Tag Archives: Featured

Hindutva and the Politics of Cleaning

Before the Hindu Führer (read Narendra Modi) falls back to his usual, even inevitable, ‘politics of cleansing’, he strayed to a ‘politics of cleaning’. Just as Hindutva is a project of purging Hinduism of its constitutive divisions, its long-standing tendency to be above the rough and tumble and the reach of temporal power, its reflective cowardice, the dynamics of which were detailed in the work of probably the greatest of Indian historians D. D. Kosambi, who is not much known even within the country.

Another way is to see Hindutva as a sincere attempt to model Hinduism after Sangh’s own distorted picture of global Islam. The latest move of Führer’s might as well be an attempt to address the Hindu civilization’s most glaring paradox: the inversely proportional relation between its ritualistic obsession with purity and its spectacularly ghastly uncleanliness for all the world to see and smell. Hindutva is a sort of public-spirited Hinduism. As sociologists have long known and even can be accused of making a fetish of it, purity is central to Hinduism, just as it is for fascism. Hindutva, a murderous mixture of both, obviously will have to resolve the issue of purity, in new ways for new times of accelerated tourism and globalization, future war and ongoing genocide.

This apparently pseudo gesture with the broom would invariably go beyond the Führer’s initial and limited intentions, which, I guess, include, bringing back to his fold, the estranged kin of Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man’s Party), with a propaganda (arm) twist—with this, the surprising anomaly of Arvind Kejriwal (Leader of Common Man’s Party whose election symbol is broom) being the only heroic fighter against Modi is smoothed out (I am borrowing here from a wit named Uday Chandra (a scholar based in Gottingen), minus his laconic brilliance; appealing to the international community’s image of Gandhi and releasing Gandhi from the hijackers of Nehru Family and restoring him to where he properly belongs (Sangh), and addressing something real which strikes every Non-Indian or Non-Resident Indian upon hearing the word ‘India’, but rarely uttered, either out of politeness or apathy, in that order: the inhuman, barbaric state of Indian public places.

Image 1: Narendra Modi during a 'Clean India' campaign launch in Newd Delhi

Image 1: Narendra Modi during a ‘Clean India’ campaign launch in New Delhi

If traditional Hinduism and its colonial and post-colonial accomplice states forced particular region-specific castes with the burden of cleaning all the filth that cannot be left in private and public spaces, the Führer, for a moment, nationalised it before international cameras turned away from him. There is a certain fakery, dishonesty, even mockery in this spectacle, which will any way be exposed and ripped apart by critical observers and social media. Such work is absolutely important. But, who is not a hypocrite when it comes to the question of manual scavenging and sanitation labour? Not even Dalits (former untouchable castes) and Dalit champions, if one observes critically.

I am yet to come across a fellow Dalit or Marxist activist from Mala, Mahar, Madiga, Paraiyar, Chamar or Paswan who has fallen in love with a person from Safai Karamchari community. My own community is into manual scavenging in Chennai, where I studied and worked, even as we back in Andhra had been liberated from it more than a generation ago. In the mainstream or even radical Dalit discourses and politics, focus on this inhuman institution is as marginal as the very important issue of the Hindu state of India’s war on Tribals.

However, this state of affairs doesn’t stop individuals from relatively advanced Dalit castes, such as mine, from invoking the institution of ‘manual scavenging’ to convince the skeptics, apologists and denialists, routinely. Still, none of the rights thus achieved, by convincing or coercing those in power to spare some meager resources, have served to address the forced sanitation work in subhuman conditions.

Few Ambedkarite associations care to take up even symbolic struggles, either against this inhuman institution or for the welfare of those stuck in the profession concerned. Let alone the actual work, there isn’t even as much as serious discussion about it as an important responsibility of organizations. No wonder then, that the pressing task of welfare of the cleaning workers, before the eradication of such work, is left with NGOs who are alleged to be among the most corrupt where the biggest of such organisation ironically operates from Gujarat, and which is in cahoots with the Führer, during 2002 and since.

Though these funded reformers roped in the greatest activist for this cause, Bezawada Wilson (a well-known Dalit activist working to eradicate manual scavenging), they succeeded in keeping Dalits away from any anti-fascist politics and surely from the stated task of improving the lot of manual scavengers and eradication of the repugnant vocation.

Image 2: A Conservancy worker cleaning a choked drain by manually entering a manhole in India, via The Hindu

Image 2: A Conservancy worker cleaning a choked drain by manually entering a manhole in India

So, nobody is clean as far as this institution of compelling one community to clean up everybody’s filth goes. Modi is not the only hypocrite in this. There is only one ultimate solution for the twin problems of ubiquitous filth in our habitats, and one people being laden with the task of cleaning it, based on their birth. That is, ensuring that the cleaning job is not unclean either in its process or the society’s perception of those involved in it.

Before this is achieved, conditional as it is upon changes in infrastructure, attitudes and Dalit activism’s priorities, the work of cleaning is to be universalized. Smart-sounding solutions that each must take care of the filth they create do not always work in the prevailing conditions. Let there still be the practice of some people cleaning the filth created by society, but those some people need not be the same ones always. This responsibility can rotate.

Cleaning service should be made compulsory for everybody irrespective of their regular profession. Trust me, once non-Dalits are compelled to do it, working conditions, workers’ rights, technological interventions, and funding will dramatically improve. For this to happen, the communities confined to, or forced into this profession are to be targeted for alternative employment, through education and cultural change, not just among these communities, but also among those forcing them into such condition.

This is possible only through sincere work by Dalit organizations, which is again conditional upon such organizations ceasing to be the exclusive preserves of government employees from single better-off castes of respective regions. So, first universalize sanitation work, before its final eradication. One might think it is unrealistic suggestion, or, at least, a distant dream. If this doesn’t happen– sure it will not, even through the most serious exertion of dictatorial powers of the Führer (who is going to only tighten screws on the polity and bureaucracy)– if not accompanied by Dalit activism.

If not diverted to the real purpose and challenges of sanitation, the theme of purity will only grow to its sanguinary overtones, from further sexual repression of all women to younger generation in general, to further vilification of Muslim slum dwellers, to war on Love Jihad (an alleged campaign against Muslim youth that they force conversion of non-Muslim girls to Islam feigning Love), to cleansing streets of the unsightly populations, mono-religious gated communities, stigmatization of meat-shops and many more such countless ways of branding, to a radical cleansing of a people.

This feature was written by Chittibabu Padavala.

Chittibabu Padavala is a Dalit activist based in Hyderabad. He can be contacted via email at dalitsociologist@gmail.com

Image Source: Image 1 via NBC; Image 2 via The Hindu

Democracy in South Asia

Does Jayalalithaa’s conviction and DMK’s involvement in corruption provide a chance for the BJP to make inroads?

The conviction of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, one of India’s most popular and powerful politicians in a corruption case, has thrown wide-open many issues that need due attention and analysis. First, the case has renewed people’s faith in the role of the judiciary. The case in question was dragged out for almost two decades thanks to numerous stays and appeals. During this time the person convicted held the highest position within the state of Tamil Nadu, i.e. the head of the state, meaning that she had the power to influence witnesses and legislators. It was fear that the public prosecutor was too beholden to the leader, for instance, that led to the trial being shifted to the neighbouring state of Karnataka.

The fact that, despite all these power equations and questions relating to influence, Jayalalithaa was convicted whilst in post as Chief Minister on the back of a resounding electoral mandate provides a lot of hope to people on the street who see corruption as one of the gravest issues plaguing the nation. There is a long list of powerful politicians who have graft cases pending in the courts and this conviction could set a precedent that there is no escape for wrongdoers from the long arm of the law, regardless of how powerful they are.

Another important question here is a political one: the state from which the leader hails is seen as one of the most progressive regions in terms of socio-political changes and indicators. The state has a long history of taking up the cause of communities from the lower rungs in an otherwise hierarchical social order. Movements demanding equal opportunities and social justice for all communities took power in the state in 1967 and, during the last 50 years, political parties espousing linguistic and ethnic forms of nationalism (Tamil and Dravidian nationalism) laced with concepts of social justice as against national (Indian) identity have held sway.

Political power was shared by the two major Dravidian parties, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (All India Anna Dravidian Progressive Federation) popularly referred through acronyms AIADMK and its precursor the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation) DMK, during the last 30 years. In the 2014 national elections, when the whole nation was swept by a Modi wave (Narendra Modi was the Prime Ministerial candidate for BJP, his political career is a chequered one, he was accused of masterminding the Anti-Muslim pogrom infamously called the Gujarat riots, despite such accusations he was able to win elections back-to-back in his state of Gujarat and now has emerged successful as the Prime Minister of India) and backed the Bharatiya Janata Party BJP (Indian Peoples Party), which is a right wing cultural nationalist Hindu majoritarian political party, Tamil Nadu remained the last frontier that needs to be conquered by them. It is against this background that we need to analyse the recent conviction of Jayalalithaa the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and its political implications in the state. With Jayalalithaa convicted and their main opponent DMK tainted with serious charges of corruption, and with many cases pending against their leaders in the court, it is believed that there is a political vacuum which the right wing BJP could potentially utilise to breach the fortress.

Subramanian Swamy, BJP leader and the person who filed the case against Jayalalithaa stated to the press that the BJP should utilise this opportunity to strengthen its base in Tamil Nadu and the party’s general secretary too mentioned the same,  Now the big question remains: is there really a political vacuum and is it that simplistic to bring down the electoral democratic structures built by these Dravidian parties over the last forty years? The cultural practices of iconicity and symbolism related political practices, not to forget the performatory aspects of political speeches focused on Dravidian political discourse, are not things that could be easily replaced by a right wing party, which insists on imposition of Sanskrit in everyday public culture. The very origins of Dravidian nationalism stemmed from the argument that Tamil is a language, which is superior to Sanskrit, and that the caste system was a Brahmin conspiracy to enslave the indigenous population. Given these origins of Dravidianism, and the fact that parties adhering to this political ideology have dominated Tamil politics for 50 years, it will not be as simple for the BJP to fill any political vacuum as it may appear. Moreover, both Dravidian parties have put the art of governance centred on populism into effective use, which provides them with a connection to the grassroots that few other parties can boast of – witness the numbers of party members and followers attempting suicide, engaging in violence and shedding tears following the verdict.

Is There a Political Vacuum?

On the other hand, it is also imperative to look at why the question of a political vacuum appeared in the first place. The political situation in Tamil Nadu is quite complex. The major parties, which claim adherence to Dravidian ideology, are definitely on the wane and have moved away, ideologically speaking, from their origins. Both parties have aligned with the BJP during election campaigns over the past decade, meaning that the BJP are no longer complete outsiders in Tamil politics although they have been unable to gain more than a seat or two. Congress, which used to have a foothold in the state, has recently lost ground and standing to the point where they could not secure a major local ally for the 2014 elections. In this situation the BJP senses an opportunity to make inroads into the state. This optimism and belief is bolstered by the BJP’s performance in the last election and the fact that they have, in Modi, a leader who imposes himself upon us through all available modes of communication. Ably supported by the media, he has emerged as a larger than life figure who can possibly provide a stronger India with stronger decisions. It is this constructed belief in Modi and a cult revolving around him, which offers Tamil activists, the hope that the BJP can now breach the last frontier.

What then stands in the way of the BJP’s rise in Tamil Nadu? The first point to make is that whilst both the AIADMK and DMK may be beset by troubles at the top, both remain reasonably well-organised and resourced organisations, which are tied into local and regional networks both politically and socially. Looking beyond the Dravidian challenge, the BJP would also need to reach out to a strong Dalit (ex-untouchable castes) and Muslim electorate, which has historically stood against them. In 2014, the BJP pulled together a ‘Rainbow Alliance’ of smaller Dravidian parties and groups based on the intermediate castes. Whilst this coalition managed to win two seats and prevent Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK gaining a clean sweep, the leaders of these parties have already questioned the BJP’s stance on Sri Lanka and the Tamil language. To really make gains in the South, the BJP would need to embrace the fact that India is a plural, multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation. Nothing the party has done since coming to office suggests that such a reinvention of the party is occurring; and, failing such a change in direction, there is no indication that Tamil voters are prepared to back a non-Tamil party in large numbers. If the AIADMK and DMK do implode, therefore, it is as likely that the smaller and caste-based regional parties will attain greater prominence in the state before the national parties make inroads into Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, the Vanniyar (numerically large intermediate caste in Tamil Nadu) based political party PMK (Pattali Makkal Katchi) (Toiling Peoples Party) leader and former Union Minister Anbumani Ramadoss has also claimed that PMK would fill the political vacuum that is existing in the state.

An important thing to note here is the question of a sympathy wave, a phenomena that has already worked towards the advantage of political parties, both during Jayalalithaa’s previous arrest and her arch rival DMK president Karunanidhi’s arrest, there was a sympathy wave that swept across the state resulting in electoral gains. Moreover, the conviction was for a charge that was during her first tenure as Chief Minister and she has changed a lot; DMK also has much more serious charges of corruption levelled against them. Last but not least, since a court in Karnataka has ruled the conviction, a state with which Tamil Nadu has longstanding river-water dispute, this arrest and related events might become politically favourable for Jayalalithaa.

AIADMK cadres staging a road roko in Madurai following the conviction of Tamil Nadu's Chief Minister Jayalaithaa under corruption charges.

AIADMK cadres staging a road roko in Madurai following the conviction of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister Jayalaithaa under corruption charges.

This post was written by Karthikeyan Damodaran.

Karthikeyan Damodaran is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on caste processions and commemorations in Tamil Nadu, and his interests include, identity politics, social movements, caste and class, film studies and urban studies. He was previously working as a Correspondent for The Hindu Newspaper in India.

Image Source: special arrangement

Letter to a friend, on the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum

Dear friend,

The Scottish Independence Referendum is tomorrow. The time for indecision has passed, and now it’s time to vote. I am not eligible to vote in this referendum, but you are. You’ve thought about it a lot, and you’re still not quite sure. Such a big, involved thing to do, declaring independence. If so many in Scotland still oppose it, who are you to compel them?

Many of those who oppose independence sit to the right of yourself on the political spectrum, but you never mind what they say. You already know that their reasons are wrong, even if their conclusion were to be accidentally right. What gives you pause is that some who oppose Scottish independence (or at least don’t think it’s worth casting a vote for) are on your left. Their reasons carry more weight for you. The SNP is dreadful, they assure you. Independence won’t accomplish all of these (wonderful but unrealistic) things that the pro-indy left thinks it will, they warn.

There are no guarantees, and this is the problem. Scots who want independence can’t guarantee that any of the things they’re gearing up to lobby their independent government for will materialise, or at least not that they’ll materialise much more quickly than they would have done without independence.

Here’s what we currently know for certain: Westminster is going from bad to worse. Labour has nothing to do with labourers (quite the opposite, actually), and the Liberal Democrats are anything but. The grim conditions of Britain’s sick and disabled, its unemployed, victims of the drug war, refugees and immigrants, political dissidents of any stripe, and students (domestic and international), amongst others, are certain not to improve under Westminster for the foreseeable future. Years. Maybe decades. There’s a referendum for Scotland’s independence, but there’s no guarantee that cutting off Westminster and localising Scotland’s government will lead to success in improvements to any of these things, however vigorously pro-indy Scots are eagerly prepared to fight for them.

The trouble is, friend, that it doesn’t matter, and I’ll tell you why: the most vulnerable members of our society, those who most need independence and who have experienced the worst of Westminster’s unconscionable policy strategies, those who would benefit significantly if even only a few of the most horrendous bits of British policy were trimmed away, matter enough. There are no guarantees. We don’t need one. Even if the most cynical and pessimistic predictions for an independent Scotland are true (incidentally, they aren’t), the people who need this most desperately, those whose lives depend on it, are reason enough for Scotland to cut the cord with Westminster and brave the complex web of challenges and political battles that wait on the other side.

The late middle-aged disabled woman whose hands shake and stomach lurches with panicky adrenaline every time she opens her mailbox lest there be a letter in there from Atos matters enough.

The young man who’s facing criminal prosecution because a cop doesn’t like that he marched in opposition to tuition hikes and welfare cuts matters enough.

The student whose lifelong ambition of being the first in his family to graduate from university is wavering under the crushing anticipation of an entire adult life spent paying off student loans matters enough.

The soul-battered long-term unemployed mother who scrapes by on pennies and now has to somehow shoulder her stresses and stay strong for her children while being pulled away from them for dozens of hours per week to stock shelves for no wages on a workfare scheme matters enough.

The stage four cancer patient who has to spend his last precious hours on earth in a Job Centre because Atos has deemed him ‘fit for work’ matters enough.

The asylum seeker fleeing homophobic murder in her home country matters enough.

The nervous adolescent international undergraduate who had to register her identity and all of her personal details with the police upon arrival in this overwhelming new city because they think that people from her country are probably terrorists matters enough.

It’s too soon to tell how much better things might be in an independent Scotland. Maybe the most zealous and enthusiastic of the Yes campaigners are right, and the force with which they’ll charge the doors of their newly independent government will succeed in making Scotland a very different place to the one it is today. Maybe the most jaded of the left wing No voters, and those who don’t see fit to vote at all, are right, and an independent Scotland won’t be all that much better than a Westminster-laden one. The reality is probably somewhere in between.

You and I, friend, are leftists because we think that a person, even a person who’s of no use to anyone but herself, has value, and a lot of it. She’s not just worth more than nothing – she’s worth a great deal. Even if no one but she and a few others like her were to benefit from Scotland’s independence (seriously unlikely), she would be worth the trouble. The stage four cancer patient’s last few hours on earth not spent in a Job Centre are reason enough. That woman’s daily stroll out to her mailbox unburdened by the paralysing terror that her government will leave her to die on the pavement is reason enough. The life of the mortally imperilled asylum seeker who cannot and will not just go back where she came from is reason enough. A young graduate’s freedom from the shackles of student debt is reason enough.

We don’t know for certain yet who in Scotland will benefit from independence, or how much (though we know that it won’t be David Cameron or the Royal Bank of Scotland, and that’s encouraging, isn’t it?). But whoever they are, and however much it is, they matter enough that it’s worth it. I can only say so with my words. I hope that you will say so with your vote.

With anxious anticipation of what tomorrow will bring,

Your Friend The Ineligible Voter

This post was written by Lisa Kalayji.

Lisa Kalayji is a feminist researcher interested in gender identities and sexualities, inequalities and liberation politics, politics and economics of penal systems, drug cultures and policy. L.Kalayji@sms.ed.ac.uk

Image Source: CC Licensed image by Scottish Government on Flickr

Do mention the garment workers, just not only those in Bangladesh

To kick off spring/summer 2015 London Fashion Week, labour rights activists hung a banner off Waterloo Bridge that read:

“Don’t mention the garment workers”

I applaud this sarcasm and would like to add the following:

“…but if you do mention the garment workers, remember to assume they are all from Bangladesh, and that they only work in fast fashion supply chains producing product for Western fashion consumers.”

Post-Rana Plaza, Bangladesh and Bangladeshi garment workers have become the go-to default example for media to cling to whenever anything questionable comes to light regarding fashion and apparel production and consumption. Bangladesh has become THE primary example for sweatshop working conditions, a phenomenon I argue is detrimental to garment workers everywhere.

This was apparent during the 2014 World Cup, when a Western fashion consumer found a tag stitched into her Primark purchase that read “forced to work exhausting hours.” Later, a similar tag would be found by another shopper, this time reading “‘degrading’ sweatshop conditions.” A third shopper then came forward with a note that read S.O.S., this time with a message written in Chinese.

What does this have to do with the World Cup? Let me explain.

Ever heard of shop dropping? It’s a type of in-store consumer activism, where campaign materials with information related to ‘behind-the-scenes’ product details—such as labels describing social or environmental factors associated with production, for example—are strategically left for consumers to discover in-store, or later at home (examples and research related to shop dropping can be found over on the followthethings.com blog).

In fashion, it seems shop dropping is generally used to drive consumers into action by shocking them with information they can’t ignore. A potential trouble with such shock tactics, however, is that they tend not to include crucial nuanced details relating to the social, cultural, environmental and political factors located at the core of the challenges they seek to resolve.

It’s not clear if the above mentioned messages were in fact ‘shop dropped’ as a tactic to raise awareness on the working conditions of millions of garment workers worldwide. Nonetheless, the stories were picked up by international media, with (surprise!) Bangladesh most often cited in reference to poor working conditions (see just three examples here, here, and here). Thankfully, there was at least one mainstream article questioning the consequence these assumptions might have on garment workers in Bangladesh.

So, as the World Cup was in full swing, the internet was abuzz with the story of the found labels and message. Meanwhile, Cambodian garment workers producing sportswear for adidas—a FIFA World Cup sponsor—were campaigning to have their voices heard. Could you hear them over all of that Primark label noise?

The Playfair ‘All in for a Living Wage’ campaign called on adidas to support garment workers in their struggle for a living wage. The campaign featured translated personal accounts from three adidas workers, asking readers to leave questions for the workers in the comments section of the online posts.

Today marks a day of action for garment workers in Cambodia, as they take to the streets in organized protest against their wages.

So the question is, can we support these workers on this issue without compromising our support for workers elsewhere, with other, separate issues?

Of course we can!

But to do so we need to drop our assumptions related to garment work and workers immediately, and then move to understand that the social, political, economic and cultural landscapes impacting all workers everywhere are unique.

This post was written by Mary Hanlon.

Mary is a Canadian PhD student in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, researching ir/responsible fashion and apparel production and consumption. You can also find her at SocialAlterations.comM.F.Hanlon@sms.ed.ac.uk

Recommended Reading //

Merk, Jeroen. (2009) Stiching a decent wage across borders: the Asia floor wage proposal. India: Asia Floor Wage Alliance International Secretariat c/o Society for Labour and Development.

Available for download here.

Image Source: War on Want 

Students protest #FakeDemocracy at City University of Hong Kong

In this photo series, Nadira Lamrad reports on student protests at City University of Hong Kong.

Students are calling for a strike action on September 22nd in response to the #fakedemocracy being imposed on Hong Kong for the 2017 elections. This collection of photos is a snapshot of university student political discourse in a very complicated situation.

Click on the images below for details:

Click here to download the Declaration of Strike of the CITYUSU and CityU Students’ Strike Committee

Nadira Lamrad is a PhD Candidate at City University of Hong Kong and co-founder of www.SocialAlterations.com  

Protest Policing from London to Paramakudi: From Containment to Dialogue in the UK

On 1 April 2009, as world leaders gathered for the G20 summit in London, a man was caught up in a standoff between protesters and police. Trying to get home he sought to pass through police lines on a couple of occasions and was forcefully repulsed. One of the officers struck him from behind with a baton and pushed him to the ground in the process. Shortly afterwards, Ian Tomlinson collapsed and, having received emergency attention, died en route to hospital. Initially reports suggested that Mr Tomlinson had died of natural causes, but as video evidence of the assault by a police officer emerged there was a call for an inquiry and Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary called for a national overhaul of protest policing.

PC Harwood, the officer responsible for striking Mr Tomlinson was tried and, though he was acquitted of manslaughter, was found guilty of ‘gross misconduct and sacked from the Metropolitan Police Service (Walker 2012). More generally, the episode prompted intense soul-searching with the UK police forces and led to a series of investigations focused on how the police managed protest events. Subsequent reports by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee (2009) and by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary (2009), and documentary programmes – notably Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, ‘Ready for a Riot’- cast a critical spotlight onto the tactics used in the management of public order and raised questions regarding the training and preparation of police officers for such events.

The Chief Inspector of Constabulary’s (HMCIC, 2009) review of public order policing critiqued existing methods of crowd control and called for a new approach. It recognised that police crowd control interventions can aggravate potential conflict if they appear unreasonable and/or indiscriminate to those in attendance. In so doing, this report drew on two areas of academic research. The first is the Elaborated Social Identity Model (ESIM), which offers a theoretical basis for understanding crowd dynamics (Reicher et al. 2004). It shows how certain forms of police public order tactics unify crowd opposition and contribute to an escalation of conflict. The second body of research (Stott and Gorringe 2013) relates to Scandinavian police practices of dialogue and engagement as means of facilitating protestor objectives and enhancing mutual sympathy and understanding. Both areas of work advocate the need for flexible, reflexive and pre-emptive and/or preventative public order policing.

The guidelines emphasised in new training manuals revolve around the need to respect the human rights to protest and assembly and are based on the four principles of education, facilitation, communication and differentiation (Reicher et al. 2004). Reicher and colleagues stress that police should seek to identify and meet the legitimate aims of crowd members; and that, if the police consider it necessary to impose unwanted limitations, they should do their best to provide alternative means for achieving the crowd’s objectives:

Indeed, it is at the point where violence is beginning to break out and where the temptation to clamp down is at its strongest that facilitation becomes most important. It is at this point that a clear indication that the police are supporting collective aims (and that violence endangers them) can make the difference between escalation and de-escalation.  Of course, for this to happen, it is necessary not only that the police are trying to facilitate crowd aims, but also that crowd members see them as doing so. (2004: 567)

The emphasis throughout is on the need to avoid violent confrontations and preserve the legitimacy of the police as guardians of law and order. Following the G20 protests research into policing suggests that people comply and co-operate with the police when they perceive them as legitimate not just when they pose a deterrent threat. Conversely where people see the police as operating according to different values and not abiding by the rules, then deference towards and co-operation with the police breaks down (Bradford, Jackson and Hough 2013).

‘Traumatic events’ as della Porta notes, ‘can stimulate learning processes’ (in D. Waddington 2007: 32), and the response of the British police to a protest related death in 2009 suggests that lessons are being learned and new methods of conflict resolution are being introduced. Clearly this is not a linear, or completely smooth process. Police responses to student demonstrators in 2010 suggested that there was a retreat from the recommendations of the HMIC reports (Stott, Gorringe and Rosie 2010), and renewed hostilities in late 2013 show that lesson have not necessarily been learned (Gorringe and Rosie 2013). The issue here, though, is one of accountability, responsibility and legitimacy and the attempt – at least – by police in the UK to condemn and seek to address failing in their practices. As an academic who conducts research in both India and the UK, the contrast between police reactions in the UK and the recently released Justice Sampath Commission findings (Dorairaj 2013) into police firing in Paramakudi could not be starker.

Condoning Police Excess?

Where the death of one person at the hands of a ‘rogue’ officer occasioned multiple changes to protest policing and a criminal trial in the UK, the police officers who fired into a crowd and severely beat up protestors after they had been arrested – killing seven people – in Paramakudi were exonerated by the Chief Minister almost before the smoke had cleared (Jaishankar & Karthikeyan 2011). The Sampath Commission duly echoed this position arguing that the police had acted in self-defence, but it did call the actions of police in beating arrestees ‘disgraceful and at variance with the prescription of the Police Standing Orders’ (Dorairaj 2013). Even this criticism was unacceptable to the state government which rejected these ‘disparaging remarks’.

It is worth recalling the events of 11 September 2011. Dalits, primarily but not exclusively from the Pallar caste, travelled in numbers to Paramakudi for the annual celebration – or guru puja – of Immanuel Sekaran. Sekaran was an anti-caste activist who led campaigns for dignity and rights in the 1950s before his murder in 1957. Over the past two decades Dalits have started marking his anniversary in much the same manner as Ambedkar jeyanthi is marked elsewhere. Significantly, however, this is an area of historic caste tensions and the iconography attending this event emulates the processions and festivities surrounding the birth anniversary of Muthuramalinga Thevar the pre-eminent Thevar leader who was a contemporary of Immanuel Sekaran and implicated by many in his murder. The Thevars are dominant castes in the area and have seen the annual commemoration of Immanuel Sekaran as an affront.

Caste tensions are common around the memorial as a consequence and so there is always a heavy police presence. In 2011, caste clashes running up to the guru puja saw Pallars and Thevars trading insults and witnessed the death of the 16-year old Pallar youth Palanikumar of Pacheri village. He was accused of insulting Muthuramalinga Thevar with graffiti – highlighting the caste based polarisation and discourses of pride and honour that characterise caste relations in the area (Geetha 2011, Parthasarathi 2011). In the face of such tension the police were understandably anxious to avoid further caste clashes, but they also determined to prevent the popular and radical Pallar or Devendra Kula leader John Pandian from making his way to the memorial. Though the justification for his preventative arrest was the fear that his speeches might instigate violence, this action clearly diminished the legitimacy of police actions in the eyes of Dalit participants.

Where the police could have gained trust and legitimacy by emphasising that they were there to protect and facilitate Dalit protestors, they created animosity instead. Pandian’s supporters were infuriated by the move and gave vent to their anger by sitting down and blocking the roads. The police ordered them to disperse. At this juncture at least two respected Dalit leaders – Chandra Bose of the Tiyagi Immanual Peravai (Martyr Immanuel Front) and Thavamani of the Tamil Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam (Tamil People’s Progressive Federation, John Pandian’s party) contacted the police and offered to intercede. In their study of crowd situations, the social psychologist Stephen Reicher and colleagues (2004) stress the importance of communicating to crowds through trusted intermediaries. These offers, however, were rejected (Geetha 2011; People’s Watch 2011). Instead, a lathi charge was ordered and closely followed by police firing. In the process, police action was entirely indiscriminate and affected onlookers as well as those taking part in the memorial (Interviews with activists, 2012; People’s Watch 2011).

In this context, the assertion, by the Sampath Commission, that the police actions were ‘absolutely warranted to maintain peace and restore normalcy’ (Dorairaj 2013) have prompted a wave of protests by human rights and Dalit groups. From media and independent reports it seems clear that any unrest on the part of Dalits was a direct response to police interventions. In the face of such contradictions a number of authors have suggested that the government were seeking to appease a dominant caste vote-bank and send out a warning to the Pallar community about their increasing assertion (Geetha 2011, Parthasarathi 2011). The AIADMK has historically sought to woo the Thevar vote-bank (Pandian 2000), though whether that was the case here is unclear. In 2012, by contrast, there was violence by Pallars against Thevars that led the dominant caste groups to feel abandoned and victimised by the police (Interviews 2012).

Towards Democratic Policing?

In this paper, rather than focus on the caste bias or otherwise of the police I wish to counterpose the response by police in London with the Sampath report on Paramakudi to ask questions about protest policing more generally. The violence against Thevars in 2012, and the police operations in 2013 that resulted in a trouble free celebration of guru pujas for both Immanuel Sekaran and Muthuramalinga Thevar suggest that good and bad policing affects all communities. Loader (1997: 15) argues that the police are ‘one of the principal ways in which the … nation and its qualities are represented’. Where the police are seen as distant and unaccountable, however, as Ellison and Smyth (2000:  152) note by reference to Northern Ireland, then ‘policing can promote feelings of belonging and security for some’, but ‘it can also deny recognition to others’.

It was a recognition of the potentially divisive nature of public perceptions of the police that led Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to overhaul policing in the wake of the London G20. Whilst this does not make the UK police paragons of virtue – as seen in clashes with students and the recent revelations about ethically disgraceful covert operations (Lewis and Evans 2013) – it does, at the least, retain the sense of a police force that can be held to account. It is the Tamil Nadu government’s reluctance to act on even the minimal criticisms voiced by the Sampath Commission that is most troubling in this regard. Even if we accept the report’s conclusion that the police acted in self-defence (which is contradicted by numerous independent reports: People’s Watch 2011), the failure to hold officers to account for blatant breaches of their own codes of conduct can only serve to erode the trust and legitimacy upon which democratic policing depends. Shorn of these pillars, the police are condemned to maintain order on the basis of fear and force, and that is no recipe for democratic policing.

This post was written by Hugo Gorringe.

Dr Hugo Gorringe is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.

Image Source: CC Licensed image by Phil John and Ramesh Lalwani, via Flickr


Bradford, B; Jackson, J and Hough, M. 2013. ‘Police futures and legitimacy: redefining ‘good policing’’, in J. Brown (ed) The Future of Policing, London: Routledge: pp79-99

Dorairaj, S. 2013. ‘Paramakudi firing: Clean chit to police’, Frontline 30(23) 29 November 2013: http://www.frontline.in/the-nation/paramakudi-firing-clean-chit-to-police/article5338975.ece

Ellison, G & Smyth, J. 2000. The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland. London: Pluto Press

Geetha, V. 2011. ‘Desecrating Memory – The Paramakudi Police Shootings’, Kafila.org 24 September 2011: http://kafila.org/2011/09/24/desecrating-memory-the-paramakudi-police-shootings/

Gorringe, H & Rosie, M. 2013. ‘Policing on campus is a brazen attack on free speech’, The Conversation 12 December 2013: http://theconversation.com/policing-on-campus-is-a-brazen-attack-on-free-speech-21402

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (2009) Adapting to protest. London: HMIC: http://www.met.police.uk/news/docs/g20_final_report.pdf

Jaishankar, C and Karthikeyan, D. 2011. ‘Five Killed in Police Firing at Paramakudi’, The Hindu 11 September 2011: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/five-killed-in-police-firing-at-paramakudi/article2444651.ece

Lewis, P and Evans, R. 2013. Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police. London: Faber and Faber

Loader, I. 1997 ‘Policing and the Social: Questions of Symbolic Power’, British Journal of Sociology 48(1): pp1-18

Pandian, M. S. S. 2000. ‘Dalit Assertion in Tamilnadu: An Explanatory note’, Journal of ndian School of Political Economy 12(3 & 4): pp501-517

Parthasarathi, M. 2011. ‘Paramakudi Violence: Against Dalits, Against Politics’, Economic and Political Weekly XLVI(44 & 45): pp14-17

People’s Watch. 2011. Report of Public Inquest on the Paramakudi Firing. Madurai: People’s Watch

Reicher, Stephen; Stott, Clifford; Cronin, Patrick & Adang, Otto. 2004. ‘An integrated approach to crowd psychology and public order policing’. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management 27(4), pp.558-572

Stott, C and Gorringe, H. 2013. ‘From Sir Robert Peel to PLTs: Adapting to liaison based public order policing in England and Wales’, in J. Brown (ed) The Future of Policing, London: Routledge: pp239-251

Stott, C; Gorringe, H & Rosie, M. 2010. ‘HMIC Goes to Millbank: Public Order Policing Following Student Disorder’, Police Professional 232, November 25.

Waddington, David. 2007.Public Order Policing: Theory and Practice. Cullompton: Willan

Walker, P. 2012. ‘Ian Tomlinson case: PC Simon Harwood sacked for gross misconduct’, The Guardian 17 September 2012: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2012/sep/17/simon-harwood-sacked-gross-misconduct

Beyond Development

To say “I hate politics”, or “please, I am not that much into politics” – and with much conviction – is more often than not a political act. This resonates well with a long-held view that scientific or technical knowledge, construed by liberal consensus to ‘true’ knowledge, is fundamentally non-political and conversely, that overly political knowledge is not scientific and hence cannot be considered as ‘true’ knowledge.

Following in this precedent, many developments ‘experts’ today, including politicians, have claimed that their work is not ‘political’ but ‘developmental’-within an uncompromising zeal to render the concept of development technical. These apparently unchallengeable, self-evident truisms that exist in the world today originate less from fact than from strategy. Essentially, they allocate certain roles and positions to carefully selected actors and processes while excluding others. Ultimately, they constitute a hegemonic enterprise.

Dispatch 1: 13th September, 2010

“In Nairobi- Higher Education Minister William Ruto has given public universities an ultimatum- phase off all courses that will not help Kenya industrialise if they want to continue getting government funding.”

The Star  

Growing up in Kenya in the 1990s-at the height of neoliberal reform in the ‘Global South’ in general and in Africa in particular- I was actively made to think that sciences were much better than humanities and art. In addition, I was told- in school and in church-that I was created by God, saved by Christ, and would be civilised by Western education: education is the key! And not any other kind of education of course, only that which will turn individuals into obedient servants and workers within a capitalist industrial system, which in my country, is synonymous to development.

In this way, my social world had been carefully thought out and created.

Within this dynamic, the human body and mind has no space for emotions and irrationalities, and that space only exists for facts and logic. Subjects such as literature, history, music, culture, and politics, did not fare well in the epistemological ladder to the scientific heaven.

Dispatch 2: 18 August, 2010

“In Luweero, President Museveni has criticised humanity courses at universities as useless, saying graduates from such departments can hardly solve anything to steer national development.”

Daily Monitor  

Of course, everything else, including poverty, rising levels of unemployment, crime, and violence, were either reduced into technical problems, requiring technical solutions, or viewed as curses -abnormalities occurring to those with little faith and those who did not choose the ‘right’ courses or simply did not work hard in school.

And so, when they ‘sent’ me to the university and after having failed to convince me to study medicine or engineering, my family insisted that I shouldn’t bother myself with university politics – even as student welfare conditions deteriorated without fail. That many had gone through the trouble and were now successful – “driving their own cars!”

Through these disciplinary frameworks, a whole generation in my country and beyond have been encouraged to obey but not to question, to master handed-down formulas of “success”, and mathematical equations, but not to rethink and reinvent their meaning. Ultimately, through these means, people have been urged to steer clear of alternative ways of being and thinking.

This has become extremely powerful and unquestionable at a time where life is becoming increasingly precarious especially for the middle-class, and all sovereignty and power to affect Africa’s destiny and progress has been appropriated by others.

The result of this hegemonic enterprise to wipe out the relevance of any social justice thought and work (which would lead us into asking the difficult questions) and the study of humanities and social sciences which would be relevant in this regard is the de-politicization of development itself. Thus, the global approach to development aims to be scientific and technical, refusing to see poverty and inequality as social justice issues while precluding contestation in whatever is described as a development project.

“By uncompromisingly reducing poverty to a technical problem, and by promising technical solutions to the sufferings of powerless and oppressed people, the hegemonic problematic of ‘development’ is the principal means through which the question of poverty is de-politicized in the world today.”

-James Fergusson, The Anti-Politics Machine, 1994

As argued by Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, no one has yet devised a method that detaches the ‘scientist’, or the development ‘expert’ from the circumstances of life, or from his involvement (conscious or unconscious) with a class, a set of beliefs, a social position, or from the mere activity of being a member of a society.

Yet, an unceasing belief in the magical powers of technocracy and of the assumed non-existence of politics in development matters persists. It allocates unchecked power to the technically educated, and none to the uneducated –the supposedly grateful beneficiaries of development intervention.

In this way, development, as an idea and discursive tool, available for use by democrats and autocrats alike, has stood against unlimited democratic potential and wide-spread progress. It has been deployed to delegitimize political opposition and exacerbate the powerlessness of millions by supporting unwavering foreign intervention into their lives and affairs without their voice. We are now faced with policy makers, experts and officials, who, as one observes, cannot think how things might improve except through their own agency.

BUT- “We tell them [rural peasants] what is good for them,” remarks an agricultural expert with an NGO working in Western Kenya. However, this ‘telling’, which can better be described as ‘coercive persuasion’, has involved the uprooting of ‘undesirable crops’ in rural Rwanda by government officials, the distribution of fertilizer (supposedly to improve agricultural production in rural Ethiopia) which destroys soil fertility, and farmers being ‘asked’ off their small-plots of land so as to pave way for massive plantations that are said will help make Africa ‘food secure’.

The basic question coming out of all these examples is: after half a century of its existence, how is the concept of development achieving wide relevance in a world where inequality and injustice have only increased over time? At what point are we going to have a genuine post-development or ‘beyond development’ conversation?

The problem, it seems, is that such a conversation will mean the tacit acceptance by the international development community that development is inherently political: the exact antithesis of current development discourse.

This post was written by Ngala Chome.

Ngala Chome was born in Kenya and is passionate about ideas and work that challenge existing frameworks for understanding social justice issues and development. He is an editor with Routes and was the 2013-2014 Commonwealth Shared Scholar at the University of Edinburgh. His email is kllnngl@yahoo.com


Suggested Readings:

Maria Green, Tanzanian Local Politics

Christian Lund, Ghana, Development and Change, Twilight Institutions: Public Authority and Local Politics, 2006.

Claire Mercer, LSE Civil Society and Community development in Tanzania

Henrietta Moore, Cutting Down Trees

On whose behalf? Sex work in Scotland and the need for proper debate

At the end of July, it emerged that sex workers had not been invited to an official meeting concerned with a proposal currently before the Scottish Parliament to criminalise the purchase of sex in Scotland.

Speaking to the Herald, Neil McCulloch of SCOT-PEP – Scotland’s leading sex workers’ rights organisation – expressed the group’s frustration at being barred from the meeting, despite previously having been invited to similar debates. ‘Disastrous as this legislation would prove in Scotland,’ McCulloch commented, ‘we nevertheless sought to play a constructive role in discussions and are shocked to have been excluded entirely.’ Speaking on the same issue to The Courier, a sex worker called Cat commented, ‘It’s outrageous to hold a meeting to discuss sex work and to specifically exclude sex workers and sex worker-led organisations.’

SCOT-PEP’s frustration is compounded by the fact that this is not the first time they have been excluded from such meetings. The organisation argues that the recent decision to bar them from discussions is symptomatic of a much wider problem with the debate on criminalisation: the silencing of sex workers. ‘Would you have a meeting to discuss whether to legislate supposedly to help any other marginalised group and yet explicitly bar them and their representatives from the discussion?’ asks McCulloch. ‘It can’t be right for a politician to try to work in this way, without even wanting to hear the voices of the people most directly affected.’

Rhoda Grant MSP, architect of the 2012 Criminalisation of the Purchase of Sex (Scotland) Bill, explained the recent decision to exclude SCOT-PEP, claiming that the meeting was ‘for those who support the principles of criminalising the purchase of sex.’ In Scotland it is possible for a consenting adult aged 18 or over to have sex with another consenting adult in return for payment without any offence being committed by either person; the proposed bill would make it a punishable crime to buy sex. Pro-criminalisation campaigners believe that such a move would reduce demand for sex work and thus sexual exploitation.

The debate on criminalisation aside, it is unfathomable that in a society that aspires to be among the fairest and most inclusive in the world, policies are being discussed and formed on behalf of groups without considering their opinions and experiences. When news first broke of Grant’s Bill, an article in The Skinny pointed out that if an MSP put forward a bill affecting LGBT communities but refused to include LGBT voices, there would, quite rightly, be outcry. The need for proper debate is especially important as the Bill has not yet passed (although its passage looks increasingly likely without the opposition of the late Margo MacDonald, one of Scotland’s leading sex workers’ rights campaigners, who passed away on the 4th of April).

The debate over the visibility and legality of sex work in Scotland is, of course, part of a much wider and complex conversation about the moral status of sex work, reflected in the varying policies across the globe. In New Zealand, all activities connected with selling sex have been legal since 2003; whereas, in parts of Europe, the United States and India, an ‘end demand’ agenda has gained ground in recent years, resulting in a series of policy changes aimed at restricting the movement of sex workers and criminalising clients. The movement to stamp out demand for sex work in Scotland is merely one part of this global policy conundrum.

Despite this, the recent crackdown on sex work in Edinburgh – evidenced by brothel raids and an increasingly influential criminalisation lobby – is surprising as it succeeds a twenty-year period of tacit tolerance towards sex work and, importantly, engagement with sex workers’ rights organisations. In the early 1980s, when increasing supplies of heroin and high youth unemployment gave Edinburgh the unlikely reputation as the ‘AIDS capital of Europe’, the City Council responded by implementing a policy of ‘harm reduction’ towards sex work and the use of intravenous drugs. It was as part of this pragmatic response that the Council established an informal (non-harassment) tolerance zone for sex work in Leith – a former port area to the north of the city – and a tacit agreement between the Council, sauna owners and the police which allowed sex workers to practice their trade relatively safely.

Until recently, the famed ‘model of tolerance’ was widely considered a successful strategy for reducing harm, both towards those involved in sex work and the wider public. Saunas – although by no means problem free – became a part of Edinburgh’s ambivalent identity, accounting for the city’s reputation as one of the UK’s top destinations for sex tourists. However, national and international pressure to criminalise the sex industry, combined with changes in police structure and ideology have placed Edinburgh’s model of tolerance under strain.

A major influence on the drive to criminalise sex work is the newly-merged national police force, Police Scotland, which came into force in April 2013 and saw control of law enforcement in the capital effectively transferred to Strathclyde, where a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards sex work has long been in place. Just two months after Police Scotland became operational raids took place across 13 venues in Edinburgh, 11 of which were licensed as saunas and widely acknowledged to be operating as brothels. Sex workers and proprietors were arrested and six of the saunas had their licenses immediately suspended.

The stated justification for the operation was intelligence of ‘criminal activity’, including reports of drug offences and human trafficking.  Reports of foreign nationals being strip-searched, held without food or water and questioned by UK Border Agency officials suggest, however, that a variety of agendas were at play. In particular, these raids have been seen as an attempt to crack down on ‘illegal’ immigration.

Following a public consultation towards the end of 2013, the Council also decided in February of this year not to renew licenses for the remaining saunas; council officials explained that saunas will not be automatically closed but will be allowed to continue unlicensed. Several women’s organisations, such as Zero Tolerance, welcomed the decision, explaining that, rather than minimising harm, the licensing system had facilitated the sexual exploitation of women.

Sex workers’ rights campaigners, on the other hand, argue that removing licensing legislation will place sex workers at greater risk by forcing them to work in unregulated flats where they will be more vulnerable to unsafe sex, violence and exploitation. Indeed, since the decision to remove sauna licenses in February, sex workers from Edinburgh have spoken out about their fears of walking the streets or working in flats alone. Sarah, a sex worker from Edinburgh, recounted her ordeal of being beaten and raped by a client as she worked alone from a flat in Perth in central Scotland – something many more sex workers are being compelled to do due to a lack of safe working spaces following the decision to remove sauna licenses.

Alongside changes in policing, an international and national movement to tackle sex trafficking and organised crime is adding to the pressure for more punitive policies towards sex work. According to an inquiry conducted in 2011 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Scotland is trailing behind the rest of the UK in human trafficking convictions; and with the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence, politicians are under pressure to appear tough in the battle against ‘modern-day slavery’. The referendum is also likely to be among the reasons why Scottish politicians are proposing a wide-ranging anti-trafficking Bill which will define the crime of human trafficking in Scots law for the first time.

But while many believe that the answer to sexual exploitation in Scotland lies in the criminalisation of the sex industry and increased law enforcement – including legislation on human trafficking – sex workers’ rights activists believe that criminalising the purchase of sex will drive issues of exploitation underground and further stigmatise sex workers. It’s naive to believe that criminalisation will stop people from selling sex; if the Bill is passed, sex workers will likely move into unregulated flats where they will be exposed to increased risk of violence, HIV infection and extortion from police and other third parties.

Although there are considerable difficulties in collecting reliable data about the experiences of those who work in one of the world’s most stigmatised industries, there is some evidence to support the fear that criminalisation will have negative consequences for those it claims to protect: SCOT-PEP claims there was a 95% rise in attacks on street-based sex workers in Edinburgh following Scotland’s decision to introduce penalties for kerb-crawling in 2007. Jean Urquhart MSP, Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands region, also believes that criminalising the purchase of sex will further stigmatise sex workers, making it even more difficult for them to come forward to report crimes such as trafficking and child sexual exploitation.

The meeting at Scottish Parliament also came just days after  Norman Fowler – former Health Secretary who led the UK’s response to the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s – remarked at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, that sex work should be decriminalised in the UK to slow the spread of HIV and combat prejudice. Fowler’s new book, Don’t Die of Prejudice, documents how discrimination and stigma against sex workers, as well as HIV-positive people, drug-users and gay people, is hindering the world’s fight against AIDS.

It is for these reasons that the failure of MSPs to engage with SCOT-PEP, or any other sex workers’ rights group, raises alarm bells. At a time when arguments should be heard in equal measure, in order to ensure policies achieve their stated aim of safeguarding vulnerable individuals, one of the most important voices in the debate is being silenced.

This post was written by Lauren Wilks.

Lauren Wilks is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh and an Editor at Routes. Her research focuses on the experiences of female migrant workers in the informal economy in Kolkata, India, and is funded by the ESRC. Previously, she was a Student Fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. L.Wilks@sms.ed.ac.uk

Image Source: CC Licensed image by Mikasi, via Flickr

Can sport be radical?

In closing let me say that it is our hope in these our games to stiffen the backbone of these our boys by teaching them manliness, good temper, and unselfishness – qualities amongst many others which have done so much to make many a Britisher, and which we hope to instil into our boys in such a way as to make them strong men indeed. Our belief is that our games may be, when properly controlled, a mighty channel through which God can work to the uplifting of this race.

1909 in the East Africa Protectorate (today, Kenya) and Scottish missionary John William Arthur reflects on a ‘great football match’ he had organised for some Kikuyu boys. People in East Africa had long engaged in physical competitions but this contest involved novel things like a measured pitch, a stopwatch, a score-sheets, and a referee. In fact the ‘great football match’ was one of the earliest organised sports competitions in East Africa. And it was  a part of a broader, global, process experienced in many places all over the world as Brits and other Europeans sought to (re)produce the sports culture of the metropole in their new colonial locations.

The Commonwealth Games are a thread in the entangled history of sport and empire. The Games underline the fact that many of the world’s most successful sporting nations were once British colonies. Running in Kenya, sprinting and cricket in the Caribbean, cricket in India, rugby in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands: people in these places have redefined the very activities people like John Arthur (who, incidentally was born in Glasgow) hoped would ‘stiffen backbones’ and ‘make Britishers.’ They are no longer, as Arthur believed, ‘our games.’

As the overbearing, indeed triumphant, presence of the Queen during the opening ceremony of this summer’s Games forcefully reminded us, some things however, have not changed. A more subtle and less contested imperial legacy is the abiding belief in the capacity of seemingly frivolous activities such as kicking balls and running in circles, to make better citizens. This was, after all, the point of Arthur’s football match in 1909: not the production of elite athletes, but rather ‘good-tempered’, ‘unselfish’, ‘manly’ Christians.

Read today, Arthur’s words might raise an eyebrow: the unshakable confidence he had in the civilising capacity of sport seems out-dated and naive. Nevertheless sport continues to be promoted by public figures for many of the same reasons. It is good, we are told, for young people, particularly poor or supposedly dangerous young people, because it teaches ‘correct’ behaviour and is a ‘productive’ use of time. Sport has been promoted too, on the grounds that those who play sport are more likely to vote. In short, it is supposedly its utility as a ‘disciplinary technique’ that makes sport socially desirable: to subdue people, to make them more obedient. A sub-feature to this narrative – evidenced in the refrain of white collar professionals who ‘do exercise’ in order to relieve stress or help concentration – is that sport makes people more productive (and thus ‘better’) workers.

There are hardly any radical narratives surrounding sport in popular culture. The voice of the establishment has claimed sport in a way which is unique among other pastimes and pursuits. Unlike reading, film-making, or learning a language, you never really hear people championing sport because it allows for an alternative lifestyle, or because it promotes critical engagement with society and the environment. Yet this is exactly what sport can offer. Even at a basic level, whether training, competing, or simply playing for fun, doing sport can lead to alternative ways of thinking about oneself, others, and the world. Sport has much more to offer society than solidifying the status quo.

The commercialisation of sport (and sporting competitions) and the exploitation and abuse of construction workers which has underpinned the staging of recent sporting ‘mega events’ must give us reason to ask whether sport can ever be radical. Any movement in this direction must begin with the recognition that sport itself does not have to be, as Arthur presumed in 1909, inherently controlling.

This post was written by Tom Cunningham.

Tom is entering the second year of a PhD in African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His thesis, provisionally entitled, ‘Muscular Christianity: A History of the Body and the Church of Scotland Mission to Kenya c1906-1938’, is funded by an ESRC 1+3 studentship.

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