Smuts Memorial Lecture Series – The Dispersed Body of the Police: Cascading Scales

10 October 2019, 17:30 - 19:00

Large Lecture Hall, Department of Geography, Downing Site, Cambridge CB2 1QB

A Lecture series hosted by the Smuts Memorial Fund in association with Polity Press.


Slum Acts in Three Scenes

Speaker: Professor Veena Das (John Hopkins University)

The overarching theme of these Smuts Memorial Lectures deals with the way knowledge that is inordinate, excessive, and overwhelming is secreted into the 'everyday' in low-income and poor Deli neighbourhoods with crumbling infrastructures and pervasive violence. While the overall mood in which these three lectures are written swings between anger, fear, outrage — it is also laced with utter admiration, bursts of laughter, and humility on my part. The capacity for friendship with people in these neighbourhoods has enabled me to work in these areas, along with a dedicated team of field assistants, for the last twenty years. The final question I ask is about finding or founding the human, while in the grip of the inhuman.

 

The Dispersed Body of the Police: Cascading Scales

Since 2014, a number of extremely courageous books in Hindi, Urdu, and English, have brought to light the high-profile cases of police torture and impunity on the name of security in India. While decades of work by legal scholars and activists have alerted us to the fact that democracies routinely practice torture and forms of illegality are endemic in areas defined as "disturbed areas" or "frontiers'"in India, it is often hard to see how the forms of policing in low-income areas of the kind I study might be connected to such high-profile cases of impunity that were tracked by journalists and activists. This lecture projects an insight from Foucault in his lectures on psychiatric power where he argues that the body of the psychiatrist may be seen as dispersed over the asylum manifesting itself in different kinds of tokens of power. Could one say the same of the body of the policeman? Based on my long-term ethnography in Delhi, I ask how the modalities of police practices information gathering, surveillance, and complicity with the “big men”, creates circuits of power and intimidation. In this lecture I track various characters such as the mukhavir or police informer, the neighbourhood Don, the dabang  (the tough guy), as well as women who stand somewhere between the “domestic” (gharelu) and of the market ( bazari) as connected nodes. What impact does this kind of dispersed notion of policing have on the texture of relations in neighbourhoods and the everyday forms of violence? I then connect these insights to the way that slums become the places from which culprits are dredged out for national games of security and blame. The hinges and junctions connecting different flows of power in which the anthropologist cannot but be caught.