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Conceptualising and Thinking about Subaltern Politics

Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartland by Alf Gunvald Nielsen, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019; pp 328, 695.


The book is about subaltern politics in India. Its concern is the organisation and mobilisation of subalterns with a focus on claim-making on rights granted by the state. The key questions that the book poses are: What makes it possible for the subaltern to come together? What kind of claims and demands do they articulate? How do they engage with the state, its representatives and its institutions? What changes can subalterns bring about through collective actions? Answers to these questions are sought through a case study of local social movements of the Bhil Adivasis in western Madhya Pradesh (MP) organised and mobilised by the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan (KMCS) and Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS). The movements addressed grievances pertaining to everyday interaction with the local state and basic livelihood issues revolving around land and forest.

Core Arguments

The book is divided into two parts in addition to introduction and conclusion. The first part devoted to the questions of Bhil subalternity is divided into three  (2–4) chapters. They provide detailed ethnographic deciphering of the Bhil subalternity in local state-society relations and also trace its historical lineage. Thus, in Chapter 2, the author presents a detailed account of local state–society relations in the Bhil communities of western MP. It discusses how low-ranking state personnel would use powers vested in them in relation to law enforcement as well as dispensation of crucial public services to exact bribes of various kinds from ordinary villagers. These, the author refers to as everyday tyranny. It is mediated through internal power relations in the Bhil communities and its embeddings in a wider culture of caste-based stigma that sanctified Adivasi discrimination. Following this, the author discusses the local rationalities of deference and acquiescence that were grounded in habits of fear and resignation compounded by lack of political and bureaucratic literacy. Chapter 3 provides an analysis of the historical processes through which the Bhil communities have come to be constituted as subaltern. The origin of contemporary material deprivation and political subordination is traced to the construction of colonial space across western India which was marked by dispossession of and state ownership and management of forest. This analysis is further taken up in Chapter 4 where it has been shown that the Bhils also actively appropriated idioms of state-making and negotiated different echelons of the state as they mobilised to resist the detrimental impacts of colonial state formation. The chapter also shows how power relations that were forged between 1820s and 1940s came to be reproduced in postcolonial India.

In the second part of the book, the key theme of concern has been the ways in which Bhil communities have mobilised to democratise local state–society relations from 1980s. In Chapter 5 the focus has been to find how it became possible for the subaltern groups living under conditions of everyday tyranny to engage with acts of citizenship. The answer to this question takes a form of interrogation of a series of encounters that took place between urban middle-class activists and ordinary Bhil Adivasis on the one hand and the local state personnel on the other. These acted as catalytic events that brought into being the moral courage among the Bhil to challenge the local state. Alongside, there has been an investigation of reciprocal relations of trust, solidarity and friendship between the urban middle class and the Bhil Adivasis. In Chapter 6, the struggle to democratise local state–society relations is taken up for deeper analysis. This analysis shows how the subaltern groups appropriate the legal and political idiom of India’s post­colonial democracy and how such appropriations shape the working of India’s democracy on the ground. In Chapter 7, the politics of coercion that the KMCS and AMS confronted is investigated. In dealing with these issues, the author returns to the key conceptual concerns of the book, namely the need to develop a critical understanding of how the patterned workings of the state power over time sustain the reproduction of hegemonic formations. In response to this question there is engagement with question of routine and extraordinary coercion. The former is not exclusively based on force; rather it aims to discourage and not eliminate oppositional collective actions. The latter focuses on trajectory of sustained campaign of coercion directed against the AMS by regional political strongmen, bureaucratic authorities, and members of the local Adivasi elite.

The book is one of the finest pieces of work on Adivasis and the state. Questions it poses and answers it provides are insightful, analytically refreshing and adds to new knowledge and understanding. It looks at the problem that is contemporary but traces it through history, which is commendable. It provides sets of concepts through which the author builds analysis and arguments and leaves a lot for the reader to think through and take forward. Some of these are subalterns, subaltern politics, citizenship, civil society, political society, hegemony, local rationality, routine coercion, extraordinary coercion, and reformist reform. Such concepts have been thought through fieldwork data as well as historical material. The material on which the book is developed is rich, discussions are well knit, and style and language are lucid and pleasant.

Critiquing Subaltern Studies

The work takes the key idea of the Subaltern School Project (SSP) and Partha Chatterjee’s formulation in particular as the point of departure for engagement with the subaltern and subaltern politics. My discussion of the book will hence mainly revolve around the author’s engagement with this subject. The leading figures of SSP have developed a conceptual narrative in which the state has persistently existed at a distance from subaltern lifeworld, that is, as an external with little space for transactions between will of the rulers and that of ruled. Even the colonial state remained as an entity that was not organic to the familiar sphere of everyday social activity and thus failed to overcome the schism. So, when in his recent work, Chatterjee notes that poor people in rural India now regularly press claims and demands on the state and in doing so learn how to operate the levers of government system, this is indeed a significant analytical departure. While he makes this departure, he makes an important distinction between civil society (political space where the liberal concept of citizenship reigns and which is pursued by India’s elite) and political society (space constituted by the governmental technologies the state uses to target specific population groups with development and welfare policies). It is in the space provided by the latter that the subaltern groups forge a certain political relationship with the state. To this distinction he adds that there are lower castes and tribal groups who are so marginalised that they cannot even make claims in relation to governmental categories. In this sense, the marginalised groups represent an outside even beyond the boundaries of political society.

The author provides two lines of criticism against the SSP and in particular Chatterjee’s theorisation of state–society relations. The first line of criticism questions the SSP’s argument that the precolonial state was not enmeshed in the everyday lives of subaltern groups by pointing towards considerable interface between peasant communities and the state. Even on colonial state and resistance, the author describes the resistance as political expression as they recognised the state and negotiated with them. These observations are based on historical source materials on Bhil Adivasis of western India and Adivasis of eastern India. Chatterjee’s disaggregation of
political space in contemporary India leads to a second line of criticism. The bifurcation between civil and political society and the claim that subaltern politics is articulated within the parameters of political society, is undermined by the simple fact that the politics of subaltern have long been transgressive of such divides. Chatterjee’s claim that Adivasis are not able to make use of the mechanism and categories of political society, let alone civil society, is belied by the fact that tribal mobilisation in contemporary India is often focused precisely on demanding and framing rights-based legislations and ensuring that such legislation is implemented. Adivasi mobilisation tends to interweave customary law, state law; constitutional principles and regulations entrenched in international conventions, which in turn fuel an expansive development of the meaning of citizenship. Finally, the author explores collective agency among the Bhil Adivasis of western MP along three key axes: law, civil society and citizenship. Taking the case of Adivasi politics in contemporary western India, the author posits the presence of legality in state–society relations and by doing so also posits the rudiment of civil society into the struggle for claim of citizenship thereby posing a challenge to the distinction between civil society and political society even in case of the Adivasis.

In the author’s opinion, what Chatterjee’s conception of the politics of the governed ultimately does is bring back a version of the problematic structural opposition between elite and subaltern that was foundational to the historiography template of the SSP. This opposition prevents one from adequately grasping how citizenship is a far more fluid and malleable political idiom than what Chatterjee would have us believe. This fluidity and malleability make it possible (as the examples referred above) for subaltern groups to appropriate dominant idioms of citizenship and inflect them with insurgent meaning. It is in this sense that Nilsen presents struggle of the KMCS and AMS as the ones generating claims of citizenship centred on Adivasi self-rule and resource control. This in turn leads to a specific conception of subalternity and a specific way of thinking about subaltern politics. If hegemony pivots on construction of the relation between dominant and subaltern classes that rest on an unstable equilibrium of compromise, it follows, contrary to the analytical templates of the SSP, that subalternity cannot be adequately understood as an essential identity that inheres in a specific collective agent, for example, peasants, Adivasis, women, Dalits or workers. Rather, it has to be conceptualised in terms of how specific social groups come to be incorporated in adverse position in sets of power relations that develop over time in specific locales.

Limits of Reconceptualisation

While I do find author’s line of thinking interesting, refreshing and persuasive, it does open up a range of issues that in my opinion need some attention. To begin with, even when there is an attempt at reconceptualisation of subalterns and subaltern politics, one wonders why one is unable to go beyond the categories of peasants, workers, Dalits, Adivasis, and women as delineated by the subaltern school. Is there any collective that one can add on the basis of framework outlined that goes beyond the categories of the SSP? The agency SSP assigns to these collectives has remained unchallenged excepting for the fact that it adds nuanced understanding of the power matrix within which this can be located. The fault of the SSP appears to be that it did not adequately conceptualise the problematic of its concern.

The author seems to be falling in the same trap as the SSP that he critiques. If the SSP looks at the subaltern world from one perspective, the critique looks at the same reality from a somewhat similar yet different perspective. If the SSP formulates subalterns as external/autonomous to the state, the critic articulates just the opposite. The same holds true in reference to governmental technology and idioms as well as law and civil society. Further, it is articulated across the pre-colonial, colonial to the modern state. After all, not all precolonial collectives were part of the state, more so the Adivasis. In fact, Adivasis have been historically seen as people without state and without writing. Whereas some did form part of the precolonial state, one cannot attribute the same to Adivasis across India. From the case of the Bhils of western India, one cannot generalise for the whole of India. The particular historical social formations provide particular kind of answer; it cannot be generalised for all the social formations, including those with the states.

The concept of politics thought about in the book is far from clear. Apparently, it refers to social movements but social movements are one kind of politics. There are other kinds of politics, including electoral politics. Is this to be treated as subaltern politics? Further, if politics is understood in the broad sense of the term, it fails to capture differences in politics and poses problems for theorisation.

Further, how are we to understand the use of governmental technology and idioms (petitions and memoranda) in social movements under the colonial period, and even in the precolonial period in the case of the Bhils? After all, Adivasis had no tradition of writing and the British were least interested in it. In fact, this was left to the missionaries, but this came much later in history. How did the Bhils deploy technology? Who did this on their behalf? One is indeed curious about it.

Something related to the above are social movements that are driven by the civil society organisations that have had their origin in the educated middle class. How similar and different are the social movements that are spearheaded by the external middle class and those from within the tribes/Adivasis. Are movements from within as legalistic and civil as the ones organised by the external middle class? Are not much of tribal movements, especially those driven from within, external to the state and hence closer to the formulation of the SSP? Equally important to note is that Adivasi struggle is generally twofold: one in relation to the state and the other to non-Adivasi population. Alienation of land from Adivasis to non-Adivasis remains a serious phenomenon and acts as an issue of serious conflict. However, it is hardly addressed in the book.

There are a few other issues that need further attention. One concerns with the internal power relations and other with social differentiations within the Bhil community. Some discussion on this aspect and its linkage with the bonds of kinship would have been rewarding. One is also curious if the larger Indian society saw the Bhils from the lens of caste and, if so, what caste position they occupied and what stigma they suffered.


Updated On : 25th Nov, 2020


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