Aug 22 2014

Imagining poverty in popular Indian cinema

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Esha5Esha Shah argues current theories on development and globalisation fail to take into account the powerful impact affective atmospheres have on shaping social and political reality. In seeking to address this, she uses popular Hindi films to sense the contemporary mood and to show how the shifts in the way poverty situations are depicted hint at changes in public morality.

This article links to an earlier India At LSE post: Can film offer an(other) authoritative source of development knowledge? by David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers & Michael Woolcock

If the rich could hire others to die for them, we, the poor, would all make a nice living

This is a Jewish proverb that figures in the classic film Fiddler on the Roof. The subjective positions of the rich and the poor in this proverb are entangled in an ironical way. The rich are afraid of dying and the poor do not have enough for living. From the point of view of poor people, while the deaths cannot be exchanged for money, the rich would not hesitate to trade them if they could. Historian David Hardiman discusses another such ironical proverb linking poor peasants with Marwari-Jain money lenders: “A Baniya’s logic can never be understood; while he never drinks water without straining it carefully, he drinks blood freely.” In these representations of popular culture, poor people are not always portrayed as occupying the position of deprivation, need or marginality in relation to rich people.

Yet this is not how poor people and poverty are visualised in the policy discourses. Development discourses routinely conceptualise poverty in terms of different forms of lacking – for instance, lack of health, income, resources, well-being, education or capabilities. They also widely employ mechanical, spatial, and hydraulic metaphors such as up/down, below/above, centre/periphery, inside/outside, inclusion/exclusion to quantify or qualify the phenomena of poverty which is largely described in negative connotations.

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Aug 20 2014

India and WWI: balancing demands of war with defence of Empire

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AdamPrimeDuring WWI, India found itself in the unusual position of being low on the British Empire’s list of concerns. Adam Prime explores the competing priorities of the British in the Great War, highlighting that while Kitchener was keen to divert troops from India to Europe, the colonial leadership feared that losing the British military presence would lead to the collapse of the Raj.

On 26 September 1914 the first regiments of Indian Expeditionary Force A landed at Marseille. This amalgamation of Indian and British units soon joined the fighting at the First Battle of Ypres (19 October- 22 November 1914). Six further expeditionary forces later saw action in various theatres of the First World War while India found itself in the unusual position of being low on the British Empire’s list of concerns.

In contrast, the majority of the nineteenth century had seen British military strategy firmly focused on defending, and indeed expanding, the Indian Empire. The North-West Frontier of India was the chief among the British authorities’ defensive concerns: tribal uprisings in this area were a frequent problem and the threat of Afghan invasion or Russian invasion through Afghanistan had also always loomed large. An added concern for soldiers and politicians alike was the threat from within India; in the form of rising nationalist sentiment and the constant trepidation over the loyalty of soldiers dating back to the rebellion of 1857. The private correspondence between Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and General Sir Beauchamp Duff, for example, shows how these concerns had to be weighed up against the growing burden of the First World War.

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Aug 18 2014

The Russia-India relationship: A shadow of past ties?

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TomilaLankinaVladimirIn the first of India At LSE’s series on foreign relations under Modi, Tomila Lankina and Vladimir Lankin discuss the historic ties between India and the Soviet Union and ask if Modi’s leadership could lead to a revival of these bonds with Russia.

The imposition of tougher Western sanctions against Russia in recent weeks has aroused much speculation about Russia’s pivot to Asia.  These discussions have tended to focus on Russia’s relations with China and their implications for regional and global power dynamics.  Less attention has been paid to Russia’s renewed focus on its relations with India.

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Image credit: wikimedia/

Throughout the entire post-communist period, India has occupied a somewhat marginal place in Russia’s foreign policy—despite even the avowed “Eurasianist” orientation which came to influence Russia’s foreign policy from around the mid-1990s onwards.  This placid relationship has been a pale shadow of the ties—cultural, economic, and political—that bound the Soviet Union with India despite the latter’s non-aligned status and skilful engagement with both the superpowers during the Cold War.  Many Indians who came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s still fondly remember reading the Soviet Land magazine—a glossy source of doctored information about the achievements of socialism published for Indian consumption.  For India’s intellectuals, socialism represented an attractive solution to the appalling inequalities that plagued (and continue to plague) India’s society.  In turn, Soviet citizens could not get enough of the syrupy Bollywood dramas—a form of escapism from the drab realities of Soviet life. The Soviet intelligentsia also admired the art and stories of Rabindranath Tagore, the films of Satyajit Ray, and the music of the Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar. These cultural ties served to imprint a mutual fondness among the peoples of the two countries and a genuine sense of the existence of a vibrant friendship.  Sadly, barring the older generation that grew up during the Cold War, this sentiment has been all but wiped out.

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Aug 15 2014

Living in the Shadow of Conflict: Kashmir under the AFSPA and the search for opportunities

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DeepanshuOn the anniversary of partition, India At LSE columnist Deepanshu Mohan considers the recent history of Kashmiri conflict. He argues that revoking the Armed Forces Special Provisions Act (AFSPA) and boosting central government investment in the region would help to create stability and opportunities for the young and unemployed in Jammu and Kashmir.

As Indians celebrate the 67th anniversary of independence against a backdrop of chaos in the Arab World, it would only be pertinent to raise matters concerning pre-existing conflict for decades within India.  The Indian government recently backed the UNHRC’s resolution to launch a probe into the country’s offensive on Gaza and has condemned the “disproportionate use of force” in a surprising diplomatic move against Israel. The case of Kashmir is also frequently cited as an insolvable problem and yet it has never been crusaded for – despite witnessing a cynical, discreet armed military game propagated by a similar “disproportionate use of military force” within the valley.

Alexandre Marchand

Indian soldier in Srinigar. Image credit: flickr/Alexandre Marchand

Rivers of ink have been spilled writing about the complicated historiography of the Kashmir conflict. It has resulted in more than three wars amidst other grave differences with our arch rival, Pakistan. The antagonisms that have transpired since these wars and 1990s, however, have hardly been accounted for, despite (or perhaps due to) the corporatised 24/7 media today.

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Aug 13 2014

“One should not forget the rarely mentioned but colossal contribution made by India”

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Speaking at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival in June, LSE Alumnus Lord Bhikhu Parekh, a life peer in the House of Lords, political theorist and author, highlighted India’s contribution to the Great War. Naomi Canton reports on his talk.

This is a shortened version of an article which originally appeared on the Asia House website. It has been reproduced with kind permission.

“British India contributed most generously and its contribution was greater than the rest of the Commonwealth put together” said Lord Parekh.

There were 1.5 million Indian volunteers or active soldiers that took part in World War One, out of which 50,000 died, 65,000 were badly wounded and 10,000 reported missing. Two hundred army nurses were killed, of which 98 were from British India. India also supplied 170,000 animals and equipment for military warfare, as well as 3.7m tonnes of supplies. Indians won 13,000 medals including 12 Victoria Crosses.


Image credit: Asia House

All of this, including the salaries of the Indian soldiers, was paid for by the Indian taxpayer and British India raised an approximate £2 billion loan (at today’s rate).

Indian soldiers brought valuable skills that the British military forces did not have  – such as patrolling in a form that is suited to trench warfare – having been involved in skirmishes in the Himalayas.

But in the first few weeks they lost nearly 50 per cent of their soldiers.

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Aug 11 2014

Book Review: Sexuality in Muslim Contexts: Restrictions and Resistance, edited by Anissa Helie and Homa Hoodfar

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Using case studies from Pakistan, Iran, Indonesia, China, Bangladesh, Israel and India, Sexuality in Muslim Contexts argues that Muslim religious traditions do not necessarily lead to conservative agendas but can promote emancipatory standpoints. This book is one that should be read by all those interested in sexuality, religion, Islam, or gender, writes Olivia Mason. The wide range of case studies make it suitable for both an academic and general audience while the examples make it a stimulating and accessible read.

This post originally appeared on LSE Review of Books

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In Sexuality in Muslim Contexts: Restrictions and Resistance, a new book by editors Anissa Helie and Homa Hoodfar, issues surrounding the policing of sexual rights in diverse Muslim settings are explored. The book offers an original insight into the relationship between sexuality and bodily rights and discusses ways sexuality is restricted in Muslim contexts but also the ways women are combating these and resisting traditional understandings of sexuality. The editors argue sexuality is stigmatsed in Muslim contexts and detail culturally appropriate practices to combat this. The editors are clear to explain that religious identity is not the main focus of this book and that there are multiple reasons for sexual restrictions. The book’s main aim therefore is to share a more fluid understanding of Islam that encompasses issues over time and space. The book contains contributions from a wide range of actors from judges to activists to academics to create a book full of rich case studies and varied inputs.

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Aug 8 2014

Looking back at the IGC-ISI India Development Policy Conference

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The IGC Growth Week is due to take place at the London School of Economics 23rd-25th September and will feature research on India and South Asia. To give an insight into the work of the IGC’s India Central programme, India At LSE rounds up some of the research presentations at last month’s IGC-ISI India Development Policy Conference in Delhi.

The Environment, Energy, Urbanisation, Infrastructure

This session was chaired by Dr. Pronab Sen (Country Director IGC India Central). The presentations in the session included “How urban is India?” by Arindam Jana (Indian Institute of Human Settlements) and “Leakage in fuel subsidy: Evidence from Direct Benefit Transfer for LPG policy in India” by Prabah Barnwal (Columbia University).

‘How urban is India?’ presented research findings exploring whether the parameters used in the Official Census to define urban settlements to capture the true extent of urbanisation in India. According to the official census, the three conditions that must be satisfied for settlements to be classified as urban are:

  1. Population greater than 5,000 persons
  2. Population density greater than 400 persons per square kilometre
  3. At least 75% of male main workers involved in non-agricultural pursuits.

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Aug 6 2014

Railroads of the Raj: Estimating the impact of transportation infrastructure

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ddonaldsonHow large are the benefits of transportation infrastructure projects, and what explains these benefits? Dave Donaldson investigates the impact of the railway network in colonial India and finds it improved the trading environment and generated considerable welfare gains.

In 2007, almost twenty percent of World Bank lending was allocated to transportation infrastructure projects, a larger share than that of education, health and social services combined. These projects aim to reduce the costs of trading, yet despite this emphasis we lack a rigorous empirical understanding of the extent to which transportation infrastructure projects impact costs of trading, and how the resulting reductions in trade costs affect welfare.

In my paper Railroads of the Raj: Estimating the Impact of Transportation Infrastructure I exploited one of history’s great transportation infrastructure projects – thevast network of railroads built in colonial India (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; henceforth,simply “India”) – to extend our understanding of transportation infrastructure improvements.

Image credit: flickr/Vintage Lulu

Image credit: flickr/Vintage Lulu

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Aug 4 2014

Reforming local government in Pakistan


Ali-Cheema1Adnan-Qadirmyerson_rogerOne year into the term of the new Pakistani government and promises to hold local government elections across the country have not fully materialised. Polling took place in Baluchistan in December 2013 but local elections scheduled to take place in Sindh and Punjab appear to have been deferred indefinitely. In this context, Ali Cheema, Adnan Khan and Roger Myerson analyse local democracy in Pakistan and recommend ways in which to strengthen the system.

The history of Pakistan shows a paradoxically countercyclical pattern for local democracy. Three times in the history of Pakistan, elected institutions of local democracy have been created by military regimes, and each time the subsequent civilian governments have either failed to revive elected local governments or replaced them with unelected administrators. Thus, although mainstream political parties promised local democracy in their election manifestos, the future existence of democratic local government in Pakistan is seriously in doubt.

Image credit: flickr/Olaf Kellerhoff

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Aug 1 2014

Book Review: Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy by Sumantra Bose

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Drawing on his extensive fieldwork and experience of Indian politics, Sumantra Bose tells the story of democracy’s evolution in India since the 1950s—and describes the many challenges it faces in the early twenty-first century. Alistair McMillan finds this an erudite and engaging assessment of the way in which these challenges to democracy have developed, and the implications for politics in contemporary India.

This post first appeared on LSE Review of Books.

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The multifaceted nature of Indian politics provides a challenge to those who want to address the breadth of experience across the divergent States and the dynamic nature of social, economic, and electoral change. Sumantra Bose tackles this challenge by taking a dual approach, first offering a broad narrative of democratic development, then using a selection of case studies to explore in more detail some of the areas and events which confront democratic sustainability.

The opening two chapters chart the political history of India from the 1950s to 2013, offering sketches of key events and movements, within the framework of the electoral dynamics of the period. The focus is on the development of the Indian party system, and the response of the governments to the decline in Congress hegemony and the rise of new regional mobilizations and movements. Although sometimes stuttering on the details of electoral outcomes and the variation in party performance across States, this is a fluent account showing Bose’s grasp of the patterns of political transition. There are erudite commentaries on personalities (Sanjay Gandhi described as ‘a young man of no discernible achievement but with a keen nose for the politics of intimidation and coercion’ (p.28)) and events (Congress’s ‘ostrich-like denial of the unfolding transformation of India’s democracy’ in the late 1990s (p.86)). These chapters provide the context for the greater depth in which three challenges to the democratic state in India are investigated: democratic development in West Bengal; the Maoist insurgency across a belt of central India; and the issue of Kashmir.

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