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Akhil Gupta, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2012, 384 pages, $26.95 paperback, ISBN 9780822351108.


The move that Gupta makes towards conceptualizing the Indian state in terms of structural violence is brilliant. To say that the state actively kills through the normalization of poverty, bureaucratic practice, and inclusion—rather than simply excluding or letting the poor die—is a profoundly political shift in thinking. Structural violence takes European-born theories of biopolitics into a new terrain that is truer to the postcolonial experience, as Gupta rightly notes. He brings this theory forcefully home in the Epilogue which addresses the political implications of India’s development trajectory. Here he argues that Indian history defies common narratives of modernization as the linear transition that agricultural societies make towards industrialization and then to advanced service-based economies. Because India never fully developed a robust industrial base, the shift to the service economy since liberalization in the 1990’s has meant that agriculture continues to employ the majority of the workforce. Meanwhile, the much-touted IT sector and other high-end services employ only a narrow portion of the population leaving most of India’s laboring classes to eke out a livelihood in the most precarious of ancillary jobs and a crisis-ridden rural economy. The resulting dual economy has meant—contrary to assumptions about neoliberal ideology—that liberalization has advanced alongside populist welfare programs shored up by a nation-state striving to retain legitimacy. Yet the violent modalities of state program implementation combined with developmental land usurpations lead to the killing of those in whose name they are deployed.

Gupta’s theoretical intervention is grounded in fine-grained ethnographies of how this killing happens through mundane bureaucratic procedures and encounters. Despite the depth of the theory and empirics, I found that the final two chapters which focused on the more recent neoliberal moment and the specific ways that the state has affected tribal groups and women seemed to fit somewhat uneasily with the theoretical framework developed and applied in rest of the book. My critical engagement focuses on some of these theoretical challenges. I will address three interrelated areas of concern: 1) the role of arbitrariness in structural violence, 2) the biopolitical production of difference and differentiated violences, and 3) emerging possibilities of political transformation.

Unraveling arbitrariness

First, Gupta’s conceptualization of structural violence hinges fundamentally on the role of arbitrariness in the biopolitical interventions of the Indian state. Arbitrariness is a phenomenon that is crucial to the key argument of the book. However, a number of distinct processes were conflated under the rubric of arbitrariness which seemed at times to be enrolled to do too much work. I identified three key ways in which arbitrariness was used in the book. One usage refers to the structurally constituted sense of indifference and ambivalence with which bureaucratic agents approach their work. In a second usage, arbitrariness is leveraged to explain to what appears to be state agents’ direct but haphazard exclusion of poor individuals and groups from the biopolitical welfare programs that are meant to benefit them. And finally, arbitrariness describes the myriad contingencies that affect program implementation. Here it demarcates how life and death bureaucratic processes are subject to random events and rampant inaccuracies in data collection. In many instances, these three kinds of arbitrary processes converge in practice to decide who among the poor will get access to life-saving supports. Though this argument is compelling, I think there is a danger in relegating too much to contingency and ambivalence and too little to systematic processes of differentiation. Furthermore, conflations of various social processes under the umbrella of arbitrariness contradict the observation that Gupta makes which is that some groups among the poor are killed more intensively and frequently than others. This leads to my more substantive second point.

Biopolitics, violence, and the production of difference

My second point addresses the uneven perpetuation of violence among the poor through the systematic biopolitical production of embodied differentiations (class, gender, caste, ethnicity, religion, etc). Despite uneven vulnerability to death, Gupta argues that the failure of benefits to reach the poor cannot be solely attributed to their exclusion from the political community by identities such as nation, religion, or caste. Gupta is right that the Indian state does not simply exclude—indeed, a myriad of programs target not just a homogenous poor population but also the women and marginalized castes among them. Gupta thus rightly emphasizes that it is the very biopolitical infrastructures and practices of inclusion that ironically deal the blows of death. However in making this move, Gupta misses an opportunity to theorize differentiation in a more rigorous manner that could enrich his theory of the state and structural violence. Just as Gupta’s theory of structural violence systematically breaks down unified abstract notions of the state to engage with the uneven everyday spatializations of bureaucratic practice, it could have similarly disaggregated social differentiation in relation to rule. In other words, rather than sidestep the role of differentiation—clearly and repeatedly acknowledged as significant throughout the book—Gupta might have engaged more deeply in the production of difference as a central structuring feature of biopolitical violence. Such an analysis would have complemented his ethnographic theory of the state by transcending the kinds of free-floating and disconnected conceptualizations of identity that remain divorced from everyday life and historically sedimented social relations.

Here critical race geography theories like that of Ruth Wilson Gilmore could prove useful.  Gilmore uses ethnographic and historical materialist approaches to explain the formation of a racial developmental state in California (Gilmore, 2007). Her oft quoted of definition of racism—the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death—has important resonances with the perpetuation of differentiated structural violence in the postcolonial world. First and most obviously, we can observe racism operating transnationally: most of the people dying in the world are brown for reasons of enduring coloniality. Development interventions and ideologies further naturalize abjection (ostensibly due to the lack of development) while offering modernizing or market-integrating solutions that promise to address poverty even as they perpetuate it. However, even among the poor within a country like India, certain groups experience more severe forms of violence—for instance Gupta focuses on tribal groups who have always been excluded from development and are now facing land grabs and displacement on a massive scale. However, in his commitment to focusing on the violence intrinsic to inclusive “care-giving” biopolitics, there is too distinct a separation made between direct and exclusionary forms of state violence such as land and resource usurpations on the one hand and inclusive welfare programs on the other. I think we would be right to suspect that the terms and practices of both violent inclusion and exclusion mirror each other in relation to the most deeply marginalized and exploited groups.

Similar to North American racism, the politics of difference in India also sometimes operates through the blaming and criminalization of those among the poor who live the most precarious of lives. Gupta distinguishes Indian society from others for not vilifying the poor as the enemy; this assertion furthers his argument that it is inclusion more than exclusion that perpetuates violence. Yet Gupta’s epilogue offers evidence to show how this is currently changing. He notes that the Singh administration has called the Maoist Naxalite conflicts in India’s tribal hinterlands the single most important internal threat to national security. Indeed, these groups are posited as enemies because they are “anti-development” and “do not want the liberation of the poor” (page 286). It makes perfect sense that a developmental nation-state would conflate anti-developmentalism with terrorism. However, my own research in Mumbai (Doshi, 2012), as well as the work of Veena Das cited by Gupta, indicate that such vilifications are not limited to war torn tribal villages. In Mumbai, slum demolitions are regularly justified through ethnicized security discourses that conflate terrorist and anti-national threats with barriers to global city development.

In fact, inequalities within class inequality reverberate throughout the entire biopolitical infrastructure. Gupta himself mentions how the reliance on written records disproportionately hurts caste-marginalized groups but does not take the issue much further theoretically. However, drawing on slum politics in Mumbai again, Muslims and North Indians face numerous difficulties in the everyday the care-giving functions of the state due to discriminatory procedures embedded in the seemingly identity-blind, biopolitical infrastructure of urban development projects. These include strained access to vital documentations of legibility such as the ration card which not only unevenly distribute subsidized basic needs but also serve as the means for attaining eligibility for resettlement compensation upon eviction. These groups also encounter a precarious parallel system for accessing urban services like water as the work of Nikhil Anand (2011) reveals. In thinking through these experiences, the question emerges; is inclusion really happening for multiply marginalized and oppressed groups? Gupta reminds us of the vibrant forms of political participation that make up Indian democracy especially through electoral politics and other kinds of demands made on agents of the state. But are these engagements enough to indicate inclusion in the biopolitical order? If we are to take seriously Gupta’s findings that some members of the poor—especially lower castes and women—have found themselves at a deeper disadvantage in relation to their lack of social and cultural capital, then I would argue that we must conceive of biopolitical programs as “difference producing machines”. In other words, part of the violence of biopolitics is the way it works to reproduce and maintain differentiated exclusions even as the experiences of state practices change and vary across and among groups. Though identity does not uniformly shape exclusion or access to welfare, services, or resettlement, there are still overall non-arbitrary effects of being differently situated within biopolitical procedures.

There is also the stubborn and unnerving statistic of millions of missing women in India, which attests to the fact that too often who among the poor gets to live or die is sorted out by gender. The very premise of the two women-focused programs discussed in the book’s penultimate chapter is the ongoing marginalization of poor women in rural areas; the programs offer damning proof of the andocentric ramifications of development, as Gupta notes. Gupta sees deep parallels and contradictions in both the pre- and post-neoliberal programs that he studies. However, the gendered mode of inclusion in these programs is left relatively underanalyzed and untheorized. It would have been useful to hear a discussion of how contradictions emerge through the feminized enrollment of women in gender-focused development programs where some dimensions of womanhood are privileged over others. For instance, it is clear that the pre-neoliberal ICDS program supports women only as vehicles for promoting children’s welfare. No doubt, child welfare constitutes a great deal of burden for women. Nonetheless, women are consistently enrolled in exploitative caregiving functions—an inherently partial and instrumental representation of their lives and needs. Similarly, despite efforts to employ the most marginalized of women, the workers of the neoliberal Mahila Samakhya empowerment program were positioned as volunteers and thus paid a very minimal stipend. Volunteerism in this and other programs naturalizes women’s caregiving roles and represents women’s labor (including wage work) as affective activities that need not be remunerated. It is precisely this kind of feminized inclusion in the biopolitical regime that advances life-shortening exploitation in the form of underpaid labor. Gupta writes that “it is cruelly ironic” that the neoliberal Mahila Samakhya depended on the hyper-exploitation of the labor of women that they were meant to serve. But it is not ironic at all, really. Both programs depended on the enduring trope of “motherly” women as self-less and caring beneficiaries and workers. These are long-standing modalities of violence and dispossession that fuse liberal and neoliberal development with illiberal exploitation. The programs affirm Spivak’s trenchant critique of how the writ large reduction of the subaltern woman to the function of the womb continues to undergird both material and epistemic violence (2012b; 2012a). Thus Gupta is right to say that biopolitics kills even as it includes women. However, it does so through systematic and persistent structures of gendered domination intrinsic to state procedures.

Because gendered violence operates at the limits of knowledge and visibility, it may be necessary to go beyond bureaucratic encounters to unpack other apparently “non-state” state-spaces ranging from the family to the neighborhood. There are countless deadly biopolitical practices and silences traversing these “blurred boundaries” of private and public violence. Of course, this book cannot be faulted for failing to cover all of this ground. But a relegation of differentiated outcomes to arbitrariness may foreclose necessary research agendas that place difference at the center of structural violence.

There are many important reasons to focus on gender, caste, ethnicity, and other productions of difference operating through biopolitical care. But in so doing, I agree with Gupta that we must resist the temptation to do as the Indian state and create new population categories to include “women” or “weaker sections” in order to prove that it has covered its bases and proceed to kill freely. Nonetheless, a critical focus on situated state practices that harness and produce difference would enable Gupta’s rich theory of structural violence to grapple with how deeply and invisibly biopolitical regimes rely on difference to normalize the damage they inflict. Violence against women is already deeply normalized as is the marginalization of tribals, lower caste groups, and ethno-religious minorities. Focusing on these productions of difference pries open the many layers of normalized violence and the hegemony of premature death and dispossession that it bolsters. It also discredits culturalist perspectives that attribute the decimation of multiply marginalized groups to the “stickiness of tradition” rather than as actively reproduced in and through modern, ostensibly ameliorative state practices. In this way, foregrounding difference can offer deeper insights into how structural violence—and the state itself—is legitimated.

Political horizons

Despite his treatment of the different ways that subaltern citizens understand, resist, and negotiate violent state practices, Gupta ends Red Tape with a less than optimistic view of the transformative possibilities of the current conjuncture. Indeed, the situation is bleak. However, if we are to take seriously Gupta’s assertion that the legitimacy and unitary imaginary of the state requires the “unceasing labor” of the hegemonic block, then nascent contentious political formations among the poor and representative groups must also matter. Here, Gupta’s brilliant work on the discourse of corruption as claims to citizenship among the poor might be extended. There are some promising though not untroubled new political dynamics unfolding in India that may connect the different forms of violence (direct vs. structural) that Gupta addresses. A Mumbai-based anti-evictions movement linked to a country-wide coalition of anti-displacement movements (National Alliance of People’s Movements, NAPM) has begun to articulate its critique of developmental violence and land dispossession through a “discourse of corruption”. This articulation attempts to turn discourses of criminalization of urban slum residents back onto the state with assertions that land grabs are advanced through “corrupt” dealings between politicians and capitalists at the expense of the poor majority. For a brief period of time, the NAPM coalition made an official alliance with a primarily middle-class national anti-corruption movement led by the Gandhian social activist, Anna Hazare. The alliance was short-lived because of the middle-class anti-corruption movement’s dubious dealings with right wing parties, loss of leadership, and failure to acknowledge poor and dispossessed people’s concerns. Nonetheless, the Mumbai-based anti-eviction movement’s on-going strategies of reframing corruption talk in terms of class concerns of structural violence has gained momentum. No doubt such articulations may have unintended negative consequences; it also may be that at times some of the anti-displacement movements’ middle class leaders see things differently than its subaltern members and leaders. Indeed, the very definition of subalternity is to always be represented in partial and dangerous ways. Still, the contested terrain of corruption talk shows how social mobilizations among the poor can counter seemingly disparate violence(s) by connecting and rearticulating them in powerful new ways. Gupta’s ethnographic methodology and disaggregated framework for understanding state practice provide useful tools to uncover these mutually constitutive processes of social change agency and tactics of rule. Gupta’s work thus sets a powerful new agenda for social justice-oriented research; scholars and activists alike are deeply indebted to his contributions.



Anand N (2011) PRESSURE: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai. Cultural Anthropology 26(4): 542–564.

Baviskar A (1997) In the Belly of the River. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doshi S (2013) The Politics of the Evicted: Redevelopment, Subjectivity, and Difference in Mumbai’s Slum Frontier. Antipode 45(4): 844–865.

Gilmore RW (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, And Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Spivak GC (2012a) A Borderless World?, public Lecture presented at the Confluence Center for Creative Inquiry, 19 January, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Spivak GC (2012b) In Other Worlds: Essays In Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge.

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Sapana Doshi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona.