A Rogue and Peasant Slave: Adivasi resistance, 1800-2000 attempts to reconstruct the history of Adivasis in central India’s Adivasi belt, primarily through the experience of the Bhil Adivasis of the Nimar area in western Madhya Pradesh, in order to try to understand their present reality. Based primarily on archival materials, Shashank Kela’s narrative captures the lives of Adivasis vividly and in great detail, as people in transition and not frozen in time; Kela tracks historical continuities into the present. He presents the Adivasis not as a uniform group, but as vastly heterogeneous peoples, differing within regions and even within single tribes, in how they have sustained their lives, and in their relationships within tribes and with the ‘outside’ world. As he works through colonial archives, Kela critically deconstructs these sources to shed their inherent biases: the ‘civilising’ mission of the colonialists, and the constructed notion, shared by the colonialists and casteist Hindus, of the Adivasis as unruly and irrepressibly evil. This lucid and empathetic perspective is presumably the result of the author’s experience as an activist working with the Bhils between 1992 and 2004, briefly with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and later with the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangh, a trade union. The result, as it turns out, is a rather unfinished critique of the Adivasi movement and its position in India today that unabashedly sides with what could be called the ‘Adivasi postion’.
The first part of A Rogue and Peasant Slave challenges the stereotyped view of Adivasis as inherently criminal, ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers and peasants, perpetually exploited and stuck at the bottom rung of society and therefore requiring the protection of a paternalistic state. Instead, Kela espouses a historical view of how colonialism redrew the socio-political realities of Bhil society, how the state subjugated and drove into penury what was once a largely self-reliant and autonomous community. Kela finds that the “boundaries between Adivasi societies and agrarian order broke down” alongside the breakdown of traditional cultural systems upon the advent of colonial rule. This historical process, the author argues, systemically and structurally affected almost the entire Subcontinental mainland, and especially so the central Indian Adivasi belt. In this view, the Adivasis’ present emancipation struggle must be informed by an understanding of their past – rather than current trends towards further subservience, subjugation and co-option by a patronising state.
Historically, Bhil rights stemmed from territorial jurisdiction based on clan authority. They occupied essentially independent realms that overlapped with the territories of neighbouring fiefdoms and kingdoms controlled by ‘mainstream’, caste societies. These overlapping claims to sovereignty often resulted in conflicts, though of a limited kind, mainly to assert Bhil hegemony over an area. Villages in such contested zones often paid tribute to the Bhil naiks (chiefs chosen by kinship) in order to get protection. Yet the Bhils, perceived as powerful, were also poor. They survived by foraging in the forest, leaving them vulnerable during seasons of drought and scarcity. When in need, they raided nearby villages for grain and cattle, in what they saw as a legitimate practice within their customary and traditional territorial jurisdiction.
But colonialism transformed all these norms. It changed the relationship between the Bhils and the titular overlords; colonial officials started dealing directly with the Bhil naiks without the mediation of local elites. Though there was no direct rule over Bhil areas and hardly any interference in their internal affairs from 1818 to 1862, the British then began dispatching regular punitive expeditions, ostensibly to quell raiding, but in reality were intended to subjugate the Bhils and bring them under the colonial order. Of course this meant the extension of colonial hegemony over Bhil territory. Suddenly, the customary Bhil behaviour of raiding was treated, by the British, as rebellion. At the same time, the enclosure of the forests by colonial authorities restricted the Bhil’s access to their primary sources of livelihood – forest foraging and shifting cultivation.
The Adivasis’ present struggle must be informed by an understanding of their past, rather than present trends towards further subservience, subjugation and co-option by a patronising state
A new hierarchical order emerged as the British consolidated power, with the Bhils under the hegemony of Rajput overlords, who in turn were subjects of the colonists. For the Bhils, these changes were overwhelming, and curtailed their customary ways of life. They were forced into becoming sedentary peasants, and the traditional perquisites and symbols of power that they had previously enjoyed were withdrawn. The Bhils now also had to pay taxes, in cash, for cultivation, forest use and the distillation of their traditional liquor. Usury thrived, forced labour emerged, areas under cultivation increased and large scale immigration into the Bhil territory began. Meanwhile, the British set up mechanisms of administration, law enforcement and revenue collection, and saw a steady increase in revenue.
Such physical aggression was followed by aggressive fiscal policy. The merchants and accountants – the Bania and the Patwari – became the new despots. So too other officials and traders. The monetisation of the economy of the Barwani (Badwani) hills pushed the Bhils into further desperation, and the new class of exploiters became targets for reprisal. Rebellion broke out in Dhar in 1857 and in Alirajpur in 1883. These revolts were put down through a combination of deceit, betrayal, deception, division and cooptation, this last including the formation of the Bhil Corps under British command. The rebels were either killed or exiled, and the Bhils were forced to reconcile themselves to the new status quo.
By the end of the 19th century the forests had been demarcated and policed, and the once proud Bhils fragmented and impoverished, subdued and subjugated. They also lost their strong sense of community, and the rising class differences within them further weakened their ability to challenge the hegemonic combination of the local elites with the colonisers. Meanwhile, cultural and religious reforms – including neo-Hindu movements, seeped into the Bhil community, making them largely indistinguishable from the other Hindu groups they now lived among, though some elements of traditional Bhil customs and practices persisted, and do so even today. These changes were driven, in part, by the desire for acceptance within mainstream caste society, especially when faced with the popular notion of Adivasis being inherently criminal. In many areas, conversions to Hinduism again divided the community into ‘impure’ and ‘pure’ groups, often defined according to who did and did not eat meat.
In the second part of the book, Kela ranges across a wide sweep of time – from 1900 to the present – and geography. Rather than traverse the entirety of Adivasi history, the narrative skims and flits between historical sketches and anecdotes from across the central Indian Adivasi belt of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. Given the vast history of the periods and places Kela considers here, his account is more an impressionistic sketch than a comprehensive canvas. Yet the meandering narrative does raise a number of critical issues.
In the last phase of colonialism – the decline and end of formal colonial rule between 1918 and 1947 – the Left and the Congress socialists mobilised the Adivasis and drew them into national politics, though even then they remained confined to the periphery. The Congress easily accommodated the rise of an Adivasi middle class, and the Adivasis were long a reliable voting block for the party before the RSS and the Maoists made inroads. The Adivasi Mahasabha was created in 1938 to campaign for a separate Adivasi homeland within India, but this organisation soon merged with the Congress. After 1947, post-Independence industrialisation, the out-migration of Adivasis to the tea gardens of Assam and the in-migration of non-Adivasis to new townships in Adivasi territory led to displacement, steady demographic change and ecological destruction in Adivasi areas, and consequently the fragmentation and weakening of Adivasi resistance.
Demands for regional autonomy were eventually conflated with calls for secession, especially with the emergence of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in 1972. Kela believes that India’s political and economic elites only agreed to the creation of Jharkhand state, which was carved out of Bihar in 2000, once they were confident that the radicalism of the Adivasi movement had ebbed, allowing them to manage the new state for their own ends. That same year, despite the absence of a strong political movement for a separate Chhattisgarh, that new state was also created by the same economic and socio-political forces. The motives for the separation and control of both these states are obvious: rich stores of natural resources, in particular mineral wealth. Since 2000, areas formerly known for weak governance and official neglect have been transformed, with state governments now aiding new marauders in the form of industrial and speculative capital in a process of intra-national colonisation.
In response, Adivasi politics in the area has slipped increasingly towards the Maoist brand of armed struggle, and an aggressive neoliberal state has brought its own armed might in tow. The creation of the Salwa Judum – an anti-Maoist armed militia of Adivasis supported by the Chattisgarh government through much of the 1990s and 2000s – was a watershed moment, escalating and spreading state violence. The area, it is averred, is now a deadly conflict zone.
According to Kela, the problem with these alternative social movements is their inability to address the bigger picture; though numerous, they remain narrowly issue-based and localised
Kela partly faults the area’s Communist parties for letting things come to the current impasse, criticising their inability to understand and mobilise democratic Adivasi resistance against bourgeois democracy. Beyond the armed resistance, the book also dwells on what Kela terms “new social movements” – including “Chipko, Baliapal, Narmada [Bachao Andolan] and Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha” – that address the displacement and deprivation resulting from current conflicts, tracing them to Gandhian traditions of Adivasi resistance. Unfortunately, Kela fails to recognise the socialist and Left traditions also prevalent in Adivasi resistance movements, or to consider what roles these currents can play in contemporary resistance.
According to Kela, the problem with these alternative social movements is their inability to address the bigger picture; though numerous, they remain narrowly issue-based and localised. Kela attributes this narrow focus to Adivasi activists’ jealous guarding of their autonomy for “fear of losing their responsiveness in large structures”, which could then mean “a reduction in political effectiveness”. But that indictment is perhaps a bit premature and ill informed. What explains the ‘self-rule’ movement that spread across the central Indian Adivasi belt in the 1990s, leading to the acclaimed Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 (PESA)? And what of the forest rights movement, ongoing since 2002, that successfully advocated for the Forest Rights Act of 2006? Both these movements stemmed from a broader, more regional vision, attempting to reclaim Adivasi territory and autonomy and also to redefine power relations between Adivasis, the state and ‘outsiders’.
Yet these struggles, perhaps the most significant in tracing the historic continuity of Adivasi struggle from past to present, are not mentioned in the book even in passing. Could this merely be an oversight? If so, it is a strange one. After laying out the trail so assiduously in the first half of the book, Kela loses it in the second, leaving it to the reader to raise questions that take the analysis forward. Is there not an emerging, tentative relationship between the Left and new Adivasi social movements? Are there not newer political processes emerging across ideological streams, forging class alliances between Adivasis and other oppressed sections? What do these portend for the future?
A Rogue and Peasant Slave does well to identify some critical factors confounding emergent Adivasi political movements: the slow assimilation of Adivasis into the ‘mainstream’ Hindu order, which foster nationalist feelings; the government’s promotion of Adivasi distinctiveness alongside guarantees of political reservation (“a prophylactic against separatism”); new technologies attenuating intra-regional differences; the focus of media attention on “exemplars of middle-class selfless activists” rather than ordinary Adivasis; the anomalous position of the Adivasi middle class within an understanding of Adivasis as a uniform class. The Adivasi struggle certainly has much to grapple with, but the author seems to find hope in “numerous Adivasi movements [that] seek to defend subsistence modes of production and the cultural systems associated with them against ‘development’ that threatens to destroy subsistence livelihood in favour of commodity production”, which “endow resistance with new meaning”. But Kela’s prognosis is still bleak. Even he admits that these movements do not look “remotely winnable”.
C R Bijoy is an activist and researcher with Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national coalition of Adivasi and forest-dwellers’ organisations.