Inscribing Subjects to Citizenship: Petitions, Literacy Activism, and the Performativity of Signature in Rural Tamil India

By Francis Cody

“But for the women who had come to the office that day from Katrampatti, my sense is that they would only have been satisfied that they had performed the act of petitioning at grievance day if they had been able to see the collector and plead with him orally using generic conventions compelling superiors to act on behalf of the weak, not unlike those found in the praise language that had been erased from their petition. Their ambivalence is a product of having been denied the chance to make an affective claim through eye contact, ensuring that the collector would feel with their suffering. Karuppiah and I had tried to make it up to the petitioners by taking them all out to lunch after submitting the petition, but the bus ride home was certainly marked by disappointment and uncertainty about what had just taken place at the collector’s office. They all knew that it would be very difficult to collectively take yet another day off of work and come back to town.

Any governmental claims to rationalized and disenchanted Weberian bureaucracy remain particularly vexed in this context, because the collector does in fact sit in the erstwhile king’s seat, in his palace. In fact, he collects petitions in the old darbar hall where the king of Pudukkottai would have met with the court and those who had come to plead before royalty. Such a dense semiotic environment does not lend itself easily to a bureaucratic ideology of directness, or “reduced,” “logical” communication in the eyes of petitioners or even petition writers. The collector does appear to act like a king. It took so much pedagogical work just to get the group from Katrampatti to come to the collector’s office and it seemed somehow incomplete, in part because after such effort they simply turned in the sheet of paper at a small office without being able to see and talk to the collector at grievance day. The petitioners’ idea of seeing the collector directly (neratiyaka), a face-to-face encounter with a powerful patron, conflicts with the ideals of directness as the simple transmission of a communication in written form in which a petitioner has no face. Beyond this sense disappointment at not connecting visually or orally with their addressee, these petitioners have repeatedly been deceived or disappointed by the state, as by other higher powers. They know they are dealing with a realm of power that is in some sense beyond their control. This was, after all, an act of faith (oru nampikkaitan) as much as it was an exercise in citizenship.”

Read it at Cutural Anthropology

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: