Princeton South Asia Conference 2015






Detail from Street Corner, 1985, 60 x 72 inches. Oil on canvas, Dr. Sudhir Patwardhan

Detail from Street Corner, 1985, 60 x 72 inches. Oil on canvas, Dr. Sudhir Patwardhan

Cleo Roberts (ETIC PhD researcher) was recently invited to speak at Princeton South Asia Conference, ‘Technologies and Traditions’.

The fourth annual conference held at Aaron Burr Hall, 17th to 18th April 2015, was focused on the polarisation of technology in South Asia along the axes of pre-colonial tradition and European modernity on one hand, and Gandhian technophobia and Nehruvian technocracy on the other. As a site of contestation and a vehicle for claim making, the conference explored technology, challenging the binaries of modernity and authenticity upon which academic scholarship has so hinged.

Opening the panel Political Economies of Development, Robert’s paper, ‘Boats of, on and in The Ganges: Colonial Encounter and Craftsmanship’ utilised visual representations, from her wider corpus, such as lithographs created by Captain D Sarsfield Greene and plates from colonial textbooks, to illustrate and explore the overlapping technologies fostered along the Ganges during the British presence in Calcutta. Waxed sealed folios of images were given to delegates to support the presentation.

North West View of Calcutta 1805, Aquatint, James Moffat, Private Collection

North West View of Calcutta
1805, Aquatint, James Moffat, Private Collection

Read with accounts from governmental records from the Government of Bengal Judicial Department and naval diaries from Bengal Pilots the aesthetic reportage demonstrated a relationship which challenged the ‘Tools of Empire’ approach. The paper discussed the relationship of dependence evidenced concluding that British technological ingenuity and political development rather than eclipse was reliant indigenous systems.

The conference keynote from Kajri Jain (Associate Professor of Indian Visual Culture and Contemporary Art, University of Toronto) generated rigorous discussion amongst the delegates.Looking at the kutcha qualities of history, Jain presented on concrete, framed within a Deluezean concept of time as inseparable from space rather than a container. Taken as a material of modernity, the mimetic qualitites achieved through the material combined with the speed of constructution had enabled the material to become amenable to vernacular modification.

Interested in the use of the material as a nexus for religion and politics, the lecture used a series of monumental iconic structures such as the Thiru Valluvar statue at Kanyakumari and Nek Chand’s rock garden to explore these power networks. Working through diverse religiously underpinned manifestations of the material including an instance of a collapsing Krishna sculpture, Jain concluded with the assertion that the qualities of representation afforded by the material, its novelty, speed, plasticity and height could be recast as ‘kutcha afterall’.

The abstracts below expand on the proceedings and the means by which the historic and contemporary experiences of technology in South Asia were reconsidered and framed.


Political Economies of Development – Discussant: Gilles Verniers (Sciences Po and Ashoka University)

Aditya Balasubramanian, University of Cambridge

Critiques of the Economy and their Diffusion in India, c. 1940-60

Five Year Plans emerged as a key tool for the pursuit of Indian industrial modernity. A hallmark of the Nehruvian state, the technocratic Planning Commission charted for India a path towards the ranks of developed nations. The paper traces the evolution of discontent with economic planning and policy from the 1943 to 1971. After reviewing the evolution of discourses on the economy and the history of central planning in late-colonial and independent India, it moves on to consider the economic liberal thought and writing of a few key individuals who challenged the Five Year Plans. This small but influential group of politicians, economists, and businessmen saw themselves as leaders with a social purpose. As Indian economic planning proceeded, aiming for a ‘socialist pattern of society’ with a ‘mixed economy model,’ several of these men, one-time advocates, became its bitter critics. The paper then considers individuals of this group who organised the pan-Indian Swatantra Party in 1959. Grounded ideologically in a free-market stance, it was the first party to explicitly disavow the socialist model of development. Instead, the party articulated a vision of the Indian state that combined elements of traditional, Gandhian society and modern, industrial capitalism. Swatantra achieved quick and striking electoral success by 1967, although it disappeared by 1971. In Parliament, the party offered key policy reform suggestions. Using a prosopographical approach, we look at the socially and politically contextualised history of the development and the transnational exchange of economic ideas behind the rise of the Swatantra Party.



Ramesh Balakrishnan, King’s College London

“Fab or Famine”: Examining the role of global politics, technology policy and the political economy of development in the evolution of the Indian Semiconductor Industry.

In the last half a century, semiconductor technology has played a disproportionate role in the rise of the U.S. as the sole global superpower, and has enabled it to establish economic hegemony in military and consumer electronics. For a country with a large and diverse industrial base as India’s, semiconductors are vital to advancing national security. The ‘Achilles heel’ in India’s semiconductor history has been the lack of a commercial manufacturing base, which in turn has hampered India’s quest for applied research, innovation and indigenous product development. Consequently, India has been unable to develop a robust domestic electronics manufacturing industry, the primary consumer of semiconductors. Though India lacks a commercial base, it has continued to support manufacturing of semiconductors for strategic military and space applications. This paper traces the history of semiconductors in India since the 1960s to the present day and chronicles the enduring quest for large scale commercial fabrication of semiconductors starting in the 1980s. The paper investigates the puzzle as to why despite a head start in research on semiconductors in the 1960s and manufacturing in the 1980s, the industry floundered over the next few decades, falling behind countries like China and Taiwan, now leaders in Asia. The central research puzzle that concerns this paper is what accounts for India’s unique journey in the semiconductor industry: a journey that ventured into software-based chip design services and bypassed mass manufacturing unlike in countries like the U.S., China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan where manufacturing took precedence in their evolution. Answering this primary question is central to understanding how India’s semiconductor industry evolved and progressed into an important player in the global semiconductor value chain, despite enduring a ‘manufacturing handicap’. It also grapples with the paradox as to why despite being among the early movers in the industry in the 1960s, India still remains a marginal participant at the global level.

Cleo Roberts, University of Liverpool

Boats of, on, and in The Ganges: Colonial Encounter and Craftsmanship

Clive Dewey (2014) has recently explored the overlapping boat technologies of South Asia during the colonial period. Focusing on the Indus and its tributaries, his analysis explores the competing boat building industries of the imperial and indigenous forces, arguing that the tendency to privilege European steamboat innovation as an efficient and predominant mechanism of Empire conceals the efficiency of indigenous techniques.This subversion of the ‘Tools of Empire’ approach is equally apt when investigating the British colonial presence on the river Hooghly during the late eighteenth to nineteenth century.

Whilst early attempts to establish Calcutta as a leading shipbuilding hub through the creation of successive dockyards went unrealised, Indian boatbuilding remained consistent. The popular use of Indian river craft for public and private transportation challenges the common emphasis placed on imperial technological dominance. The reliance on indigenous techniques and craft demonstrates collaboration and cross-cultural knowledge exchange.

This paper will use a series of visual representations including a topographical 3D model of Sulkea Dockyard (1861) as a departure point from which to explore the colonial reliance, dependence upon and interaction with indigenous boat building technologies. This collection of images combined with colonial publications, travelogues and reports will highlight the river Ganges as a space of overlapping technologies and intellectual intrigue. The paper will argue that far from British boat building superseding indigenous inventions, these traditional, long established and well adapted craft and indigenous craftsmanship were integral to the functioning of the first seat of the British Empire.


The Internet and the Computer – Discussant: Dinsha Mistree (Princeton University)

Amogh Dhar Sharma, University of Oxford

Understanding the ‘Internet Hindus’: Exploring the Role of Social Media in Indian Politics.

The 2014 Indian General Elections, in which the Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged as the single largest party with 282 seats in the Indian Parliament, has been heralded as India’s first ‘social media election’. The phrase ‘social media election’ was previously used to describe the 2008 and 2012 US Presidential Elections in which US President Barack Obama staged a masterful presidential campaign by organising support through a strategic use of social media websites. During the elections, members within the BJP looked upon social media as the tool that could help disseminate the party’s ideology, influence voters, and target the opposition parties. However, the use of social media has not been restricted to political parties alone. In the past few years, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have increasingly made use of the new networking opportunities offered by social media. The most interesting outcome of this development has been the rise of the ‘Internet Hindu’ – self-confessed Hindu Nationalists who belligerently defend their politics in online forums and engage in satirical, often vicious, abuse of the critics of the BJP or the Sangh Parivar. This paper seeks to understand this phenomenon of ‘Internet Hindus’ in greater detail. I begin by placing the emergence of the Internet Hindus – with their attendant use of social media as a medium of propaganda – in the larger history of the use of mass media technology by the Sangh Parivar (family of Hindu Nationalist organisations). Then, I go on to assess how the present day use of social media by the Hindu Nationalists represents similarities and differences from the propaganda of the previous years. The paper concludes by offering a brief discussion of the potential implications such a trend can have in the future.

Sreela Sarkar, Santa Clara University

From the “Maistry” to the “Computer Operator”

In the last two decades, access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) been celebrated as the means to “leapfrog” marginalized communities into modernity. There is less research that locates recent “computer training” initiatives in India in the longer history of vocational training that is allied to colonial modes of education. The locus of my archival and ethnographic research is the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) that were established in nineteenth century India. As the largest network of state funded and affiliated industrial schools in contemporary India, these schools provide IT (Information Technology) training to subaltern youth for low-end jobs in the global economy. Such youth are deemed by the modern state as unfit for an “education” and book learning.

Aasim Khan, King’s College London

Embracing the Net from Below: Ideas and Imagination in ‘Digital Rights’ Politics in India.

In this paper I focus on the intellectual and activist responses to the emergence of the internet in India. Using the debates since the early 1990s, when the internet first became commercially available in the country, I map the rich terrain of ‘digital rights’ movements in India and analyse the origins and evolution of their ideas and imaginations that both overlap and contrast with the mainstream ‘information and communications technology for development’ (so called ‘ICT4D’) narratives.

I map these trends (internet-evangelisms) within the wider context of post-Emergency social and civil rights movements. I also demonstrate the growing convergence between the politics of ‘right to information’ and ‘digital rights’ activism since the late 1990s. I argue the ‘digital rights’ movements in India present a diversity of intellectual currents, ranging from the Marxist school (emphasising issue of political economy) to the Gandhians (who are more concerned ‘information sovereignty’) to several variants that I call ‘techno-evangelisms from below.’ While contesting one another, together they present an alternative to the ICT4D’s idealised claims about information and citizenship.

Finally, using the specific case of RTI activism during the Lokpal agitations, I argue that during this moment, these diverse imaginations came together leading to an unprecedented crisis. The clash with formal politics has only further energised each stream and contemporary politics of ‘digital rights’ in India mirrors the global debate on the questions about who should govern the internet.


Forming and Performing the Everyday – Discussant: Bharat Jayram Venkat (Princeton University)

Shalini Kakar, UC Santa Barbara

Circuits of the Popular: Designer Gurus and the Spectacle of Bhakti

While the nexus between saffron-clad spiritual gurus of India with unaccountable wealth, politics, and even sex scandals is not new, yet the self-styled fusion of a female guru into a la Bollywood style goddesses is a very recent phenomenon. This paper seeks to examine the construction of “Radhe Maa,” an ultra glamorized Mumbai-based guru who claims to be an avatar of Hindu goddess, Durga. In a country enamored with Bollywood and religion, Radhe Maa’s extravagant lifestyle, bridal designer ware, and diamond-studded jewelry are the hallmark of repackaging the traditional brand of a guru. Her spiritual histrionics range from floating on a forty feet high “udan khatola” (divine vessel), through which she “descends on earth,” to her feisty “spiritual” dances laced with sexual undertones, moving to the beats of bhangra and Bollywood dance moves. This of the guru resonates with the gravity-defying entry of Bollywood stars on award shows.

In this paper, I will explore the role of media and popular images in Radhe Maa’s transformation into a glamorous guru. By analyzing devotional artifacts/props (such as her “toy” trishul) I locate these images as visual negotiators in the interweaving of technology and gurudom. How do these objects aid in a collective performance of the guru as a Bollywood star, her disciples as spectacle watching bhakts, and the media (the 24 hour news channels) that orchestrate new circuits of spiritual consumption created at the crossroads of cinema and religion?

Satyasikha Chakraborty, Rutgers University

Domestic technology and Domestic Labor: Indian Servants in Late Colonial British Households

The rise of new labour-saving domestic technologies (like washing machines, gas stoves, electric ovens & vacuum cleaners) and the decline of the grand institution of domestic service in the 1920s-30s are usually linked together in British historiography. However, in the same period, there was a boom in domestic servitude in colonial India. My paper explores why British households in India continued to deploy the purported caste-based manual labour of bhistis, malis, dhobis & mehters when middle-class Britons in the metropole made the shift to new domestic technologies – often advertised as new ‘electric-servants’/‘auto-maids’. Apart from analysing the infrastructural constraints and the availability of cheap ‘native’ male labor in the colonial economy, I will show that the large retinue of Indian male domestics and their effeminized cultural representations were crucial for British imperial authority at a time when domestic gadgets symbolized status in the metropolitan home. In a climate of nationalist rejection of imperial industrial manufactures, the British could make the benevolent claim that despite greater expenses they were respecting traditional caste-based divisions of labour in their Indian households. Labour-saving technologies would destabilize caste. Yet to maintain the metropolitan standards of hygiene and cleanliness which were shifting with the use of new domestic machines, the British demanded more specialized and rigorous labour from their Indian domestics.

Namita Vijay Dharia, Harvard University

The Roads In and Out of Urbanism: Road Technologies and a Transforming Gurgaon

The past decade saw an increased use of machines to speed up process of building construction in India. The Commonwealth games in New Delhi and Mumbai’s real estate race drew a large number of contracting and material supply companies into the country: boosting the use of big machines and technologies. In cities like Gurgaon cement mixers, cranes, and earthmovers became part of the everyday landscape. This paper examines the interrelationship of men and machines within the building construction industry in Gurgaon. It explores ways in which urban experience comes to be mediated by technologies. The paper adopts speed as the central trope of analysis as machines speed up the pace of construction of the city but also began to replace labor on site. Machines here are compared with the concept of the ‘tez ladka’ the fast or smart young man who ascends hierarchies on the construction site by learning fast. I engage with David Harvey’s Conditions of Postmodernity to look at the on-the-ground effects of the aesthetics of speed arguing that contrary to Harvey’s sensual proclamations what we end up with is shoddy, mass produced and mundane built environments. Speed, I demonstrate, is necessarily uneven and leaves the slow and unsteady behind in the race to get ahead in India. The paper draws from fifteen months of fieldwork in Gurgaon’s building construction industry. It is part of a larger dissertation process that examines how jugaad (quick fix or improvisational) urban development ethic shaped the nature and experience of urban India.


Screening the Pop – Discussant: Divya Cherian (Columbia University – in absentia)

Anuja Madan, University of Florida

The Friendly Boy-Gods who Love to Dance: Tradition, Consumption and Commodification in Mythological Animation Films.

The emerging animation industry in India has produced several mythological films and TV series for children in the last decade. Some of these films narrate contemporary adventures of Hanuman and Ganesha in their toddler/child avatars. These boy-gods are projected as “cool” and “hip”—they dance to rap music, play ice-hockey, speak Hinglish, and play video games with their (devotee) friends. Scholars such as Arvind Rajagopal and Heidi Pauwels have shown how the TV Ramayan and Mahabharata portrayed ancient Hindu society as inherently modern, scientific and progressive. The films under consideration (My Friend Ganesha trilogy and Hanuman Returns) attempt to entrench this association by modernizing Hindu gods. Drawing upon Leela Fernandes’ discussion on the centrality of consumption to the imagination of the nation, my paper demonstrates that in modernising the mythological universe, the films fetishize hybridity between the national and the global, tradition and technology, the ancient and the contemporary, the sacred and the secular, in a narrative of commodity fetishism.

Chinmay Sharma, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

The Curious Case of the Mythological in Primetime.

Almost universally despised for being kitschy and melodramatic, mythologicals, especially those on television, have continued to baffle their critics by their sustained popularity. This paper will analyse the mythological through two television serials— the B.R. Chopra Mahabharat, first aired from 1988 to 1990 on the state-owned Doordarshan, and the more recent Mahabharata on STAR Plus aired from 2013 to 2014— that represent two very different moments in the life of the Indian television. As Arvind Rajagopal and Purnima Mankekar have shown, the B.R. Chopra Mahabharat was produced at a time of great change in India—relaxation of the license raj, liberalisation of the markets, rise of the Hindu right, entry of private producers and advertising in television. The STAR Plus Mahabharata marks a return to the mythological after the Ekta Kapoor interregnum. This paper will argue that mythologicals, though ostensibly based on puranic or traditional tales, really mark a negotiation between modern technology and specific ideas of ‘tradition’. Their popularity hinges not only on their ability to ‘modernise’ the plot for their contemporary audience, but also on their ability to appropriate modern technologies of representing the divine (especially iconography and music) and mobilising new modes of advertising and audience engagement. At the same time, use of modern technologies is elided, and they are deployed instead to lend an aura of ‘authenticity’ and ‘antiquity’ to the serial. By foregrounding technologies of representation and circulation, the paper attempts to focus on the serials themselves in order to understand their continued attraction.

Udit Bhatia, University of Oxford

Censorship for the Unlettered

This paper suggests that the censorship regime governing films in India can be properly understood only by locating it within the state’s conceptualisation of the ‘illiterate’. I suggest that the ‘illiterate’ has been a politically charged category in the history of Indian democracy. Beginning with an examination of debates on the franchise in pre-independent India, I suggest that ‘illiteracy’ served as an ‘objective’ rationale for deferring the normative implications of democracy. A close reading of the Constituent Assembly Debates reveals that concerns over citizens’ illiteracy continued to affect various aspects of India’s Constitutional design, such as its choice of an appropriate electoral system and qualifications to legislative bodies. Further electoral reform in India, such as lowering of the voting age and transition to electronic voting machines also appealed to the rise of literacy and continuation of illiteracy to justify moves with political significance.

In recent years, the ‘illiteracy’ argument has impacted upon a wider range of democratic rights, rather than merely electoral rights. I discuss the role of ‘illiteracy’ in justifying censorship in judicial decisions, the censor board’s reports and artists’ engagement with the state. Closer examination of these suggests that the censorship regime rests on an understanding that the visual medium is particularly susceptible to misunderstanding and, therefore, abuse by the illiterate. While recent studies have critically assessed this argument’s understanding of the visual medium, its characterization of the illiterate deserves closer attention and historicization of the kind I attempt in this paper.


The Lessons of Technology – Discussants: Joppan George and Nikhil Menon (Princeton University)

Faridah Zaman, University of Cambridge

Labour, Transnational Capital, and the Problems of Modern Industry in Bipin Chandra Pal’s The New Economic Menace to India.

This paper will offer a critical reading of The New Economic Menace to India (1920), a work of political economy written by the Bengali “extremist” Bipin Chandra Pal in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. That War, destructive in such obvious ways for Europe, was already bringing forth a succession of less visible but equally ruinous effects on the Indian economy, Pal argued. At a time when British imperialists were jettisoning the language of free trade in order to protect the Indian market from foreign infiltration, and when forcible large-scale industrialization of India appeared incipient, Pal foresaw the final destruction of the Indian economy, a process that had begun with the advent of colonial rule in the eighteenth century.

Pal’s text did not, however, derive its force by dichotomizing the foreign and the indigenous, the industrial and the traditional. Nor did it regard technology associated with industrialization as intrinsically negative. Instead, Pal argued that the complex logic of modern industrial capitalism had become ‘organically’ intertwined with the logic of imperialism, and more especially so because of the recent War. This broad view of capital’s operation through empire led him to argue in the latter chapters of New Economic Menace that the most natural ally in the fight against these developments – and particularly labour’s exploitation across imperial geographies – was the Labour Party in Britain. This paper will argue that we can use Pal’s text to recover an Indian nationalist critique of modern industrial life that was based not on the idea that technology was ‘alien’ to ‘tradition’ and Indian ways of life, but rather on the premise that it was ultimately alien to the interests of labour across the world.

Ali Mian, Duke University

Revealing and Concealing Technologies: Ashraf Ali Thanvi on Technological Modernity in British India

This paper theorizes the relationship between technology and traditionalist Muslim thought in British India. This study’s focus is the legal writing of the renowned jurist and mystic, Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi (1863-1943). From 1928 onwards, Thanvi deliberated the permissibly of the gramophone, the loud speaker, and the radio within the registers of sacred law. Thanvi dubbed the gramophone an instrument of lewdness and prohibited the use of the loud speaker in the daily ritual prayers (namaz). Thanvi also reproached the medium of film by recourse to legal categories and moral themes, such as visual depiction of animate bodies, visual pleasure, gossip, slander, and sexual disgrace. For such traditionalists, the cultural newness introduced by these technologies revealed a form of inassimilable difference. Despite these textual and conceptual disavowals of technology, Thanvi did not reject technology altogether. Instead, he divided the technological into the utilitarian and the non-utilitarian. While he eschewed useless technologies, he deployed the useful ones, such as the printing press and the colonial postal and railway systems. He used these forms of technology to disseminate his religious thought, to correspond with thousands of sufi disciples, and to travel widely for purposes of delivering sermons. For such traditionalists, the utility aspect concealed the colonialist and exploitative functions of these technologies. Muslim traditionalism therefore utilized technological modernity, rendering it as another modality for the elaboration and intensification of tradition. This paper shows how technology performed revealing and concealing functions at the crossroads of colonial modernity and Muslim traditionalism.

Robert Upton, University of Leeds

‘Rush along with the speed of wind’: B. G. Tilak and Technological Modernity

The Congress ‘extremist’ B. G. Tilak (1856-1920) figures prominently in many accounts as a reactionary conservative, or at least as a self-professed guardian of Indian cultural authenticity (for instance Rao, 2010; Bhatt, 2001). But Tilak can be profitably rethought as a modernist thinker, and his statements on technological modernity are at the heart of this. Even his conception of the historical greatness of the Vedic Aryans – a crucial feature of such accounts – rested on his belief in their precious technological advancement (Tilak, The Arctic Home in the Vedas, 1903). And his conception of Hindu society, and the role of varna in particular, is marked by a preoccupation with social efficiency, expressed in his Gita Rahasya (1915) through a characteristic machine metaphor: each figure in the railway administration must ‘properly perform his duty’ for ‘the railway train to rush along with safety and with the speed of wind’. The preoccupation with technological advancement also marked Tilak’s quotidian political practice. He editorialised in Kesari about the need for industrialisation in Maharashtra and throughout India. Perhaps most strikingly, his call for Indian enlistment in the army in the First World War owed much to this same broad sense. It was, he wrote in 1917, because of submarines, mines, superior firearms and other advances in the nature of war that Britain required India’s aid: thus Tilak situated his call for Indians to fight, to physically experience technological modernity, and fit India for the intense competitiveness of a technological age.

Greg Goulding, University of California Berkeley

Science and Technology in the Work of Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh

Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh (1917-1964) is widely considered to be the most important Leftist poet in Hindi because he translated the anxieties of the Lower-Middle-Class of post-Independence India into a politically aware and fantastic poetic idiom. In Muktibodh’s poetry, the antinomies of small-city India are transmuted into a range of what are commonly described as magical, dream-like images and symbols. My paper will consider the mixture of myth, technology, and philosophy in Muktibodh’s poetry not only as a project to articulate the anxieties of his own social setting, but as an attempt to create a new poetic idiom of the global through an engagement with the question of traditional epistemologies of knowledge. Muktibodh often sets his poems in settings such as laboratories and caves filled with radioactive materials, but these settings are often transformed into an encounter with traditional ideas of knowledge and myth. In his famous poem “Brahmarakshas,” for instance, a demonic ghost of a Brahman unable to pass on his teaching is transformed into a consideration of scientific epistemology and the contradictions between information and imagination. By setting this imagery in the context of Muktibodh’s writings on the intersection of a scientific epistemology and aesthetic imagination, as well as the internationalism of newly-independent Nehruvian India, I will show that Muktibodh’s work is an attempt at creating a language that could not only transform the anxieties of post-Independence life into poetic modernism, but also use those concerns as the basis for an autonomous internationalist poetics.

Identity, Symbolism, and Technology – Discussant: Nabaparna Ghosh (Princeton University) 

Vijayanka Nair, New York University

Biometric Identification Technologies and Personhood in Postcolonial India

In 2009, the Government of India set out to solve what it described as twin problems: “fake,” “duplicate” or “ghost” identities being used to exploit the welfare system, and “weak” identities inhibiting legitimate access to it. The solution to these problems was sought in biometric technologies that would recognize “unique” identity and “catch” people attempting to cheat the system. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) was instituted to implement the Aadhaar (“foundation”) program. Aadhaar would link individual demographic and biometric information (iris scans, fingerprints, facial photograph) to a 12-digit identification number. Promoting Aadhaar as the adhikar (right) of the aam aadmi (common man), the UIDAI has issued 720 million identification numbers already. It presently owns the world’s largest biometric database.

The “game-changing” Aadhaar number has spawned lively appraisals of the principal players in the game—the state and the individual. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, my paper examines portraits of the Indian individual generated at the UIDAI Headquarters and at biometric enrollment centers in New Delhi. Bernard Cohn argued that the colonial census was a form of “objectification”, wherein Indians were “confronted with the question of who they were and what their social and cultural systems were”. I argue that Aadhaar occasions an uneasy objectification of the postcolonial Indian individual in the figure of the victim-perpetrator aam aadmi. Paying attention to persistent discourses on beimani (dishonesty) and niyat (intentions), I show how it is the tenacious discursive construction of individual moral failing that allows for the triumph of biometric identification in India.

Durgesh Solanki, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

Cast(e)ing the Broom: Technologies of the Broom in Mumbai

For Ambedkar and many Dalit scholars, urbanization and modernity were the panacea for the caste system, generating new identities and erasing centuries of caste based discrimination and violence. Yet in Mumbai, nearly sixty years after Independence, caste-based occupations, such as conservancy work, still persist. The endurance of conservancy work arises from notions of ritual purity and inheritance that mark lower caste bodies, linking them to certain “polluting‟ occupations. In this paper, I will discuss Dalit experiences of technology by exploring the technology of the broom. Through ethnographic engagement with conservancy workers in Mumbai, I will explore the changing and permanent nature of the broom. The materiality of the broom itself is a paradox — while the broom is also an object of worship during Diwali, it by and large continues to remain a symbol of ritual pollution. Thus the enduring caste-embedded nature of the broom brings in to question the trope of the modern Indian city as a site of dissolving identities. I will attempt to argue then that the tradition of the caste system has been animated by the persistence of the technology of the broom. Furthermore, I will discuss the recent appropriations of the broom by the Modi government through the Swachh Bharat Abhyanand by the Aam Aadmi Party as a political symbol, in order to show the ways in which these appropriations do not challenge the status quo.

Sarover Zaidi, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity

The Fatima’s Hand: on making, materially and piety in Shi’a Islam.

In this paper I trace how Shi’a Muslims in Bombay, deploy varying forms of veneration of the prophet’s family, working with artifacts in the form of sacred symbols, images, and architectural structures to enter into a relation of piety with the Ahl-e-Bayt, remaining yet within the folds of Islam. Artifacts in the form of Hamsa/hand of Fatima, replicas of the graves of the Prophets family, and also colours (black, green and turquoise) are deployed in acts of worship. In fact mosque architecture in its form, function and use, can become one more technique of piety in Islamic practices.


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