In Memoriam: Nasser Hussain

CM joins our colleagues in remembering Nasser Hussain, legal theorist and scholar at Amherst, who passed away on November 9, 2015. Today, Amherst College is holding a memorial in Johnson Chapel. These are heavy times– Shahab Ahmed, Nasser Hussain, Barney Bates, the Rudolphs– for students of South Asia. Yet, they have all forged a path forward for scholarship to follow, and for ideas to flourish. Hussain’s book (as mentioned below by Professor Datla) remains a critical intervention in South Asian studies. One trenchant example is Hussain’s reading of Counter-Insurgency manual. Hussain’s critical acuity and engagement with imperial politics in that piece is fully recognizable to the readers of his scholarship. Our hearts and thoughts are with the family and colleagues of Nasser Hussain. Please find below remembrances by Professor Datla, Baxi and Lokaneeta.

Kavita Saraswathi Datla
Associate Professor of History
Mount Holyoke College

Nasser Hussain’s PhD dissertation and his first book, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (University of Michigan Press, 2003), begins with a description of Pakistan’s post-independence legal crises– more specifically, the 1955 Supreme Court case that considered the Governor General’s dissolution of the constituent assembly and rule by decree. In doing so, this work proclaimed the centrality of Pakistan’s historical experience to attempts to understand the conditions of modern law, and the relationship between the rule of law and state power. This was because of the importance of the British Empire to the legal history of large portions of the globe. But it was also the case because in the history of colonial India one could see, perhaps more starkly than other contexts, how and why emergency law came to be. This study analyzed the tension between sovereign emergency and the constraints of the rule of law in a colonial territory even as it traced the impact of that tension on the development of western legalities more broadly. In British India, this pioneering work showed us, a conquest state spoke the normative language of law in ways that are of continued significance. The postcolonial peoples and states were shaped by that specific history, as well, the various contexts in which ‘emergencies’ are managed by global powers.

No ordinary South Asianist and no ordinary scholar, Nasser Hussain will be deeply missed by his colleagues, students, and scholars across disciplines, institutions, and continents. Humble and generous, Nasser may have objected to us speaking too much about him as a person. But ferocious in his pursuit of ideas, he would have had a much harder time objecting to us making a first attempt to appreciate the influence of his contributions. In the months that follow, there will undoubtedly be more extended discussions and publications about the range of Nasser’s work and its continued relevance to discussions of history, law, the humanities, and politics in South Asia and beyond. Here we hope to offer an initial and diverse set of reflections on his profound contributions.

Upendra Baxi
Emeritus Professor of Law
University of Warwick and Delhi

The sad demise of Nasser Hussain, on November. 9, 2015, who taught in the Amherst Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought since 1996, signifies an immeasurable loss for the world of juristic learning. His outstanding work on the states of exception that stood for a ‘jurisprudence’ of constitutional emergency is still relevant to a deeply troubled world. So is his work (coedited with Austin Sarat) on forgiveness, mercy, and clemency. Close colleagues and students know him as a deeply committed teacher and as a pioneer in the field of law and colonialism.

I did not have the good fortune of knowing him personally but am deeply influenced by Nasser’s works. In the global context today, his analyses of colonial law, the linkages between martial law and massacre, and the aporia of the rule of law remain abiding and poignant. No ideologue, he has bequeathed us a legacy of critical legal thought under conditions of colonialism that also speak (beyond South Asia) to contemporary neoliberal authoritarianism and the necessity of taking social and human suffering seriously. Nasser Hussain speaks for all subaltern scholars when he depicts how basic human freedoms are obstinately, even obscenely, denied everywhere by the triumphant market and state fundamentalisms.

Jinee Lokaneeta
Associate Professor of Political Science
Drew University

Nasser Hussain’s death on November 9, 2015 has felt like a deeply personal loss but has actually left a void in a much wider intellectual and political community—regardless of whether one knew him personally or not. I met Nasser during my graduate student days and was fortunate enough to have him engage with my work and remain a supportive figure over the years. His insightful and brilliant comments, gently but firmly articulated-— often with a beautiful smile—- had a way of staying with me long after our conversations ended, and influenced my work perhaps much more than he (or I) realized. His comments and his work have been so fundamentally transformative, above all, because his work while being disciplinarily rigorous as a legal historian could not be contained by disciplinary boundaries in ways that was quite intentional, making his iconic book Jurisprudence of Emergency a shared legacy for all.

As a political theorist, what inspired me the most was his ability to utilize theoretical concepts (that may have emerged in very specific contexts and were therefore necessarily embroiled in debates on their utility elsewhere) and brilliantly apply them to extremely complex historical events in ways that do justice both to explaining the particular event and further developing the concept theoretically. An excellent example is found in the chapter from his book titled “Martial Law and Massacre: Violence and the Limit.” He uses Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence to analyze the relationship between law and violence in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre committed by the British in colonial India. Rather than understand martial law as a way to enforce law and order, Nasser argues that it actually represents a performative and foundational violence required to recreate the (colonial) state’s authority. The problem for the colonial state in dealing with the excessive force used in this massacre is that the event might reveal the foundational violence that lies at the heart of the rule of law; this the state attempts to conceal but struggles to contain. Martial law and massacre become reflective of the ambivalent relationship of law and state to violence.

Being a theorist and historian of the rule of law and emergency, it was not surprising therefore to see him play a prominent role as an educator, public intellectual and as a theorist to make sense of Guantanamo Bay prison, Cuba in the post-9/11 context. Nasser was a member of the group of legal historians that wrote an amicus brief on the right to habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees in 2004 (in Rasul v. Bush); he was also a part of a related virtual teach-in that included more than 200 colleges and universities in 2006. It was his concept of hyperlegality (See “Beyond Norm and Exception”) that eloquently explained the ways that law could actually enable the existence of a space such as Guantanamo even as most theorists turned to Agamben and Schmitt to term it a State of Exception, and political critics resorted to defining it as a “lawless” space. The ability to recognize what “rule of law” could accommodate in the form of new laws, regulations, procedures (prompting a continued struggle with the tensions within the law) in both colonial and postcolonial times was what Nasser’s work and interventions taught us…Grateful for the support over the years; the conversations shall continue, dear Nasser.

To Barney

Bernard Bate (Barney to all) was a profoundly gifted scholar of Tamil language and an anthropologist. He was currently a Humanities Fellow at Stanford– while being the HoS of Anthropology at Yale-NUS in Singapore. His sudden passing has left all of us who knew him and admired him and loved him in profound shock. He was 52. This is a great loss. Just a few days ago, he gave a wonderful talk at Berkeley on Tamil oratory.

Barney visited CM often and he commented with glee and I know that he liked the spirit and style of our work. Here is a tweet that captures his spirit well.

We will miss him. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.

XQs V: A Conversation with Eric Beverley

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the author of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank our long time friend, Qalandar, for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIII, IV.]


ELB_XQ_photoEric Beverley is Associate Professor in the History Department at State University of New York, Stony Brook. His book, Hyderabad, British India, and the World: Muslim Networks and Minor Sovereignty, c. 1850-1950, come out in 2015 with Cambridge University Press. Professor Beverley used to write for Chapati Mystery as Dacoit after being apprehended by Sepoy at a Chicago cabbie joint.


1. Over the last few years, there have been a number of books on Hyderabad in the years leading up to 1947 (e.g. Kavita Datla’s The Language of Secular Islam; Margrit Pernau’s The Passing of Patrimonialism; and of course your own)— what do you think is interesting (and/or relevant to our moment) about Hyderabad’s intersection with the modernity ushered in by colonialism?

Hyderabad, like other similar ‘minor’ states, provides a critical entry point for conceiving the making of modern South Asia outside of the rather strained and essentialized narrative of colonial or nationalist modernity. I think there are several aspects of the contemporary moment that make histories of Hyderabad particularly important now – I’ll describe three key ways this history is crucial for thinking about the past and present of South Asia and the world.

First, the history of Hyderabad (and other minor states) is critical to situating many contemporary developments in context. Historical scholarship on South Asia over the last few decades has tended to take colonialism and victorious statist nationalisms that prevailed in South Asia after decolonization as the relevant background for viewing subsequent political, social, and cultural trends, shifts, and conflicts. The limits of explanatory frameworks founded on colonialism and nationalism are becoming all the more apparent. The British dominated the subcontinent often using intensive coercion, but their power was regionally inflected in particular ways. Places like Hyderabad that were not under formal British rule maintained their own state institutions, and sheltered social and cultural domains distinct from those in Raj territory. Further, while the projects and paradigms that constituted Indian and Pakistani postcolonial nationalism were substantial and formative in many regards, the subordination of different parts of the new nation-states to these visions was highly uneven. Neither the history of British rule itself, nor of the policies of postcolonial nation-states, sufficiently explains many key trends in contemporary South Asia. Several dynamics bear out historical legacies other than those of the Raj: the enduring resonance of patrimonial political networks and particular kinds of alliances (the Muslim—Dalit alliance in the Hyderabad Deccan, for example), idioms of solidarity, and even forms of architecture or economic development in a number of places; broader trends such as movements for new provincial states or domains of autonomy in places such as Telangana, Swat, and Balochistan; the rise of radical Marxist autonomous zones in the old borderlands of minor states like Hyderabad or Bastar. Close attention to the history of places like Hyderabad provides basic historical context critical to developing nuanced explanations of these and many others dynamics.

9781107091191Second, the example of Hyderabad helps us move beyond pervasive stereotypes about the possible meaning of Muslim statecraft. Increasingly for the last few decades, and seemingly more so every day, various idioms of right-wing Islamism (from ultra-conservative to radical militant) have occupied a central position in global political discourse. Policy ‘experts’ and popular media cast these forms of politics, real and imagined, as the preeminent threat to stability and security in most of the world, and present them as proof of the incompatibility between Muslims (or at least those who regard Muslimness as a basis for political ethics) and most states and societies in the world. Viewed from Hyderabad, the widely varied dynamics of continuity and change from the early modern period, through the era of British colonial dominance in the region, and into the postcolonial period are visible in ways that they are not from the perspective of British India. Hyderabad provides examples of the ways that idioms and institutions of Muslim dynastic political authority remained resonant in South Asia owing to their vitality to existing state forms. My book, like the others you mention, traces the complex and productive engagements between Hyderabadi intellectuals and officials and dynamics in British India and elsewhere. I show that what we see in Hyderabad from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century represents an attempt to fashion a self-consciously modern state form founded on the idea of solidarity with other Muslim states, progressive principles such as inclusion and aid towards all segments of society, and technical and institutional innovation informed by contemporaneous global developments. Put another way, Hyderabad State provides a glimpse of very different manifestations of ‘the Muslim state’ than we have become accustomed to hearing about in public discourse.

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University of Virginia’s Statement of Solidarity for JNU

We, the undersigned students and faculty at the University of Virginia, stand in solidarity with the staff, students, and faculty at Jawarharlal University (JNU), New Delhi. We share the outrage of citizens around the world who are aggrieved at the Modi government’s criminalization of student protest and dissent. Further, we are extremely concerned by the government’s cavalier suppression of dissent as ‘sedition’ and ‘anti-national’. Freedom of speech and expression are cornerstones in any democracy. Citizens’ rights to express a plurality of beliefs and contrary opinions are essential to enabling a free, tolerant, and just society. We thus condemn the arrest, detention, and prosecution of students, including Kanhaiya Kumar (President of JNU Students Union), who have exercised this fundamental right on the JNU campus.

We also condemn the state’s wanton use of police and legal powers to subdue the rights of students to gather peaceably and debate their political beliefs. We are concerned that the persecution of students at JNU is galvanized by the state’s general repression of minorities, most notably evidenced in the tragic suicide of the Dalit student Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad and the controversial execution of Afzal Guru. We value the resilience of the members of the JNU community who are now in the midst of the struggle. We also recognize the ties between the crackdown at JNU and other similar virulent state actions against some of India’s most excellent institutions of higher education: Jadavpur University, Kolkata; the University of Hyderabad; Film and Television Institute of India; and others. JNU’s preeminent reputation in India as an institution that fosters path-breaking scholarship, social activism, and critical thought is truly global. It is our hope that this statement of solidarity, by reaching across boundaries, affirms the exalted regard with which JNU is held in the international community of scholars.

In order to ensure that JNU can carry on with its educational mission, we urge the Government of India to remedy the situation immediately. To this end, we ask that the students arrested under false charges of ‘sedition’ be released immediately, that all charges against them be dropped, and that police incursions into campus activities cease. We call on the Vice Chancellor of JNU to uphold the university’s global reputation for safeguarding free and independent thought by protecting its most vulnerable members and students.

Founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, the University of Virginia aspires to extend universally the rights of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness imagined by its founder. Even so, UVA continues to face its own struggles against discrimination based on race, class, religion, gender, and sex. It is in the name of these struggles on our own historic Grounds that members of this university find it urgent to speak out in solidarity with JNU and against the suppression of minority voices in India.
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