Bleak. That is the overwhelming feeling as one comes to the end of Shashank Kela’s A Rogue and Peasant Slave which chronicles the devastating impact of colonialism on adivasi societies in India continuing to the present engagement of the state with the forest communities.
Kela is a trade union activist and the volume under review in large part stems from his work as an activist with the tribal communities along the Narmada in the 1990s. This book is about how colonialism radically distorted the balance of power between the adivasis and other caste groups, specifically the smaller chieftains on the margins of the larger empires. Kela argues that colonialism altered the political structures to make possible a whole new regime of taxation and revenue extraction/exploitation. He says, “existing monographs tend to concentrate upon the economic effects of colonialism … upon adivasi societies. In the process, its political dimension and its role in magnifying the power of local non-adivasi elites have been neglected’. He underlines the collaborative processes which made possible this destruction.
The book is organised in two parts — the first part from chapter 2 to chapter 9 is a rich social history of the Nimar area of western Madhya Pradesh. Through painstaking research into primary documents of colonial records, letters and accounts, Kela brings alive adivasi resistance to expanding colonialism with minutiae on taxes collected and princely allowances paid, comparing the rapid growth revenues to show the pace of colonial extraction not just in amount abut also in geographical reach. He is at his best in recounting the adivasi rebellions from the early 1800s, interweaving accounts from colonial agents and officers while treating the reader to a historical canvas in rich colours. We get a ringside view of the raids and attacks in the rugged geography of the Narmada plateau, as the company’s soldiers, Bhil Corps and horsemen trudge along ridges and are attacked from hilltops by Bhil tribesmen. But, one does miss the absence of maps in these chapters.
Through this narrative is revealed a complex hierarchy with the adivasi, specifically the Bhil community, at the bottom of society. The author clearly shows how this complex society with varying forms of interaction between caste groups is re-visioned by the colonial machinery. Raids on settlements by Bhils, which were customary and accepted as part of their demands for tributes, were gradually first outlawed and then seen as rebellion against the empire. Kela says ‘by construing raiding as rebellion through a logic integral to its very conception of sovereignty, colonialism provided an interpretation that was to prove self-fulfilling in the end.’ The stated objective of the colonial agents is to ‘civilise’ the forest dwelling ‘Bheel’, ‘to come and settle in the open’ and be a good, rent-paying peasant.
The second part chronicles adivasi political movements and resistance post-independence as the modern Indian state seamlessly took over the exploitative role of the colonial state, with extraction and displacement now justified as development. Kela bleakly notes the failure of the state to ensure rights and empowerment, stating ‘panchayati raj reform proved cosmetic: the powers allotted to the gram sabha … remained notional and the sarpanch became more powerful than before.’
The book also explores the impact of neo-liberal policies in allowing mining in hitherto ‘reserved’ areas. Forms of adivasi resistance are juxtaposed: the spontaneous resistance as opposed to the mass movements and shows through examples of the Koel Karo and Kalinganagar resistance and the Narmada Bachao Andolan that the form of resistance dictates the larger response from the media and the state.
In his book, Kela confronts several accepted frames of reference, of categories such as peasant, agrarian castes and groups, traditional/customary occupations and roles within caste groups. One of the most valuable distinctions which he underlines repeatedly is the differential treatment of adivasi struggles as opposed to other peasant struggles — as he points out towards the end of the book ‘adivasi and (dalit) resistance is regarded as subversive … in a way that farmers’ struggles are not.’
Finally he calls for new terms of engagement with the resistance offered by the adivasis, clearly de-linking this from the Maoist movements and pointing out the failure of Marxists to address adivasi concerns.
This book adds to a small but growing collection of what might be termed ‘activist-academics’, in many ways mirroring the early participant ethnographies. Even as they critique the role of the outsider/the well-meaning middle class activist who muddies the adivasi narrative through the telling, these very activists recognise that in their absence the tales would never be told.
Raising questions of identity and representation echoing Donna Haraway’s question of who speaks for the jaguar, Kela points out that unlike the growing mass and visibility of Dalit writing, there is practically no adivasi writing, literature – a fact referred to by seminal scholar of adivasi folklore and mythology G.N. Devy. The book does hint at the differences among activists but that does not diminish the need for wider engagement with the ‘adivasi question’ of exploitation, displacement and disempowerment.
Smaller publishers have recognised this new field of writing which has long been beyond the pale for the ‘serious’ academic publishers. One also hopes that with the growing recognition, the need for bits of obtuse academic writing will be dispensed with by editors.