THE SPECTACLE OF POWER by Genevieve Lakier

The spectacle of power: Coercive protest and the problem of democracy in Nepal 

Genevieve Lakier – University of Chicago – 2014 – Anthropology

This dissertation examines how political actors in contemporary Nepal negotiate their relationship to the state and to other members of the political community by performing their power publicly, specifically, by organizing coercive protests such as bandhs or–as they are known elsewhere in the subcontinent–hartals. Bandh in Nepali and many other South Asian languages is the adjective that means closed and when bandhs occur public life indeed closes down. During a successful bandh, not only do most if not all shops close down but so too do schools and factories. Although bandh organizers insist that the closure enacted during periods of bandh represents the purely voluntary desire of shopkeepers, schoolteachers, factory workers, and members of the general public to demonstrate their support for the party organizing the protest, in fact bandhs tend to be enforced via the threat, and in many cases, also the reality of violence–albeit violence of an often-petty kind. The patent falseness of organizers’ efforts to cast bandhs as a purely voluntary symbolic demonstration of popular support has made the bandh a potent symbol of the duplicity, as well as the violence, of democratic politics in contemporary Nepal. The dissertation explores why it is that groups from across the political spectrum continue to organize these coercive and highly unpopular protests, and what it reveals about the practice of democracy in Nepal.

The dissertation argues that we should understand bandhs and similarly coercive protests as they occur in Nepal, and throughout the subcontinent, as symbolic performances that rather than demonstrating–as their organizers claim–the extent of popular support for the party organizing them instead demonstrate the organizers’ power to enforce participation even in the absence of widespread popular support. By forcing ordinary citizens to simulate support for a cause in which they do not necessarily believe, bandh organizers demonstrate their quasi-sovereign authority over the public sphere. In so doing, they function to substantiate power even if not to legitimate it by inscribing it in bodies and in space, and in the spectacle of the public world shut down.

The dissertation thus examines how groups in Nepal appropriate the spectacular tactic of bandh to make demands of the state and to challenge their place in the political and cultural hierarchy. It argues that bandhs play an important role in the negotiation of power, identity, and welfare in Nepal but that they also pose a tremendous threat to the legitimacy of their organizers, and the democratic system writ large. As such, bandhs point to the significant tension between the two logics of representation that organize the Nepali public sphere: on the one hand, the logic of voice that dominates democratic discourse, and on the other hand, the logic of spectacle or “force” that informs the practice of bandh. By tracing out the tension between these two logics of representation, the dissertation contributes to, if also complicates, a growing body of literature exploring the practice of political society in postcolonial democracies such as Nepal. It also suggests the power that tactics of political spectacle possess, not only to shore up the authority of the state but also to subvert and challenge it.

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