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Dark Side of Indigeneity?

In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India by Alpa Shah (Durham, NC: Duke University Press); 2010, pp xiii+273, price not stated.

Dark Side of Indigeneity?

Amita Baviskar

I
n October 2009, Madhu Koda, a Member of the Lok Sabha and former chief minister of Jharkhand, was arrested on charges of money laundering and owning illegal assets worth Rs 4,000 crore. Koda allegedly made most of this money by allowing private companies to illegally mine coal, iron ore, bauxite and other minerals in his state. In a perverse symmetry, he invested some of his illicit profits in a coal mine in Liberia. If Koda got Rs 4,000 crore in bribes, the mind boggles at the superprofits harvested by the mining companies willing to cut deals with him. A smaller but nonetheless significant share, estimated to be around Rs 1,200 crore, was also reportedly skimmed off by Maoists who collected “protection” money per truck load of mineral ore.

This episode is only one of a series of scandals in the 11-year-old history of Jharkhand, but it exemplifies the dynamics of development in a region where a long struggle for autonomy, waged in the name of exploited people, has succeeded in enriching new power elites while leaving the rest of the population trailing behind in the dust. In the Shadows of the State focuses on a section of Jharkhandi society thus obscured from view – poor Munda farmers in a village near Ranchi, the state capital. However, the main argument of the book does not directly engage with the larger political economy of poverty and exploitation, but takes issue with those who seek to counter it by championing the rights of adivasis as indigenous people.

Flawed Indigeneity?

The discourse of indigeneity claims that there is a primordial attachment between adivasis and the land they inhabit. It asserts that, for adivasis, land, forests and wild animals are not merely resources for subsistence, but aspects of a living nature that is sacred and hence to be treated with respect. Relations with the natural and

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
november 5, 2011

book review

In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India by Alpa Shah (Durham, NC: Duke University Press); 2010, pp xiii+273, price not stated.

social world are rooted in a communitarian ethic which is egalitarian and redistributive. On the basis of these beliefs, indigenous activists attempt to protect and revive adivasi cultural traditions in order to safeguard their land and community from the rapacious and soul-destroying process of ‘development as domination’.

In the movement leading to the formation of Jharkhand state and in campaigns against specific dam, mining and military projects, the discourse of indigeneity has been effectively deployed in the cultural politics of claims-making. However, Shah argues that the culturalist claim of indigeneity is fatally flawed by its exclusions and distortions. This book focuses on the “dark side of indigeneity” which reinforces “a class system that further marginalises the poorest people”, creating a form of “ecoincarceration” that condemns villagers to live in an oppressive local environment, at the mercy of marauding elephants and non-adivasi elites who have usurped state resources. If “an alternative radical politics” is to emerge in the area, it must avoid the indigenous rights activists and work directly with Munda notions of jungle raj, a sacred polity based on a communitarian ethos.

Each chapter of In the Shadow of the State takes up a separate aspect of the discourse of indigeneity and, by juxtaposing it with the actual practices and predicaments of poor Munda villagers, shows how it does injustice to the latter. The chapter on polity discusses the attempt by indigenous rights activists to promote a secular system of self-governance as an alternative to corrupt and co-opted electoral processes. It shows how the activists’

vol xlvi nos 44 & 45

vision of self-governance seeks to eliminate the role of shamans as key intermediaries in village affairs. Shah argues that the legitimacy of village institutions rests precisely upon the presence of shamans who

can summon the powers of ancestral spirits. By trying to purge Munda self-government institutions of their sacral element, indigenous activists end up creating a secular simulacrum which fails to take on either the corrupt state or the concerns of Munda villagers.

The chapter on ecology shows that, against “the nature-loving, nature worshipping imagery being reproduced by indigenous activism”, Munda villagers would prefer to cut down the forests because they harbour herds of elephants that terrorise them by raiding their crops and destroying their homes. In order to assert an adivasi identity that is distinct from Hinduism and Christianity – the two dominant religious folds in the region – indigenous activists have revived Sarna, a set of religious practices based on “the adivasis’ inherent love for nature”. However, Sarna ends up being an anaemic version of Munda since practices red in tooth and claw as blood sacrifices and liquor offerings are censored from the rituals. Shah argues that this domesticated Sarna, where nature is worshipped with flowers and coconuts, is completely at odds with how the poor Munda actually encounter nature – in the middle of the night, in the form of elephants that wreak havoc in their village.

The chapter on place takes on the notion that adivasis have an innate attachment to their land and that severing this connection renders them vulnerable to predatory capitalism. This understanding underlies the activists’ critique of economic processes that drive adivasis to work as seasonal labourers on distant brick kilns and farms. Against this, Shah describes how working away from home is, in fact, a liberating experience for adivasis who are freed from the social constraints of the village. Instead of regarding migrant work only as a grim economic compulsion, Munda seasonal labourers also see it as a way to “escape domestic problems, explore a new country”,

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and embark upon love affairs frowned upon at home.

Maoists for the Rural Elite

According to Shah, their inability to grasp the complexities of Munda life reveals that indigenous rights activists are inadequate to the task of representing adivasi aspirations. However, if claims based on cultural identity do not work neither do those based on a shared class position. The Maoists, who are projected today as the political formation most likely to secure adivasi rights, entered the area towards the end of the author’s fieldwork. Their initial alliances were not with poor adivasis, but with rural elites to whom they offered protection while ripping off state resources. Shah shows how it is rural, usually higher-caste, elites who corner the benefits of state development works while the poor Munda strive to keep their distance from the State, thereby reproducing an unequal class structure. The Maoist intervention into local political economy has only served to cement this inequality.

While demolishing the discourse of indigeneity, the book shows the curious convergence between the moralising views of dominant religious establishments, indigenous activists and Maoists – all of whom regard adivasi practices of drinking alcohol, premarital sexual relations and spirit worship as signs of backwardness. Shah also makes a persuasive argument about the symmetry between the State and the Maoists, with both profitably engaged in the business of providing protection. These insights are a useful corrective to the more common perspective that sees these groups only as polar opposites. By consistently presenting the world as it appears to the Munda villagers among whom the author lived for an extended period, In the Shadow of the State shows how discursive violence shapes these subaltern lives. Her sympathy for her informants is evident in the warm tone of the fieldwork diary extracts reproduced here, as well as the evocative illustrations that dot the narrative.

The strength of a carefully observed ethnography like this one is that it provides enough detail so that the reader can independently engage with the evidence, unlike a more selective account where facts are chosen primarily to substantiate the author’s assertions. However, this also opens up the possibility of alternative interpretations that cast doubt on the author’s argument. Take, for instance, Shah’s advocacy for the Munda notion of a sacred polity that is opposed to the corrupt sarkar and is, at the same time, different from the sanitised form of selfgovernment promoted by indigenous activists. One could argue that, for all that the Munda notion has greater legitimacy because it is backed by spiritual authority, it is nevertheless a system where women are excluded from positions of power. The egalitarian values of the Munda do not seem to extend to at least half of their community and perhaps even more, since young men do not wield power either. Though the spirits favour patriarchs, at least one cannot fault the political vision of the indigenous activists on this score.

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Shah’s account of the parha (tribal intervillage authority) mela as an assertion of the separation of the parha and the sarkari State, and the superiority of the former, is also open to alternative analysis. The prominent presence of elected tribal politicians, who help finance the celebrations

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2011 / 248 pages / C 550 (Hardback) 2011 / 168 pages / C 550 (Hardback)

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november 5, 2011 vol xlvi nos 44 45

BOOK REVIEW

as well, shows that the occasion allows those adivasis who participate in the secular State to display their power, dispense patronage and mobilise supporters. That such adivasi festivals are characterised by the interpenetration of sacred and secular power, and are transformed by the modern State into spectacles of its own legitimacy, has been convincingly shown by Nandini Sundar for Bastar, Chhattisgarh, and by Ajay Skaria in the case of the Dangs, Gujarat. Their analyses suggest that the parha mela is likely to be an occasion where the balance between the parha and sarkar is negotiated, rather than their mutual separation asserted.

Shadowy Figures

The fact that there are adivasis who have successfully entered electoral politics, enriching themselves and the higher-caste rural elites whom they patronise, is at odds with Shah’s unrelieved representation of the Munda as fated to forever be poor and powerless. A passing observation informs us that younger, educated Munda men prefer to emulate and fraternise with their highercaste peers, which also suggests that social relations may not be as unyielding or asymmetrical as the author claims. A more fundamental problem with In the Shadow of the State is its depiction of the indigenous activists. Considering that the book’s argument hinges on criticising this group of actors, they appear only as shadowy figures mouthing views off-stage. They are described as “urban based and highly educated middle classes – some even have PhDs from foreign universities”; some are Christian adivasis, others upper-caste settlers, and still others the descendants of adivasi village elites. Inspired equally by Marxist critiques of inequality and romantic colonial accounts of adivasi culture, their aim is “to recreate a glorious Jharkhand indigenous past”. That is all; there is no substantive discussion of what these activists actually do, besides attending international conferences and speaking to “the many academics, journalists, international activists, and development consultants” who visit Jharkhand. One is left to wonder: Are there no rural-based indigenous activists who work directly with villagers, trying to build on local traditions of water management or health?

Economic Political Weekly

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november 5, 2011

Do not any activists get their hands dirty opposing large projects such as dams and military installations? Are there no activists for indigenous rights whose thinking and practice have evolved from a sustained engagement with the realities that seek to represent?

Vibrant Culture of Activism

Like many other parts of adivasi India, Jharkhand has a diverse and vibrant culture of political activism. On the ground, most activism is ideologically hybrid, a creative response to the complex challenges confronting political actors. The indigenous activists who act as a foil to the poor Munda villagers in this book, however, appear to be devoid of any such dynamism. If this feisty book does not actually construct and demolish a straw man called the “indigenous activist”, it chooses to focus on a particular strand of indigenous activism, one that is probably not the most consequential either. Are the naïve views of the indigenous activists described in the book the most influential political representation to come out of Jharkhand? When the crisis in the state seems to centre on

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vol xlvi nos 44 45

the political economy of illicit resource extraction and the corruption of elected representatives,these indigenous activists seem harmless by comparison.

Shah blames the indigenous activists for promoting the view that adivasis are naturelovers, which leads to the latter’s “ecoincarceration”. According to her, state policies of wildlife conservation adversely affect Munda villagers who have to contend with increased elephant populations and who would rather cut down the forests to get rid of the elephants. While it may indeed be the situation confronting Munda villagers, in this case the indigenous activists happen to be correct. The herds of elephants that raid Munda villages are not the result of successful wildlife conservation, but its exact opposite. As the 2010 report of the Elephant Task Force of the Ministry of Environment and Forests confirms, it is destruction of the great Saranda sal forests of Jharkhand by mining and other human encroachments that has made elephants homeless, forcing them to forage further afield. The indigenous rights activists’ critique of mining and other extractive practices in Jharkhand is also spot-on, as is their argument that

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wildlife conservation will only succeed if local villagers are made equal partners in deciding land use and management.

At this juncture, when the anthropology of adivasis seems to have been overtaken by events – massive corruption and accelerated resource plunder, the expansion of Maoist territory, the Forest Rights Act – In the

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---Shadow of the State marks a moment when life was simpler, when perhaps the worst that poor adivasis had to contend with were the representations of indigenous activists. The passing of that moment signifies that anthropology can no longer afford to linger on that famously fertile question: Can the subaltern speak? Shah’s

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-strength in providing a carefully observed and empathetic account of the lives of poor adivasis makes one look forward to seeing how her future work will address these emerging issues.

Amita Baviskar (amita.baviskar@gmail.com) is at the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi.

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november 5, 2011 vol xlvi nos 44 45

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