People & Politics

Legacies of a colonial state

By Javed Iqbal

25 January 2013

Shashank Kela speaks about his new book, A Rogue and Peasant Slave: 200 years of Adivasi Resistance.
Men and women from the Narmada valley protesting against the Narmada dam. "La Llorona's Sacred Waters", a mural by Juana Alicia on York and 24th in San Francisco.  Flickr: anirvan

Men and women from the Narmada valley protesting against the Narmada dam. “La Llorona’s Sacred Waters”, a mural by Juana Alicia on York and 24th in San Francisco.
Flickr: anirvan

Shashank Kela’s book A Rogue and Peasant Slave has more to do with the present state of Adivasi politics than the history of over two centuries of Adivasi resistance. One can perhaps treat the book as a source of history that is yet to be written. It is a great tragedy that there is such a scarcity of Adivasi literature, written by the people it speaks for. With Adivasi languages left to languish, academia has become the only source of knowledge on Adivasi resistance. 

The first part of Kela’s book covers the history of the Adivasis of the Bhils of Nimar in Madhya Pradesh. His archival research demonstrates the devastating impact of colonialism on Adivasi societies, and traces historical continuities into the present. The evidence of racism and the manner of co-option, excessive taxation, betrayal and violent subjugation by colonial officers and the ruling elite is well documented. Bhil rebellions were met with brutal suppression. The Bhils started to lose land – little by little – to ‘foreigners’ and caste-based societies, and were driven further into the forests. The state not only failed to protect them, but exacerbated the process of land alienation with the desire to ‘civilise’ the rogue peasant in the hill and bring him down to settled agriculture where he could be taxed into submission. For Kela, the process of breaking down Adivasi resistance started with the disarming of Adivasi societies during colonialism, and continues today with the invasion of non-Adivasis on Adivasi land. 

Kela eventually takes the tragic history of the Bhils into the second part of his book to cover the story of Adivasi politics since Independence. The book is comprehensive, with countless references to various movements: Kalinganagar in Orissa, where land acquisition for Tata Steel turned violent on 2 January 2006, when the police opened fire on protesting Adivasis, leaving 14 dead; Niyamgiri, where Dongria Kondhs are protesting against Vedanta Aluminium; Dhanbad in Jharkhand – formerly in Bihar – where a militant miner’s union fought its war of attrition against coal mafias with demands for better working conditions and wages, and built a strong alliance with the Adivasi movement in their demand for the state of Jharkhand. 

India is a land with pockets of protest, resistance and rebellion. Javed Iqbal speaks to Shashank Kela about his new book. 

Your book describes how Adivasi rebellions, one after another (especially in the Bhils), were brutally crushed by the colonial regime, and how an unintended effect of colonialism was the penetration of non-Adivasis and upper caste gentry into Adivasi areas – a process of exploitation which is ongoing. Do you see changes in the modes of defence and protest employed by Adivasis and the lower caste, as compared to the years before Independence?

I would say first of all, that immigration into Adivasi regions during the colonial period was not completely unintended: the colonial state wanted to replace all forms of forest-based cultivation with market-oriented agriculture, divorced from forest use. It saw non-Adivasi immigrants as facilitators in that process. It wanted revenues from agriculture and forests – by selling timber. The basic objective of the Indian state is the same in the sense that it tries to abolish the subsistence use of forests, although the range of resources it seeks to extract is very different. 

As far as modes of protest are concerned, I think the dividing line is Birsa Munda’s rebellion [which culminated in 1899-1900]. That was the last of the large-scale armed rebellions so common in the 19th century. As the socio-economic context keeps changing for the worse – with more dispossessions and impoverishment – Adivasi societies become increasingly marginal, and the state becomes stronger. So, the only way of protest left is the modern way of organising peacefully and petitioning.

The recent ‘Narmada Jal Satyagraha’ in East Nimar [which started on 25 August 2012], where farmers submerged themselves in water – to protest against inadequate rehabilitation and the rising water level from the Omkareshwar dam – is a long way from armed rebellion. Have you seen an evolution or devolution in Adivasi, Dalit or peasant protests across the Northeast? 

It’s true that the tradition of armed resistance survives only in Maoist rebellions – and they are not indigenous because the leadership is almost completely non-Adivasi (even if the question of ideology is put to one side). But it shows that when desperation becomes acute, the impulse to resist by fighting back remains alive. For the rest, I don’t know whether Adivasi, Dalit and peasant forms of protest have evolved or regressed. Perhaps the overwhelming strength of the state forces them to take up the only forms of protest available. I think the process of acculturation also plays a role in determining what is seen as feasible.

Perhaps the primacy of the middle-class Adivasi and Dalit, in terms of political representation also subtly distorts choices and forms. I think there is a great failure in the persisting incapacity to build solid and enduring bridges between different Adivasi – and Dalit – struggles, to unify them so as to make them politically more effective.

Have you noticed differences in forms of protest, between the indigenous, and the landed gentry – that has now, ironically, also become a victim of a long history of neo-colonial attitudes about development?

I think that there is a striking difference between Adivasi protests and farmers’ protests. Adivasi protests are much more intense and ask fundamental questions about the state, while farmers’ movements only seek to negotiate a better deal within the system. They don’t envisage any other system. And of course they actively suppress any discussion of caste or the problems of landless labourers who are forcibly subsumed into the so-called village community. K Balagopal has written some brilliant pieces about this with reference to Andhra Pradesh. I wouldn’t be surprised if a farmers’ movement began asking for the repeal of NREGA [National Rural Employment Guarantee Act]. Even among farmers’ movements fighting displacement, there seems to be much more readiness to take cash compensation instead of demanding land for land. This is because farming castes are embedded in the market economy and also in structures of power. And even the state deals with them differently. 


You mention that there is a dearth of Adivasi literature and that access to Adivasi history is at the mercy of academia, barring of course, Mahasweta Devi. But did you – yourself – intend to write this book for the general population, or do you feel your book might also be inaccessible to the people it represents?

I wanted this book to be read by a general readership and not only by academics. Hence, an analysis of politics follows immediately after the historical section, which I wrote as a chronological narrative for easier reading. I thought that the synthesis in the second section would be useful for the general reader in clearly understanding the connections between the past and present. But this imagined reader remains, of course, the middle-class non-Adivasi. My book, like a lot of books in English, is inaccessible to the people it talks about. But hopefully a Hindi translation will appear one day.

In his review of your book, Uday Chandra states “Kela’s conception of Adivasi resistance suffers from the same defects that beset the Subaltern Studies collective in the 1980s and 1990s. Much like Ranajit Guha’s overly romanticised account of tribal rebellion, A Rogue and Peasant Slave, too, pits entire tribal communities against the state. This is the left romantic’s idea of resistance, and in our times, Arundhati Roy has emerged as the leading representative of this genre. A more empirically grounded conception of resistance may be located in negotiations between Adivasis and the state.” Would you agree with him, or do you think he misread your book?

About Uday Chandra’s review: he deliberately misreads and misrepresents the book, pretends that I say and imply things that I don’t say or imply, and ignores the things that I do say and which run counter to his presentation of the book. All the other reviews so far – and they have mostly been newspaper reviews – have described the contents of the book accurately. Chandra doesn’t even do that.

For example, I describe at length how different Bhil sub-groups reacted differently to colonialism: the Bhils and their Naiks fought and lost, the Bhilala Bhumias of the Vindhyas collaborated and became Rajputs; the Bhilalas of the Satpudas may have partly collaborated and partly resisted and ended up becoming socially dominant peasants within Bhil society – despite their very real economic plight. I have made a conscious effort not to romanticise the historical or the contemporary situation.

You speak of Adivasi movements led by the middle class, especially comparing Koel Karo to Narmada. Even though Koel Karo ‘won’ for the people, it did not receive the kind of reputation that Narmada enjoyed. Would you care to comment on the middle-class media representation of the Adivasi movements?

Middle-class media representation of Adivasi movements is, I think, usually perfunctory and condescending. What the media likes are charismatic (whatever that means), articulate middle-class non-Adivasis speaking on behalf of Adivasis. Independent Adivasi leaders and representatives have little time, even in Jharkhand. Partly this might also be because Adivasi leaders of Adivasi movements speak a somewhat shrill, maximalist language, without too much nuance. But given their position and experience, what else can they do? But mainly it has to do with the middle-class upbringing of most journalists which makes them insensitive to any fundamental questioning of the status quo, with a few exceptions.

~ Javed Iqbal is a freelance journalist who writes about the problems faced by Adivasis in central India. He worked for the New Indian Express, covering Operation Green Hunt in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, from 2009 to 2011.


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