeois state – the term despotism serves this specific purpose here; see 273-274) with “no space provided for a transaction between the will of the rulers and the ruled”, what he means is simply that the kind of exchange between Indian elites and the state under these circumstances was necessitated by reasons of security of the latter, and was hardly an exchange between equals. There is no suggestion of a tabula rasa upon which the colonial state operated.

Further, the adherents of the first position do not necessarily hold that processes of modernity began with the entry of colonialism. It is not inconsistent with their position to recognize that the Mughal state had, by the 17th C, begun to use certain enumerative technologies. The point is that there is something distinctive about colonial modernity. So although posed in this way, the debate is not really about whether there was a complete break with the past, a tabula rasa on which colonial government wrote, for nobody makes this argument. I suggest the debate is about something else altogether – the “continuity” school is really addressing the problem of a supposed traditionalism, an indigenism that they see in the work of the first set of scholars.

Take Sumit Sarkar in his two essays critical of certain kinds of “postmodern” influences in the writing of Indian history (Sarkar1997 and 2002). The dominant thrust of the Subaltern Studies project, under the influence of a certain kind of “postmodernism”, notably that of Dipesh Chakrabarti, Gyanendra Pandey and “above all” Partha Chatterjee (2003:186) has become, he says, “focused on critiques of Western-colonial power-knowledge, with non-Western ‘community consciousness’ as its valorized alternative.” (1997: 82) The result is that “Radical left-wing social history…has been collapsed into cultural studies and critiques of colonial discourse, and we have moved from [EP] Thompson to Foucault and even more, Said.” (1997: 84) Sarkar is critical of “the assumption that the postcolonial nation-state was no more than a continuation of the original, Western, Enlightenment project imposed through colonial discourse.” (1997: 93) He interprets the arguments of Partha Chatterjee for example, to be assuming that power is located uniquely in the modern state, whereas power within communities matters less. (1997: 101)

At the same time, Sarkar is concerned to recuperate Foucault’s understanding of governmentality from Partha’s reading, which he believes to have ignored the really “original and disturbing” thrust of Foucault’s arguments, that is, their “search for multiple locations of power and their insistence that forms of resistance also normally develop into alternative sites of domination.” (1997: 101). He also, as part of the recuperation, points to “creative” and selective appropriations of Foucault in South Asian scholarship outside the Subaltern Studies project, citing Radhika Singha’s work (2003: 187) in this respect. The concern is that with the assumption of a total pre-colonial/colonial disjuncture, “The polemical target is no longer the state as related…to class rule, exploitation, and forms of surplus appropriation, but rather, the modern state as embodying Western (mainly rationalist) values – against which indigenous communities need to be valorized.” (2003: 187)

This kind of selective appropriation of Foucault, it seems to me, is an attempt to escape the destabilizing implications of the “postmodernism” of Foucault while retaining what can be retained within the modernist world-view. We find both Sarkar and Sumit Guha arguing that to ascribe any uniqueness to the colonial state’s intervention is to deprive indigenous actors of agency – “real historical agency is fundamentally western” (Guha 2003:151) and “the colonized intelligentsia is virtually robbed of agency” (Sarkar1997:91). This is a rather naïve understanding of “agency”– as if to argue that colonialism built on existing indigenous practices gives “agency” to indigenous elites, or on the other hand, that the colonizing elites show “agency” if they break with existing practices. Both possibilities are inscribed within the practices of governmentality, and to that extent “agency” and subjectivity are implicated in crucial ways with power. To take Foucault seriously is to recognize, however reluctantly, that there is no real way out of power – governmentality, in a sense then, works despite the actual historical agents it works through. Subjectivity has to be understood very much more complicatedly – Foucault sees power as productive – of subjectivity, of identity. Through the mechanisms of “governmentality”, the subject of governance is created – and subjected to classification, surveillance, normalization (the increasing homogenization and organization of society in modern times). The huge bureaucratic machinery evolves endless ways of classifying people. The construction of subjectivity by those who tell us the “truth” of who we are – doctors, psychologists etc – is at the same time a subjection to the power they exercise. Here we come to the old charge laid at Foucault’s door – What about resistance? But as he said in an interview, an important indication of the existence of power, is a display of resistance to it. “At the very heart of the power relationship, and constantly provoking it, are the recalcitrance of the will and the intransigence of freedom.” (1982). Thus wherever there is power, there is the possibility of resistance.

Interestingly, there seems to be a similar selective appropriation of Foucault in other postcolonial contexts. For instance, Roman de la Campa, in Latin Americanism describes Foucault’s work as a divided corpus – the first Foucault (Order of Things, Archaeology of Knowledge) focuses on discourse and its simultaneous potential for empowerment and constituting the prison house. The second Foucault (History of Sexuality, Technologies of the Self) emphasizes the “micropolitics of subjection”. In de la Campa’s reading this second Foucault, rather than permitting the theorization of colonialism, imperialism and agency, leads to a cul de sac of aetheticism. (Cited in Trigo 2002) This kind of sharp distinction between a Foucault assimilable within modernist “emancipatory” discourse, and the other, uncomfortable “postmodern” Foucault, ends up merely reiterating common modernist wisdom – power must be resisted, “the people” have agency. This kind of selective appropriation also leaves us with no understanding of, within a Foucauldian understanding, the tension between, and the inter-penetration of, language/reality, resistance/discipline.

A characteristic misreading in this mode, of the “invention of caste by colonial government” argument is a recent article by Irfan Ahmad (2003). Answering a question he chooses to pose thus: “Is caste a colonial invention?” he argues that while upper caste Hindu and Muslim organizations campaigned against the inclusion of caste in the census, in order to produce larger, homogeneous Hindu and Muslim communities, low-caste Hindu and Muslim organizations demanded recognition of caste in order to highlight their oppressed condition. He reads this phenomenon as – “for the former, caste was a colonial invention” while for the lower castes, “the caste question was one of recognition.” That is, he seems to understand “invention” as referring to something unreal, made up, while “recognition” is of something real. It is worth reiterating the crucial point here that the term “invention” in this kind of argument does not mean creating out of thin air, (or working on a tabula rasa) – “invention/imagined” is being counterposed, not to “real”, but to “natural” – something that merely needs to be seen and recognized, but which exists outside all forms of “seeing” and “recognition.” Thus, to argue that the Nation is an imagined community is not to deny that is real, simply that the land mass in the Indian Ocean could have been understood by its inhabitants in various different ways prior to the advent of nationalism. Further, in Ahmad’s view, by implication, to argue that “caste was a colonial invention” is to succumb to indigenism/traditionalism, thus affirming powerful groups in their project of projecting their own leadership of homogeneous communities, while to accept that “caste was already in existence” (prior to the census-defined category of caste even?) is to recognize caste oppression. But going by his own evidence, what I see is that whether certain groups resist identities offered by particular types of colonial classification or demand inclusion within those identities, they are participating in the practices of governmentality. What is in question is not self-identification (which is in any case, inextricable, in Foucault’s terms, from practices of subjection) – in both cases they seek recognition and affirmation by the state.

At this point I would like to draw our attention to what I think is the real problem that social theorists of our postcolonial condition have to deal with, a problem rendered unrecognizable by the terms in which the debate in Indian historiography is set out. I suggest that what is understood as “indigenism” in the work of the “Indian communitarians” (as they have been termed by Sarah Joseph) is better understood as a recalling to memory of the manner of entry of modernity into our societies.

The fact that this encounter with modernity occurs through a political system which is at its core, violent, radically distinguishes “our” modernity (to use Partha Chatterjee’s evocative phrase) from modernity as it emerged in Europe. The dislocation caused by modernity in Europe four centuries ago was equally brutal, but in Asia and Africa there was a double violence involved – the simultaneous disruption caused by modernity and colonialism. However, this disruption does not mark a complete break between state and subjects – on the one hand we have a “despotic” colonial state strategically making adjustments at various levels with different sections of the subject population, and on the other, there are the differing kinds of investment these sections have in the modern norms and institutions brought in by colonialism.

What is puzzling for the student of politics is that scholars like Sumit Guha and Radhika Singha can produce subtle and layered accounts of the transformation of the public sphere by the colonial state without evoking any sense of the violence involved in this transformation. Such accounts are possible only if the colonial state is understood to be just another administrative system, and all the protestations that it did not act upon a tabula rasa (a straw man to knock down if ever there was one), seem to suggest that. the fundamental transformations introduced by the British were simply an “alternative legal system” as another scholar, Sandria Freitag puts it (Guha and Anderson 1998: 108). Such a characterisation effectively airbrushes out the force and coercion which characterised the imperial state.

The point is that it was the “despotic” colonial state that was also the bearer of modernity and modern values, a package not unambiguously emancipatory for colonised societies – other significant research shows how colonial transformation of judicial discourse and administrative institutions, and the emergence of the language of rights had devastating consequences for many subaltern sections (sansiahs, Nayar women and female mill workers in Bombay) who were drastically marginalised and disciplined by the operation of modern codes of identity and governance.[1] The Indian state after independence inherited this judicial discourse and the legitimacy to intervene in practices of society.

What follows from this understanding is a question-mark upon on the agenda-setting legitimacy of the contemporary state. This is understood by historians of the second school outlined above, to be a return to traditionalism, which, I have argued above, is not the case. To explain this further, in the next section I will look at Partha Chatterjee’s development of the concepts of civil and political society, that is based on Foucault’s governmentality, and that leads us from looking to the state to “reform” society, to a more complex notion of political transformation.


I find suggestive here the distinction that Partha Chatterjee makes between civil society and political society in postcolonial democracies (Chatterjee 1997, 1998a, 1998b). “Civil society” according to Chatterjee is constituted by the institutions of modern associational life, and is marked by modernity, while “political society” is a domain of mediating institutions between civil society and state, and is the sphere of democracy. There is a contradiction between “modernity” and “democracy” in his terms – what characterises non-western modernity (that which marks postcolonial societies) is precisely the hiatus between the two. That is, between civil society, composed of a small section of “citizens”, and political society, composed of “population.” Chatterjee acknowledges that Foucault was one of the earliest philosophers to recognize the crucial importance of the conceptual move from the idea of society as constituted by the elementary units of homogeneous families to that of a population, differentiated but classifiable, describable, and enumerable. This new concept, Foucault noted, was central to the emergence of modern governmental technologies. (2002:173)

In the way in which Partha Chatterjee produces the distinction between the civil society of citizens, and the political society of population groups, the latter, unlike citizens, are not the product of rational contractual association, but rather, are the target of the “policy” of the legal bureaucratic apparatus of the state. The civil society of citizens, on the other hand, shaped by the normative ideals of western modernity, excludes the vast mass of the population, towards which it assumes a “pedagogical mission” of enlightenment (1997:31-32).[2]

Political society – parties, movements, non-party political formations – channelises popular demands on the state through a form of mobilisation that is called democracy. “The point is that that the practices that activate the forms and methods of mobilisation and participation in political society are not always consistent with the principles of association in civil society” (1997:32) Democratic aspirations in other words, often violate institutional norms of liberal civil society. However, precisely because this is so, if we accept this understanding, then it is clear that the struggle to reclaim and produce meaning will have to be waged in this uncomfortable realm, that of political society.

Secularism in India it seems to me, has functioned almost exclusively in “civil society” understood in this way. The affirmation of secularism has been through the state and its institutions, and by the rational contractual associations of civil society – for instance, schools and universities, the English media. Take for example, the recent controversy over the re-writing of history text-books. The Hindu Right-directed project of rewriting standard history textbooks produced in the 1970s by historians of world-wide repute, follows the explicit agenda of redressing what is claimed to be a distortion of the past. In this redressal, the declared aim is to valorize “Hindu” achievements and to present the “Hindu” community as one that has existed from time immemorial, one that has always been and continues to be egalitarian. This community that is evoked is a homogeneous one that basically looks like the 19th century, North Indian, upper-caste version of Hinduism, with all its taboos and beliefs presented as eternal, but with caste inequality carefully excised. The other aspect of this project is the assimilation of all religions other than Christianity and Islam into the fold of Hinduism, and the location of these “outside India”, forever alien and inimical to Hindu civilisation.

On the other side in this controversy are historians and social scientists ranging from left to liberal persuasions, but who would broadly identify themselves as secular, who lay emphasis on the need to recognize society as historically constituted, in terms of underlying structures rather than manifest appearances, and for whom therefore, power relations and conflict over power cannot be ignored while writing history. The Hindu Right’s project therefore, is rejected by them as a distortion of social reality.

What is significant is that the textbooks that the Hindu Right wants to do away with have been in use for several decades. Generations of school-students have read them and learnt history the secular way. And yet, every college teacher knows that the majority of students who come into her class in the first year of the undergraduate course invariably tell the story of India the way “they” tell it. That there was a Golden Age of Hinduism, when women were respected and educated, that the Muslim invasions destroyed an egalitarian society, that “India” has existed since the “Vedic Age.” Tourist guides at historical monuments all over the country retell this story in various ways, alleging the previous existence of temples at almost every monument built by “Muslim” rulers. In other words, secular history had dominated the academy and intellectual circles (civil society), Hindu communal history, the streets and common sense – political society.

In reading “political society” in this way, I unhitch Chatterjee’s notion of “political society” from its link in his argument to the “welfare” function of government. I find his more recent explications of “political society” that emphasize this function reduce the initial potential he offered of understanding a hitherto untheorised realm. In “On Civil and Political Society in post-colonial democracies” Chatterjee outlines four features of political society (2002: 177). Two of these are significant – that many of the mobilizations in political society make demands on the state that are founded on a violation of the law and that such demands are made on behalf of a collectivity, not as individual citizens. However, the two other features that he outlines, while they may have been true till the 1980s, fail to capture the changing nature of political society since the liberalization era of the 1990s, when the state withdrew more and more from its “development” obligations. These two other features are a) that mobilizations in political society make demands for governmental welfare in the form of “right” and b) that agencies of the state and NGOs deal with these people not as citizens, but as population groups deserving welfare.

Certainly demands from political society are made in the form of demands for rights, but no longer in the form of demanding “welfare”, and nor do government agencies assume that they “deserve welfare”. NGOs too, no longer conform to the 1980s picture of “voluntary agencies” working on behalf of the poor – there are powerful NGOs in civil society that make demands on behalf of “legitimate” citizens, pitting their interests against those of political society. For example, NGOs that demand the “right” of citizens to clean air and safety of property (that involves say, removal of slums and closing off common thoroughfares through middle-class residential colonies, from neighbouring working-class settlements). Recently, an NGO was formed in Delhi on the issue of “blackmail” by autorickshaw drivers who were on strike demanding fares be raised. This NGO issued advertisements in English newspapers addressing commuters, and lobbied with the government to ensure the protection of the “rights” of the middle-class clientele who use autorickshaws. In short, “political society” in Chatterjee’s sense is better understood today as a problem for civil society’s conceptualisation of democracy and development, rather than as the target of that development.

Of course, the problem with “political society” understood in this way is that the activities here would not necessarily conform to our understanding of what is “progressive” or “emancipatory”. They could be struggles of squatters on government land to claim residence rights (which would include illegally tapping electricity lines, for example), but they could as easily be the effort of a religious sect to preserve the corpse of their leader in the belief of its resurrection[3] or the decision of a village panchayat to kill a woman accused of adultery. The point is not to romanticize and valorize this realm as “subaltern”. Indeed, “political society” in this sense is inhabited by many new kinds of loci of power and new elites. The point rather, is that any project of radical democratic transformation would have to engage and collide with the ideas, beliefs and practices in this sphere. It cannot remain in the rarefied realms of “civil society” where in fact both the struggles of the “unauthorised” squatters as well as that of the religious sects would be dismissed as uncivilized. On the other hand, there is nothing inherently “progressive” in the realm of “civil society. From the point of view of constitutional norms, the large grey realm of survival strategies of the urban poor can only be dismissed as simply “illegal.”

I would therefore, relocate “political society” as the realm of struggles that attempt to fashion an alternative common sense – alternative that is, to the common sense of civil society. This alternative common sense may not always be “progressive”, but we have no alternative but to engage with it. It is in political society understood in this way that points of resistance may be found, that resist the hegemonic governmental practices of “civil society.”


Ahmad, Irfan (2003) “A Different Jihad. Dalit Muslims’ Challenge to Ashraf Hegemony” in Economic and Political Weekly November 15, 2003.

Bayly, C A (1994) “Returning the British to South Asian History: The Limits of Colonial Hegemony” South Asia Vol xxvii no.3 December.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (1995) “Modernity and Ethnicity in India: A History for the Present” Economic and Political Weekly December 30.

Chatterjee, Partha (1997 ) “Beyond the Nation? Or Within?” Economic and Political Weekly January 4-11

———————–(1998 a) “Community in the East”, EPW February 7

————————(1998b) “Introduction” in Partha Chatterjee ed. Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

———————–(2002) “On civil and Political Society in postcolonial democracies” in Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani ed Civil Society Cambridge University Press (South Asian edition).

Foucault, Michel (1991) “Governmentality” in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, ed. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality Harvester/Wheatsheaf London, Toronto, Sydney.

———————-(1982 ) “The Subject of Power” in Dreyfus and Rabinow Michel Foucault. Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

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Guha, Sumit (2003) “The Politics of Identity and Enumeration in India c. 1600-1990”, Comparative Studies in Society and History Volume 45 No. 1 January.

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——————- (1997) “Introduction” in Sudipta Kaviraj ed Politics in India, OUP Delhi.

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———————-(2003) “Colonial Law and Infrastructural Power: Reconstructing Community, Locating the Female Subject” Studies in History 19, 1.

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[1] See essays by G. Arunima, Sandria Freitag and Radha Kumar in Sumit Guha and Michael Anderson eds Changing Concepts of Rights and Justice

[2] I think it may be necessary here to clarify, since Chatterjee’s argument has been so persistently misunderstood, that “civil society” and “political society” in this sense do not refer to some empirical reality that critics can “prove” to be otherwise, by adducing facts that show “civil society” to contain elements of “political society”, for example. The distinction is a heuristic device used to illuminate and focus on a trend that Chatterjee has identified in Indian democracy (and postcolonial societies in general.) As Alan Ryan puts it in his classic work on social science method, referring to Durkheim’s adapting the word anomie to cover a cluster of symptoms of social disorder – “Under these circumstances, it would be absurd to complain that he had called the symptoms by the wrong word, for of course, the word meant no more and no less than those symptoms he had attached to it.” The Philosophy of the Social Sciences, Macmillan, London, 1970, P 7.

[3] Both of these are examples used at different points by Chatterjee to illustrate his argument.

  1. […] Foucault and Indian Scholarship by Nevidita […]

  2. sordidday says:

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