Claiming space: the new social landscapes of South Asia
Location F
Date and Time 12th December, 2008 at 10:30


Martin Fuchs (Universitat Erfurt)
Assa Doron (Australian National University)
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Short Abstract

Social relationships and access to common goods in South Asia are being renegotiated today via the public realm. The panel looks for new ways to approach and conceptualize these transformations. Special focus is on marginalized groups and the spread of the informal sector, economically and socially.

Long Abstract

Social relationships in South Asia are increasingly negotiated via the public realm, both in urban and rural areas. Control of and access to public resources, spaces and common goods constitutes part of everyday life struggles. Many such struggles are over basic "civic amenities" (e.g., water, electricity), while others concern appropriation of and contestation over lucrative urban land. These developments coincide with state beautifications schemes, and bourgeois environmentalism (Baviskar 2002), involving displacements and the disruption of earlier modes of livelihood. The informal sector is growing, economically, socially and politically. Marginalized groups are constantly forced to resituate themselves, either trying to defend spaces they had occupied earlier or looking out for new spaces and niches to occupy, both physically and symbolically.

Scholarship has emphasized both continuities with tradition (the modernity of caste) as well as new unanticipated forms of social and political empowerment amongst the marginalised -"the silent revolution" (Jaffrelot 2003). The challenge of understanding and analysing modern social structures has been taken on by anthropologists with respect to specific fields and issues (anthropologies of the state, of violence, etc.). What we now require is to rethink both the emerging forms of South Asian societies and the concepts we employ to understand those transformations. How do the new forms of public debate and struggle affect identities and subjectivities? How are social groups, actors, and places redefined? How do people on the margins negotiate the modern sectors? What becomes of the "subaltern" in places where traditional forms of domination are increasingly being challenged?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Plundering the Golden Temple: From Princes to Paupers in Post Nation-State Varanasi

Author: Sheleyah Courtney (University of Sydney)

Short Abstract

In 1984 the Uttar Pradesh Government seized control of the important Kashi Vishvanath temple in Varanasi from Brahmin priests who were formerly its custodians. This has had economically pauperizing and culturally disruptive effects on these pandits, reflected in trans/formation of masculinities and rivalries.


In approximately 1784, Ahalya Bai, Holkar Queen of Indore raised the Kashi Vishvanath mandir - the Golden temple of Varanasi - that which Aurengzeb the moghul emperor had razed and afterwards replaced with the mosque known as Gyanvapi masjid. For this and other Hindu restorations she acquired enduring fame in Varanasi and beyond as a great and valiant queen.

The Golden temple has been destroyed more than once alone. In its numerous incarnations, the Kashi Vishvanath mandir is a site that has been and continues to be highly contested, a locus now reflecting both local and national communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims that share parallels with neighbouring Ayodhya. In 1992 militant Hindus tore down its Babri masjid because it had (allegedly) been built over the birthplace of Rama.

In 1984 the UP Government seized control of the Kashi Vishvanath temple from the priests who were formerly its custodians. Barbed wire separates mosque and mandir, police appointed by the government to guard the temple daily interfere with movement of priests, pilgrims and populace, this escalating since 9/11 and its aftermath. This has all created ongoing economically pauperizing and culturally disruptive effects on pandits who have been displaced to margins of temple operations and pushed into mercantile domains, largely the silk trade. Yet these Brahmins fiercely defend their identity, one intimately involved in relationship with the temple and the formation of masculinity on the basis of continuity of high status in Varanasi via self-assertion against police, verbal struggle and occasional strikes.

Toilets, Temples and Holymen: the politics of place in Banaras, India

Author: Assa Doron (Australian National University)

Short Abstract

Drawing on recent debates in anthropology and geography surrounding the relationship between place, power and identity, the paper examines a recent controversy over the construction of a toilet cum temple on one of Banaras’ most sacred public places.


The sacred city of Banaras is well-known as the city of temples. Still, it was surprising to find a public toilet which also functioned as a temple, with the caretaker said to be a powerful tantric. During my fieldwork in Banaras, the toilet-baba (holyman), as he was known, became increasingly controversial as he began to expand his territory, turning the public latrine into a small "empire". I use the term "empire" to denote not only the number of assistants and devotees he had under his jurisdiction and guidance, but also the considerable spatial expansion of the toilet space on one of city's most sacred and frequented ghats (landing steps into the river) - Assi ghat.

This paper examines the controversy that has accompanied the development of this public latrine and the complex dynamics that were revealed in what eventually turned out to a very violent contestation of ghat space, involving government officials, local boatmen and priests. The ultimate disgrace of the toilet-baba and razing of the toilet - cum temple - constitutes the climax of this story.

Using this case study I attempt to address wider concerns pertaining to the relationship between place, identity and power. Following Escobar (2001), I argue for the need to consider how 'culture sits in places', and examine the complex ways in which people continuously negotiate, redefine and assert their identities through everyday experiences, practices and perceptions of place.

Picnic on the beach of Cox's Bazar: claiming a public space or an exercise of citizenship by a Bangladeshi minority?

Author: Than Tun (University of Western Australia)

Short Abstract

This paper discusses that an ethnic-religious minority’s use of a public space is as much a claim to distinct ethnic culture as it is a claim to national belonging.


Rakhaing people of Cox's Bazar, southern Bangladesh, have "Htama-baung" (picnics) on every Friday between the full moon days of May and July, on a shady area of the world longest beach. The development in tourism from the late 1990s has transformed the beach areas, making Rakhaings to shift one place to another for their collective picnics. On Friday, Rakhaing in their friendship groups gather on the beach to drink alcohol, sing and dance, while both males and females dressed in western cloths. Htama-Boung, which involves activities not common in majority Bangladeshi community, can be seen as Rakhaings, the Buddhist minority, are claiming a public space through an enactment of ethnicity against the tourism infrastructures, as well as political and cultural dominances of Bengali majority. In this sense, Htama-Baung is Rakhaing's claim to a public place to conduct cultural activities, against the forces of domination, which include the state, economic interests, and Islamic conservatives. At the same time, an ethnographic study of the picnics also reveals that Rakhaings see Htama-Boung as an act of expressing their belonging to the nation-state of Bangladesh. It is a claim of their rights to use the beach for their distinct cultural activities, as much as the domestic Bengali tourists have their claims to a territory of Bangladesh. Htama-Boung is the appropriation of a space by Bangladeshi Rakhaings to express their ethnic distinction and national belonging.

Can't Find Nothing on the Radio: Access to the Radio Frequency Spectrum in Nepal

Authors: Michael Wilmore (University of Adelaide)
Pawan Prakash Upreti (Equal Access Nepal)

Short Abstract

This paper contributes to theorization of the relationship between state and civil society institutions in South Asia through an examination of radio broadcasting regulations in Nepal. It draws on a recent survey by an NGO, Equal Access, which demonstrates inadequacies in the coordination radio frequency allocation to broadcasters.


This paper contributes to theorization of the relationship between state and civil society institutions in South Asia through an examination of radio broadcasting regulations in Nepal. The development of new forms of media and wider media access are often regarded as instrumental to the transformation of social and political identities, especially through the roles media play in the construction of civic institutions, of new relationships with the nation-state, and in the emergence of information as the basis for many common goods and services. This paper argues that the theorization of these transformations must encompass an understanding of the state's role in the regulation of media activities, especially the licensing of broadcasting and publication, if we are to evaluate people's ability to take advantage of the potential that media may offer in bringing about political empowerment within the social landscapes of South Asia. This paper examines these issues in the context of the dramatic increase in independent radio activity in Nepal, which has been lauded as an all too infrequent sign of positive social change in a country beset by chronic poverty and political instability. However, Equal Access, a non-governmental organization producing radio programs focused on social change in Nepal, has recently produced the first survey of broadcast signal reach for independent radio organizations, which indicates that inadequate coordination of the licensing of broadcasters has led to signal interference in many locations due to unregulated competition over the use of the radio frequency spectrum.

Iconic Dharavi: Slum as contested space

Author: Martin Fuchs (Universitat Erfurt)

Short Abstract

The paper explores the ambivalent and contradictory condition of Dharavi, India’s prototypical slum, to interrogate ideas and concepts of modern (political) society. Focussing on informal modes of sociality and governance the paper uses the concept of translation to understand the projects and experiences of “slum”-residents.


The paper centres on Dharavi, the prototypical slum in Indian discourse. It combines a look from afar with a look from inside. "Slums" represent key experimental sites with governmental projects, economic interests and middle class sensitivities on one side, and the social engagement of people considered marginalized, and their strategies of resistance, on the other. Slums are under contradictory pressures, to get "normalized" as also to contain and preserve difference. Those considered marginalized engage with the state and the public sphere in new ways, including creating their own modalities of governance. The concepts of "political society", "civil society", or "social movement" cannot adequately grasp this new constellation. People engage with the larger world in a wide range of ways, helping create new political possibilities, but also interlinking with a wide range of other networks, including various religious ones. They are exploring new livelihood prospects, but also new ways to gain respect, give life a new horizon, and find security and a place. Many of these engagements happen on the borderline of what is conventionally being distinguished as public and private. We have to rethink the usefulness of this distinction, as we have to rethink our ideas of sociality. The paper takes "slums" as exemplars of informality, economically and socially, considering informality as both constraining and enabling, but also as in peculiar ways intertwined with the "formal" sector. The paper will suggest the concept of "translation" to access this complex new and undertheorized area of relationship and interaction.

Appropriation and acculturation: the theft of 'Islamic' identity by the state in Pakistan

Author: Ian Bedford (Macquarie University)

Short Abstract

A 'national' identity for the state of Pakistan has been appropriated, above all by military governments embracing and authorising a particular variety of Islam at the expense of other varieties of Islam far more at home among the subaltern peoples of the nation.


Public spaces, rallying points for public discourse in Pakistan where Islam is concerned have favoured the public inculcation of forms of Islam considered fundamental to the 'ideology of Pakistan'. From 1947, and most particularly since the rule of the military dictator Zia-ul Haq through the 1980s, much of the actual patrimony of the regions included in the nation has been overlooked or marginalized. The language of state in Pakistan is Urdu - which has little or no vernacular tradition inside the country. In the Punjab and Sind in particular, Islamic traditions are bound to vernacular languages and cultures, and are far from 'fundamentalist'. But in many areas of policy - ranging from the provision of textbooks to schools (a theme explored by the historian K.K.Aziz) to the administration of shrines - a public re-definition of Islam has been undertaken which seeks (not always with success) to override what 'is' in order to equip Pakistan with an Islam more responsive to the supposed requirements of a national ideology. This project aims at a radical 'replacement' of identity for the new nation. The paper will consider ways in which public sites and arenas become controversial.