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Matériel cultures: The semantics of democratic transition - 11 March 2022

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In recent years, much has been written about India’s “democratic revolution” sparked by the transition of extra-electoral social movements into the fray of party politics. Although numerous studies have documented the changing demographics, strategies, and forms of political practice in India today, far less scrutiny has evaluated the semantic and perlocutionary changes that coincide with a democratic transition.

Through an ethnographic study of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK; Liberation Panthers Party)—previously the Dalit Panther Iyakkam (DPI; Movement) of Tamil Nadu—this paper explores how a new generation of radical Dalit (ex-‘Untouchable’) activists modulated their truculent slogans, ballads, and speeches as they began to steer their movement toward elections, seeking to re-articulate their signature brand of revolutionary anti-caste politics through a novel democratic idiom.

The paper presents “sottu,” a common Tamil term referring to physical assets including property, land, and wealth, as a paradigm to explore how an everyday language of political economy provided the raw discursive material for an emergent democratic lexicon. The paper concludes with a reflection on what distinguishes my account from current academic literature on the “vernacularisation” of democracy. 

About the speaker

Michael Collins: Michael Collins is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS) at the University of Göttingen. He received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and his work straddles the disciplines of anthropology, history, and political science.

His dissertation analysed the historical development and democratic transformation of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK; Liberation Panthers Party), one of India’s largest Dalit-led parties. The project builds on years of in-country fieldwork and hundreds of interviews with Dalit party leaders to investigate ethnographically how first-generation Dalit politicians learn to navigate the electoral process and negotiate democratic institutions.

His broader research program explores the relationship among democratic participation, political representation, and inherited inequality in modern South Asia. As a separate project, he has written about election finance and the socially differentiated effects of proliferating campaign expenditure in Indian politics. His work has been published in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review (forthcoming 2021) and Contemporary South Asia, as well as by Oxford and Cambridge University Press.

Anastasia Piliavsky: Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Politics at King's will moderate the event. 

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Anastasia Piliavsky

Anastasia Piliavsky

Reader in Social Anthropology and Politics

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Event details

11 March 2022

Online event