Political Economy and the Novel
Alf Nilsen, Political Modernity in the Postcolony

Adivasis and the State

by Alf Nilsen on August 23, 2018

How is subalternity both constituted and contested in and through state-society relations in India today? This is the question at the heart of my new book, Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartland, which is being published in the series South Asia in the Social Sciences, with Cambridge University Press and was also the subject of a recent presentation which I gave to the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

As the title of the book suggests, I investigate this question through a study of how Adivasis negotiate their relationship to the state as they organize and mobilize to challenge forms of political subordination that have sedimented across historical time in rural western India. The case study, of course, is not random: as impoverished subsistence cultivators and brutally exploited migrant workers, Adivasis figure very prominently among the historically marginalized groups who make up the lion’s share of India’s poor. However, their poverty is not only an expression of economic marginality. It is also a result of the fact that Adivasis tend to occupy a subordinate position in state-society relations. This limits their ability to make collective rights-based claims for redistribution and recognition on political authorities. So what happens when – against all odds – they act as citizens and do just this?

In Adivasis and the State, I begin to answer this question by investigating the nature of political subordination in Bhil Adivasis communities in western Madhya Pradesh. Local state-society relations in this area were characterized by what I call a rule of everyday tyranny in which state personnel – police officers, forest guards, revenue officials and so on – engaged in violent and extortive forms of corruption that violated even the most basic democratic precepts. A small Adivasi elite of hereditary headmen and elected village representatives mediated these exactions and would pocket a share of the bribes that were extracted. In my book, I show how everyday tyranny fostered a local rationality in which ordinary Bhils would defer to local state personnel and acquiesce in their coercive demands.

This local rationality, in turn, was reproduced over time. “People – well, they had seen this happen for a long time, even before independence,” one Adivasi activist told me. “So there was always a fear of the state, from rule in that sense.” Drawing on a Gramscian conceptualization of state formation as a hegemonic process, I locate the origins of this scenario in the making of colonial state space in rural western India from the early 1820s to the late colonial era. This process, I argue, subordinated Bhil Adivasis to the singular sovereignty of princely rulers and colonial authorities, as well as to predatory administrative apparatuses that soon began to impose exactions on local communities.

I also document how Bhil Adivasis contested the adverse consequences of colonial state-making across western India during a long and rebellious century. When they revolted, they mobilized various moral economies of rule – precolonial, colonial, nationalist – and attempted to pit different parts of the state that they confronted against each other. Ultimately, however, these contentious negotiations were inconsequential. Political subordination persisted and was further entrenched after the coming of independence as a result of how the Congress party constructed its electoral hegemony through alliances with princely rulers and dominant caste groups in the region.

I then turn to a fine-grained analysis of how Bhil Adivasis have come together in local social movements to democratize local state-society relations since the early 1980s. How was it possible, I ask first of all, for communities living under everyday tyranny to engage in acts of citizenship? To address this question, I detail a series of encounters that took place as middle class activists and Bhil Adivasis grouped together to challenge the misconduct of state personnel. These encounters worked as catalytic events that generated the moral courage necessary in order to claim the right to have rights in relation to the local state. Mobilization also fostered reciprocal emotions of trust, solidarity, and friendship that added momentum to the two movements I investigate – the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS). Moral courage and such reciprocal emotions, I argue, gave rise to oppositional local rationalities and a new activist ethos in the Bhil Adivasi communities of western Madhya Pradesh.

My analysis of the struggle to democratize local state-society relations is fundamentally concerned with developing a nuanced understanding of how subaltern resistance is channelled through the legal and political idioms of hegemony – more specifically, the universalizing vocabularies of India’s postcolonial democracy. Contrary to Partha Chatterjee’s argument that subaltern groups tend to mobilize to gain tacit acceptance for illegalities, I show how this activism aimed to ensure that legality prevailed in local state-society relations. And, again contrary to Chatterjee, I suggest that by organizing opposition and aggregating Adivasi grievances into rights-based claims and demands, the KMCS and the AMS carved out a space in which democratic transactions could take place. What this suggests, I argue, is that mobilization on the terrain of civil society shapes and reshapes both the political subjectivities of subalterns and the workings of India’s democracy. Similarly, with regard to citizenship, I focus on how subaltern resistance inflects hegemonic idioms with meanings that exceed the confines of the liberal mould. For example, mobilizations by the KMCS and the AMS for local self-rule has enabled Bhil Adivasis to articulate rights-based claims in terms of a collective identity, centred on the dispossession of natural resources and the claim to have the rights to these resources restored through the restitution of Adivasi sovereignty. Crucially, local self-rule was claimed as an antidote to the injustice of dispossession and disenfranchisement. This inflected the idiom of citizenship and the claim for justice for Adivasis with insurgent meanings that exceeded both that which is purely governmental and that which is purely liberal.

Such advances, however, provoked fierce backlash from above. In the last chapter of the book, I decipher the politics of coercion mobilized by political elites, dominant caste groups, and local Adivasi strongmen in response to the collective action of the KMCS and the AMS. Aiming to show how the patterned workings of the state underpin the reproduction of hegemonic formations, I focus on how dominant groups constantly traverse the border between what Gramsci called civil and political society as they mobilize coercion: at times, they rely on the coercive apparatuses of the state; at other times, they resort to vigilante groups linked to political parties such as Congress and the BJP. In either case, I argue, the politics of coercion testifies to the significance of how state formation as a hegemonic process gave rise to configurations of power that endure across time.

Adivasis and the State ends with an extended reflection on how it might be possible to move beyond the impasses that movements like the KMCS and the AMS have encountered in their confrontations with structures of upper class and upper caste power entrenched in the state. I argue for the need to incorporate law-based mobilization in a strategy of non-reformist reform that links Adivasis and other subaltern groups, and that straddles the divide between social movements and political parties. Such a scenario is not at all unimaginable, for as Adivasis and the State so clearly demonstrates, it is entirely possible for subaltern groups to emerge as oppositional political subjects against the most unfavourable odds.

*The set image for this post reproduces the photography of Sohrab Hura, which also appears on the cover of Adivasis and the State.

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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