Silent cities, silenced histories: subaltern experiences of everyday urban violence during COVID-19

by Jaideep Gupte and Syeda Jenifa Zahan

22 Jun 2021
Journal of the British Academy
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Number of pages
17 (pp. 139-155)

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Abstract: The public health containment measures in response to COVID-19 have precipitated a significant epistemic and ontological shift in ‘bottom-up’ and ‘action-oriented’ approaches in development studies research. ‘Lockdown’ necessitates physical and social distancing between research subject and researcher, raising legitimate concerns around the extent to which ‘distanced’ action-research can be inclusive and address citizens’ lack of agency. Top-down regimes to control urban spaces through lockdown in India have not stemmed the experience of violence in public spaces: some have dramatically intensified, while others have changed in unexpected ways. Drawing on our experiences of researching the silent histories of violence and memorialisation of past violence in urban India over the past three decades, we argue that the experience of subaltern groups during the pandemic is not an aberration from their sustained experiences of everyday violence predating the pandemic. Exceptionalising the experiences of violence during the pandemic silences past histories and disenfranchises long struggles for rights in the city. At the same time, we argue that research practices employed to interpret the experience of urban violence during lockdown in India need to engage the changing nature of infrastructural regimes, as they seek to control urban spaces, and as subaltern groups continue to mobilise and advocate, in new ways.

Keywords: COVID-19, India, cities, urban violence, GBV, subaltern, memorialisation, urban disaster response, informal settlements, urban space.

Article posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 9, supplementary issue 3 (Memories from the Margins: Violence, Conflict and Counter-Narratives).

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