Around the globe, we are witnessing multitudinous struggles over rights. Several of these are collective struggles by marginal and dispossessed groups over what Walter Mignolo has termed “life rights” with some resisting precarity and dispossession heralded in by neoliberal developmentalism and its championing of privatization of natural resources: mountains, minerals, forests, rivers and streams; while others are struggling to redefine the substantive content of existing formal constitutional guarantees.1 The key question this essay asks is: How do we conceptually capture these rights struggles? In South Asia, and particularly in India, many of these rights struggles have not been without policy and legislative successes, and several pioneering and innovative legislative acts are now in place guaranteeing citizen entitlements to information, food, and employment and land rights, and there now exists a growing and sophisticated scholarship analyzing the functioning, shortfalls, as well as the impact of these newly introduced acts and policy measures.2 Within this burgeoning scholarship and more generally, however, less attention is paid to the conceptual and epistemic languages of rights underpinning these struggles by marginal groups or of the nature of subjectivities and subjection these mobilizations engender, or indeed to the forms of rights politics these generate. To put it more specifically, we are yet to know of the justificatory premises of rights that inform and activate demands for expanded entitlements; or of the nature of rights languages underpinning “self-making” exercises mobilized in becoming a subject of formal rights; or of the traversal of rights and human rights; or indeed of the ways by which statecraft, governmentalities, and the market intersect and facilitate the dissemination of particular rights subjectivities. In short, we know altogether very little of how rights languages are constituted and articulated by marginal subjects. In this essay, I argue not only that these questions spearhead the study of the emergence and operation of rights cultures in marginal contexts in “most of the world” but also that their study requires a different conceptual lens—one that is able to capture their dynamism but also their difference. I will call this lens vernacular rights cultures.3 Viewing rights politics through the framework of vernacular rights cultures offers a means by which the complexity and dynamism of rights-based mobilizations might be analytically captured, not simply as ones engaged in the translation and enacting of “global human rights” but as those that have their own languages of rights and entitlements grounded in specific political imaginaries, justificatory premises, and subjectivities. In short, vernacular rights cultures generate both a distinct set of rights and distinct practices through which rights are delivered, but also transform the rights that are inscribed in constitutions and political imaginaries.
This essay has three goals: to briefly introduce the framework of vernacular rights cultures; to document the literal and conceptual languages of rights that animate contemporary citizen mobilizations in Southern Asia; and to draw attention to the political imaginaries, subjectivities, and claims for subject status that underpin the latter. The predominant word signifying a right in South Asia is the Urdu/Arabic Urdu literal term haq, and in this essay I focus on the justificatory premises that underpin the deployment of haq within grassroots citizen struggles in the region. Here, I will bring notes from the field into conversation with four existing literatures: the ethnographic scholarship on haq and the philosophical work on the nature and structure of rights on the one hand, and on the other, the anthropology and the political theory of a “global” phenomenon called human rights. The vernacular rights cultures I will describe are essentially those of subaltern groups, groups who are not, in Spivakian terms, “outside all lines of social mobility” but who are in fact actively involved in the struggle for expanding the terms of their representation through taking up rights discourses. I draw on my rights ethnographies of grassroots groups in Rajasthan mobilizing under the umbrella network of the “right to food” movement in India and of Punjabi peasants demanding land rights in Pakistan in order to offer an analysis of the rights language that underpins vernacular rights cultures.