XQs VI: A Conversation with Nayanika Mathur

[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 Tariq Rahman for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIV, V.]


unnamedNayanika Mathur is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has studied at the Universities of Delhi and Cambridge and has held research fellowships awarded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge. Her book, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.

Tariq Rahman is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His research interests broadly include real estate, financialization, development, the state, genealogy, and Pakistan.


  1. Please explain the significance of your book’s title, Paper Tiger.

There is an intended double entendre to the title, Paper Tiger. On the one hand, the book is quite literally about paper and tigers. More accurately, it is about paper and leopards but the word in Hindustani – bagh – is the same for tigers and leopard and, furthermore, both these big cat species are protected and governed by the very same legal regime in India. Literality aside, the critical point of the title is to assist in a rethinking of the developmental Indian state. Paper tiger is an oft-used descriptor for the Indian state, particularly with regard to its puzzlingly consistent failure to implement its sophisticated laws, plans, and policies. The phrase, kaghaz ka bagh, was utilized, loudly and poignantly, during a fieldwork episode when a man-eating bagh terrorized the town I was living in for several months. At that point, I was repeatedly told that the Indian state is nothing but a paper tiger (kaghaz ka bagh). That phrase stuck and as I slowly started writing my dissertation, which eventually became this book, I found it an eloquent ethnographically-derived term that could be utilized to conceptually work through broader concerns with the execution of law, workings of bureaucracy, and the tabulation of success/failure in the contemporary Indian state.

  1. In Paper Tiger, you focus on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and how transparency-making documents designed to make it a more efficient development scheme ironically result in its underutilization. Can you say more about what these documents, in fact, do, and how this informs your understanding of development in your book?

The paperwork of NREGA was consistently marked out by my interlocutors as exceptionally overwhelming. It was the documentary compulsions of the statute, rather than anything else, that occupied its primary implementers at every tier of the state. I trace the explosion of paperwork in NREGA directly to its transparency-demanding strictures. As you note, these “transparent-making documents” had the ironic and entirely unanticipated result of making the program “unimplementable” in Uttarakhand. Apart from interfering in the traditional system of public works program execution (through what is colloquially referred to as the Contractor Raj), these documents performed a range of functions. The core one is, of course, producing material testaments of transparent government. They serve as tangible, legitimate, and sarkari evidence of the pursuance of ordained process; the implementation of law; and of the working of the state. They produce what I describe as the state life of the law or its sarkari zindagi. This material, documentary state rendition does not, necessarily, translate into what is described as asli vikas or “real development” on the ground. I do want to make clear that my argument is not that the sarkari kaghaz are hermetically sealed off from the asli. Rather, the two are inextricably entangled and the trick lies in figuring out this intertwining and play of governmental processes, things, and effects.


  1. In the Introduction, you situate your project not just theoretically, but also disciplinarily. What is anthropological about your approach to the state, bureaucracy, and development in Paper Tiger, and how does the book contribute to our understanding of these things?

Paper Tiger is, to my mind, very much an ethnography of the developmental Indian state. It’s spun from an extended period – over 18 months – of immersion in the everyday life of the state; through participant-observation in government offices at different tiers, especially district and block levels. In line with the anthropology of the state, this work presents a thick description of the everyday practices that go into producing the state, in lieu of assuming the state is a fetishized thing out there. Paper Tiger is an attempt to devise a language that can capture the quotidian banality of state bureaucracy. It is this methodological approach to the study of the state that, I believe, makes it anthropological. Following on from that, one of its core contributions is to make us rethink and reimagine what “the developmental Indian state” really is in practice and, therefore, what we mean when we discuss its successes/failures/performance.

  1. In the first chapter, you explain that despite the panoptic view that characterizes Gopeshwar’s (the administrative headquarters of Chamoli) spatial organization, surveillance in the area operates more like a gaze of all upon all. However, at other points in the book, such as your discussion of the production of the state, you find Foucault’s concepts useful. Can you describe your engagement with Foucault in Paper Tiger as well as how you feel his concepts should be treated by scholars working on contemporary South Asia?

In the first chapter, I played with Foucault and his thoughts on panopticism in order to see to what extent they might help us illuminate that peculiar form of surveillance that pervades life in small Himalayan towns. Beyond this testing (and failing) of the panopticon theory, Paper Tiger does, in critical ways, draw upon Foucault’s corpus. The state as, understood in this work, is a set of relations that emerges from “regimes of practices” in the Foucauldian sense and not just institutions, theories, or ideologies. I study bureaucratic practices like meetings, inspections, writing, signing, inaugurating, sealing to see how they produce the thing that we call the state. I also found Foucault’s lectures of neoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics rather prescient. They helped me make sense of India’s contemporary welfare regime, which many conceptualise as anachronistic and a challenge to neoliberalism. However, Foucault helped me see how this regime comprising seemingly-progressive statutes like NREGA can be conceptualized as located very much within neoliberal rationality, and not as one that falls outside it.

  1. Your book mentions numerous examples of corruption, a common explanation for development failures. Yet, you caution against such uncritical understandings of corruption. There has been much anthropological engagement with corruption, and I was wondering how you see corruption operating in your study.

Paper Tiger presents and works through two central paradoxes that emerge in the study of corruption and the state. The first paradox relates to the corruption-transparency dyad. The ethnography presented in this work shows clearly that the difficulties in the implementation of NREGA arose directly out of the transparency-requirements of the statute, which were impeding the traditional eating of money. Instead of corruption being the villain it turns out that, in this particular context, it was its categorical Other – transparency – that was to blame. The second and related paradox emerges from an ethnographic examination of the processes and things through which development performance, corruption, and transparency are established and adjudged in the contemporary Indian state. Corrupt state practices and transparent state functioning are authoritatively proclaimed through an assessment of evidence – material proof in the form of paper – that is constructed by the Indian state itself. The push for transparency in India at the moment is not only leading to an excessive focus on the production of these paper truths but, more dangerously, is also deflecting attention away from what is described as the “real” (asli) life of welfare programmes. Ultimately, Paper Tiger contends that we need to eschew treating corruption as an explanatory trope for the failure of development in India. Instead of devising ever-more punitive auditing regimes to stem the leakages of the Indian state, this work suggests that we need a clearer understanding of what the state really is; how – and through which material substances – it functions; and demonstrates evidence of its accomplishments.

  1. In Chapter 6, “The reign of terror of the big cat,” you describe how a man-eating leopard haunted Gopeshwar for over two months, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries. Can you explain how this incident informed your understanding of NREGA and vice versa?

The arrival of the man-eater in Gopeshwar during my fieldwork was, obviously, terrifying and horrifying but it also ended up being very illuminating for my wider project on the execution of law and the functioning of the state. I was astonished to see that from within my primary field site – the District Magistrate’s office – state life remained more or less the same. The very same things (paper), rituals, and processes were followed to deal with the, by any account, extraordinary issue of a predatory animal in the town precincts. These state practices were precisely what were in play for the slower, more normalised phenomena like rural poverty and unemployment. Gopeshwar was in the grips of total terror mixed with profound anger at the paper tiger that is the Indian state. Yet, I would enter the offices and find all the bureaucrats were doing their everyday activities albeit at a quicker pace: filing, writing letters and reports, filling out balance sheets, holding meetings, making telephone calls. Instead of being pushed into a different register, state practices remained recognizably the same. They were paper-based, ritualistic, involved meetings, invocation of laws, deference to procedure. In particular, the central reliance upon key signatures and documents such as the all-important hunting permit, was noteworthy. Over those terrifying months, my initial wonderment at what or where or even who sarkar is, was slowly but surely answered through a more serious look at these mundane quotidian bureaucratic practices.

  1. In your book, the implementation of development is complicated by its entanglement with discourses, institutions, and practices both near and far. However, your case study might be interpreted as exceptional due to Chamoli’s ‘remote’ location. What resonance does Paper Tiger have with development in India more broadly?

In many ways this book is about spaces like Chamoli district that are literally remote. The ethnography presented provides details that are specific to the Himalaya and the Indian borderland. On the back of this empirical work, though, I want to make further arguments. The first of these is that remoteness is much more than a location. It is a relational state of being; a relationship of marginality held vis-à-vis the centre with the centre understood as a concentration of power. Secondly, I am confident that many of my claims on the functioning of both NREGA and the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) have resonances with other regions of India. My argument is not that NREGA has become unimplementable everywhere and forever. But, I do think its transparency and accountability clauses have exacerbated what I call the sarkari zindagi of welfare and the documents they produce do not attest to a ‘reality’ out there. Perhaps the WPA is not feeding anti-conservationism everywhere or leading to the belief that humans are valued below big cats. Yet we can see similar effects for other parts of India. So while there is a specificity to remote Chamoli there is also a high level of generalizability of Paper Tiger’s pointed arguments on the workings of laws and the bizarre results they can produce in India.

Most importantly, however, I think this rootedness in one putatively remote space has allowed me to answer (what are considered) the really BIG questions, including: what is the state/sarkar? How might we understand it? How do we study and understand the failure of the developmental Indian state to implement its progressive laws and policies? How does law get executed; what lives do laws take on in they move towards becoming practice? Why do progressive laws get perverted or produce bizarre results? How might we rethink both what the developmental state is and how its success/failure get proclaimed?

  1. I’m curious about your project’s transition from dissertation to book. What are some of the struggles you experienced during this process? What changed about the project and why?

The transition from dissertation to book was, to put it mildly, a challenge. The real difficulties arose from academic precarity and discriminatory visa regimes rather than intellectual struggles (as if these material conditions can ever be distinguished from the supposedly intellectual ones!). After I completed my PhD I went through a highly precarious period of one-year lectureships for 3 years. Over these 3 years I was teaching intensely and applying for jobs and trying to publish. What made the situation even worse is the appalling visa regime in the UK, where I was working. During these 3 years it wasn’t just that I didn’t have the time to work on a book manuscript (that I definitely didn’t) but also I just didn’t have the strength or power of the imagination to see this work in a book-form. When I finally – miraculously – got a 5-year fellowship in 2013 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), the possibility of Paper Tiger the book suddenly came alive, almost overnight. I remember the day after I got the CRASSH offer, I gave a two-hour lecture in the morning, from 9-11, to my undergrads at Edinburgh, where I was then teaching. I walked out of the lecture hall and then walked around the city for 6-7 hours, all the way till the sea, and all I could think about was (what has now become) this book: how I would restructure it, rewrite it, and what the point of it was. Within 4 months of my Cambridge offer I had a good new draft ready.

This draft was revised extensively once again after I got anonymous reviewer comments as well as comments from friends and colleagues. Yet, there was something in that magical freedom of my first few months at CRASSH and the sense of infinite possibility and job security that allowed me to quickly and joyously re-write the dissertation. What shaped this re-writing, I realize now, were the three years of intensive teaching at Cambridge and Edinburgh and, especially, my seminars with my graduate students in political, economic, and development anthropology. These student interactions taught me two things. Firstly, I came to appreciate the power of simplicity. Arguments, to be truly effective, or monographs that are really read by students are those that have juicy details but are not overwrought or too precious. I wanted my book to present a textured ethnography, which is what is most valuable, not necessarily some obscure theoretical arguments or (re)discovery of Western thinkers. Secondly, all the teaching and devising of syllabi helped me narrow down myself on what intervention my work was making. I could more clearly see the gaps in the extant literature and confidently articulate how Paper Tiger was helping plug them.

  1. What conversations in South Asian Studies today do you see your book contributing to, and what traditions do you see it departing from? Can you discuss your current work at the Center for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and how it connects to your work in Paper Tiger?

In many ways, Paper Tiger is contributing to long-standing South Asian discussions on the Indian state, politics of welfare, the nature of capitalism, corruption, laws and their execution, and remote spaces. It is in conversation with more current moves in the anthropological study of documents, materiality, affect, borderlands, and multi-species ethnography. I also like to think that this work says something new about bureaucracy, transparency and accountability, corruption, and human-animal relations. Paper Tiger most significant point of departure is its foundational ethnographic rooting within quotidian bureaucracy. It reads and presents several, much-debated issues – poverty, unemployment, human-animal conflict, waiting, neoliberalism, welfare, wildlife conservationism – through an ethnography of law and bureaucracy. In doing so, it takes some ethnographic categories – sarkar, asli, farzee, and paper tiger most prominently – seriously and develops them analytically.

My research project at CRASSH is centered upon studying new technologies (especially biometric IDs) and what they do to the workings of government in India. This project extends some of my concerns in Paper Tiger but is going in a very different direction, not least because I have had to engage in inter-disciplinary conversations with political scientists, political theorists, historians, internet theorists, engineers, and explain my own research to non-South Asianists and non-anthropologists. On the side of the new field work, I have been writing my second monograph, drawing on both my doctoral and postdoctoral research, which is tentatively titled Crooked Cats: Human-Big Cat Entanglements in the Anthropocene.

  1. Can you recommend five recent works that you think ought to be read in conversation with Paper Tiger?

Matthew S. Hull, 2012, Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Akhil Gupta, 2012, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India, Durham: Duke University Press

Bhawani Raman, 2011, Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, Chicago: Chicago University Press

Kregg Hetherington, 2011, Guerilla Auditors: The Politics of Transparency in Neoliberal Paraguay, Durham: Duke University Press

Laura Bear, 2015, Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt Along a South Asian River, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.


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