Friday, June 14, 2024

Delhi as a site of aesthetic governmentality and its invisible citizenship

Slum dwellers outside of the Coolie Camp slum in Vasant Vihar. Photo: Aasma Qureshi/Maktoob

Nafis Haider and Firdaus Raza

It is not a new practice to hide away what we perceive as bad and ugly when any guest arrives. It is not something we frown upon when we do it in our homes, but what it entails when the State does this? What differentiates the State from our home? How are we to identify ourselves in this new aesthetic space?

Delhi has become the site of this question. It has not gone unnoticed that green curtains surround Delhi’s ‘unaesthetic’ areas- the slums, jhuggis and those sites which put a question mark on Delhi becoming a world-class city. The mere act of hiding these areas becomes problematic because, in these areas, citizens of this nation dwell. This is an act of aesthetic governmentality which qualifies citizens based on a dominant idea of aesthetics and tends to produce control over citizenship through an ideological frame rather than directly exercising sovereign power. 

Aesthetics of space as governmentality describes how spatial arrangements like urban planning, architecture and design are used as a tool of governance and control. Government and other power structures may employ various spatial structures to regulate behaviour, shapes and subjectivities and control population. In the case of Delhi, the act of hiding poor areas and slums explicates how the government is creating what Jacques Ranciere calls a “community of sense”, i.e., a shared mode of aesthetic engagement which explicitly delineates order from disorder.

Delhi is being presented as the model city in India, as par with the ideas of Western urban spaces. The areas dominated by Malls, Hotels, and Bungalows are left undisturbed, while the slums are covered. This signifies that in the aesthetic space of Delhi, Malls have space, but slums (dominated by poor people) don’t have any space. Behind these green curtains, the State seeks to create the dichotomy of those who are seen and those who must not be seen.

The negation, marginalisation and absolute disavowal of these people from the aesthetics of India creates two categories of citizenship, the visible and the invisible. This creates a sense of aesthetic governmentality through which the invisible citizens tend to see themselves as the problem which must be kept hidden for the greater good of India. The state, without actively engaging with these invisible citizens, has subjugated their location in the political system. The rules are defined, and India is growing. Those who are not growing are not part of the new aesthetic India space. Through aesthetic governmentality, the State tends to make the citizens an eye of their conduct, as Foucault states, “conduct of the conduct”. 

This argument extends as such:

First, Malls are aesthetic, slums are unaesthetic. 

Second, slums are a hurdle in creating space for good aesthetic construction. 

Finally, this goes as Slums must be demolished to give space for Malls. 

This is the new method of producing governed citizenship, which utilises the enabling power of the State to bring citizenship subjugated under the sovereign, by enabling the citizens to act but curtailing the capacity to work on their own. The idea is not limited to mere curtain washing of the poor areas. Still, it extends to the earlier acts of demolishing slum areas, the recent case of Tughlakabad and Jahangirpuri, in the name of an anti-encroachment drive. Bernard Cohn, in his work on colonial representation of India, speaks of the “observational modality” of colonial powers through which they defined urban spaces based on their particular idea, categorising Bombay as the city of traders, Benaras as the Hindu city, et cetera.

These categories of aesthetics produced the idea through which the city dwellers came to be seen, producing a patterned behaviour of the people. In the case of Delhi during G20, the State seeks to implant the distinction of who will be treated as its citizens. These drives burden the citizens to civilise themselves while abolishing the responsibility of the State to provide them with the necessary means to sustain themselves.

The city of Delhi and other urban spaces, as Ghetner states, function under the rule of Aesthetics. Harsh Mander in a recent report claims that “an alarming number of approximately 250,000 to 300, 000 individuals have been forcibly displaced from their homes” in Delhi’s G20 preparation. Furthermore, the State has curbed down and kept hidden all those thales, roadside tea stalls, vendors, and hawkers, making this city a violent place for the political society, the poor and the people of the margins which holds considerable importance to sustain the economy of Delhi.

What differentiates the State from our homes is the voluntary action of all the family members to hide the unaesthetic areas. When the State does it, it establishes a dominant idea of aesthetics through which people and the citizens will define space positively and how it should be normative. In this fashion, the State tends to negate the citizenship claims of a vast mass of its population, throwing them into the abyss of political isolation. The state is made by its citizens. If one section of the citizenship appears unaesthetic, the State must work to uplift them, rather than whitewash their existence for the aesthetics of a select few.

Nafis Haider is a postgraduate student of Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Firdaus Raza is a postgraduate student of International relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University. 


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