Anthropologically Speaking

By Somok Roy

People in power have a way with words. The US President’s claim to absolute knowledge on all matters under the sun, almost an esoteric claim, comes not from his reading of Michel Foucault but the experience of public oratory, its reception and circulation by the media that facilitates a certain kind of self-fashioning. Similarly, the Indian Prime Minister, in his long political career, has made a number of enunciations, ranging from the abstraction of (a+b)² as an illustration of Indo-Canadian intimacies, to the vowed silence of an ascetic on rather volatile days. Yet on other occasions, pumped by the spectacle of rallies, he has promised revenge in defence of the nation-state – a pre-emptive lex talionis.

This sovereign entity, our sacred homeland, must be defended from the ‘other’ – both within and without. Recently, the lower house of Nepal’s parliament approved a cartographic innovation that included parts of the Indian territory within the national borders of the former. The redrawn map includes in Nepal’s territory the Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand besides Limpiyadhura and Kalapani, which are of strategic importance to the Indian nation-state since 1962. Fortunately, this violation by a ‘friendly’ neighbour has not earned enough scorn, nor the battle-cry for a surgical strike. Nepal could plausibly be an intimate other, thanks to its Hindu credentials – the difference could just be of a cartographic border, and not a pressing alterity in which the other is also a dangerous threat, the abnormal.

This connectedness has been vividly underlined by the Defence Minister of India, Rajnath Singh. Any student of connected histories would be thrilled to hear a renowned nationalist talk about social, geographic, historic, cultural and spiritual ties that extend beyond cartographic borders. Singh went further to evoke the relationship of “roti-beti” that binds the two nation-states together. For those of us who have attuned our ears to the deafening claims of absolute knowledge and equally incomprehensible (a+b)², this is new substance worth paying attention to.

“Roti-beti” refers to a set of ties formed by livelihood and marriage, in the cultural milieu of the Terai region. The exchange of women in marriage is a classic practice in the making of kinship-alliances between social groups, as shown by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his seminal The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949). Marcel Mauss’s essay The Gift (1925) had underlined the importance of reciprocity and the embeddedness of the gift in social institutions. Drawing from Mauss, Strauss called women the ‘supreme gift’, owing to their (assumed) reproductive fertility. Thus the exchange of betis (daughters), between Nepal and India, transforms two national communities of men into relatives (biradari) – through the processes of ‘wife giving’ and ‘wife taking’. Roti (bread), though refers to livelihood, simultaneously alludes to food. Social practices under the broad (and often inadequate) category of caste have governed eating practices in the subcontinent. A rishta (relationship) of roti would also connote commensality, or the practice of eating together. Again the absence of a ritual prohibition in breaking bread together suggests that Nepal is an intimate other, and not a lurking danger that must be struck down, surgically. All that a friendly neighbour deserves is an anthropological metaphor.

Another anthropological metaphor was deployed by the Chief Minister of Haryana in August 2019, in the wake of the abrogation of article 370 and annulment of 35A of the Indian Constitution. Addressing a public gathering, the Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar said that the road to Kashmir was clear and people were saying that they will bring girls from Kashmir. Bringing girls as brides is not the same as “roti-beti”, it’s not reciprocal. More importantly, the time of enunciation and the context are striking. Kashmir, as it exists in what Agamben would call the ‘state of exception’ or a space of ‘juridical emptiness’, with the Sovereign exercising its right over bare life and mortality, doesn’t hold the position that Nepal does, as an acknowledged individual polity in a relationship of exchange. Despite the ‘integral status’ of the valley that Indians claim with all their desiring hearts, it is a dangerous ‘other’ that is held close by the paraphernalia of might-muzzles, public safety measures, and now metaphor. Kashmiri girls as spolia of a territorial conquest can be ‘brought’ to Haryana, and disciplined in a civilising process to further the project of integration. It’s a kind of hypogamy that aims at conversion and the production of ‘docile bodies’ – from recalcitrant Kashmiri bodies to abiding subjects of the nation-state, midwifed by marriage.

What is dismissed in progressive circles as the stupidity and perversity of political rhetoric coming from not-so-erudite individuals, is actually a corpus of anthropologically embedded metaphors that enable fragmented acts of power – from pally alliance-making to unbridled violence in states of exception.

Somok Roy is a Graduate Student at the University of Delhi. He studies Medieval and Early Modern History, and has been published by Cafe Dissensus, The Wire, Indian Cultural Forum, and The India Forum.


Like Cafe Dissensus on Facebook. Follow Cafe Dissensus on Twitter.

Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.


Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s