AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 319

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Session 319: New Subalterns? Theorizing Subaltern Politics in Contemporary India

Organizer: Alf Nilsen, Independent Scholar, Norway

Chair: Ajantha Subramnian, Duke University, USA

Discussant: Ajantha Subramnian, Duke University, USA

Neoliberal globalization has set into motion significant changes in India’s political economy over the past three decades. This has been signaled above all by the emergence of new collectivities who engage in conflictual encounters with each other across multiple scales and in a multiplicity of spaces. Whereas the hegemonic projects pursued by dominant classes who seek integration into the orbits of global accumulation have been substantially analyzed, the ways in which women, indigenous groups, industrial workers, marginal peasants, and the urban poor have become ‘new subalterns’ through the articulation of emancipatory imaginaries and oppositional projects is less well understood. The papers in this panel explore the transformation of the politics of social groups often theorized as ‘subaltern’ in neoliberal India by examining their claims for autonomy, empowerment, emancipation, and survival. Drawing on a variety of case material and spanning a range of conceptual orientations, the papers will seek to address such questions as: o Does the so-called “NGOization” of subaltern politics entail co-optation or does it offer possibilities for progressive mobilization? o Are discourses of indigeneity appropriate tools for advancing adivasi interests? o How do subaltern groups experience the local state, and to what extent can social movements advance their oppositional projects via the state? o Is the distinction between civil and political society appropriate for capturing the dynamics of subaltern assertion today? On this basis, the panel will advance a critique of some of the key conceptual categories of the Subaltern Studies project and offer an alternative analytic framework.

Adivasis in and Against the State: Exploring the Dynamics of Sulbaltern Politics and State Power in Contemporary India
Alf Nilsen, Independent Scholar, Norway

The question of the state has come to occupy a central place in recent debates on subaltern politics in contemporary India. Against those critical voices which have claimed that the emancipation of subaltern groups can only proceed by challenging and moving beyond the modern Indian state, a range of scholars and commentators have asserted that it is precisely by seeking to harness the state that social movements can hope to advance their oppositional projects. Intervening in this debate, this paper explores the ways in and extent to which the subaltern politics of Adivasi movements have managed to democratize local state-society relationships and advance rights-based legislation that has the potential to protect tribal livelihoods. The paper analyses the trajectory of two local Adivasi movements in the Bhil and Bhilala heartland of western Madhya Pradesh, as well as the Campaign for Survival and Dignity and the resultant Forest Rights Act, and discusses the conceptual lessons that can be drawn from these experiences in terms of the dynamics of subaltern politics and state power in contemporary India. Drawing on recent advances in Marxian state theory, the paper argues that a relational conception of state power and subaltern politics is needed to move beyond the theoretical impasses of both anti-statism and state-centrism and towards a politically enabling engagement with contemporary adivasi mobilization in India.

Beyond the Politics of Representation: the Indigenous Subject of ‘New’ Subaltern Politics
Rashmi Varma, University of Warwick, United Kingdom

This paper elaborates a critique of the ways in which the figure of the tribal is appropriated within a variety of arenas such as state discourses, new social movements, new forms of media, and the global academy as a vehicle for a politics of difference. Using Tim Brennan’s argument about the “image-function of the periphery”, the paper points to how a rubric of ethics has provided one of the key frames for a diverse set of historiographical and literary projects, most notably that of Subaltern Studies (now a transnational project in its own right). This paper examines how this ethical project of what Spivak terms “learning from below” might be in significant tension with the political project of the rehabilitation of the tribal as an actor enmeshed within the postcolonial state, global capitalism and transnational movements of solidarity with indigenous peoples worldwide. In the second part, the paper offers the Marxist theory of primitive accumulation as both a framework and a metaphor for understanding resistance to the figuration of the tribal as the exemplary new subaltern. Bringing in a discussion of the art of painting of the Gonds based in the city of Bhopal and the ways in which their art circulates between local, national and transnational spaces, the paper attempts to read tribal culture beyond the existing frame of the politics of representation.

Subalterns, Civil Society and Political Society in Contemporary India: Concepts and Contexts in a Neoliberal Time
Subir Sinha, SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom

Based on explorations of the concepts of subalterneity, civil society and political society in contemporary India in three contexts, this paper points to the limits of the canonical conceptualization of the ‘subaltern’ connoting localised communities, and exteriority, mutual unintelligibility and hostility in relation to modernity. I examine deliberative village assemblies or “khaps” in north India, that oppose ‘love marriages’, but favour lowering the age of marriage for girls, and ‘honour killings’ for inter-caste marriages. While they show exteriority and hostility to modernity and civil society, to think of them as exemplifying contemporary subalterneity is complicated because they are led not by subordinated social groups but powerful patriarchal propertied men. Next, I examine ‘resident welfare associations (RWAs)’ in large urban middle class housing complexes. The attribution of respect for property and the rule of law to bourgeois civil society, against which subaltern political society is theorised, is flawed because illegality is key to the processes through which new middle classes acquire property. Finally, I consider the transnational campaign for the release from judicial custody of Binayak Sen, a public health and human rights activist, to show how a pillar of civil society – the rule of law - becomes a technique of power to outlaw certain forms of solidarity, and that solidarity itself transgresses the boundaries of subalterns and moderns, and civil and political society. In closing, the paper sketches a theory of subalternisation with the diffusion of neoliberalism as the definitive backdrop to contemporary Indian pollitics.

From Autonomy to Hybridity: Feminist Politics in Neoliberal India
Srila Roy, University of Nottingham, United Kingdom

The terrain of feminist politics in India is becoming increasingly institutionalized and professionalized at the hands of the state and international development agencies leading some to characterize the current neoliberal moment as one of transformation if not crisis. Several once autonomous women’s groups have transformed into service-providing NGOs resulting in fears around the ‘cooption’ of the women’s movement by neoliberal forces and subversion of its radical agenda. Yet, as some recent studies have shown (Sharma 2009), the insertion of feminism into neoliberal developmental agendas can have unintended consequences that are not always depoliticizing. This paper explores forms of feminist subjectivities and activism that are being currently configured in India in a period of neoliberal governmentality. It considers, first, the emergence of new forms of ‘autonomous’ feminist activism within the neoliberal frame that suggest the instability of the ideological distinction between an institutionalized and an autonomous mode of politics. Secondly, it shows that feminist ideologies are constituted in the messy terrain of professionalized and bureaucratized NGO practices. It reveals, in this way, the hybrid political identities that are configured at the intersection of neoliberal development, feminist consciousness-raising, and critical pedagogy. The case studies drawn on present a significant challenge to versions of ‘pure’ and autonomous feminisms besides pointing to the contingent nature of neoliberal development. The paper concludes with a call to ‘hybridity’ as a way of thinking about new political possibilities.