20 Nov 2015 - 21 Nov 2015 All day CRASSH (SG1&2), Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, CB3 9DT


Registration for this event is now closed. 


Nicholas Evans (University of Cambridge)
Anastasia Piliavsky (University of Cambridge)


Recent political developments in South Asia left new types of leaders and leadership in their wake. Nepal’s transition to democracy; mass political protests in Pakistan; the landslide election of Narendra Modi as India’s new prime minister; and the rapid influx of criminal politicians all raise pressing questions of authority, leadership and legitimation.

These questions have enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the study of the subcontinent, but they have recently been made redundant as social scientists turned to concerns of violence and ‘power’. This workshop will include contributions on political, moral, and religious forms of leadership in the region and the global South Asian diaspora. Participants will consider what makes South Asia’s leaders acceptable or even intensely desirable in their followers’ eyes. What institutions, ideas and practices give persons the right to lead, represent or rule? What obligations and potencies does this right entail? And how do established local conventions of legitimation shape—and come to be shaped by—new institutions, circumstances and norms? 






Co-sponsored by the ERC and the ESRC

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


Accommodation for speakers selected through the call for papers and non-paper giving delegates

We are unable to arrange or book accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.

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Cambridge Rooms
University of Cambridge accommodation webpage

Administrative assistance: events@crassh.cam.ac.uk


Day 1 — Friday 20th November 2015

Registration and Coffee


Words of Welcome — Nick Evans (Cambridge)



  • Dalel Benbabaali (LSE): The changing authority & legitimation of a dominant caste leader in a tribal village of Telangana

Discussant: Norbert Peabody (Cambridge)

  • Helene Ilkjær (University of Copenhagen): “Maid crises” and “nice employers”: Questions of authority in the home

Discussant: Jonathan Spencer (Edinburgh)





  • Diya Mehra (South Asian University, Delhi): The Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi: Mapping Delhi’s urban revitalization and the AAP’s electoral success

Discussant: Richard Axelby (LSE)

  • Amanda Snellinger (Oxford): From Protest to Policy: Rearticulating Authority through the National Youth Policy in Post-War Nepal

Discussant: Arild Ruud (Oslo)


Coffee break



  • Arndt Emmerich (Oxford): Who speaks for the Muslims? Competing claims of Muslim representation in contemporary India

Discussant: Ammara Maqsood (Oxford)

  • Sanam Roohi (NIAS/AISSR Amsterdam/Bangalore): Andhra politics, American Telugus and the art of transnational political solicitation

Discussant: Filippo Osella (Sussex)

Day 2 — Saturday 21st November 2015


  • Arshima Champa Dost (KCL): Enabling activism from village to state

Discussant: William Gould (Leeds)

  • Katarzyna Bylow-Antkowiak (St Andrews): Making history through bodies

Discussant: James Staples (Brunel)


Coffee break



  • John Fahy (Cambridge): ‘You have inherited the kingdom of God, now develop it’: Imagining an ‘Ideal Vedic City’ in Contemporary India

Discussant: David Gellner (Oxford)

  • Syed Faisal (Sussex): Islamic moral authority: Materiality and technicality in changing times

Discussant: James Laidlaw (Cambridge)





  • Thomas Chambers (Sussex): Leadership, authority & legitimation in South Asian supply chains: Accounting for ambiguity

Discussant: Andrew Sanchez (Kent)

  • Zobaida Nasreen (Durham): ‘Could you please tell us who our real enemy is?’ Legitimate & illegitimate power in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh

Discussant: Piers Vitebsky (Cambridge)

  • Giacomo Mantovan (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales): Authority, trust and kinship in the LTTE: an analysis of the movement’s leadership from the standpoint of its former fighters

Discussant: Edward Simpson (SOAS)


Coffee break


Final Group Discussion


  • Dalel Benbabaali (LSE): The changing authority and legitimation of a dominant caste leader in a tribal village of Telangana

This paper will draw theoretically on my doctoral work on the new forms of caste dominance in Andhra Pradesh, with a special focus on the Kammas, while presenting empirical evidence from a detailed ethnography of leadership conducted during my postdoctoral fieldwork in a tribal area of Telangana, where Kamma settlers control both the land and the local politics. Though Adivasis living in Scheduled Areas are in principle protected from land alienation, members of the dominant agrarian castes have managed to occupy large tracts of tribal land, legally if they bought it before the protective legislation was enacted, or illegally if they migrated to those areas after 1970.

My case study is based on a village located in the Bhadrachalam Agency of Khammam district in Telangana, where 60% of the population are Adivasis (mostly Koyas) benefitting from Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, but owning only 27% of the village land, while the dominant Kammas and Reddis, who are just 12% of the population, possess 53% of the land. The entire village is controlled by one extremely wealthy Mr. Rao, a 90-year-old Kamma landlord and political leader who settled in this village in 1942. For 35 years, until 1977, he continuously held the sarpanch seat, his authority unchallenged as there were no panchayat elections. This was a village where the police never came as Rao used to settle every dispute. Then, as now, everyone did as he said, including the Adivasis that filled what are now ST reserved posts after elections were introduced.

While he’s slowly losing his grip over the Koyas, the landless Dalits (mostly Madigas) are still dependent on him for employment, both on his lands as agricultural labour, and in the nearby paper factory as casual labour, since he’s a board member of that industry. Rao is always referred to as the big man of the village (‘pedda’ in Telugu is a respectful word which can mean ‘elderly’, but also ‘important’, ‘powerful’), but is unanimously hated, even by his own brother whose lands he took away after he left for the United States as a medical doctor. The question then arises of the legitimation of his leadership, knowing that his authority remains uncontested, even though it is declining, for various reasons that this paper aims to explore.

  • Helene Ilkjær (University of Copenhagen): “Maid crises” and “nice employers”: Questions of authority in the home

The ability to afford household help is central in many returned Indian professionals’ imaginaries of “the good life” in India. But the entry of outsiders into their homes is also perceived by the returnees as a potential threat to the order, purity and safety of this inside space. Furthermore, the task of managing the staff proves challenging to many returnees, whose insistence on the repayment of loans and the correctness in giving notice is ignored or met with unexpected ridicule by their staff, leading to frequent situations of what the returnees refer to as “maid crises.” Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Bangalore, this paper investigates negotiations of relations between returned professionals and their household staff. Analyzing these relations within a framework of skills and performance, I examine questions of boundary-making and control and the returnees’ attempts at balancing a desired position of authority in the home with that of wishing to come across as a “nice employer.”

  • Diya Mehra (South Asian University, Delhi): The Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi: Mapping Delhi’s urban revitalization and the AAP’s electoral success

​Following economic liberalization, Delhi city has undergone rapid transformation as an experimental site for urban revitalization and neoliberal rebuilding, emerging as the largest and wealthiest metropolitan region in the country. Yet, and despite this, Delhi has also seen the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a relative upstart, that recently won a landslide election in 2015, running on an electoral platform focused on ‘swaraj’ or rule of the people, governmental corruption, and increased governmental spending on social programs. What has also been remarkable about AAP’s electoral victory is that support for the party cut across ethnicities, castes, socio-economic classes, and genders.

In trying to fathom the AAP win, this paper focuses on the history of Delhi’s contemporary transformation to explain the party’s emergence as a popular alternative to the city’s dominant parties. In particular, it is concerned with understanding the widespread critique of governance which emerged during Delhi’s swift and large metamorphosis — of a corrupt, oligarchic and oligopolistic form of government and governance system, that while seemingly democratic in its functioning, was entirely obscure in its covert workings, including in the complex ways by which it managed the democratic dissent that emerged to the many urban reform projects that the city was witness to between 1991–2010.

What is critical here is not the eschewing of ideations of projects of creating prosperity and a good life, a narrative central both to state efforts at place-making and to most local narratives of self-making, but a cumulative suggestion that the production of the city as a space for a good life by the state in particular, must be both ethical and redistributive. Interestingly, this narrative is singularly focused on state actions and modes of governance, emerging as it does in a context where there is widespread acceptance of social hierarchies and exclusions, which permeate everyday forms of social interaction within Delhi city itself.

This critique of governance, I argue, reflects a complex set of intersections — centrally, received ideas of a good life; an unfolding reading of new neoliberal political economies that clashed with expectations of the redistributive ethics of rulers vis-à-vis governed populations, and the incredible engagement of city publics with the democratic process, an engagement heightened by the media, and by the sheer number of interventions into Delhi’s everyday fabric in the course of urban reformulation. The popularity of AAP, I argue, partially rests on being able to harness and respond to these critiques, even as it seeks to present alternatives in, and through, its election campaigns.

  • Amanda Snellinger (Oxford): From Protest to Policy: Rearticulating authority through the National Youth Policy in post-war Nepal

Youth frustration was a front-running issue during Nepal’s decade-long civil war (1996–2006) and democratic protests (2003–2006). In these political battles young activists were mobilized as foot soldiers, but they also capitalized on their position to establish themselves politically. They earned public recognition for their activism; however, they’ve struggled to stay relevant, as their parties shifted from protesting the government to running the government. Student and youth activists have demanded an active role in state restructuring. The 2008 Maoist majority Constituent Assembly government partially heeded their demands by bestowing the task of drafting National Youth Policy to their youth political wings and other youth activists. This policy shaped the youth-focused agenda of the newly designed Ministry of Youth and Sports and other government bureaus. This paper uses the National Youth Policy as the context to examine how youth activists are establishing their political authority beyond (violent) protest. By focusing on the micro-politics of the drafting committee, I analyze the techniques participating stakeholders used to assert their political values and agendas through policymaking to secure their positions during a politically turbulent time. This article elucidates how formalized governing practices and revolutionary politics blend to reconstitute state order in the aftermath of civil war.​

  • Arndt Emmerich (Oxford): Who speaks for the Muslims? Competing claims of Muslim representation in contemporary India

This paper discusses the diversity of political voices within the Indian Islamist movement in the context of India’s minority party landscape. I will analyse competing claims of who speaks on behalf of whom and for what issues, challenging public perceptions of Muslim minority politics and Islamic activism in India of being homogeneous, when it is in fact a highly complex, internally and externally contested and regionally diverse phenomenon (Alam 2008). Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork encounters since 2011, I will discuss the interactions, relations and communications of one particular Muslim organization — the Popular Front of India — in South India with diverse Muslim groups and institutions. Scholars of collective action point out that any attempt to represent and make claims on behalf of a particular community’s interests and values will also encourage rivals to compete for the same groups, as traditionalists and reformists operate in a competitive political religious arena of ideas and must consequently offer competing religious and socio-political interpretations. The paper will map out the internal conflicts between and within these diverse Islamist groups, and show how discourses such as ‘bad scholar’ frames, accusations of communalism and the questioning of leadership credibility are employed to defame opponents. The second part of the paper shows that, although diversity and disagreement within the Indian Islamist discourse exists, Muslim community leaders and activists make a genuine effort to appear as a united secular and social entity and align with non-Muslim groups, given their experiences of moral injury, a perceived Muslim witch hunt and of being a religious minority under siege. In this context, I argue that Muslim minority assertions in India are no exception but a precise critique of modernity which is found in political theory focusing on postmodernists, or Christian fundamentalists (Euben 1999, et al).

  • Sanam Roohi (NIAS/AISSR Amsterdam/Bangalore): Andhra politics, American Telugus and the art of transnational political solicitation

In a rapidly globalising India, a small but substantially influential diaspora domiciled in the US has garnered much State attention as harbingers of ‘development’ ‘back home’. But in the state of Andhra Pradesh, it is the NRIs who actively promote certain political leaders as harbingers of progress and development. The decisions of these NRIs to promote certain leaders do not rest on individual choices but are collectively decided, often with the silent backing of the powerful Telugu associations in the US. Zooming into the ‘Bring Babu Back’ campaign in which many American Telugus participated, the paper will explore how this campaign started, gain momentum and finally played a (small) role in catapulting Chandra Babu Naidu to power in 2014. 2014 was an important year for Andhra Pradesh, as not only did the state get bifurcated; the year also held the promise of finally getting a stable government after the demise of the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y S Rajashekhar Reddy, in 2009. The Telugu diaspora articulated the desire for strong political leadership as the single important need of the hour for their state — the discourse imbued with strong undertones of morality, legitimacy, public good and development. ‘Bring Babu Back’ campaign also premised itself around this discourse. But not all Telugus in the US found a common cause with this campaign. Though officially apolitical, members of the four national Telugu Associations (TANA, ATA, NATA, NATS) in the US took very different stances on the Andhra Pradesh election in general and the campaign in particular. Through the example of these American Telugu associations and the ‘Bring Babu Back campaign’, this paper will explore how American Telugus navigate the political terrain in Andhra Pradesh and how these negotiations are transposed to the US soil where decisions of garnering support for potential leaders take place. This paper argues with ethnographic details that transnationalism does not weaken provincial ties of place, caste and region; rather it strengthens these ties through the process of legitimising political solicitations for local Andhra politics in the US soil.

  • Arshima Champa Dost (KCL): Enabling activism from village to state: The Development of Leadership for Health and Social Accountability in Central India​

In 2002, the state of Chhattisgarh in India launched the Mitanin programme, a community health worker programme training 74,000 women in villages and slums on health and social rights. Headed by a non-governmental organisation (the State Health Resource Centre) and funded by the state, the programme is a rare case of state-enabled activism involving state actors and civil society activists as well as rural communities. The Mitanin programme trains village women to take up positions in a continuous cascade of leadership from the hamlet, village, cluster, block, district to state-level. These workers lead mobilisation on a range of issues related to health and its social determinants, including nutrition, sanitation, education, employment, pensions, alcoholism, gender-based violence, caste discrimination, land acquisition and forest rights. Based partly on this model, in 2006 the national government began the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) scheme across India, though without conceptualising a model for leadership amongst workers, while giving a greater focus to service delivery than rights, and to health rather than social determinants.

Few studies have examined the Mitanin programme, and have done so mainly from a community health perspective. A handful of analysts explore the scheme through the lens of health systems or social capital. In contrast, I take an ethnographic approach to studying leadership in the Mitanin programme, using the ASHA scheme in Bihar as a comparator. My paper is based on fieldwork conducted during a year of doctoral research. I explore the role of leadership by working up the programme hierarchy, from the hamlet to the state, and identify factors shaping action at each level through participant observation, in-depth interviews and biographical narratives. The paper addresses three principal questions: 1) What do rural communities perceive as the barriers to service provision and claims-making, and what is the role of local leadership in overcoming these barriers in successful instances? 2) How do state and civil society leaders develop or undermine the institutional structures and processes that promote local leadership for both service provision and claims-making? 3) For the state and civil society actors leading such an initiative, what does their personality and life history suggest for how their own leadership role has developed for enabling or constraining activism in the programme?

I find that the role played by state and civil society actors, and their potential to enhance leadership for activism amongst the rural population, both centre upon the presence of trust-based leadership. I argue that existing models of rural leadership, including those of panchayats, civil society organisations and political parties, often allow for privileged actors to establish leadership through their powers of patronage, identity or resources, thereby perpetuating cycles of inequality and corruption. Through an in-depth study of the Mitanin programme, I reveal a model of leadership that contrasts with conventional forms of power-based leadership, in which leaders are established ‘from below’ by virtue of extensive service provision that builds relations of trust with communities, rather than through powers inherited ‘from above’. An individual gains the right to lead from followers by virtue of his/her ability to display trustworthiness in action. Specific mechanisms of trust and accountability also play a key role for civil society activists, who utilise their knowledge and experience gained from extensive engagement with village communities, to establish their own leadership at the state-level and further enable state support for leaders at the village-level upwards.

I suggest that an overwhelming analytical focus on ‘power’ has concealed the study of ‘trustworthiness’ as its alternative. Recent village studies in Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere indicate that this research is all the more relevant for contemporary rural India where native trust-based leaders are increasingly arising, acting as an untapped resource for future initiatives based on this model.

  • Katarzyna Bylow-Antkowiak (St Andrews): Making history through bodies

On the basis of interviews, notes and video material documenting bodily practices in a Tibetan Children’s Village (TCV) in the Indian Himalayas this paper demonstrates how the primordial parental duty to advise and teach children ‘how to eat, how to walk, how to sit’ (and how to talk), where ‘parent’ can be inflected as spiritual practitioner, mother/father or teacher, leads to the inscription and expression of discipline, protocol and etiquette of and through the bodies of the Village inhabitants. Using ethnographic material from TCV, the paper then explores the character, sources and mechanisms of authority that enable both bodily discipline and spatio-temporal structure of TCV Homes and schools. This authority, it is argued, is primarily concerned with the karmic dimension of being. The paper then focuses on history understood as actualisation of karmic potential, i.e. imprints, patterning and habituation, and shows how such understanding makes children studying in Tibetan residential schools in India the ‘future seeds of Tibet’ and what temporal frame such concepts evoke.

In the Tibetan Buddhist art of healing, the body is considered to be one of the three channels for action, or ‘doors’. Through analysis of the terms used by Tibetan Children’s Village Home Mothers to describe their practices focused on the children’s conduct/behaviour/discipline and through description of classroom behaviour, I wish to draw out the ways of thinking about ‘actions’ accomplished within and through the body. Mother is the central figure of the nexus of relations that is constituted in and through Home. Her compassionate, selfless love is, I want to argue, the source and basis of authority that makes the structured disciplining of ‘the door of body’ possible. Discipline (Tib. chöpa – conduct) is action accomplished through the body on the minds of children out of compassionate selfless concern with karmic consequences of (harmful) action of their body, voice or mind. It is action with karmic perspective in mind.

The discourse of propriety and self-discipline in Homes, structured bodily practices, organization of time and space that subjects bodies to a seemingly relentless routine in Homes and in school, as well as formation of ‘classes’, ‘batches’ and bigger collective entities, clearly show the body as one of the main channels for action in the formation of human beings in TCV. The paper shows that, with the body as an important vehicle and channel of inner subjective experience equated to ‘wisdom’, the effort focusing on bodies in the environment of TCV Homes and schools ties and re-scales the individual karmic project of any given TCV child to a collective karmic project of the Tibetan exile diaspora.

  • John Fahy (Cambridge): ‘You have inherited the kingdom of God, now develop it’: Imagining an ‘Ideal Vedic City’ in Contemporary India

Since 1971, the small pilgrimage town of Mayapur in West Bengal has been home to a multi-national Vaishnava community of ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) devotees, popularly known as the ‘Hare Krishnas’. While this community comprises a wide variety of religious, national and ethnic backgrounds (including local Bengalis), devotees here share the common goal of following ISKCON’s spiritual programme of self-realisation, as was presented by founder Srila Prabhupada (Prabhupad) in the context of an ambitious preaching mission to the West in the 1960s and 70s. Inspired by his teachings, devotees from all over the world have come to Mayapur to live by what they call ‘Vedic culture’.

In the years before his death in 1977, and in line with his commitment to Vedic culture, Prabhupad made plans in Mayapur for the development of what is today referred to as an ‘ideal Vedic city’. Prabhupad’s vision has been the catalyst for dramatic social, economic and infrastructural development in the area over the last forty years. Previously no more than a handful of small temples amidst expansive agricultural lands,  Mayapur is today dominated by the ISKCON complex and the rising ‘Temple of Vedic Planetarium’ (soon to be one of the largest Hindu temples in the world). As Mayapur continues to develop apace, discourses are emerging around divergent interpretations of what exactly constitutes an ‘ideal Vedic city’.

This paper looks at the idea of a spiritual city. In particular, and in the context of a rich Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of syncretism, I look at the various, and at times antagonistic, sources of legitimisation by which devotees locate themselves somewhere between an enchanted past and a prophesied future.

  • Syed Faisal (Sussex): Islamic moral authority: Materiality and technicality in changing times

The aim of the paper is to understand Islamic norms and authority and their limits in everyday credit transactions. I will be looking at transactions done by and through an Islamic Bank, Janseva, in Udupi, Karnataka, India. Through my ethnography of mobilization of Muslim public for a new bank, and a new banking ethic of Islam I will explore the transformation of authority amoung Muslims. To explore the ways in which Islam, kinship relations and corporate law are used in an eclectic, often inconsistent manner. I will pay attention to credit flows, processes of securing and giving loans, securities, and social networks responsible for guarantees in different cases. I will try to understand the role of material and technical factors in articulating religious authority. The products and things which attract credit, for example coconut, commercial vehicles, land and highly perishable materials like fish and vegetables, shape credit-flows as much as Islamic norms and moral authority which governs them. Moreover, these religious authorities swing from being directives of action to technical tools in transactions. As tools they are subverted and dodged in practice through accounting practices and sometimes with social pressure.

I will follow Marcel Mauss’ understanding of reciprocity in gift exchange that morality is embedded in any transaction by virtue of it being exchange of things between people. Going a step forward, I will try to explicate what makes people betray moral frames of references. These creditors and debtors, at times, defy the textual injunctions of Islam, while kinship and secular norms seep into credit transactions. However, people continuously defend, repent and try to adhere to Islamic norms and authority. By accounting for the influence of materials in shaping Islamic authority in Udupi I argue that the limits inherent in materials and tools may help us to understand the ambiguity and diversity of moral frames in credit exchanges. 

  • Thomas Chambers (Sussex): Leadership, authority & legitimation in South Asian supply chains: Accounting for ambiguity

Discussions of leadership, authority and legitimation tend to draw the eye to elites and relations between elites and others. Whilst this forms an important terrain, it leads us to focus on clearly identifiable figures of authority be they political, religious, or economic. This paper instead focuses on the notion of ‘ambiguity’ in leadership, authority and legitimation through a thickly descriptive account of a wood craft producing supply chain in Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh). 

This is not a supply chain filled with easily identifiable actors who embody either oppressive regimes or oppositional resistance. Instead, actors inhabit liminal spaces fraught with contradictions and tensions. Manufacturers and exporters occupy positions of power but also, as Muslims, experience marginalisation and play out obligations to the community; thēkēdārs (contractors) sit in an uneasy locality between workers and owners, their connections to labour overlapping with friendship, kin and other affiliations; artisans and workers may double as thēkēdārs, playing out a duality of roles; petty manufacturers emerge precariously from the labour force only to fall back again as tenuous ventures fold under a burden of credit. 

Within this complex space leadership, authority and legitimation are exercised or experienced in a variety of ways. At times this may be blunt. Threats and intimidation utilised by ‘big men’, the bonding of workers through withheld payments, or the playing off of neighbour against neighbour to drive down production costs. However, leadership, authority and legitimation may also been coded within various forms of ‘soft power’. The persuasive smile of a pious workshop owner who appeals to the religious sensibilities of those he employs, the utilisation of articulations of friendship that allows a thēkēdār to retain his labour force, or authority based on age and length of residence that allows a woman to claim control over a network of neighbourhood homeworkers. Paying attention to such ambiguity is, I argue, critical to understanding the nature of leadership, authority and legitimation in South Asia.

  • Zobaida Nasreen (Durham): ‘Could you please tell us who our real enemy is?’ Legitimate & illegitimate power in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh

There are multiple administrative authorities [traditional leadership system (King, Headman, Karbary), Regional Council (Highest body after CHT Accord), Hill District Council, local administrative power structure (Deputy Commissioner, Police, etc.), Military Forces, Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board] running in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh. Additionally, the leadership of the political parties (both national and regional) also exercise power over the indigenous people in the CHT. Based on my PhD fieldwork in the Khagrachai district in Bangladesh from October 2013 to June 2014 this paper would attempt to identify the causes of violence and tensions among the indigenous communities and the ‘others’ as authoritarian and political power have become signs of betrayal among the same group of people or outside their realm, and how these changes have irrevocably altered the stereotypical image of friends and traitors.

The first section will deal with the internal groupings among the Bengali groups and the indigenous political groups and how friends and enemies are determined with the alliances forged that may not have anything to do with the ‘assigned’ group of the people involved by analyzing their power and legitimacy. The second section will investigate the role of the army and how it shapes and un-shapes the Bengali-Pahari narrative in relation with power. The final section will show how the power (legitimate/non legitimate) plays and the unusual alliances have changed how people in CHT perceive their friends and enemies.

  • Giacomo Mantovan (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales): Authority, trust and kinship in the LTTE: an analysis of the movement’s leadership from the standpoint of its former fighters

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have always been described as a movement based on the undisputed leadership of Prabhakaran, with his authoritarian and non-democratic methods. Although these statements are correct, the scholarly literature has not yet adequately accounted for the way in which this authority actually gave rise to the social structure of the LTTE.

The present paper, based on fieldwork conducted between 2008 and 2014 among the Sri Lankan Tamil community in France and in particular among former LTTE fighters, explores how Prabhakaran’s leadership cemented the movement’s membership base (its fighters). How did Prabhakaran establish himself as the undisputed leader for 37 years, to the point that even today many former fighters refuse to accept his death?

I show that to understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to analyse both the creation of horizontal bonds within cadres and vertical ones between cadres and their leader. Symbolic links between nationalism and the family play a crucial role here. Prabhakaran came to be regarded as the father of the imagined nation (Anderson 1983) and as the fighter’s ‘elder brother’. The rewriting of Tamil history, the veneration of martyrs, artistic production and the nationalist revival of certain traditions have all reinforced the relations between leader and cadres, lending consistency to the social structure of the LTTE and their social and historical role. 

This paper suggests that trust is a key concept to analyse the acceptance and exercising of leadership and authority. Prabhakaran’s success may be attributed — among other things — to his ability to win the trust of many young people from a community whose trust had been undermined by counter-insurgency policies and conflicts between rival Tamil groups. On the other hand, the LTTE’s utter distrust of social actors outside their movement clearly shows how (dis)trust marks the frontiers between social groups.

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