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Abstract

This dissertation is an ethnographic, historical and conceptual account of a crucial category in postcolonial Indian politics and law- the right to life. This category, derived from a contentious article of the Indian constitution became a touchstone for activists, lawyers, lawmakers and judges as they confronted and tackled a whole range of sociopolitical and economic issues. Especially in the last forty years the right to life has been repeatedly invoked in multiple situations as an authorizing conception for a range of arguments. The latest instance being the judgement by the Indian Supreme Court in 2018 declaring that the continued criminalization of homosexuality in India was a violation of the right to life of India’s LGBTQ community and thus unconstitutional. Given its widespread efficacy for a range of actors, its capacity to structure crucial arguments and its role as a critical mediator between the state and its subjects, this dissertation seeks to understand the following. How did the concept become a thinkable proposition in Indian law, given its absence in the constitution? What kinds of authorizations does it enable and what are its inherent potentialities, ambiguities and contradictions? Why has it acquired such a crucial significance in the Indian legal discourse? To answer these questions, I focused on three key situations where the intersection of life and law has acquired great significance in India and interrogated them ethnographically and historically. These are: the foundational situation of framing a constitution, founding a republic and the emergence of right to life as an authorizing category. Next is the overdetermined situation of environmental degradation and crisis which in India has been legally framed as a violation of the right to life. Here I provide an account of a year long ethnography in the National Green Tribunal, India’s exclusive environmental courts. Lastly, the exceptional situation of the suspension of right to life under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the Indian state of Manipur. Here I provide an ethnographic account of Irom Sharmila’s sixteen year-long hunger strike which sought to abolish the law and restore the right to life. I argue that the primary achievement of the Indian constitution was that it inaugurated a new field of argumentation. This is because it posed a set of questions which could only be asked in the new situation of India’s decolonization. At the heart of these problems was the question of mass destitution- the colonial state was gone but it left behind a hungry mass of people, people who were now the sovereign. India’s constitution and its underlying concepts of rights and obligations were framed and determined by this pressing concern of mass destitution and the challenges that it posed. Indian statehood was based on what I call a sovereignty through destitution marked by an underlying sense of immediacy and absolutism. Right to life was not a principle of liberal expansion of rights as has been conventionally argued, rather it was an expression of this principle of sovereignty through destitution and a reproduction of its grounding impulses emerging after a grave moment legitimation crisis in the form of the Emergency. Through an ethnographic account of the invocation of right to life, I show how it gets folded and molded to enable a whole host authorizations, capacities and intensities. For example, its invocation enables the state to expand its powers even in the face of its inability to contain widespread environmental degradation, but this very expansion of its capacities further impedes its ability to protect natural resources. The project shows that constitutional questions in postcolonial states are not abstract, marginal or merely expressive of elitist concerns, but rather constitutive of the project of postcolonial nation-making.

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