"Down by Law: Violence and the Work of Politics in Kerala, South India" by Ruchi Chaturvedi

Ruchi Chaturvedi

Deposited 2007

Since the late 1970s, approximately four thousand workers of various political parties in North Kerala have been charged with crimes that range from 'murder,' 'attempt to murder' and 'criminal intimidation' of workers of other political groups. The key protagonists of these violent events have been the local-level workers of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM], the Hindu nationalist 'Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh' (RSS) and its electoral affiliate, the 'Bharatiya Janata Party' (BJP). This dissertation ethnographically examines the lifeworlds of these political workers charged with violence, their tussles with tenets of democracy, and the criminal trials that they have subsequently gone through.

Responsible for generating electoral and popular support for their parties at the local levels, political workers articulate demands for democratic entitlements, governmental benefits and services on behalf of various social groups. At the same time, as in many other parts of the country, in Kerala too, these articulations have taken violent forms and transgressed the rules and norms of parliamentary liberal democracy. It is in this conflict with the principles and practices of democracy and the rules of law that I locate the CPM and RSS-BJP workers' intense political competition with each other, and the ensuing clashes and violence between them.

I argue that the workers' narratives about their violence point towards a critical tension in the Indian polity—the tension between aspirations of various social groups to access and participate in the institutions that govern them, and the political practices and units of action employed to realize those aspirations. Thus, while workers of the Marxist Left regard their violence as a means of participating in the workings of power and the devolution of justice, local-level workers of the Hindu Right anchor their experiences of violence on, what I call, their "community of spirit." Forms of sociality characteristic of such communities not only authorize and legitimate the workers' violence, but also create conditions in which they can disclaim and disavow their responsibility for it. In these acknowledgments and disavowals of violence may be read the democratic possibilities, and the dangers to tenets of democracy posed by the workers' political practices and communities.

The other sites where the rules of law and the norms of democracy are sustained or suspended are in the workers' trials and their encounters with and experiences of the judiciary. The nature of law's habitus, penal process and instruments of punishment become my subjects of study as I examine their relative success and failure in transforming these felons into acquiescent civil subjects. In what ways has success in that endeavor undone democratic impulses of the Indian state is my final subject of analysis.