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“Real, practical emancipation”?

Subaltern politics and insurgent citizenship in contemporary India

Alf Gunvald Nilsen


This article explores the articulations of citizenship in subaltern politics in contemporary India. Departing from Karl Marx’s acknowledgment that, despite its limitations, political orders founded on the modern democratic conception of citizenship had propelled “real, practical emancipation,” I argue that citizenship has to be understood as simultaneously enabling and constraining radical political projects and popular social movements. I flesh out this argument through a detailed analysis of Adivasi mobilization in western Madhya Pradesh, India. My analysis shows how the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, a local social movement in the region, democratized local state-society relations by appropriating basic democratic idioms and turning these against local state personnel and the violent extortion they engaged in. Drawing on James Holston’s work on “insurgent citizenship,” I argue that claims making around such democratic idioms inflected citizenship with new and potentially emancipatory meanings centered on local sovereignty and self-rule. I then detail how this mobilization provoked a substantial coercive backlash from the state and discuss the lessons that can be gleaned from this trajectory in terms of the possibilities and limitations that citizenship offers to progressive popular politics in India today.