Political Modernity in the Postcolony: Some Reflections from India’s Adivasi Heartland

Image: Alf Nilsen

Thursday 11th May, 2017

Alf Gunvald Nilsen

One of the foundational mythologies of sociological Eurocentrism pivots on the proposition that political modernity originated in the West. On this reading, the democratic nation-state, and institutions such as citizenship and civil society are purely Western achievements that only made their way southwards long after they had been consolidated in the north Atlantic realm of the world-system. The fundamentally problematic nature of this proposition has been evidenced in a compelling body of scholarship that has unearthed the multiple origins of modern statehood, sovereignty, and technologies of governance, as well as in the rich historical work on the Haitian revolution as a founding moment in the transnational historical trajectory of democracy. The first step, then, beyond a Eurocentric conception of political modernity starts, as Gurminder Bhambra has argued, by grounding our thinking in “connected histories” that acknowledge modernity as always already global.

But how do we conceptualize political modernity in the contemporary postcolony? There is, of course, more than enough testimony to the resilience of Eurocentric assumptions – for example, in the proliferation of work on so-called failed states, which holds up a Western “standard” of statehood as a universal yardstick that Southern states are measured by. However, pushing in the opposite direction is a body of work that validates the particularity of political modernity in Southern contexts with reference to its colonial origins and the specific trajectories of postcolonial state formation.

In the Indian context, for example, Partha Chatterjee has argued that claimsmaking by marginalized social groups, rather than being staked around law and the universal rights of citizenship, is articulated through bureaucratic and administrative categories. These are categories that governments use to target specific population groups with welfare policies and developmental interventions. Civil society is an elite domain; popular politics is carried out on the terrain of what Chatterjee refers to as political society. This has to be understood in terms of the colonial origins of modern state formation in India, which meant that a bureaucratic classification of the population took precedence over universal democratic categories. Moreover, under colonial rule, civil society was limited to the native elites at the helm of the nationalist project. Whereas independence expanded the reach of the state apparatus into the lives of marginalized groups, it has done little to bring them into the liberal democratic fold of law, civil society, and citizenship.

There is, in my opinion, a problem with such a diagnosis. The problem is that it posits a kind of essential political difference in order to explain the specific nature of political modernity in the global South. The problem with this approach became particularly striking to me as I embarked, some years ago, on a project that researched the ways in which Adivasis in western India mobilize in order to stake claims against the local state.

The term Adivasi – which means original inhabitant – refers to a range of ethnic groups who predominantly inhabit hilly and forested areas across rural India. They are classified by the Indian constitution as belonging to the category of “Scheduled Tribes” – a designation which reflects the fact that Indian authorities do not recognise Adivasis as being indigenous people. Constituting roughly eight per cent of the country’s population, the Adivasis are vastly overrepresented among the poor in India. Indeed, almost half of all Adivasis – some 44.7 per cent – live below a very meagre poverty line of 816 Rupees (£8.32) per month for rural households.

In the western districts of the state of Madhya Pradesh, the Adivasi communities that I studied had been subjected to a profoundly predatory and coercive set of interactions in which state personnel would use the powers vested in them in relation to law enforcement and their role in dispensing crucial public services to impose illicit demands for bribes. A small Adivasi elite of hereditary headmen and elected village representatives mediated these exactions and would pocket a share of the bribes that were extracted by forest guards, police, and revenue officials. The exactions were invariably enforced with violence, threats, and coercion. I refer to this scenario as the everyday tyranny of the local state, and its workings prevented the collective articulation of rights-based claims and demands on the state.

The two movements that I have investigated – the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS) – both emerged from interventions of urban middle class activists. And crucially, the starting point for the mobilizations was a series of law-based challenges to specific cases of corruption, violence, and malpractice by local state personnel. These catalytic events reversed the grammar of everyday tyranny and entailed a significant amount of collective learning about the local state. Activists would talk of having gained an understanding of how the powers of state personnel were circumscribed by legal regulations, and that they could therefore also be held accountable for their actions.

Now, in Chatterjee’s account, subaltern claimsmaking is geared towards gaining tacit acknowledgement of various illegal practices through the declaration of an exception from legal norms. This was ostensibly not what the KMCS and the AMS did. Quite the contrary: through their activism, the KMCS and the AMS actively held the state and its personnel accountable to the law and insisted that legality should prevail in local state-society relations.

As a result of this mobilization, practices of acquiescence and deference started to give way to assertion – above all against the corruption and the violence of the local state. This change was clearly inscribed in the imaginaries that shaped Adivasi relations with the local state. Indeed, a key theme that emerged from activist narratives was the idea that the state is a representative institution that draws its power from a citizenry that consigns legitimacy upon it through the act of voting and that is is and accountable to the public and to Adivasis as bearers of rights.

The KMCS and the AMS articulated and organized defiance and opposition by aggregating Adivasi grievances into rights-based claims and demands. And in pursuing these claims they carved out a space in which democratic transactions could take place. In doing so, these movements effectively brought a rudimentary civil society into substantive existence in the tribal areas of western Madhya Pradesh.

What this suggests is that civil society is a far more fluid and porous domain than what Chatterjee allows for. This stems in no small part from the fact that subaltern groups have demanded and, to varying degrees, obtained substantial inclusion in its ambit since India’s independence. Hence, our conceptual attempts to grapple with subaltern politics will have to take recognize how mobilization on the terrain of civil society shape and reshape both the political subjectivities of subalterns and the workings of India’s democracy.

Anyone who is familiar with Chatterjee’s recent work will know that citizenship is absolutely central to his theorization of political modernity and popular politics in India. According to Chatterjee, citizenship cannot be anything other than the liberal bundle of rights associated with the insistence on the homogenous national that is seen as having animated the emergence of political modernity in the West.

However, if we view citizenship in this way, we are, in effect, incapable of acknowledging and unravelling how the political idioms of democratic modernity are appropriated by subaltern groups and how, as a result of such appropriations, these idioms are in turn inflected with meanings that exceed the confines of the liberal mould. We need, instead, to reorient our analytical focus towards how claims are transformed into rights in ways that bring about changes of both governmental categories, legal frameworks, and the meanings of citizenship.

One example of this can be found in the way that the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan mobilized for local self-rule in the second half of the 1990s. This mobilization was related to the legal extension of panchayati raj (local self-rule) to Scheduled Areas. The peculiar thing about this legislation is that it has generally not lived up to activist expectations of emancipatory transformations. Yet, the law has had a significant impact on state-society relations in tribal areas by enabling Adivasi communities to articulate political imaginaries centred on ideas of autonomy, sovereignty, and rights over natural resources.

This holds true also in the case of the AMS. Activists readily admitted that the Sangathan had not been able to use the law to secure substantial advances in terms of self-rule. However, the notion of “our rule in our villages” has come to mould the way in which activists conceive of citizenship and rights. Indeed, rights-based claims were increasingly articulated in terms of a collective Adivasi identity, centred on the dispossession of natural resources and the claim to have the rights to these resources restored through the restitution of Adivasi sovereignty.

To be sure, the discourse of indigenous rights that emerged among AMS activists was forged in relation to what Chatterjee would call governmental categories – that is, the Scheduled Tribe as a specific population group inhabiting a particular space within the national territory inscribed in India’s constitution. Yet it also destabilized and exceeded these categories claiming local self-rule as an antidote to the injustice of dispossession and disenfranchisement. This inflects the idiom of citizenship and the claim for justice for Adivasis with insurgent meanings that exceed both that which is purely governmental and that which is purely liberal.

The conclusion that I draw from this is that a corrective to Eurocentric understandings of political modernity in the postcolony does not lie so much in an assumed alterity, but rather in an insistence that universalizing democratic vocabularies and institutions were always already global, and that the meanings and practices that we associate them with have been shaped and reshaped – and, crucially, expanded in more progressive and encompassing directions – by the mobilizations of subaltern groups. That was so when the slaves of Saint Domingue made their bid for freedom against colonial rule and slavery, and it is true today when Adivasis in India challenge disenfranchisement and dispossession.

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is associate professor in the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand. He researches social movements and the political economy of democracy and development in the global South, and is currently completing work on a book entitled Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Resistance in India's Bhil Heartland.

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