ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Criminality and Sovereignty in the Land Mafia of Kolkata


Arnavas Chiara - University of Oslo, South Asian Studies, Oslo, Norway


11 – Rethinking governmentality: Sovereign agency beyond the state in South Asia


This paper advances our understanding of the land mafia and its modalities of governance in India’s neoliberal land regimes. It has been argued that criminal networks represent an attack to neoliberal policies and to the capacity of the State to enact good governance practices (Vaishnav 2017). Yet, anthropological studies of crime have moved away from narrow definitions of criminal organisations as autonomous, internally cohesive, and bounded systems (Dua 2019; Michelutti et al. 2019; Schneider 2018; Ben-Yehoyada 2018). However, the question of how criminal networks establish and legitimise their governance on the ground is still open and deserves further attention. Without an adequate analysis of how criminal networks actually permeate the formal realms of state and capital, we overlook the inner workings and exacerbating inequalities that continue to make these entwined coalitions possible. Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Kolkata, this paper considers the social embeddedness of land mafia, to illuminate the complex relations and forms of governance among the actors who occupy the intertwined realms of crime, state and business. I trace how land mafia is structured from within, how it achieves sovereignty over several impoverished villages, and control the supply of labour and construction materials. Ultimately, I show what the label of “mafia” does, and that who calls who a mafiosi is based on inequalities of class, caste, and legitimation.