Mahanirban Calcutta Research group


Previous Critical Studies Conference


First || Second || Third ||Fourth || Fifth || Sixth

 Sixth Critical Studies Conference on 'Refugees, Migrants, Violence and the Transformation of Cities', 23-25 August, 2017

Refugees, Migrants, Violence and the Transformation of Cities

Cities world over are attracting increasing numbers of people fleeing villages, small and big towns, other countries and continents to escape conflicts, wars, violence, environmental degradation and natural disasters. Political, economic, social and cultural reasons have combined in this phenomenon of massive and mixed migration. Displacements being protracted immigrants arrive often to stay. Cities are facing the brunt of this development and are imperceptibly or radically being transformed. In this background the Sixth Critical Studies Conference will be an interdisciplinary attempt to map in a comparative framework the restructuring of cities under the impact of refugee and migration flows. It will explore cityscapes in various parts of the world as inbuilt destination spaces of refugee and population movements, such as irregular and subsistence labour as guest workers, trafficked victims, smuggled women and children, immigrant workers in care and entertainment industry, and above all masses of urban refugees and environmental migrants. The conference will thereby seek to understand how with refugees and migrants as inbuilt components of their formation, today’s cities constitute and contest at the same time the parallel scales of the local, national, and the global; how as migrant spaces cities become the battleground of discourses on rights, security, economy, citizenship, populism, and culture; and yet how cities can develop as public spaces and spheres of participation in which varied actors negotiate diversity including race, class and gender. With this broad aim this research conference will bring to light in historical and comparative perspective the urban experiences of restructuration. 

In an increasingly interconnected world global migration is growing in volume and complexity. These population shifts are altering the political, economic, social, and cultural trajectories of the cities – the destinations of the population flows. In this situation, some cities are panicky, some calling for new urban policies for settlements, local environments, and security measures; some witnessing revival of violence, riots, xenophobia, racism, and populist politics around immigration; others searching for a roadmap to become “cities of refuge”. The responses are often mixed, indicating contradictory realities, which are global. The Conference proposes to reflect upon: What is the nature of urban transformation under the impact of the refugee and migration flows, and the ethical, political, and economic responses to this impact?  

Kolkata as the venue of the conference is an appropriate site for such a discussion. Described as a contact zone in the late eighteenth century, Kolkata had witnessed influx of different population groups who defined and created a city on their own terms. With partition millions from East Pakistan came to the city, which in time became their home. This was a conflict ridden process. More recently the recurrence of violence has to be seen in the context of the construction near Kolkata of a new town growing out of peasant dispossession. The resultant violence and selective inclusion and exclusion of population groups are features of the contemporary history of the city. It will be important to study the process of transformation, steps taken towards enhancing the city’s resilience and coping ability.  

The conference proposes to examine the restructuration of the urban experience along related lines and thus looks forward to discussions on the relevant research questions, such as  

  • How is refugee and migrant participation in public life inscribed or proscribed, facilitated or limited in urban setup and development?

  • How are public spaces re-organized? What are their meanings for migrants?

  • What spaces, events, and institutions are keys to this understanding? How are the shifting gender-relations reflected and re-inscribed into urban public spaces?

  • How are the borders/borderlines with consequent transgressions produced in the city?

  • What are the new migrant economies based on particular labour market dynamics and marked by social, racial, and patriarchal attitudes?

  • As migrants push the boundaries of governance and administration, what are the ways that effect the political and spatial re-crafting of urban spaces?

  • How does urban politics cope with security and surveillance methods and the xenophobic populist turn in politics in the wake of immigrant presence in a city?

  • What are the traditional institutions and agencies associated with refugees and migrants in the cities? Who are the new intermediaries in the process with aid agencies influencing them?

  • Theoretically, how do we add to the core concepts of urban justice to consolidate and develop the field?

Experts theorizing the city have approached the subject from roughly three angles: (a) the angle of spatial practices; this is the mode dominant among urban planners and geographers; (b) city perceived on the basis of the mental images that it evokes; this is the mode dominant among the cultural studies scholars; (c) the city as a space for both life and production. Even though the third way of looking at the city tries to get over the singular mould of the first two by positing a subject-object view, and gives us a greater range of conceptual tools to study issues of urban justice, the problem of how to account for its segmentation and linkages, in the formation of the city, and therefore the various fault lines (economic groups, caste, race, gender, religion, etc.) along which the city develops as a site of power, contestations, and claim makings remains. Thus the conference proposes to study the links of migration with new urban formation and restructuration.

Here binaries like colonial/free, city/periphery, underclass/capital, manufacturing units/services, citizens/migrants, redesigned/old, cyber-city/inner city, IT-enabled/IT-disabled, green spaces/crowded, or self-governed/administered are significant. Existing literature remains inadequate, because it focuses on a “lived city approach” with emphasis on various subjectivities, without providing insights into these binaries and the fault lines that emerge from the contradictory phenomena of settlement, migration, labour and capital formation.  

The most important gap in research on refugees, migrants, and cityscapes seems to originate from the tendency to hold the migrants as an undifferentiated mass. Even if we know the variety in the activities of the refugees and migrants, we have less knowledge of what forms the core of the migrant experience, what keeps on adding to their volume and existence, what lends to their resilience, what the different segments and fault lines are, and thus what would it mean in terms of ensuring social justice in the city. For this we need new theoretical knowledge on concepts like right to the city, city as an intersection of three scales, and most importantly city as a site of new power dynamics involving new practices of settlement, claim making, urban governance, economic modes, and new corporeality.  

Possible themes around which panels could be proposed and organized are the following: 

  • Frontier Urbanism

  • Literature and Cinema

  • Eviction/Dispossession in the new cities

  • Environment in/of the city

  • Migrants in new vocations, precarity of new labour force

  • Gender and the city

  • Communalism, caste and the changing city

  • Violence, direct violence, expulsion

  • State’s role in urban violence

  • Urban governance

  • Transformation of smaller cities

On the themes and details of the five previous critical studies conferences, visit –  

Abstracts may be submitted by 16 April 2017 and complete papers by 30 June 2017. Selected papers will be notified by 30 April 2017. No travel subsidy is available. Accommodation will be provided for three nights to selected participants. 

Please submit panel or paper proposals to Anita Sengupta ( or Ritam Sengupta (

for details CLICK HERE

 Fifth Critical Studies Conference on Accumulation under Post-Colonial Capitalism in Kolkata, 21-23 August 2014

Concept Note

     A.    Brief note on the conference structure 

     1.     The Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (commonly known as the Calcutta Research Group or CRG) has organised in the past four Critical Studies Conferences in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011 respectively on the themes of “What is Autonomy?”, “Other Spheres of Justice”, “Empires, States, and Migration”, and “Logistics, Development, and Democracy”.  The programme of critical studies conference (usually held biennially) is designed to promote critical thinking and investigations into significant themes of our time, particularly in countries like India, and develop a community of critical thinkers and activists trans-nationally. The results of the conferences are at times published as articles, books, e-sites, debates on blogs, and added to archives of critical thinking. However, there is no compulsion to follow up a conference with a volume. The idea is to promote critical thinking and exchange of arguments, rationales and experiences. At times, participants take the initiative to bring out a cohesive set of papers in the form of a book or an issue of a journal. They are also free to follow up their respective contributions in their respective locations and in ways they feel appropriate. Famous books, such as, Autonomy – Beyond Kant and Hermeneutics or Borders of Justice, have been products of such exchange of ideas. The journal Refugee Watch published an entire issue on the basis of such deliberations. Attendance of students, young scholars, and activists is a major feature of the programme.

     2.     Each conference is structured around several thematic panel discussions, a distinguished lecture, key notes, and book discussion, marking out in the process new frontiers of thinking and possible new approaches on a particular issue. Participants from various parts of India, South Asia, and from outside the region of South Asia contribute to the discussion in the conference. In the past philosophers such as Étienne Balibar and historians such as David Ludden gave distinguished lectures on such occasions. These conferences are organised by CRG in formal and informal collaborations with universities and research groups. There is an advisory body to guide the conference. Some members in the advisory body contribute to consultations online as they are located in institutions outside India. Participants have to register. Some events such as the distinguished lecture are open to all. A core number of 30-35 people involve themselves intensely in a conference, whereas local participants may vary. The network of scholars and activists CRG represents forms the backbone of the conference.  The conference also strengthens the network and gives birth to new ideas and programmes. The details of the past four critical studies conferences are to be found on the CRG website:  

     3.     As the subject of the fifth Critical Studies Conference, CRG proposes the theme of “Accumulation in Post-colonial Capitalism”. It will be held from 21 August to 23 August, 2014 (Thursday-Saturday). 


     B.    The concept and the theme of the fifth conference 

      4.    It is important to situate the question of accumulation in the current context of capitalism and the social and political struggles against it globally.  This context is marked primarily by what can be generally called the “post-colonial condition”, which means among others, the retarded nature of agriculture, the persistence of the peasantry, debt-burden, massive immigration, resource crisis, national backwardness of countries, primitive forms of accumulation, unbalanced urbanisation, overwhelming presence of informal sector, continuing nature of global crisis in the food market, etc.

     5. The most important thing about the “post-colonial condition” is that this phrase cannot be understood without reference to contemporary forms of accumulation. The phrase “post-colonial condition” essentially is not a cultural expression, but a profound feature of contemporary accumulation process. It helps us to understand what is at stake in the formulation of the concept of post-colonial capitalism. The issue of accumulation is at the heart of the question of post-colonial capitalism.

      6. The nature of accumulation has come under scrutiny in the contemporary times. The combination of the high, including the most virtual, form of accumulation and the primitive form is a feature of the contemporary dynamics of accumulation. Till now the discussion on these has not focussed on the links between the two; instead, discussions have gone on along separate lines. The debates on the primitive form have focussed on land grab, resource extraction, extraordinary forms of labour control, new fiscal-political instruments of dispossession, conquest, war, modes of slave labour, etc., and the significance of all these for contemporary capitalism. On the other hand, a different set of studies has focussed on new financial modes of accumulation, trading in money and currencies, sovereign funds, new monetary operations of banks and other institutions, and financial reforms. The question is: Is there a link (and a causal one) between the two? And if so, does the “post-colonial condition” have a bearing on the relation?

     7. Related to this is another issue that requires attention. There is a need to probe the great question of resources today. On the one hand, there is the reality of each and every kind of resource being turned into fodder for accumulation and therefore to be always extracted (such as land, minerals, environment, bio-capacity, money) from some source; on the other hand, precisely because the resource in question is not be replenished but to be extracted only, the condition reflects the fundamental salience of the colonial mode, and thus of the global nature of the post-colonial predicament. It is in the light of the significance of the question of extraction, that we must renew our studies of issues like land, cities, etc., and the phenomenon of accumulation through resource transfer.

      8.  Migrant labour happens to be another element of the contemporary process of accumulation. While there lately have been studies on migrant labour and what is known as the “immigration debate”, only few of these have noted the connection between large-scale dispossession and migration (including forced migration), and the new forms of accumulation. Here, too, with the issue of the colonial and post-colonial origins of the massive phenomenon of today’s immigrant labour, we have to probe deeply into the relation between the accumulation process under post-colonial capitalism and the labour question in its transit form. We have to ask: What is the precise significance of transit labour today? Linked to this is the unexamined phenomenon of reorganisation of spaces of accumulation, the emergence of new zones of accumulation (such as the free-trade zones in many countries) and new corridors of capital and labour. There is a need to investigate the dual phenomena of transit labour and the reorganisation of spaces of accumulation today. 

      9.  The theme of reorganisation of spaces of accumulation should remind us of the old accumulation debates. There is ground to revisit the conditions of transit labour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when current labour control strategies were put in place. Yet, even more important today is the question of boundary-setting and boundary-crossing exercises and practices in the contemporary accumulation processes. The production of surplus value itself involves the crossing of several boundaries. And in this context, the particular issue of circulation (of goods, information, capital, money, and labour) that creates and crosses several boundaries (of countries, processes, forms, markets, spheres, etc.) makes the question of borders and boundaries in the accumulation process significant. A perusal of the implications of the boundary theme in the accumulation process in post-colonial capitalism will tell us as to why we shall need historical investigations into the theme and the lessons to be drawn.

      10.  All these indicate the political stakes in analysing contemporary forms of accumulation. There are many questions that spring from the post-colonial roots of the current accumulation process. We may ask: Is the national question over? In what way neo-liberalism is linked to the survival of post-colonial realities? How are the labour rights struggles conducted today? What is the nature of changes in the rights regime given the reality of contemporary accumulation process? How do we factor in the post-colonial fault lines in the accumulation process, such as race, caste, gender, and region? Therefore, how is the “radical social” reconstituted today? And, finally, what are the implications of all these inquiries for a new idea of popular politics and democracy?  

      11.  These questions, themes, and issues remind us of the old accumulation debates, in which Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin, and others participated a century ago. The conference will be an occasion to revisit the classic studies. Below we give some of the sub-themes that may be covered in this conference.

      12.  Sub-themes:

  • Post-colonial capitalism: global problematic and global significance

  • Rosa Luxemburg and the contemporary accumulation debate

  • Return of primitive accumulation in various forms to current history of capital and society

  • The dual question of accumulation and resource in the history of post-colonial capitalism and accumulation in the form of resource transfer

  • Finance, trade, logistics, and reorganisation of spaces and the contemporary dynamics of accumulation

  • City as the site of resource extraction

  • New towns and new forms of accumulation

  • Migrant labour as the key to accumulation in post-colonial capitalism

  • Boundary setting and boundary crossing in the accumulation process

  • Contemporary forms of accumulation, political consequences, and resistance

     13.The CRG invites papers on any of the sub-themes from interested scholars and activists. Those who are interested are requested to send long abstracts (approximately 800-1,000 words) of their papers by April 15, 2014. Full papers of the abstracts that are selected would have to be submitted by July 15, 2014, so that the papers can be pre-circulated amongst all the participants.

     14.  The long abstracts will have to be sent to Atig Ghosh (; & Madhurilata Basu ( Interested participants are requested, if possible, to get in touch immediately.

In all matters of short listing and selection, the decision of the Organizing Committee will be final

For Details CLICK HERE

 Fourth Critical Studies Conference on Development, Logistics, and Governance in Kolkata, 8-10 September 2011)

Concept Note

The Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (CRG or the Calcutta Research Group) in collaboration with various other institutions has held in the in the last six years three critical studies conferences. The first conference held in 2005 was on “What is Autonomy?” The second conference held in 2007 was on “Spheres of Justice”. The third conference held in 2009 was on “Empires, States, and Migration”. The aim of these exchanges of ideas and scholarly works has been to promote critical thinking on issues affecting our lives. These exchanges have been inter-disciplinary, intense, and directed towards new thinking and ideas.

The Fourth Critical Studies Conference will be on “Development, Logistics, and Governance”. It will be held on 8-10 September in Kolkata. The University of Western Sydney and the University of Bologna will collaborate with CRG in holding the conference. The conference will be preceded by a special workshop on “Transit Labour”, which will engage in a comparative study of labour in transit, emergence of new forms of labour, and labour involved in logistical activities.

CRG along with collaborators has worked in the past on themes related to autonomy, rights, popular ideas of social justice, and transformations in the mode of governance in the post-colonial era. These themes and lines of inquiry have reached a stage where we need to discuss in a frame of historical sociology the main way/s in which our societies are being transformed by logistical operations in governance, the particular post-colonial nature of this logistical transformation, and the role that various forms of mobility and flows play in shaping logistical governance in post-colonial milieu. It seems to us that the notion of logistics will give this proposed conference on the dynamics of developmental governance the ballast to map out and navigate this landscape of flows, governmental responses, and the massive transportation and communication-centric network emerging in the process. Logistics is here conceived as a grid of responses to certain social challenges that the task of governing a society faces – challenges that can be briefly described as challenges of security, population movements, and territorial flux in the internal organisation of the State. Such a conference calls for an inter-disciplinary approach in a broad historical overview, which can account for the great changes in logistical management of the Indian and other societies.

The Conference will probe questions like: What is logistics in the eyes of government? Logistics had its roots in the war model of organization, politics and the specific apparatus of that organisation. Thus in any construction of a war model, what are taken into account are considerations of logistics – therefore of movement of men and vehicles, communication, civil supplies, storage, terrain, facilities of entry and exit, construction of walls, canals, roads, trenches, depots, and bridges, or negotiating them, and finally watch and gaze, therefore of constructions of towers, and routes of policing and patrol – considerations uppermost in army planning. All these also imply particular way/s a territory for war making is to be was organised, such as choice of terrain, season, etc. All these as the histories of war reveal, are primarily a matter of logistics and logistical planning.

Equally important will be the issue for discussion: How much of this war mode of governance has been incorporated in civilian mode of governance? In order to govern societies, how is “control of bodies” ensured? One can add to these queries the insights and the experiences of a post-colonial society such as India, where the imperative of development is acute, and the idea of “development” has caught hold of nationalist imagination to an almost unimaginable extent, adding new impetus to logistics and logistical planning of the society. War and development, or to be more precise, the war mode and developmental mode of politics have coalesced to give logistical planning a new urgency in governmental thinking and rationality. This is a new situation unanticipated in traditional theories of government.

The real “logistical age” in the social narrative of India began in the last twenty years, based however on the long lineage of the railways and telegraph To name some of the eye catching developments in the recent years: massive construction of border roads, airports, opening up of the Indian sky to private airlines, new highways, gas pipelines, hi-tech cities, satellite monitoring, news technologies in climate forecast, improved capacity of disaster management, spurt in surface transport, increase in container traffic, new software for networking information and agencies, new and longer transmission lines, improved telecommunications including satellite phones and broadband services, increased capacity to deploy human power and material, enlarged storage capacity, new townships, and finally new defence equipments. These things - more than anything else, like as new industry, or improved agricultural productivity, or increase in small irrigation, or sustained entrepreneurship at local level, or massive increase in primary education and primary health services - are the marks of development. They are also the staple agenda of governance. In such cases, logistical awareness is more like an inbuilt feature of governance, guiding governmental rationality. In all these again, one has to note the gradual emergence of a redesigning of the territory, and thus a re-division of labour. For instance, there are logistical divides marking the territory. Again, different kinds of flows mark the territory differentially.

The conference proposes to be an occasion for exchanges on studies on logistical governance. We invite panels / papers on related themes such as:

·          The logistics of population mobilisation, control, management, and the phenomenon of transit labour

·          Developmental logistics

·          Logistics of elections

·          The development of border roads

·          Disaster Management

·          Impact of military administration on civilian governance

·          Control regimes of mobile diseases

·          The economy of logistics 

The last date for sending proposals and abstracts is 31 March 2011, and the last date for receiving papers will be 31 July 2011. Please send proposals or abstracts to

CRG will have no fund for travel assistance to participants. However it will provide accommodation for 3 nights. The registration fee for the conference will be Rs. 500 (Five hundred rupees) only.

Programme Schedule and Details

 Third Critical Studies Conference on Empires, States, and Migration in Kolkata, 11-12 September 2009)

1. The Theme

In much of the era of twentieth century industrialism and capitalism the phenomenon of migration seemed as an exception to human societies and development. Societies and states, particularly after the Second World War, seemed to have taken on the shape of stable nation states with their defined citizenries, territories, laws, economies, and geographies. While multinational corporations (MNCs) worked in a frame of global operations, yet the structure of these operations were mostly territorially bound, and encouraging trans-national migration was not a complaint lodged against them by powers of global governance. Even if peasants were migrating, or various migrant populations were very much present on earth shaping all through the century as earlier the pattern of human settlements, yet history appeared as one of the sacred territories of the national societies. Partitions appeared as exceptions, and the reproduction of the method of partition as a way of stabilising societies and forming states notwithstanding provoking population flows and creating unclean futures was ignored. As if the sacred history of settled societies had little to do with these messy presents and pasts.

Of course migration is not something new; it is as old as human history. Indeed, a whole science had meanwhile grown up around the phenomenon of migration – geography and economics being the two most pursued disciplines of knowledge in the task of understanding migration. Settlements, wages, remittances, and several other issues have crowded the field of migration studies. Ethnography, in general anthropology and later on cultural studies have also made their distinctive marks. Of more contemporary interest however is the phenomenon of forced migration. The attention on forced migration in recent time is due to the surge in human rights movements, and thus the awareness of the need to protect the victims of forced migration. This has resulted in theories, laws, policies, and practices relating to vulnerability, care, protection, boundary making exercises, citizenship, and most importantly displacement. A great number of institutions of human rights and humanitarian work now mark the field. National, regional, and international regimes of protection have emerged. Yet this begs the question, how far can we differentiate between voluntary migration and forced migration particularly in the light of recent massive and mixed population flows?

Labour has remained through all these debates and discussions the silent other name of the figure of the migrant. When mostly this migrant labour appears as illegal, what sense shall we make of the issue of trafficked labour, who should have died with the emergence of free contract-bound labour appearing often in the juridical figure of the citizen? This complicates the scenario even more, and makes the world of settled production even more contingent on several factors including labour flows. In today’s world of globalisation, many may ask, are we really far away from the nineteenth century world of indentured labour that marked entire world of production? Also, with migrant labour marking the capitalist production system what will happen to settled forms of democracy, according to some, bourgeois democracy? Should we not study older histories of empires, which were characterised by mobility in more pronounced ways?

Empires bring the issues of globalisation of various kinds and centuries. Migrations connote borders, mobilities, and their governing. Empires govern migrations, states govern migrations. Is there any common ground between the two ways of governing? And once again significantly, do all these mean that we take border as a method of study?

The Third Critical Studies Conference proposes to discuss all these questions we have sought to assemble under the title, Empires, States, and Migration. Scientific disciplines will help us to understand some of the questions raised, inter-disciplinary approaches will help even more. Critical ways of interrogating and analysing will enable us to go further and allow us to raise new questions while making sense of the earlier ones.

About five years ago the Calcutta Research Group (CRG) started hosting meetings to link with various strands of critical thinking on issues of our time and having great stakes in our lives. The First Critical Studies Conference (29 –30 July 2005) deliberated on What is Autonomy? The Second Critical Studies Conference (20-22 September 2007) focused on Spheres of Justice. Research papers, discussion notes, commentaries, and volumes came out of these meets. More important, scholars and thinkers from various countries including large numbers from within India cutting across the post-colonial divides attended the two deliberations, and were able to forge links and exchanged ideas. The Second Conference had an additional programme. It was a one day workshop with Etienne Balibar – a day long exchange of ideas between a select group of conference participants and Kolkata scholars and the philosopher. For reports of these two conferences, and the workshop interested people may visit the CRG website.

2. Necessary details of the Third Conference

The Third Critical Studies Conference will be held in Kolkata on 11-12 September 2009. CRG invites individual proposals for papers and desirably panels. Each panel will consist of three papers and a moderator. There will be special lectures as part of the conference.

The Conference will not be able to offer any travel assistance; there will be modest accommodation arrangements for three nights for outstation participants. Registration fee for Indian participants will be Rs. 300/ (Three hundred only) and for participants outside India the fee will be USD 100 (USD one hundred only).

Below is an indicative list of sub-themes and issues to be covered at the Conference. CRG welcomes other suggestions as well.

The last date for submitting proposals for panels and papers will be 15 April 2009, submitting abstracts 15 May 2009, and for full papers 10 August 2009. Inquiries about themes and panels are welcome. All inquiries may be addressed (with copies) to: -

Geetisha Dasgupta:
Ishita Dey:

3. Some of the probable themes and Issues

a) Imperial formations and Migration (migrations in and under empires, modern empires and new slavery, plantation economies, neo-imperial formations and flows of labour, Diasporas, etc.)

b) States, Nations, Migration, and Citizenship (violence, displacement, and citizenship, the right to return, sacred space of the nation, citizenship laws, autonomous flows of migration, globalisation and forced migration, trafficking, possibilities of a differently structured world factoring in mobility, etc.)

c) Economies and the government of Population Flows (discussion on governmental technologies to make migration a part of the market, migration markets, migration in a police planet)

d) Beyond Economics and Anthropology? Narratives of Forced Migration (gendered narratives, the multi-layered messages, partition narratives, camp lives and experiences, narrative as a method to understand forced migration and its trauma, etc.)

e) The World of Humanitarianism - Institutions of Care and Protection (institutional studies, critiques of humanitarian ideologies, case studies)

f) Gender and Forced Migration.

Migrant as the abnormal (settled formations as the normal and the figure of the migrant as the abnormal – historical overviews)

Annexure 1 – Programme Schedule and Details

 Second Critical Studies Conference on "Spheres of Justice", Kolkata ,20-22 September 2007 &One Day Workshop with Etienne Balibar, Kolkata, 24 September 2007 & One Day Workshop with Etienne Balibar, Kolkata, 24 September 2007

1. The Calcutta Research Group plans to hold each alternate year a conference on critical thinking. The First Critical Studies Conference was held on July 2005 in Kolkata on the theme, “What is Autonomy?” The first conference was for 2 days.  In all 18 papers were discussed and participants were from different parts of the country with five scholars from abroad (Nepal, Hong Kong, United States, Italy and France). One from St. Petersburg was refused visa by the Indian Embassy. The conference produced some exciting papers.  There is a proposal to bring out a publication on the basis of the demand that this be turned into a series on critical thinking. Paula Banerjee, Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury, and Samir Das are in charge of this publication. Details of the conference can be found on CRG website -

2. The second conference will be held on 20-22 September 2007. It will be held on the theme of justice. The provisional title of the Conference is “Spheres of Justice” or “Justice: The Other Faces”.  The philosopher Etienne Balibar will deliver a public lecture as a keynote address.  The public lecture will be held in Rotary Sadan Auditorium, Kolkata.

3.Though the theme of justice has occupied a high ground in philosophical discussions since the beginning of political philosophy, yet in terms of democracy and popular politics its exact meaning and implications have been nebulous, one of the reasons being the fact that justice in reality is a meeting ground of many ideas, situations, concepts, expectations, mechanisms, and practices. Many things intersect to form the context of social justice – ethical ideas of the people, laws, the evolving nature of claims, and the pattern of collective claim making politics, institutional issues relating to the delivery mechanisms of justice, ideas about rights and entitlements, ideas among the citizens about responsibility of the rulers towards them, plus many situations generating many conditions of justice. All these contribute in making the social context of justice, also the social form and social site of justice. Situations of marginality produce ideas of justice. Lack of access to means of representation / resources / means of survival such as education, health, etc. produces marginality. Similarly displacement creates marginal situations. Likewise minority status engenders marginal existence. Hereditary discriminations have the same effect. Gender has the same role. These marginal situations have one thing in common – they speak of power matrix. And they produce specific calls for justice. Different marginalities generate different expectations and forms of justice – thus gender justice, justice for the indigenous people, justice for those denied of dignity for long, justice in the form of certain socio-economic rights, justice for people starving to death or for people living below poverty line – all of which mean justice for those who cannot access the mechanisms for justice. Justice also means doing away with what is perceived as injustice, removing our blindness to injustice. The thing to note here is that while constitutions have provisions of justice in their articles and clauses, unlike in the case of rights justice does not have a compact formulation, even though justice is at times considered as one of the founding provisions. Given the significance of the notion of justice in various anti-colonial movements and in its associated ideas and thoughts, and the wide demand for justice from each of the underprivileged sections of the post-colonial societies today, and the recurring incidents of communities assuming the responsibility of delivering direct justice in the background of perceived delays and determining their own norms of justice, the proposed deliberation in the conference assumes significance. Apart from intellectual, theoretical, and literary exercises, other discursive and institutional exercises have been marked by popular thoughts and ideas. Various manifestos, leaflets, pamphlets, popular writings, sketches, songs, newspaper articles, speeches, films, theatres, etc. have been the other sites where ideas of justice at the popular level have been articulated. We have to further note that justice, particularly social justice is an arena only partly covered by law; rest is covered by social and political ideas and practices. Ethical ideas about honour, right, respect, autonomy, claim, share, revenge, and shame also play significant role in determining mores of justice. A sense of entitlements also has a role to play. Justice thus propels variety of forms – from social-economic rights, to forms of justiciability, forms of redistribution of wealth, the form of due process, subjective experiences of justice, and as distinct from these experiences the objective tests of justice. In this context one has to note the parts played by social movements and social mobilisations in determining the popular concepts of justice.

4. There are several routes to approach the issue of justice – several ways of engagement. The philosophical path may tell us to go back to ancient philosophers whose theories of justice tell us of the correctness of social order and the virtue in maintaining it, or to the middle age theorists who combined religion, virtue, and justice in a comprehensive theory of ethics where justice had no special place, or to the modern day social theorists in whose works justice becomes a complex arithmetic and a strenuous human effort to maintain it in a world marked by hierarchies and illiberalism. A slightly historical twist to the philosophical path can be found in Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice (1983). One can also have a sociological route, which enables one to identify various social notions of justice, the “habitations of justice” we may say in the sense in which Bourdieu used the word “habitation”, and this enables us to see justice and its demand and procedures as a social phenomenon. The ethnographic method may help us to map these habitations, and help us to see what one can call the ethnographies of justice. There is a route grounded in ethical readings also. Finally, there is a historical route, which allows one who takes it to see in a historical glance what can be called the “regimes of justice” and a “regime of justice” which has in it several notions, institutions, discourses, and agencies of justice existing simultaneously but in a relation of power and subsidiarity.

5. The Conference will be ready to discuss whatever critical thought and approach generate on the broad theme of justice in our minds. With the spirit of the approach, we may have in mind the following problematic to be addressed in the conference. The list is however only indicative and does not exhaust the possible themes and sub-themes. It is also not necessary that there will be a separate panel for deliberation on each of these issues. Participants and panel conveners can get idea of the issues likely to be critically discussed in the conference.

6. Structure of the Conference:
   It will be a 3 day conference.  
   Public lecture and roundtables may be parts of the conference.  
   Panels will be invited to the conference. For submitting suggestions for panels, panel conveners will have to submit short panel statements along with names of proposed panelists.  
  Individual papers may also be proposed. Such a proposal can be submitted along with a provisional title and an abstract.  
  There is no provision for travel allowance, but full hospitality will be provided for a maximum period of 4 nights.  
    Papers will be put on the website; discussions will be led by designated discussants.  
  By 28 February 2007 suggestions about themes of papers and panels will have to reach CRG; by 15 March the first draft schedule will be prepared; by 15 May abstracts of the papers have to reach CRG; and by 1 August , 2007 final papers will have to reach CRG.

7. The conference will be held in either the National Library seminar room or the Academy of Fine Arts seminar hall. Outstation guests will be lodged in Hotel Sojourn and Hotel Stadel in Salt Lake and Akashdeep in Park Circus, Kolkata.

8. The Second Critical Studies Conference will be preceded by discussions on the relevant themes at a smaller scale where other institutions can also participate. 

9. The Second Conference will have a special feature. Just after the conference there will be “A Two-Day Workshop with Etienne Balibar” on 24-25 September 2007. A select group of participants will be invited to join the workshop. On the first day Etienne Balibar will speak on his research interests, current research work, and his reflections on past work; and on the second day there will be question and answer session. In order to have an engaging workshop, CRG will the help of friends and well-wishers will hold a series of “Reading Balibar” sessions as preparatory to the workshop. Some of the participants may be asked to present papers on Balibar there for discussion. The organizers plan to record and publish the proceedings of the workshop.

10. For any communication regarding the entire programme pl. write at

for Report on Second Critical Studies Conference Click Here
for Report on Workshop with Etienne Balibar
Click Here
for Distinguished Lecture Series-1 by Etienne Balibar
Click Here
for Schedule and Details
Click Here


First Conference on Critical Thinking    
Panel Statements , Programme , Paper Abstracts  
Click Here

What is Autonomy?

Venue: Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata
Date: 29-30 July 2005

Conference Statement

In the first decade of the twentieth century where we live in, autonomy has become one of the major concerns of our social and political existence. Right to autonomous life is now a political, cultural, and social call of both individual and the groups - a rare conformity that points to the critical importance of the problematic of autonomy in the agenda of critical thinking.

As is currently understood, the notion of autonomy, both as something that belongs to human beings and human nature, and as something that is the source or basis of morality, that is, duty, is bound up inextricably with the philosophy of our time. The term began to be applied primarily or even exclusively in a political context, to “civic communities” possessing independent legislative and self-governing authority. Then the term was taken up again in the context of individual rational persons that is in the context of their individual rights and existences, for their individual modes of behavior. In the background of the upsurge of anti-colonial movements the term gained new perspectives and meanings, which would now imply not only new rights, but also new responsibilities (autonomy of whom, for whom, in respect to what?). It became the emblem of group rights, in particular minority rights. In time the idea of autonomy became not only the standard of rights or responsibilities, but also an issue of govern mentality - something that denotes transaction, government, negotiation, and relating to others on the basis of set rules. 

So we have now the questions: If autonomy has been emblematic of rights, does it take into account the gendered nature of the term? Can we trace the birth of the autonomous subject? What are the relevant constitutional and juridical thoughts shaping the universe of autonomy? Why is autonomy, an idea that holds universal attraction for mass politics, related to so much violence? Is autonomy one more regulated term, or is the concept autonomous, so that we can speak of autonomy of the autonomies? And, is private property, to go the fundamentals, a problematic for autonomy? What is autonomy without access to resources? On the other hand, if forms of ownership of resources determine autonomy, what is left of autonomy as a norm?

If we relate the concept of autonomy to the more familiar notions of freedom or self-determination, we can locate in this case the questions of responsibility and the conditions of freedom. Autonomy generally is held as a valued condition for persons in liberal cultures. We uphold autonomous agents as the exemplar of persons who, by their judgment and action, authenticate the social and political principles and policies that advance their interests. But the sceptic may ask if we are not being “blinded” by the ideal of autonomy, and therefore the question, what happens if we value autonomy too much? In autonomous action the agent herself directs and governs the action. But what does it mean for the agent herself to direct and to govern? In the context of the emerging demands for group autonomy, the further question to be probed is if this is not now the occasion to investigate and re-envision the concept of democracy with the norm, principles, and various forms of autonomy and more importantly in a way, where the standards of minimal justice become the foundation for a new democratic outlook inscribed by practices of autonomy perched on understanding of each other. Accommodation becomes the form of responsibility for the agency that wills autonomy.

In the history of thought reason has co-opted our conception of autonomy. Given this history, it can be argued that the task is now to set autonomy free. But the question is how? Surely, the problem is in the way the self defines the claims for autonomy, the way in which it relegates the issue of justice and understanding from considerations of autonomy. Law becomes in such conditions the most assured site of autonomy, and the juridical arrangement handed down from the top becomes the only possible form of autonomy. The paradox is then: if we are governed by reason in what we choose and how we choose, that means that we subject ourselves to reason in this business of what and how we choose; we are not in that case autonomous. Yet, if we say that we are not governed by reason but by desires and passions, then in that case we are not governing ourselves in what we choose, and we are not therefore autonomous. The way out of the closure has to be sought in historical understanding of the way in which the two principles of autonomy and accommodation have worked in political life, and the way in which standards of justice have negotiated the relation between autonomy and accommodation.

We require both historical and analytical understanding of the issue for such a critical enterprise. We require moreover deeper and rigorous understanding of the geo-political and ethno-political grounds on which the call for autonomy is now articulated and which modulate the self’s understanding of the norm. Similarly the need is to inquire into the ethical grounds on which the call for autonomy is given and practices of autonomy continue. The purpose of the conference is to inquire into conditions and dimensions of autonomy, their historical nature, and their political significance in terms of enriching democracy.

The conference will be held in Kolkata, India, on 29-30 July 2005. Structured around panel discussions, the conference will deal with six themes, which will form the panel sub-themes:

The Birth of the Autonomous Subject (Panel Convener: Samir K. Das –
Autonomy as an Idea for Mass Politics (Panel Convener: Sanjoy Barbora –
Laws of Autonomy (Panel Convener: (Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury –
Feminism as a Resource for Autonomy (Panel Convener: Paula Banerjee –
Autonomy of the Autonomies (Panel Convener: Sanjay Chaturvedi –
Access, Ownership and Resources – Private Property as A Problem of Autonomy (Panel Convener: Arun Kumar Patnaik -

Various experiences on movements for autonomy will be discussed in the context of the sub-themes. The conference is part of a research and dialogue programme on autonomy, which CRG has been conducting with the support of the Ford Foundation.

Interested paper contributors may contact the panel conveners. Inquiries are welcome and all other inquiries can be addressed at

Registration charge for the conference is Rs. 100/ per person. Copies of the papers will be available on payment of photocopying charge and on the CRG website. Panels will be finalised by 30 April 2005, and papers will have to be submitted by 30 June 2005. The conference will not have general travel support fund. But it will provide full accommodation for the participants during their stay for the conference. In case of partial or exceptional travel support inquiries can be addressed to panel conveners or at

The Conference on “What is Autonomy?” will be the first in a series of annual conferences that CRG will hold on critical thinking in India.

Organising Committee:

Members: Samir Kumar Das, Paula Banerjee, Sanjay Barbora, Sanjay Chaturvedi, Arun Kumar Patnaik, and Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury,

Convener: Ranabir Samaddar

Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group
GC-45, Sector 3, Salt Lake City, Kolkata 700106, India
Ph: 91-33-23370408
Fax: 91-33-23371523
Email: /