Review Article
By Ritayoti Bandyopadhyay
Cambridge University Press, 2022

*Streets in Motion

Anuj B

Streets in Motion is a powerful book. It studies the complex relation between the spatial and the political in twentieth-century Calcutta. The street is a ‘framing device’ of this story.

Sophisticated academic social science of present times does often tell: ‘how things work and why resistance ultimately fails’. Rarely does it go beyond problematisation and critique of power, and work towards a new imaginary of politics. Only a few academic books can attain the good fortune of exceeding their academic purpose. This is one of those few books that go beyond the confines of the university.

Streets in Motion studies the connection between spatial mobilisa-tion and political mobilisation in a capitalist urban milieu. It shows that spatial mobilisations are deeply political and political mobilisations are deeply spatial in nature. By ‘spatial mobilisation’, the author means the circulation of space as property in the market and its historical metamorphoses into private, public, and common resource via diverse human practice. The author talks about a range of actors involved in this process—governmental agencies, urban planners, engineers, speculators, petty property owners, contractors, soil raiders, street hawkers, transport workers, pedestrians, trade unionists, politicians, refugees, communal mobilisers, and so on. Spatial mobilisation has both intended and united implications in society. It excludes many in order to include a few. This selection is political, and it elicits social responses which often exceed the anticipated outcomes. This excess is also political.

By ‘political mobilisation’, the author refers to a range of collective actions—from anti-government protests to communal riots. These mobilisations require spaces to appear, thrive and dissolve. They act upon the physical space by territorialising and repurposing it. Thus, mass encroachment of footpaths by the hawkers re-mobilises a public space—designed for the pedestrian movement—into a shared resource for the sake of livelihood. But such a mobilisation of space (collective encroachment) may not be possible under authoritarian colonial rule. It must wait for a regime that at the very least claims its legitimacy from the people. By establishing the complex co-constitution of the spatial and the political, the book concludes that ‘the street is politics in as much as politics is the production of space’. This is easier said than done. The author sustains this argument over nearly 270 pages.

Streets in Motion studies when, why, and how protests fail/succeed in the urban streets, and what one learns from their successes and failures. It closely observes the actors who can participate in protests, who all are excluded, and who fails to make an ‘impact’. Thus, this book can be read as a historical manual for urban activism. It shows what happens when academics keenly learn from the activists and become one of them.

The idea of ‘obstructionism’, which is at the core of the book’s formulation of the space-politics dialectic, comes from the streets. This is a concept that people live through and frequently deploy to punctuate, re-form and re-direct the iron will of capitalist motion. Look at any municipal law or the Penal Code—obstruction is vilified as delinquency everywhere. Eliminating obstructions is the prime purpose of the urban police and the civic authority. The author studies this repression and weaponises it as a positive concept to understand how people make history under structural limitations. The author shows how capitalist motion acquires its historical specificities when it seeks to overcome obstructions. Understood in this manner, obstruction is the domain of human subjectivity and agency which may take an organised form in certain historical junctures and subjugate motion. Studying urban motion through its dialectical opposite (obstruction) becomes inevitable when one accepts activists and trade unionists as knowledge producers. This is their way of looking at the capitalist city.

The book may be read as a treatise on urban activism, trade unionism, and social movements. It is not an academic book. It is a deeply political reading of twentieth-century Calcutta. The theoretical framework and the strategy to study the city from below (i.e., from its streets and in this sense, it is below both in physical and metaphoric sense) can be tried and tested in different urban contexts.

This book is an optimistic history of the urban process—arguably, a very rare breed in contemporary urban studies. Its optimism emanates from an analysis of the changing material condition of Calcutta in the twentieth century. Hence, its optimism is not idealist or romantic. There is no nostalgic longing for the twentieth-century version of mass politics. Radical protests and progressive encroachments constituted only one part of the twentieth-century urban political culture. The other part of it was framed by mass communalism, brutal riots, and spatial zoning of cities according to the sectarian logic. The author shows how these two aspects of the twentieth-century political culture inflected each other and inhabited the same urban milieu. Jabardakhal movement (forceful and collective encroachment) enabled the refugees to reclaim property from the whirlwind of real estate (the author calls it ‘encroachment-as-class’). But at the same time, it expelled minority Muslims from various neighbourhoods and quarantined them in ghettos (the author calls it ‘encroachment-as-community’). In the 1950s, these two forms of encroachment manifested simultaneously.

Is the twentieth-century version of street politics over? Yes. Thus, the author ends the book in this manner, paraphrasing Hobsbawm:

‘The twenty-first-century street requires a new political vocabulary. Vocabulary is imminent in struggles. It will emerge from its lived contradictions. The twentieth-century’s owl of Minerva that brought wisdom has flown out at dusk. The twentieth-century street is dead. Long live the street!’(P. 267)

[Anuj B is a human rights lawyer and social activist based in Lucknow]

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022