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Prolegomena to the Study of People and Places in Modern India
  • Ananya Vajpeyi

Letter to Giorgio Agamben

Summary: My letter to Agamben proceeds in three parts. In the first section, I try to raise, and to some extent answer the questions: Why theory? Why European theory? and Why Agamben? in setting up the categories of the camp and the refugee for South Asia. In the second section, I turn the European theory I am engaging, to address a new type of “bare life” that has emerged around the world since America launched its so-called War on Terror – that of the captured and incarcerated Muslim. Taking as a starting point Agamben’s discussion of der Muselmann, with its antecedents in the Lager or concentration-camp, I try to map some of the distance between the extermination of the Jews by the National Socialist Reich in World War II, and the torture and killing of suspected terrorists, jihadi fighters and Afghan and Iraqi prisoners of war since 9/11. I compare, borrowing momentarily Agamben’s own method of what Antonio Negri has called “immersion into philology”, the parallel vocabularies of witnessing and martyrdom available in Judeo-Christian and Islamic theological etymologies, suggesting that perhaps the illegally detained Muslim in Guantánamo Bay is no more a ahd than the Muselmann in Auschwitz was a martyr. In the third and final section, I move from the extreme figure of the Muselmann / Muslim, to the more general category of the refugee as well as the internally displaced person (IDP), and from the historically more or less unique Nazi death-camp (with the only analogy being the Serb-run camps in the former Yugoslavia, during the Balkan Wars on the 1990s), to the widely dispersed form of the relief camp. I reflect upon how South Asia experiences the state of exception, the suspension of the rule of law, extreme violence and conflict-induced displacement – all phenomena analysed in Agamben’s work. In particular, I touch briefly on the Indian Emergency (1975-77) during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and on the carnage of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat (2002) at a time when a Hindu supremacist political party, the BJP, ruled both Gujarat and India. I do not undertake a detailed study, but only sketch the outlines of a theory of violent space and violated person in a cultural and historical context far removed from, and yet intimately tied to, the European case so extensively theorized by Agamben, building on the groundwork laid by, among others, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. In places I refer to the work of Achille Mbembe on post-colonial Africa, and of Miriam Ticktin on contemporary France, to compare and contrast the Indian case.

Keywords: Camp, Refugee, Violence, Law, Exception, Power, Conflict, Death, Totalitarianism, Human Rights, Police, Humanitarianism, Biopolitics, Thanatopolitics /Necropolitics

  • Camps,
  • Refugees,
  • State of Exception,
  • Giorgio Agamben,
  • South Asia
Publication Date
WISCOMP Perspectives
Citation Information
Ananya Vajpeyi. Prolegomena to the Study of People and Places in Modern India. New Delhi, IndiaVol. 26 (2007)
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