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Social Movements in India

Social Movements I: Issues of Identity edited by T K Oommen (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 251, Rs 695 (hardcover). Social Movements II: Concerns for Equality and Security edited by T K Oommen (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 352, Rs 795 (hardcover).

Social Movements in India

Ghanshyam Shah

I
t is a truism that no society is static. Space, processes and nature as well as the direction of social change vary from time to time and society to society. Social movements play an important role in escalating not only the processes of change, but also in giving direction to social transformation. But the institutionalised social sciences have not paid much attention for a long period to social movements. That has been left to social historians. As social movements are seen as congruent with social conflict, they are neglected by the structural-functional approach, the dominant paradigm of the discipline which emphasises harmony and equilibrium.

Till the 1960s, sociologists’ interest in social movements was largely focused on sanskritisation and socio-religious reform movements, excluding the political dimension as beyond their scope. With the emergence of social history and the studies of peasant movements in the mid-1960s, a few non-Marxian sociologists began studying social movements. The literature on the subject has now grown, though a comprehensive theory on Indian social movements is yet to be developed. All the available studies, however, are not devoid of any theoretical framework. These two volumes are part of the Oxford series readings in sociology and anthropology which was launched in 1991. The objective of the series is “to introduce the subject to the interested reader, capturing nuances of theoretical debate and diversities of a pproach in each area of study”.

Focus on Social Movements

The anthologies have 25 essays published during the last five decades. These two volumes focus on social movements related to identity and the issue of equity and security. The introduction is the same for both the volumes, except the last section which deals with the theme of the volume. Granting that movements are “anchored”

book review

Social Movements I: Issues of Identity edited by T K Oommen (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 251, Rs 695 (hardcover).

Social Movements II: Concerns for Equality and Security edited by T K Oommen (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2010; pp 352, Rs 795 (hardcover).

in these issues, identity and equity also overplay each other and are often closely intertwined. It will be an interesting question to ask why in the course of movements, the issue of equity in some cases at different points is more important than primordial identity and vice versa. A critical analysis of a movement, its ideology, leadership and programmes for mobilisation can help us interrogate the question. The introduction is otherwise very comprehensive but does not address this important theoretical aspect.

The term “social movement” is used with different meanings, often with a multitude of topics such as socialism, fascism, cooperative movement, labour movement and so on. The movements around these themes include not only collective actions but also idea systems. Therefore, the editor rightly prefers that “the term social movement should be used more restrictively in r eferring only to collective actions” (p 7, emphasis added). A question, however, arises: What is “collective action”? Of the several kinds of collective actions varying from voting or enrolling membership to participating in processions and meetings, which are the more significant that need to be f ocused on to understand social movements? It also involves a ticklish issue of numerical strength as well as the nature and level of participation. Similarly, should one take the time span of collective action in studying social movements? Collective actions pass through several stages from direct confrontation with the State/dominant groups/ideology/policy, having tangible mobilisation with deliberate participation to institutionalised behaviour in which participation of the members is relatively routine. More often than not such questions are not interrogated and all kinds of collective action are labelled under the rubric of social movements.

Borrowing from Wilkinson, Oommen conceptualises social movements as “those purposive collective mobilisation, informed of an ideology to promote change or stability, using any means – violent or non-violent – and functioning within at least an elementary organisational framework” (p 11). He discusses a typology of the movements, the reasons for the emergence of the movements, their transformation into institutions and methodological issues. According to him, “social movements in a society are conditioned by three factors: (a) its core institutional o rder;

(b) the principal enemy as perceived by the deprived; (c) the primary goal pursued by the society…nature and types of social movements keep changing as these features change” (p 34). With this framework he maps out the Indian scenario in three phases: the colonial period (19001947), the postcolonial period of nationbuilding/modernisation (1947-89), and the present period of globalising India. Needless to say, the institutional order and society’s goal as perceived by the leaders (including academics) of the mainstream and so the perception of the deprived as articulated by their leaders are debatable.

Identity Movements

Volume I focuses on social movements with special reference to religion, caste, tribe and language. The editor rightly makes a distinction between two types of identity movements – hegemonic and emancipatory. The agenda of the former is to maintain the status quo and perpetuate its dominance. On the other hand, the latter constructs identity to assert justice, equality, dignity and rights. The essays in the volume are divided into two parts. Five chapters are on religious and caste movements. The remaining five chapters are around regional, linguistic and tribal movements. Each part has the editor’s useful introduction which, besides highlighting

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the thrust of the chapters, at times also offers comments. A few of his observations are sweeping. For instance, regarding the issue of secularism, particularly on the uniform civil code, Oommen oversimplifies the position of the RSS. According to him the RSS holds the view, that the uniform civil code must “be equally applicable to all Indian citizens, irrespective of their religious background” (49). On the face of it this is true, but it is misleading. One should not forget that the RSS wants such a uniform civil code embedded with Hindu norms, customs and value system. “Secularists” contest this. The differences between the two need to be placed in a proper perspective.

Kenneth Jone’s chapter provides a social history of reform movements. Jaffrelot’s essay gives an insightful account of the ideological conflict on communal-secular politics within the Congress. A valuable background, of course, but we miss studies which critically deal with the nature of religious mobilisation since the 1960s. There are two chapters on con versions from Hinduism to Christianity. Walter Fernandes provides a historical account of caste and conversion movements in the 19th and 20th centuries in south India. He highlights the diversity of motives for conversion conditioned by their local cultural environment. Frederick Downs examines the causes of Christian conversion in north-east India. He argues that largescale conversion movements have been because of an identity crisis and traumatic change during the British period and also in post-independent India.

The chapters by Shail Mayaram and D ipankar Gupta on the Tablighi Jamaat and Shiv Sena movements, respectively, provide valuable insights into and analyse the structure, ideology and mobilisation of the movements. Though Gupta’s observations in the early 1970s on the efficiency of the Shiv Sena in combating working class activities, and his wishful thinking on the emergence of “trade consciousness” have been belied, the framework of his analysis is still relevant. A postscript briefly updating the movement would have been r ewarding. Vivek Kumar’s essay on dalit movements jumbles several aspects of contemporary dalit society under the r ubric of “mobilisation”. It narrates not only socio-religious movements, but also electoral politics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), scheduled caste employees’ unions and so on. He believes that most of the socio-religious movements started by the dalits have not been able to uplift their status. The possible explanations for the impasse are not probed. Unfortunately, the chapter does not analyse Ambedkar’s ideology on caste and future society. Nor does it discuss the dalit movement under the leadership of Ambedkar between 1920 and 1956. Vivek Kumar is right that at present the dalit movement is diversified with various shades. But as a sociologist, he does not analyse why it is so. Why has Ambedkar’s ideological thrust for “egalitarian” social order not domi nated contemporary dalit movement(s)?

Equity and Security Movements

The second volume is divided into three parts: (1) peasant and labour, (2) women and students, and (3) ecological and environmental movements. The first two parts give relatively more space to a historical narrative or an organisational growth than to mobilisation. No study which examines large-scale – not to speak of l ocal

– mobilisation of industrial workers in the form of strikes and gheraos in various parts of the country has found place. However, three chapters of Part 3 provide us not only a historical account of the environmental movements and their ideologies, but also mobilisation of the affected people against the State’s policy.

Kathleen Gough’s chapter, published in 1966, provides historical accounts of various peasant movements during the colonial and postcolonial periods to refute Barrington Moore’s thesis that Indian peasants were docile. She argues that despite the caste system and “the strength of bourgeois leadership against the landlords and the pacifying influence of G andhi” (p 53), there were a large number of peasant uprisings, both during and since British rule in all parts of the country. The editor’s comment on this essay is, however, surprising because he has not made any comment on any other chapter. More important, the comment on Gough’s chapter ignores her main argument: whether peasant movements in India are “weak” compared to China because of the

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caste system. Instead, Oommen argues that she has given “an exaggerated count” of peasant movements. Does this mean that he agrees with Moore’s proposition? If so one would expect an elaboration of the argument. Instead, he raises a conceptual issue of a “movement”, and accuses her of counting protests and “transient r ebellions” as movements. The editor ignores the fact that the title of her paper is “Indian Peasant Uprisings”. He further comments that she ignores the “social background” of the peasants and focuses on their economic deprivation”, thereby relegating to the background the multiple deprivation of the participants and the multiplicity of goals pursued by movements. Correct, but one should not forget that this was beyond the scope of her p aper. One can make the same argument for many of the chapters in both the v olumes, including the editor’s own chapters on the “Bhoodan Movement” and also student power.

Of the three chapters on peasant movements in post-independence India, one is on the Naxalbari movement by Partha Mukharjee. It analyses the movement in West Bengal in the 1960s in the context of the agrarian structure and the history of previous movements in the area. The author concludes that it could not survive against state power. This is true but at the same time, with a brief interlude the movement has re-emerged and has spread to many parts of the country. The Naxalite ideology as well as the nature of mobilisation have also changed. A postscript to the chapter would have added value to the volume. Comparing the Naxalbari and Bhoodan movements, Oommen has rightly concluded that both have failed in achieving their objectives. One tends to agree with him that “a balance between legitimacy and coercion is a prerequisite to institutionalise social change through social

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BOOK REVIEW

movements”. But the process is long drawn out and complex, testing the patience and perseverance of those who stand for a just and egalitarian social order.

The editor clubs “women’s and students’ movements” together as “biological collectivities” which are irreversible. The male cannot become female and the old cannot become young. Their deprivations are rooted in the same social phenomenon of powerlessness. Both of them seek equity (p 175). This categorisation is problematic. Can patriarchy and generational gap be

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considered the same social phenomenon in terms of socio-economic power? Do the feminist movements raise i ssues similar to that of students’ qua students’ movements? Similarly, can the Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) be called a women’s movement? The essay by Martha Alter Chen does not tell us whether the organisation has ever raised an issue related to patriarchy or allied with women’s organisations struggling for their rights on the basis of gender? Granting that there is a reciprocal relationship between movements and institutions, the

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account presented by her is more of a history of the union than of SEWA as a movement.

The points raised above highlight conceptual and theoretical issues related to the study of social movements, and are not meant to belittle the importance of the volumes. These two books are useful readings for any student interested in s ocial change in general and movements in particular.

Ghanshyam Shah (ghanshyam.shah2008@ gmail.com) is currently at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.

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