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Democracy, State and Capital: The 'Unthought' of 20th Century Marxism

Is democracy in India a sham, as the Maoists and indeed many other leftists claim? If so, how do we understand the experience of many oppressed groups who have found this democracy enabling in many ways? A possible way out of this endless debate is to see democracy not as a fully-formed end product of liberalconstitutionalism but as its untamed other - the mass politics which escapes and exceeds the Law and the injustices of Order. It is from here that the greatest challenges to capitalism and the State arise. The Maoist strategy, by merely trying to mimic the State, is actually inimical to this democratic upsurge and therefore needs to be resisted.


Democracy, State and Capital: The ‘Unthought’ of 20th Century Marxism

Aditya Nigam

internal colonialism should be understood in all its dimensions as involving not only an extractive and exploitative economic dimension but a political and cultural one (“civilising mission”) as well. This cannot but have important consequences for our understanding of Indian democracy.

What happens if we take this thesis seriously? Does it mean that Indian democracy is a sham, as the Maoists and indeed

Is democracy in India a sham, as the Maoists and indeed many other leftists claim? If so, how do we understand the experience of many oppressed groups who have found this democracy enabling in many ways? A possible way out of this endless debate is to see democracy not as a fully-formed end product of liberalconstitutionalism but as its untamed other – the mass politics which escapes and exceeds the Law and the injustices of Order. It is from here that the greatest challenges to capitalism and the State arise. The Maoist strategy, by merely trying to mimic the State, is actually inimical to this democratic upsurge and therefore needs to be resisted.

Aditya Nigam ( is a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

december 19, 2009

he most immediate question forced on the agenda by the recent rise of Maoist politics is the question of the repressive apparatus of the Indian state, for the justification of “revolutionary violence” hinges crucially upon and is in direct proportion to the state’s repressive logic. State violence now envelops “normal” life in India – from large parts of the north-east to Kashmir, reeling under the jackboots of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA); the repeated resort to extraordinary laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) 2002 and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) 1967 and as amended in 2008; the often unspectacular, everyday violence that is visited upon different sections of the population, from the stigmatised and hunted Muslims – always potential “terrorists” – to the adivasis in forest areas who face the deadly combination of local power-nexuses, contractors, corporations and the state machinery.

This aspect of the Indian state is critiqued by civil liberties and democratic rights organisations and movements, but is rarely considered in theorising the state. Thus, political science can happily celebrate the electoral-democratic upsurge of the 1990s and the media can wax eloquent on the resilience of Indian democracy, without pausing to think through the problem of the “extraordinary” that surrounds it, haunts it and to some extent, structures it. Eugen Weber, in his Peasants into Frenchmen, underlines that the process of nation-formation in France was quite akin to colonialism – a point repeatedly stressed in the Indian context by many activistthinkers like A K Roy (of the Marxist Coordination Committee of Dhanbad) and Sachidanand Sinha through their thesis of internal colonialism. The point about

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many other revolutionaries would be wont to claim? Is it a mere façade, meant to conceal the “real” repressive character, evidenced in the instances outlined above? Or is it possible that its democratic character, responsible for much of the upsurge and political emergence of the dalits and other lower caste populations, is as real as its repressive character? After all, it can be claimed by its proponents, with equal plausibility, that Indian democracy is real and the instances of violence mere distortions or “exceptions”.

We can claim, a la Giorgio Agamben, that “the camp” has become the biopolitical paradigm of the modern, and becomes “the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space” in which we live (Agamben 1998:166). We could then claim after him, that the “state of exception” has become the rule in all modern democracies. This particularly dark scenario is outlined by Agamben in his attempt to explore the contiguity between mass democracies and 20th century totalitarianisms – an issue that should also be close to our own concerns. The problem with this rendering, however, is that it focuses exclusively on sovereignty and fails to notice the innumerable ways in which it is subverted in its encounter with the popular.

As opposed to this scenario that seems to run against the experience of many oppressed groups who have found this demo cracy enabling in many ways, we could start thinking of it differently. On this view, democracy would appear, not as a fully-formed end product that is embodied in certain practices of liberal-constitutionalism and notions of “rule-of-law” (the famous procedural democracy) but as the liberal order’s untamed other, something that this order continuously attempts to purge but cannot. At one level, a seemingly


analogous distinction between mass democracy and liberal-parliamentary democracy was already made by Carl Schmitt in the early 1920s. To Schmitt however, neither Bolshevism nor Nazism were antidemocratic – for all that mattered in his rendering was the undifferentiated fi gure of the “mass”. What mattered to him was the production of “popular will” – be it expressed in the figure of the Fuhrer or the Leninist party. Hence his wager for political theory: political power is not the expression or embodiment of popular will; rather it is popular will that is produced by workings of political power. In his rendering, democracy would be synonymous with mass power – whatever its form. It would always be at odds with the liberal order that he saw as based on sterile “deliberation” and “idle chatter” – ever at odds with the imperative of the “sovereign decision”, which can only be based on undivided political will. (The resonances with Lenin should also be immediately clear.) At one level then, Schmitt sees one thing quite clearly: “democracy”, unless expressed in his way as an antithesis of liberal-parliamentarianism, throws sovereignty into crisis. Sovereignty – in our case, the rule through AFSPA/POTA/UAPA – is in perpetual crisis with the advent of democracy.

Rule of Property

As distinct from Schmitt, however, I would suggest that the liberal order is not merely about deliberation and debate but equally crucially about the rule of property. And while radical democracy would want to preserve the former in some fashion, it would be positively hostile to the latter. Democracy must be seen then, as that which exceeds this liberal order and relentlessly poses a challenge before the rule of property. It is that untamed force which has at each historical moment erupted into the neatly laid-out interiors of liberal constitutionality – now proclaiming universal suffrage (against the property clause), now demanding equality (beyond formal juridical equality), now proclaiming the arrival of the dalit at the heart of the political (the question of property, once again being central in a different way). The question of land reforms in India, we would do well to remember, was put on the table only through such militant struggles right through the 1940s (the Telangana movement) to the 1960s (the Naxalite movement and the numerous other land struggles led by mainstream communist parties). Even the nationalisation of banks by Indira Gandhi should be seen as the displaced effect of popular struggles that were at work even as the Congress split in the late 1960s. Democracy is untamed because it pronounces, as Claude Lefort put it, power as an empty place. With democracy, power is no longer the hereditary right of a chosen dynasty; it introduces a constitutive instability into the very structures of sovereign power. Democracy, on this view would be the “entry of the masses” into the very heart of the political, which cannot but remain a threat to order and stability. That is why, it is sought to be contained and tamed – by liberal constitutionalism (through fi ctions of the rule of law), by revolutionaries (through democratic centralism and proletarian dictatorship) and fascists (through the institution of the organic community).

Another name for this eruption, one might say, taking the cue from Jacques Ranciere, is class struggle. Class struggle, he argues, places “the humanising power of division” at the heart of the democratic conflict whereby the proclamation of the division between the bourgeois and proletarian becomes a rejection of unequal distribution and social ranking: “Being a member of a militant class means no longer being a member of a lower order” (Ranciere 1995: 33).

I would like to refer to this surplus that Ranciere calls “class struggle”, simply as “mass politics”. In mass politics, class antagonism certainly remains important but is usually overdetermined by a range of other antagonisms like caste oppression, patriarchal oppression and exploitation of adviasis and by languages of community, religion and so on. Ranciere’s cautious formulation also needs to be amended by underlining that mass politics is the untamed democracy that underlies liberal constitutional democracy: it is that which escapes and exceeds the Law and the injustices of Order. It can appear in one place as the parliamentary struggle and bid for power by the dalits, in another as the insurgent peasantry of Nandigram and following Nandigram, innumerable other places.

december 19, 2009

And lest we begin to romanticise it, let us also note that mass politics can also express itself through outright fascist mobilisations where subaltern demands are channelised against say, the Muslims (as we saw in Gujarat 2002).

Mass politics can also appear as the defeated struggle of the Narmada adivasis, or of the workers of Graziano Transmissioni or Hero Honda, but as we know, no struggle is ever defeated: its effects reverberate through the body of society and fuel ever newer struggles of the future. Its success appears in another place and another time. Had struggles like the Narmada Bachao Andolan not been cynically crushed and suppressed by the Rule of Law (at each stage, literally, by the Supreme Court), there might not have been a Maoist insurgency for the state to deal with.

Maoists of course have been around for a long time without many takers for their kind of politics. What made them attractive is that “rule of the extraordinary”, the violence of the law we identifi ed earlier. It is not for nothing that well-known Gandhians have of late been adopting tactical silence – if not an openly welcoming stance – towards the Maoists.

Rule of the Extraordinary

How then does sovereignty or the “rule of the extraordinary” relate to democracy? Clearly, it is not possible to reduce these two aspects of the state to a singular logic, an essence residing in the “Reason of the State” or in its class character. We have seen that the state/sovereign no longer exercises total control over its realm. Does it not make more sense to see the business of government then, as a set of concrete practices responding to multiple imperatives arising, among other things, from its encounter with the unmanageable/recalcitrant popular – and with mass politics – that always escapes it?

How, for instance, do we understand recent interventions by governments at the Centre and in some states, instituting welfare and transparency measures like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), pensions for senior citizens among the rural poor, the Forest Rights Act, Right to Information Act, Right to Education and so on. Highly contested in practice though they are, these moves are not

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reducible to any logic of class rule. Recent theorisations of Indian and postcolonial democracies that demarcate a domain of “political society”, precisely in terms of such contestations, point towards the constantly shifting and multiple logics of negotiating the popular as an imperative of government. To put it in Foucault’s terms, the state is better seen as “the mobile effect of a regime of multiple governmentalities” that has no autonomous source of power (Foucault 2008: 77).

From this point of view, the rule of the extraordinary needs to be understood not as an expression of some intrinsic logic of the state/class-state but rather as born, in each case, of the historical specifi city of its formation. Indeed, most of the Indian state’s most brutal manifestations have to do with the failure of its project of nationbuilding in integrating Kashmir and the north-east into its “benign” fold. Such brutality has no class belonging and is known to have existed in “socialist” states as well (Tibet and the Uighur being just two random examples). In principle at least, such integration would be the point when armed occupation would give way to liberal parliamentary democracy (in India, that is). What is happening in adivasi areas, on the other hand, is an entirely different story – a no less brutal project of dispossession of, what might even appear to the state’s neoliberal eyes as, an entirely dispensable population, for the sake of the treasure that lies beneath. There the logic of internal colonialism is combined and accelerated by the logic of neoliberalism and the desire to power India’s fantasy of emerging as the next world power. The political space, in other words, is highly complex and differentiated.

Maoist Myth

Intellectuals sympathetic to the Maoist cause have been underlining that “Operation Green Hunt” (an accepted shorthand term, despite the home minister’s disavowal) is an open declaration of war by the government against the tribal population of the mine-rich forest areas that now comprise the so-called “red corridor”. The point being made by them is that the “Maoist threat” is being invoked in order to launch a full-scale military operation to clear these areas of adivasi populations so

Economic & Political Weekly

december 19, 2009

that their corporate plunder can continue unobstructed. In some versions this has been even rendered as the government’s open war against the “Indian people”.

This representation of the entire political space as divided between two warring camps has been a staple of revolutionary imagination and has been rehearsed time and again in different places. It simplifi es the highly complex nature of divisions in the political space to produce the picture of a state at war with its people – almost as though a national liberation struggle were in progress against colonial occupation. It completely exaggerates one side of the picture to the point of completely missing the extent of popular investments in parliamentary democracy. Alongside, we also see the insistence of such intellectuals to divide up the intellectual space itself into two camps.

One effect of deploying this trope of “warring camps” is that it actually seeks to eliminate all middle ground that is so essential for the health of any democratic process and politics.

There is a real danger today that all spaces of radical political movements and indeed the entire space of the Left, part of it gradually vacated by the parliamentary “Left” in recent decades, will now be virtually erased. In its place will be installed the phantom of an “armed struggle” that threatens to completely swallow up the spaces once occupied by different shades of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the Naxalite movement and other left-of-CPI(M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]) groups and movements.

Indeed, with the state whipping itself into a frenzy over the perceived ‘Maoist threat’, the jugalbandi (musical composition of two different instruments; entwined twins) is complete. It is very convenient for it too to dub all other anti-displacement and anti-SEZ struggles as “Maoist” – thus completely narrowing down the space of democratic mass struggles.

It began with the prime minister’s declaration some years ago, that Maoism (which is used interchangeably, sometimes out of ignorance and often deliberately, with Naxalism and left-wing extremism) was “the single biggest security threat to the country”. This was a highly

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exaggerated claim. The paranoid idea that Maoism now affects 160 districts (the latest figure is 220) seems to give the impression that these entire districts are under the sway of the Maoists – whereas the truth is that, in the best of cases, it is only a few police station areas or a block or two that are really under their control. And even in these areas “under their control”, their number is never more than a couple of hundred.

In retrospect, this highly exaggerated claim seems entirely understandable because, by reducing the entire spectrum of the non-parliamentary Left and all shades of Naxalism – and including all anti-corporate mass stuggles – to Maoism, the prime minister was delegitimising the very idea of the left. This was the best bet of the fanatically neoliberal ManmohanChidambaram-Montek combine (prime minister Manmohan Singh, former fi nance minister and present home minister P Chidambaram, and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia). The well-being of the corporate marauders of Niyamgiri/Lanjigarh, Goa and other places can only be ensured through this strategy. Manmohan Singh’s identification of Naxalites and left-wing extremism as the number one security threat makes eminent sense, for it is only when all these struggles against corporate plunder of the forest and mining areas are defeated can the neoliberal dream be realised. And what better way than to first delegitimise them by dubbing them Maoist. This is a different claim from the one that says that entire tribal populations need to be cleared from the forest areas, which matches the government in its paranoia. Nor is there any sense of any other political movement in that rendering.

It is also well known that provincial, district and local level administrations in different parts of the country often brand all local activists as Maoists. Anybody familiar with their ways knows that by claiming that their district or area is “Maoist affected”, the police and district administrations get access to more government funds and facilities. It also gives them greater impunity in dealing with the more vocal sections of dalits and adivasis

– something that is done routinely at the


behest of the local rich and landed interests. The Maoist tag comes in very handy in such cases.

Thus, when there was a popular rebellion in Nandigram, state CPI(M) leaders alleged a “Maoist plot” – a politburo member even alleging that “they” were coming by the sea-route to Nandigram! Ironically, most often, this highly infl ated representation of their strength helps the Maoists directly, for it contributes to the endless myth-making about “them” – those whom very few have seen but who apparently control everything. Thus Koteshwar Rao (alias Kishenji) can claim in an interview (Mint, 29 May 2009) that “we also lead mass movements in many parts of West Bengal such as Lalgarh and Nandigram”.

Nandigram actually offers an interesting case to think about in this respect. While Koteshwar Rao claimed, in the above interview, that his party “led” the mass movement in Nandigram, he also admitted that they had only one person there: “initially, Narayan was our only person in Nandigram”, he said. According to Rao this person, who lives in Haldia, “started mobilising the local population” from the very beginning when the news came in of the government’s intention to acquire land. He acknowledges that it was only after the police killed people on 14 March, that “we started sending more people and arms – we sent some 150 rifl es, if I remember correctly – to sustain the fi ght”.

In other words, the movement in Nandigram was not stirred up by a single person from the CPI-Maoist; it was the consequence of an already building anger among the local population who, till a few days ago, had been Left Front and CPI(M) supporters. Nandigram happened because its inhabitants had already seen the violent process of dispossession of peasants like them in Singur. Nandigram was a mass upsurge – which is why no political force ranging from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) to the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, could stay away from it. In fact, as is wellknown, the Jamaat had a much bigger role to play than most other organisations in providing support to the movement.

Lalgarh is a somewhat more complicated, but classic story, where attempts to physically eliminate the opposition by labelling people Maoists, ended up producing more and more Maoists – exactly how communists of yesteryears had grown. Ironically, it is being repeated now with them in power resorting to the very same self-defeating methods.

Take the case of Manoj, a 25-year old Maoist leader of Lalgarh, some months ago, whom the Times of India (21 June 2009) interviewed. He spoke about the miserable living conditions in his village, including non-availability of clean drinking water, which forced people to drink “fi lthy, yellow water”. He spoke of how in 2002, fed up with the state of affairs, the villagers got together and demanded development. Local CPI(M) bosses responded by getting the police to slap false cases on them, accusing them of working for the People’s War Group (PWG: the predecessor of the CPI[Maoist]). “They branded us Maoists. So we began to think we might as well join the Maoists”. Manoj’s was a family of Congress supporters who shifted loyalty to the TMC when it was formed in 1998. Once branded Maoist and thrown into jail, there was no turning back. It was in jail that he met a Maoist leader and converted to Maoism.

As a matter of fact, Chhatradhar Mahato, the key leader of the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) – now under arrest and declared to be a Maoist – himself used to be a TMC supporter till about a year ago. In the state’s eyes he is now a Maoist and the PCPA a Maoist front. Once again, a story that suits both the ruling CPI(M), the state, and the Maoists themselves. Thus was a popular mass movement handed over to the Maoists.

A Seamless Narrative

Needless to say, this strategy suits the plans of corporate plunderers and their cheerleaders in the media, as well as the Maoists. That is why it is necessary to uncover the symbiosis between the state and its mimicry – in the form of the “stateto-be”, codenamed “Maoism/Maoist”. Each needs the other. A pervasive myth is manufactured through this symbiosis that has lately found expression through some very articulate and high-profi le voices among sections of the radical intelligentsia: the myth of the Maoist as the only answer

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to special economic zones (SEZs) and corporate designs in the forest and mining areas. This myth goes hand in hand with another: that of complete identity between the adivasi and the Maoist. The adivasi/ Maoist, in this myth, takes up arms and kills only because s/he (or her loved ones) is being killed and raped day in and day out. This story has been endlessly retailed in the past few months and seems to be fast becoming some kind of common sense. There is a seamless movement here between terms like “the oppressed”, “poorest of the poor”, and the “adivasi” on the one hand, and “Maoist” on the other – as if they are synonyms.

There is a sleight of hand involved here. In the first place, this myth deliberately screens out the fact that the really powerful and effective resistances to corporate and neoliberal designs have been actual mass movements. From Singur and Nandigram to Pen tehsil in Raigad and Goa, to the various unreported and unspectacular struggles in Jharkhand and Orissa, every successful struggle against such designs has been a mass struggle. There have been even much older struggles like the Koel Karo struggle that have succeeded in stalling the dam project without ever picking up the gun. This is not to say that these are non-violent Gandhian struggles. Of course, there was violence in Kalinganagar, Singur and Nandigram. In Kalinganagar, it was the naked violence of the state that came into full view and put a huge question mark over the ethics of neoliberal style “Development”. In Singur, too, it was the violence of the police against the unarmed peasants that was on display. It was different in Nandigram – but there it was not really violence against a particular set of people (at least initially) but a kind of symbolic violence against the CPI(M) offi ces that gave vent to the anger that had boiled over once the information of impending land acquisition leaked out. It was only when the party-state violence began to be unleashed on the rebellion that more direct bloodshed took place – and the Maoist rifles stepped in. At any rate, the violence there had a close connection with the breakdown of the long reign of unspoken terror in rural Bengal. The struggles that followed Nandigram – the Nandigram effect – in other parts of the country, or

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struggles that acquired a new legitimacy after it, put the state on the backfoot. Violence in all these cases was exercised at the limit point – or not at all. At any rate, it was more a consequence of mass anger – not the premeditated terroristic attack of a force armed to the teeth.

Violence may at times become necessary in the course of an otherwise nonviolent mass movement. In a country like India, it is often difficult to even contest a panchayat election, let alone win it, unless the violence of upper caste landlords is met with the possibility of retaliation. Such violence – or a threat of violence – is very different from the cult of the gun that has now become part and parcel of a celebratory rhetoric of the Maoists and their intellectual supporters.

The other myth pertains to the representation of the Maoist as someone forced to resort to arms under threat to life and honour. This representation obliterates a very crucial distinction: The Maoist – as in the party and its leadership – is a worshipper of violence independent of any contingency and must be discussed separately from those who are attracted towards it under specific circumstances. The armed might of the Maoists seems to provide the latter some security against the violence of local oppressors and the state. A quick glance at the history of the PWG and the Maoist Communist Centre should convince anyone that their attachment to violence is independent of everything else. Violence is to them, not merely legitimate but, a necessary means of achieving political ends – that is, “capture of state power”. Thus when sections of the radical intelligentsia demand “unconditional talks with the Maoists” of the government, one is not quite sure what the talks are supposed to be about. The Maoists are fighting for state power and have made no bones about it. What then are the talks meant to be about – except as a ruse to buy time strategically, in order to regroup and reorganise?

It should also be underlined that while the justification for violence is produced by pointing to the state’s violence, a large majority of the victims of the Maoists are the poor, unarmed, rural folk themselves. Most people killed on mere suspicion of being police informers or those refusing to carry out Maoist diktats, are actually people caught in the crossfire in a war they did not choose to fi ght.

Is Capitalism Inevitable?

A final question remains. Any believing Marxist/Maoist can turn around and say that all this faith in democracy (in whatever form) is an abdication of the revolutionary project and that capitalism can only be superseded by a takeover of the bourgeois state. While the first part of this statement is true, it is not quite clear that the second is. We know from our long march through the 20th century that the historical destiny of all socialist/people’s democratic/new democratic revolutions was to simply carry on the task of “building capitalism”: all heroic armed struggles, all “socialist” experiments have been reduced to caricatures of their pre-revolutionary selves, working tirelessly in the service of capital. They have merely produced more ruthless versions of capitalism and even more ruthless modernities at the end of the day. For the last few years, China is said to be having literally tens of thousands of rural disturbances and revolts against land acquisition – and has finally enshrined the right to private property in its constitution. Vietnam, the hero of the 1960s and 1970s, has opened its labour out to run sweatshops for Nike, McDonalds, Disney and such like. Even Prachanda (chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal [Maoist]), at the end of a decade-long insurgency, after he assumed power, had assured the Nepal Chamber of Commerce and Industry not to worry – for the Maoists only wanted to build capitalism. Let no one fool us: this is not revisionism in action and there are no purer revolutionaries who will set things right. It is precisely because the task of thinking about alternative, postcapitalist futures has been banished in the interests of a selffulfilling one of “capture of state power” that all that revolutionaries can do once they take power is to do what states do: build capitalism.

Behind this lies an article of faith: noncapitalist relations can only come into being after the bourgeois state is overthrown. What 20th century experience suggests is that logic of the modern state itself is bourgeois and unless alternatives to this state-form and its implication in the juridical form of bourgeois property right (for reasons of taxation and economic “accountability” of “informal” economic activities) itself is rethought, revolutionaries may be barking up the wrong tree. One only needs to look with different eyes to be able to see that non-capitalist relations based on an ethos of sharing (and rejection of the accumulative logic) pervade our societies. It is these diverse economic activities that modern states seek to bring under control by instituting the juridical bourgeois property right and making them accountable.

The naïve belief that capitalism must take everything under its fold and transform every autonomous life-form into wage-slavery is best abandoned at the earliest. For, capitalism and industry are never known to eradicate unemployment which they produce by destroying such autonomous life-forms. And a socialism that unthinkingly takes over this legacy can only ever find itself caught in trying to resolve what capital bequeaths it, always ultimately casting itself in capital’s image. It is here that utmost serious rethinking will be required in future, before socialism begins to make sense once again.


Agamben, Giorgio (1998): Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (California: Stanford University Press).

Foucault, Michel (2008): The Birth of Biopolitics (England: Palgrave Macmillan).

Ranciere, Jacques (1995): On the Shores of Politics (London/ New York: Verso).

Schmitt, Carl (1926/1988): The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press).

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Economic & Political Weekly

december 19, 2009 vol xliv no 51

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