Empty Citizenship: Protesting Politics in the Era of Globalization

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Globalization is often indexed by the rise of a consumerist ethos and the expansion of the market economy at the expense of state-centric formulations of politics and citizenship. This article explores the politics and practices of gendered democratic citizenship in an educational setting when that setting is newly reconfigured as a commodity under neoliberal privatization efforts. This entails an attention to discourses of consumption as they intersect postcolonial cultural-ideological political fields. Focusing on the contemporary trajectory among politicized male college students of a historically important masculinist “political public” in Kerala, India, the article tracks an explicit discourse of “politics” (rashtriyam). This enables an exploration of a struggle over the meaning of democratic citizenship that opposes a political public rooted in a tradition of anticolonial struggle and postcolonial nationalist politics to that of a “civic public,” rooted in ideas about the freedom to consume through the logic of privatization.

"Campus Alive." November 2005 via Ritty Lukose.

About the Author

Ritty Lukose is Associate Professor at New York University’s Gallatin School.  She received her Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago.  Her teaching and research interests explore politics, culture, gender, globalization, and nation within the context of colonial, postcolonial, and diasporic modernities as they impact South Asia.  She is particularly interested in the relationship between politics and culture within the context of global and non-Western feminist texts. Lukose's research has been funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Fulbright Program, the Spencer Foundation, and the National Academy of Education, and she has published articles on this research in Cultural Anthropology, Social History, Social Analysis, and Anthropology and Education Quarterly. Her book, Liberalization's Children: Gender, Youth and Consumer Citizenship in India, was published by Duke University Press (2009). She teaches courses on globalization, India/South Asia, nationalism and colonialism, diasporic studies, gender and feminism, and ethnography.

Interview with Ritty Lukose

Roseann Liu: What drew you to the topic of youth?

Ritty Lukose: I came to anthropology being interested in the dynamics of cultural change. Very quickly, I got interested in globalization in contemporary Kerala given the state’s extensive experience of international migration, the liberalization of the Indian economy and the like. Given the ways in which dominant discourses, either triumphalist or lamenting, of globalization seemed to repeatedly turn on its effects on “youth”, I thought this was a particularly salient site to explore the dynamics of globalization. Within Kerala, youth has a long tradition of being tied to the leftist political history of the state. In these ways youth as politics and how it intersects with youth defined through consumption became a crucial node in my developing interest in how the postcolonial context intersects with new global forces. I was also drawn to the study of youth, I think, because of the ways the category, while understood in various ways across space and time, seems to always embody some notion of potentiality, however that is understood. Focusing on youth seemed a particularly productive site for understanding how societies and people in their everyday lives think about the past, understand their present and imagine and strive for their futures.

Liu: What are some theoretical contributions your research has made to the anthropology of youth?

Lukose: When I first started out being interested in the question of youth in contemporary Kerala (India), some of the more dynamic areas of research on youth were coming out of interdisciplinary formations like cultural studies. This research was interested in questions of youth, consumption, and media which were issues that interested me and I have learned much from it. I was drawn to how this literature focused on contestation and the arena of cultural politics which were not themes that emerged so strongly in the more anthropological work on youth that I read at that time. However, this research was tied to a paradigm of “subcultures”, more often than not located in first world contexts, and dominated by questions of “identity” and “identity formation”. One area that I have tried to contribute something to is to shift our ways of thinking about consumption, consumer identities and youth self-fashioning. For me, if analysis of these dynamics are not linked to institutional contexts and the politics of public life, it somehow seems decontextualized from the larger worlds that young people must navigate. As such, I have tried to link consumption and the framework of citizenship to more critically explore how young people are both consumers and citizens, at the intersection of both markets and states.

So, tracking how “consumer citizenship” works within the Kerala context has been important to my work. Secondly, particularly within the cultural studies paradigm, we have had good critiques of the way that youth is often understood in masculine terms. The gendering of youth and feminist understandings of youth have been very important to my scholarship. Within the anthropology of youth, something like Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa certainly paid attention to young women. But, I hope I have contributed something to a specifically feminist engagement with the category of youth within anthropology. Finally, a nation-state like India is undergoing massive transformation, contending with postcolonial legacies of culture and power as they intersect with new, globalizing forces. The anthropology of youth has not always paid as much attention as it might to issues of nationalism and politics within postcolonial locations. I hope my work has contributed something to expanding this focus within the anthropology of youth.

Liu: On pages 512, 513 you describe Keralan politics as distinctly marked by generation and gender, and yet the story of Kerala’s modernity is articulated only by generation.  Has the story of Kerala’s modernity changed?  And if so, has it affected the role of women in the political public?

Lukose: I do discuss, more fully elsewhere, the ways that Kerala’s experience of modernity, from colonial modernity to the postcolonial context, is gendered and the impact that has on education and politics. Young women have been able to access education to a high degree. However, this access is tied to a gendered project of producing a modern, Malayalee, feminine identity linked to new forms of middle class respectability that is inflected in different ways across the class/caste spectrum.  The whole edifice of the “Kerala Model of Development”, which is so highly touted as a development success story rests, importantly, on the education of women and girls.. Also, understandings of Kerala’s modernity rest on its leftist political history. This history and the understanding of Kerala as modern and politically engaged is linked to the political activities of young men. Kerala politics has both an important masculinist and youthful dimension.  In my larger work, I do drawn attention to how new discourses of Kerala’s modernity have emerged, starting in the 1990s, in which Kerala is imagined less as a highly developed state that treats its women well to being understood as a consumer society riddled with social problems such as high suicide rates, fragile families and a place in which violence against women is increasing.  Youth and gender continue to be an important site for understanding this shift. The role of women within political life has changed with the rise of satellite television and its vast repertoire of news, tv talk shows and soap operas which has generated new forms of sex and gender talk within an increasingly mass-mediated public sphere.  This public overlaps with the political public in interesting new ways. The rise of a variety of mass mediated “sex scandals” linked to male politicians has been an important part of the political public for some time now, politicizing sex and gender in new ways. Also, feminist voices and women’s mobilizations tied to new kinds of legal activism and media have also gained visibility within this political public. Issues of rape and sexual harassment have become contested terrain in new ways. Also, minority communities such as Dalits (formerly untouchable castes), Adivasi (tribal) groups and mobilizations by sexual minority groups and sex workers have expanded the political public. Importantly, the case of women from minority communities are the focus of politics on the margins of the dominant political public that is gaining some traction.

Liu: Using your research as an example, you portend that in the latest phase of globalization an opposition exists between a “civic public” and a “political public.”  Since the time that you wrote this, have other examples arisen to confirm or challenge your claims?

Lukose: I do think that there are some suggestions that as globalization has expanded and neoliberal restructuring has intensified, the politics between those groups (such as a globally oriented middle class) linked to a civic conception of the public and those who counter with a differently inflected and political conception of the public has intensified. Within the Indian context, one can see this in the politics of slum demolitions and the mobilizations against that within many Indian cities. The rise of the Maoist movement in India which is tied to many complex factors but certainly includes the dispossession of land and resources, tied to global forces, among Dalits and Adivasis within resource rich areas of India points to renewed struggles between politics understood through parliamentary and civic means and revolutionary understandings of politics tried to armed struggle. However, what is also true, I think, are the ways that this civic activism and civic politics has intensified and expanded. I tried to talk about how a consumer oriented middle class vision of globalizing India seeks to lay claim to the state.  I think this has expanded and intensified as corporate interests dominate all kinds of state restructuring with the increasing privatization of medicine, the intensification of the privatization of higher education, the judiciary and much more. One thing that I speculate about is the expansion of the NGO sector in India and what this means for this distinction between the “civic” and the “political”. In many ways, NGOs speak the language of civil society and that is how they are located. However, grassroots NGOs, especially, have become nodes through which new kinds of politics have emerged that have both challenged dominant understandings of politics that one could construe as both “civic” and “political”. For example, the struggles of sex workers and sexual minority groups are interesting mediations of and challenge both what I called a civic and political public. These new political formations are linked to international and global circulations in complex ways that resist some simple notion of opposition. In this way, there is what Arjun Appadurai has called “grassroots globalization”, not just dominant forms of neoliberal restructuring, and how that challenges a perhaps too simple opposition between the civic and the political is an interesting and compelling question for me.


Plays were important in the spread of the leftist movement in Kerala. Two of those plays by Thopil Bhasi were:

1) “You Made me a Communist” or “Ningalenne Communistakki”

2) “Prodigal Son” or “Mudiyanaya Puthran”

Links from the Essay

Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI)

Student Federation of India, the youth arm of the Community Party of India (Marxist)

Kerala Student Union

Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP)

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. Why does Lukose argue that institutions of higher education are an important site for studying politics in Kerala?  How are institutions of higher education a lens for understanding broader anthropological concerns such as citizenship, nationalism, and neoliberalism?

2. How does Lukose apply a gender analysis to her study?  What does it reveal about youth politics in Kerala?

3. From pages 509-513, Lukose uses a public-private framework to track the politics of privatization in Kerala.  While older conceptualizations of the public-private dichotomy assume a universal organization of gender relations, Lukose applies the public-private framework differently.  How does she apply the public-private framework?  What does this more contemporary conceptualization illumine?

4. What does Lukose mean by the terms “empty place of citizenship” and “empty place of youth”?  What does physical emptiness reveal about politics and youth in Kerala?

5. On page 517, Lukose discusses how the building of a well-kept garden was envisioned as a place for youth to congregate, and she relates this to a Nehruvian developmentalist model that viewed students as productive citizens.  How does Lukose conceptualize the relationship between the physical spaces that youth occupy and notions of belonging?

Related Reading

For a variety of literature on development in Kerala and its status as a “model” see:

Franke, Richard, and Barbara Chasin. Kerala: Development through Radical Reform. Delhi: Promilla, 1992.

__________. "Kerala: A Valid Alternative to the New World Order." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 30.2(1998):25–28.

George, K. K.  Limits to Kerala Model of Development: An Analysis of Fiscal Crisis and Its Implications. Monograph series. Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala: Centre for Development Studies, 1993.

Jeffrey, Robin. Politics, Women and Well Being: How Kerala Became “A Model.” Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Oommen, M. A. Essays on Kerala Economy. Delhi: Oxford and IBH Publishing, 1993.

Parayil, George. Kerala: The Development Experience, Reflections on Sustainability and Replicability. London: Zed Books, 2000.

Isaac, T. M Thomas, and Richard Franke. Local Democracy and Development: The Kerala People’s Campaign for Decentralized Planning. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.

Tharamangalam, Joseph. "The Perils of Social Development without Economic Growth: The Development Debacle of Kerala, India." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 30.1(1998):23–34.

Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.

For literature on unemployment of the educated in Kerala, see:

Mathew, E. T. Employment and Unemployment in Kerala: Some Neglected Aspects. New Delhi: Sage, 1997.

For an assessment of the “crisis in higher education” and the role of politics in institutions of higher education in India, see:

Beteille, Andre. "Universities as Institutions." Economic and Political Weekly, March 18, 1995: 563–568.

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