AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 537

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Session 537: Rhetorics of Resistance:Maoists in Nepal and India, Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan - Sponsored by the South Asia Council

Organizer: Matthew J. Nelson, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

Contemporary media are quick to categorize (and, thus, ‘explain’) political insurgencies in South Asia: Maoist insurgents are said to battle landed elites in an anachronistic bout of post-Cold War ‘class’ warfare; Taliban insurgents are said to battle tribal elites and the modern state in a fever of ‘religious’ fundamentalisms. And, yet, within this media coverage, the voices of insurgents themselves remain rather scarce. Focusing on the ideas articulated by rank-and-file insurgents in Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, this panel will explore the ways in which insurgents articulate their own ideas while, at the same time, seeking to illuminate the ways in which the ideas of broadly similar groups (for example, ‘Maoists’) diverge in different contexts (for example, Nepal and India). In fact one of our key aims lies in describing how insurgents see the world: individually, in small groups, in particular localities, at a particular moment in time, and so on. Studies of political thinking frequently emphasize the role of ‘elite ideologies.’ But, in recent years, this focus has given way to a special interest in what might be described as ‘non-elite imaginaries.’ We aim to extend this subalternist trend, drawing special attention to the ways in which an understanding of insurgent imaginaries might help to advance a more thoroughly ethnographic approach to the study of political thought in general: Is ethnography a suitable method for the study of political thought? And, if so, how? How many insurgent ‘thinkers’ does it take to construct an account of insurgent political ‘thought’?

Speaking of Sects: The Economic Sources of Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan
Mariam Abou Zahab, INALCO, France

Mariam Abou-Zahab from the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI) at Sciences Po in Paris will begin our panel with an account of the ‘class’ basis for ‘religious’ violence in Pakistan, drawing special attention to the confluence of economic and sectarian cleavages in the Punjabi city of Jhang. Typically, accounts of the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan focus on the power of revisionist ‘religious’ ideas within an ostensibly ‘religious’ state. But, as Abou-Zahab explains, religious ideas often emerge as an effect of prior social forces—in this case, prior economic forces related to the marginalization of Sunni shopkeepers in a context dominated by landowning Shi’a elites. Building on hundreds of interviews in Jhang, Abou-Zahab unpacks the logic of local insurgents on several different levels at the same time—as bourgeois malcontents, as majoritarian rebels targeting an elite rural minority, as religiously ‘conservative’ urban warriors at odds with a relatively permissive rural establishment, and so on—each time turning conventional narratives firmly on their head while, at the same time, revealing the terms of an insurgent logic that makes perfect ‘sense.’

Rebel Ballads of the Pashtun Insurgency in Afghanistan
Michael G. Semple, Harvard University, USA

Michael Semple from the Carr Center for Human Rights in the Kennedy School at Harvard will accomplish much the same goal with an account of Pashto-language songs known as taranay among a group of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan famous for their (allegedly) allergic reaction to music. Here we see insurgency-based themes (suicide bombing, punishment of spies, etc.) conveyed in ways that depart from those commonly seen in official propaganda videos—ways that suggest what Semple calls ‘a popular culture of resistance’ to international interference that is much broader than the ‘quasi-salafist’ culture originally projected by Mullah Omar’s Taliban. Some rebel ballads, he notes, even employ that most common form of Pashto-language poetry, the tappay, consisting of an ironic two-person dialogue (for example, the tappay of President Karzai in conversation with President Obama). Drawing attention to ‘popular’ forms of political thought set apart from the ‘official’ language used by prominent Taliban spokesmen, Semple points out that familiar Pashtun references are used to develop an alternative (and, in many ways, a more effective) symbolic framework for potential new recruits. In fact, within Afghanistan, Semple illuminates what could be described as a common discursive bifurcation: music-free propaganda on one level; musical propaganda on another.

Making Maoist Men: Notions of Gender in Nepal
Jeevan R. Sharma, Tufts University, USA

In the work of Abou-Zahab and Semple we see the ‘economic’ and, then, the ‘ethnic’ under-pinnings of ostensibly ‘religious’ rhetoric. In fact the value of their work lies in its ability to carry us beyond any attachment to unidimensional religious ‘fundamentalisms’ in favour of a more complex and multi-faceted reading of real-world insurgent ideas. Dyan Mazurana from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts extends this pattern with a ‘gendered’ reading of the ‘class-based’ politics underlying contemporary Maoism in Nepal. Whereas Abou-Zahab and Semple describe the construction of insurgent worldviews in ways that are broadly ‘cohesive,’ however, Mazurana employs a different approach. She draws attention to recurring patterns of ‘contestation’ among Maoists, focusing, specifically, on patterns of contestation surrounding notions of masculinity: Who is a Maoist ‘man,’ and, who is in a position to decide? The crux of Mazurana’s paper lies in her account of the language that Maoists of a similar rank use to negotiate their disagreements regarding masculinity within an explicitly ‘Maoist’ framework. What does it mean to ‘argue’ as a modern middle-ranking ‘Maoist’? How do younger recruits disagree with older recruits? How do men disagree with women? And, as their conversations unfold, what becomes of our ability to define the terms of ‘masculinity’ in an explicitly ‘Maoist’ way?

Debating Violence: Indian Maoists and their Message
Nandini Sundar, University of Delhi, India

Nandini Sundar from the Delhi School of Economics at Delhi University will conclude our panel with a discussion of the ways in which Maoist notions of ‘violence’ have been developed (ideologically) and, then, re-developed (on the ground) by individual Maoists in India. Unlike the other members of the panel, Sundar plans to devote a certain amount of her paper to representations of Maoist violence within the Indian public sphere, asking, first, how the notion of violence has been constructed (for example, among Indian journalists) and, then, how Indian Maoists have responded. Like the other panelists, Sundar will rely on several months of fieldwork (this time, in Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand) to show how the language of contemporary Maoism is shaped by its larger social context. Indeed, for Sundar, Maoism is not simply ‘Maoism.’ It is in fact a language continually re-created over time. (Here, Sundar will recall the work of Abou-Zahab and Mazurana with specific reference to the economic and gendered drivers of Maoist violence, including arbitrary forms of land acquisition and the abuse of ‘tribal’ women.)