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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 45 New Delhi October 27, 2018

Re-Reading Michel Foucault: Present as History

Sunday 28 October 2018

by Arup Kumar Sen

The heretical French thinker Michel Foucault transformed our understanding of modern regimes of power. To put it in the words of Julian Reid, “For Michel Foucault the problem of war is the problem of political modernity par excellence.” Reid reminded us in this context that in examining how war is constitutive of modern power relations, Foucault lays down a challenge to the major traditions of political theory and their allied conceptualisations of war. We are further reminded by Reid that for Foucault there is no discontinuity “between the functioning of tactics in the individuation of bodies via discipline and the operations of strategies in the constitution of populations biopolitically”.

The recent developments in India, particularly the arrests of civil/human rights activists and the state’s counter-insurgency operations in the Kashmir Valley and the tribal land of Chhattisgarh, propel us to re-read Foucault’s under-standing of power.

In his discourse on the genealogy of power, Foucault observed that “by the late eighteenth century, the soldier has become something that can be made: ...in short, one has ‘got rid of the peasant’ and given him ‘the air of the soldier’”. The recruitment of the Special Police Officers (SPOs) by the Indian state from the agrarian people in its counter-insurgency operations substantiates Foucault’s observation.

While addressing the emergence of the modern form of power, Foucault observed: “...wars were never as bloody as they have been since the nineteenth century, and all things being equal, never before did regimes visit such holocausts on their own populations.” He further observed: “The existence in question is no longer the juridical existence of sovereignty; at stake is the biological existence of a population. If genocide is indeed the dream of modern powers, this is not because of a recent return of the ancient right to kill; it is because power is situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population.”

Foucault’s understanding of power was organically connected with the developments in Europe. The genealogy of power in colonial and post-colonial India may depart from the trajectory of modern regime of power explored by Michel Foucault. But, Foucault’s seminal reading of power offers insights, which sharpen our understanding of modalities of power in contemporary India.

[The re-reading of Michel Foucault and the quotations from his writings have been derived in the article from Julian Reid, ‘Life Struggles: War, Discipline and Biopolitics in the Thought of Michel Foucault’ in Michael Dillon and Andrew W. Neal (ed.), Foucault on Politics, Security and War, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 65-92]

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