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Insurgent Citizenship and Subaltern Politics in Contemporary India

by Alf Nilsen on January 11, 2017
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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.

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. What I think is significant about this passage is not only the well-known and well-worn distinction between political emancipation and human emancipation, but also Marx’s clear understanding that, despite its limitations, formal political equality – a form of equality embodied in the citizen and citizenship –constituted a form of emancipation to be reckoned with.

In a recent article in the journal Focaal, I argue that this 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. 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. This scenario resonates strongly with James Holston’s analysis of the claims-making practices of the urban working classes in Brazil. According to his analysis, the rights-based claims of subaltern groups remains conjoined with regnant notions of citizenship, but these claims simultaneously generate new and expanded meanings that unsettle state-society relations and push in the direction of progressive social change.

However, as much as the crystallisation of a subaltern politics of insurgent citizenship has destabilised 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 is defined by a sociodemographic pattern of poverty in which historically marginalised 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. Significantly, this sociodemographic patterning of poverty combines with ever-widening inequalities – indeed, income inequality in India doubled between 1991 and 2011.

In other words, there are good reasons to raise questions about the extent to which subaltern mobilisations around insurgent citizenship in India have resulted in the kind of democratic deepening that would be required to challenge the power relations that generate chronic poverty and deep inequalities.

In my article, I address these questions by considering how Bhil Adivasis in the western districts of Madhya Pradesh have organised and mobilised to challenge their adverse incorporation into local and regional state-society relations. Adivasis figure prominently among the historically marginalised groups that make up the lion’s share of India’s poor. In western Madhya Pradesh this situation finds its manifestation in the deprivation and hardship that characterises Bhil livelihoods as they strive to eke out a living as marginal subsistence peasants or as migrant workers in the informal sector in the neighboring state of Gujarat. In the Bhil communities of western Madhya Pradesh, material deprivation is closely intertwined with political subordination. Local state-society relations have been characterised 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. 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.

When the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS: Organisation for Adivasi Liberation) began to challenge everyday tyranny in the early 1990s, they did so by confronting the multiple ways in which the everyday tyranny of the local state violated core democratic precepts. They challenged corruption, demanded that legality should prevail in local state-society relations, and ensured that the local state delivered the development interventions that local communities were entitled to. 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. Crucially, 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 constitutional entitlements for Adivasis. Significantly, the change that took place was not simply ideational or cognitive – it was also fundamentally emotional: activists would continually speak of how their fear of the state and its personnel had evaporated as a result of participating in activism.

As the AMS gathered momentum, the scope and nature of its oppositional project widened and deepened. By the middle of the 1990s, the movement linked its activities to a national campaign that eventually resulted in legislation that was intended to bring about a measure of local self-rule for Adivasis. Embodied in the slogan “hamare gaon mein, hamara raj” – our rule in our villages – the new legislation provided the AMS with a means of institutionalising Adivasi empowerment that was sanctified by the legislative powers of the highest authority in the land. As I show in my article, this phase of the movement’s trajectory also gave rise to a specific interpretation of the discourse of citizenship. 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 this way, the idiom of citizenship came to be inflected with insurgent meanings that exceeded the limits of liberal idioms and pointed in the direction of a more radical counterhegemonic project.

This, however, was also the moment when the state mobilised coercion to halt the advance of the AMS. In my article, I detail how leading figures in the Congress party in Madhya Pradesh struck up alliances with local strongmen in the Adivasi communities to organise and support a vigilante group that carried out attacks against AMS strongholds. During a yearlong campaign of repression, villages were burned, women were raped, and activists were imprisoned and murdered in police custody. Moreover, the various arms and echelons of the administration worked in concert to prevent the movement from accessing protection and justice from the state. The AMS was driven on the defensive, and has never been able to recover the ground it lost during this period.

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 mobilisation: “Due to the Sangathan, at least our people have learnt to talk.” Her statement 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. At the same time, the trajectory of the AMS reveals something very significant about the politics of rights-based claims making – namely, as Stathis Kouvelakis has put it, that even when subaltern struggles are articulated in terms of rights-based claims “they speak, in the final analysis, of something else”.

In the case of the AMS, this something else took the form of a demand for Adivasi self-rule. At this point, the politics of insurgent citizenship began to challenge more directly the structure of power relations that had crystallised between dominant and subaltern groups in the region during the longue durée of colonial and postcolonial state formation. It was also a point, however, in which the movement encountered a structural limit in the form of the ability of dominant groups to mobilise coercion across both political and civil society. 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. As I argue in my article, routes toward political forms that can bring those impulses that exceed a politics of rights to fruition are not immediately given. However, they might be charted through a critical comparative interrogation of the trajectories and outcomes of subaltern struggles that – in various ways and to different extents – attempt to rupture the power of dominant class and caste groups in postcolonial India.

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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