Physical Training, Ethical Discipline, and Creative Violence: Zones of Self-Mastery in the Hindu Nationalist Movement

Peer Reviewed


This essay advances understanding of how projects of self-mastery within neighborhood physical training programs associated with the Hindu Nationalist Movement produce subjects that are simultaneously ethically oriented and creatively violent. Such an analysis is contrasted with the conventional view that Hindu Nationalist volunteers are mere objects who blindly conform to a nationalist ideology or religious norms. Drawing on the author's participant observation of physical conditioning within the movement, the essay illustrates how combat training depends on an analytical sensibility by which techniques of drill are simultaneously learned and innovated by volunteers in a disciplinary zone of self-experimentation. Within such a zone, volunteers modify drill routines, enriching and refining them on an everyday basis. Thus, the evolution of physical techniques transforms training into an unfolding enterprise that is continually oriented toward attaining physical and moral self-mastery through the probing of bodily exercises. The essay underscores the social significance of such forms of physical self-exploration, in which movement volunteers understand the iterative probing of physical practice as driven by a resolve that deepens the volunteer's moral fortitude. The essay illuminates how a set of physical and moral processes are intertwined, processes through which militant subjects are culturally formed and routines of violence are sustained as a social and ethical practice. Physical training is connected to anti-Muslim pogroms in postcolonial Gujarat demonstrating how the evolving nature of physical training shapes, prolongs, and enables the improvisation of tactics of ethnic cleansing.

Editorial Overview

In the February 2010 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Arafaat A. Valiani examines projects of self-mastery within neighborhood physical training programs associated with the Hindi Nationalist Movement. He argues that these physical regimes of training produce subjects that are simultaneously ethically oriented and creatively violent. This analysis is then applied to anti-Muslim pogroms in postcolonial Gujarat. In contrast to previous scholarship on these events, Valiani argues that the pogroms cannot be understood as the simple product of people blindly following the directives of the pro-Hindu BJP party, but must rather be analyzed with reference to the more extended project in which moral selves are cultivated through physical regimes of training and improvization.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on the topic of violence. These include: Nils Bubandt's "From the Enemy's Point of View: Violence, Empathy, and the Ethnography of Fakes" (2009); Peter Benson's "El Campo: Faciality and Structural Violence in Farm Labor Camps" (2008); Lori Allen's "Getting By the Occupation: How Violence Became Normal During the Second Palestinian Intifada" (2008); Charles Briggs' "Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations between Narrative and Violence" (2007); and Rosalind Shaw's "Displacing Violence: Making Pentecostal Memory in Postwar Sierra Leone" (2007).

Cultural Anthropology has also published a number of essays on religion. These include: Jesse Weaver Shipley's "Comedians, Pastors, and the Miraculous Agency of Charisma in Ghana" (2009); Dierdre de la Cruz's "Coincidence and Consequence: Marianism and the Mass Media in the Global Philippines" (2009); Omri Elisha's "Moral Ambitions of Grace: The Paradox of Compassion and Accountability in Evangelical Faith-Based Activism" (2008); Webb Keane's "Sincerity, 'Modernity,' and the Protestants" (2002); Saba Mahmood's "Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival" (2001); and Charles Hirschkind's "Civic Virtue and Religious Reason: An Islamic Counterpublic" (2001).

About the Author

Arafaat A. Valiani is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Williams College.

Arafaat Valiani's website

Recent and Forthcoming works by the Author

Valiani, Arafaat A. Militant Publics: Physical Training, Guerilla-styled Protest, and 'Civic' Action in Gujarat, India (tentative title, book manuscript)

Valiani, Arafaat A. "Violence." In Darity Jr., William A., ed. The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Volume 8. 2008: 622-625.

Valiani, Arafaat A. Contribution solicited by the Social Science Research Council pertaining to the terrorist attacks which took place in Mumbai, India in 2008. In "Off the Cuff: Mumbai Revisited," in Social Sciences Resource Council. The Immanent Frame: Secularism, religion and the public sphere. 2009.

Relevant Links

The National Volunteer Organization (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh):

Wikipedia page on RSS

Official Website of the RSS

Head of RSS on why the term terrorism should not be applied to his organization

Related Readings

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Descipline, and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993.

Hansen, Thomas Blom. The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Mueggler, Erik. "The Age of Wild Ghosts: Memory, violence, and place in Southwest China." Anthropologica 45.1(2003): 450-453.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What does it mean to do the type of ethnography that Valiani did for this article? How does Valiani describe the ethical and methodological dilemmas he faced? And, how would you if placed in a comparable situation?

2. How does Valiani balance the issues of authority and agency? Are these opposing terms? What is the relationship between them? How do the characters Valiani presents in this essay exercise their agency, and how is this similar or dissimilar from conventional accounts of agency?

3. What does Valiani's account of the National Volunteer organization tell us about the relationship between violence and political subjectivity? How does Valiani analyze the embodied, discursive, and affective dispositions which enable certain technologies of violence? What type of information does it reveal?

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