Resistance is the Pulse of the World’s Largest Democracy

Resistance is the Pulse of the World’s Largest Democracy

Alf Gunvald Nilsen

Almost five years have passed since the Indian general election of 2014, which saw Narendra Modi and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party win a landslide victory. If Modi himself were to be believed, his reign would bring “acche din” (good days) to the people of India through growth, jobs, and prosperity. This promised scenario, however, has failed to materialize – indeed, wealth and income has never been as unequally distributed as it is in today’s India. What has emerged instead is a deeply perilous conjuncture for the world’s largest democracy, in which dissent and oppositional activism is at the receiving end of an authoritarian onslaught enacted by the Modi regime in the name of the Indian nation.

This became very clear in August this year, when several prominent human rights activists were arrested in a nationwide police sweep. They were accused of being linked to Maoist rebels, and the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that they were involved in smuggling weapons, aiding the insurgents, and plotting to assassinate the Prime Minister. The August arrests fit into a pattern of disconcerting events, in which progressive journalists, dissidents, and activists have been the targets of silencing, harassment, and – as evidenced by the killings of M.M. Kalburgi, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh – murderous violence.

These attacks are closely related to a political narrative that is being circulated in India’s public sphere. According to this narrative, activism and dissent goes against the national common good, and those who engage in it are labelled as “anti-national” agents of sedition. As I have argued elsewhere, this narrative is put to use to create the enemy within that Modi’s project of authoritarian populism needs in order to justify the escalated use of repression. In other words, this is a profoundly anti-democratic narrative, and as such, it must be countered. One way of doing this is to insist on its opposite – namely that resistance, rather than being a betrayal of the nation, is in fact the very pulse of Indian democracy. Let me explain what this means with an example from my most recent book – Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartland.

Adivasis (tribal/indigenous) groups constitute the poorest of the poor in India today. Indeed, almost half of all Adivasis – some 44.7 per cent – live below a very meagre poverty line of 816 Rupees (£8.32/$12.75) per month for rural households. This poverty is in part an expression of the fact that Adivasi livelihoods are based on fragile combinations of subsistence agriculture and migration for casual work in urban areas, but it is also a result of the fact that Adivasis are often fundamentally disenfranchised in India’s democracy. Lacking a political voice, it is often not possible for them to make effective collective demands for redistribution and recognition.

In the remote rural areas of western Madhya Pradesh, where I carried out research for my book, this disenfranchisement took the form of what I call the everyday tyranny of the local state. Here, 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 on local Bhil Adivasi communities. 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. Ordinary Bhils would defer to local state personnel and acquiesce in their coercive demands. “People – well, they had seen this happen for a long time, even before independence,” one Adivasi activist told me. “So there was always a fear of the state, from rule in that sense.”

This, however, began to change in the 1980s and 1990s, when local social movements emerged to challenge the everyday tyranny of the state. These movements emerged from a series of encounters that took place as middle class activists and Bhil Adivasis grouped together to challenge the misconduct of state personnel. These encounters generated the moral courage necessary in order to claim the right to have rights in relation to the local state. Mobilization also fostered reciprocal emotions of trust, solidarity, and friendship that underpinned the two movements I investigate in the book – the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS) and the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan (AMS).

As a result of this, a new activist ethos crystallized in the Bhil Adivasi communities of western Madhya Pradesh, which aimed to ensure that legality prevailed in local state-society relations. By organizing opposition and aggregating Adivasi grievances into rights-based claims and demands, the KMCS and the AMS democratized local state-society relations in a very fundamental way. Moreover – and perhaps even more significantly – the two movements fostered a new and insurgent sense of citizenship in communities that had previously been subordinated to an oppressive state apparatus. As I show in the book, this insurgent sense of citizenship was rooted in claims for local self-rule for Adivasis as well as in demands for the restitution of land and other natural resources of which they had been dispossessed. In this sense, then, the two movements also deepened democracy beyond its liberal confines, to encompass redressal for historical injustices.

This is of course only one example – and a very local one at that. But it nevertheless shows us a very important truth, namely that the social movements of exploited and oppressed groups play a fundamental role in both ensuring that India’s democracy works and in expanding its scope.

Adivasi movements such as the ones that are the focus of my new book are just one example of this dynamic. Anti-caste movements have been at the heart of similar dynamics in terms of challenging caste oppression and securing, at the very least, legal rights and reservations for Dalits and lower caste groups. The Indian women’s movement has taken on patriarchal power and situated feminist claims and demands squarely at the centre of debate in the Indian polity, and queer mobilization has led to the repeal of colonial laws that outlawed gay sex. Furthermore, during the decade between 2004 and 2014, social movements were key in driving the installation of several progressive laws that enshrined both civil and social rights, such as the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee, and the Forest Rights Act.

In historical perspective, of course, India won its freedom through popular struggle. Importantly, that struggle was not shaped by a single and uniform idea of what the postcolonial nation should look like. On the contrary, the three decades from 1920 to the late 1940s saw intense struggles between the interests of Indian elites and the aspirations of exploited and excluded groups, such as landless workers and the urban poor. Ultimately, what all this means is that, far from being anti-national, dissent, activism and resistance have played an integral part in the making and remaking the Indian nation since its very conception. This truth is important not just because of the anti-democratic nature of the Modi regime, but also because it is popular struggles that can make Indian democracy more than what it currently is by winning progressive forms of redistribution and recognition in favour of the country’s subaltern citizens.


Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria.

Image Credit: Joe Athialy