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Urban Violence: Tracing a Morphology of Bodies in Space

Violence in urban space has been a contentious issue to analyse for sociologists because of the
ever-shifting terrain of urban geography and modes of negotiating within that space. Ethnic
conflict, communal or otherwise, adopts new techniques as part of the urbanscape because of
competing claims over spaces already marked by density, loss of feudal forms of ties and
relationship with authority, modes of governance characterised by modern techniques of policing
and military (Wirth 1938), and a hardening of social group identities with uneven gains of urban
development . An eventuality of violence then needs to be read within this specific urban
geography to understand the processes through which it articulates itself. Any question of
violence also raises a question of its agents who then perpetuate violence onto other bodies
creating effects that last longer than the event. The aim of this paper is to understand how the
body becomes a technique, a site and a sign in circulation through which violence is transcribed
into the everyday space occupied by subjects. Using ethnographies based in Mumbai, Hyderabad
and Belfast, I will attempt to chart out the constant formation and violation of spatial relations in
the urban through bodies of agents and victims alike.

The question of agency

The complexity of understanding violence renders itself visible when decoding the question of
agency and ideology of the agent perpetrating violence. We encounter such an intermeshing in
Belfast where agents of violence become products of ideological difference and contestation of
space. The discourse of the State reiterates the sectarian divide of the origin myths of Catholics
and Protestants through its ostensibly anti-Catholic stance. This became manifest in the
overlapping ideological and militarist response of the State as it exercised authority by uniting
the Loyalist Protestant classes forming the citizens’ militia called the B Specials which was later
disbanded by British intervention. Even as the link with the State’s legitimation of violence
disappeared, it lead to the formation of lasting spatial unities that gave rise to populist
paramilitary groups hailing from both communities (Feldman 1991).

Thus, agency rather than being given by the State or any other organization becomes embedded
in what Feldman calls situated practices of the perpetrator of violence. In such practices,
ideological impetus in the form of an imagined territorial unity (as in the identities of British
Ulster and United Ireland) pushes the agent to further violence on the ethnic other. If one is to
conceptualise cities as the agglomeration of bodies-in-space (where one is constantly moving
from one space to another, one territory to another), then an imagined territory reflects a
conglomerate of ethnically homogenous bodies transposed onto the space of a united nation.

The muddle of agency also becomes clearer at the level of bodily praxis when we compare the
figures of the hardman and the gunman (member of the paramilitary). A shift in the ethic and the
performance of violence took place with the transformation brought about by the paramilitary

The background business of acquiring arms was enabled by alternative practices of the police and of theft. a street fighter or a semiprofessional hailing from a boxing family. “We didn’t know what psychological warfare was. disappointment from the failure of traditional businesses. as Asef Bayat points out. agency is consciously enacted when they reject tags of jehadists or gangsters. who objectified his own body and fought more “for the excitement than […. and enthralling urban development in the neighbouring area of Cyberabad (Sen 2012). Didn’t know what the word meant” (48). he became another cog running the machinery of mechanized violence that demanded “human bodies on both ends of the instrument (to) play purely transitive functions” (52). . Even as institutional ideology sought to legitimize child vigilantism which often escalated into violence against the Hindus and ‘immoral’ Muslims. the push for the children came from the loss of their siblings or friends in the hands of the Hindu mob. Even as the context differs starkly. Violence especially in shantytowns. Urban violence in the slum. Couldn’t even spell our names at the time. we just did it. thus. This stood in contrast with the figure of the hardman.] to inflict bodily harm” (Feldman 1991: 48). groups of male children in the Muslim-dominated slum began patrolling their streets and acting as child soldiers protecting their territories. The level of maturity seems striking as urban dispossessed Muslims are more often than not projected as the support system of radical Islam by governments and media alike. a slum in the city of Hyderabad. With the gunman concentrated on the latter. It is this doing that becomes the site for agency governed by weapons and an institutional ideology. their location in the underdeveloped slum. favelas and slums employs minors who are not even aware of the full scale of consequences for their actions at the moment of ‘doing’ a violent act.whose most popular representation that till date exists on the walls of Belfast is that with masked faces and a gun in hand. one can note how strategies and associations with the mosque or the police serve as formations of transient spatial relations that do not demand strict ideological affiliation form the children. and their violence legitimized by the mosque and police alike. Agency then becomes a creation of personal loss as well as the socio-economic conditions of the space that inhabits violent bodies. which they knew was out of their ambit of action. distancing themselves from any religious-national affiliation as well as high scale criminality. The job of the gunman was solely to target an ethnic other by objectifying their body at the point of the gun. Atreyee Sen’s ethnography of child vigilantes in Sultanpur. evokes a sense of such governance of agency. Arguing that the dispossessed cannot afford to have an ideology and rather look for strategies and associations for survival. Bayat debunks the populist claim of radical Islam having an urban ecology in the Middle East (2007). Such a depersonalization where bodies play a role only with regards to their position in particular spatial relations is captured in the narrative of one Ulster Defense Association member. For child vigilantes. sometimes encoded as jehad by the Majlis and the Masjid. In the aftermath of sporadic communal violence in the slum and surrounding Charminar area from 1992-2003 as Hindu rioters were particularly targeting children’s bodies.

Mehta and Chatterji show how micro-territorial structures inside the slum like certain walls. drains and barbed wires on houses can act as boundaries transposed with national and sectarian naming that then categorise and name people as well. virgin and the priest from the violence ‘outside’ (Feldman 1991). The barren maidan that after the violence of 1992-3 became a public latrine was labelled as the ‘Parliament of Pakistan’. the performance of violence was spatialised by the interface which acted as the boundary between Catholic and Protestant areas that came to be segregated since the beginning of the Troubles. Physical boundaries were hardened with the deployment of paramilitary which was not always constituted of people with military training. In Belfast. From a performance of claiming space through marches that mark the ritual calendars of Loyalist and Republican political culture. The spatial relation of Muslim men within Dharavi came to be marked by experiences of violence and one of the effects was withdrawal from public life and abstinence from public markers of identity like the beard. It is noteworthy to consider that the boundaries and control of paramilitary became instruments of disciplinary power that constantly arranges bodies in space in order to regulate them. which constituted of the ethnically homogenous areas. even as the . and the sanctuary was constructed as the domain of kinship and residence which protected the domestic purity of figures such as the mother. but their function served as real markers of identification and remained in public memory even after the drain was covered in 1999. Boundaries and the Afterlife of Violence Urban violence marked by sectarian conflict often takes on the inevitable embodiment of segregation which is legitimized by the rhetoric of self-protection of one’s body in the ethnic other’s territory.creates agents that negotiate space according to the strategies suited for their survival or claims to power. In such a system. The interface became a site for offensive and defensive violence. The naming of space and the violence that happened around it ensures that segregation remained in the memory of inhabitants. Boundaries were imagined as Joglekar Nalla and some chawls came to be named as the India- Pakistan border. The interface as a spatial device also created its other. It was in this space that Muslims were stripped naked and thrashed by the police and inhabitants of the chawl after being identified as ‘katua’ (circumcised penis). even as this neat structure could not be sustained for long as we shall note later. In an ethnography based in Dharavi. Like a closed semiotic system. the sanctuary. the interface turned into an enabler of absolute separation with the transformation of barricades into permanent ‘peace walls’ and ‘environmental barriers’. bodies can be read as commodities circulating in a political economy where certain bodies in certain spaces gain more value than others. the interface and sanctuary provided the two poles on either side of the boundary for the exchange of violence. especially as the paramilitary and the confessional community came to embody functions according to their assigned spaces (Foucault 1975).

one needs to grasp the symbolic signification of bodies and naming that constitute spatial relations and reorganize them even after the violence is over. Chatterji and Mehta (2007) tell us how the Event makes narrative possible. position and function in the domestic. insecurity. Bodies in space gain identifying marks through naming that circulate like encoded messages in a chain of signification. acting as a field of signification where threats and intimidation work as messages to be sent to the enemy community simultaneously. Semiotics of bodies-in-space An aspect of understanding how bodies come to be embedded in spatial relations is to locate their narratives after the event has taken place.governmental plan of apartment building sought to hide it.much like the refugee or migrant labourer (Hansen 2001). the mother becomes a body that has transgressed her space of morality as well as loyalty to her community. Now. killings etc. or shopkeepers who were associated with Hindus for business links or even only as sellers. and thus a lurking specter that can be used as a cause of danger. being in his neighbourhood. as it shows the capacity of violence of the perpetrators’ bodies( Sen 2012). Muslim residents in Dharavi want to move from Hindu majority neighbourhoods in the aftermath of violence as it is ‘natural’ to not ‘feel safe’. In its distinctive characterization. Naming. Bodies of the targets become sites. showing muscles and abusing” (Mehta 2007: 112). giving it double structure of presence of the event (“this happened”) as manifested in burned houses. Agency and segregation were used as analytical tools to grasp the narratives of people who have experienced urban violence. Such narratives of identification also mark Muslim boys as hooligans “wearing tight shirts. Child vigilantes or ‘soldiers’ as they liked to define themselves. The Line of Control between Chamra Bazaar (Muslim neighbourhood) and the Hindu chawl was followed so thoroughly in everyday lives of people that Sarvate in his narrative recalled how Muslim boys had taken a ‘wrong turn’ and lost their way. causing a sense of emasculation because child soldiers were carrying out these functions as public authorities. most accounts of elder brothers and fathers were replete with the displacement of their authority. not just objects. Chatterji and Mehta argue. attacked and slapped in the street by her own sons and other boys for having “sleeping with the ‘enemy’” (Sen 2012: 78). In this particular episode. chose targets with socially weak ties like single women with no male companion. violated bodies. The violence perpetrated by boys aged between 12-15 years becomes especially hard-hitting in Salima’s account when she is surrounded. reiterating the afterlife of violence. Thus. The children on the other hand occupy a much more complex position as they violate one spatial relation (that of being her sons in the domestic) and substitute it with another (that of being soldiers on the street). acts as a mnemonic as well as the . and tangible sectarian separation in terms of boundaries like the present day existence of ‘Peace wall’ in Belfast. In fact. the Muslim ‘badmash’ becomes a figure of history in the dense urbanscape of Mumbai metamorphosed onto the city’s anonymity. and the past and future of the event that constructs a genealogy through narratives of fear.

We encounter this before the violence in Dharavi takes place where ‘kutua’ becomes a mark of Muslim masculinity which is then literally stripped and shown its place giving rise to frustrated statements like “as if my nationality is on my linga!” (Mehta 2007: 107). as replication of Partition even in the aftermath of Ayodhya riots. quite literally then. Translating a thing-in-the-world into words takes place through the transformation of signs according to their shifting terrains (Latour 1999). If violence was aimed at emasculating men. they can cope with the violence on the street in the Republican areas. This is the moment when disciplinary power . Ironically. Past flows into the present constantly in the invariance of ‘landya’ for men and the threat of rape for women encode and substitute one body for another. In all such narratives. Thus. The Muslim as the absolute other of Hindu needs to be transported from one space to another and thus reference circulates from Muslimkatua PakistanIndia-Pakistan border. In the ethnic other’s territory the stiff becomes a prize to be relished and distributed like a totemic meal for others in the community to witness. It is this dead body that becomes the code par excellence for the ethnic other to continue living in fear. Thus. the stiff is transformed into an artifact of power.beginning of narrativising as it is etched in memory. In this act of circulation. the body is feminized and marked by a ‘sickness’ that when ended by killing. the dismembering of the body into parts abounds as it functions as a metonymic substitution. such that one Muslim body is easily substituted for another. They can’t cope with it in their homes” as the INLA member pointed out (Feldman 1991: 76). The limits of violence were pushed as the paramilitary began targeting policemen’s bodies within the confines of their own home. it’s part of the job. This invariance is then transposed onto the regional characteristics of Muslim men as that of the ‘badmash’. “You see. but when you hit the house or the car as he’s coming home from work they hate that. violence in Dharavi uses reiterative terms to fix identities. transgressing the domestic and community space which were protected from the violence ‘outside’. the neat model of sanctuary-interface-adversary community was disrupted with the phenomenon of doorstep murders. It is this transformation that allows for the invariant in identity. the body is absolutely dematerialized through a separation from ethnicity after the death. What does this mean for bodies embedded in spatial relations? Does this not deracinate the body of the stiff from its immediate space? As before with child vigilantes violating and substituting one spatial relation for another (domestic for the street). acts as translation from one kind of signs to another. They expect it there. Violence. it similarly territorialized women’s bodies substituting the kidnapping of Muslim women to snatching away Pakistan. with each term reducing the previous one and expanding it further at the same time. If katua presents us with an identifying mark for the body before the event of violence. an “artifact of power and disseminator of political codes” (Feldman 1991:70). stiffs in Belfast encode the body of the ethnic other after it has been violated. following the logic of unexpected space. will become a stiff. to which is met Faridabi’s anger “maathe pe Pakistan ka number hai?” (118). In a similar substitution. the body of the stiff move from one space to another acquiring meanings specific to the space that it is positioned in.

. but the distribution of this mark does not follow a pattern” (Chatterji and Mehta 2007: 64). (Sen 2012: 72). It is for this reason that Chatterji and Mehta iterate that “violence is spatial but it occurs randomly and anonymously. This rapidity of the city was what made Arshed. hum toh peeche reh gaye. The rapid transformation of urban geography that is able to give rise to child soldiers for not more than a decade contributes much in the process. 10 years-old. we are left behind. comment “Sheher aage badh gayi. Conclusion One wonders then if violence has any limit to it when space becomes a field of signification where bodies can become free floating signifiers moving from one end to another in an endless process. the same poverty). and in the process some bodies become more dispensable than others. the same a framework fails to work because of the unexpected shift in spaces that are categorized for specific functions. Territories are marked. How rapidly violence gets routinized in the everyday. Wohi danga fasad. wohi gareebi” (the city has runahead. This movement of urban development is incomplete without the bodies that it requires to survive. touching bodies of all those that are involved in the survival of cities and their own.

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