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A Casualised Ethnography of the Jamshedpur Working Class

Karthik Rao-Cavale (krcavale@mit.edu) is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Criminal Capital: Violence, Corruption and Class in Industrial India by Andrew Sanchez, Routledge, Oxon, UK; New York, 2016; pp xxi + 185, 795.

Andrew Sanchez’s Criminal Capital: Violence, Corruption and Class in Industrial India is a contribution to a growing literature that uses historical ethnography to trace the shifts in highly localised patterns of accumulation and class formation in neo-liberal India. The book focuses on the industrial workforce of Jamshedpur—a city frequently portrayed as an island of peace and order, industriousness, and prosperity, in the midst of the general chaos, inefficiency, and poverty that characterise the surrounding countryside—in the tribal-dominated state of Jharkhand. Against this broadly self-congratulatory rhetoric, Sanchez’s book attempts to highlight the constitutive role of criminality and corruption in the political economy of Jamshedpur and thereby offer a more critical perspective on the social relations that underwrite capitalist accumulation.

Corruption Begets Class

Sanchez’s theoretical agenda is quite ambitious: he attempts to demonstrate that “systemic corruption” offers an “empirically well-substantiated model of how modern capitalism works” (p 152). His hypothesis is that

Entrepreneurial relations of corruption and criminality not only create classes of actors that benefit from one another’s transgression of the law, they also create a class of people that are dispossessed by these processes and articulate a critical consciousness through systemic corruption discourses. (p 147)

According to this argument, the corrupt nexus of industrial capital (that is, the Tatas), local politicians, trade unionists, and gangsters, is a constitutive aspect of a new regime of accumulation that has resulted in a dramatic process of casualisation of the Jamshedpur working class. Interrogating the ways in which members of this “dispossessed” class of workers understand their present circumstances, Sanchez also asserts that their invocation of “systemic corruption” in many instances reflects a critical consciousness against the very mechanisms by which they are dispossessed. Put more directly, “the practice of systemic corruption makes and expresses class power, while talking about these processes makes and expresses class consciousness” (p 105).

Over the course of six chapters, Sanchez narrates the history of the Jamshedpur working class and the transformations it has experienced in recent decades, interspersed with lengthy ethnographic vignettes and reviews of theoretical debates on the trajectory of Indian capitalism. Some of the most interesting descriptive accounts relate to the time he spent at the cab and cowl division of the Tata Motors plant, studying interactions between workers at different levels of the labour hierarchy. The book also includes accounts of criminal enterprises outside the factory gates, as well as some aspects of neighbourhood life and trade union politics. However, the rationale behind the arrangement of the different parts of Sanchez’s work is oftentimes difficult to discern. The history of industrial development and class conflict in the city is divided between Chapters 1 and 4, while Chapters 2 and 3 describe informal and criminal enterprises that are, if anything, a consequence of the failure of collective action described in Chapter 4. Chapters 5 and 6 stand somewhat separate from the rest of the book; they describe the everyday interactions between blue-collar workers, as well as those between managers and the working classes. It is unfortunate that these accounts are provided in the final chapters of the book, because of which they do not inform the broader study of class struggles in Jamshedpur.

Divergent Approach

Sanchez’s review of theoretical work leaves much to be desired. His review of theoretical debates, for instance, merely repeats some of E P Thompson’s polemics against Louis Althusser, and the polemics of Sumit Sarkar, Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, and Vivek Chibber against Subaltern Studies. However, while Sanchez claims an affinity to the conceptualisation of class contained in Thompson’s (1978) work and sharply denounces the “postmodern turn,” he does not explicitly state the epistemological and methodological implications of Thompsonian class analysis. As it is, I strongly suspect that his approach might have more in common with postmodernist and subalternist theorising than he is willing to acknowledge. For one, Sanchez’s account of class formation is grounded not in political struggle (there are few instances of overt political struggle in the empirical material he presents), but rather in a discourse of systemic corruption. Second, the distinction he draws between the elite beneficiaries of corruption and the dispossessed masses corresponds quite nicely to the naive elite/subaltern dichotomy of the early volumes of Subaltern Studies. Meanwhile, Sanchez never quite explains how we might reconcile his argument with Thompson’s dictum, offered in the context of 18th-century England, that the phenomenon of “old corruption” should be treated “not as a direct organ of any class or interest, but as a secondary political formation, a purchasing-point from which other kinds of economic and social power were gained or enhanced” (Thompson 1978: 141).

The book’s historical account also suffers from certain drawbacks. Sanchez relies almost entirely on a handful of secondary published sources but ignores several scholarly histories on Jamshedpur’s labour politics. For instance, Sanchez completely ignores Dilip Simeon’s excellent study of the politics of this region in the late-colonial period (Simeon 1995) as well as Blair B Kling’s useful analysis of “paternalism” in Tata factories, which has some overlap with Sanchez’s own account of labour relations at the workplace (Kling 1998). The author also fails to discuss important events like the worker strikes of 1959, and even in the case of the 1981 strike of contract workers—which is recounted based on the memory of local communist functionaries—he leaves out the complicated links between the strike-breakers and the then-nascent Jharkhand movement (Kumar 2015). Analysing this relationship might have helped him historicise the discussion on political criminality, instead of having to engage in an ahistorical discussion of the role of crime in the repertoires of leaders like Shibu Soren (pp 75–77). Sanchez’s intuition that the criminalisation of politics in states like Jharkhand “has its clearest origins in the Emergency’s use of applied violence” (p 77) rings true, but it is backed up with remarkably little historical evidence. The entire discussion relies upon a solitary reference to an essay by A K Mehra (2002), but with little substantive engagement with the work of that author. What is striking about these silences in Sanchez’s account is that they are not necessarily inconvenient facts being brushed under the carpet; some might have also supported the general thrust of his argument that corruption and criminality play a systemic role in enabling the casualisation of the Jamshedpur working class.1

A Casualised Workforce

Howsoever that might be, it must be said of Sanchez’s history that it is a rather mechanical transplantation of the Anglo–American narrative about the transition from “Fordist” to “flexible” accumulation. He does not distinguish between the challenges faced by each of the different companies in the Tata Group and their differentiated responses. The assumption is that all industries were equally threatened by foreign competition which led to casualisation of the workforce. His account of the changing experiences of the working classes is similarly prone to overgeneralisation. For instance, he portrays the families of ex-workers in the Tata plants as suffering from immobility due to the heritability of Tata employment over the course of a century, such that most of them lack extended family networks outside Jamshedpur. This immobility forces them to continue working in Tata factories, even as the hope of permanent employment begins to appear increasingly distant. But Sanchez offers little systematic evidence in the form of detailed family histories or data from sample surveys, to support his claim that these families constitute a captive workforce; sceptical readers might very well dismiss these assertions as anecdotal.

Relative to the lackadaisical approach towards the “objective” aspects of class formation, the analysis of class-based subjectivities stemming from participant observations at the workplace is much more original. Chapter 5 offers an interesting account of what might be called subaltern cosmopolitanism, the ability to negotiate complex forms of difference in everyday social exchange. Interrogating the studied silence surrounding the topic of communal violence and the simultaneous excess of ethnic jokes within the workplace, Sanchez finds that they play a mutually constitutive role in establishing “everyday peace” between different ethnic groups. This “aesthetic of profanity” is seen as a technology of class formation that “cuts across ethnic distinctions, and defines itself against the effete practice of managers” (p 112). Similarly, the final chapter discusses the “discourses of corporate paternalism and cultural superiority” (p 144) through which upper-class Bengali managers justify their attempts to discipline the working class. Sanchez argues that the maintenance of a sizeable (but shrinking) cadre of permanent employees—even when they are more prone to insubordination than the rest—performs “an unexpected role in stabilising casual labour” (p 142) by instilling the false hope that someday they too might join the ranks of the permanent employees.

‘Function’ of Social Practice

However, the broadly structural-functionalist framework through which these practices are interpreted leads to questionable results. For instance, Sanchez interprets a lunchtime ganja-smoking ritual as a satirical performance that challenges the sacredness of religion and caste (pp 121–25). The entire analysis is based entirely on the author’s own interpretation; at no point does the voice of the workers who participate in the ritual come through in Sanchez’s writing. We never find out whether they do actually intended to satirise the attempts of Hindu ascetics to achieve transcendence, or why they might want to do so. Moreover, his analysis seems to be designed to evaluate each social practice based on its function, whether it advances class domination by managerial elites or strengthens the critical consciousness of the working classes. The trouble with such a method, of course, is that most cultural practices—like ethnic jokes that produce interethnic solidarity and establish communal peace—can enable capitalist accumulation as well as class struggle from below. There can be no a priori determination of their “function.” It is precisely for this reason that Thompson (1978) argued for a historical analysis of class formation, as opposed to the “scientific” structural functionalism that he accused Althusser of.

Despite the issues I have raised, Criminal Capital is an important book because it reflects the profound dissatisfaction of the millions of young men in India who aspire to a better life, but find all paths of advancement closed to them (the author rightly acknowledges the inevitably gendered nature of the experiences narrated by him). I have no quarrel with Sanchez’s desire to give voice to these experiences, but I do believe that in such cases of “representation” it is of foremost importance for authors to make their epistemological and methodological stance explicit. It is therefore somewhat unfortunate that the author has engaged with the ethnographic field on terms that are shifting and unstable, much like the terms on which capital engages with labour today.

Note

1 For instance, Sanchez fails to take note of the significance of the change of guard in the early 1990s, with Ratan Tata and J J Irani taking over from J R D Tata and Russi Mody as heads of the Tata conglomerate and Tata Iron and Steel Company Limited (TISCO), respectively. A recent dissertation by Vinay Kumar, an ex-employee at Tata Steel, offers several interesting details about the differences between Tata and Mody on the question of labour policy, leading to Mody’s inglorious exit and his attempted entry into Jamshedpur politics in the late 1990s, as an opponent of the new Tata regime (Kumar 2015).

References

Kling, Blair B (1998): “Paternalism in Indian Labour: The Tata Iron and Steel Company of Jamshedpur,” International Labour and Working-Class History, No 53, pp 69–87.

Kumar, Vinay (2015): “Globalisation and Industrial Working Class in India: A Case Study of Trade Unionism in Tata Steel, Jamshedpur,” Diss, University of Mysore.

Mehra, A K (2002): “Criminalisation of Indian Politics,” Corruption in South Asia: India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Kingsley M De Silva, Gerald Hubert Peiris and S W R de A Samarasinghe (eds), International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy, pp 99–139.

Simeon, Dilip (1995): The Politics of Labour Under Late Colonialism: Workers, Unions and the State in Chota Nagpur, 1928–39, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers.

Thompson, E P (1978): “Eighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle Without Class?” Social History, Vol 3, No 2, pp 133–65.

Updated On : 16th Mar, 2018

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