What does it mean to have a right when you don’t know what a right is?

In the last few weeks, doing research in India, I have interviewed a number of ‘important’ men. Development officers of various kinds, public health experts, district attorneys, judges, state bureaucrats, superintendents of police, district commissioners. These men have three things in common. First, they are devoted to the welfare of the citizens of district Kangra, the hills and plains of the Northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. They all stress that the empowerment of women in particular is a top priority within the district. Second, they argue that that Himachal is different from all other states – that “we keep our women safe”. Third, they seem to really like the sound of their own voices. I’ve heard aphorisms and parables, I’ve been quoted the Bhavagad Gita, the Koran and the Constitution.



Sitting in a grey office in the sticky post-monsoon air, this time across from a rather plump man called Mr Khana, a local state official. Mr Khana shows the characteristic Indian hospitality: chai, pani and coconut biscuits have been rung for before I launch into a volley of questions about the various programmes he is in charge of implementing. Specifically, I ask about NREGA – a programme that aims to provide 150 days of work to all registered applicants at a fixed wage. Mr Khana assures me that NREGA has done wonders for “women’s self-reliance and livelihoods”.

N: So you think there is a direct link between state schemes like NREGA and women claiming their rights?
MK: I will tell you a story about this. There was a mouse who used to reside in someone’s house. Every day he was pecking grains from the store of the house from the share of the housekeeper. When the housekeeper tried to stop him, he would just jump up and show he was too mighty for the housekeeper to stop him. The housekeeper talked to someone about the problem, and he advised him to dig a hole and put the grains in there. So when the mouse tried to get them he couldn’t get out: he was too slow.

N: Will you please clarify the moral of this?
MK: (Self-satisfying laughter) This shows that the present life is dependent on the financial situation of the person. They were victims but they never complained before. Now they are earning and they have the courage to complain. They have the courage to go to the police. They have rights and will fight for them because they have their own money.


In an ironic stroke of fate, we are interrupted by a knock on the door by a scurrying peon who apologetically introduces to Officer Sahib two women clad in the traditional Shalwar Kameez toting a cheque and sheepish expressions. He admits them and demands to know their business in Hindi. Without eye contact and with a shaky voice one of the women tentatively explains their situation. The women have been part of a previous government microfinance scheme for women. They are part of a group of women who took out a loan with 4% interest for a spinning project. The women have brought in the payment minus the contribution of one of their project. One woman refused to pay. The Officer erupts into a rapid flow of Hindi, reprimanding them for their lack of respect. “One more month”, he shouts at them. “Where was I?” he asks, turning back to me, “ahhh… In 1951 only 5 or 6% of women worked, now 80% of women do.”


This is only one example I observed of the many tensions erupting in the local everyday life between the state discourse promising rights, freedom and support and the reality of how women are often treated as political subjects. The ideals of the state are watertight with respect to women’s empowerment. They excitingly open a back door for women out of cultural conservatism through the enactment of rights legislation. But when it comes down to practical interaction, to the enactment of the ideals, divergence could not be more pronounced. Though undoubtedly this is not be so for all officials, I observed this same dynamic between the Sarpanch* and his wife, between the District Attorney and his female secretary or reflected in official statements of countless ministers. There is a clear slippage between Woman the Citizen and woman the wife/sister/daughter/colleague/client. Where does this tension come from?


The Superintendent of Police in Dharamshala put it quite clearly (over yet another cup of lemon tea sipped from finebone china): “Our culture is known from abroad as having social integrities. We don’t want to give up our social and cultural values, but we also want to be independent.” And this isn’t any old argument about the jolted march of modernity.


Dr Sanjay Ruparelia of the New School, calls this the “Post-neoliberal Welfare State”. The age-old, deep-seated patriarchy now plunged into a world where the state’s reputation within the global market necessitates a thought be spared to women. India went through an unprecedented economic growth throughout the 1990s following the fiscal crisis of 1991. Under the guidance of former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, the country adopted free-market principles and liberalised international trade by eliminating many existing colonial policies.


In order to garner international respect, India needed to clear up its act – needed to pay attention to the masses of poor who had formed the collective shoulders of such economic growth. This doesn’t mean giving hand outs, instead it initiated a canon of rights-based welfare policies – The Right to Information and NREGA in 2005, the Forestry Rights Act 2006,  the Right to Education in 2009, and the last breath of Congress with the 2013 Food Security Bill. This was paired with the Aadhaar scheme – designed to enhance the state’s capacity to implement the above initiatives by collecting the biodata of all Indians and attaching this to a social security number that acted as their identity card, bank account, passport and election card. There are even lists of rights written in Hindi on the walls of villages. Despite the plunging rupee and the slowing growth rate, the current Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech seems to echo this trend. He depicts himself as the “prime servant of the welfare of Mother India”. Ruparelia draws attention to the increasing emphasis on ‘claiming these rights’ – turning ‘people’ into ‘citizens’ so they can see the state; and the state can see them. But does this kind of citizen-as-a-depository-of-rights actually exist? Do people know about these changes from above?


Exception to the rule exist: Pink Sari movement fighting violence against women

As the UCLA-based Indian anthropologist Akhil Gupta asks in ‘Red Tape’, “Why has the state, whose main motive is to foster development, failed to help the large number of people who still live in poverty? In short – for all their talk why is the state failing?” Gupta argues “high rates of poverty are tolerated because they seem like part of the landscape”. So, poverty, oppression and exploitation have been accepted as the norm for some parts of India and treating poor people differently is fine? My answer is a bit more simple – you can’t have a right when you don’t know what a right is. And even if you know, that right can’t exist if you don’t have a relationship with the state such that you feel you can claim it.


Priya, a sixteen year old migrant from Rajasthan, lives in a hut made from bamboo and tarp within a community of such makeshift structures on the borders of the Punjabi town of Haryana. Priya is the granddaughter of one of two patriarchs in the community. She was forced to marry the grandson of the other patriarch when she was 15 and he was 12, because Priya was pregnant. Day in and day out, Priya and her family go around the town collecting, sorting and selling waste that they can get money for. She was never allowed to go to school because her father has an alcohol problem and needs Priya to earn money for the family. Priya cannot read and she does not have a ration card for subsidised food. Her birth and the birth of her daughter were not registered and she has no form of identification. In fact, Priya is illegally occupying government land and hence does not even have a legitimate address. She would never go to a police station or hospital for fear they would find out she is engaged in a child marriage. She could not afford to go to the hospital because it would mean the loss of a day’s income. The local Anganwadi (state run pre-school) workers who are meant to collect her child each day refuse to enter the camp as they say the children are ‘too dirty’.


Migrant camps like Priya’s dot the highways up and down the Northern states. In 2001, the Census reported 309 million internal migrants. From the perspective of the state, Priya doesn’t want to claim her rights. For all the state welfare policies she has no positive relationship with any kind of state institution, no information as to their existence and hence can’t claim them. Priya exists only within the world of the camp, her rights are those given to her by her family. There is no state encounter. And you can’t want what you don’t know you’re missing. How can the state expect to turn people into citizens when they don’t speak to them on their own terms? When they don’t dislocate the rights discourse from the patriarchal underpinnings of state bureaucracy and local governance structures? This means that for many people like Priya, the Indian citizen loaded with rights only exists in the discourse of the state official, those who are favoured by or choose to buy into it.





Nikita Simpson is an undergraduate student in Social Anthropology at Kings College. She is beginning her research on Women’s Rights and the Law in contemporary India.




The column: Terra Nullis

Terra nullius is a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning “land belonging to no one”, which is used in international law to describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state. This column explores the ‘no ones’ and why they are subject to voicelessness and invisibility. It looks at who creates and profits from the ‘no one’ and how the state, how places – the indigenous sign for this is used in the logo – can be reclaimed.

Nikita Simpson is an aspiring anthropologist beginning a PhD on Gender Empowerment Policy in India at the London School of Economics. She also currently works at the SHM Foundation on their Mental Health programme, and is an editor of Kings Review. She tweets at @nikssimpson.