The Violence of Bureaucracy: A Review of Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India by Akhil Gupta (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2012) by Dalel Benbabaali

According to anthropologist Akhil Gupta, the structural violence of the state in India kills two to three million people every year, mostly lower caste or tribal women and children. Yet, numerous anti-poverty programs target a population that actively participates in the democratic project through the electoral process. Gupta tries to explain this paradox in his new book, based on a detailed ethnography of the Indian bureaucracy. 
“To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorised, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished.”[1] Without directly referring to this quote from French anarchist Proudhon, Gupta provides a similar description of the Indian government that perceives poor women and children as “segments of the population that had not been as extensively surveyed, counted, classified, measured, injected, or schooled in the past” (261).
In fact, his references are less Proudhonian than Foucauldian. Basing his argument on the concept of biopower as it was elaborated by Michel Foucault, Gupta suggests that poverty in India has been normalized through numerous statistical projects aimed at measuring it. As a consequence of this normalization, the killing of the poor is neither considered a violation (of law, justice, morality or the Constitution), nor a scandal that delegitimizes power.

A Killer State
Biopolitics operates through bureaucratic procedures that ignore the suffering of the poor and accept their death as natural, thus depoliticizing the violence of the state. This violence does not merely consist in “allowing” the poor to die, but in a “direct and culpable killing,” due to indifference or lack of care, though these premature and untimely deaths are preventable (5-6).
According to Giorgio Agamben’s work on Nazi Germany, “those who can be killed must first be known, codified, recorded, and enumerated” (261). The categorization of the poor through an “imaginary income line invented by the State” (58) is typical of the biopolitical project that consists in classifying the population in order to manage it. Agamben’s writings complement Foucault’s since they look at “bare life,” i.e. the very survival of men and women, and not only at the control mechanisms that restrict those bodies, some of them being condemned to death in total impunity, as their lives don’t qualify for protection. This analysis offers an interesting paradigm to explore forms of violence that are often invisible, affecting refugees, minorities, and the poor.
However, Gupta borrows the concept of governmentality from Foucault and that of sovereign power from Agamben in a critical way. Among other things, he reproaches these two authors with basing their arguments on a unified theory of the state, a monolithic approach that he tries to deconstruct in his book thanks to “a disaggregated view of the State [that] makes it possible to open up the black box of unintended outcomes by showing how they are systematically produced by friction between agendas, bureaus, levels, and spaces that make up the State” (47).
Studying the Lower Levels of the Indian Bureaucracy
Gupta’s thesis is based on an ethnographic study conducted during one year among local administrators in a rural area of Uttar Pradesh that allowed him to observe the interactions between officials and the public. In the introduction of his book, he gives the example of a development camp aimed at providing pensions to indigent, elderly people. The organization of this camp is characterized by its contingency, since the letter informing the Block Development Officer (BDO) was discovered by chance after being lost. Moreover, the applicants can rarely provide the documents necessary to prove their eligibility, the main criterion being their age, which is therefore “guessed” by a doctor (10). The distribution of pensions is thus arbitrary, contrary to bureaucratic “rationality”, as theorized by Max Weber.
Gupta organizes his argument around three themes that correspond to the different parts of his book: corruption, inscription and governmentality. He first looks at corruption which, according to him, is an essential factor to understand the contradiction between the large sums allotted to development programs and the persistence of poverty. The chapter on inscription insists on the importance of writing in the administration and raises the problem of illiteracy among the poor. In the last part, Gupta examines the role of the local administration by comparing the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), a program targeting destitute children and their mothers during the “socialist” period, and the Mahila Samakhya, also aimed at poor women, during the post-1991 neoliberal period. The author shows the continuity that exists in the implementation of these poverty alleviation programs, despite the ideological differences that characterize their conception: both cases expose the indifference of the bureaucracy and the structural violence exercised on the most vulnerable sections of the population (251).
The Violence of the State: A Violence Without Perpetrators?
Gupta borrows the concept of structural violence from Johan Galtung[2], who defines it as “any situation in which some people are unable to achieve their capacities or capabilities to their full potential,” and in which it is impossible to identify a culprit (20). It is thus an impersonal violence, rooted in the very structure of power. However, certain classes have an interest in perpetuating a social order in which the suffering of the poor is not only tolerated but considered normal: “In a country like India, the perpetrators of violence include not only the elites but also the fast-growing middle class, whose increasing number and greater consumer power are being celebrated by an aggressive global capitalism” (22). Gupta’s analysis seems to confirm the Marxist thesis according to which the state is a tool used to guarantee the status quo, thus serving the interests of the dominant class.
The author tries to unveil the rhetoric of the welfare state by exposing the discrepancy between its discourse and its actions: “The repeated statements of good intentions by politicians and bureaucrats are cynical ploys to obtain votes and legitimacy, respectively” (22). The problem doesn’t only concern lower-level bureaucrats, contrary to what the urban middle class tends to believe, thus reproducing the contempt of the British administrators for their indigenous subordinates. Accusing the subaltern officials of inefficiency reflects a class bias that doesn’t help in explaining the violence perpetrated by the state, because “even if all state officials were sincerely devoted to the task of eradicating poverty, the question is whether the procedures of the bureaucracy would end up subverting even their best intentions” (6).
From Corruption to Structural Violence
In a corrupt system, the goods and services that are supposed to be free are made inaccessible to those who need them most but cannot afford to give bribes to the administration. This is what makes corruption “a systematic form of oppression” (25). This phenomenon is prevalent throughout the Indian bureaucracy, the only difference being that “whereas higher-level state officials raise large sums from a relatively few people, lower-level officials collect it in small figures and on a daily basis from a very large number of people” (91). Because of this generalized corruption, the middle class has become cynical and even hostile to anti-poverty programs that are seen as useless since the money rarely reaches the target population.
Somehow, counterintuitively, the author suggests that literacy is not essential to fight structural violence and bureaucratic arbitrariness. According to him, the Indian democratic system provides illiterate citizens with means of action that do not necessarily require writing. Since they are aware of the importance of the millions of poor voters, politicians declare that they want to improve their lot through inclusive growth. Though democracy has prevented major famines since Indian independence, as argued by Amartya Sen, it is not a guarantee against government’s neglect: “More people die in India each year from humdrum causes inflicted by the failure of the developmentalist state to provision the poor with basic necessities like food, water, medicine, and housing than if there had been a major famine every ten years” (138).
The last part, on governmentality, is about the permanence of structural violence in India. The author argues that liberalization does not constitute a turning point in that matter, since the “war on the poor” existed before (273). Finally, the epilogue offers an interesting analysis of the Maoist rebellion which, according to Gupta, is not due to the failure of the welfare state in tribal areas, but to development induced land grabbing: “India’s indigenous population constitutes what Agamben means by homo sacer, people whose deaths will not even be considered a sacrifice on the altar of development. Unlike those who are recognized as project-affected persons owing to their displacement from big dams and other infrastructure development projects, the tribals who flee from the armed conflict will have no special status that entitles them to compensation or to resettlement aid” (289).
Bureaucratic Arbitrariness or Systematic Exclusion?
Though Gupta clearly shows how tribal people have become the first victims of state structural violence, by exposing the link between the exploitation of mining resources in forest areas and displacement, he doesn’t emphasize enough the importance of caste as a factor of systematic exclusion. It would have been interesting to study the collusion of officials with rural elites who belong mostly to upper castes, at the expense of poor villagers who are mostly Dalits. As I have shown in my study of the Indian bureaucracy: “Caste favoritism leads to unequal allocation of resources and to misappropriation of government funds at the expense of the target groups, that is, the underprivileged sections of society.”[3] In order to reach this conclusion, one has to look at the caste identity of the administrators. Gupta chooses to limit his survey to the lower levels of the bureaucracy by studying a block (administrative subdivision), but the higher civil servants of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) play an essential role in the implementation of development programs at the scale of the district. While the author is reluctant to express harsh judgments against subaltern officials, he could have included in his analysis a critique of the administrative elites, who have a much more important responsibility in the violence exercised on the poor.
Red Tape is based on a relatively old fieldwork, conducted in the early 1990s, which doesn’t allow one to understand the transformations that happened during the last two decades, in the era of globalization. It seems difficult to make a comparison between the pre- and post-liberalization periods, as Gupta tries to do, since the reforms had just been initiated at the time of his fieldwork. In the epilogue, the author tries to update his findings by discussing Indian economic growth, but he doesn’t elaborate on the consequences of this type of growth based on neoliberal policies that marginalize, and even exclude a large section of the population in a systematic way, not through mere neglect.
Though he mentions the radical critique of development by Arturo Escobar[4], Gupta describes it as utopian and warns against a revolution whose benefits would not be seen in the lifetime of the poor: “Bringing down the system of which the State is a part is not the only politics possible and certainly not one that will bring any solace to the poor in the near future – the only future that matters to them” (109). What is the alternative, then? By insisting on bureaucratic arbitrariness, he minimizes the structural causes of inequality and discrimination such as caste, class and gender privileges, so much so that John Harriss and Craig Jeffrey accuse him of “depoliticizing injustice.”[5] Despite occasional anarchist tones, Gupta’s critique of power is in fact far from revolutionary and fails to really unmask the nature of the Indian state, an instrument in the hands of the dominant castes and classes whose objective is to perpetuate their domination.
Dalel Benbabaali is a postdoctoral fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she is part of a research program on ‘Inequality and Poverty in India: Dalits and Adivasis’ Her thesis explored the relation between dominant caste and territory in South India. Based on an ethnography of the Kammas of Andhra Pradesh, she focused on the mechanisms of power and control that are used by dominant groups to perpetuate their hegemony. She speaks seven languages and plays classical guitar, mandolin and sings in an Arabo-Andalusian orchestra.
[1] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, (Freedom Press, London, 1923), 293.
[2] Johan Galtung, 1969, Violence, Peace, and Peace Research, Journal of Peace Research, 6 (3), 167-91.
[3] Dalel Benbabaali, « Questioning the Role of the Indian Administrative Service in National Integration », South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, Sept. 2008, 28
[4] Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: the Making and Unmaking of the Third World, (Princeton, 1995, Princeton University Press).
[5] John Harriss & Craig Jeffrey, « Depoliticizing Injustice, » Economy and Society, 42 (3), 2013, 507-20.
This piece originally appeared in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, No. 27, on the theme of Strategy.  The whole issue is available here: