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On Subaltern Politics and State Formation in the Longue Durée

by Alf Nilsen on May 27, 2015

How do the oppositional political projects of subaltern groups engage with the state? This very basic question has been at the heart of my research for a long time, and it is also the core concern of an article that I recently published in Journal of Contemporary Asia, with the title “Subalterns and the State in the Longue Durée: Notes from the “Rebellious Century” in the Bhil Heartland”.

My point of departure in this article is the argument that Partha Chatterjee has been making in his recent work on popular politics in postcolonial India – namely that “the spread of governmental technologies in India in the last three decades, as a result of the deepening reach of the developmental state under conditions of electoral democracy, has meant that the state is no longer an external entity to the peasant community.” In making this argument, Chatterjee is seemingly signalling a departure from one of the founding analytical templates of the Subaltern Studies project – of which he was a founding member – namely that, in the context of colonial India, subalterns groups such as the peasantry mobilised in an autonomous political domain and against a state that was alien and external to insurgent communities.

However, the basic contention in my article is that Chatterjee’s argument does not go quite far enough in redefining how we think about subaltern politics. In fact, I suggest that it is historically and analytically unsatisfactory to posit a simple distinction between, on one hand, an “old” form of peasant politics that was animated by a communal form of power opposed to an alien and external state, and, on the other hand, a “new” form of peasant politics in which the state and its technologies of rule are internal and constituent elements.

PPE1I make this argument on the basis of a detailed reading of the resistance mounted by Bhil Adivasis in western India across a hundred-year period – from the 1820s to the 1920s. This period is of decisive importance as – following the end of the Anglo-Maratha wars in 1818 – it witnessed a new wave of expansion of British colonial rule in western India. This process brought the British into close contact with the Bhil tribes that inhabited the rural hinterlands of present-day northwestern Maharashtra, southern Rajasthan, southeastern Gujarat, and western Madhya Pradesh – a region that I refer to as the Bhil heartland. At the heart of this process was a project for the making of what Manu Goswami has called “colonial state space” – that is, a state-making project centred on transforming the economic geography of the region through the promotion of settled agriculture and the enclosure of forest resources and introducing new modalities of state power that would secure and consolidate the extension of British authority.

For the Bhils, who had previously shared sovereignty in the region with the tributary states of Maratha and Rajput rulers and had claimed dues from peasant villages within their realms, the project entailed their incorporation as the subordinates of state apparatuses whose sovereignty was constructed in singular terms and whose governmental capacities were vastly expanded compared to its tributary predecessors. However, the making of colonial state space in the Bhil heartland did not proceed without contestation. On the contrary, the century that stretches from the 1820s to the 1920s was a profoundly rebellious one, in which Bhils rose time and again to contest their subordination to the new forms of state that coming into being.

The significance of these uprisings in relation to my criticism of Chatterjee’s argument is that rather than being articulated as rejections of colonial or princely overlordship or as escapes to what James Scott has referred to as “non-state space”, the Bhil revolts during this period took the form of contentious negotiations of the terms of their integration into these emergent polities. And what my analysis reveals is that these negotiations were marked by two features in particular: one, the tribal rebels would justify their resistance through the appropriation of idioms that defined what was and what was not a legitimate relationship between the ruler and the ruled; two, the Bhils mobilised in ways which suggest that they conceived of the state in disaggregated terms – that is, as a hierarchy of echelons that could potentially be pitted against each other to achieve political goals.

For example, a series of rebellions took place between 1818 and 1823 in Khandesh (northwestern Maharashtra) in Bhils raided lowland villages to protest that they had not received the “pensions” that they had been granted by colonial authorities in exchange for giving up their claims for dues from peasant cultivators. However, the objective of these raids was not to reject the colonial state and vindicate an autochthonous existence, but to claim for the recognition of certain rights and prerogatives within the colonial constellation of state power and sovereignty. Thus, one of the rebelling chieftains – Cheel Naik, who revolted in the early months of 1819 – wrote to the British: “It is necessary to let you know that you have not performed your engagement, on which account we attacked the village. If you will now provide for us, we will refrain from plundering. Is it right for you to desire us not to plunder and yet make no provisions for us.” And when the Bhils of Mewar (southern Rajasthan) found themselves subjected to increases in taxation by the Maharana in Udaipur they petitioned the resident British officer and sought his intervention against the rapaciousness of the princely ruler.

Indeed, even when the Bhils rose in massive revolts, as they did in Mewar in 1881 and then in Alirajpur state (western Madhya Pradesh) in 1883, the objective was not to cast off overlordship per se. In these revolts, the Bhils wanted to see the British ousted from their region, but simultaneously wished for the former princely rulers – and with them the old and less onerous systems of taxation – to be restored. Rebellion still revolved around the negotiation of the terms of incorporation, and the strategy that the Bhils adopted sought to pit different segments of the state against each other.

PPE3In 1911, Bhils in the state of Dungarpur (southern Rajasthan) came together under the charismatic leadership of Govind Giri – a social reformer of nomadic caste background – in a movement that opposed Rajput landlords and envisioned the coming of Bhil rule in the region. Nevertheless, Govind Giri and his movement combined these millenarian aspirations with appeals for support from the British against the venality of Rajput rule. A final and compelling example of how Bhil revolts appropriated idioms of state-making can be found in the Eki (Unity) movement in that erupted in Udaipur state in 1921, when India witnessing its first countrywide mobilisation for independence – the Non-Cooperation Movement spearheaded by Gandhi. The movement was led by Motilal Tejawat, a caste Hindu trader who had fallen foul of a powerful landlord and who was deeply inspired by how nationalists in the state challenged landlordism. As he rallied Bhils around him in opposition to unfair taxation and forced labour he claimed to be a follower of Gandhi and called on Bhil peasants to stop paying taxes. Once Gandhi’s rule – in other words, independence – was established, he announced, taxes would be drastically reduced. The Eki movement was ultimately crushed by British military force. However, its relevance to my argument lies in the fact that how Bhil cultures of resistance evolved over time, in part through the appropriation of idioms drawn from a wide range of state-making projects – in this particular case, idioms of non-cooperation and independence drawn from India’s nationalist movement.

What this mapping of the “rebellious century” in the Bhil heartland proposes is that it is deeply problematic to conceive of the peasant politics of past times as an autonomous domain, sealed off from wider configurations of state power. It is quite clear that peasant communities have been constituted in and through relations to different forms of state and state-making projects, and that these relations in turn have been embedded in what might be called moral economies of rule. And when peasant communities mobilise, the objective seems to be that of negotiating how they are incorporated into changing political formations by using the idioms that are central to these moral economies.

Consequently, what we need is a conceptual lens that allows us to grapple with how processes of state formation articulate with the local rationalities that animate subaltern politics across the longue durée of historical time. It is beyond the scope of this post to flesh out such a perspective in any detail, but I would want to conclude by pointing out that Gramsci’s understanding of modern state formation as a process in which dominant groups attempt to weave subaltern groups into a dense tapestry of political institutions, idioms, and technologies of rule in order to facilitate the production of hegemony has much to offer in this regard. I will elaborate on this proposition in my next contribution to PPE, in which I will discuss my contribution to the forthcoming volume New Subaltern Politics: Reconceptualizing Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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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