XQs XX - A Conversation with Sheetal Chhabria

Posted by sepoy on January 13, 2020 · 24 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors 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 Aparna Gopalan for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX]

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Sheetal Chhabria is Associate Professor of History at Connecticut College. Making the Modern Slum: The Power of Capital in Colonial Bombay (University of Washington Press, 2019) is her first book.

One of the reasons I find Making the Modern Slum compelling is because when I think of the word “slum,” I invariably picture Bombay (which, like you, I refuse to call Mumbai). That city has become archetypical of the failures of Third World urbanism, but the origins of its slum problem are rarely discussed. What made you decide to approach Bombay’s slums historically?

I inherited a deep suspicion of academics and academia that I carry with me till today. After an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and the sciences I spent a few years in medical school, eventually leaving medicine frustrated with the business of it all and more viscerally aware that inequity was the cause and the not the symptom of health disparities. I entered first a South Asian Studies and then a History program to figure stuff out. But to be frank, I was quite angry and frustrated through most of graduate school. No matter how much learning was provided–hundreds of classes, thousands of books, and umpteen opportunities to converse and think deeply–basic stuff escaped even the most learned of people. By basic stuff I mean questions like why do so many people go hungry? Why are preventable illnesses killing so many? Has there ever been a plan to have universal clean running water at any time since independence? There was very little by way of analyzing inequality and the institutional structures that reproduce it. Every South Asianist from the United States lands in one of the subcontinent’s major cities’ airports and immediately sees impoverished peoples and settlements, and yet very few have wondered why or how exactly such inequalities persist. How could we claim to be experts on South Asia and not understand the poverty that is so very common that it is almost rendered natural. Simple and abstract explanations like “colonialism” or “underdevelopment” do not suffice either; in fact, they only warrant more questions.

When I finally had to decide on a dissertation project, I was introduced to Arif Hasan, the planner and activist from Karachi, by the anthropologist Kamran Ali. Arif Hasan opened my eyes to the constant conflicts and negotiations that take place over not only the “right to the city” but what the city is to the various people who inhabit and lay claim to it. I followed that inspiration from dissertation to book.

What is the main argument of your book?

While urbanists and urban historians for other parts of the world have revealed the contingent nature of “the city” as a spatial concept, in South Asian historiography, “the city” itself has remained an unexamined construct. Rather than doing history inside the city, my book historicizes the city, and in doing so strives to theorize the city “from the South” using the historical experience of colonial western India to shine a light on histories of inequality in cities more broadly.

Making the Modern Slum shows how the wellbeing of the city–rather than of its people–became an increasingly urgent goal of government to manage. They positioned agrarian distress, famished migrants, and the laboring poor as threats to be contained or excluded from the city. By the late 19th century, in debates over the opening and closing of Bombay, it was as if “the city” were one character and the famished or poor migrants the other. With both needing care and custodianship, the needs of “the city” had to be balanced against those of the people who made it up. By following the ambiguities of definition under which historical actors operated in the 19th century, my book shows how “the city” is an effect, a product of intense and ongoing labors that are undertaken to manage crises of both capital reproduction and legitimacy.

The overall takeaway of the book for urbanists and historians of inequality and poverty is that cities are not clearly demarcated entities represented by lines on a map, nor are they a self-evident category of administration or classification. City-making projects seek to impose and rigidify boundaries between a city and its outsides so as to direct crises of capital reproduction and legitimacy toward new ends. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such demarcation projects strove to reinsert the space of the city as a more durable and interconnected infrastructure for world commerce.

For me, the most important thing about city-making is how “the city” is used to sort populations, so that one sees what may appear to be either an arbitrary exclusion or selective and subordinate incorporation of laboring peoples. Into the late twentieth century and up to the present, projects of city-making are undertaken again and again, creating new tactics and rationales of governance to manage populations and crises.

For a book focusing on the history of the city of Bombay, Making the Modern Slum spends a lot of time discussing the governance of agriculture and agricultural spaces. Why is this?

Thank you for asking that, most of this material comes from chapter 2 which is probably my favorite chapter and informs my more recent work. Estimates using government records showed that some 100 million people between 1770 and 1900 had become dependent on government relief efforts due to hunger and famine. How many of these died is debated, but in the Bengal famine of the 1770s, that one-third of the population perished is a widely accepted fact. By the year 1900, even colonial officials admitted that some 30 million people had died of starvation-related causes across colonial India under British rule. The vast majority of the casualties were likely among lower castes. Because of colonial improvements and the imperative to integrate India more tightly into world commerce, both city and country were bound more tightly than ever before–circular and seasonal migrants connected distinct spaces by participating in chains of command and regimes of accumulation that transected city and country. Yet ideologies of essential distinction arose to separate agriculture from industry. By the late nineteenth century, officials treated agriculture as a distinct problem from that of order in the city, instead of recognizing the increasing pressures across towns and villages as a result of the coordinated coercion and the commodification of labor, livelihood, land, and shelter.

The term “slum” has a lot of stigma attached to it, so much so that some scholars claim we should stop using that term. How do you deal with that? How is the “slum” a “case of a solution finding its problem rather than the other way around,” as you write?

The term is certainly meant to stigmatize, and I fully accept that, but then I ask why and what effects such stigmatization has and historically analyze it. In short, the term is used to re-inscribe the power of capital onto particular spaces. By the first decades of the twentieth century, especially upon the plague of 1898, the very conception of the city enabled the idea of the slum to be formulated, not as the outside of the city, but as its internal other. Makeshift structures became targets of reform, but not always. What I call the “judicious illegalization” of shelter was the process to sort migrants, for example, when the southern parts of the city and industrial laborers came to be seen as “inside the city,” and targeted for reform projects, while nonindustrial laborers, vagrants, the poor, and many circular migrants dwellings were seen as not quite city—even within the city of Bombay’s administrative limits. Slum-making was a case of a solution finding its problem rather than the other way around. By calling structures “slums,” entire institutions of reform, renewal, and finance could be mobilized to make the city anew, at each turn reorganizing the power of capital. The “slum” was the agglomeration of all that was constitutive of, yet narrated out of, the story of “the city”: namely, shelter, agrarian crises, disease, impoverishment, labor bondage, debt, and hunger. Slum-renewal projects in turn made invisible the process of rural colonization on which the city depended.

How does your book relate to debates in South Asian historiography? How does it address the presumed “uniqueness” of India’s poverty?

The notion that India was unique in its poverty prevailed over treating it as a wider and common reality. The latter view was held by thinkers such as William Digby, William Har–who claimed that there was a famine 365 days a year in London–and even at times, by Romesh Chunder Dutt, Mahadev Govind Ranade, and Dadabhai Naoroji. Instead, “poverty of India” was treated as a unique feature, and with appeals to India’s “culture” or “backwardness,” the most extreme non-remedies were justified as millions of people starved to death. I show this insistence to particularize India extended even further than historians have recognized—-it extended down to the most diminutive scale as part of a broader strategy of containment—to localize and individualize the effects of agricultural malproduction and maldistribution. Containment was, in this way, a counterpart to the “worlding” of cities, a simultaneous undertaking not just in Bombay, but in cities worldwide.

In telling this story, my goal is to connect colonial India to global historiographic debates. By centering how various kinds of labor regimes produce regimes of capital accumulation worldwide we can move past stories that see colonial India as “underdeveloped.” Histories of world capitalism and debates on the nature of colonialism and colonial power are central to my work and I show how appeals to the reformist agendas of the power of capital racialized, abjected, and, sorted populations worldwide, by appealing to the city as a horizon, as a goal, that required ongoing labors to create.

The first “slums” of Bombay were tenements in the center of the city and not the sprawling shantytowns we come to associate with postcolonial urbanism. Comparable and commensurable to “slums” in the North Atlantic world, these central tenements became targets of town planning and reform in ways that produced and reflected larger and more widespread (not “global” or planetary, but widespread) rationales of rule. Bombay’s history was not anomalous to a pure conception of urbanism that set it apart from the capitalist transformations that produced cities in the North Atlantic world. Rather, the story of pure urbanism, of spaces where atomized individuals negotiate anonymous market pressures, has distorted the histories of all cities. When studied by foregrounding the experiences of racialized, minoritized, and laboring communities, cities of the North Atlantic certainly reveal the way “flows” of capital always depend on coercive forms of management and control of laboring populations.

Throughout the book, you show that the imperative to attend to the wellbeing of “the city” rather than its people has always served to shelter capital, not laborers. Moreover, in the Epilogue, you take a rather skeptical view of Bombay’s fabled history of labor organizing, connecting its failures tightly to the successes of urban reform projects. Could you say more about the dangers of caring too much about “the city”?

In the early 20th century, numerous confrontations in cities worldwide against the power of capital resulted in the achievement of rent ceilings, tenancy rights, and enfranchisement of laborers in city politics. Nevertheless, in significant ways the power of capital was consolidated upon and through appeals to “the city” as a horizon that could be achieved by intervening in the built environment and especially housing. Taking care of the city acts is a way of “nullifying crises in advance,” as Foucault said, ie. a preventative form of managing capital’s crises–in addition to being a place for surplus investments.

When Engels decried the “Housing Question” in 1872, he meant to implore housing activists to see that practices of shelter merely reflected the power of capital and that attending to the provision of housing alone could not be taken up in piecemeal fashion. If the role of capital was not confronted, then resolving the question of housing through increased accommodations for laborers would only manage one of the crises of capital, namely, the problem of the reproduction of labor–and that too on behalf of capital, not against it. This is indeed what happened in colonial India when public-private ventures in dwellings for the laboring classes, financial instruments to make such dwellings remunerative, and spatial regulations to fix subjects and their relations in space sought to produce “sanitary” cities that sheltered capital, not laborers.

How does “the city” come to serve as a space from which to later imagine “the economy”? Can you give us an example?

In the early 1800s, in an inverse of perhaps our own sensibilities, officials believed that by defining space they could distinguish between occupational types. But by the late twentieth century, a town, or a city, was a place that had predominantly “nonagricultural” laborers. So by the end, occupation types determined space.

Such a history of ambiguity ought to force us to ask why and to what end such clear demarcations were sought. One of the things I argue in the book, extending Timothy Mitchell, is that appeals to “the city,” like later appeals to “the economy,” animated municipal autonomy movements and regional sovereignty demands that often sought commercial sovereignty for the sake of capitalist integration. Concerns with “revenue” or “business” and particular “markets” in specific commodities could be visualized in city life before the abstract categories of “the market” or “the economy” fulfilled that role. Projects of city making established relations between objects of governance that later informed not only the external boundaries between the economy and culture but also, crucially, the divisions internal (the “sectors”) to the economy, such as agriculture and industry, finance and usury, or later between types of economies, for example, formal and informal.

This book began as part of your dissertation research. So, what changed in its the journey from dissertation to book?

My dissertation was perhaps classically Marxist and I revised it into the book by thinking with several Foucauldian framings of historical processes. Foucault’s work on the provocations of crises–demographic and otherwise–and rationales and objects of power as arising from the mundane and everyday are important interventions that help historians of South Asia move past a dichotomy of political economy vs culture or even material vs representational histories. I was also very interested in what it means to do a history of the present and to this effect, I think it is important in our work to see power–even in the colonial period–as a capillary process rather than a product of administrative fiat. Only then can we start doing histories of the present in ways that create usable pasts to challenge the very grave directions in which governance in the subcontinent has been heading since independence.

As for an example, while it is often thought that the main feature of the history of the city of Bombay, being a colonial city, was fortification to protect colonial masters from native unruliness-—best exemplified in the creation of walls and forts to separate white town from black town—-a Foucauldian perspective suggests that de-fortification was the key feature of colonial city making. In fact, the concern over fortification was accompanied by an equal, if not greater, concern with opening up the city to circulation. The trick was to manage good circulation against bad circulation. So walls were torn down, ports built, roadways and railways crisscrossed through the city, and particular prior town duties were even abolished—-all to connect the city ever so precisely to hinterlands and worldly thoroughfares. Colonial officials justified such openings by appealing to the possibility of increased revenues and the civilizing effects of colonial rule. By the late nineteenth century, the space of the town was no longer a walled enclave but was situated within “a space of circulation.”

What would you say are five books your work most closely is in conversation with?

I can name some books/authors I continue to draw inspiration from, but only hope that my work is in conversation with theirs. I was very inspired by Manu Goswami’s Producing India when it first came out. It bucked the trend and put political economy back on the agenda in a way that many scholars of the nation and nationalism were avoiding. The work done in what is now called “Global Labor History” which uses the insights of classic works by Jairus Banjai has always been important to me. I also return again and again to the work of Timothy Mitchell whose Rule of Experts I believe to be ten profound books all squeezed into one. It was impossible for me to get out of the oppressive genealogy of urban modernity provided by North Atlantic scholars without the help of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. And I can’t help but name two more (which takes us to six) which are related, Rupa Viswanath’s The Pariah Problem and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s The Golden Gulag, both of which attend to racialization as necessarily constitutive of the power of capital. Especially Viswanath’s work is metaphorically like good usable architecture, she created an intellectual-political space for us to inhabit, if we choose to.

What is next for you?

I was very fortunate to get a postdoc and a job at places where I could learn from colleagues immersed in the Black Radical tradition. This has been the single most rewarding and eye-opening thing–politically and educationally–that has happened to me thus far. If we are honest, the vast majority of the institutions in which we get our degrees and work at are neo-colonial institutions actively gentrifying, dispossessing, and assimilating “others” right in our midst. Negotiating that landscape as a faculty member who doesn’t share that agenda was and is hard. I depended on the insights and support of my colleagues of color the most, and in turn got a very practical and theoretical education in the longer history of black Marxism. I read old stuff like Cedric Robinson and W.E.B. Dubois and experienced it as very new and fresh. I rethought much of my graduate training in light of this new reading. The best of this work combines an attention to class dynamics and the production of space with the technologies of abjection, subordination, and erasure so as to reveal why and how we historians are conditioned to narrate the history of capitalism as if slavery, unfree labor, or racialization were apart from that history.

As a result, I want to purposefully impose the framework of racial capitalism onto South Asian history in ways that are both attentive to the specific relations between caste, race, and capital in a long history of the subcontinent, while also being sure to not let the Indian case become disarticulated from the larger history of the power of capital worldwide. To this end, I am working on a second book tentatively entitled “The Government of Poverty in India” that takes inspiration from Cedric Robinson, histories of imperialism, and some of the newer work on the poverty sciences in order to critically analyze the changing rationales of poor relief.

Aparna Gopalan is a writer and educator pursuing her Ph.D. at Harvard University. Her research focuses on the role of development experts in the reproduction of inequality and poverty in rural western India.