ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Subaltern and Politics at the Grassroots

Dayabati Roy's ethnographic study establishes an autonomous domain for subalterns in a village in West Bengal. But when seen in perspective, elite constructions of politics still predominate subaltern responses.

DISCUSSIONaugust 9, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly86The Subaltern and Politics at the Grassroots Buddhadeb Ghosh Buddhadeb Ghosh (ghosh_buddhadeb@yahoo.co.in) is at the Institute of Social Science, Kolkata.Dayabati Roy’s ethnographic study establishes an autonomous domain for subalterns in a village in West Bengal. But when seen in perspective, elite constructions of politics still predominate subaltern responses.Dayabati Roy’s ethnographic study (‘Whither the Subaltern Domain?’) published in June 7 issue provides valuable insight into the state of local de-mocracy in West Bengal. This note is in response to that study. It has a twofold purpose. Firstly, it seeks to point out that from the facts provided in the study one may draw a conclusion different from that of the author about the extent of autono-mous domain of the subaltern. Secondly, it argues that the institutions of panchayat create opportunities for engendering new formats of political activities at the grass-roots. Such politics may enrich the practice of local democracy by allowing participa-tion of the subaltern class in it (outside the framework of patron-client relationship) and in the process may also facilitate removal of their subalternity. Really AutonomousIn the career of Pakhi Murmu (mentioned in the piece), the author noticed one ele-ment of “subaltern mentality”, namely that of “defiance”. What perplexes me is that even in the instances of defiance, Murmu seems to have followed the script of elite politics faithfully – organising the party when “hardly anyone was there to work for the party”, launching movement for higher wages of agricultural labourers, mobilising the tribal community (under party’s banner) for conducting struggles against the landlords “on the issuesof confiscation of benami lands”, which was a programme of the United Front govern-ment led by the leftists in the late1960s. Even in his lament for the party’sdegen-eration, one hears the voice ofatypical bhadralok revolutionary, because the party has eschewed the path of class struggle. What is more surprising isthatMurmube-lieves that “the subalterns (cannot)live without the support of an organised party”. That the party is the only instrument with which the oppressed peoplecanfight against injustice is a doctrineofthecom-munist party on which Murmu seems to have a blind faith, even thoughhe could have drawn different lessonsfromhisex-periences. It is, indeed, difficult to “recover” the autonomous domain ofthesubaltern from the biography of PakhiMurmu. In the same village, however, the author found an example of the members of the youth club who could carve out an autono-mous space for themselves even in a hos-tile environment. By rejecting the entry of political activists within the club, they had not only put up a forceful resistance against elite politics, but also against the tendency of the elite politicians to “control everything”. How does one interpret the stand taken by the club members? Is it apolitical? Or shall we characterise it as a form of political struggle of the subaltern? If so, how does one reconcile Murmu’s politics with this kind of politics?As an elected member of gram panchayat, Murmu served one term. He knows that “most of the panchayat schemes (are) meant for the development of his own community”. Yet, he does not seem to have any interest in the governance of panchayat, either as an elected member or as a citizen. As an elected member, he refused to be involved in the activities of panchayat. Asa citizen with experiences of political struggle, he does not think it necessary to motivate even his wife to attend the meeting of gram sansad (ward sabha), which is an open forum for all and where the individual and collective problems of people can be discussed. Instead, he seeks to “garner as much benefits as possible” for the mem-bers of his own community by remaining close to the party “running the panchayat”, and not by trying to transform the institu-tion of panchayatas transparent, account-able and responsive local government. Apparently, like his party leaders, Murmu also believes that the obliteration of distinction between the party and the institution of governance is not a gross violation of the fundamental principles of democracy. Otherwise, he could have raised the question as to why a party is required for enabling an ordinary person to access benefits and services provided by
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