Rao & Dutta (2012). Free Spaces as Organizational Weapons of the Weak: Religious Festivals and Regimental Mutinies in the 1857 Bengal Native Army

Huggy Rao (hrao@stanford.edu)
Sunasir Dutta (sunasird@gsb.stanford.edu)

Johan Chu (johanchu@umich.edu)
Suntae Kim (suntaek@umich.edu)

Article link:      http://asq.sagepub.com/content/57/4/625

Question 1. This is a cool paper! How did you become interested in the 1857 Bengal Army mutinies, and how did you track down sources of data and background knowledge? What piqued your interest in free spaces?

Huggy: I am delighted you found the paper to be cool! Let me situate how we converged on the paper – for converged is I think the right word!

A nagging problem for me was whether organizations produced collective action or were outcomes of collective action. I remember having long conversations with Mayer Zald about this when I was visiting Michigan in 1997.  James Scott’s work on the weapons of the weak only reinvigorated my interest in the question of whether ‘free spaces’ were the precursor of organizing or their antecedent. I also wanted to do a study using Indian data, and thought that the mutiny was one great setting. I realized it was the subject of hundreds of historical studies, and that any effort to study it ought to use new data – that had not been used before – and the data needed to be yoked to the issue of movements and organizations. I also knew I could not do this on my own – it needed a collaborator – who knew India, and loved history, and was above all, interested in the questions that fascinated me. Then came Sunasir!

Sunasir: In June 2009, about 5 months after I got accepted to the GSB’s PhD program, but before I matriculated, Huggy called me and asked if I would be interested in studying a historical setting to understand a social phenomenon. I of course jumped at the opportunity because I’ve always been fascinated with history—which is often even stranger than fiction, in terms of revealing both the most admirable and the most despicable possibilities of human behavior. So anyway, since I was already bored of vacationing (I had spent the previous month on vacation), I spent the rest of the summer looking at archived documents and texts in Calcutta (the former capital of the East India Company’s administration) and Delhi (the capital of British India under the Queen, i.e. after 1857), to find out more. In this process Huggy and I discovered a somewhat strange pattern. There were often simultaneous mutinies in different parts of the subcontinent, by regiments that shared few common characteristics. But it took us a while to realize that regiments’ susceptibility to believing the rumors of the profane cartridges (such as based on where they were located) or infectiousness (such as based on how influential a regiment was in accelerating adoption of a norm-violation such as mutiny)—that these were not sufficient to explain the patterns we observed.

Meanwhile we were soon (i.e. “soon” in the context of historical research!) presenting the in-progress work in various workshops and seminars. From a few of those, especially the Comparative Politics Workshop at Stanford, we got the sense that what was needed was an exogenous shock to organizing capacity to really trigger mutiny among regiments. One of the workshop participants ( an expert on Islamic politics)  asked if Muslim regiments mutinied more during months designated as times of piety and fasting. And that’s when we instantly realized the connection between festivals and free spaces, and the theoretical issues alluded to earlier.

Question 2. In making your prediction that mutinies were most frequent immediately following religious festivals, you outline several different supporting mechanisms—e.g., creation of group identity and solidarity, overcoming pluralistic ignorance, practice of (ritualized) violence, emotional contagion,  spread of news, and the interruption of daily routines. Do you have a sense of whether one of these mechanisms was most important in the case you describe? What about in general?

Huggy:  I suspect that our invocation of a number of examples other historical settings, such as Huguenot France, maritime mutinies, and modern social movements might have led to this question. As far as our study is concerned, large festival-gatherings provided (exogenously imposed) free spaces. Free spaces typically provide two things in repressive social systems: (1) a site (physical or virtual) outside of existing structures of dominance (such as the workplace), that creates a shared rhythm of expression (e.g. chanting or marching in unison) which creates a shared identity and arouses emotions (e.g. anger or pride), and (2) allows prospective participants to observe who else might be willing to join in risky collective action—together we call this collective empowerment. The secondary effect of such empowerment is that it leads sometimes to a violent expression of emotions.

Sunasir: Indeed. Both these aspects of free spaces matter. So for example, there were also festivals that involved private fasting rather than communal gatherings- and those didn’t trigger mutiny, so getting people together, and gauging others responses to emotional empowerment is also important. Similarly, just getting people together also doesn’t by itself foster collective empowerment: for example, the soldiers, who lived in open “lines” rather than enclosed barracks, might have had opportunities to communicate with each other; but without the activation of an alternative collective identity (alternative to their soldier identity), such as of religion or tradition, communication alone wouldn’t be enough to organize a challenge to the seemingly insurmountable status quo. Further, if you noticed, these festival gatherings mattered the most for regiments far away from their place of recruitment, while those closer to their homes and villages would have had other opportunities for mobilization and identity-activation, such as through social ties.

Question 3. You close by mentioning Facebook and Twitter as “large free spaces to organize collective action in repressive systems” (p. 660). Could you elaborate on why you think they could serve this function? It seems that some of your mechanisms would be less effective online, where body language, nuance, and irony may not communicate well.  Also, how would collective action instigated online be affected when nation-states (e.g., China, the United States) show the capacity and willingness to monitor online association?

Sunasir: I think the social closure, albeit limited, of online social network platforms, and their low cost of signaling intent, discontent, and ideological beliefs, makes them suitable for fostering common knowledge of who else is likely to participate in possible acts of collective action. It also manifests another consequence typical of free spaces: identification with a collective identity, such as of online forums and interest groups, shared hashtags of lighning-rod events and causes, generational communities such as of millenials, and even offline gatherings down the road such as informal “tweet-ups” and Meetup.com groups.

Huggy: Let me begin by saying that Roman emperors were wary of public festivals – lest – they lead to coups!  They sprinkled spies throughout a festival procession. Nonetheless, repression of online activity undercuts collective action. As far as Twitter and Facebook go, they are not substitutes for face-to-face interaction, but instead, serve as complements that might trigger face- to- face interaction among anonymous strangers.

Question 4. You implicitly allude to the failure of the British to “divide and rule” in two passages of your article (top of p. 638, middle of p. 650). Did the divide and rule tactics instituted after the mutiny work to suppress further rebellion? It seems that the effects of religious festivals (and other free space events) should be curvilinear in regard to the diversity of regiments; homogeneous regiments may not need festivals to mobilize (much like local ones relied on them less in your results), and festivals may not have been enough to create shared mutinous identity in very ethnically/religiously/caste-wise fragmented regiments. Also, did the British differently police religious festivals after the mutiny?

Huggy: The divide-and-rule strategies were implemented in the form of mixed recruitment into some regiments, stationing of antagonistic ethnic regiments in cantonments, and also in arbitrarily changing the recruitment base (under the command of the new Viceroy after the EIC’s charter was abolished due to the mutiny) to those ethnic/religious/caste groups who hadn’t mutinied. In terms of ideology, the definition of who constituted the “martial races”, and hence were appropriate candidates for recruitment, was simply flipped to define those ethnic/religious groups who hadn’t mutinied (for example, see Heather Streets’ 2004 book “Martial races”).

Sunasir: Your theory of diversity seems plausible. However in this particular setting we didn’t find significant interaction effects of demographic diversity with the festival clock. We ran a second order interaction too, and the magnitudes imply an inverted U-shaped effect as you hypothesize, but it’s not statistically significant so there isn’t much one can say about that. One important reason why demographic diversity doesn’t play a leading role in this context is that each regiment was recruited almost entirely from a particular area- such as a district, city, or a set of neighboring villages (p. 639). Even if they differed in religion and caste (p. 646), the members of these regiments would have shared the bonds of being from the same communities, or at least be more accepting of the caste hierarchy or religious difference in the regiment that mirrored the communities they grew up in. So in empirical terms, even if there is variation in demographic diversity, there isn’t much operational value in that because of shared communal roots.

Huggy: In regard to your question on homogeneity, do note that we show the regiment’s majority-group festivals had a bigger effect on raising the mutiny hazard, but the minority-group’s festivals also had smaller but significant effects. So, one might possibly infer (with some slippage) that the marginal effects of festival gatherings would actually be greater for larger majority groups (such as in homogeneous regiments). To be sure, there were other elements of diversity (e.g. age of regiment, which would determine cohort diversity), but they were not salient bases of organizing.

Sunasir: To your final sub-question: In the latter half of the nineteenth century and early 20th century, we don’t know of any evidence that religious festivals were policed differently, although the civilian (local) police expanded in numbers, while the number of local troops garrisoned in interior regions declined. Also there emerged a new class of professional civil servants under the Imperial Civil Service in 1858; perhaps that might have allowed more intensive monitoring than by the East India Company officials.

Question 5. What question did we miss? Please ask yourselves a good question, and answer it.

Huggy—That is a very good question to ask. One issue that merits attention is the legacy effects of mutinies. Are places where mutinies occurred in 1857, for example, also the locations for violent collective action events a 100 years later? This is both theoretically, and empirically challenging.

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