Is Political Anthropology Dead?

In 2007, Jonathan Spencer announced the “death of political anthropology.” I do not think political anthropology died, but it does need renewing. To accept its death and hope, as Spencer does, for “a reborn anthropology of the political,” is to slip into metaphysics and expect its rebirth. This inaugural column outlines one key way to renew political anthropology: (auto)biography.

An anthropologist amidst politics

Anthropologists don’t simply study politics as an object “out there.” Nor do they stand fully outside the politics they investigate. However, most accounts of political anthropology…say little about how anthropologists are already implicated in politics.
Politics is evident in the life and work of Ghaus Ansari (1929–2012). Born in Lucknow, India, Ansari studied under Dhirendra Nath Majumdar at Lucknow University. Ansari aspired to continue his anthropology education in the United Kingdom, even though he fought against the British rule as an activist of Indian National Congress and the Communist Party of India. Ansari’s aspiration echoes Ashis Nandy’s observation that the colonized “fight their rulers within…limits set by the latter.” In 1936, Ansari went to see an industrial exhibition the British had organized. He was impressed by its technological superiority. His fight against the British later did not diminish the seduction of the colonial superiority—he still aspired to study in the UK.

Ansari’s Two-Volume Autobiography: Cover of Volume I on the right and Back Cover of Volume II on the left. Irfan Ahmad

Ansari’s first major anthropological work was nationalized to suit the majoritarian view of the Indian nation-state. In 1960, Ansari’s doctoral thesis, completed at Vienna University, was published as Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh: A Study of Culture Contact. It argued that “communalism in India has its roots largely in caste system.” Caste prohibitions enjoined by Hinduism, he averred, narrowed individual outlook and intermingling among people. It was in relation to this thesis that he showed how Muslims under Hinduism’s influence developed caste-like features. He categorically stated that Muslims, unlike Hindus, had no ritual hierarchy and they upheld universal brotherhood. Indeed, the term at times he used for stratification among Muslims was gradation, not caste.

Elaborated in his autobiography, Ansari’s choice of topic was biographical. Early on, he viscerally confronted social-cultural gradations among Muslims. Grimmer was the untouchability Hindus practiced vis-à-vis the “unclean” Hindu castes as well as Muslims. At school, at times he naughtily touched the candies a fellow Hindu student used to bring. At the mere touch by a Muslim, he angrily threw his candies, preferring to go hungry. Ansari’s choice of research topic was also informed by his activism during the closing decade of the British Raj and the wave of communalism that ushered in India’s Partition and the birth of Pakistan. He wondered why Hindus and Muslims could no longer politically co-exist.

Contours of renewal

Anthropologists don’t simply study politics as an object “out there.” Nor do they stand fully outside the politics they investigate.

However, most accounts of political anthropology—British as well as US—say little about how anthropologists are already implicated in politics. This is true as much for directly political topics, like chiefdom, village factions, genocide, political movements and the state, as it is for “non-political” themes, like stratification or caste. Following Donald Kurtz, two notions of politics are at work: the minimalist notion of political science that equates it with the state and the maximalist one of anthropology that studies politics beyond the modern state.

In its maximalist rendition, politics informs and is informed by the biography of an anthropologist and their work. Yet, as Judith Okley and Helen Callaway aptly note, it remains largely omitted from anthropological works. Gender, nationalism, culture, religion, race, age, and so on are often deemed trivial to works anthropologists publish.

Ansari’s autobiography…demonstrates politics at work in…three ways: 1) the choice of research topic, 2) the way his…work was politicized and 3) how majoritarian Indian nationalism impacted his life as a minoritized, suspect subject.
Biography, however, is not just background. Instead, as Ansari’s life and work shows, biography is central to any anthropological enterprise.

Anthropology, autobiography and politics

The politics of/in anthropology has perhaps been most notable in how the nation-state has shaped the discipline: anthropology, in general, is political. The reception of  Ansari’s argument demonstrates these entanglements. In the foreword to Ansari’s book, J.H. Hutton, professor emeritus of anthropology at Cambridge University, rejected Ansari’s thesis: “I am unable … to agree with Dr. Ansari in attributing communal tension between Hindus and Muslims to caste system.” Imtiaz Ahmad and T.N. Madan and several other anthropologists (mis)read Ansari’s argument in the same way that Hutton did. They nearly pulverized it to singularly mean this: Muslims have caste.

This argument bolstered Indian nationalism. It meant that Islam in India was “unique” because Hinduism impacted it through the caste system, thereby rendering Islam “indigenous.” This same nationalist thinking also dismissed Ansari’s argument to champion a narrative in which Islam and “Muslim separatism” caused Partition. That is, it was not the Hindu caste system that led to Partition but “Muslim separatism”—the other of Indian nationalism. Ansari became “pioneer” of caste studies among Muslims, but he remained a foreigner to the cottage industry that Partition studies has become.

Hindu nationalism impacted Ansari’s life in another way. While studying in London, he worked as a temporary clerk in the Indian High Commission. He was fired after just two months. Ansari was unofficially told that the reason for his dismissal was that he was both a Communist and a Muslim and therefore “dangerous.” Despite his reaffirmation of “loyalty (vafadrī) to India” and renunciation of his politics, he could not retain his job.

While teaching anthropology in Baghdad in 1960s (he was fired after the 1963 coup d’état), an Indian diplomat asked Ansari to write a weekly report about Iraq on behalf of the former’s wife, who was enrolled in a journalism correspondence course. Ansari agreed. On learning half a year later that his report was sent instead to India’s foreign ministry, he stopped writing it. The diplomat frankly admitted his act of deception and remarked: “To keep [Indian] Muslims under control in foreign countries, the weapon of them as spies for Pakistan is effective.”

Ansari’s two-volume Urdu autobiography ʿUmr-e-rafta in many ways is like an ethnography. The rich description of his life, his research and academic life demonstrate the politics at work in a minimalist and maximalist sense in at least three ways: 1) the choice of research topic, 2) the way his published work was politicized, and 3) how majoritarian Indian nationalism impacted his life as a minoritized, suspect subject. A renewed political anthropology ought to incorporate more autobiography: anthropological works like Ansari’s, their reception, and his biography all bear the mark of politics in its maximalist rendition.

Irfan Ahmad is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany. Hist most recent publication is Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace.

Feature image: Aboriginal activist poster in Melbourne. Irfan Ahmad

Cite as: Ahmad, Irfan. 2018. “Is Political Anthropology Dead?” Anthropology News website, February 26, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.784

Comments

What I have learned from my Latin American colleagues is that for them the social sciences, and certainly anthropology, is almost always urgent, thoroughly engaged, and often potentially dangerous. There, anthropology is a critical endeavor, both because it must engage questions and issues critical to people’s lives, and because it often finds itself interrogating structures of power that do not want to be interrogated. For these colleagues, life and work are inextricably connected to situations of personal conviction and risk in potentially difficult situations. One’s research and analysis is often likely to be seen as “political.” This is what it means to take a maximalist view of politics in parts of Latin America. Thanks to Professor Ahmad for his insight in another part of the world. This question is indeed critical in the context of empire, past and present.

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