India’s Political Lexicon in its Vernaculars

25 May 2018 - 26 May 2018

SG1 and SG2, Alison Richard Building

To be added to a mailing list for this event, please email You will then be notified when further information is available. 



Anastasia Piliavsky (University of Cambridge)



It is extraordinary that, given the importance of India as the world’s largest democracy and a Rising Power, we know so little about the conceptual foundations of its political life. While much has been written about political ideas and institutions imported from Europe or generated by Anglophone political elites, no focused, consecutive effort has gone into trying to understand the ideas that guide most ordinary Indian citizens’ political lives. While earlier anthropologists’ concern with indigenous concepts and values has lost its vogue, Euro-American categories – rights, class, identity, democracy, neoliberalism, public sphere, and so on – have been elevated to the status of analytical universals, which do little to illuminate local conceptions of state, justice, corruption, bureaucracy and the democratic process, conceptions that resist prefigured theories and exogenous analytical terms. To make sense of how people think about politics, we need to know the language they use to describe, appraise and operate within it. This need is particularly conspicuous in India, where official languages are separated from its many vernaculars by a vast social and conceptual gulf, and where the history and conceptualisation of vernacular political ideas is severely under-studied and under-theorised. 

This conference brings together students of Indian history, politics, languages and society to examine India’s political ideas through a close ethnographic and historical scrutiny of the languages used by its people to speak about and act within their political lives. Taking inspiration from the Begriffsgeschichte inquiry into German political concepts, we shall begin to lay the empirical and analytical groundwork for a vernacular lexicography of India’s political life. We shall also reflect on what such an inquiry can contribute to the making of a truly global political theory, grounded not in the presuppositions of Western political theorists, but in political values and categories espoused by people around the world. 

Participants will include Daud Ali, Lisa Björkman, Michael Collins, Nicholas Evans, Sudipta Kaviraj, Dilip Menon, Lisa Mitchell, Francesca Orsini, Filippo Osella, Parimal Patil, Ramnarayan Rawat, Sudev Sheth, and Akio Tanabe. 



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH).


 Administrative assistance: