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Dr Akanksha Awal    
University of Oxford
Early Career Fellowship

Politics of anger: wilful women and the police in contemporary India

Drawing on a case study of lower middle class women in Lucknow, India, Akanksha Awal’s research seeks to investigate the role of anger in reshaping social norms

Police officers try to detain a student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) during a march to Rashtrapati Bhavan to protest against a proposed fee hike, in New Delhi, India, December 9, 2019. REUTERS / Anushree Fadnavis - stock.adobe.com.

What is the role of anger in public life? Does it act as an unreasoned outburst of emotion or a form of resistance? Whose anger matters and can minority groups use anger to form collective bonds to survive and thrive? In recent years, many young women in colleges across India have been at the forefront of several protests seeking their right to safe access in public spaces (e.g. Pinjratod (literal: break the cage) or Why Loiter?), yet, much of academic work focuses on women in metropolitan cities, such as Delhi and Mumbai. Less attention is paid to lower middle class women in smaller cities in India, such as Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, where restrictions on female mobility are several and stark, and where police’s authority is severely de-legitimised. Systemic failings of the police and the law normalise injustice in society and give rise to conditions under which women, especially from Dalit and Muslim communities, might choose to direct their angry sentiments. 

This research will ethnographically investigate the processual questions of everyday angry conduct: how do people learn to express anger in cases of normalised harm, such as regular under-reporting of domestic or caste-based harassment? Which instances of anger generate collective outrage, and which do not, and why? When do furious sentiments shift debates and social practices and when do they fail in doing so? In other words, how can the anger of a marginalised community matter, and how? It will focus on women’s everyday expressions of anger (linguistic registers and bodily gestures) and collective actions manifest in acts of civil disobedience, such as protests and sit-ins. It will seek to understand how state institutions interpret and respond to these expressions. Examining how minority groups can use anger in public life is crucial in light of global movements (e.g. Me Too or Black Lives Matter) that advocate cultivating and expressing angry sentiments in the face of systemic neglect of marginalised groups. This interplay between how marginal groups express their anger and how it is recognised and legitimised will reveal whether (and how) anger can shift social norms and restructure social relationships.

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