Alf Gunvald Nilsen

(Based on a talk at the international workshop Neoliberal Development and Indian Democracy: The Politics of Rights, Rebellions and Reforms, Stockholm University, 10-12 October 2013)

Introductory Remarks

Having been asked to talk about the emergence of ‘vernacular rights cultures’ in the Bhil heartland, I should start by explaining what I understand by this concept. The term is a borrowed one – I draw it from a reading of Sumi Madhok’s fascinating work on rights-based claims-making in northwestern India (see e.g. Madhok, 2013). The term is a useful one in that it directs our attention to the fact that the emergence of rights cultures does not entail the unfolding of a universal liberal-democratic script centred on the personal and political rights. Rather, claims for democratic rights and the prerogatives of citizenship emerge in the context of and are refracted through regional histories of claims-making, and are consrquently also mediated through and inflected with vernacular idioms that are specific to a given locale of struggle (see e.g. Subramanian, 2009).

Alirajpur1This insight can be extremely useful as we seek to grapple with the emergence of rights-based legislation and activism that is focused on the introduction and implementation of such legislation in India. In a perceptive article in Pacific Affairs, Phillipa  Williams and colleagues argue that the proliferation of rights-based legislation under the UPA1/2 governments has pluralized the spaces within which subaltern groups can craft rights-based claims – and an awareness of the role played by processes of vernacularization will surely be relevant to the study of new and emergent forms of subaltern politics in India (Williams, Vira and Chopra, 2011).

The article is also a very good example of another trend in current scholarship on state-society relations and subaltern politics in India in its conceptual reliance on the Foucauldian notion of “governmentality” in which state power is not understood as emanating from a unitary centre of power, but as being manifest instead in multiple and contradictory articulations of power dispersed across a multiplicity of sites (see Foucault, 2009). This enables an analytical engagement with subaltern politics as it actually exists in neoliberal India, but – as I have also argued elsewhere (Nilsen, 2011) – it arguably leaves us ill-equipped to understand those moments when the state actually comes to act in a unified manner in response to assertion from below.

In the following reflections, then, I shall try to illustrate the relevance of the idea of vernacularization in the study of democratic subaltern politics and to argue for the need to integrate the insights of the new Foucauldian ethnographies of state-society relations in India with a historical sociology of colonial and postcolonial state formation.

Everyday Tyranny in the Bhil Heartland

The area that I refer to as the Bhil heartland comprises districts in eastern Gujarat, northeastern Maharashtra, western Madhya Pradesh, and southern Rajasthan in which the Bhil Adivasis of western India are concentrated. My own research in this region has focused on western Madhya Pradesh, and the emergence of grassroots struggles in this region that aimed to democratize local state-society relations during the 1980s and 1990s. I have focused in particular on the activism of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (Alirajpur district) and the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (Khargone district).


In western Madhya Pradesh, the state was not present in the lives of Bhil Adivasis as an entity upon which citizens could make claims, or in the form of public servants that were dedicated to providing basic services and entitlements to the local population. Quite the contrary – the state was present in a form which I refer to as “everyday tyranny”; that is, petty state officials (forest guards, police constables, revenue officers) would demand bribes in cash and in kind on a regular basis from the Bhil communities, often as an “exchange” for letting them carry out cultivation in the state-owned forests. The demands for bribes were underpinned by threats and use of force and violence, which combined with a lack of awareness of basic democratic rights among local Adivasis to produce a culture of fear, deference and aquiescence in relation to the local state. “They didn’t know, and whenever any authority came to their house, they thought God himself had come”, one group of activists explained. “They were afraid and whenever someone came, they would get even more frightened and tremble with fear.”

Adivasi activists, Alirajpur, madhya Pradesh, India, March 2003Everyday tyranny came in for a challenge in both Alirajpur and Khargone districts in western Madhya Pradesh when middle-class activists – essentially, educated youth from urban centres – arrived in the area in the early 1980s intent on mobilizing among the Bhils. A central aspect of the early mobilizing strategy was centred on addressing specific grievances – for example, a particular case of corruption and abuse by forest guards and police. And this strategy yielded results: the movements were able to win what one activist referred to as “small victories” – the return of a bribe, an apology for misbehaviour, the transfer of an errant public servant – which gradually reversed the grammar of fear, deference and acquiescence that had characterized the relationship between the Bhils and the local state. This in turn came to constitute an experiential counterweight that engendered a transformation of emotional dispositions: a recurrent theme among Bhil activists is that of losing their fear of the state, and “learning how to speak” in the face of power. The impact of this change in emotional dispositions was bolstered by the acquisition of skills that allowed Bhil activists to navigate the state machinery, and the emergence of a consciousness that was centred on democratic rights and constitional entitlements. The transformation was described as follows by a seasoned Bhil activist from Khargone:

“Everybody would say and think that the sarkar is the biggest among us. They thought that the hands of the sarkar were very big. Whatever the authorities say, that must be done. The village had no status at all. They would say that the sarkar’s arm is big and long. It was later that we realized that, in reality, we are the ones who have voted and made the sarkar – then we should also know what the law is, right? Later on we realized that they are making fools of us – so why is the sarkar’s arm long?”

Towards a Vernacular Rights Culture

The democratic culture that emerged through these struggles came to be vernacularized as movements in the region – and in particular, the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan – became involved with the campaign for the implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) during the middle of the 1990s. The act itself was intended to underpin and promote the ability of the gram sabhas in Adivasi communities to govern their own natural resources, and this left its imprint on the way in which Bhil activists came to articulate their notion of democratic rights. An activist of the AMS put it like this:

“… they said that our rule means that all of that which is there in the village , in our village, our voice should be listened to or heard. Whether it is the sarkar or some neta, everything should belong to us – then only will our rule be established. This was the Sangathan. After that, the land, jungle and water belong to us. Bhai, when you are living there [in the city], then everything here including the river and the well belongs to us. Yes, we do have the right to cut trees; you do not, We have the right to irrigate our lands. You all live there, not here like us. On everything we should have rights.”

Photo by Priyanka Borpujari
Photo by Priyanka Borpujari

In other words, the rights-based claims that were articulated by the AMS were increasingly couched in terms of a collective Adivasi identity centred on an awareness of having been unjustly dispossessed of natural resources and subordinated to an undemocratic state apparatus, and a demand that this historical injustice be rectified through the restitution of Bhil sovereignty within a specific territory.

Mobilization around PESA proved to be an effective strategy for the AMS. Not only did the movement spread its organizational reach throughout the area very quickly, they also started fielding candidates for local elections. In doing this, they were also successful in displacing some of the sarpanches who had functioned as the bridgeheads of Congress hegemony in the Bhil communities. The Sangathan, in other words, was becoming a force to be reckoned with through its mobilization for Adivasi self-rule.

However, this advance also produced a virulent response from above. As has been amply documented in the detailed work of Amita Baviskar, the upper echelons of the Madhya Pradesh state government responded to the progress made by the AMS through a highly coordinated campaign of repression in which the state bureaucracy and paramilitary forces were mobilized alongside a state-backed vigilante group operating under the name of Adivasi Sudhar Shanti Sena to crush the Sangathan (Baviskar, 2001). Over a period of two years, intense coercion – culminating in the custodial death of an AMS activist – succeded in bringing the Sangathan on the defensive and ultimately eroding its organizational and mobilizational capacities. Speaking to the media at the time, an activist described the process in the following way: “The Shanti Sena has gone all out in its attempt to subdue us. Since they have the backing of the police, we cannot even register cases, leave alone expect the administration to take action.”

Concluding Remarks

In the above remarks I have tried to provide an account of a specific case of subaltern mobilization that was centred on the formation of a vernacular rights culture of Adivasi sovereignty. In so doing, I have tried to illuminate how such mobilization can make important headway in terms of reversing the disenfranchisement of subaltern groups in contemporary India, while at the same time not losing sight of the limits that these processes of mobilization might encounter. And it is precisely with the question of opportunities for and limitations to subaltern emancipation that I want to conclude this talk.

Photo by Priyanka Borpujari
Photo by Priyanka Borpujari

As I stated in the introductory remarks, I believe that there are certain shortcomings in those understandings of state-society relations that conceive of state power as something which is simply dispersed across a multiplicity of sites in the form of technologies of rule. What these shortcomings are become evident if we consider for a moment the things we have to understand in order to make sense of the trajectory of the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan: (i) the making of a “colonial state space” (Goswami, 2004) in which Bhils came to be subordinated and disenfranchised in relation to new modalities of state power; (ii) the reproduction of princely power in western Madhya Pradesh as a result of the way in which the Congress established its hegemony in postcolonial India through local notables; (iii) the persistence of the adverse incorporation of Adivasi communities in the regional political economy of western India as a result of this reproduction of what are in effect colonial power relations.

To me, this suggests that in order to fully understand and engage with subaltern mobilizations around vernacular rights cultures, we need to fuse the attentiveness to the micro-politics of contemporary state-society relations that has been advanced by the recent Foucauldian turn in political ethnography with an orientation towards the political economy of state formation as a master change process unfolding across historical time. The point of doing so is not merely scholarly, but ultimately also political, as it will help us to craft analyses of oppostional strategies that are more attuned how dominant social groups can operate through the institutions of the state to impose structural limits on the advances that subaltern groups can make in specific locales of resistance.


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