The Postcolonial City and its Displaced Poor: Rethinking ‘Political Society’ in Delhi


Partha Chatterjee has produced a compelling analysis of political modernity in India. This article evaluates the significance of his conceptualization of ‘political society’ for understanding political practices in Delhi by looking at three issues: the relevance of proof of identification documents and various enumeration‐related practices for proving citizenship; a court case concerning the resettlement of a particular population in Delhi; and the role of popular intermediaries from the community in channeling the political energies of poor people. I argue that Chatterjee’s theoretical contribution allows for a contextual analysis of the specificity of political experience in India if we treat his schematic formulation heuristically, by focusing on its analytical strengths rather than ideal prescriptive standpoints. His ideas about the enforcement of bourgeois norms, subaltern collective practices, and hegemonic liberal state institutions allow us to go beyond a culturalist analysis of political society. In particular, they help us understand how the experience of democracy reflects the locational disadvantages of various groups. Further, while state institutions, including the judiciary system, protect the interests of dominant groups, they also respond to various forms of exclusion. My empirical findings corroborate Chatterjee’s arguments concerning political society while also raising critical points for rethinking his theoretical framework.