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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.


It is a privilege and honor to introduce the work of Dr. Akhil Gupta, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles, for this review forum of his book: Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence and Poverty in India. This introductory essay has a two-part aim: 1) to broadly introduce Akhil Gupta’s scholarship and its relevance for geographers and others concerned with society and space, and 2) to give a brief synopsis of the book in order to situate the five commentaries to follow. It is fitting that this forum was originally presented at the 2013 Association of American Geographers meeting in Los Angeles as Akhil Gupta is truly a geographer’s anthropologist. Throughout the body of his work, including two sole authored books, eight edited volumes and journal issues, and over 35 articles, Gupta has approached the themes of development, globalization, state practice, agrarian transformation, and environmental history with ethnographic depth and spatial theoretical rigor. Gupta’s work also represents postcolonial geographic scholarship of the highest caliber. He rejects all too common theories of development (spanning the political spectrum) that relegate the postcolonial world to an earlier stage of what has already passed in advanced capitalist nations, trapped in a perpetual state of “catching up” to western modernity. Instead, Gupta weaves ethnographically rich narratives of contradictory modernity that honor the specificity of postcolonial histories and experiences while also illuminating the transnational spatialities of power and knowledge that shape political life. Gupta’s lucid ethnographic prose and cutting edge social theoretical contributions belie an unconventional intellectual trajectory; he admits that he came into anthropological research “quite by accident” while pursuing a PhD in engineering and economic systems. Yet it is precisely this background that lends his work unique critical insights into the contours and limits of techno-managerial development. A brief introduction to Gupta’s major works will contextualize the contributions he makes to theories of the state, structural violence, and poverty in Red Tape.

Gupta’s first sole-authored book Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India (1998) is required reading for anyone interested in understanding the contested history and spatio-temporal politics of knowledge at the heart of Indian development and agrarian transformation. While development and modernization interventions are often left untouched by humanities-centered postcolonial scholarship, Postcolonial Developments argues that “the apparatus and discourse of development is key to any definition of ‘the postcolonial condition’” (page 9). Here, tube wells, chemical fertilizers, and hybrid seeds represent the artifacts of a global infrastructure of governmentality that reinscribed the inequalities of colonialism after it was formally dismantled. Postcolonial Developments shows how an “acute awareness of temporal lag and spatial marginality” (page 11) shape contradictory subjectivities and reverberate throughout the world food economy, bureaucratic offices, World Bank board rooms, populist party politics, and everyday village struggles over caste and class exploitation.

Gupta’s co-edited book with James Ferguson, Culture, Power and Place (1997), broke additional new ground in the field of critical transnational anthropology by challenging the discipline’s colonial legacies, especially its depoliticized and bounded treatment of culture, identity, and place. Gupta’s numerous other single and co-authored publications on governmentality, economy, and globalization similarly challenge monolithic state theories by revealing how rule is unevenly spatialized through everyday, mundane practices (Ferguson and Gupta, 2002; Gupta and Sivaramakrishnan, 2010; Gupta, 1992; Sharma and Gupta, 2006).

Red Tape builds on these earlier engagements with the spatial politics and governance of postcolonial development by offering not only new theoretical tools but also a sense of moral urgency in relation to the seemingly intractable problem of poverty in contemporary India. The book begins from a provocative premise: how can a country with such a robust history of political participation continue to be ruled in a way that consistently exposes so much of its population to premature death? How is the crisis of poverty—which quietly claims many more lives annually than headline-grabbing natural disasters—rendered decidedly unexceptional and normal in everyday state practices? What does it mean to understand the state as a simultaneously inclusive and murderous political form? Through developing a compelling new theory of structural violence, the first two chapters of the book are devoted to a radical reworking of Euro-American derived theories of biopolitics and governmentality. In order to speak to the life and death political realities of the world’s largest democracy, Gupta argues we must move away from the passive relationship to death inherent in Foucaultian biopolitics—where modern political orders allow certain groups to die. Rather, following Giorgio Agambem and Achille Mbembe, Gupta argues that the persistent violence of poverty in India requires a thanatopolitical theory that highlights the active killing of subjects by sovereign powers. Poverty must be understood as a deliberate act of violence precisely because the deaths it causes are preventable.

However, Gupta argues that Agambem’s theory of sovereignty and bare life is insufficient to understanding the violence of poverty in India because it continues to be premised on an exceptional and monolithic notion of the modern state as a sovereign power that kills only through exclusion from the political and civic order. Contrary to Agambem’s concept of the sovereign ban, Gupta contends that the poor in India are active participants in robust democratic processes. Ironically, however, vulnerable groups are exposed to the risk of premature death through the arbitrary workings of a biopolitical regime that promises to alleviate their poverty. In other words, Gupta argues, programs aimed at providing nutrition, employment, housing, healthcare, elder support, and education end up killing many of those in whose name they are launched. These contradictory bureaucratic processes reveal the continuity between biopolitical care and the violence of poverty. Life and death outcomes result from the systematic production of arbitrariness which reverberates throughout the system. For Gupta, the only way we can come to terms with the paradox of inclusionary violence is to develop a disaggregated theory of the state which focuses on the mundane everyday practices of biopolitical programs. Accordingly, the second chapter of the book establishes a theoretical case for transcending reified notions of the state by attending to questions of translocality and scale and engaging in situated ethnographic analyses of bureaucratic encounters with the poor.

Like so many of the best books, Red Tape was written over decades of research and reflection evidenced in the rich ethnographic chapters that make up the empirical foundations of Gupta’s theory of structural violence. The chapters critically engage common and well-meaning but misguided cries for transparency, education, and gender empowerment through state and NGO development programs. For instance, Chapters Three and Four on corruption demonstrate how state agents and citizens alike understand and contend with the misappropriation of public resources that violently rob marginalized groups of access to life-saving supports. Narratives of corruption also operate in a more fundamental capacity “as a diagnostic of the state” through which citizens, rights, and the state itself are discursively constituted. While narratives of corruption can empower citizens’ rights claims, Gupta also warns of the danger of abstract and problematic calls for transparency by local and transnational elites who lack an understanding of poor people’s everyday experiences of the disaggregated state.

Similarly, Chapters Five and Six focus on how writing operates as a key modality through which violence is inflicted on the poor. From forms, files, and registers to statistics, inspections, and complaints, Gupta charts how writing not only documents relevant happenings but fundamentally constitutes the state; this is because writing is the central daily business of bureaucratic agents and serves to support an imagined cohesiveness of state power. Bureaucratic writing enables violent exclusions but also incites conflict and resistance on the part of subaltern groups who have unequal access to cultural and symbolic capital. However, Gupta warns that facile calls to promote literacy in order to empower the poor risks reinscribing problematic understandings of the relationship between state power and writing. Chapter Seven investigates the contours of development governmentality by examining two women-focused programs that exemplify both liberal welfare entitlement-based and recent neo-liberal empowerment-based paradigms. Here Gupta argues that neoliberal modalities have not necessarily replaced developmental state practices; after all India never fully embraced a welfare system. Rather, a disaggregated analysis of state practices reveals the continuities of arbitrary structural violence despite seemingly dramatic changes in Indian political economy and the influence of transnationally circulating neoliberal development discourses.

The book ends by considering ongoing poverty and violence in the current historical conjuncture, marked by deepening economic liberalization, rural land grabs, and Maoist conflicts in the tribal hinterlands. Gupta claims that the state’s neglect of agriculture in favor of the high-growth global IT sector has created a trenchant dual economy consisting of growing elite and middle-class affluence alongside large-scale precarity among the rural poor who have been denied steady livelihoods in India’s new economy. Gupta predicts that India’s welfare programs will expand in tandem with rising GDP and inequality as the nation-state faces increasing pressures to retain legitimacy. Thus structural violence perpetuated through the everyday practices of a decentered biopolitical state will likely remain a critical concern. The following five commentaries—by myself, Vinay Gidwani, Asher Ghertner, Sallie Marston, and Elizabeth Oglesby—critically engage these and other theoretical and empirical components of this compelling book.  He forum concludes with Gupta’s reply.



Ferguson J and A Gupta (2002) Spatializing States: Toward an Ethnography of Neoliberal Governmentality. American Ethnologist 29(4) 981–1002.

Gupta A (1992) The Song of the Nonaligned World: Transnational Identities and the Reinscription of Space in Late Capitalism. Cultural Anthropology 7(1): 63–79.

Gupta A  (1998) Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Gupta A  (2012) Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India. Durham: Duke University Press.

Gupta A and J Ferguson (1997) Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham: Duke University Press.

Gupta A and K Sivaramakrishnan (2010) The State in India after Liberalization: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Sharma A and A Gupta (2006) The Anthropology of the State a Reader. Malden: Blackwell.

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