A Rogue And Peasant Slave | Shashank Kela
In recent times, the question of Adivasi resistance has acquired unprecedented currency. Filtered ideologically, it is seen either as something sprung from vested interests provoking the uninformed, the last resort of the most deprived, or the fight of indigenous people against global capitalism. However, there has been practically no attempt to situate these struggles in their historical context, and Shashank Kela’s book on Adivasi resistance goes beyond seeking easy or convenient explanations of the present.
The first half tries to unravel the story of Bhil resistance during early colonial rule. Kela chooses a subversive reading of colonial archives and a critical engagement with the oral histories of Bhil heroes. In this he seems to draw heavily from the works of Ranajit Guha, doyen of subaltern studies, by treating Bhil resistance as shaped by conscious actors, endowed with will and reason.
In the pre-colonial period, a complex of communities which could be collectively labelled “Bhils”, with varying degrees of reliance on forest and agriculture, claimed certain rights, such as collecting levies, which were also an exercise in asserting sovereignty over territory. Their relationship with kingdoms and trading communities, though not exactly cordial, was not necessarily subordinate. Colonialism actively (though often indirectly) dismantled these relations, and exaggerated social contradictions.
A chain of political logic, following this, set the stage for several waves of resistance across this region. It is interesting to see how even the most benevolent of colonial administrators unwittingly provided the necessary machinery to the state. Even a seemingly benign activity, like the collection of census data, only seeks to vest the state with greater power to intervene, interfere and control. Less benevolent measures included the creation of a Bhil corps, aided by the emergence of indigenous elites, wedded to colonial interests. Kela argues that the logic for such measures lay in thrusting sedentary cultivation upon the Bhils.
This serves as a rejoinder: In the present, an alliance of imperial capital and local elites, through more complex political mechanisms, aims to serve similar ends. The period characterized as “post reforms” has seen the threat of large-scale Adivasi displacement, greater militarization, as well as the employment of political strategies reminiscent of the colonial period, such as state-sponsored Adivasi militias and large-scale data-gathering exercises.
While this case remains well-argued and the narrative consistent, the lack of extensive sources from the pre-colonial period makes it hard to gauge concretely the nature of political and social relations between the Bhils and non-Bhils in this time. Given a tradition grabbing of Adivasi land from Mauryan times, one wonders if Kela is completely justified in his emphasis on change, while ignoring continuities.
In the second half, the history of Bhil resistance merges into the broader story of Adivasi resistance in colonial and post-colonial India. Here Kela primarily draws from secondary sources and his own experience as an activist, writing, among other things, about the rise of a politically opportunist middle class among Adivasis, the deployment of Gandhian ashrams by Congress administrations to negotiate discontent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS’) strategies of Hinduization, and the failure of the organized Left.
His own elusive quest for class-sensitive Adivasi politics is far from concealed. The treatment of the Maoist question, given its currency, leaves much to be desired, despite Kela’s attempts to avoid oversimplification. The book is at its most inadequate when it come to the history of Adivasi women. Kela could have explored the patriarchal dimensions of witch killings a little more, without treating it as a mere matter of ritual belief. One is left to wonder about the possibility of recovering women’s stories from the past if even oral histories are centred around male heroism.
The shortcomings, however, affect neither the readability nor the significance of this brave effort at a crucial juncture. It definitely succeeds in bringing alive, with great sympathy, the histories of those who reject our ways of life, and what it does to them.
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