Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2021
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Cornell University
Reconstituting ‘Accountability’: Activist Interventions in a Central Prison in Jaipur, India

Over the last decade activists working for prisoners’ rights in India have struggled against a host of bureaucratic rules that have drastically curtailed avenues for interaction with incarcerated persons. Despite these challenges, activist collectives employ creative techniques to cultivate long term relationships of accountability with carceral bureaucracies, while advocating for their reform. By keeping a “foot in the door” they are able to strategically identify procedural violations and intervene in state classification systems that mark prisoners as criminal or marginal subjects. I propose to study this uneven terrain of engagement between activists, prisoners and prison administrators through an inmate counselling program in a central prison in north India. I investigate how actors working in conditions of intense bureaucratic opacity negotiate and contest structures of state accountability. During 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork, I will participate in activists’ routine prison-visits, attend organizational meetings, follow their correspondences with state officials as well as conduct interviews with lawyers working for incarcerated persons in the prison. To trace the forms of social, intellectual and political labour implicit in their exchanges, I pose three questions that I answer using methods of participant observation, documentary and textual analysis: First, what does it mean “to hold accountable” in a custodial institution such as prison where inmates are seldom and only notionally allowed to speak for themselves? Second, what are the kinds of bureaucratic and documentary tools employed to mediate the experiences of prisoners, making them legible in prison bureaucracies? Third, how do such processes of mediation intersect with broader claims for socio-legal recognition and citizenship beyond the prison? This project thus intervenes in scholarship on the postcolonial state, bureaucratic accountability and carceral studies by employing the critical lens of an anthropology and epistemology of violence.