“Real, practical emancipation”?

Subaltern politics and insurgent citizenship in contemporary India

in Focaal
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  • 1 University of Bergen Alf.Nilsen@uib.no

Abstract

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.

Political emancipation is, of course, a big step forward. True, it is not the final form of emancipation in general, but it is the final form of human emancipation within the hitherto existing world order. It goes without saying that we are speaking here of real, practical emancipation.

Marx [1843] 1992: 221

Thus wrote Karl Marx in On the Jewish question, his polemical engagement with the precepts of political liberalism, penned in 1843 in response to Bruno Bauer’s discussion of political and religious freedom in the context of mid-nineteenth-century Prussia. Marx, of course, made a basic distinction between the “political emancipation” that had been brought about by the Atlantic bourgeois revolutions and the “human emancipation” that would result from a future proletarian revolution. The former, he argued, had bestowed on us only formal political equality—a form of equality embodied in the citizen—whereas the latter would deliver substantial human equality by rupturing the structures of power that undergird capitalism as a mode of production and a social formation (see Kouvelakis 2005). However, as the passage cited above suggests, Marx was not unequivocal in his critique of political emancipation. As much as he regarded its liberatory impact to be circumscribed and imperfect, he nevertheless recognized that it constituted a form of progress that advanced “real, practical emancipation.” In my view, Marx’s ambivalent assessment of the politics of democratic citizenship might be an instructive point of departure for a critical investigation of subaltern politics in contemporary India.

The context in question is one in which dominant and subaltern groups engage in complex processes of struggle, negotiation, and contention over the political economy of democracy and development (Corbridge and Harriss 2000, 2010). And within this context, the political vocabulary of citizenship figures centrally in many of the oppositional projects articulated by subaltern groups in the country today. Dalits (Gorringe 2005; Waghmore 2013),1 poor rural women (Madhok 2013; Sharma 2008), informal sector workers (Agarwala 2013), lower-caste peasantries (Jaffrelot 2003; Michelutti 2008; Witsoe 2013), and Adivasis (Nilsen 2012; Sundar 2011)2 have—in different ways and with different outcomes—articulated rights-based claims that appropriate “the universalizing vocabularies” (Corrigan and Sayer 1985: 7) of the postcolonial Indian state, in which citizenship figures as a foundational idiom (see Jayal 2013). In the process, as Ajantha Subramanian has argued in her remarkable study of the politics of artisanal fishers on the Tamil Nadu coast, these universalizing vocabularies come to be refracted through “regional histories of claims making” and inflected with vernacular “idioms and forms of negotiation” and are thus constantly transformed to such an extent that “the practice of claims making is generative of new understandings and subjects of rights” (2009: 3, 22, 19). This generative dynamic resonates strongly with James Holston’s (2008) concept of “insurgent citizenship”—a term that he has suggested in order to capture the claims-making practices of the urban working classes in Brazil. According to Holston, the rights-based claims of subaltern groups remains conjoined with regnant notions of citizenship, but these claims simultaneously generate new meanings and “unsettles both state and society” (2008: 13). As I go on to argue in this article, the concept also captures important dimensions of Adivasi mobilization in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

However, as much as the crystallization of a subaltern politics of insurgent citizenship has destabilized the hegemonic position of dominant groups in India’s formal democracy and set in train quotidian emancipatory processes in specific locales, there is still something fundamentally partial about this impact. This partialness is manifest above all in the way in which the Indian economy—an economy that spearheads the much-lauded “rise of the South” (UNDP 2013) in the twenty-first century—is defined by a sociodemographic pattern of poverty in which historically marginalized groups such as Dalits, Adivasis, women, small and marginal peasants, and landless and informal sector workers are disproportionately subjected to abject and chronic forms of material deprivation (see, for example, Corbridge and Shah 2013; Kohli 2012; Sen and Drèze 2013; Walker 2008). The sociodemographic patterning of poverty combines with ever-widening inequalities—income inequality in India doubled between 1991 and 2011 (OECD 2011; see also Jayadev et al. 2011; UNDP 2014)—to testify to how subaltern groups remain adversely incorporated into power relations that “reproduce inequality in the distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity” (Mosse 2007: 4). There are good reasons to raise questions about the extent to which subaltern mobilizations around insurgent citizenship in India have in fact resulted in the kind of democratic deepening that would be required to achieve a “sustained (re)allocation of resources and shifting of power relations within which chronic poverty is embedded” (Hickey and Bracking 2005: 851; see also Heller 2000).

In this article, I address this question by considering how Bhil3 Adivasis in the western districts of Madhya Pradesh have organized and mobilized to challenge their adverse incorporation into local and regional state-society relations—the character and origins of which I delineate in the next section of the article. My analysis shows how the emergence of a subaltern politics of insurgent citizenship in the Bhil communities was significant, above all, for enabling a set of emotional and practical transformations that engendered new forms of political subjectivity and agency that substantially democratized state-society relations. Following on from this, I describe how insurgent citizenship in this region was inflected with a discourse centered on idioms of indigeneity, which in turn came to form the basis for a more radical demand for Adivasi self-rule. Ultimately, this claim for sovereignty began to threaten more fundamental relations of class and caste power in the region, and at this point it was quelled through a state-orchestrated campaign of repression. It is in the light of this trajectory that I discuss the ways in and extent to which citizenship is a political idiom that is capable of bringing about real, practical emancipation for subaltern groups in contemporary India.

Poverty and subordination in the Bhil heartland

Adivasis figure prominently among the historically marginalized groups that make up the lion’s share of India’s poor: approximately 44.7 percent of India’s Adivasis were registered as living below the poverty line in 2011, and while constituting only 8 percent of India’s total population, they make up as much as 25 percent of the poorest decile of this population (Mehta et al. 2011; World Bank 2011). In western Madhya Pradesh—and indeed in much of the region that I refer to as the Bhil heartland4—this situation finds its manifestation in the deprivation and hardship that characterizes Bhil livelihoods as they strive to eke out a living as marginal subsistence peasants in the districts of Badwani, Khargone, Alirajpur, and Jhabua or as migrant workers in the informal sector in the neighboring state of Gujarat. Rainfed agriculture on land that is increasingly less fertile due to soil erosion is rarely, if ever, sufficient to sustain households through the year. Labor migration—overwhelmingly to the urban centers of the state of Gujarat in western India—has therefore become a vital survival strategy among the Bhils of western Madhya Pradesh (see Mosse et al. 2002, 2005). In some cases, seasonal migration has provided households with access to higher earnings that can be put to good use (Mosse et al. 2002). However, there is little doubt that the Bhils of western Madhya Pradesh are locked into a “political economy of desperation” (Baviskar 2008: 9) that offers few prospects for stable and secure livelihoods.

In the Bhil communities of western Madhya Pradesh, material deprivation is closely intertwined with political subordination. As I have argued at length elsewhere, local state-society relations have been characterized by what I refer to as a rule of everyday tyranny in which state personnel—police officers, forest guards, revenue officials, and so on—have engaged in violent and extortive practices of corruption that violate even the most basic democratic principles and precepts (see Nilsen 2010, 2012, 2013, 2016). For example, a central dimension of the machinations of everyday tyranny has been the conflict between, on the one hand, Adivasi use of the forest for cultivation, grazing, and as a source of timber for construction, wood for fuel, and minor forest produce for market exchange and, on the other, state ownership and control over forests. The fact that such customary uses of forest resources are illegal has in turn been used by forest guards as a pretext for extracting bribes from the Bhil communities. One Bhil activist explained the workings of these practices as follows: “The forest guards would take chanda as and when it pleased them. Chicken, ghee5—they would just take it from our homes as and when they wished. Even to let us cultivate our fields, they would take chanda” (interview with Suraj, November 2009). The literal meaning of the word chanda is “donation,” but here it is used to refer to how forest guards would demand that villagers give them money, chickens, ghee, and other assets as a matter of right, in exchange for turning a blind eye to their uses of the forest. Indeed, in some cases, giving chanda to the forest guards had become a highly regularized practice in which the patels—the hereditary village headmen—would approach the local forest department outposts with money and other assets on behalf of an entire village. Serving also as the conduit through which the state extended its reach into village communities, the patels would pocket a share of the money collected from the village (interview with Rameshbhai, March 2010).

Everyday tyranny was reproduced over time as fear, deference, and acquiescence combined with the absence of a substantive awareness of civil liberties, democratic rights, and constitutional entitlements to prevent the collective articulation of rights-based claims and demands in opposition to the depredations of the local state. A group of local activists depicted the prevailing perceptions of local state personnel state officials as follows:

They didn’t know and whenever any authority came to their house; they thought that God himself had come. They were very afraid and whenever someone came, they would get even more frightened and start to tremble with fear. If the forest guards or police constables came, then along with the children, even the elders would disappear into their houses. At that time, the looting was extreme and whatever was asked for had to be given to these people. We didn’t know anything about any laws or rules. The patel only would communicate with the sarkar, the forest guards, and the police, and everyone was scared to interfere with what the patel said. They were afraid that if they did interfere, they wouldn’t be allowed to live in the village anymore. If we went to the police outpost, the constables would say: “Why have you come here? Are you the patel? Go back and come with your patel.” They would say like this.

(group interview, February 2010)
A prominent activist from Alirajpur district argued that the everyday tyranny of the state and its officials had come to be entrenched as a tradition in the area—the blatant illegalities of forest guards and police were assumed to be acting in accordance with what was their right: “People, well, they had seen this happen for a long time, even before independence … so there was always a fear of the state, from rule in that sense” (interview with Dediya, April 2010). The everyday tyranny of the local state had become an intrinsic part of daily life for Bhil Adivasis in western Madhya Pradesh (see also Baviskar 1995).

The rule of everyday tyranny undermined citizenship in two very fundamental ways. First of all, local state-society relations were characterized by “the absence of public enforcement of a universal legal order” (Jayal 2000: 26)—in fact, in the encounters between Bhil Adivasis and state personnel, the law itself had become a vehicle that enabled the state to violate the rights of citizens. Second and more fundamentally, the political subordination of Bhil communities to the local state can be said to be expressive of “the absence of the social conditions that make possible the effective exercise of citizenship” as such (27). This absence has to be understood in relation to forms of adverse incorporation in regional structures of class and caste power that were generated through colonial and postcolonial projects of state formation (see Guha 1999; Kela 2012; Skaria 1999).

With the coming of colonialism, the terms of Bhil integration into the regional political economy changed as British rulers went about the business of crafting what Manu Goswami has referred to as “colonial state space” in which diffuse and fluid forms of sovereignty gave way to “territorially comprehensive claims to rule” (2004: 31).6 In this process, pacification and settlement were followed by a concerted drive to develop the fiscal and coercive capacities of the state in relation to Bhil subjects (see Nilsen 2016). In the princely states of what is now western Madhya Pradesh, this process brought about two principal changes in the relationship between Rajput rulers and Bhil polities. First, military pacification and settlement changed the balance of power between princely rulers and Bhils, and there was little incentive for Rajput courts to comply with the agreements that had been struck with Bhil chieftains (see Skaria 1999: 174). Second, the development of the fiscal and coercive capacities of the state brought into being the ensemble of institutions—first and foremost police and forest departments—through which this new balance of power has found one of its principal manifestations, namely in the rule of everyday tyranny in quotidian state-society relations (see Guha 1999). The coming of independence did little to change this scenario. As the Congress Party integrated former princely rulers into its ranks, these elites were capable of reproducing their hegemonic position in relation to subaltern groups in the context of what John Harriss (1999: 3371) has labeled a political regime in which “upper caste/ class dominance has persisted” (see Jaffrelot 2009). The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) rise to power in the state has done little, if anything, to substantially change these equations (see Jaffrelot 2009).

Thus when movements such as the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan, and the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan started mobilizing to challenge the disenfranchisement and subordination of Bhil communities in western Madhya Pradesh from the early 1980s onward, they were in effect confronting a state-society relationship that had crystallized across historical time and spatial scales and was congealed from a regional structure of caste and class power. In the next section, I investigate how one of these movements—the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS; Organization for Adivasi Liberation)—mobilized a politics of insurgent citizenship in opposition to everyday tyranny and discuss the ways in which this mobilization animated affective and practical transformations that gave rise to new forms of oppositional subjectivity and agency in Bhil communities and significantly democratized local state-society relations in Badwani and Khargone districts during the 1990s.

Insurgent citizenship against everyday tyranny

[People] would say that the state’s arm is big and long. It was later on that we realized that, in reality, the state’s arm is long because we are the ones who have voted and made the state—then we should also know what the law is, right? Later on we realized that they are making fools of us, so how is the state’s arm long?

(interview, February 2010)

This is how Govindbhai, an AMS activist from the western part of Khargone district, described the impact of the Sangathan’s mobilization on local political culture and local state-society relations. His statement is significant, because it suggests that a considerable change took place in the way in which Bhil villagers perceived and related to the state. According to the received wisdom of everyday tyranny, the state and its personnel were all-powerful and could impose coercive demands on communities at will. What Govindbhai’s statement points to, however, is an understanding of the state as an institution that derives its powers, its legitimacy, and indeed its very being from citizens and their participation in democratic processes.

The roots of this reversal of the grammar of everyday tyranny can be traced to the early 1990s, when two urban middle-class activists with a background from the Communist Party of India as well as from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) arrived in the market town of Sendhwa to start organizing among the Bhil communities in the district.7 The two activists were immediately struck by how tribals in the area were subject to the coercive extortions of what one of them—Bijoybhai—called an “unholy nexus” of forest guards, patwaris (revenue officials), and moneylenders, and that the dominance of this nexus was secured by the fear that it inspired among the Bhils (interview, November 2009). This realization in turn shaped the way in which they approached the challenge of building a movement in the area: “So our initial strategy was to create a situation where people can have their own voice before anything. So that was the motive behind the organization” (interview, November 2009).

The initial phase of mobilization was mediated through the Kasturba Gandhi ashram located just outside Sendhwa town. The two activists established links with village communities around Sendhwa and facilitated dialogues between representatives of these communities and the activists of other Adivasi movements—for example, the Kashtakari Sangathana in Thane district of Maharashtra. Subsequently, a collective decision was made that the AMS would be launched with a protest that would demand that local authorities rectify their neglect of schools and provide drinking water in the Bhil communities. The activists conducted a survey of some 26 villages and documented that schools were not being run according to writ and that even in drought years the authorities were not providing water to the villages. Then, in early May 1992, the AMS proceeded to organize a rally that attracted as many as 5,000 people to protest in front of the tehsil offices in Sendhwa. Participants gave fiery speeches that condemned the authorities’ neglect of basic needs in tribal areas, and women who had brought along clay pots that would normally be used for storing water smashed these on the staircase of the teh sil office.8 Responding to the protestors, the tehsildar9—a man who otherwise inspired fear among the Bhils—promised that he would see to it that their complaints and demands were addressed (interview with Bijoybhai, November 2009).

The protest had a tangible impact that enabled the mobilization to gather momentum. Bamniya, one of the most seasoned Bhil activists in the AMS, explained the changes that occurred as follows:

Slowly, wherever there was no access to good drinking water, [the tehsildar] immediately made arrangements for water on bullock carts, and where hand pumps were possible, they were dug. Wherever there were schools without teachers, arrangements for teachers were made, wherever nurses weren’t there, they were sent. It was like this in the beginning … and if it wasn’t coming then we would complain again, and so slowly things like this started happening routinely.

The outcome was that “people’s work was getting done, so people thought there was strength in the Sangathan, and the sarkar, the government workers, they [became] afraid of the Sangathan.” And “at that point,” Bamniya argued, “people thought: No, bhai,10 there is strength in the Sangathan and when it fights, there are results, it works.” For this reason the Sangathan spread in the whole area” (interview, November 2009). Gradually, the Sangathan took on the malpractices of the revenue officials, police corruption and brutality, the corrupt exactions of the forest guards, land alienation at the hands of moneylenders, and the criminal business networks of the liquor mafia in the district. By the middle of the 1990s, it had become a force to be reckoned with, wielding a presence in 500 villages spread across three blocks of Khargone district (see also Baviskar 2001).

By confronting the multiple ways in which the everyday tyranny of the local state violated core democratic precepts, the activism of the AMS changed the terms on which the state was present in the everyday lives of Bhil communities. Reflecting on how forest guards had previously demanded bribes unopposed, Suraj argued: “When the Sangathan came into being, then the realization came that this was all wrong and the awareness of our rights was generated. We should not give money and chickens. In the government, the functionaries are the servants of the public” (interview, November 2009). Indeed, when activists reflected on how their understanding of the state had changed as a consequence of their participation in the AMS, they would point out how they had gained a new awareness of democratic rights and about constitutional entitlements for Scheduled Tribes. What occurred in the Bhil communities of Khar gone was that the state became more familiar and more accountable to subaltern groups who were increasingly able to “engage with the state as citizens, or as members of populations with legally defined rights or politically inspired expectations” (Corbridge et al. 2005: 13).

However, the democratization of local state-society relations cannot be adequately understood as being propelled simply by an ideational or cognitive transformation—that is, as a process of change animated by the emergence of a rights-based consciousness that enabled subaltern groups to conceive of their relationship to the state in different and quintessentially democratic terms. Scholars of social movements have noted for some time how emotions are at the very core of mobilization.11 “Cognitive liberation”—a term proposed by Doug McAdam (1982: 48–51) to highlight the significance of changes in the subjective meanings that people attach to their situations during mobilization—is, as Jasper (1998: 415–416) has pointed out, a process suffused with emotions. And this insight is highly relevant to our understanding of the emergence of a politics of insurgent citizenship in the Bhil heartland, for this process was fundamentally predicated on a transformation of the “emotional habitus” (Gould 2009: 32)—that is, the “collective and only partly conscious emotional dispositions” held by a given social group—fostered by the everyday tyranny of the local state.

Hence Bhil activists would often refer to their experience of becoming active with the AMS in emotional and affective terms: “In the beginning, when I started to muster up the courage to speak to the police, the thanedar, the patwaris—then my fears began to go away,” explained one activist (interview, February 2010). As I pointed out in the previous section, the reproduction of everyday tyranny over time was predicated in large part on a specific emotional disposition centered on fear and deference in relation to the state. This disposition was in turn rooted in the actual experience of violence and coercion at the hands of state personnel. What is significant about participation in mobilization is that it came to constitute an experiential counter-weight to everyday tyranny. The victories that were won and the concessions that were gained in confrontations with the state and its representatives—no matter how small or partial—gave rise to a “structure of feeling” (Williams 1977) centered on courage and defiance that drove the transformation of the emotional habitus that shaped interactions between Bhil communities and the state and its representatives. Thus a senior female activist posed a rhetorical question: “What should I be afraid of? Because of roaming [with the Sangathan] every day, the fear has left me. I have even gone to jail and back and I’m not even afraid of the jail!” (interview with Barlibai, November 2009). As a result of this transformation, the state gradually started to appear less as an institution that was to be feared and obeyed and increasingly as an institution that could be challenged and that had to be responsive to the claims and demands of subaltern groups: “Yes, change has happened and the fear that we can’t speak, today that fear has gone away” (interview with Bhimsingh, March 2010).

Furthermore, the emotional and affective transformation that rendered the state less fearsome in the eyes of Bhil Adivasis in the area was linked to other changes that similarly point to the fact that coming to engage with the state as citizens was not simply a question of imbibing a set of abstract ideas that cast the state and its personnel in a different and democratic light. Rather, it was also a matter of acquiring practical skills and knowledge that made the state and its workings less opaque. Prior to the advent of mobilization, the state apparatus and its internal bureaucratic procedures had been obscure and unfamiliar to most ordinary Bhils. Activists would typically recount how they lacked the skills and knowledge that were necessary to access the state—for example, with complaints about the wrongdoings and malpractices of public servants: “At that time we didn’t know how to complain. Nobody was with us to show us the right path. Who should complain? How should we talk? All this we didn’t know” (interview with Ramsingh, February 2010). The lack of practical skills and knowledge was compounded by the fact that relations between village communities on the one hand and the state and its personnel on the other were mediated via the patels, who, as I pointed out above, were deeply embedded in the networks of corruption that were integral to the rule of everyday tyranny: “We were completely dependent on the patel. If anyone brought up any matter, then whatever the patel said was regarded to be the truth. That time, the patel was the dalal also”12 (interview with Ramsingh, February 2010). For Bhil activists, their involvement with the AMS meant that they started to acquire the skills and the knowledge they needed to engage competently with the local state apparatus; for example, Barlibai emphasized how she had learned “the way in which to talk, how to talk to officers and authorities, how to get the work done, this knowledge I have got. I got this learning” (interview, March 2010).

In a recent intervention in the debate over the progressive potential of citizenship as a political idiom, Alpa Shah has argued that it is necessary to recognize a fundamental paradox, namely that “liberal notions of citizenship … both enable but also perhaps potentially limit the space for a more radical politics” (2013: 92). Thus in the context of the Maoist movement in central and eastern India, Shah argues, the invocation of liberal rights and idioms of citizenship—whether explicitly in civil liberties activism or implicitly in the strategic repertoires of the Maoists—might have the effect of “limiting the possibilities of seeing and promoting alternative, and more radical possibilities of understanding people’s relationship with each other in the social relations that can be nurtured in these guerrilla zones” (106). This point is, of course, of considerable merit, and I return to it in my concluding comments. However, one of the most substantive achievements of the AMS and its politics of insurgent citizenship was undoubtedly the emotional and practical transformations that I have described above. These transformations ignited the process that gave rise to oppositional subjectivities and oppositional forms of agency in a context where the compulsions of subalternity left little scope for anything but following the path of least resistance. Seen in this light, these “acts of citizenship” (Isin and Nielsen 2008) might be thought of as a form of “catalytic work” (Nilsen 2010) that opens up a field of political possibility, and which can constitute a foundation on which counterhegemonic imaginaries can be constructed.

Insurgent citizenship, contested sovereignty, and state repression

The political trajectory of the AMS offers an interesting perspective on the relationship between citizenship and utopia—a central concern in this special section. On the one hand, and as I showed above, notions of being a citizen endowed with rights were central to the democratization of local state-society relations in Khargone district. This obviously belies Partha Chatterjee’s (2004) argument that subaltern politics in contemporary India unfolds in the domain of “political society” through a manipulation of technologies of rule rather than through rights-based claims, as well as his assertion that Adivasis “represent an outside beyond the boundaries of political society” (2008: 61).13 However, as Holston (2008) points out, the making of insurgent citizenship also transcends standard liberal precepts and is imbued with more expansive meanings that reflect the situated needs, desires, and interests of subaltern groups as these are articulated in determinate locales. In this sense, insurgent citizenship can be compared to what Robin Dunford and Sumi Madhok (2015: 605) call “vernacular rights cultures”—that is, claims for rights “that are inflected with the particular cultures, histories and contexts of political mobilization” (see also Madhok 2010). In and through this process idioms of citizenship may also come to be imbued with more utopian conceptions of alternative sociopolitical orders that exceed the parameters of liberal democratic discourse. In the case of the politics of the AMS, this dynamic found expression in a specific interpretation of the discourse of citizenship. Although the imaginary that took shape stops short of the sacral polity that Shah (2010) finds to be significant to the political lifeworlds of Munda Adivasis in Jharkhand, Bhil activists came to think of themselves not so much in terms of the citizen as a bearer of universal rights but more in terms of the figure of the Adivasi as a victim of historical injustices.

In Bhimsingh’s narrative of his participation in the AMS, this becomes evident in how he reflects on the knowledge that he acquired about India’s democracy: “We got to know about the rules and the law within our training and we realized that our independence is yet to be completed—it has been left midway only.” He continued as follows: “The country may be independent but we are not … Our feeling is that our independence is partial till now” (interview, March 2010). His claim that independence is incomplete and partial for Adivasis indicates that there is something particular about the political subordination of tribals in Indian society, which in turn alludes to the specific particular trajectory of disenfranchisement that has occurred in the Bhil heartland. Closely related to this was a strong claim for the restoration of Adivasi rights and sovereignty:

Whether it is the state or some leader, everything should belong to us—then only will our rule be established. This was the Sangathan. After that, the land, jungle, and water belong to us. Bhai, when you are living there, then everything here including the river and well belong to us. Yes, we do have the right to cut trees; you do not. We have the right to irrigate our lands. You all live there, not here like us. On everything we should have rights.

(interview, March 2010)
Bhimsingh’s arguments is expressive of the how—by the middle of the 1990s—the AMS shifted the focus of attention from challenging specific forms of exploitation and oppression to developing a more explicitly counterhegemonic project through the articulation of a demand for Adivasi self-rule—embodied in the slogan hamare gaon mein, hamara raj (our rule in our villages). These efforts coalesced with the enactment of the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA), which was intended to devolve powers of governance to the level of village councils in Scheduled Areas. What PESA did was to provide the AMS with a means of institutionalizing Adivasi empowerment that was sanctified by the legislative powers of the highest authority in the land.

This was arguably a point at which the AMS was on the verge of becoming a threat to the sovereignty of the state and entrenched structures of caste and class power in the region. Naturally, this worried the regional political elite. Subhash Yadav—the deputy chief minister in Digvijay Singh’s Congress government and member of the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly from the constituency of Kasaravad in Khargone district—started to take notice of how the AMS was mounting a challenge that might come to threaten his power base in the region. The response came in the form of a highly coordinated campaign of repression that had a devastating effect on the Sangathan (see Baviskar 2001; Nilsen 2012).14

To carry out this campaign, Yadav struck up an alliance with Jhagdia Patel, a Bhil Adivasi who was president of the Bhagwanpura Congress Committee and the hereditary headman of Kabri village. The AMS had already fallen foul of Jhagdia Patel in 1996, when its activists declared a ban on the sale of liquor during the Indal celebrations in Kabri.15 Patel had reaped handsome profits for liquor trading for a number of years and took strong exception to this move by the Sangathan. Throughout the year, AMS activists were subject to brutal attacks organized by Jhagdia Patel. By the end of the year, Patel had obtained the support of the deputy chief minister and formed an outfit named Adivasi Samaj Sudhar Shanti Sena (or Shanti Sena—Peace Army—for short) to counter the rise of the AMS. At the same time as the Shanti Sena started to carry out a series of attacks on AMS activists throughout the eastern parts of Khargone, Subhash Yadav made several public appearances in which he declared that the Sangathan was a Naxalite organization that should be fought by any means necessary.16 Groups from the Shanti Sena moved around in the area escorted by police forces, and AMS activists were subjected to a spate of arrests on trumped-up charges.

The campaign of repression reached its climax during August and September 1997. Jhagdia Patel was hunted down and killed by a group of men headed by an AMS activist whose wife had been gang-raped by a posse from the Shanti Sena. In response, Subhash Yadav declared that the Shanti Sena should redouble its efforts to recruit more members and ordered the police to post five armed guards in each village to counter the AMS. More attacks on Sangathan strongholds followed, in which there was evident collusion between the Shanti Sena, state police, the forest department, and troops from the Special Action Force. Ultimately, the AMS leadership convinced the men who were responsible for the murder of Jhagdia Patel to surrender to the police—a decision that eventually resulted in the custodial death of the AMS activist who had spearheaded the retaliatory action against Jhagdia Patel. Attacks continued into 1998, and the AMS suffered substantial setbacks: “In the heydays,” Bijoybhai reflected, “we were having more than 60 [full-time activists]; and after that repression, after two years of that repression, we slid down to six” (interview, November 2009).

Above all else, the campaign of repression that quelled the advance of the AMS constitutes an example of how, in certain conjunctures, political and bureaucratic elites are able to close ranks across spatial scales, from the upper echelons of the state government down to local administration and police, in order to fend off challenges from below. Moreover, as Nandini Sundar notes in a perceptive comment, the formation of the Shanti Sena is representative of how state repression can proceed by “creating armed gangs from ‘civil society’ … The government can then claim it is helpless, and even better, point to the violence as evidence that the movement in question does not enjoy a mass base” (2012a: 250)—a strategy which has so far found its most deplorable manifestation in the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh (see Sundar 2012b).17 This is, of course, a distinct counterpoint to the democratizing advances that I discussed in the previous section of this article, and it is precisely this—the superior ability of dominant groups to mobilize coercion both through the state and through civil society—that ultimately limits the scope of counterhegemonic projects centered on insurgent citizenship. And the ability of dominant groups to mobilize coercion in this way is expressive of how colonial and postcolonial processes of state formation have inscribed a certain balance of class and caste power into the political regime that prevails in Madhya Pradesh.

Concluding remarks

So what was the “real, practical emancipation” brought about by the politics of insurgent citizenship among the Bhils of western Madhya Pradesh? The best possible response to this question is perhaps contained in the following statement from an AMS activist who reflected on the changes brought about by mobilization: “Due to the Sangathan, at least our people have learnt to talk” (interview with Barlibai, November 2009). Barlibai’s statement echoes that of many other AMS activists, and reflects the fact that subaltern groups have emerged as confident and skillful political subjects capable of asserting themselves and demanding accountability from the local state and its representatives. The results of this change were tangible: “The looting by the forest guards and the patwari has stopped. We don’t have to give bribes to get work done anymore. Chickens, ghee, and money—this they don’t demand now. The kind of looting that was happening earlier, that has stopped. Because of the Sangathan, there have been improvements in all these areas” (interview, November 2009). The rule of everyday tyranny has been curbed and local state-society relations have been democratized in significant measure.

At the same time, the trajectory of the AMS reveals something very significant about the politics of rights-based claims making—namely, that “the struggles of dominated peoples, even when they are expressed in terms of right and rights, exceed right; they speak, in the final analysis, of something else” (Kouvelakis 2005: 117). In the case of the Sangathan, this something else took the form of a demand for Adivasi self-rule. This was a point at which the politics of insurgent citizenship was poised to become something more than a claim for rightful inclusion in a democratic state by challenging more directly the structure of power relations that had crystallized between dominant and subaltern groups in the region during the longue durée of colonial and postcolonial state formation. Yet it was also a conjuncture in which the politics of insurgent citizenship encountered its “internal, structural limit” (Kouvelakis 2005: 117)—a limit that is discernible in the ability of dominant groups to mobilize coercive responses to the ways in which subalterns pursue rightful claims for political participation in directions that threaten to destabilize the mutually constitutive relationship between state and nonstate power that is condensed in the institutional apparatuses of political and bureaucratic governance.

The challenge that confronts us, then, is that of thinking about how to move beyond the internal, structural limit of the politics of insurgent citizenship without jettisoning its potential for real, practical emancipation. My central argument in this article has been that this potential resides in the ways in which subaltern claims for democratic inclusion can animate the emergence of the emotional dispositions and practical skills that constitute the kernel of oppositional political subjectivities and agency—particularly in a context where adverse incorporation is manifest in de facto disenfranchisement. Fecund routes toward political forms that can bring those impulses that exceed a politics of rights to fruition are not immediately given but might be charted through a critical comparative interrogation of the trajectories and outcomes of subaltern struggles that—as John Harriss (1999) points to in his analysis of different political regimes across Indian states—have managed—in various ways and to different extents—to rupture the power of dominant class and caste groups.

Notes

1

The term “Dalit” (meaning literally “oppressed” or “crushed”) refers to the former untouchable caste groups, designated as Scheduled Castes according to the Indian Constitution.

2

The term “Adivasi” literally means “first inhabitant” and was coined during the 1930s by tribal rights activists to express their claim to being the indigenous people of India. The Indian government does not recognize Adivasis as being indigenous people but defines Adivasi communities as belonging to the category of Scheduled Tribes as per the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Indian Constitution. The Fifth and Sixth Schedules—schedules are basically lists in the Constitution that categorize and tabulate bureaucratic activity and policy of the government—provide an array of protective legislation, special entitlements, and reservations for Adivasis.

3

The Bhils are one of the major Adivasi groups of western and central India. Consisting of multiple subgroups such as Bhilalas, Barelas, and Naiks, the Bhils inhabit the largely hilly regions of northwestern Maharashtra, eastern Gujarat, southern Rajasthan, and western Madhya Pradesh. For the sake of simplicity, I use the term Bhil Adivasis to refer to Bhils, Bhilalas, and Barelas in this article.

4

I use the term “Bhil heartland” to refer to the largely hilly parts of northwestern Maharashtra, eastern Gujarat, southern Rajasthan, and western Madhya Pradesh in which India’s Bhil Adivasis are concentrated. The Bhils constitute one of India’s major Adivasi groups and consists of several subgroups, such as Bhilalas, Barelas, and Naiks.

5

Ghee is a type of clarified butter that is used in cooking.

6

Goswami posits colonial state space as a state-making project that came to the fore with the transition from company to crown rule in the aftermath of the Great Uprising of 1857. However, its key features—a remaking of the economic geography to enable surplus extraction and a restructuring of political authority to enable undisputed rule across a clearly demarcated territory—were clearly also central to the establishment of colonial power in the Bhil heartland from 1818 onward.

7

The intervention of urban middle class activists is a general feature of most of the grassroots organizations that emerged in the tribal region of western India from the 1970s onward to the 1990s (see Nilsen 2010; Kamat 2002).

8

A tehsil is a subdistrict in the Indian administrative system.

9

The tehsildar is the government officer in charge of the tehsil.

10

The word bhai means “brother” and is commonly used in Hindi conversation to refer to the person one is speaking to. It is also commonly added to names—such as Govindbhai and Bijoybhai—to denote closeness and friendship.

11

The scholarship on emotions in social movements is much too vast to engage with in any detail here, but see Jasper 1998 and Goodwin et al. 2000, 2001, 2004 for some of the key contributions. Gould (2009) expands on these early innovations in her fascinating study of ACT UP and AIDS activism in the United States. In the Indian context, Naisaragi Dave (2012) and Srila Roy (2015) have made signal contributions to the study of the affective dimensions of subaltern politics.

12

The word dalal means “broker” and is used to refer to a person who mediates relations between ordinary villagers and state or political actors.

13

See Sundar 2011 for a particularly apposite critique of this aspect of Chatterjee’s argument.

14

Constraints of space rule out a detailed account of the repression of the AMS. See Nilsen 2012: 268–271 for a more comprehensive narrative of events.

15

Indal is one of the most important festivals of the Bhils.

16

The term “Naxalite” refers to the Maoist guerilla movement that is operative throughout large parts of eastern India.

17

The Salwa Judum is a vigilante outfit that was started around 2006 to counter the advance of Maoism in Bastar district in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh. Orchestrated and supported by the state and local political leaders, the outfit drew its rank-and-file members from Adivasi communities. The Salwa Judum was declared illegal by the Indian Supreme Court in 2011, but according to Nandini Sundar (2016) the outfit continues under other guises today.

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Contributor Notes

Dr. Alf Gunvald Nilsen is associate professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen and visiting senior researcher at the Society, Work, and Development Institute, University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of Dispossession and resistance in India: The river and the rage (Routledge, 2010) and co-author of We make our own history: Marxism and social movements in the twilight of neoliberalism (Pluto Press, 2014). He has also co-edited numerous volumes on social movement research, most recently New subaltern politics: Reconceptualizing hegemony and resistance in contemporary India (Oxford University Press, 2015) and Social movements and the state in India: Deepening democracy? (Palgrave, 2016). Email: Alf.Nilsen@uib.no

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Agarwala, Rina. 2013. Informal labor, formal politics, and dignified discontent in India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Baviskar, Amita. 1995. In the belly of the river: Tribal conflicts over water in the Narmada Valley. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chatterjee, Partha. 2008. Democracy and economic transformation in India. Economic and Political Weekly 43(16): 5362.

  • Corbridge, Stuart, and John Harriss. 2000. Reinventing India: Liberalization, Hindu nationalism and popular democracy. Cambridge: Polity.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Corbridge, Stuart, and John Harriss. 2010. The continuing reinvention of India. In Sengupta Chandan and Stuart Corbridge, eds., Democracy, decentralisation and development in India, pp. 3859, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Heller, Patrick. 2000. Degrees of democracy: Some comparative lessons from India. World Politics 52(4): 484519.

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    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2003. The silent revolution: The rise of the lower castes in North India. London: C. Hurst.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jasper, James M. 1998. The emotions of protest: Affective and reactive emotions in and around social movements. Sociological Forum 13(3): 397424.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jayadev, Arjun, Sripad Motiram, and Vamsi Vakulabharanam. 2011. Patterns of wealth disparities in India since the 1990s. In Sanjay Ruparelia, Sanjay Reddy, John Harriss, and Stuart Corbridge, eds., Understanding India’s new political economy: A great transformation? pp. 81100. London: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jayal, Niraja Gopal. 2000. Democracy and the state: Welfare, secularism and development in contemporary India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jayal, Niraja Gopal. 2013. Citizenship and its discontents: An Indian story. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • Kamat, Sangeeta. 2002. Development hegemony: NGOs and the state in India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

  • Kela, Shashank. 2012. A rogue and peasant slave: Adivasi resistance, 1800–2000. New Delhi: Navayana.

  • Kohli, Atul. 2012. Poverty amid plenty in the new India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Kouvelakis, Stathis. 2005. The Marxian critique of citizenship: For a rereading of On the Jewish question. South Atlantic Quarterly 104(4): 707721.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Madhok, Sumi. 2013. Poverty, entitlement and citizenship: Vernacular rights cultures in Southern Asia. In Sylvia Chant, ed., The international handbook on gender and poverty, pp. 638643. London: Edward Elgar.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marx, Karl. [1843] 1992. Early writings. London, Penguin.

  • McAdam, Doug. 1982. Political process and the development of clack insurgency, 1930–1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Mehta, Aasha Kapur, Andrew Shepherd, Shashanka Bhide, Amita Shah, and Anand Kumar. 2011. India chronic poverty report: Towards solutions and new compacts in a dynamic context. New Delhi: Indian Institute of Public Administration.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
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