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Review of Alf Nilsen, Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartlands

by Chris Hesketh on December 18, 2018
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With his latest monograph, Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartlands, Alf Gunvald Nilsen has provided a case study in how to write theoretically engaged, ethnographically driven, historical sociology. Although focusing on subaltern politics in India (and specifically, Western India) the major themes and findings of the book have a powerful set of linkages and resonances that extend beyond this locale that scholars of social movements and political economy can learn a great deal from. Most notable is the mode of exploring how ‘complex processes of negotiation, contestation, and struggle animate a contentious dialectic of power and resistance that is integral to shaping the political economy of democracy.’

The chief subject matter of the book, as the title suggests, is about subaltern politics in India ‘and especially what happens when subaltern groups organise to stake democratic claims in relation to the state.’ In particular, Nilsen investigates the activities of two major Adivasi groups, the Kededut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS) to explore a ‘micro-politics of local state-society relations’ alongside a ‘political economy of regional and national state formation.’ Whilst much scholarly attention has focused on the Maoist and Adivasi movements of Central India, this book empirically engages with the so-called Bhil heartland in Western India. Importantly, subalternity is not rendered as an essentialised identity in the book. Rather it is conceptualised in terms of how an array of ‘specific social groups come to be incorporated in adverse power relations that change and develop over time in specific locales.

Theoretically, a major thinker inspiring the book is Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci is invoked not only in terms of the notion of subalternity but also in understanding the concept of hegemony, another major theme that runs through the book. This concept of hegemony is given an especially nuanced reading in Nilsen’s hands, that draws inspiration from Florencia Mallon’s magisterial work Peasant and Nation: The Postcolonial Making of Mexico and Peru. Key to unlocking this understanding of hegemony is to focus on what Mallon refers to as ‘hegemonic processes’. This involves a constant process of contestation and reworking of hegemony at every level of society. Moreover, Nilsen adeptly critiques those interpretations of Gramsci that see his notion of hegemony as being coeval purely with the realm of consensual politics. Instead it is shown that the dialectical relation of force is both omnipresent and integral to the concept. Through this reading of hegemony, Nilsen also provides a deft critique of Foucauldian approaches to state formation with their attendant theorisation of the state in disaggregated terms. Contrariwise, the book argues that there is a ‘relatively high degree of coordination and unity between sites of state power and between state and non-state actors.’ This assertion is supported with major empirical detail in Chapter 7. Nilsen’s operationalising of a Gramscian understanding of state formation therefore involves analysing the tapestry of power relations woven across space to explore how some groups are accommodated and others coerced. Furthermore, it is revealed how seemingly differentiated spaces relate to broader changing structures of articulation (or wider ‘fields of force’ as Nilsen calls it). In my own work in Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance, I refer to these interlinkages of spatial scales as that of uneven and combined hegemony.

Thematically, the book is organised in two major sections, the first of these deals with the nature and construction of Bhil subalternity, whilst the second deals with questions of citizenship. Following the introduction, Chapter 2 documents what Nilsen refers to as the ‘everyday tyranny’ of local state-society relations.This is typified by predatory and coercive activities of low-ranking state personnel in their interactions with Adivasi communities. The reality of this situation leads Nilsen to a place-specific reading of how subaltern groups negotiate their adverse incorporation into unequal power relations.  The history of acquiescence and fear are documented in this chapter in order to be able to explore what has changed to make the local population more contentious in recent decades.

Chapter 3 contextualises and explains the practice of everyday tyranny by tracing its historical emergence. This is tied to the production of ‘colonial state space’ and the creation of a new hegemonic structure alongside changing modalities of sovereignty. Principally this led to a move away from power based grounded in shared sovereignty and towards a new form of rule based upon singular sovereignty. The vital element here lies in what is essentially comprador class formation whereby local elites (patels) were co-opted into becoming ‘the state’s bridgehead in the Bhil Communities.’

Chapter 4 closes the first section of the book and looks at the modes of resistance that were historically practiced in relation to colonial rule between 1818 and 1920. Importantly here, Nilsen engages with and critiques the understanding of resistance provided by the influential Subaltern Studies Group (SSG). For the SSG, peasant insurgency constituted a direct antithesis of colonialism, whereas Nilsen convincingly demonstrates that this resistance is better understood in terms of ‘contentious negotiation.’ Therefore, ‘rather than mobilising a timeless and autonomous culture of resistance in the face of an ever more entrenched colonial state space, the form of protest changed over time through the appropriation of idioms from a range of different state making projects.’ A key example of this was the Bhil attempt to recover lost communal rights which was then dubbed ‘Gandhi Raj’ (e.g. inserting their local demands into discourses that had gained legitimacy at the wider national scale). Here there are affinities with broader cognate scholarship, including that of Massimo Modonesi who has argued, contra the SSG, that subaltern history needs to be understood as being dialectically related to, rather than dualistic with, elite history.

The second part of the book examines with citizenship claims as subaltern groups sought to contest their adverse incorporation into unequal structures of power. Chapter 5 thus deals with the emergence of new forms of consciousness that emerged in Bhil communities during the 1980s that were utilised to defy and challenge dominant groups via rights-based claims.

Chapter 6 furthers this analysis by exploring three major themes of law, civil society and citizenship to provide a critical interrogation of Partha Chaterjee’s dismissal that these spheres are open to subaltern contestation to reshape democracy. It is vital to stress that this does not lead Nilsen to making a normative argument in favour of liberal modes of participation. Henri Lefebvre once argued in his Critique of Everyday Life that ‘the belief in the political and legal equality of the individual, which is an illusory belief for any proletarian who takes it at face value, becomes transformed into an admirable means of action as soon as he begins insisting that democracy stop being a legal and political fiction.’ In a similar vein, Nilsen is able to demonstrate how collective action from below was able to utilise the language of postcolonial democracy but seek to imbue it with a more radical and transgressive meaning.

Whilst Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the positive, transformative potential of social movement activism, Chapter 7 provides us with a sobering reminder of coercive power that remains latent to quell such movements. This is adroitly examined in terms of both extraordinary coercion and the more prosaic (but equally important) exercise of routine coercion and how these relate to the dynamics of hegemonic formation. The book concludes, not with an easy celebratory account of social movement activity, but rather with a sober analysis of the current political conjuncture in India and how the ruling bloc’s power could be disaggregated via non-reformist reform (a term drawn from André Gorz).

As with any academic work, there are some elements that one could either critique or seek a deeper exploration of. There are two elements of comradely critique that I would propose here to Nilsen. The first of these revolves around the question of class. Despite the fact that class relations and class politics are highlighted in the book’s conclusion as being vital to a future ‘war of position’ that Adivasi groups must seek to wage, the substantive chapters dealing with social movement activism (4, 5 and 6) are relatively scant in relation to explicit class content and theorisation. For example, in Chapter 5, it is documented how the experience of earning a living through wage labour provided opportunities to challenge the everyday tyranny of the state via conflicts around wages. However, to what degree wage-labour led to a transformed understanding of class consciousness (as was the case with other subaltern movements) is not immediately clear. Indeed, the preferred vocabulary used in the chapter revolves around ‘moral courage’ and ‘emotional political space’. Given the lineage of Nilsen’s excellent work on Marxism and Social Movements, this was a surprise. It would also have been to useful to gain an understanding of why, or why not, the historical memory of resistance (such as that discussed in Chapter 4) retain any resonances in the present context, as a set of resources to now be mobilised (something that Gerardo Otero draws upon in his notion of ‘political class formation’).

Secondly, at times I felt some of the theoretical concepts referred to in the book could have been unpacked in greater detail in order to make their points more forceful or their meaning more transparent. To provide just one illustration, in Chapter 4 the role of the Congress Party in recruiting among former landowning castes (who subsequently formed the nucleus of the party) is cited as a regional manifestation of passive revolution. However, a theoretical rendering of passive revolution linked to Gramsci is not forthcoming, nor is a consideration of how the concept can be decentred to provide a locally differentiated articulation that nevertheless adheres to broader scalar political projects.

Nonetheless, what is perhaps omitted in terms of theoretical references is, in my opinion, more than made up for in a richly textured ethnographic work. As a result, this is a text able to speak to a much broader audience. I highly commend the book, not only to scholars of India, but for anyone wishing to understand how social movements can begin to transform their conditions of everyday life and the challenges that such subaltern movements continue to face.

Chris Hesketh
Chris Hesketh is Programme Lead for Politics, International Relations and Sociology at Oxford Brookes. He received his BA, MA and PhD all from the University of Nottingham. Before joining Oxford Brookes in 2012 he taught at the University of Nottingham and at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has an inter-disciplinary research agenda that combines political economy, the historical sociology of international relations, political geography, political theory and Latin American studies. These interests are captured in his monograph, Spaces of Capital / Spaces of Resistance: Mexico and the Global Political Economy (University of Georgia Press, 2017 in the Geographies of Justice Social and Transformation Series).

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