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SEXUALITIES edited by Nivedita Menon. Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2007.

THIS edited volume on Sexuality is part of a series on Issues in Contemporary Feminism under the general editorship of Rajeswari Sunder Rajan. The series aims to bring together theoretical work as well as activist writings and documents on the ‘complex and often contentious issues’ that the contemporary feminist movement has had to engage with.

In the introduction, Menon interrogates feminist engagements with the body, sexuality, violence, law and modernity. She locates its genealogy in debates such as those around matriliny and the devadasi system in the colonial period which provide rich material to examine marriage and modernity. The resolution of these debates by patriarchal forces among the nationalists and the colonialists led to the disciplining and erasure of ‘a range of non-normative sexualities and family arrangements’ (xxv).

This volume reflects the debates and the conversations within the women’s movement around sexuality and identity. Menon’s analyses of contemporary feminist debates are located within the violence-desire framework contrasting the earlier interventions of the women’s movement on sexuality as focused on violence with the more recent ones centring on desire and pleasure. This does not, however, do justice to the ways that both violence and desire were embedded in sexuality in earlier and contemporary feminist interventions.

It is a difficult task for any edited volume to be totally representative. Though Menon’s introduction provides an exhaustive and comprehensive overview of the debates around sexuality and related issues of marriage, the state, power and desire within a historical perspective, several areas are inadequately covered. However, she does discuss some of these in the introduction – censorship, pornography, sex work and disability. It is a pity that papers on these issues were not included as these debates have seriously challenged the wider women’s movement. For example, the Autonomous Women’s Movement Conference in 2006 had a session bringing together groups of sex workers and other women’s groups in an attempt to expand the boundaries of our collective thinking. Issues of disability and desire, however, still remain under-theorized and at the margins of feminist debates around sexuality and the body. Menon refers to some of the emerging research and points to the need for greater engagement.

The book is divided into five sections. The first on counter-hegemonies examines issues of heteronormativity in relation to feminist politics, law, transsexuals and lesbian politics. The second section on caste and sexuality has a paper on marriage and desire among dalit women in Gujarat. A third section focuses on masculinities with one paper on male domestic workers in households and another on erotic literature that is circulated in Benares during Holi. The section on pleasure and desire explores women’s experiences of sexuality and the final section presents a selection of campaign documents, including those against Article 377, women’s opposition to the ban on bar girls, and statements by sex worker groups, among others.

Challenges and struggles around the law have been a central strategy of the women’s movement and the queer movement. The demand to repeal Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code has been one of the main planks of the queer movement. Arvind Narrain examines the spaces where the law has been challenged for its homophobic and heteronormative biases. Further, he interrogates medical interventions which seek to pathologize queerness. In her paper on the deconstruction of narratives of heteronormativity in India, Menon argues that ‘woman’ as the subject of feminism, the family and the state needs to be problematised in order to arrive at a feminist politics which can represent non-heteronormative experiences and realities.

Paola Bacchetta’s essay aims to challenge hegemonic queer representations by uncovering genealogies of queer struggles in non-western countries, with a focus on the emerging lesbian movement in the 1980s in Delhi. She argues that queer politics which foregrounds the process of coming out and sees all subjectivities before the outing as unliberated needs to be questioned. Through interviews with two lesbian activists in Delhi, she traces local struggles based on lived realities of lesbian women. One struggle has been to locate contemporary lesbian images and realities within Indian tradition, culture and art and the other has sought to locate a different politics which rejects the label ‘lesbian’. While the move to locate lesbian subjects in a historical and political reality is interesting, the focus on two activists as ethnography is a bit weak.

Though a primary focus of the volume is on queer and transsexual struggles, there are a few papers which examine transgressive aspects of heterosexual relationships. Radhika Chandiramani draws upon data from a telephone helpline on sexuality to explore the notion of pleasure for women (and men) in sexual relationships. The essay though only throws up issues such as gender and power and safe sex which need to be further explored. J. Devika takes up writings of the well-known Malayalam writer, Lalitambika Antarjanam, who delves into the constructions of womanhood, gender and desire in early 20th century Malayalee society. Devika argues that Antarjanam’s writings on desire, love, sexuality and motherhood must be viewed as a departure from a reformist position on sexuality marking many of her contemporaries. The volume also contains the translation of a short piece by Antarjanam.

Prem Chowdhury’s analysis of women’s songs in Haryana reinforces the subversive potential of culture. The songs which are sung at different occasions, including marriage, contain lustful and erotic representations of female sexuality. These songs mock and challenge the dominant patriarchal articulations of female sexuality as passive and provide a space for women to behave as sexual subjects and not merely objects. These songs often have interesting caste dimensions, as Chowdhury demonstrates that women’s songs also portray ‘out-caste’ lovers such as the marginalized, the ascetic, the artisan or craftsman, making them more subversive in their content.

The section on masculinity contains a paper by Radhika Chopra on the lives of male domestic workers within homes and the gender negotiations that take place between the worker and the women of the household. The male domestic worker has to develop a simultaneous presence and invisibility in order to interact with the woman employer. This is an interesting inversion as the gender and class hierarchy are in contradiction, unlike the relationship between the female domestic with the female employer.

The last section on campaign documents mainly has documents on lesbian and queer sexuality and Article 377. Most of the documents are also from the post 2000 period. It would have been useful to have a more varied set of campaign documents from conferences, protest rallies, and letters. It is unfortunate that the eighties and nineties, which were defining for the women’s movement in its engagement with sexuality, are largely missing from the documents.

Kalpana Viswanath


GLOBALIZATION AND DEVELOPMENT by Sunanda Sen. National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2007.

THIS slim and handy volume explores the key issues involved in ‘globalization sans development’ in India. It challenges ‘the myth which views globalization alone as a panacea for achieving development.’ It criticizes the fundamental tenets of mainstream economic theory by pointing out that increasingly, market-efficiency comes without growth and growth itself without development.

After 60 years of independence and 16 years of economic reforms, India’s human development index (HDI) has slipped further down to 128th rank out of 177 countries. Eighty per cent of the population lives below the per capita income of under Rs 100 a day. Half of Indian children are malnourished and a much larger proportion suffers from anaemia. The forces of socio-economic gravitation have failed to ensure the ‘trickle-down’ of prosperity to the toiling masses. On the contrary, corporate-led market forces at work are doing a speedy job of making the distribution of income, wealth and opportunities even more skewed, imposing unspeakable hardships on people and swiftly worsening social tensions.

Unlike many other recent tracts on globalization, the author does not accept the facile, fashionable view that there is nothing new about globalization. Earlier episodes notwithstanding, this phase of globalization has brought about a ‘qualitative change for society, economy, institutions and world order’ in addition to consolidating the ‘informal hegemony’ of the rich nations, particularly the United States.

The global market has become the main vehicle of economic change in most economies. While technology has opened up new possibilities and increased productivity at a dizzying pace, it has often been against the interests of working people, ‘flexible labour norms’ enabling companies to strive for competitiveness. This phase of globalization has also been marked by the growth in speed and volume of international financial flows, the hegemony of the US dollar leading the way (despite obvious recent weaknesses, it enjoys unique privileges). Finally, globalization in recent times has been marked by staggering inequalities of wealth and power. Developing nations are suffering acutely for this in international and multilateral negotiations on virtually all issues, including human rights.

The author makes the rarely made observation that global markets are being controlled and manipulated more than ever before by multinational corporations from the affluent nations in their own interest through both subtle and obvious structures of authority that have been evolved for the purpose. This gives such private entities enormous power over the destinies of the billions of people who live in poorer parts of the world. The structures of economic domination are perpetuated by so-called multilateral institutions like the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, whose unjust policies (for instance of unequal exchange, hidden subsidies, unreasonable product standards, expensive patents or denial of market-access), loan conditionalities and policy-surveillance continue to hurt the poor countries as they serve investor-interest in the rich countries. Additionally, comprador elites in Third World countries have entered into new kinds of alliances with those in the rich world to enlarge their own privileges. The trend has grown in India since 1991.

As a result of the deregulation of financial markets in western countries since the Thatcher-Reagan years, and policies of financial liberalization promoted by the IMF in developing economies on behalf of global finance in the 1990s, a class of global rentier capitalists has re-emerged. The application of free-market norms in the financial sector has meant that high-risk, high-return speculative activity has taken precedence over long-term physical investment in the real sector of the economy, damaging output and employment in the long-term.

The growing financialization of the Indian economy since 1993 (when capital markets were made accessible to foreign institutional investors) is then easy to understand. By 2006, as much as 37% of the GDP was transacted by FIIs, derivative transactions being more than six times those in the primary market (through which alone real physical assets are created). An important conclusion is that ‘financial reforms in India have neither been for growth in terms of the creation of physical assets nor for a fair distribution of the financial flows which are not only equitable but also productive. Instead the country has provided opportunities for speculation in financial assets in a manner as has never been witnessed before.’

Routine financial exclusion (which had been forestalled after bank nationalization in 1969) has become a fact of life in India because of the introduction of Basel norms which require stringent risk-adjusted capital adequacy standards that only the wealthy can meet. Credit has been repeatedly withheld from small and medium enterprises as much as for creditworthy projects of the poor, even as car, housing and retail loans have been pushed aggressively in the cities. It is no secret that credit for investment in agriculture has all but dried up (at a time of rising input costs because of withdrawal of government subsidies and forced purchase of seeds from corporations), contributing in no small measure to hundreds of thousands of suicides by farmers.

Additionally, given that neither capital gains nor dividends on financial assets are taxable under the new laws, there is even more incentive for investors to speculate. The state having washed its hands off any real possibility of regulating financial markets, the FIIs are in a position to hold the Indian economy to ransom, especially in a future when the rupee is fully convertible into hard currencies.

Can anything be done to avert such dangers? Yes, argues Sen, but only if the government is willing to regulate and tax speculative finance and evolve policies to give an impetus only to investment in real, physical capital. The likelihood of this happening is utterly thin, since the fortunes of affluent investors in the rich countries are involved in the lucrative functioning of ‘emerging markets’ in poor (but growing) economies like India. To make matters worse, institutions like the IMF and the World Bank have been controlling the levers of policy-making in economies like India for a long time now. Not surprisingly, data published recently shows that annual returns on the Sensex are the highest (43%) in the world.

For all the reasons analyzed above, if globalization has spawned uneven development (in India even more than elsewhere), it is hardly surprising. The famed ‘free’ market is not operating on level-playing fields. The causes are to be traced to authoritarian decision-making through top-heavy international power structures driven by global investor interests. Cases of discrimination against developing countries at institutions like the WTO and the IMF are legion. When one puts this next to the compromised and co-opted policies that are being followed by the Indian government (regardless of political stripe) since 1991, the unjust results follow.

A vital point made in Sen’s book is that in addition to all the above factors, technology adds to the skewed distributional consequences of globalization. It may be true that advances in information technology and telecommunications have made it possible for skilled and semi-skilled workers in India to take jobs away from their counterparts abroad (unfortunate as that is for workers in rich countries). However, technology is not a free good in the real world, unlike what mainstream economic theory casually assumes. The transfer of industrial technology involves heavy royalties on patents (thanks to such impositions as TRIPS: Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights), the cost at bottom being paid by workers whose wages have fallen below (rising) productivity as their employers seek to pass on the burden of the royalties.

In agriculture, companies have accumulated monopoly profits on patents. In cotton cultivation, for instance, the use of patented Bt cotton seeds has effectively transferred large sums of money as royalties from farmers to Monsanto Corporation. Further, the import of technology (because it comes with the baggage of patents) has raised the cost of critical medicines in India (something typically not measured while calculating poverty or inflation indices). In another area, most items of high-tech consumption are beyond the pockets of the poor, making the digital divide even deeper. Finally, an important long-term consequence of the growing import of technology has been that national science and technology policies have been placed on the back-burner, not just in India but in other developing countries too. Naturally, this will deepen the dependence on affluent nations.

In the last chapter of her instructive book, Sunanda Sen considers the prospects for development under the globalized economic regime now ruling policy-making in India. She points out that the failure of development under globalization in India is hardly unique. China, in the midst of its growth fever, has been experiencing rising inequalities and regional disparities since globalization was fully introduced in the 1990s. Urban incomes (after taking account of taxes and subsidies) are as much as six times rural incomes. Forty four per cent of the Chinese live without sanitation. There were over 100,000 protests in the country last year. Significant growth and poverty coexist resiliently in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand and elsewhere.

That development as desired is not happening is obvious. The state having withdrawn from its economic responsibilities to the poor, without well-supported market-access, the latter are in no position to claim the theoretical benefits of ‘free’ markets under globalization. The reality is that the poor are typically being excluded from economic participation in numbers ever larger by the day. Moreover, as their rural natural resource base is being taken away from them through land acquisition for industrial projects like SEZs, they edge ever closer to the widening margins of existence. Not just privileges but necessities too are denied to them.

Within the formal market economy the growth of employment has slowed down. It is barely over 1% in an economy growing at 8-9% p.a. In the 1980s, when the rate of growth of the economy was little over a half of this, the growth rate of employment was more than twice of what it is now. Imported technology is increasingly more capital-intensive. In agriculture, new crops have reduced the demand for labour, a lurking peril of the growing mechanization and industrialization. Ironically, agriculture still remains the lifeline for hundreds of millions at a time when labour is fast becoming disposable in other sectors of the economy. Few have the good fortune of being exploited. Job losses in urban areas, especially since the recent rise of the rupee under the onslaught of India-bound capital flows, are staggering (running into several hundreds of thousands). And most people have few resources for self-employment.

Where working people are able to find jobs, they must live with the flexible labour markets that foreign investors and multilateral institutions have successfully pushed for. Among other things, this implies declining real wages despite rising productivity in a large number of industries. Critical of SEZs and other mega-projects which are being set up as part of a fast-track strategy of industrialization, Professor Sen notes the casualization of labour and rapid rise in working hours that is involved. Perceptively, she argues that labour has been turned into a risk-bearing factor of production. To add insult to injury, prices of essential items like food have been on the rise, something which hurts especially more since the public distribution system was been wound down.

In globalizing India, Sen points out, the state, far from being a regulator of corporations, has become a full-time promoter of global financial interests, defying not just economic logic and ethical values, but also political wisdom. She calls for citizens to demand that the state discharge its primary responsibilities – that of serving the needs of the people.

To conclude, some reflections on the text under review. A major shortcoming of the book is that it shares the economist’s blind-spot with respect to environmental limits. This is a serious issue in a time plagued by real anxieties to do with climate change and peak oil, both impacting prices of essential goods – in India increasingly as much as abroad. Perhaps a short discussion on the implications of such an energy and resource-intensive rapid growth strategy would have been in order.

The book falls short of offering the outlines of an alternative policy framework, an imperative for our times. Perhaps that is not its goal, but a few pages on employment-led growth (as opposed to what appears to be finance and inequality-led growth) would have been welcome from such an astute economist.

It would have been equally useful to read what the author thinks about the underlying stagnation in the pattern of international trade that India is engaged in. The balance of payments crisis which led our policy-making elites to take the IMF loan, and hastily and obediently alter the entire policy framework after 1991, may not have gone away (the trade deficit is rising by more than 7% every year) when one peeps under the deceptions of statistics. The much-touted $275 billion of foreign exchange reserves do not appear so large when one considers that (a) India’s annual imports are $250 billion, (b) India’s foreign debt is almost $200 billion, of which at least $30 billion is short-term, (c) the rupee may be made fully convertible under pressure from global finance and the IMF in the coming years, and (d) a few hours of aggressive private trading can readily take the reserves away, returning us to the predicament of 1991 and more vulnerability to the IMF. Importantly, Indian hard currency reserves, unlike those of China (five times larger) are not based on export buoyancy as on FIIs.

The above may be a worthy research agenda for other books on the topic. Also worthy of attention are the plans that global agribusiness (about half a dozen giant corporations and their junior partners in India) might have for India. This might illuminate how and why the economics of small farming has been undermined over the past decade or so. (Western nations have, after all, subsidized their agriculture all along. Why the double standards when it comes to the Third World?) Realistically speaking, given resource limits, India can never catch up with the West (even if that was desirable) in terms of high-end consumption. Knowing this, wouldn’t smart transnational corporate strategy be to make a dash for controlling India’s essential items: its water, food-chain, medicines and energy, just as we see happening? A fearsome prospect.

Another area for further consideration might be the systematic urban bias in all policy-making today, deeply aggravating historical trends. Immiserization through unequal exchange may be happening not just internationally, but also through adverse terms of trade between agriculture and other sectors of the economy. However, to establish the thesis rigorously calls for more research.

After reading the book it is very hard to escape the conclusion that development as might be desirable for billions of people is little more than a political slogan that suits the short-term interests of the national elites and the avarice of global finance. The rhetoric of development has been around since the 1940s, when a triumphalist United States coined a new ideology to control the resources and markets of the decolonizing nations. It masks the hidden reality of the ruthless warlike competition to rule global markets. Once the pressure of the Cold War had eased off by the mid-1980s, it is noteworthy that Newsweek reported the US representative to the Asia Development Bank as saying that ‘the United States completely rejects the idea that there is such a thing as development economics.’ (Newsweek, 13 May 1985.)

This line of thought suggests that in reality globalization has meant growth for the rich minority and increasingly stretched survival for the poor majority. Development, which should ideally have left us a world of people who are neither overfed nor underfed, is conspicuous by its absence.

It is hard to disagree with any of the main conclusions of this fine book. Despite its drawbacks (there are some minor typographical and data errors and no index) the book offers an accurate synoptic view of the impact of globalization in India since 1991. To have succeeded in summarizing the multifarious trends accompanying the phenomenon in India for the educated lay reader is a significant achievement. But perhaps the most salutary feature of the book is that it challenges with robust evidence some of the founding theoretical postulates on which the entire adventure of corporate globalization is premised. It reveals them to be little more than prejudices, convenient at best, utterly destructive at worst.

Aseem Shrivastava


THE REPUBLIC OF HUNGER AND OTHER ESSAYS by Utsa Patnaik. Three Essays Collective, Delhi, 2007.

INDIA may well have a general election in 2008. In which case, we can be sure that the media will be saturated by pundits who will speculate on the imminent fractured mandate, focusing largely on the differentiated nature of India’s political landscape by pointing to the interaction of personality and political formation with locality, region, religion, class, caste, tribe, gender and perceptions of regime performance. But few are likely to point to the proverbial elephant in the room that shapes political choice in the country – the endemic agrarian crisis, affecting around 640 million people whose livelihoods depend on agriculture. In fact the phrase ‘anti-incumbency factor’, deployed ad nausem in the talk circuit to refer to electoral imponderables, is expressive of an analytical haze that plagues ‘experts’, usually boggled by or unmindful of (catastrophic) developments in agrarian India.

One obvious indicator is the suicide of 150,000 farmers between 1997-2005 at the rate of 1,562 people a month. (Effectively this means that over the eight-year period, agrarian distress possibly caused twice the number of fatalities as Jammu and Kashmir has seen over the last 17 years – if one takes the mean of conflicting claims about casualty figures in J&K.) According to P. Sainath, rural affairs editor of The Hindu, this figure excludes around eight categories of people including women – as the state machinery refuses to categorise them as farmers even though women head one-fifth (19 per cent) of farm households nationally. Also, anyone who was in charge of a farm but did not have his name on the title deed (e.g. eldest sons with ageing fathers) is not reckoned as a farmer suicide. Those who migrate to the city and kill themselves do not count as farmer suicides nor those who were in debt to private money lenders (with usually no records).

In this collection of essays, Utsa Patnaik offers an empirically rich and compelling analysis of the factors that lie behind the destitution of India’s small-holder peasantry. Millions of farm households have been impoverished by the ‘commercialization of the countryside’ that ensued after liberalizing reforms in 1991. Farmers pursuing export-driven cropping patterns (of cash crops via increased use of expensive imported genetically modified pest resistant seeds), allured at the prospect of high global prices in the early 1990s, found themselves trapped in a cycle of indebtedness after prices fell by around 50 per cent over the last decade. Rural incomes collapsed as a result; the average monthly per capita expenditure of the farm household now stands at a meagre Rs 503 for a family’s food, fuel, health and education. All this in a country that also happens to be among the top two producers of rice, wheat, fresh vegetables, sugarcane and milk in the world.

Patnaik attributes this process to the workings of an asymmetric globalization that has parallels to colonial trade practices. One principal driver, in her view, is the sustained implementation of World Bank-IMF conditionalities since India initiated economic reforms in 1991. These pertain to liberalizing agricultural trade, cutting farm input subsidies and reducing state expenditure in agriculture. Patnaik argues that each of these measures benefited developed countries while devastating smallholder Indian peasantry.

In framing this argument, Patnaik disputes the relevance of David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage – often deployed as justification for trade liberalization – which suggests that trade is ‘beneficial for all parties involved as long as they produce goods with different relative costs.’ She contends that comparative advantage works on the premise that both countries can produce the same goods which is simply not the case regarding agricultural trade between tropical and temperate countries as most primary goods can only be grown in developing countries. It is at this point of dependence – on primary exports from the South for food and plant material for genetic research – that the imperative of ‘enforced trade’ on developing countries through bank conditionalities comes in.

Patnaik contends that trade, under such circumstances, will benefit developed countries with poorer output vectors by acquiring agricultural goods they cannot produce, but countries with superior output do not necessarily benefit. The colonial experience of Ireland, Taiwan, Korea and Java shows, in her reckoning, that export growth from tropical agriculture under free trade regimes has usually led to a fall in domestic foodgrain output since there are limits to land’s productivity by virtue of it being a ‘non-producible resource’. Similarly, the recent surge in India’s agricultural exports has led to a steep fall in foodgrain availability over the last 15 years – to a stage where production is not keeping pace with population growth. In 2001-02, the average Indian family of four was absorbing 93 kilograms less compared to four years earlier, which points to experience of widespread hunger in rural areas when factoring differentiated patterns of consumption between the rich and poor.

Patnaik consequently argues that trade liberalization and an export thrust make sense only when there is substantial rise in investment to raise productivity. On the contrary, however, deflationary cuts in India’s rural development expenditure – also a formulaic embrace of Bank-IMF prescriptions – have amounted to Rs 30,000 crore ($7.14 billion) per year over the last decade leading to a loss of about Rs 120,000-150,000 crore ($20-26 billion) in agrarian income, assuming a multiplier value between 4 and 5.1

This contraction of domestic demand compounds unemployment, freezes purchasing power of rural poor and undermines agriculture as a viable occupation, with direct implications for India’s food security in the coming years through increasing dependence on grain imports. Critics project from trends – such as the reduction of agricultural workforce (particularly from among the 158 million wage-dependent workers), the prospect of the domestic market being flooded by agricultural imports (owing to the government’s failure to match western subsidies to their farmers) and scope for establishing food-processing units in SEZs – that India risks losing control of its food chain in the years ahead.

To return to a basic question: how do observers and stakeholders lose sight of such rural deprivation and how did successive regimes get away with cuts in development expenditure? Patnaik blames the Planning Commission and neoliberal economists for dissolving the problem by furnishing under-rated figures of existing poverty levels in their effort to justify cuts in development expenditure and project that reform was indeed leading to poverty reduction. Her critique of poverty studies in India is a particularly rewarding section of this insightful book. To summarise one aspect of the argument briefly: since the early 1970s (official) poverty estimates have been based on a ‘poverty line’ expenditure level. This was ‘defined as that level of expenditure per capita per month on all goods and services, whose food expenditure component enabled an energy intake of 2400 kcal per capita in rural areas and 2100 kcal in urban areas’ – which corresponded to the required daily allowance of energy.

The poverty definition was quite minimalist, pegged as it was to a nutrition norm (excluding non-food items of spending) and all persons spending below the poverty line expenditure were considered to be poor. (In 1973-74, the rural and urban poverty lines were Rs 49.09 and Rs 56.64 per capita per month to access the required calorie intake.) Notably, poverty lines have since not been updated to reflect current information on what expenditure is actually required to meet the norm. Second, ‘the three-decade old poverty lines (Rs 49.1 and Rs 56.6) were simply adjusted upwards by using a price index, while assuming an invariant 1973-4 consumption basket. The adjusted poverty line was then applied to the cumulative distribution of persons by expenditure groups in the current National Sample Survey (NSS) data to obtain the "poverty percentage".’

To illustrate from the (culled) table below from the NSS data for 1999-2000. If nutrition were the norm then 69.7 per cent in rural India were below the poverty line as they would be unable to access the required 2400 kcal.2 But the Planning Commission takes Rs 328 as the official price adjusted poverty line for 1999-2000 and declares rural poverty level as standing at 27.4 per cent from the same data! There is thus a de-linking from nutrition as the standard in estimating poverty levels without officially giving up the norm of 2400 kcal.

Percentage Distribution of Persons by Monthly Per Capita Expenditure (MPCE) Groups and Average Calorie Intake Per Diem, 1999-2000, All India

Rural monthly per capita expenditure Rupees

Average monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) Rupees

Calorie intake per diem per capita

Per cent of persons%

Cumulative percentage

Below 225













































Patnaik argues such indirect estimates of poverty not only lack academic credibility but lead to catastrophic policy-making. For instance, by targeting the food subsidy from 1997-98, the government restricted supply of cheaper grain through the public distribution system to only those officially identified as ‘below the poverty line’, thus exacerbating levels of hunger.

The Republic of Hunger robustly engages several such strands of the debate on agrarian India and offers an immensely valuable account of structural factors that generate social conflict and shape contemporary politics in India. On a graver note, it underlines the point that establishing SEZs or industrial projects on agricultural land serve to further jeopardize food security for the poor since the majority of Indians happen to be both producers and consumers of food, unlike in other economies.

Sushil J. Aaron


1. Public work expenditure through the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is an encouraging effort to stem this trend but desired results can be expected only when schemes are implemented to an acceptable degree.

2. Patnaik points out that the poverty figure for rural India actually works out to 74.5 per cent when this table is plotted precisely on a graph.


DEBATING GANDHI: A Reader edited by A. Raghuramaraju. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007.

SIMILAR to the recent crop of Hindi films on Gandhi (‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’, ‘Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara’), valiant and rather successful attempts to rescue Gandhi from boredom and oblivion, the essays in the present volume attempt to do the same for both Gandhi and Gandhian thought, though at a higher intellectual plain. As pointed out by Ashis Nandy elsewhere in a ‘typology’ of Gandhians in India, Gandhi has usually been reduced to the most boring of philosophical generalities and moralistic clichés, which is perhaps more damaging than mindless neglect. This volume is an exception in that it seems to not simply bring Gandhian ideas to life once again but also raise debates that won’t resolve in a hurry.

To begin with, A.K. Saran (this is not the sequence followed in the book) asks a radical question that many academics will find profoundly disturbing. Saran, overwhelmed by the subversive prowess of Gandhian thought, wonders if the academic world with its staid bureaucratic structures and norms can ever make a worthy home for some sort of Gandhian Studies at all. One can sympathize with him for fearing the eventual taming of Gandhi, even if one disagrees with his take on Gandhian thought, or his views on what makes Gandhian thought so radically subversive.

Another essay on Gandhi by Sunil Sahasrabuddhe blows up a 70 mm image of the anti-machine or anti-technology Gandhi, rarely mentioned and much too hastily rejected by many myopically forward-looking modernists. Sahasrabuddhe goes deep into the anti-machine argument, ignoring all the standard Aufklarung shibboleths with quiet aplomb. One is reminded here of a joke of the most profound variety. Once a western journalist asked Gandhi what he thought of western civilization, Gandhi’s bland answer was, ‘It’s a good idea’, a pun with loads of irony, disdain and sarcasm! In his own lifetime Gandhi had come a long way – from the juvenile aping of a ballroom dancer during his early days in England to a satyagrahi unimpressed by the greatest feats of western civilization. Bhikhu Parekh in his perceptive essay tries to place Gandhi’s autobiographical style in the long tradition of autobiography writing, using the telling though awkward characterization ‘autobiographical biography’ – a biography of the self that aims to instruct and is not a mere outpouring of an agonized soul or an account of sundry details of a life.

Shiv Visvanathan attempts to jump out of his own interpretive skin through an amusing but profound spoof. He looks at the present and tries to put together a collage of Gandhi through contemporary angles and locales to answer the question: what would Gandhi be doing and saying if he were alive now? The exercise is a bit like looking around for the closest possible likeness of someone dead and gone. Understandably, such attempts are far less agonizing than the archaeological digging of the past and afford us the imaginative pleasure of say, sculpture or painting. An implicit claim here is that Gandhi cannot be relegated to the past – at least a partial repair for a history of oversight, neglect or even parricide.

Ashis Nandy’s ‘Final Encounter’ is a reconstruction of a tale with frightening implications. It vividly demonstrates how Gandhi and his assassin Godse are intertwined in our mental spaces and how a parricidal India chose to confirm Gandhi’s paternity through the bullet. Notably, Godse bowed to Gandhi before firing his shots. The film ‘Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara’ brought us a parallel though rawer tale last year straight from the analyst’s couch. Nandy uncovers several layers of a tale of guilt, reverence and hate that no amnesia can ever delete. He does this by bringing together numerous facts of the case which a guilty conscience may wish were left untouched or remained scattered in the dense undergrowth of history.

Partha Chatterjee takes a hard-headed look at the Gandhian critique of civil society, enabling us to make sense of several Gandhian concepts and usages. He helps the reader see how the central myths and concepts of our epoch such as nationalism and nation state were of little value to Gandhi who unfailingly maintained a focus on the ‘civil society’. To use an analogy, in earlier times religious saints often chose to locate their spiritual journeys away from the over-elaborate theological preoccupations of the mainstream. Bypassing all the finely embroidered concepts of the religious orthodoxies, they often took recourse to simple and raw ideals such as love and brotherhood. Ironically, such conceptual primitivism or absence of sophisticated abstraction often gave their ideas a special strength and appeal. Even more ironically, subsequent interpretations uncovered great philosophical richness in the simple ideas. Similarly, it is interesting to note how simple life seems to become the moment the endlessly debated notions of the state and nationalism are bypassed and human dignity and welfare become the primary intellectual and emotive focus.

This conceptual and emotive parsimony is however double-edged – it may allow you to carve a national movement out of a civil society, but equally may leave you disabled when it comes to founding or running a full-fledged state. This is the ultimate pathos of Gandhian politics, one that Gandhi himself was aware of and could do nothing about. Both Nandy and Chatterjee discuss this pathos from their own perspectives. Clearly, even in our own time, we may choose to look at Gandhian politics as a tragedy of heroic proportions or as simply a pathetic dead-end, depending entirely on our own political vision. As suggested by Nandy, Godse may have had a more exact idea (the certainty reflected in murder?) of the potency and endurance of Gandhian ideas. Unlike a self-destructive Harilal, he seems more than just a neglected son, perhaps a son whose megalomaniac dreams of nationhood Gandhi tried to question.

For a student of ideas, Akeel Bilgrami may be an interesting surprise here. Unlike a Richard Lannoy who found creative inconsistency the most consistent element in Gandhi, Bilgrami has a very different philosophical tale to tell. He in fact claims a very high degree of integrity or consistency for Gandhian ideas. In his reading, Gandhi made a fundamental break with the very epitome of the western ethical tradition – the Kantian universal imperative in its many forms. According to Bilgrami, whereas the ethical imperative is based on universalizable/universalized ethical maxims, Gandhi never claimed the status of universalizability for his actions and conduct. When Gandhi made an ethical point, he simply sought to ‘set an example’, leaving others to respond to it. This attenuated the need to condemn those who did not follow the example, and accordingly placed a curb on hate and violence.

Bilgrami uses his arguments to crack what has remained a highly nettlesome but curiously undiscussed dilemma for many admirers of Gandhi – was Gandhi just an astute political mobilizer or more? Was he instead an earnest seeker after truth? Strangely, Gandhi’s conduct seems to fit equally well into the two diametrically opposed images of political cunning and ethical sublimity. Bilgrami’s ideas deserve a continued and sustained debate. It is likely that even Godse, for all his interpretive certainty, was unable to resolve this dilemma till the end. Conditioned as we are by the universal imperative, it is not easy to see the profound but nuanced distinction between the Gandhian ‘exemplar’ and the Kantian universal maxim.

The Reader includes essays on Gandhi’s views on women by Madhu Kishwar and Sujata Patel, bringing into discussion a highly agonizing aspect of Gandhi. The two essays try to place Gandhi among other social reformers based on their different perspectives. The last essay of the volume by D.R. Nagaraj brings Gandhi and Ambedkar face to face with equally agonizing results. The title of his essay, ‘Self-purification versus self-respect’, indicates how repentance may soothe the conscience of the upper caste person without consoling a dalit to the expected extent. Stated crudely, penitent self-flagellation on the part of the upper castes can never ensure recovery of self-respect among the dalits, even if it creates a good threshold for it. True, the gulf between Gandhi and Ambedkar seems difficult to bridge any time soon.

Apart from the above, essays by A.L. Basham and Sumit Sarkar help the reader locate Gandhi respectively through focus on the various broader and regional Indian traditions, and the issue of mass mobilization in the Indian freedom movement. Ramachandra Guha on the other hand tries to set the record straight on the relation between the environmental movements and Gandhian ideas.

A. Raghuramaraju, the editor of the volume, has succeeded in ‘bringing together the different interpretations of Gandhi’ in his useful introduction to the Reader. The reviewer cannot omit to mention how during his university years in the 1980s, Gandhian thought was condescendingly seen by students of ideas as a dilute and second-rate form of philosophy. If at all Gandhian ideas seemed interesting, it was entirely for their annoying but mysterious ability to move the masses. Gandhi too, on the other hand, had always reacted coolly towards the intense cerebrations (read clever but insincere ideas) of the intellectual, wasting little time on critiques and critiques of critiques. It seems this gulf is now fast filling up.

Ratnakar Tripathy