Of urban authoritarianism

THERE was a time when urban sociologists believed fervently that the city is the site of freedom and of emancipation from tradition, from norms that instruct us how to behave and perhaps how to think, and from subordination to historically handed down systems of meaning. Because the city promises anonymity and impersonality, it represents the domain of liberty, in contrast to say the village, where life is deeply repressive. This belief has in recent times been modified, and many scholars of the urban have come to believe that the city, both as a social and as a spatial structure, can prove to be extremely authoritarian. The practices of everyday life are embedded in unbreakable rules too numerous to enumerate, people in the city just cannot escape subjection to the domination of the commodity, and the concentration of the city dweller in dense settlements enables not only easy policing but also constant and efficient surveillance.

But there is an added dimension to the urban in the developing world: the presence of hundreds of shantytowns and slums, which exist cheek by jowl with luxurious housing and planned colonies. These settlements may be crowded and deprived of basic amenities, they may reek of squalor, but it is these areas and not the planned colonies, shopping arcades, and office towers that define the urban skyline. For some scholars these settlements, often established illegally on government or privately owned property, articulate acts of resistance to urban planning, which employs labour to build cities but which does not make room for the labourer in the very city that she or he has built. But there is a flip side to this; since these squatter settlements are seen as illegal, the government sees it fit to do with its inhabitants what it wills. The arrival of bulldozers that raze entire areas to the ground, and the forced relocation of the inhabitants far away from their place of work, are by now commonplace news items, which by their very frequency command little public attention. But they do point towards the deep authoritarianism that pervades the city.

Yet the way that the government treated the inhabitants of slums and shantytowns during the Emergency is both scandalous as well as unprecedented. It is well known that the years 1975 and 1976 saw large-scale displacement of people living in jhuggi jhopri colonies, and their forcible relocation in barren devastated areas across the river, which lacked even basic facilities that would make resettlement bearable. Numerous stories about how shanty town dwellers along with their meagre belongings were arbitrarily herded in trucks and dumped in inhospitable areas far away from their places of work, and often far away from their communities, did the rounds during the Emergency. But memories are notoriously short and people forgot quickly the horrors of the Emergency, especially because the election results of 1977 reiterated popular faith in the greatness of India's democracy. Emma Tarlo's ethnographic study of Delhi during the Emergency serves to remind us that whereas the Emergency may not have touched the lives of the privileged sections of the people except in a peripheral manner, it managed to devastate the lives of the urban poor. The methodological tool that she employs to investigate the Emergency is that of the narrative form.

Tarlo gives us a thick account of the multiple narratives that came to represent the Emergency as well as represent the post-Emergency political scene. These may be narratives of people who legitimised the Emergency either explicitly, or implicitly through their silence. These may be narratives of people who condemned it only when it was safe to do so, that is in the period after the Janata government had come to power in 1977. Narratives can disagree on the significance or the insignificance of the Emergency. But for Delhi's urban poor the Emergency is nothing but a reminder of how insensitive the city can be to the plight of those that are considered to be on the margins. And it is this section of Delhi's population that is of concern to the work under review.

It is in this context that Tarlo weaves her way through the records of the JJ and slum wing of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, letters and applications of the displaced to the government, testimonies of those who were forcibly relocated, memories of those who witnessed the demolition of Muslim dominated areas such as Turkman Gate, and the statements of government officials. Her objective is not to build a structured account of the Emergency; she wants to explore what the Emergency meant to those who were the most affected — the urban poor. Nevertheless in the process she unearths a broader pattern, in the way the administration constructed a link between control of sexuality and private property — land in return for sterilisation — for instance. And we all know how hundreds of people were forcibly sterilised. But there is a twist in the tale here, for many people escaped the role of the victim simply because they were able to act as motivators. That is they could motivate other people to get themselves sterilised. And this was rewarded by the grant of title to a piece of land. Some people became victims of government-sponsored actions, some people managed to victimise others. In other words, though the administration during the Emergency terrorised the people, some people at least were able to negotiate adverse conditions. In this they were prompted by the desire to legally secure a miserly piece of land, because this would safeguard them from arbitrary displacement and relocation in the future. In effect we find no unified collective narrative from those who were most affected by the Emergency.

The most interesting and the most moving parts of the book deal with personal testimonies, particularly the testimonies of those who lived in Muslim-dominated areas of Old Delhi such as Turkman Gate, and who were subjected to immense brutality simply because they refused to move to another location. Though everyone resented being thrown out of the city, the people from these areas tended to speak about the experience with a greater sense of devastation and injustice, because they were long time inhabitants of the area. "For them, what was being demolished was not just their houses and neighbourhoods, but also their sense of locality and related cultural traditions".

But at the same time a strong thread of pragmatism runs through the testimonies of the inhabitants of the colony where the author has carried out her research. The inhabitants of the colony prove to be neither passive victims nor fierce resistors in some undifferentiated manner. As suggested above, some became victims, others profited from the demand that was on offer — namely property in lieu of sterilisation cases. And strangely enough many of them still retain a fondness for the main mover of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi. Finally, Tarlo tells us that instead of seeing the Emergency in pathological terms, as an aberration from normal ways of being, we should locate it, as the narrators did, as one instance on the axis of authoritarianism that constitutes urban life. The Emergency was not the first time that people had been forced to leave their homes to be relocated elsewhere, and it was not the last time that people were dislocated, often at the whim of some civil servant. The Emergency represented perhaps one acute instance of authoritarianism, but of an authoritarianism that continues to make its presence felt in other less dramatic ways.

Unsettling Memories: Narratives of India's `Emergency', Emma Tarlo, Permanent Black, 2003, p.235, Rs. 595.

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