A review of my book Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage (Routledge, 2010) recently appeared in Economic and Political Weekly:

Resisting Development, Theorising Resistance

Vol – XLVII No. 33, August 18, 2012 | Budhaditya Das
Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage by Alf Gunvald Nilsen (London and New ork: Routledge) 2010; pp 242, price not mentioned.

Budhaditya Das (das.budhaditya@gmail.com) is with the department of social work, University of Delhi.

Protests and social movements in opposition to developmental pro­jects, particularly those involving acquisition or transfer of agricultural/forestland, have become part of everyday politics and social reality in India. They have led to debates regarding the kind of development practices followed by the Indian state, the influence of neoliberalism on policymaking and discussions about issues of justice, efficiency and the role of the state in acquiring land (and other resources) for industrial purposes. There has been more focus on the causes and raison d’être of such protests, rather than a study of the “actors and authors” of these protests.1 The book under review, Alf Gunvald Nilsen’s Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage, bridges this significant gap by studying one of the most well-known anti-displacement struggles of the Global South, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Although there is no dearth of scholarly or activist literature on the politics and political economy of dam-building on the Narmada River in central India, this book is an in-depth study of the anti-dam movement itself, the movement process, and how it came to be constituted through a long and complex procedure of interactions and negotiations between different groups, interests and demands.

Marxism and Social Movements

Based on ethnographic fieldwork and ­research in the Narmada Valley, the book is a valuable work of scholarship for another reason as well. It attempts to analyse the anti-dam movement using a Marxist theoretical framework, and works towards constructing a Marxist theory of social movements. Nilsen’s work makes two important contributions: first, in his own words, it tries to resolve the paradox that Marxism, a body of theory emanating from and crafted for proletarian struggles, does not possess a theory that explains the emergence, character and development of social movements (Nilsen 2009: 110). Second, it also contributes to the study of social movements in general, by offering an alternative to dominant North American and European social movement theories, whose insights are often of little relevance for the movements and movement actors. The author conceptualises social formations as “internally contradictory totalities that constantly undergo change as a result of contention between dominant and subaltern social groups over the structuration of needs and capacities” (pp 13-14). Social movements then are viewed as forces that can and do emanate from dominant as well as subaltern groups, referred to as “social movements from above” and ­“social movements from below”, respectively. This is a radical departure from the conventional understanding of ­social movements as a “collective, organised, sustained and non-institutional challenge to authorities, power holders, or cultural beliefs and practices” (Goodwin and ­Jasper 2003: 4). The merits of this depar­ture become apparent as Nilsen is able to locate both dam-building and the organi­sed resistance against it in the wider and contradictory processes of postco­lonial capitalism in India. What is not clear though is how the “dominant and subaltern social groups” referred to by him throughout the book correspond to the antagonistic economic classes of a ­Marxian framework, which are bound to each other by historically specific relations of production. Similarly, a discussion of how social movements from above and below are connected to class struggle, a central component of the Marxian understanding of social transformation, is conspicuously absent from the book.2

The Andolan: Location, Emergence and Transformation

The first chapter of the book introduces the quarter century-old conflict in the Narmada Valley, positions NBA firmly within India’s new social movements (NSMs) and presents the theoretical framework of the study. This two-sided framework, mentioned above, enables the author to analyse dam-building and the Narmada Valley Development Pro­ject as an expression of the interests of dominant groups in postcolonial India, and thus, an example of social movements from above. The NBA, hitherto studied only as an environmental movement or anti-displacement movement, is understood as a social movement from below, part of the social totality and a challenge articulated by the subaltern social groups.

In Chapter 2, the distributional biases of the costs and benefits associated with Sardar Sarovar Project and Maheshwar Hydroelectric Project (MHP), the two big and controversial dams on the Narmada River, are examined as a case of “accumulation by dispossesion” (Harvey 2005). Synthesising David Harvey’s well-known thesis with his own under­standing of social movements, the ­author argues that dam-building is an outcome of the collective action of dominant ­social groups: in this case, the agro-­industrial elites of central and southern ­Gujarat and the domestic and transnational corporations and financial institutions, who have also benefited from the privatisation of India’s power sector and the liberalisation of its financial sector. This is located within a broader narrative of postcolonial capitalism, which though brief, draws upon the work of scholars like Harvey, Partha Chatterjee, Sudipta Kaviraj, Francine Frankel, Vivek Chibber, Stuart Corbridge and John Hariss. The explanatory framework adop­ted is the “passive revolution of capital” in ­India after 1947, with state-directed planning acting as the chief instrument of accumulation for the holders of property rights, the industrial-commercial bourgeoisie and the rich peasantry. It is arguable though that any Marxian expla­nation of transition and postcolonial ­development in India ought to engage with and benefit from the modes of ­production debate that occur­red from the late 1960s to 1980s, which finds no ­mention here.

The third and fourth chapter discuss the decade of 1980s, and the emergence, politics and constituencies of local groups which ultimately went on to form the NBA in the riparian states of Gujarat, ­Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In particular, Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS), the adivasi organisation in Alirajpur, western Madhya Pradesh, is studied in detail through interviews with its activists and members. Nilsen’s work is notable for introducing concepts like “everyday tyranny” and “rightful resistance” to describe processes of criminalisation, denial of rights, state violence and confrontation which are familiar to all students of adivasi history in colonial and contemporary India. Other concepts have been used to analyse different phases of the movement, from demand for information about the dam projects to individual struggles for resettlement and rehabilitation, and the ways in which linkages were built between villages, and the anti-dam campaigns at the ­national and international level. The ideas presented hold promise for illuminating the strategies and trajectories of other protests and anti-displacement struggles as well, thus contributing to the theoretical literature on social movements.

Chapter 5 documents the process of how demands for adequate resettlement and implementation of state pro­mises eventually transformed into a pan-state anti-dam campaign, “embedded in a ­generic critique of dams as a ­development strategy” (p 108). That this was not a smooth or unilinear transition, and the fact that the Andolan had to ­negotiate between the pressures of urban-based activist groups and the ground ­realities of the movement, is pointed out with ­insight and sufficient nuance. The role of urban-educated acti­vists in building the anti-dam campaign in and beyond the Narmada Valley is brought out clearly in Nilsen’s research. The voices of activists, including Medha Patkar, Chittaroopa Palit and others, feature prominently in the book as there is an attempt to understand the critical role of “movement ­intellectuals”, especially in cons­tructing “counter-expertise as a discourse of ­resistance” (p 97). The discussion leads one to wonder about the part played by urban-educated activists in social movements in general, and its implications for the strategies and ideologies adopted by them. These difficult questions are dealt in subsequent chapters when the trajectory of the Andolan is traced in the last decade of the 20th century and its atte­mpt to put forward an alternative development as a social movement project underpinned by Gandhian philosophy and politics is critically examined.

Sardar Sarovar, Supreme Court and Jury Politics

Chapter 6 is devoted to understanding the reasons for the “defeat of the NBA’s campaign to stop the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP)” (p 117). The defeat, in this case, refers to the infamous judgment of the Supreme Court, delivered in 2000, when it ordered the completion of the SSP and accorded judicial legitimacy to the state’s strategy of big dams-as-­development. The public interest litigation filed by the Andolan, which resulted in this judgment, was a part of its decade-long effort to approach and agitate with various state actors and inter­national ­institutions to review and withdraw the project, a strategy referred to by the author as “jury politics”. The ­Andolan succeeded in forcing the World Bank to constitute an independent ­review and later withdraw funding from the SSP, but its appeal to the highest court of the country ended in failure and starkly revealed the limitations of jury politics. The tactics adopted during this phase, ranging from non-violent direct action (road blockades, hunger strikes) to activities like village non-cooperation and Jal Samarpan (voluntary drowning in the rising Narmada waters), have been analysed as symbolic-communicative practices of resistance (p 126). The author traces the genealogy of such tactics in India’s freedom struggle and Gandhian satyagraha, and outlines their ­efficacy in providing moral force, legitimacy and a distinctive position to the ­Andolan ­vis-à-vis the state as well as ­other movements.

However, the focus of the chapter is the Andolan’s shift to “jury politics” in this phase, its positive results and negative outcomes, and the resultant debates. For social movement praxis in India, this debate is of considerable importance, since most movements for the defence of rights and protection of entitlements are confronted with the choice of devoting their resources, skills and energies to appro­aching judicial and quasi-judicial institutions (for example, the recently constituted National Green Tribunal) or towards mass mobilisation, although these are not exclusive binaries. Jury politics in the form of public hearings and independent tribunals, wherein documentary evidence and oral testimonies are presented to a committee of experts and specialists (including retired judges and bureaucrats) for their verdict, is a common strategy among social move­ment groups today. Nilsen demonstrates how the NBA’s decision to app­roach the judiciary in 1994 was influenced by the limits of its capa­city for mass mobilisation, the inadequate results of village-based symbolic-communicative protests as well as the perceived “activist” orientation of the Supreme Court at that time. The awareness that judicial autonomy is relative and circumscribed by the nature of state power, which, in turn, is determined by the outcome of struggles bet­ween dominant and subaltern social groups, can enable movements to exp­lore possibilities of acting through the state and its agencies while being conscious of the limits to such possibilities.

While discussing the Andolan’s failure (in stopping the SSP), Nilsen compares it with the “relatively successful” experience of KMCS in Alirajpur. The reason for this, he argues, is that KMCS was ­enga­ged “in a local struggle” for customary, civil and political rights of adivasis to which “the higher echelons of the state-system could concede without undermining its own authority”. In contrast, the campaign against the SSP was a systemic challenge, which directly attacked the interests of proprietary elites of south and central Gujarat, critiqued the wider model of development and sought to build a nationwide alliance around this critique (p 144). Thus, “the intended ends of the campaign were too radical relative to the means through which they were pursued” (p 119, ­emphasis mine). Now, the measure to which the state has conceded the rights of adivasis is a ­matter of debate, especially when we consider the experiences of adivasi and forest dwellers’ organisations in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. Also, the characterisation of KMCS as a local struggle as distinguished from the structural challenge posed by the NBA, perhaps, overlooks how both movements, in different ways, have asserted the rights of adivasis and local communities over ­water, forest and land resources. Indeed, this has become a common rallying point for many social movements across the country today, struggling against dams, special economic zones, industrial pro­jects and ­unjust forest laws with varying degrees of successes.

Prospects and Limitations of Alternative Politics

Chapters 7 and 8 examine the campaign against the MHP, the role of Nimadi farmers and women in this campaign, the attempts at alliance building and alter­native development (Nav Nirman) undertaken by the Andolan, and the connections between India’s new social movements and its postcolonial development project. Nilsen takes up crucial questions regarding the relationship of the anti-dam movement with wider struggles against globalisation, caste, class and gender.

Anti-displacement move­ments often represent the interests of landowners in villages and are led by sections of rich and middle peasantry, as in the case of the anti-dam campaign against MHP. To what extent can such movements ­address inequalities and ­discrimination in other realms? What could be their possible role in an agenda for a radical social change? These questions assume importance in view of the peasant protests for higher monetary compensation or against land alienation due to special economic zones, expressways and other infrastructure projects, which have become the key markers in the struggles against neo-liberalism in India.

They are especially important for NSMs like the NBA and alliances like ­National Alliance of People’s Movements, which seek to challenge the postcolonial development project through imagining and articulating socially just “alternatives to development”. In the case of the campaign against MHP, although the participation of influential rich peasantry of the Nimad region expedited the protest mobilisation, it also reinforced the caste and class divisions of the region and created a core-periphery structure in the campaign, with the dalit and landless ­labourers remaining at its margins. Nilsen attributes this neglect of inter- and intra-group divisions partly to the kisan consciousness of leading village ­activists in Nimad, which ignores such divisions within rural communities, and partly to the exigencies of the anti-dam campaign. In this case, it would perhaps also have been useful to cast a critical gaze at Gandhian politics, which has i­nfluenced much of the ­Andolan’s ­meth­ods of resistance, to understand the ­(relative) lack of emphasis upon ­redis­tribution and inversion of hierarchies ­within communities.

For Nilsen, as well as scholars like ­Amita Baviskar, the contradictions ­bet­ween ­Nimadi farmers and adivasis, ­between landowners and the labourers, between the ideals of environmental sustain­ability and the reality of commercial agriculture in Nimad, represent the limitations of the Andolan’s movement project. In his words, “the claims for social justice cannot simply be directed outward; they are equally valid vis-à-vis relations and practices of caste and class internal to and between the commu­nities…” (p 182). The question that then confronts such movements in the long run is how can relationships of ­exploitation and dominance within a movements’ heterogeneous mass base be ­challenged and overturned, while maintaining a united front against a common enemy?

The other significant issue raised by Nilsen in the penultimate chapter (Chapter 8) is regarding the nature and politics of “alternative development” put forward by NSMs like NBA. Here, he ­disagrees with anti-development critics like Arturo Escobar, Vandana Shiva and ­Gustavo Esteva, as well as the Andolan itself, who argue that the new social movements have rejected development completely and are searching for or are creating alternatives to development. Like Sinha (2003: 307) has argued in the context of the Chipko movement in ­Uttarakhand that it “operated within the accumulation-legitimisation dialectic of development planning rather than outside it”, Nilsen too argues that the ­community development efforts of the Andolan are not completely at odds with the parameters of Nehruvian nation-­building or present state claims of participatory development. Social movements from below like the NBA, in his view, constitute an immanent challenge to the postcolonial development project because they arise from its internal contradictions.3 They reclaim and reinvent, rather than reject, the idioms and practices of this project to favour the experiences and aspirations of subaltern groups. To the extent that this does not take into account the divisions within and among these groups and sets up simplistic binaries (like elite/people), it remains a project of “oppositional populism” (pp 178-81).

One of the constraining factors of the movement, pointed out by Nilsen, is the discrepancies between the articulations of movement intellectuals (and leaders) and the subjective understandings of different groups within the movement. Although he argues this only in the context of the claim of alternative development, it would be useful to extend this discussion to the principles, strategies and methods of the Andolan. Nilsen ­argues correctly that processes through which movements are produced are too complex for simplistic binaries of ­“imposed” or “organic” ideologies. And yet, one wonders to what extent do the ideologies of movement intellectuals, in this case urban, educated activists (many of whom were social workers and action researchers committed to Gandhian ­politics), determine the strategies and course adopted by a social movement? And how can this be related to democratic ­decision-making within move­ments for participatory democracy and social justice? The description of move­ment process by Nilsen as a journey where activists “start from the inside and work their way out” (p 193), i e, a move from concrete lifeworlds of people to an abstract conception of the social totality, begs this question: do not acti­vists already possess a conception of social totality when they begin to intervene in everyday routines and struggles to build a social movement project? How does this initial perception then affect and impinge upon the movement ­pro­cess ­itself? Nilsen’s work is admirable ­because it creates the possibility of raising such questions through its insights and detail, questions that maybe considered by scholars with respect to other social movements, and that maybe of some ­relevance to movement participants.

Some Questions

Perhaps the most important theme that recurs through the book is the relationship between social movements from ­below and the state. The Andolan serves as the perfect site for investigating this, since it has consistently engaged with the state, through dialogue, protest and negotiations, in the attempt to make it abide by its own promises and consti­tutional obligations. Reflecting on the ­experiences of KMCS and the Andolan, Nilsen asks himself again and again: to what extent can the goals of social movements be achieved by acting through the state, its agencies, institutions and ideo­logies? (p 148). His answer, in the concluding chapter of the book, is that there are possibilities as well as limits to ­subaltern empowerment within India’s ­polity. Therefore, he argues, that it is “necessary to steer a strategic course ­between anti-statism on the one hand, and state-centrism on the other…”, to have an “instrumental rather than a committed engagement with the state-system”, to interact with and approach the state based on limited expectations of what can be gained, a clear perception of what cannot, and the potential risks of pur­suing this avenue (p 200). This is sound advice for social movements, ­especially those that place dispro­portionate ­emphasis on constitutional promises, ­judicial redressal and ameliorative ­legislations.

However, several questions arise from the prospect and experience of “instrumental engagement” with the state. What happens when state institutions, on their part, appropriate the spaces and oppositional projects of social movements from below? How do configurations ­between state and social movements change, when the demands of the latter are recognised, conceded and institutionalised in the form of legislations like Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled ­Areas) Act 1996, Right to Information Act 2005 and the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006? Can the discourse of rights-based governance be utilised to advance the projects of ­social movements without succumbing to state-centrism? Anti-displacement stru­ggles and alliances like NAPM are confronted with these questions at a time when the century-old law on land acqui­sition is about to be scrapped and a new, “more progressive, rights-based” law on acquisition, resettlement and ­rehabilitation is on the anvil.4 Nilsen’s research paves the way for exploring these questions from the point of view of ­social movements which share the agenda of social transformation.

In the end, Nilsen reminds us that the possibility of radical social change ultimately lies in building alliances between different social movements, in developing a capacity for counter-hegemony and posing systemic challenges to the present socio-historical totality. As he notes, the material basis for such alliances has been created in the present neo-liberal phase by locating “diverse processes of dispossession within the framework of primitive accumulation” (p 201). How far such alliances materialise and succeed will determine the future course of India’s development and its outcomes for the oppressed and struggling groups of the country.


1 The phrase has been borrowed from Nilsen (2009).

2 This is attempted by the author elsewhere (Nilsen 2009), but is not present in the book under review.

3 The fact that the need for social justice, environmental sustainability and participatory ­democracy have arisen as part of the project of development, and yet cannot be satisfied ­within its present framework, is identified as one of the main contradictions.

4 The example can be extended to other spheres as well, as in the case of extractive mining in adivasi areas where there is a pending proposal for sharing of 25% profits of mining companies with local communities.


Goodwin, Jeff and James M Jasper (2003): “Introduction” in Goodwin, Jeff and James M Jasper (ed.), The Social Movements Reader: Cases and Concepts (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers).

Harvey, David (2005): A Brief History of Neolibera­lism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Nilsen, Alf Gunvald (2009): “The Authors and the Actors of Their Own Drama: Towards a Marxist Theory of Social Movements”, Capital and Class, No 99, Autumn, pp 109-39.

Sinha, Subir (2003): “Development Counter-Narratives: Taking Social Movements Seriously” in K Sivaramakrishnan and A Agrawal (ed.), ­Regional Modernities: The Cultural Politics of Development in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press)

Link to the review: http://www.epw.in/book-reviews/resisting-development-theorising-resistance.html

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