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Tuesday, August 09, 2022

How neoliberalism became the backdrop for agrarian distress and exploitative marriage networks

Reena Kukreja’s exceptional book reviews the multiple markers of oppression and victimhood that women face in rural north India


Updated: July 2, 2022 12:40:58 pm
Migration is not without its burden for women (Source: Wiki Commons)Migration is not without its burden for women (Source: Wiki Commons)

By Tista Das

Reading Reena Kukreja’s book, one is reminded of reading Karl Marx in a different setting. The book forms the link between the vast body of work on the workings of caste, kinship and marriage networks in India and the specific context of liberalisation and its impact on rural north India. Kukreja writes, “In India, the accumulative process got a fillip from the early 1990s when it wholeheartedly embraced the neoliberal project through the adoption of structural adjustment programs. This resulted in the alienation of producers from means of production and the creation of a reserve army of dispossessed and landless people who could provide cheap, flexible, and disposable labor for the accumulative process…” “The distinctiveness of this phase,” she further writes, also “lies in the destruction of social relations through commoditization. It commoditizes everything, not even sparing daily life…”

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The long shadows of the alienation of producers from their products and of commodity fetishism are clearly discernible. Kukreja studies a form of non-customary marriages among both Hindus and Muslims in rural north India, especially in parts of Haryana, and places the phenomenon of rising marriage migration against the backdrop of the liberalisation of the 1990s. She begins by asking specific questions, the most important being whether these marriages could be considered as trafficking or whether they could be termed as carefully considered migration strategies.

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However, there are no clear answers here. What the reader rather notes is that Kukreja considers the lens of victimhood restrictive to a broader understanding of the process of migration. She, therefore, looks at how this migration strategy worked for these women in their everyday lives.

This becomes all the more significant when one considers the neoliberal moment as one of dispossession which works through the expansion of capital. Kukreja challenges the notion of overarching changes that the expansion of capital was supposed to bring about and looks at how the pre-existing discriminations not only remain but are also reinforced with the movement of capital. She enters the intimate domain of marriage-making to come to a broader understanding of intersectional identities and uses gendered matrimonial dispossession as the framework of discussion.

Why would I be Married Here cover The book forms the link between the vast body of work on the workings of caste, kinship and marriage networks in India and the specific context of liberalisation and its impact on rural north India (Source: Wiki Commons)

The methodology that Kukreja employs is significant. Recognising multiple markers in the notion of oppression and victimhood that women face, she uses a variety of tools in stitching together her narrative. She uses surveys, one-on-one interactions, interviews involving focus groups and so on. It goes without saying that marginalised communities fall prey to further marginalisation through the unequal distribution of resources which become legitimised through state practices and the proliferation of markets. It is further reinforced as the neoliberal state working in conjunction with corporate organisations to promote land grabs and privatisation. The boom in real estate transforms agricultural lands into industrial or residential properties.

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The workings of marriage networks are understood through the lens of a disproportionate accumulation of capital. The Green Revolution has led to the use of family labour, especially the labour of women, in farms like never before and marriage migration can, therefore, be studied as the transference of the bride’s labour, as a gendered labour migration. With mechanisation, the labour-intensive processes constituted the new regime of women’s work. As rural India became more closely integrated with the market economy, agriculture became almost unsustainable for the marginal farmers. It would become impossible for the men of these families to find a bride from the locality. They would choose brides from places as far as Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, even bypassing caste norms.

In the ultimate analysis, therefore, the book questions the fundamental notion of development. Fertile agricultural land bore the brunt of the development of mining, the building of SEZs, of dams industries and model townships, which led to progressive marginalisation. India’s new aspirational middle class found its foothold on the cusp of this transformation. The strategies of spatial purification that they employed, in conjunction with the state, helped in buttressing a new civic culture.

Kukreja does not simply talk of the impact of the neoliberal context in passing. She sets this out as the backdrop against which the gendered regime of dispossession, agrarian distress and marriage networks are discussed. The everyday negotiations which labouring brides go through, even when scripted through patriarchal strategies, do construct a bargaining counter, fragile as it might be, within the household.

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Tista Das is assistant professor of history, Bankura University, West Bengal

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First published on: 02-07-2022 at 12:00:04 pm

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