Over the last decade, the country has witnessed one after another resistance movements bursting on to the political map. These movements, largely located in rural India have unsettled the comfortable dream of ‘shining’ India. In issues involved in studying such movements are certain connections which must be delinked only to link; certain qualifications must be made with respect to categories such as ‘rural’ or ‘resistance movements’. In activist circles and even in academe, such qualifications have been delayed, for example by counting all these varied struggles as ‘people’s movement’. There is no robust attempt to conceptualize the category ‘people’ itself. Towards this end, this edited volume provides a glimpse of the tasks at hand to take up such intellectual pursuits. Covering a variety of movements and their contexts, scattered across the country, the volume richly records the politics of these resistance movements.
However, it may be mentioned, that despite a comprehensive discussion on social movement literature in the introduction, the collected essays hardly contribute to a better understanding of the direction that the specialized discipline of social movement studies in India must move towards. Like ‘people’, it appears that ‘social movement’ has also been used as an intellectual short-cut. Readers will legitimately wonder if a movement led by a Communist Party and a study of its Marxist-Leninist politics can be grouped under the category, ‘social movement’!
The book is divided in three sections. In the first section titled ‘Transcending Nature/Culture’, Alf Gunvald Nielsen’s article takes us to the Bhil community in Madhya Pradesh and also to the history of the Bhil heartland. His argument is, today’s democratic struggle of the Bhils must be observed from the perspective of state-society relations, in and through which the Bhil community lives their everyday. Marked by extraction and repression by local police and forest officials, he terms this state-society relationship as ‘everyday tyranny’. Subsequently he traces its roots back to the historical moment of the colonial constitution ‘state space’ and the progressive erosion of shared sovereignty over forest rights that the Bhil community had enjoyed under the Hindu rulers in the precolonial era. However, the conceptualization of the everyday as ‘everyday tyranny’ is less than satisfactory, at least in comparison to discussions such as the one attempted by Ranajit Guha (1997) on ‘domination’ in the colonial context. The concept appears to be metaphorical. In contrast, Bengt G Karlsson’s article is conceptually robust. With James Scott in the background, his insists on ‘endurance’, which enables one to survive through a tough time, to be no less significant than an act of defiance or resistance. He further posits the concept of ‘gridding’ which in continuation to endurance is living through a time with the hope of another avatar of the state which will emerge to address the everyday woes and distress. ‘Gridding’ may well be an interesting entry to explain why ‘people’ living in the worst of circumstances do not always revolt. But given the dense existential-phenomenological claims of the author, the reader hardly gets to hear actual voices of the people from the North East. Matthew Shutzer’s article is a study of institutions, actors and ideas behind decentralized forest governance in Kalahandi, Odisha, with specific reference to Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). The author poses a critique to the ideas prefiguring the politics of implementation of FRA. On the one hand, he makes a case against looking at these communities as given and without any distinction or stratification. Further, he argues that such an assumption also facilitates a critique of state practices such as an equally taken-for-granted idea of development, practised by a homogenous community. His position is thus opening up the field of discourse and practices to the possibility of appropriating progressive state institutions in the struggle for implementing FRA as well.
The second section, ‘Structures and Subjectivities’ has three articles of which the inclusion of two articles is bound to baffle readers. The essays by Nicolaus Jaoul and Kenneth Bo Nielsen study the Communist Party of Marxist-Leninist (Liberation)’s political practice in rural Bihar and Singur movement in West Bengal respectively. The first one is an ethnographic account detailing how Liberation’s politics as an underground armed organization developed through a politics of negotiation with the rural proletariat’s aspiration and thereby incorporating elements of populism, social (NGO) reformism and social movements in their Marxist-Leninist politics. The study of course is an attempt at understanding the vexed issue of vanguardism and it brings out the interesting dynamics that are at play at the grass-roots level for a Communist Party. But the rural proletariat’s voice remains altogether missing. Nielsen’s argument is that while looking into a community of rural poor resisting land eviction one must think of the ‘community’ as ‘communities’. All such collectives are stratified on the lines of sociological categories like caste or class. This can only enable a finegrained understanding of their ideological process, organization and mobilization. He then goes on to engage with Partha Chatterjee’s conceptualization of political society and poses a criticism of the same with respect to his findings. One may add, there is nothing new about this criticism. It would have rather been more interesting if he had taken up the challenge of engaging with Foucault’s idea of bio-politics, population and even subjectivation that subtly underlies Chatterjee’s argument. In comparison Luisa Steur’s article, exploring the backdrop of the Muthanga Occupation by adivasis in Kerala can genuinely be called a study aligned with new developments in anthropology of subjectivities. She masterfully shows how politics, foregrounding the identity of ‘ádivasi’ can still be thought through a ‘class’ framework (not orthodox notion of class) linking experience, local structures, state-structure and international political-economic trend. This is a thought-provoking article.
The third section of the book introduces readers to the dynamics of knowledge in the context of power and action. Felix Padel questions the persistent stereotypes of considering adivasis as ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’. Weaving a narrative—consisting of a development model that corporates like Vedanta represent and the struggles that go on in places like Niyamgiri—the thrust of his argument is that adivasi population has a much advanced understanding of nature, conservation and thus make better utilization of resources than their ‘modern’, ‘advanced’ counterpart. Madhuri Karak’s article mainly tries to read the category of adivasis, counterposing it to the indigenous, a category emergent out of the Latin American context. An interesting exercise in the sociology of knowledge or history of ideas, it is at the same time somewhat jargonistic and unnecessarily complex in structuring arguments. A critique of subaltern studies for failing to understand differentiations within ‘subaltern’, as a point of departure is surely becoming repetitious. Anand Vaidya’s argument on the other hand is a refreshingly new insight into a different form of struggle. Detailing the struggle behind the drafting of Forest Rights Acts, he shows how even inserting a word or phrase in the preamble may keep open possibilities to launch new struggles. Shankar Gopalakrishnan’s article is also thought provoking to the extent that it tries to explore possible impacts of the politics surrounding the forest region in India, resisting accumulation of capital on a larger political scenario in India. One must admit, it is a territory of political sociology that needs attention but hitherto remains unexplored beyond the activist circles.
Each section closes with commentaries by K. Sivaramakrishnan, Subir Sinha and Judith Whitehead respectively. Reminding the reader of the conference format, this strategy however works in the volume, adding depth and providing supplementary insights. However, this cannot be said about the central methodological framework that the editors pose to understand today’s politics of social movement in India. Termed as Materialist Ontology, it also hopes to bridge the gap between Marxist materialism and poststructuralist framework. Leaving aside inconsistencies in their reading of the Marxist concept of nature and culture, the volume never comes together as a collection of reflections to meet the theoretical ambition. It is too much to ask from an edited volume anyway; and it is going to take more theoretically nuanced interventions to find the bridge between, say Marx and Foucault. But as a start, it is a good collection of articles, unveiling glimpses of the lifeworld, where the future of this country is actually being determined through the process of exploitation and the struggles against it. This wealth of empirical insights activates a moment of comparative understanding, which undeniably is the precondition to find the bridge, if any.
Guha, Ranajit (1997), Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India, Harvard University Press.
Anubhav Sengupta is currently teaching at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and Universities, Manipal, Karnataka. His area of research interests broadly includes political sociology, anthropology of subjectivity, social and political theory.