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Subordinated Pasts, Subordinated Present?

R Venkat Ramanujam (venkat.ramanujam@atree.org) is a PhD scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, and Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

Mini-India: The Politics of Migration and Subalternity in the Andaman Islands by Philipp Zehmisch, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017;  pp xxii + 358, ₹ 1,100.

 

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are frequently celebrated as a miniature version of India’s cultural and ethnic diversity, leading to the epithet Mini-India for the islands. They have been long echoed in nationalist imagination as kaala paani, the dreaded penal settlement across the forbidden seas where convicted freedom fighters were transported to serve out their sentences. More recently, for the winds of nationhood and nationalism that have been blowing with renewed zeal across India, the brief period of nominal self-rule under the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army) during de facto Japanese occupation (1942–45) has served to foreground an alternative articulation of India’s anti-colonial struggle, finding expression in the recent renaming of three islands in the Andaman archipelago. Amidst these shifting currents, Philipp Zehmisch’s Mini-India: The Politics of Migration and Subalternity in the Andaman Islands represents a counter-current. In this work on the immigrant ethnic groups of the Andaman Islands, Zehmisch draws attention to fissures in the dominant discourses of nationalism and “unity in diversity” that shape popular perceptions of the islands. Shedding light on the histories of subordination experienced by the Andaman Islands’ immigrant communities, the book goes on to illuminate with considerable intensity the poignant lifeworlds of the Ranchis, the endogenous ethnic identifier for people of Chhotanagpuri and Chhattisgarhi origin, who laboured in difficult and dangerous conditions to make the islands habitable but remain in the margins of social and political life dominated by the beneficiaries of their labour.

Microcosm of Migrants

The Andamans, the book argues, is a veritable “Subalternity Land” or land of subalterns (p 297), because each immigrant social group in the islands bears the burden of a history of subjection imprinted by zealous state-sponsored social engineering efforts. Migration in the colonial period was shaped by the shifting emphasis of British policy: establishing the Andaman Islands as a penal settlement since 1858, and then, since the mid-1920s, with an eye on the treasury, promoting rapid colonisation through agricultural expansion and timber extraction. Thus, the present-day descendants of migrants of colonial vintage, called the pre-42 community, include the Andaman local-borns descended from prisoners of the penal settlement, the Bhantus of North Indian origin, who were settled as cultivators and reformed delinquents, and the Moplah rebels of Kerala, who were encouraged to settle as agriculturists along with the Karen of Burmese origin. To work the Andaman forests for timber export and clear them for settlement, the colonial government recruited indigenous migrants, now known in the islands as Ranchis, from Chhota Nagpur. More Ranchis were recruited after independence. Meanwhile, under a postcolonial policy that aggressively re-emphasised the pre-existing twin aim of colonisation and development, the Andamans became the site of rehabilitation of Bengali-speaking partition refugees from East Pakistan who were settled as agricultural pioneers in the service of rapid colonisation. They were followed by Tamil- and Telugu-speaking repatriates from Ceylon and Burma. Although state-planned migration has dominated the Andamans, a parallel process of what Zehmisch terms “independent migration” has brought in migrants from the hinterlands of Bengal and the Coromandel coast, attracted to the Andamans by employment prospects and adventure.

However, the resulting microcosm, popularly referred to as Mini-India, Zehmisch argues, masks a distinctive islander identity forged through a relative de-emphasis of caste identity in favour of a cohesion built and reproduced through interfaith and interethnic marriages, the emergence of Andaman Hindustani as a distinct lingua franca, and an organic cross-ethnic embrace of festivals, such as the Tamil Panguni Uthiram, of which the author provides an interesting ethnographic account. But, behind the veneer of solidarity and religious harmony, Mini-India is also a site of ethnic and linguistic boundary-making, and competitive political activity. Migrant communities seek to assert ethnic identity, demand recognition and stake competitive claim to state resources through affirmative action and electoral politics. Besides, given the hegemony of nationalist narratives of the anti-colonial struggle that envelops the islands, ethnic groups appropriate freedom fighters (such as V D Savarkar, Birsa Munda or Kattabomman Nayakar) from their respective regional homelands to buttress their distinct collective identities. But, the “manifestations of history,” as the author terms it, also lie in ethnic stereotyping. Convict ancestry and criminal pasts are drawn upon to ascribe criminal tendencies to the local-born and to rationalse illegal activity in Port Blair’s murky underbelly.

Travails of the Ranchis

The book comes into its own in Zehmisch’s ethnography of the Ranchis which combines historical perspective with contemporary fieldwork to discuss their present-day subjecthood. This is remarkable considering that the Ranchis have attracted rather limited scholarly attention hitherto. As the author shows, the Ranchis are not homogeneous, but, in fact, a distinctive ethnic group formed through the intermingling in the Andamans of Adivasi and (some) Dalit communities from present-day Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Ranchi transportation to the Andamans owes to colonial racial profiling and colonisation imperatives: the purported suitability of the forest-dwelling aboriginals of Chhota Nagpur for the exertion of arduous physical labour in clearing Andaman forests for timber and agriculture. In their post-independence avatar, the Ranchis not only worked the forests but also laid roads and built jetties and backwaters. Regarded as docile, uncomplaining, and capable of extraordinary hard work, they constituted a labour class that has remained disenfranchised despite sporadic recognition as the “builders of modern Andaman” (p 187).

Indeed, continued subordination explains Ranchi impoverishment and marginal political status despite their numbers—50,000 to 60,000 (p 211)—making them the third largest ethnic group in the Andamans after the Bengalis and the Tamils. Many of them have been denied tenurial rights, have had their crops destroyed by forest officials, and face threats of eviction as encroachers. They have been prevented from registering themselves as voters; in at least one instance highlighted by the author, Ranchi names have been wilfully deleted from the voter list. Given their limited presence in the intelligentsia and bureaucracy, they are discriminated against when they seek government jobs or visit government offices for routine state services such as applying for ration cards. As Zehmisch narrates, “[O]ften they were made to wait for a whole day only to be asked to pay a bribe which they could never have afforded” (p 259). The pre-42 community and the Bengali settlers, who comprise the most powerful migrant ethnic groups in the islands, have been conferred Other Backward Classes status in the islands but not the Ranchis, who despite their Adivasi and Dalit origins, have been denied recognition. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Ranchis largely eke out a livelihood as cultivators on the forest fringes, supplementing subsistence agriculture and foraging with wage labour in the Andamans’ informal sector. Nevertheless, Zehmisch ably recounts how they have inscribed a sense of community into the landscape through norms of sharing, reciprocity, and collaborative labour that reproduce and strengthen community bonds.

Asymmetries of Power

Zehmisch asserts that the book is a contribution and a challenge to the Subaltern Studies project (p 297) but given the contention that Subaltern Studies was “a product of its time” (Chatterjee 2012: 49) the assertion is somewhat anachronistic. Nonetheless, as Chatterjee (2012) argues, questions of subalternity and subaltern agency have blossomed in numerous hues and brought forth seeds whose germination calls for new arenas of study. The opening part of the book traverses the conceptual shift over time in the appreciation of subalternity from “marker of identity” positions to a discursive understanding of power relations. However, the sweeping portrayal of the Andaman Islands as Subalternity Land is disappointing because the author could have potentially generated greater analytical purchase in appraising the asymmetries of power that emerge in the course of the narrative. The local-borns personify a past filled with the suffering and hardship of imprisonment and frontier-making but in recent times they have adeptly harnessed dominant historical narratives of the anti-colonial struggle to secure recognition as freedom fighters and political advantage in the form of reservations. In a similar turn of irony, the Bengali settlers embody a painful history of partition-led displacement and refugeehood, but from the Ranchi point of view contemporary Bengali political representatives resist the registration of Ranchis on voter lists in order to entrench their own dominance. However, when both these groups—the local-born and the Bengali settlers—appear undifferentiated in the same analytical frame of subalternity as the Ranchis who remain barely visible at the margins, one is compelled to invoke in bewilderment the question rhetorically posed by Gidwani (2009: 65), “But, what does it mean to be subaltern?”

Power asymmetries across time and space are at work in migrant communities in the Andaman Islands and also within them. Zehmisch could have attended to these with more careful attention. Intellectuals, political leaders, government officials and clergymen often claim to speak on behalf of their respective ethnic groups—sometimes on behalf of all of Mini-India—but the dissonance with the lived experience and perspectives of their non-elite counterparts does not remain hidden in Zehmisch’s narrative although it does invite less than adequate reflection. Furthermore, how would the theoretical toolbox be deployed were the indigenous communities of the Andamans to be drawn into the analytical frame? Surely, the indigenes constitute the most powerless peoples on the Andaman social and historical landscape (Sen 2017). They may not form the subject of the book, but they certainly do exist in the Andaman Islands. Yet, their absence in the visual map of Subalternity Land (pp 297–98) suggests that they remain analytically occluded. The complexity of uneasy hierarchies and social distance within and between migrant communities, and between the collective of migrant communities and the indigenes is too significant to be explained away by the argument that “subalternity is a socially contingent process with many layers between the simplistic binaries of ‘elite’ and ‘marginal’ ” (p 17).

Evading the State?

The intimate portrayal of Ranchi lives marks one of the high points of the book but the conclusion that the author draws is unconvincingly provocative. Zehmisch suggests that the Ranchis enact subaltern agency by evading the state because in constantly urging how the Ranchis ought to be and what they should do, representatives of the state, non-governmental organisations, and the church talk right past them. The state remains unhelpful even when it is not oppressing them outright by denying them their right to vote or threatening them with eviction. Consequently, argues the author, the Ranchis stay away from the state and construct independent lifeworlds. They adapt their inherited knowledge and experience of their forested Chhota Nagpur homelands to establish a niche for themselves in the recesses of the Andaman forests, a niche characterised by autonomy, self-rule, and distance from the public gaze. However, to interpret this as evidence of their “return to a legacy of Indigenous self-rule” (p 295) is to overly downplay the divergent views about engaging with the state among the Ranchis themselves, especially the younger generation. Surely, for at least some of the factions that exist among the Ranchis, desirability lies not in evading the state but in “drawing the state into an orbit that [they] have defined” (Sundar 2010: 5)?

More significantly, to claim self-rule and autonomy for the Ranchis is also to veer towards an early premise of the Subaltern Studies project that viewed the subaltern as an autonomous subject independent of elite politics (Guha 1982). But, this premise was roundly critiqued when the Subaltern Studies project took a discursive turn and the understanding since then is that the subjecthood of the subaltern is considerably muddied; far from being pure or untouched by elite politics, subalternity is in fact constituted through relations of power and the mutual conditioning of elite and subaltern spheres (Nilsen and Roy 2015). To be fair, the author does display alertness to the question of power in constituting the subaltern in the early pages of his book. Nonetheless, a tidier job of reconciling his own theoretical awareness with the complexities that emerge in his narrative would have further enriched what is undoubtedly an illuminating account. More generally, in their recent volume, Nilsen and Roy (2015: 12) offer a modified conception of subalternity and hegemony through a rereading of Antonio Gramsci. Subalternity is treated as relational, intersectional, and dynamic, and hegemony as a “contested process in which consent and coercion are closely intertwined” (Nielsen and Roy 2015: 19). The theoretical advance promises greater sharpness in addressing some of the questions and paradoxes that emerge from Zehmisch’s absorbing narrative.

In sum, Mini-India marks a valuable addition to the efflorescence in scholarship and writing on the Andaman Islands that we have been witness to in recent times. The ethnographic exploration of contemporary Andaman society brings to light the interplay of syncretism and fusion with social tension and sharp iniquities that lie behind the veneer of dominant narratives framing the Andaman Islands as a repository of India’s freedom struggle and of interethnic solidarity and harmonious coexistence. The account induces epistemic questions about subalternity that carry the echo of past debates. The questions that arise surely hold wider relevance beyond the Andaman Islands. Consequently, Mini-India is of interest as much to the scholar as to the dilettante who seeks a nuanced appreciation of the present-day manifestations of the history of the erstwhile kaala paani.

References

Chatterjee, Partha (2012): “After Subaltern Studies,” Economic & Political Weekly, 47 (35), pp 44–49.

Gidwani, Vinay (2009): “Subalternity,” International Encyclopaedia of Human Geography, Oxford: Elsevier, Vol 11, pp 65–71.

Guha, Ranajit (1982): “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India,” Subaltern Studies I: Writings on Indian History and Society, Ranajit Guha (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 1–8.

Nilsen, Alf Gunvald and Srila Roy (2015): “Reconceptualising Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India,” New Subaltern Politics: Reconceptualizing Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India, Alf Gunvald Nilsen and Srila Roy (eds), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 1–27.

Sen, Uditi (2017): “Developing Terra Nullius: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Indigeneity in the Andaman Islands,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 59 (4), pp 944–73.

Sundar, Nandini (2010): “Introduction,” Legal Grounds: Natural Resources, Identity, and the Law in Jharkhand, Nandini Sundar (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 1–29.

Updated On : 18th Jun, 2019

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