Killing them softly with rules

and Poverty in India: Akhil Gupta;Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd., 1/24,Asaf Ali Road, New Delhi-110002.Rs. 895.   | Photo Credit: CHN/ SCAN \ V.Sukumar

Why has the Indian state, which professes development as a national goal, allowed such a large portion of its population to remain in dire poverty and to be denied the prerequisites of a dignified existence? Expounding on the “deformed ethics of the state”, Akhil Gupta argues that “extreme poverty should be theorised as a direct and culpable form of killing made possible by state policies and practices”. He holds the state directly responsible for an estimated 140 million “excess deaths” in the post-colonial period and for the horrific violence perpetrated on the poor with seeming nonchalance. Management of the population, or biopolitics, operates through bureaucratic procedures reflecting complacency towards endemic suffering and acceptance of “killing” of the poor as normal.

Seeking to understand how social classes and the administrative apparatus ignore the disproportionate death of the poor, Gupta questions conventional notions of the ‘state’ and demonstrates that “ideological, political and categorical inclusion is not enough to prevent extreme forms of structural violence”. Those who benefit from the status quo have a stake in perpetuating a social order in which extreme suffering is treated as routine, even as it is recognised that popular sovereignty is constituted through the poor. Violence is exercised without intention or hostility, but is the outcome of bureaucratic arbitrariness and expediency. India, arguably, has more schemes targeted at removing poverty and improving the lives of poor people than any other country; but delivery of the desired outcomes is severely compromised by self-fulfilling bureaucratic procedures. Gupta argues that “no matter how noble the intentions of programs, and no matter how sincere the officials in charge of them, the overt goal of helping the poor is subverted by the very procedures of the bureaucracy”.

In Red Tape, Gupta embarks on a sophisticated theoretical exploration to explain the perpetuation of structural violence in India through the modalities of bureaucratic corruption, writing and literacy, and the nature of governmental practices. He examines the cultural and political anthropology of bureaucracy on a conceptual level, reinforced by field work in western Uttar Pradesh involving intensive interaction with rural people and officials and close observation of the lower bureaucracy at work.

Red Tape, however, has been inordinately long in the writing — the field work having been undertaken in the 1980s and early 1990s — and, although Gupta’s assertions are relevant in making sense of the structural violence that continues unabated today, he does not seem to have made a serious effort to factor in the transformation of the Indian economy and polity in the last 20 years.

Gupta focuses on everyday bureaucratic practices to explain how intense violence towards poor people is taken for granted and as “normal”. Adopting a disaggregated view of the state, he cautions against a top-down approach which ignores the fact that though policy may be formulated at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy, it is shaped at all levels where implementation takes place. The state comes to be represented and symbolised through its procedures, where the emphasis is on following rules rather than on achieving results. The arbitrariness of outcomes has no consequences for officials, though their actions may have been responsible for the “killing” of the poor.

Varied sources

The relationship between the state and structural violence is interpreted through narratives of corruption as reflected in stories recounted by poor people and officials, journalistic reportage, realist fiction (principally the seminal satirical novel by an ex-bureaucrat, Raag Darbari) and anthropological representations. Every aspect of poor people’s lives is impacted by corruption and their idea of the state is shaped by interactions with local officials and engagement with bureaucratic practices. The result is that “the very gestures of inclusion (by the state) produce an outcome that is its opposite”. Gupta feels that notions like efficiency and transparency will not accomplish the goal of development unless poor people’s ‘imagination’ of the state is transformed.


Inscription is a key modality whereby violence is inflicted on the poor. Gupta views the state as constituted through writing; but while writing is a weapon to dominate the illiterate, he regards it as contextual and not necessarily as exploitative. And while structural violence thrives on illiteracy, he does not perceive literacy as essential to empowerment and liberation. What is more important is “political literacy” or negotiation of the bureaucratic system to mitigate violence.

Red Tape disappoints in not making even a passing reference to the burgeoning bureaucratic corruption of recent years and the popular outrage at crony capitalism and loss of confidence in the leadership. From today’s perspective, the narratives of corruption expressed two decades ago, on which Gupta builds his hypotheses, seem incredulous and quaint.

Most glaringly, the sea-change wrought to polity and society by the rise of caste-based parties to power in Uttar Pradesh is completely ignored. Gupta could have addressed these gaps in the Epilogue, but inexplicably omits to do so.

Possibly due the time elapsed since the field work was conducted, some factual errors have gone uncorrected. For instance, the District Magistrate cannot be said to be the focal point of judicial matters in the district, thanedaar is the head of a police station not a jail warden, RES is Rural Engineering Service and not Rural Employment Scheme, and census data is not gathered through the Block.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2020 9:08:07 PM |

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