The Anthropology of Ownership, Sovereignty, and the Law in India 

Winner, 2024 Bernard S. Cohn Prize, Association for Asian Studies

By Kriti Kapila

Nullius is an award-winning anthropological account of the troubled status of ownership in India and its consequences for our understanding of sovereignty and social relations. Though property rights and ownership are said to be a cornerstone of modern law, in the Indian case they are often a spectral presence. Kapila offers a detailed study of paradigms where proprietary relations have been erased, denied, misappropriated. The book examines three forms of negation, where the Indian state de facto adopted doctrines of terra nullius (in the erasure of indigenous title), res nullius (in acquiring museum objects), and, controversially, corpus nullius (in denying citizens ownership of their bodies under biometrics). The result is a pathbreaking reconnection of questions of property, exchange, dispossession, law, and sovereignty.


“A far-reaching theoretical—and ethnographic—feat for anthropology at large. Animating the breadth of scholarship that animates it, this book sets free the concept of property to reconfigure some startling legacies of the dispossession implied. A profoundly original composition of multiple dispossessions transforms the concept: ‘property’ is never going to be quite the same again.”

Marilyn Strathern, author of Relations: An Anthropological Account.

“Kriti Kapila’s study of sovereignty in India brilliantly connects the strange absence of the right to property, in the Indian Constitution, to the special relationship between sociality, (dis)possession, sovereignty and exchange in everyday life. This highly original ethnography of the Indian state reveals the distinctive cultural logic of its ability to recode hierarchy as relationality.”

Arjun Appadurai, author of Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance.

“Kapila slices through decades—centuries!—of political thought to provide a distinct and consequential new grasp of sovereignty, detailing its foundation in modes of ownership that range from the brutally real to the tragically illusory. Starting with a shockingly neglected question— what is the obverse of the hau of the gift?—this daring book pushes us to ponder the hidden scaffolding of state sovereignty.”

Gustav Peebles, author of The Euro and Its Rivals: Currency and the Construction of a Transnational City.


Kriti Kapila is Lecturer in Anthropology and Law at King’s College London and is currently a Member in the School of School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. Her research interests include the anthropology of the state, technology, genetics, and India.


ISBN: 978-1-912808-47-2
$25 paperback

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Chapter 1. Nullius: An Introduction

Chapter 2. The Promise of Law

Chapter 3. The Truths of Dispossession

Chapter 4. Terra Nullius: The Territory of Sovereignty

Chapter 5. Res Nullius: The Properties of Culture

Chapter 6. Corpus Nullius: The Labor of Sovereignty

Chapter 7. Coda: The Illusion of Property



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