The City as a Bourgeois Desire
Kathmandu today exists in a conjuncture framed through multiple layers of overlapping moments: On the one hand, there is an evolving politico-economic landscape of municipal and local governance owing to projects of economic liberalization that might be termed ‘gentrification of state-spaces’ (Ghertner 2011); on the other hand, there is a changing aspirational landscape for the unpropertied working class tied to the fading promises of Nayaa Nepal and the failure of radical politics to reimagine ‘the urban’. In this context, this paper seeks to interrogate the demand for the right to the city advanced by squatter communities, or sukumbasi, in Kathmandu, as a category of analysis with recourse to an account of extreme marginality. As a starting premise, this paper seeks inspiration from Kristin Ross’ (1967) take on everyday life incubating not just a mundane space that reproduces dominant relations of power, but also a space in which utopian possibilities and political aspirations may be manifest. Keeping this dual character of everyday life in mind, this paper investigates the conditions that enable sukumbasi to make radical claims for the right to the city – rights to obtain ownership of land and formal citizenship status in the absence of ‘legal qualifications’. What occurs when such radical claims confront governmental programs that could potentially destabilize the inhabitance upon which such claims are founded? How do state-led ‘bourgeois environmentalism’ initiatives (Baviskar 2011), as they encounter ‘slums’, produce spatial imaginaries, portray subjects, and contend with the interface of everyday life and threats to habitation? How does the threat of violence and eviction inform the political subjectivity of sukumbasi and renewed strategies of inhabitation? Through an ethnographic exploration of an anti-eviction campaign organized to resist such threats, this paper studies the tactics and modes of resistance deployed by sukumbasi to advance a new demand—‘justice-based resettlement’—reducing in the process, the realm of politics of the poor to ‘sentimental humanitarianism’ (Das, 2007). Such metamorphosed demand, forged in the crucible of crisis, may have been politically feasible from having mobilized state discourse of the ‘inauthentic sukumbasi’, but may too have lost the radical content of the more aspirational Right to the City demands. In adopting the state’s governmental framework to distinguish between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ sukumbasi, the sukumbasi movement’s leadership produced class cleavage among different sukumbasi — between those who were alleged to be ‘landed’ and those given a ‘landless’ designation. An assessment of the ‘feasible’ demands, and the processes through which they were articulated, yields critical insights about the right to the city formulation and foregoing representations of subaltern politics, such as ‘deep democracy’ (Appadurai 2002) and ‘political society’ (Chatterjee 2004), that emphasize and idealize the solidarity of the poor. In considering the politics and contingencies of the right to the city, we are presented with a stark understanding of the possibilities and limits of the political aspirations of the poor.