SOAS University of London

SOAS South Asia Institute

The Violent Heart of Indian Politics. Reflections on popular sovereignty in India

Thomas Blom Hansen
Thomas Blom Hansen

Date: 24 November 2021Time: 6:00 PM

Finishes: 24 November 2021Time: 7:30 PM

Venue: Virtual Event

Type of Event: Virtual Event


Since Modi’s ascent to power in 2014 Indian democracy and democratic values appear increasingly fragile and imperiled. While there is little doubt that the BJP and allies show an unprecedented contempt for democratic process and the rule of law, the seeming decline of democracy and pluralism in India has deeper roots.

In my recent book, The Law for Force. The violent heart of Indian politics, I argue that the most expansive forces in Indian public life are, 1) the notion of the sovereign people, or community, as a source of all legitimate power; and 2) the legitimacy of collective assertion, anger and public violence. The celebration of the Indian Constitution notwithstanding, liberal democratic values are not deeply embedded in everyday life among most Indians. Most major policy and legal changes in India since the 1980s, and before, have emerged after sustained collective campaigns, often accompanied by significant public violence. In recent decades, this staging of political life as a ‘permanent performance’ of legitimate anger and protest has been weaponized in new ways on social media, aided by the routinization of evermore violent and abusive language in most publics and media. This may be the moment to reflect on how India became a democracy without democratic values. 

About the speaker: 

Thomas Hansen is the Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of Anthropology. He founded and directed Stanford’s Center for South Asia from 2010 to 2017.

Hansen is an anthropologist of political life, ethno-religious identities, violence and urban life in South Asia and Southern Africa. He has multiple theoretical and disciplinary interests from political theory and continental philosophy to psychoanalysis, comparative religion and contemporary urbanism.

Much of professor Hansen’s early fieldwork was done during the tumultuous and tense years in the beginning of the 1990s when conflicts between Hindu militants and Muslims defined national agendas and produced frequent violent clashes in the streets. Out of this work came two books: The Saffron Wave. Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India (Princeton 1999) which explores the larger phenomenon of Hindu nationalism in the light of the dynamics of India’s democratic experience, and Wages of Violence: Naming and Identity in Postcolonial Bombay (Princeton 2001) which explores the historical processes and identity formations that gave rise of violent socioreligious conflict and the renaming of the city in 1995.

In the early 2000s, professor Hansen pursued a detailed study of religious revival, racial conflict and transformation of domestic and intimate life from the 1950’s to the present in a formerly Indian township in Durban, South Africa. This resulted in a book entitled Melancholia of Freedom. Social Life in an Indian Township in South Africa (Princeton University Press, 2012).


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