Slow Violence of State Apathy

An edited version of my review of Nayanika Mathur's book Paper Tiger (2016) appears in EPW.

Nayanika Mathur undertakes a complex ethnographic journey. In simple terms, her sites are the institutions and terrains that are responsible for the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. As a progressive poverty alleviation scheme, the launch of the scheme carried great expectations from and of the state. But tracing the NREGS takes her into the homes and hearts of many. Crucially, she maps governance as a terrain of sentiment and affect. The story that unfolds through the generation of a labyrinth of paper is one of uncertainty, precarity and oscillating emotion towards Sarkar. Mathur’s ethnography of government is very different from those we have read in recent years – Akhil Gupta’s Red Tape (2012) and others. Mathur provides an important corrective to the Weberian narrative of the bureaucracy being an impersonal vehicle of rules. Mathur shows emotion, drama, humour, apathy, cunning in the enactment of governance. She further shows the process of spatialisation of state. 

I wish to treat the book by highlighting four themes: 1) Sarkar, 2) paper, 3) time, 4) space.

 1. Sarkar 
Mathur’s ethnography based in Gopeshwar, Chamoli district of Uttarakhand in the Indian Himalaya is one that experience state power from a distance (altitudinal distance, even). I will consider the notion of distance and remoteness in the section ‘Space’. Mathur writes (p.22): “Sarkar, in my reading, is best understood as an intimate repository of power. Thus, it can mean just the government but also, as the prologue indicates, a person (DM sahib); further certain objects such as documents (sarkari kaghaz) and places (such as Delhi, Gopeshwar, Dehradun, an office).” She points out the polyvalence in the term sarkari (p.24): “Within the apparatus of the state, I show, for instance, how sarkari or becoming sarkari is a deeply aspirational state of being. But outside this particular context, to call someone or something sarkari normally carries pejorative connotations. So, sarkari can mean empty routine, or a numbed and dumbed-down manner of acting/thinking.” This aspect, as illustrated in the ethnography, is particularly interesting to me – numbness of governance, and of officials. It is a kind of slow, simmering violence, articulated through apathy. 

Mathur makes two important points about Sarkar. One, that to be in the Sarkar one has to be appear to be Sarkari. The term sarkari is polyphonous. It carries the meaning of being officious and authoritative. It also carries the meaning of preacarity and being in a limbo – a domain in which nothing will happen. The sarkariness of the state flow into the lives of people, especially poor people. Mathur provides detailed accounts of the rhythms and cadences of mundane government meetings, the routine changes in the verboseness and silences of the Block Development Officer. The beneficiaries of the NREGS often don’t receive job cards, or the requisite money for work done. To claim what is theirs on paper, they must first know and understand what the paper says, they must locate the paper and attribute it to the requisite wing of government, and finally, they must interact with the actors who pose themselves as Sarkar. 

Mathur’s ethnography shows that government is not a monolith. Responsibility is passed on from one level of officialdom to the next and the officer at the very end of the NREGA ladder is forever burdened. What she crucially shows is the affective register of government, the uncertainty and emotional experience of governance – the words, gestures, rhythms, cadences that go with having to perform Sarkar; becoming sarkari (p.133). I found the section on the bagh (tiger) encroaching into Gopeshwar quite delightful and instructive – especially, in the discourse that the tiger should have known better than to enter the garden of the District Magistrate. The idea of an insecure and defensive sovereign is sketched out wonderfully. This is not the all-pervasive state that Foucault(1975) describes in. This is not the grand sovereign picking out bare life (Agamben 2004). This is the state that is constantly trying to put together a display of sovereignty, anxious that it may come apart at the slightest provocation, in this case by a tiger. This is an account of state that displays sovereignty and attendant violence through apathy, delay, numbness. I particular liked that a book titled Paper Tiger includes an episode of an actual tiger, to offset the image of the powerful state that feverishly generates paper. 

 2. Paper 
The biggest contribution of Mathur’s book is in tracing the life of paper. And very differently from the life of governance and paperwork as treated in other recent works, in its highlighting of the affective life of paper. It resonates somewhat with Emma Tarlo’s (2003) earlier work on the memory of Emergency in Delhi’s resettlement colonies. Paper artefacts are supposed to contain and transmit truths. In so doing, they are supposed to generate certainty on rights and entitlements vis-à-vis state and other citizens. But here, the contents of paper (especially in the case of job cards) are obscure, the paper is always a receding treasure in the horizon of poor people trying to access them, and finally, the paper holds power over people through its obscurity and precarity rather than clarity and truth-claim. The chapter ‘The Letter of the State’ reflects comprehensively on the artefact and the institution of the ‘sarkari letter’. A letter sent indicates responsibility abdicated in favour of a lower official. It is a ‘protective shield’ in Mathur’s vocabulary. Many letters are callously put aside or trashed. The content of the letter translates into a demand for action only to the lowest official. Mathur’s discussion of the grammar, language and tone of these letters open up a new avenue of doing textual analysis of governing artefacts – a sort of anthropology of legal/official language. Through the life of paper, Mathur wonderfully illustrates a life of poverty experienced in slow violence. What kind of logic of governance is this? What kind of governance reveals itself in apathy, tiredness and slow, invisible violence? Mathur doesn’t unpack it fully; I suspect she does that deliberately to let the ethnographic material breathe life into the question. 

 3. Time 

The experience of state, for most poor NREGA beneficiaries, is one of uncertainty, often manifest through ‘waiting’. Waiting is a kind of dead time, or captive time, through which the social and political subjugation of the person waiting is expressed. The beneficiaries are forever waiting for the promises of paper to materialize, for the state to show some of its idealized character. The giving welfare state that presents itself in shut windows and dead times is not quite the picture of the ideal type of welfare state. Mathur quotes Vincent Crapanzano (1985): “Waiting means to be oriented in time in a special way. It is directed towards the future – not an expansive future, however, but a constructed one that closes in on the present…It’s only meaning lies in the future – in the arrival or non-arrival of the object of waiting.” (p.143) 

 4. Space
 Another important contribution that Mathur’s work has to the field of anthropology of state is showing the spatialisation of state; the spatial relationship with state. Gopeshwar, for most bureaucrats, is a ‘punishment posting’. The dilapidation and emptiness of government buildings and the slowness of everyday life is symbolic of the state’s negligent relationship with places far away from commercial and political centres. Contra Scott’s (2011) argument that hill-people deliberately maintain distance from state, Mathur shows an affective register of craving better care and attention from state. Mathur gives a wonderful ethnographic account of space in the anecdote about the petrol-pump being the watershed between ‘state-land’ and ‘non-state-land’ (p.45), the spatial imaginary of ‘above’ and ‘below’ through the terrain is interpreted in the everyday. In the burgeoning literature on the anthropology of state, Mathur’s contribution is a significant one. 

Paper Tiger takes the inquiry of state away from the body of the state, into the domains of language, affect, emotion, time and space. I wasn’t clear about her argument regarding ‘corruption’, but I don’t see it as a major arc in the ethnographic narrative. It is commendable that she avoids the usual Foucault-Agamben theoretical dyad in unpacking state. Mathur’s marshalling of anthropological and theoretical literature is admirable; I found especially delightful the use of literary sources – Sarnath Banerjee and Kafka. I would have liked the story to be grounded in specific characters that run right through the narrative. I am left waiting for Mathur to tell me about the theoretical implications of it all, but I guess, on purpose, she leaves out a grand theoretical claim, in order to let the ethnography do its job. 

 Works Cited - 
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998. 
- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. 
- Gupta, Akhil. Red Tape: bureaucracy, structural violence and poverty in India. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012. 
- Tarlo, Emma. Unsettling Memories: Narratives of the Emergency in Delhi. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 2001.

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