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Gendered Geographies of Resistance Movements

Varsha Bhagat–Ganguly ( teaches at the Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad.

Subaltern Movements in India: Gendered Geographies of Struggle against Neoliberal Development by Manisha Desai; London and New York: Routledge, 2016; pp xxiii + 152, price not indicated.

People’s resistance—struggles, protests, movements, revolutions—are usually representative of people’s critique or opposition of the existing development paradigm or as a means to achieve desired change, that is, people-centric development. The book Subaltern Movements in India: Gendered Geographies of Struggle against Neoliberal Development studies three struggles by Adivasis, fishers and farmers against proposed development projects in different parts of Gujarat, in the context of gender geographies and neo-liberal India. These struggles have been termed as subaltern movements. The first struggle studied in this book is against seven harbours in Kutch district (north Gujarat) by the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan (MASS). The second struggle is against the linking of rivers (Par–Tapi–Narmada) project in Dharmapur block (south Gujarat), Valsad district by the Nar Par Adivasi Sangathan. The third struggle is the farmers’ struggle against Nirma Cement factory in Mahuva block (western Gujarat) by the Khetiwadi Paryavaran Bachao Samiti.

In the beginning, this volume mentions, “Gujarat is an important case to examine … around two issues … the success story of development and the massacre of Muslims in 2002” (p 2). The research questions are elaborated as:

In the current neo-liberal conjuncture, why and how were these struggles able to succeed? What protest repertoire contributed to their success? How are these struggles gendered? What light do these struggles shed on development and democracy in India? What insights do they provide for scholarship on development, social movements, and gender? (p 2)

The author argues that these movements succeeded because of the deepening of democracy in India, albeit in tandem with the increasing coercive powers of the state. As such, these questions and arguments attempt to set the tone of the book. However, the author has discussed several debatable terms in the first chapter, which I have discussed in the coming paragraphs: subaltern, movements, gender geographies, legalism from below, deepening of democracy/participatory democracy, translocal protest and translocal solidarities.

The discussion on the making of translocal fields of protest begins with the changing nature of the Indian state, which maps out various struggles and movements in different parts of India over the last six decades, that is, from socialism to neo-liberalism. It then links these movements with feminism, ecology, and human rights, as pathways that have contributed to translocal alliances. The chapter then talks about legal processes that are considered as yardsticks of deepening democracy, such as the panchayati raj legislation, environmental impact assessments (EIAs), public interest litigations (PILs) as the Supreme Court’s “activism,” and the Right to Information Act (RTI). Following this narration, it talks about the terrain of protests in Gujarat.

Resistance and Gender Geographies

The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) had planned the Par–Tapi–Narmada River Link Project by building dams. The objective of this project is to divert surplus water from the west-flowing rivers between the Par and Tapi to water-deficit areas in north and west Gujarat. The struggle begins with the formation of the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS) and seeking necessary information under the RTI Act. Based on this, they came to know about the EIA and that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) had not given permission to the project. The technical information received through RTI applications was translated, compiled and presented in a booklet form to reach out to resident Adivasis.

While mapping gender geographies, the author mentions that “adivasi women were often not included” in this process (p 60). The youth groups formed by the Nar Par Adivasi Sangathan did not include young girls, and women noticed this. A yatra began on 4 January 2011 and visited nine out of the 11 affected villages. The women’s groups were formed in many villages by state and non-state development projects over the years. Anasuya, one of the women who have undergone formal education, started writing songs opposing the project. The present/updated status of the struggle is not mentioned clearly in the book. The chapter concludes,

the struggle also highlights the fault lines of gender even where women are militant and challenge their exclusions in subtle ways, such as through a song, and more overtly through voicing opposition and being present to bear witness. Without specific attention to gender issues, gender inequalities remained unaddressed in struggles for social justice. (p 71)

The struggle against Nirma Cement factory, which started in 2009, has many stages, of which the author has covered events in 2011 and 2013; later updates are not available in the book. This is a struggle for saving a waterbody created with a series of check dams built in the area and with irrigation available for small and marginal farmers in Mahuva taluka. The gender geography section mentions that

walking in the padyatra, not surprisingly, was gender segregated … the men usually walked in the front carrying the banners and women and children brought up the rear, walking in twos at the edge of the highway. But this configuration would change with women and children in the lead at the end of the padyatra when there were police barricades. Women and children bodies were thus used as shield to avoid police brutality. (p 84)
Segregation did not diminish their activism … While the younger girls were shy, women talked not just to reporters and journalists, but also to the locals they encountered along the way … Dhammiben from Dugheri village had taken a vow not to wear any footwear until Nirma was gone. (p 86)
Women voices were audible, but only in some registers and spaces and not in others. (p 87)

Many of the subaltern women who participated in this struggle have been active for almost a decade with Utthan, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for women’s empowerment, water, land and other political rights, and microfinance and livelihood issues of women in different parts of Gujarat since the early 1980s. The patriarchal attitudes of some Mahuva activists have made Utthan’s women activists very sceptical of the movement (p 98). There are no updates of the struggles after 2013, while the book has been published in 2016.

In these two chapters, factual flaws can be observed. For example, the author writes that “in the Forest Rights Act of 1987, adivasis were seen as the legitimate owners of the forests” (p 52), when it should have referred to the National Forest Policy, 1986. Similarly, the author writes about farmers belonging to “various lower castes, called ‘other backward castes’ or OBC” (p 76), where OBC should have referred to Other Backward Classes, which is a grievous mistake. In one of the reference list entries, an author’s name has been spelt wrong, as Mahesh Pandey instead of Pandya, and the respective citations are spelt wrong as well.

The struggle of fishers against the Om Prakash Group (OPG) power plant in Kutch started in 2009. This struggle as such is an initiative of the Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan, Bhadreshwar Setu (bridge; BSetu), one of the Setus that built participatory and gender-inclusive pre-struggle activism since the late 1990s. Among the first issues that affected the fishers due to industrialisation was losing access to their fishing grounds in Kutch. Based on a survey conducted in the fisher community, BSetu started organising fishers in seven bandars (harbours) through two mechanisms: bandar panchayat, a political mechanism and an avenue for self-governance, and an economic mechanism with the formation of a producer company (referred to as a new-generation cooperative), to give them the collective power to get better prices for their catch and provide loans to pay off their debts. The MASS as part of the National Forum of Fishers (NFF) was able to undertake advocacy for revising the Coastal Regulation Zone in 2011. Against the OPG power plant, BSetu along with other policy advocacy groups prepared an environment management plan and an EIA. Based on this, the protesters challenged OPG’s EIA and demonstrated the ways in which the power plant would affect their environment, in terms of pollution and toxic gases. These efforts have been labelled as “legalism from below” by the author.

As part of gender geographies, the author describes a women’s organisation, Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) and the community-based organisation (CBO) started by KMVS called Ujjas, and their contribution to the struggle. This cadre of women workers had received systematic inputs on the concepts of democracy, rights, current model of development, issues related to the existing model of development, etc, and, thus, “most activists have a very clear sense of their methodology and strategy of organising and networking, even with the government when necessary, and then moving on to a new phase of work” (p 121). Can such cadre-building efforts as part of development work be equalised with the cadre-building of a social movement? The author, in the concluding remarks of the chapter, describes how

Bsetu led to sustained gender justice work even among communities that continue to retain gender segregation in public spaces and a gendered division of labour. Such realities on the ground alert us to rethinking assumptions about gendered division of labour and its relationship to gender justice. (p 127)

Despite this struggle and continuous advocacy, power plant-related infrastructure has come up in the area. The latest updates are not provided in the book.

In the last chapter, the author argues that

in the Mahuva movement, the movement anchors were politicians and activists who saw subaltern women as strategically important to the public face of the struggle. Hence, they were included as speakers in public rallies and yatras, but like subaltern men, were seldom included in collective dialogues and meetings. MASS was anchored by a community-based organisation that was explicitly committed to gender equality and had ongoing relationships with WMOs [women’s movement organisations] and included subaltern women and men not only in public hearings and rallies, but also in collective dialogues and meetings. (p 134)

Such observations need to be differentiated as “development intervention strategies and activities” from “subaltern movement and gender geographies.” While theorising towards the end, the author expresses that “the three struggles demonstrate a complex relationship between subaltern struggles, development, and democracy. To date, they have succeeded in preventing the construction of dams, ordering the dismantling of the cement factory (in fact, as per the latest order of the National Green Tribunal, Nirma was allowed to build cement factory in 2015), and pressurising the power plant to change its technology. However, their efforts, along with those of many others, have not resulted in “enduring or large-scale social change as such” (pp 135–36).

The chapters lack a uniform description of the issue of the struggles initiated and supported by the respective organisations, and therefore are not a very lucid read.

Subaltern Movements

The studies on social movements in democratic countries are very rigorously carried out; expanding with time, the cases under study, and the complexities of peoples’ resistance and behaviour. These studies have expanded their fields with “new social movements,” in which newly emerging groups and their struggles in democracy and development, especially in the neo-liberal era are acknowledged; for example, struggles by subalterns or marginalised communities on issues of environment and natural resources, the physically and mentally challenged, and victims of violence, communal, domestic or terrorist. The title of the book suggests that combinations of these perspectives have been explored in this book, along with new-fangled vocabulary like “legalism from below,” “translocal field of protest,” “translocal solidarities,” and “gender geographies of struggles.” The amalgamation of many concepts and terms creates confusion instead.

Whether the three social movements of Gujarat studied could be called single struggles or a series of episodic struggles, protests, or micro-movements as they are called by D L Sheth (2014), or a series of demonstrations by community-based organisations or “small action groups” as harbingers of a silent revolution with their transformative potentials, as is examined by Sharma (1992), is a point of discussion. This book does refer to names/persons who have been mobilising and organising the protesters, but their instrumental role as catalysts for change in spreading democratic values and information, and how and why they mobilised women to engage in these struggles has not been mentioned descriptively or linked to the larger contexts of democracy or social change. Therefore, this lack of analysis creates gaps between macro–micro linkages. Further, the use of the concept of “subaltern” overlaps with marginalised communities, for example, fishers and Adivasis. The class character of subalterns and how it historically evolved and why is it applied here remains unclear, especially vis-à-vis the use of marginalised communities.

In the neo-liberal era, studying the Gujarat model of development, micro-movements by the marginalised communities and women require multilayered and multidimensional analyses. The importance of this book is that it has addressed these categories. Studying struggles from the gender perspective, focusing on the role played by women and the contribution of women is important. However, the linking of this perspective with deepening of democracy and legalism from below is sparsely addressed. Translocal solidarity is well explored, but its take on women’s movements, micro movements, or mobilisation strategies is not. When a reader looks at the questions raised in the beginning of the book, the reader may feel that not many have been clearly addressed in the end. In the absence of documentation of struggles in Gujarat by the mass media, Gujarati literature, and the protesting groups, discussing these as “gendered geographies” is the contribution of the book within the broader canvas of legalism from below and in the context of discussing the development paradigm.


Sharma, S L (1992): “Social Action Groups as Harbingers of Silent Revolution,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 27, No 47, pp 2557–61.

Sheth, D L (2014): “Globalization and New Politics of Micro-movements,” Social Movements: Transformative Shifts and Turning Points, Savyasachi and Ravi Kumar (eds), New Delhi: Routledge, pp 104–43.

Updated On : 16th Apr, 2018


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