The Nation′s Tortured Body

Violence, Representation, and the Formation of a Sikh “Diaspora”

The Nation′s Tortured Body

Book Pages: 312 Illustrations: 15 b&w photographs, 3 maps Published: February 2001

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies > South Asia, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

In The Nation’s Tortured Body Brian Keith Axel explores the formation of the Sikh diaspora and, in so doing, offers a powerful inquiry into conditions of peoplehood, colonialism, and postcoloniality. Demonstrating a new direction for historical anthropology, he focuses on the position of violence between 1849 and 1998 in the emergence of a transnational fight for Khalistan (an independent Sikh state). Axel argues that, rather than the homeland creating the diaspora, it has been the diaspora, or histories of displacement, that have created particular kinds of places—homelands.
Based on ethnographic and archival research conducted by Axel at several sites in India, England, and the United States, the text delineates a theoretical trajectory for thinking about the proliferation of diaspora studies and area studies in America and England. After discussing this trajectory in relation to the colonial and postcolonial movement of Sikhs, Axel analyzes the production and circulation of images of Sikhs around the world, beginning with visual representations of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Sikh ruler of Punjab, who died in 1893. He argues that imagery of particular male Sikh bodies has situated—at different times and in different ways—points of mediation between various populations of Sikhs around the world. Most crucially, he describes the torture of Sikhs by Indian police between 1983 and the present and discusses the images of tortured Sikh bodies that have been circulating on the Internet since 1996. Finally, he returns to questions of the homeland, reflecting on what the issues discussed in The Nation's Tortured Body might mean for the ongoing fight for Khalistan.
Specialists in anthropology, history, cultural studies, diaspora studies, and Sikh studies will find much of interest in this important work.


“Provocative and informative . . . . The arguments and the material covered constitute a helpful corpus for reference and thoughtful discussion. The layout of the volume is excellent, and the numerous maps, pictures, and posters illustrating various points enhance its value. . . . Recommended as an informed and provocative reexamination of dynamics within the Sikh diaspora . . . .” — N. Gerald Barrier , Journal of Asian Studies

“This is a fascinating book. . . . [T]ruly attractive reading. . . . [A] delightful book to read.” — Hew McLeod , South Asia

"[A] brilliant treatment of the problematic category of diaspora." — Daniel Merton Michon , International Journal of Punjab Studies

"[A] provocative and interesting book. It is a wonderful theoretical tour de force that succeeds in raising challenges both to those scholars involved in Sikh studies in general, the anthropology of violence, and to those concerned with the historical formations of diasporas. Such scholars should most certainly have it on their shelves." — Louis E. Fenech , Journal of International Migration and Integration

"A provocative reading of Sikh historical figures and events. . . . It provides valuable examples of transnational flows and the working of the social imaginary. Those interested in diaspora studies, gender studies, postcolonial theory, transnationalism, historical anthropology, and the anthropology of violence will want to take note." — Verne A. Dusenbery , American Anthropologist

"An important and timely contribution to the masculinity and embodiment literature, and will provide a useful resource for those interested in issues of Sikhism and diaspora." — Margaret Walton-Roberts, Environment and Planning D

"[Axel] has done an excellent job. . . . [He] has conducted extensive research and got to the bottom of things and thus created an important piece of academic literature." — Kuldeep Singh , Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

"[S]tudents and specialists of diaspora studies in general, and the Sikh diaspora in particular, will find the book intellectually challenging. It should also be useful for students of South Asia." — Manish Thakur , Anthropology Review Database

"Axel engages in the . . . interesting task of understanding how the narrative of the homeland has become such a powerful defining force for an otherwise diverse and scattered population."
— Lindsay McMaster , Canadian Literature

"Axel proves that a white American male can do a truly non-ethnocentric historical anthropology. . . . [A] fascinating narrative. . . . For once, the blurb on the book’s jacket does not exaggerate. . . ."
— Anjali Gera Roy , Jouvert

"Beginning with his title, which nicely juxtaposes nation and body, Axel beautifully weaves the two together throughout the book. . . . Axel’s book is an impressive work that should be widely read among scholars of identity, nationalism, diaspora, or South Asia."
— Bridget Guarasci , Comparative Studies in Society and History

“Historical anthropology at its best, The Nation's Tortured Body explores the history and politics of the Sikhs in a complex, and contested, transnational context. Axel’s book evocatively charts the ways in which the crossing and marking of boundaries have shaped the foundational identities of a diasporic community, providing a graphic illustration of the multiple meanings of the idea of ‘homeland’ in our contemporary postcolonial world.” — Nicholas B. Dirks, Columbia University

“This groundbreaking study of the Sikh diasporic world is also a brilliant ethnography of violence and loss. Tacking deftly between the politics of images and the imagination, Axel shows how the iconic social categories produced in the colonial encounter shape the struggle over the politics of place, person and body in contemporary India. This book will surely change the ways in which we see how colonialism, diaspora and the politics of separatism inform the formation of modern subjects with mobile loyalties.” — Arjun Appadurai, University of Chicago


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Brian Keith Axel is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Swarthmore College. He is the editor of From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Figures vii

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Promise and Threat 1

1: The Maharaja's Glorious Body 39

2: The Restricted Zone 79

3: The Tortured Body 121

4: Glassy Junction 158

5: The Homeland 197

Conclusion 224

Notes 237

Bibliography 263

Index 291
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2615-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2607-6
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