MSAS Seminar: Rising power, precarious citizens: Mobility and democracy in India after 1989 - Indrajit Roy (York)

Chair: Laura Trajber Waisbich

Speaker: Indrajit Roy (York) 

On March 25, 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed the world’s largest lockdown in a bid to stem the threat of COVID 19. The stringent lockdown triggered a mass exodus from cities across India, with panic-stricken people desperately trying to leave for their homes in villages, walking over hundreds if not thousands of kilometres. Who were these men, women and children streaming out of India’s cities? Why did they feel compelled to leave the economic engines of among the world’s fastest growing economies and return to their rural homes? Why had they flocked to its cities and towns in the first place? The exodus pointed attention to the meanings of citizenship for almost 100 million internal migrants who live in the world’s largest democracy and one of its fastest growing economies, in a country that styles itself and is hailed internationally as a Rising Power.

This paper, and the broader book project, reflects on the precarities of citizenship in India after 1989. The research on which the paper is based draws on primary research conducted for nearly a decade among migrant workers in their north Bihar villages and the cities and towns across India where they live and labour. Its core argument is this: India and Indians have witnessed important improvements since 1990, but those transitions are precarious, tenuous, and uncertain. The argument offered in the paper thus departs from perspectives that either sing paeans of India’s ‘Rising Power’ status on the one hand or lament its stagnation and decline on the other. It urges you to appreciate the very substantive ways in which lives of India’s poorest people improved after 1990 not so much due to the much-vaunted policies to liberalise the economy but the more contentious process of democratic deepening wrought by politicians maligned as “low caste, “corrupt” and “uncouth”. However, these improvements were far from sustained as dialectical processes of impoverishment and dispossession were not uncommon. The paper sketches three “portraits of mobility” to highlight the precariousness of citizenship in India after 1989. 

Dr Indrajit Roy is Professor of Global Development at the University of York’s Department of Politics. His research and teaching strengthen critical approaches to ordering global development politics. He does this through three projects: (i) The politics of inclusive growth in the global South; (ii) The comparative ‘politics of hope’ across the global South and global North; and (iii) The impact of “rising powers” on the global order.

Indrajit is committed to collaborative research that not only involves scholars from beyond the social sciences but includes activists, artists, and policy-shapers. His teaching is oriented towards perspectives that contribute to decolonising and diversifying the curriculum. A Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, he won a Teaching Excellence Award in 2016. Indrajit is also the Executive Trustee of the UK Political Studies Association and Council Member of the UK Development Studies Association.