In North India, political leaders are referred to as netās
, and the term netāgirī
is broadly and pejoratively used to describe the self-promotion, political maneuvering, and public rhetoric in which politicians engage. However, my ethnographic fieldwork in the state of Uttarakhand, India, shows that local divinities can also be netās
: they vie for their constituents’ support, make decisions that materially impact people’s lives, and threaten to use force in implementing those decisions. These “political divinities” are routinely encountered as possessed dancers in large-scale public rituals in this region. In this article, I focus on how political divinities affect, and are affected by, audiences in tangible and far-reaching ways. I argue that public possession rituals open up a highly charged zone for inherently fluid, situational, and pragmatic negotiations between humans and divinities. While anthropological studies of possession view it as a sociopolitical event that trades in power relations, this article calls for a rhetorical approach to possession, which foregrounds possession as a way of persuading particular audiences of certain ways of thinking and acting in matters of collective importance.
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