Alf Gunvald Nilsen and Srila Roy

This is the text of a presentation given at a book launch at the Centre of Global South-Asian Studies at Copenhagen University, 11/9/2015. A full recording of the presentations by Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Srila Roy, Kenneth Bo Nielsen, and Luisa Steur as well as comments and discussion can be accessed here.

Screenshot 2015-09-11 16.38.01How do subaltern groups negotiate and resist power in India today? This is the question at the heart of our book New Subaltern Politics: Reconceptualizing Hegemony and Resistance in Contemporary India (Oxford University Press). The book approaches this question through a wide range of case studies of subaltern mobilization, and through a critical dialogue with the analytical templates developed in, through, and in extension of the Subaltern Studies project.

Given that out concern is with new forms of subaltern politics, this approach might beg the question: why engage a project that has been mainly preoccupied with the domain of history? The principal reason for this is quite simply that the Subaltern Studies project has been of singular importance in directing scholarly attention to popular politics, and in seeking to make sense of this form of collective agency it is well nigh impossible not to enter into some kind of debate with its key claims.

Skjermbilde 2015-09-05 14.14.41I want to say a few things about our discussion of the reconceptualization of hegemony in this context. Compared to the rich debates on subalternity, which Srila will discuss in a minute, relatively little attention was devoted to the conceptualization of hegemony in relation to the Subaltern Studies project until Ranajit Guha published his seminal essay on dominance without hegemony in colonial India. Crucially, the notion of hegemony that emerges from this essay is one that is marked in some ways by the binary way of thinking which was at the heart of the Subaltern Studies project from its outset. According to Guha, hegemony is the hallmark of western bourgeois states, where ruling groups have incorporated subaltern groups in a liberal-democratic political culture, whereas the colonial state “was structured like a despotism, with no mediating depths, no space provided for transactions between the will of the rulers and that of the ruled”. And this failure to establish hegemony has been reproduced, Guha argues, in the postcolonial state.

My own contribution to this volume starts from the observation that this Manichean understanding of hegemony, state power and political culture – a view which is also foundational to much of the work of Partha Chatterjee and Sudipta Kaviraj – breaks down when it is considered in light of the character of actually existing subaltern politics, both past and present. What we are confronted with – more often than not – are contentious negotiations of the terms on which subaltern groups are incorporated into determinate political economies enacted through oppositional appropriations of idioms of rule and governance.

In order to be able to grapple with these dynamics, it is necessary to consider hegemony not as the passive inculcation of a dominant ideology and as being defined exclusively by consent, but rather as a form of rule that rests upon what Gramsci referred to as unstable equilibria of compromise between dominant and subaltern groups. These equilibria, I argue, are produced through processes of contention in which some subaltern groups find that their demands are accommodated, while others find themselves subjected to various forms and degrees of coercion. And crucially, these processes are mediated through “the integral state” – that is, the fusion of political society on the one hand and civil society on the other hand.

Screenshot 2015-09-11 16.44.20Viewing hegemony in this way – as a contested process in which consent and coercion are closely intertwined – is particularly relevant in terms of understanding the character of India’s neoliberal turn. This project is clearly moulded by elite interests and the state has repeatedly shown its willingness to mobilize coercive power in the face of popular resistance and belligerent civil society activism: the examples range from Operation Green Hunt to the Modi government’s crackdown on NGOs like Greenpeace. However, at the same time, India’s neoliberalization has also witnessed significant attempts to garner subaltern consent – above all through rights-based legislation, the incorporation of oppositional agendas in governance, and the expansion of the popular foundations of popular democracy through decentralization. It goes without saying that these equations complicate the articulations of subaltern politics in India today.

How do we think about subalternity today? We suggest an understanding that is (i) relational, (ii) intersectional, and (iii) dynamic. Let’s consider each of these dimensions in turn.

When we argue that subalternity is relational, we attempt to move beyond the usage of the term as an identity category and work towards a definition of subalternity as a position of adverse incorporation into a socially and historically specific set of power relations. As we argue in our introduction to the volume, this understanding of subalternity draws on the trajectory of the term “subaltern” within the Subaltern Studies project itself, which exhibits a shift of perspective from identity to power – particularly associated with Spivak’s critical intervention [and the turn within the project towards postcolonial studies and a critical perspective on power relations.

Screenshot 2015-09-11 16.48.49We also argue that subalternity has to be understood in intersectional terms. In making this argument, we draw on new readings of Gramsci – especially that of Marcus Green – which point out that in its original incarnation, the term was not a codeword for “the working class”, but rather a heuristic device that made it possible to grapple with how domination and subordination is always an effect of the ways in which multiple relations of power converge and overlap between different social groups.

Several chapters in the volume underscore the limitations of understanding marginalisation simply in relation to any particular social category and argue for the necessity of opening a wider discursive field to rethink subalternity from the perspective of the intersectionality of race, class, gender, sexuality and religion.

Taken together, a relational and intersectional perspective on subalternity complicates any quest for a “pure” subaltern sphere or “autonomous” subaltern agent, and entails an insistence that subalternity can only be explored in the context of specific and actually existing configurations of power. What this means is that the subaltern cannot be thought of as existing outside of power relations. This argument, of course, draws on Spivak’s intervention, but as we know, her critique went so far as to suggest that the impossibility of subaltern agency – this was the essence of her claim that “the subaltern cannot speak”. In order to push beyond an impasse in which we are forced to choose between either a subaltern subject that is entirely autonomous (Guha) or one that is entirely subordinated (Spivak) we turn once again to Gramsci’s understanding of subalternity, which incorporates political agency, but this agency is conditioned by hegemonic institutions and relations; it is not necessarily transgressive of these, and does not occur in some autonomous realm. The essays in the volume eschew expectations of purity in reading both subalternity and subaltern politics as being firmly embedded in particular historical and social conjunctures and as being potentially transformative of the same.

Let me illustrate these three attributes of subalternity by drawing on my own contribution to the volume – a critical reading of Screenshot 2015-09-11 16.46.05lesbian politics in contemporary India. Subalternity here does not simply refer to sexual minorities but to relations of sexuality, patriarchy, and gender in and through which certain groups and individuals are positioned as subordinates or inferiors. To this extent, “sexual subaltern” can function analytically to expose the workings of “sexual normativity”, especially through a focus on what it marginalizes and excludes.

An intersectional conception of subalternity is especially important in the case of lesbians who might – like the middle class activists who are the subjects of my research – be privileged by virtue of class but not gender or sexuality. A more intersectional deployment of subalternity would equally make it possible to understand that a woman can be working class and lesbian. Finally, in bringing to the fore the affective dimension of lesbian activism, I show its productive as well as disciplining capacities. The focus on affect further complicates any simply proclamations about agency or its lack. Instead it shows political formations to be highly unstable and contingent formations whose effects cannot be anticipated in advance.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen on Caste, Community and Class in West Bengal’s Singur Movement

Now, the empirical case material that I present in my chapter concerns one of the most talked-about popular rural movements in India over the past decade, namely that in Singur in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal. As many of you will know, Singur was slated to host a car factory that would produce the Tata Nano, the world’s least expensive car. But while the factory was indeed built according to plan, not a single vehicle was ever produced there. The protest movement launched by local land losers, strongly supported by civil society groups and political parties, acquired such force and momentum that Tata Motors eventually decided to quit Singur for greener Gujarati pastures in Sanand where, incidentally, Ratan Tata was welcomed with open arms and a trademark bear hug from Narendra Modi, India’s current PM.

The Singur case is interesting for several reasons, and indeed, much has been written about it. In the context of subaltern politics, however, it is especially interesting because it formed an important anecdotal point of departure – along with a similar movement in Nandigram – in Partha Chatterjee’s seminal essay in EPW titled ‘Democracy and Economic Transformation in India’. Here Chatterjee writes, with reference to Singur and Nandigram, that

If these incidents had taken place twenty-five years ago, we would have seen in them the classic signs of peasant insurgency. Here were the long-familiar features of a peasantry, tied to the land and small-scale agriculture, united by the cultural and moral bonds of a local rural community, resisting the agents of an external state and of city-based commercial institutions by using both peaceful and violent means … I believe that analysis would be inappropriate today.

Chatterjee goes on to link the analysis of the political economy of development in contemporary India to the analysis of the modalities of popular politics through which demands are channelled on the state – I will tell you more about the result of his endeavour soon. Published in 2008, Chatterjee’s essay has already been cited in 248 other publications, according to Google Scholar. And, the original book on which many of the arguments in Democracy and Economic Transformation are based, namely ‘The Politics of the Governed’ from 2004, already has a whopping 1559 citations to its credit, according to the same source. Chatterjee’s more recent interventions in the subaltern studies debate are thus important ones. And the aim of my chapter is to engage some of his more recent reconceptualisations of the subaltern studies project – and I deliberately say engage them, not invert them, as other scholars have sought to do – using the same starting point as he himself did in Democracy and Economic Transformation…namely Singur.

But since the book which we are launching today, and this seminar as well, is concerned with conceptualisations, I will spare you the empirical details of my chapter and simply outline the ways in which it engages the writings of Chatterjee, most importantly the notion of community that was important in the original subaltern studies school, and which remains important today, both in scholarly work on popular politics and as a mobilizational trope around which popular struggles are organised.

Now, the idea that the subaltern is embedded in a community has been of significant analytical importance for Subaltern Studies from the outset. It was operative in the foundational structural distinction as formulated by Ranajit Guha, which posited subaltern politics and consciousness as distinct and autonomous from that of the elite. In contrast to the individualistic and ‘vertical’ nature of elite politics, the subaltern organised his politics horizontally along the lines of kinship and territoriality (Guha 1988, 40). In the words of Partha Chatterjee (1988, 10), the single unifying idea that gave to subaltern and peasant insurgency its fundamental social character was thus the notion and principle of community. Insurgent subalterns, Chatterjee claimed, were tied together by bonds of solidarity that preceded collective action, not vice versa:

In peasant consciousness … solidarities do not grow because individuals feel they can come together because of their common individual interests: on the contrary, individuals are enjoined to act within a collective because, it is believed, there already exists bonds of solidarity which tie them together (Chatterjee 1988, 10).

Although Chatterjee acknowledges that peasant communities were differentiated and not necessarily egalitarian unities, they were unities nonetheless (Chatterjee 1988, 14). And this ‘community unity’ would, as Chatterjee (2013, 72-3) has recently reiterated, be ‘activated’ during ‘political struggles’ against especially government officials and big landlords.

But as indicated above, this analysis will no longer do – for a whole range of reasons that you can read about in Luisa’s chapter. In place of ‘the peasant community’ as the locus of political action, Chatterjee suggests that in the current era of governmentality and the rise of the developmental state, we need to focus on “population groups” as the locus of politics – “population groups” that are, in the Foucauldian sense, empirically defined by and through new technologies of governance. Today, it is more often than not governmental categories – “the poor”; “the dispossessed”; “refugees”; “the landless” – that define the ground of political action. The idea of subaltern politics as “communal politics”, in other words, seems to disappear from the analysis.

And yet, the notion of community makes a comeback through the backdoor. Once defined, a population group may generate its own associations, organisations or movements to strategically negotiate with governmental authorities, political parties, NGOs or other actors to further their own cause. It is here that the notion of community returns since the political mobilisation of population groups, Chatterjee writes, involves strategic efforts to turn an empirically formed population group into a ‘moral community’. A central claim here is thus that the politics of the governed today is a politics of communities that are not given but rather strategically created in the course of political action. So, granting Chatterjee the benefit of doubt, what my paper seeks to examine is: how does this process occur in actually existing forms of popular politics? And what does it gloss over?

And if you want to know my answers to these questions you have to read the chapter. But briefly, the argument is that ideas about community cannot substitute for a careful and empirically grounded engagement with the on-the-ground dynamics of contemporary subaltern politics, an engagement that must have one eye on the particularities of place, identity and local social hierarchies, and the other on the larger politics of representation.


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