The Lekh podcast features conversations with authors who have published new and recent books on South Asia.
Jaffrelot and Anil - India's First Dictatorship
In the nineteenth episode, I speak to Pratinav Anil, PhD Candidate, University of Oxford about his recently co-authored book (with Christophe Jaffrelot) India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975–1977 published by Hurst in December 2020. The book examines Indira and Sanjay Gandhi's authoritarianism, Jayaprakash Narayan's muddled politics, how the RSS gained respectability, how the Indian state, business and labour adapted to the changes Indira Gandhi wrought, and the causes and end of the Emergency. The conversation begins by asking what Anil’s initial ideas were about the emergency before beginning the book and how that evolved through research and writing. Next, we cover different parts of the book including the political economy of the emergency, why they refer to the government as a 'constitutional dictatorship', Sanjay Gandhi’s catastrophic impact, the parallel power structure he created to wreak havoc and why he was not reined in earlier, the causes and spatial effects of the emergency or why the effects were sequestered to the Hindi heartbelt and why they think the Emergency was not a critical event but a continuation of oppressive policies imposed on the Indian public.
India's First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-1977
Pradip Ninan Thomas - The Politics of Digital India
In the eighteenth episode, I speak to Pradip Ninan Thomas, Associate Professor, University of Queensland, about his recent book The Politics of Digital India: Between Local Compulsions and Transnational Pressures published by Oxford University Press in 2019. The book situates and locates Digital India in a global and local context by identifying the pressures, local and transnational, affecting India’s digital trajectory. The conversation begins by tracing Pradip’s journey with this book covering his previous works on media and telecommunications in India. Next, we historicise India’s current digital moment by covering the ’technological' continuities from the British Raj to the newly independent Indian government. The conversation then moves to understand what Thomas means by ‘digital’, how it manifests in India and how the 'digital' is negotiated, shaped and contested by political and geopolitical considerations including the Indian state and the United States. The conversation ends by wading into the importance of data to India’s digital economy, the potential and implications of the Indian state’s digital infrastructure projects and how digital governance aids surveillance.
Kate Imy - Faithful Fighters
In the seventeenth episode, I speak to Kate Imy, a historian at the University of North Texas, about her recent book Faithful Fighters: Identity and Power in the British Indian Army, published by Stanford University Press in 2019. The book explores how the military culture, created by the British, spawned new dialogues and dynamics between soldiers and civilian communities, including Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims. Colonial authorities had to respect and incorporate certain social and religious traditions into the Army to keep these groups loyal while ensuring these concessions did not fuel anti-colonial sentiments. The conversation begins by setting the context around the martial races, or the discourse through which the colonial state recruited soldiers before moving to understand how colonial authorities engaged with three major ethno-religious communities (Sikhs, Muslims, and Nepal Gurkhas). Imy then explains this dynamic through the Sikh Kirpan, a symbol of Sikh's martial prowess but could also be used to spur anti-colonial resistance. Next, we talk about the relationship between body and faith and the body's importance to the faith colonial officials had on Indian soldiers. The conversation moves to consider the effects of 'Indianization,' bringing more Indians into the Army through military academies, and the implications of recent efforts to further 'Indianize' the Indian Army effacing colonial traditions. The conversation ends by asking how we can deal with the fraught legacy left by the British Indian army in the subcontinent today.
Himanshu Jha - Capturing Institutional Change
In the sixteenth episode, I speak to Himanshu Jha, Lecturer and Research Fellow, South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University on his recent book Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act in India published by Oxford University Press in 2020. The book presents an alternate narrative of India’s 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act that transformed how the Indian state operated. Moving beyond narratives that stress the role of the social movements and political opportunities created by the first UPA government, Jha argues that the RTI Act was a result of an incremental, slow-moving process of 'ideas' that emerged endogenously from within the state since 1947. The conversation begins by exploring how Jha became interested in issues related to transparency in India and what the Right to Information Act (RTI) is. The discussion then considers how the norm of secrecy became ingrained within the Indian state at all levels. The key part of the conversation explores why the Indian state, penetrated by vested interests, changed the legal framework of the information regime, which could be used to highlight and expose how institutions governed. Jha reveals how his ideational argument pushes back against interest-based arguments that claim various social groups pushed the RTI through institutional channels to advance their interests; Jha argues that these groups mattered but their advocacy must be placed in the context of state discussions on transparency that go back decades. The conversation ends by assessing the current state of the RTI and whether it has weakened and the tradeoff between transparency, which the RTI advances, and privacy.
Capturing Institutional Change: The Case of the Right to Information Act in India
Ali Raza - Revolutionary Pasts
In the fifteenth episode, I speak to Ali Raza, Historian at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) on his recent book Revolutionary Pasts: Communist Internationalism in Colonial India published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. The book maps and reveals the stories of individuals in Colonial India - dissidents, migrant workers, students and peasants, who through various networks tried to make the world more egalitarian during a tumultuous interwar period. Shaped by utopian ideas of communist internationalism, these Indian revolutionaries wished to precipitate a global upheaval that could radically transform India. The conversation begins by unpacking South Asia’s contribution to the global history of communist internationalism and why scholars have resisted from excavating genealogies and experiences of leftist and communist politics in the subcontinent. Next, the discussion moves to understand why communism and dreams of a communist future proved attractive to individuals in Colonial India before exploring how these individuals understood and placed their actions relative to other dominant political projects like capitalism and colonialism. Raza then shares the story of one remarkable individual engaged in revolutionary activities globally - Ameer Haider Khan or ‘Dada’. The conversation ends by considering whether conditions are ripe for individuals across South Asia to envision and work toward an alternate, more revolutionary, future to address the challenges of the current post-colonial moment.
Revolutionary Pasts: Communist Internationalism in Colonial India
Sarah Besky - Tasting Qualities
In the fourteenth episode, I speak to Sarah Besky, cultural anthropologist at Cornell University on her recent book Tasting Qualities: The Past and Future of Tea published by the U of C Press in 2020. The book asks what the role of quality is in contemporary capitalism and how a product like a bag of tea is understood and judged for its quality. These questions are answered by zooming into different spaces where mass market black tea is made and processed in Eastern India. The conversation begins by talking about Besky’s previous book, also on tea, The Darjeeling Distinction, and how that led to the genesis of this project. Next, we cover how Besky thought about quality and the conditions that shape and produce it before unpacking how notions of quality result in the perpetuation of plantations over time. The conversation then moves to understand the spaces between plantations and consumers - comprising of intermediaries who influence how tea gets from the farm to the cup. Technologies are also shaping these spaces and processes that determine tea quality. Besky covers how digital auctions are changing our ideas of what quality is when it comes to tea. Finally, the conversation explores how notions of quality intersect with masculinity, affecting the gendered dynamics of tea production before finishing by covering what Besky's current work is about.