Revisiting anti-dispossession resistance movements


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RURAL India has increasingly become a site of contestation between protagonists of ‘development’ that entails displacement and dispossession of various magnitudes, and those who want a say in defining and achieving this elusive goal through swaraj (self-rule). Swaraj is central to the demands raised by anti-globalization movements and intends to re-embed the ownership of ‘land, water and forest’ in the community, thus ensuring the right to decide their fate.

Mainly concentrated around land, the ‘battles’, as against the proverbial ‘land wars’ suggestive of a commonality of goal and scale between communities and state – revolve around either of the two narratives: just compensation (understood as ‘reservation price’ held by landowners) and second, outright rejection of acquisition. Whereas it is still possible to strike a chord in the former situation, the state either has to abandon acquisition or use force in the latter case. Notably, however, the use of violence has also been common in areas where reservations by landowners mainly revolved around issues of compensation.

What is, indeed, noteworthy is that the media represents various anti-dispossession resistance movements disproportionately. While movements like that of Singur, Nandigram, Bhatta Parsaul or Niyamgiri, among others, became popular and entered the public imagination, many other struggles remain in the shadows and are not taken into account while redefining the vocabulary of popular protests. In order to explore this assertion we will subsequently analyze a movement organized under the auspices of the Jameen Bachao Samanway Samiti (JBSS) in West Singhbhum, Jharkhand.

The contours of anti-dispossession movements as widely perceived, are different from what can be seen in the case of JBSS. However, I argue that such variance not only permits us to broaden the horizon of the former by adding these new tropes, but also helps establish congruity between theory and practice. So, the common attributes of anti-dispossession resistance movements which are breached in case of JBSS are at least threefold: first, the nature of leadership; second, use of ‘identity’ as a notion; and finally, the ideological standpoint.


This exercise is a first step in understanding the major factors acting as a restraint in the coming together of ‘seemingly inchoate movements’ which are on the rise in Third World countries.1 Exploring the general attributes of anti-dispossession resistance in juxtaposition to that of JBSS, I argue that the rural, particularly the adivasi, hinterland of Jharkhand is a dynamic space which reconfigures itself in the light of local, regional and global realities.

A systematic study of social movements in India, if not their evolution per se, picked up post the 1970s though discontent against the existing agrarian socio-economic structure was being expressed through violent movements even during the late 1960s. A threefold categorization of social movements is presently in vogue depending on their nature, orientation, structure and objective.2 The first category organized by Jayaprakash Narayan evolved during the mid-1970s and involved mobilization around issues of political rights resulting from an assault on democratic institutions by autocratic forces. The second series of social movements emerged during the 1980s and mainly targeted the statist developmental ideology. Chipko and Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) are examples of such movements. However, movements belonging to the third category emerged primarily as a response to liberalization and globalization during the early 1990s.3 These movements were grassroots in nature and the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) acted as an umbrella organization to unite them. Their objective was to re-embed traditional rights governing land and labour within communities through laws like Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, Forest Rights Act, 2006, and so on.


Such movements derive their leadership from an urban based middle class intelligentsia which subscribes to a broad anti-globalization ideology and, until recently, maintained a distance from political parties. During the general elections of 2014, however, a few illustrious leaders of NAPM like Medha Patkar in Maharashtra or Dayamani Barla in Jharkhand contested the state elections from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This initiative shows the willingness of movement leaders to institutionalize their notion of development by denting the meta-narrative.

The grassroots movements are mainly identity based and inherently revolve around livelihood issues. But the interests of one group of participants may differ or contradict anothers. In such a situation, activists have tried to create a loose coalition of common interests guided by a broader anti-globalization ideology. Different scholars, however, view the use of this ambiguity differently. Whereas scholars like Ritambhara Hebbar4 caution against the formation of an ‘aggrieved identity’ to hide or overcome contradictions within the movements, Amita Baviskar5 argues that ‘a social movement is powerful precisely because its meanings are ambiguous and shifting ...we need to appreciate its ideological hybridity and the ways in which tensions and contradictions between different, unequal groups are negotiated.’


Moreover, scholars have also analyzed the fissures within the discourse of anti-globalization movements. Citing the example of the farmers’ movement, Gail Omvedt argues that most of the contestation around obtaining subsidies and minimum support price (MSP) is organized by the middle and big farmers.6 In fact, the lobbying also goes against the interests of their own lesser brethren when fair and improved wages are routinely denied to marginal and landless farmers.7 Taking into consideration the ideological position held by NAPM against introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops, Levien8 cited the example of the Sharad Joshi-led Shetkari Sangathan in pointing out that many farmers’ movements are not only outside the ambit of NAPM, but also take a contradictory position.


Another important aspect of contemporary movements is the shift from a Marxist inspired attempt to seek class based consolidation to integration through cultural norms of community. Due to society’s own reluctance to accept change and people’s concern over retaining social cohesiveness, the organizers appeal to people’s identity and articulate both class and cultural concerns over the impending effects of commodification of land. While the construction of identity is itself metaphorical in nature, it looks axiomatic due to widespread usage of the term. However, identity itself is not a static concept and in order to retain its salience in anti-dispossession movements, we need to juxtapose its metaphorical notions with wider connotations.

Jharkhand, popularly perceived as a tribal homeland in eastern India, joined the interstate competition to seek private investment with the then Chief Minister Babulal Marandi passing the New Industrial Policy, 2001. Consequently, several memoranda of understanding (MoU) were signed with private companies for exploiting the vast natural resources that the state is endowed with. Proposals for investment included several sponge iron projects (SIPs), considered to be highly polluting but growth inducing as they act as feeder units for large iron and steel plants. A majority of the proposed SIPs typically require small to medium land parcels (less than 500 acres), and thus, do not evoke apprehensions related to displacement as in the case of large-scale projects. JBSS is a response to one such attempt to establish a SIP in Kotgarh of West Singhbhum.


A bid to acquire land at Lampaisai village under Jaitia panchayat acted as a precursor to the formation of Jameen Bachao Samanway Samiti (JBSS). On the fateful day few government officials from Mines and Geology Department went to Lampaisai to assess the presence of limestone. This survey came as a surprise to the villagers and hence protest was registered. The officials, however, attempted to go ahead with the survey, provoking a minor scuffle. As a result, a criminal case was registered at the local police station and the village munda (headmen in a Ho adivasi village) and dakua (munda’s messenger) were served notice. This action by the state was perceived as an attack by the villagers on their autonomy to govern themselves as well as their resources.

JBSS was formed to coordinate action against any such attempt in the future. Eventually, the local politicians as well as customary leaders took the lead in protesting against the SIP proposed to be built by Sri Sai Sraddha Metallic Pvt. Ltd. in Kotgarh village. A petition filed against the company in 2010, questioning the legality of land acquisition in Schedule V area, was eventually accepted by the Ranchi High Court in 2014. As of now, the matter is sub judice but attempts to acquire land continue despite the JBSS coordinating protests throughout the district. The members largely comprise of adivasi population from the area and the organization has maintained close ties with political parties. ‘Jury politics’ (a strategy of legally contesting land acquisition), is a potent way of confronting the companies, apart from dharna, picketing, gherao and petitioning, which are occasionally used.

The protests are by and large peaceful, albeit bolstered by the symbolic presence of traditional weapons at the meetings. This practice has certain cultural connotations. It derives from the community’s perception that watertight markings of constitutionality do not incorporate aspirations of every segment, especially when they are a lesser partner in the framing of law. Against this background, I will now analyze the three issues of leadership, identity and ideology in the context of the resistance offered by JBSS.


The issue of leadership in cases of assorted anti-dispossession movements is routinely accredited to those regarded as ‘public intellectuals’.9 In historically tracing the meaning of the term, Romila Thapar attributed the notion to any person who ‘need not be a scholar but had to be someone who had a recognized professional stature, and who sought explanations for public actions from those in authority, even if such explanations required critiquing authority and power.’10 Nevertheless, a discourse which is suffused with cultural notions and has subalterns marginalized at the hands of the state will be inadequate to justify assigning the role of leadership to a ‘public intellectual’. More appropriate in this specific context seems to be Gramsci’s ‘organic intellectual’ who is a product of this culture and capable of identifying the means and instruments inflicting subalternity upon the community.11 However, the contestation for leadership of JBSS is not confined to this binary.


With identity-based political parties remaining salient in the political discourse of Jharkhand, the use of identity to organize movements and save them from being hijacked by the former is a challenge. This is because parties like Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) which derive support largely from the adivasis, hold an ambiguous position on development projects. Whereas, there are instances when the JMM has been found to back the protestors against the Icha-Kharkai dam, Nagri, and others, it has also lent support to private industrial projects detrimental to adivasi interests.

While all-India trends qualify the public intellectuals to play the role of custodian of people’s protest, regional equations make this an embattled field, as political elites do not want to loosen their grip on the people. Thus, adivasi politics in Jharkhand is presently facing a situation where all these three actors, viz. public intellectuals, organic intellectuals and adivasi political elites, compete with each other to grab public attention. The point is that one needs to look beyond the binary of organic versus public intellectual when it comes to understanding the nature of leadership of local movements in Jharkhand.

Even though ethnic identity forms the basis for collective action, it should not be taken at face value. Tribal identity, which is portrayed as homogenous, is not actually so and one needs to deconstruct it further for understanding its local avatar. For instance, the JBSS, in using tribal identity, asserts Ho culture and history.12 The specific identity, thus constructed, has the potential to signify the changes pervading adivasi society while still retaining many cultural practices in their atavistic form. While still celebrating their mage parab (post-harvest festival) with diyang (fermented rice beer), the Hos take such opportunities to discuss the ill effect of monetization and marketization of their ‘landscape’. Landscape itself, as argued by Vinita Damodaran,13 is a ‘socio-historical construct, a way of seeing projected onto the land which has its own techniques and which articulates a particular way of experiencing a relationship with nature.’ Therefore, in a departure from representing adivasi identity as homogenous, the Hos identify themselves on the basis of their particular repertoire of history, culture and landscape.


Another aspect of identity relates to the symbolic use of traditional weapons by Ho adivasis. In so doing, the Ho subscribe to their image of being larka kol (fighting people) and challenge the static notions of constitutionality by going against the provision of Article 19(1)(b) which only sanctions the ‘right to assemble peaceably and without arms’. The state is, thus, forced to revisit its notion of modern citizenry and widen it to accommodate the way of life as practiced by the Ho adivasis. And, in accommodating the display of traditional weapons at public meetings, the state has seemingly accepted the peculiarity of adivasi culture. On their part, the adivasis signal their acceptance of the state by subscribing to ‘accepted’ means of protest. Displaying their knowledge of the edifice upon which the modern state is built, they draw on the Constitution to make demands such as the implementation of laws like Schedule V, Article 244 and so on.


Before analyzing the ideological leanings of JBSS, it is worthwhile to mention that the Noamundi iron ore mines in West Singhbhum provide raw material to the Tata Steel plant at Jamshedpur. And, in their day-to-day negotiation with the Tata administration for, among others, medical, schooling, and roads for the local people, the JBSS seems to deviate from the broader ideological stand of NAPM. Whereas the NAPM or anti-globalization movements are against any large-scale land acquisition by the state or corporate sector, the JBSS in bargaining with the Tatas negates this standpoint. Even though this strategy is locally ‘rational’, such bargaining by JBSS does not sit well with the anti-global ideological standpoint articulated by the urban based middle class activists who subscribe to the idea of pursuing universal ideals like human rights, gender rights, and so on. It is in this context that the prominent non-adivasi activist, Xavier Dias, regards urban based activists as ‘metro radicals’ who, rather than looking at the immediate interests of the stakeholders, sometimes allow opportunities to vanish under the weight of broader ideology.

In their attempts to forge unity among grassroots movements, activists sometimes run the risk of over-looking mundane issues, which may then stall the local movements from achieving immediate benefits for their members. However, the dilution of opportunity is not the only reason why the JBSS has largely kept itself away from the pool of urban activists. Given the political discourse of Jharkhand, the adivasi social elites are also apprehensive about losing their grip on the people in a situation where other actors have the potential to grab people’s imagination.

Single issue based movements seek to negotiate the localized implications of commodification while leaving aside the broader ideological positioning. However, it will be a mistake to believe that a congruity cannot be established between the strategic necessities of local movements and broader ideological positions of organizations like NAPM.

By their ability to achieve piecemeal success, movements like JBSS provide tactical clues for larger movements. However, without the guidance offered by public intellectuals to identify the original sites and structures of subjugation, it would be almost impossible to counter the hegemonic forces. To overcome this impasse and look for congruence between local movements and their cumulative objective, several steps can be taken. First, a reconstruction of adivasi imagery should be guided by the particularity of different groups. It should be the discrete sense in which ethnic identity and culture should be used to organize resistance. Thus, different adivasi communities should be brought together while retaining their subjective notion of ‘self’.

Second, in any resistance organized around cultural notions, it won’t be either possible or desirable to issue an overwhelming appeal to material concerns. Nevertheless, losing sight of the immediate necessities of the people would be a mistake. While urban based activists are required to deconstruct the hegemonic forms of dispossession, sufficient care should be taken so that broader ideological positioning is not imposed on local imaginations or needs.



1. David Harvey, The New Imperialism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.

2. Raka Ray and M.F. Katzenstein, ‘Introduction: In the Beginning, There was the Nehruvian State’, in R. Ray and M.F. Katzenstein (eds.), Social Movements in India: Poverty, Power and Politics. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2005, pp. 1-31.

3. Michael Levien, ‘India’s Double-movement: Polanyi and the National Alliance of People’s Movements’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology 51, 2007, pp. 119-149, argues that the formation of civil organizations like the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM) during the early 1990s was not coincidental but a response to the state’s liberalization spree.

4. Ritambhara Hebbar, Ecology, Equality and Freedom: The Engagement with Self-rule in Jharkhand. Earthworm Books, Navi Mumbai, 2011. ‘Aggrieved’ identity refers to the construction of identity around receding or decaying cultural imagery and used as a discourse to counter the dominant developmental ideology.

5. Amita Baviskar, ‘Red in Tooth and Claw? Looking for Class in Struggles over Nature’, in R. Ray and M.F. Katzenstein (eds.), 2005, op. cit., fn. 2, p. 174.

6. Gail Omvedt, ‘Farmers’ Movement and the Debate on Poverty and Economic Reforms in India’, in R. Ray and M.F. Katzenstein (eds.), op. cit., fn. 2, pp.179-202.

7. Ibid.

8. Michael Levien, 2007, op. cit., fn. 3.

9. Samir Amin, ‘Social Movements in the Periphery’, in P. Wignaraja (ed.), New Social Movements in the South: Empowering the People, identifies a public intellectual as ‘the intelligentsia defined irrespective of the class origin of its members. It is defined by its (i) anti-capitalism; (ii) openness to the universal dimension of the culture of our time and, by this means, its capacity to situate itself in this world, analyze its contradictions, understand its weak links, etc. and (iii) simultaneous capacity to remain in living and close communion with the popular classes, to share their history and cultural expression.’

10. Romila Thapar, ‘Searching for the Public Intellectual’, Seminar 665, January 2015, pp. 24-31.

11. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Orient Blackswan, Delhi, 2009.

12. The Ho adivasis are in a majority in West Singhbhum district while they are also present in neighbouring districts of Jharkhand and Odisha. In Jharkhand they form the fourth largest adivasi group.

13. Vinita Damodaran, ‘The Politics of Marginality and the Construction of Indigeneity in Chotanagpur’, Postcolonial Studies 9(2), pp.179-196.