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TRIBALS AND DALITS IN ORISSA: Towards a Social History of Exclusion, c. 1800-1950 by Biswamoy Pati. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2019.

SOCIAL historians seek to uncover and describe the cultural worlds of ordinary people, people who are at once far removed from and yet deeply affected by the traditional concerns of the discipline of history, i.e. states and statesmen, revolutions and rulers. Where historians focus upon ‘big’ events, transformative episodes like colonialism and imperialism and important actors of the past, social historians turn their attention to the minutiae of work, family and everyday lives of paupers and peasants. Writing this ‘history from below’ requires the appreciation of newer historical sources like folklore, myths, oral narratives and newer ways of interpreting textual archives. Biswamoy Pati (1956-2017) was one of the finest social historians of modern India, whose prolific career of teaching and researching history at the University of Delhi was cut short by his untimely death.

Tribals and Dalits in Orissa: Towards a Social History of Exclusion, c. 1800-1950, published posthumously, is a fine example of his vast oeuvre and provokes the reader to see the ‘Age of Capital’ and the ‘Age of Empire’ through the lenses of people who were at the margins of capital and empire. The book introduces us to the diverse and interconnected lives of pilgrims and leprosy patients who thronged Puri, tribals of Kalahandi accused of meriah (human sacrifice), low-caste healers who specialized in small pox inoculations and treating snakebites, peasants who revolted against feudal lords and moneylenders, communist leaders and Christian Munda rebels. Pati skilfully reads the colonial archive against the grain to enter the life-worlds of individuals at the margins, inmates of lunatic asylums, men who murdered an estate manager and women who were accused of witchcraft. The author shows how people’s lives, cultures and traditions were shaped by colonialism and capitalism in 19th and 20th centuries and how these world-historical processes were articulated in the towns, fields and forests of Orissa.

The five chapters of the book (apart from the introduction) are spread across geographical locations, sites and time periods, and build upon Pati’s extensive scholarship on the social histories of health, medicine, religious movements, colonial domination and resistance in Orissa. Chapter 2 examines the impact of colonial capitalism in Puri, and the fate of tribals and peasants in the princely states of Kalahandi and Mayurbhanj. Chapter 3 argues that the ‘socially excluded’ practiced multiple strategies to negotiate the loss of dignity, land and commons; from taking up shifting cultivation in the hills, adopting new caste and religious identities, to outright rebellion against social and economic structures. Chapter 4 takes up the indigenous health and healing systems of tribals and outcastes and discusses how local elites and the colonial medical gaze appropriated and transformed the experience, treatment and beliefs around small pox, leprosy, mental illness, syphilis and snakebites. The focus of Chapter 5 is on rituals and traditions that contributed to the legitimacy of kings, Brahmins and royal darbar (courts), as well as counter-hegemonic practices that periodically challenged or subverted the social structures of power. Pati describes how local elites ritualized the treatment of leprosy and the worship of Jagannatha, and how marginalized communities engaged with the Mahima Dharma, Gandhian politics and Christianity.

The final chapter of the book (Chapter 6) describes the tensions and contradictions of the Indian national movement with peasant rebellions and the well known Praja Mandal movement in the princely state of Nilgiri in northern Orissa. In the final decade before Independence, the Congress, the communists (Communist Party of India) and the darbar were forced to respond to the pressures generated by tribals and peasants, even as the excluded groups found their own issues sidelined in the dominant ‘national’ dynamics against colonialism and imperialism.

Biswamoy Pati’s book is an important intervention in the debate between the nationalist historians, whose focus on the freedom movement and Oriya nationalism denied space or agency to tribals and outcastes, and the subaltern historians who argue for an autochthonous realm of peasant consciousness and agency manifested in the form of tribal rebels and rebellions. Pati shows how caste identities were fluid in 19th century Orissa, and social relations within and between communities were molded by the economic impacts of feudal and colonial rule. The book challenges the popular perception of tribals as forest-dwelling communities who practiced ‘primitive’ livelihoods since ancient times and remained outside the fold of caste society and Hinduism. Instead, it shows that elite sections within tribal society often claimed caste status and ritual position within Brahminical Hinduism, even as tribal peasants dispossessed by land revenue/settlement policies and anti-meriah military campaigns were forced to migrate to the hills and take up forest-based livelihoods and diets.

Rather than eschewing ‘modern’ forms of politics and religion, the Gonds, Mundas, Oraons and the Khonds negotiated a complex social space and engaged with Christianity, Gandhian and communist politics, royal courts and new religious movements. This holds valuable lessons for contemporary civil society and social movements that seek to mobilize Adivasi communities on the lines of primordial identities and timeless associations with forest landscapes.

Tribals and Dalits in Orissa also builds exclusion as a rich social and empirical category, a refreshing departure from much of the policy literature that sees exclusion as a result of (past) state interventions and liable to be remedied by inclusive state policies in the future. Pati demonstrates that exclusion is a process that plays out in everyday lives and popular politics, and coalesces in the form of ‘marginal’ identities by experiences of dispossession, indignity and ritualization of cultural life. The story of the Bhramaramari plant and the folk treatment for leprosy in Chapter 4 is one of the many examples of identities formed at the intersections of religion, sovereignty and ecology.

Social identities are complex outcomes of long-term processes of economic transformation, adverse incorporation into land and labour markets, and (re)configurations within the realm of ideas and popular culture. Over time, socially excluded individuals and groups negotiate a shifting terrain of power and hegemony as they make claims upon culture, resources and political authority. Therefore, despite the debilitating outcomes with regard to economic, social and political status, exclusion is neither complete nor uncontested in any society. It takes a historian of the caliber of Biswamoy Pati to articulate this idea; and the field of social history in India will be poorer without his intellectual presence in the future.

Budhaditya Das

School of Human Ecology Ambedkar University, Delhi


AGAINST STATE, AGAINST HISTORY: Freedom, Resistance and Statelessness in Upland Northeast India by Jangkhomang Guite. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2019.

THIS volume on the Northeast of India, in the words of its author, aims to ‘defocus and decentre the history of this upland region from the dominant civilizational discourse on the hill tribe.’ This he seeks to do through a ‘counter-perspective’ that he explains in the introduction to the book, also revisiting its several aspects in the nine chapters that follow. This is a history not simply from or at the margins but also one spanning the time between the immemorial and the coming of the colonial state. This is also a history guided by the ethnographic principle of self-understanding and in that sense a history ‘by’ rather than ‘of’ the people as objects in focus. Although highly rewarding as more pages get turned, the book begins by violating and unhinging our usual sense of history through a bracketing of the customary shibboleths – the state, civilizational frameworks, documentary or written evidences and very often the archaeological chassis around which we flesh out our barest historical narratives.

Readers familiar with the works of Ajay Skaria, Willem van Schendel and James Scott are likely to land somewhat gently over the basic propositions argued by the book. But others will have to face a historical narrative of people neither left behind by history or bypassed by it in a passive sense but ones actively recoiling from the known civilizational pathways and resisting their overt dominance as well as pernicious influences. Incredibly, the reader may find that these communities offer very good reasons for such withdrawal; and a willingness to listen to all such reasons may go a long way in understanding the people of our Northeast. Of course, the insights offered by the book are rather directly applicable to a large population in the country we call ‘tribes’ for lack of a better word, including most of the hill-forest dwellers who often continue to guard their lands with a zeal that the modern state finds objectionable and unfathomable. It is thus advisable to start reading the book with a sense of overall fluidity rather than stability and solidity that we often seek of historical narratives anchored in grand civilizational strides.

Most of all perhaps, the reader may find it disquieting that these relatively isolated communities were aware of the ways of the civilization around them, showing for them a definite disdain. This blatant disregard for the ‘unequal’ state-led societies will greatly interest students of political theory and philosophy. It may even reinvigorate our thinking on our modern democratic institutions once we appreciate their way of life with its alternate notions of civility and the self. The reviewer hopes that such histories end up modifying our mainstream narratives, cleansing them of avoidable normative biases tied to the core idea of the state and shaped largely in the era of the nation-state.

The introductory chapter of the book anticipates the many themes discussed through separate chapters in the book – the fluidity of the populations, the uncertainties over their origins despite the autochthone myth, their resilient productive methods, their social organization including relations with proximal and distant neighbours as well as the plainsmen, the geography-ecology that shaped their lives, and the overlapping folklores that carry the condensed gist of their varied pasts. The hill-valley duality in the Northeast came with a fine-grained array of conceptions defining forest margins and various degrees of inaccessibility. A curious and counter-intuitive feature with these communities was a preference for the more inaccessible terrains rather than the more fertile ones. The forest margins were often left alone as buffers used by Kacharis, Khasis, Kachins, and dozens of others, to maintain their distance from the plains. The author pays great attention to the inchoate state-formation processes.

To give just an example, the settlement patterns often reflected the migratory waves away from the valleys where the states kept busy ‘acquiring’ compliant populations willing to pay taxes. The geography of the Northeast made repeated and insistent retreats into the forests and hills possible even though these people’s independence was never a given, and had to be guarded constantly. This state of untiring vigilance and independence defined some of their attitudes towards the rank outsider as well as the neighbour, shaping their conduct in ways that outsiders find enigmatic.

The thin density of populations, smaller settlements, jhum agriculture, and a decided antipathy towards surplus, created communities whom the British colonizers found lazy and complacent. This would have been ironic for the locals who avoided famines, were relatively well-fed, worked hard when necessary and saw no reason to collect surplus that an invader may find inviting. In the manner of Scott, Guite is able to put a gigantic question mark in front of the presumed well-being of the agricultural communities; and their insistence on surplus accumulation may even begin to appear as the trap that enslaved humanity for all times to come. This is not a parody, or a topsy-turvy view of civilization, but an empirical account of how people lived for aeons before the British arrived with their sense of frigid permanence and well defined classifications, including a handy laundry list of tribes that soon turned procrustean. It was not uncommon for a tribe to have a name for itself that simply meant a human being or hillmen. This however does not mean that you get a flat or uniform human-scape of people spread across the hilltops in the sizeable Northeast. Instead, you get a bewildering variety of languages, folklores and broad-ranging affiliations that often lead to unending conflicts due to pressures mostly originating in the plains.

The author deals with some of the distinct groups and sub-groups such as Bodos, Garos, Khasis, Karbis, Kuki-Chins and Nagas, in their ecological niches. While Chapter 3 deals with their internal divisions, Chapter 4 deals with the highly regulated channels of contact or trade among these tribes and the distant outsiders. Those who have puzzled over the avoidable inclemency of mountain paths leading rather senselessly to a motely settlement on the top may find an answer once they begin to see the constant trade-off between contact and isolation by the people up there. It would suit us to imagine them to be a miserable lot which, surprisingly, suited the fellows on top equally well since they had no desire to pay taxes or join our unwanted embrace of tutelage.

Of course, all this changed when the British arrived with a view to manufacture ‘permanence’ on a scale that proved to be inescapable. The fiercest attempts at retreat came to an end once and for all and the churning, moving set of images froze into a compartmentalized paint box of tribes as we know them today. It changed their histories for good as their histories took a sharp turn to merge inseparably with the mainstream, a process that continues to this day. Much of our confusion over the Northeast and the tribal past in general is a legacy from the days of the British who taught us to disregard the human flow and insisted on reorganizing it in accordance with the common doctrines of modernism. The confusion is redoubled when the modern Indian state spends inordinate energy in assembling its citizenry over and over again without due regard for its fluid past.

Ratnakar Tripathy

Visiting Faculty, Asian Development Research Institute, Patna


ADIVASIS AND THE STATE: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartland by Alf Gunvald Nilsen. Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2018.

IN this book, Alf Nilsen provides a historical and ethnographic account of Adivasi mobilisation and organisation from the 1820s up to the present in western Madhya Pradesh, to engage with questions of state formation, power, subalternity and democratic deepening in contemporary India. It seeks to conceptualise how ‘subalternity is both constituted and contested in and through state formation as a hegemonic process’ (p. 4). It is a textured account of the on-going contentious dialectic between power and resistance that play out as subaltern groups stake claims on a largely unresponsive and unaccountable state whose engagement with the former is marked by everyday tyranny and violence; and as dominant groups react to such claim-making by mobilising coercive resources to contain them.

The study is based on collaborative research method with activists of two grassroots movements, KMCS (Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan) and AMS (Adivasi Mukti Sangathan). These movements flourished in the 1980s and 1990s in Alirajpur, Badwani and Khargone districts and preceded the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that led a long-drawn struggle against big dams in the Narmada Valley. Both KMCS and AMS worked on Adivasi grievances related to everyday interactions with the local state and livelihood issues revolving around land and forest rights (p. xvi). The study masterfully reconstructs and provides a historical, sensible and granular account of these movements through extensive oral accounts.

In terms of theory, it rebuts the argument made by Partha Chatterjee, and the Subaltern Studies project more generally, that subaltern engagement with the ideologies, categories and technologies of state is a recent development. It does so by showing that throughout history, the Bhils have actively negotiated and resisted the oppression of the colonial state by appropriating the idioms of state-making themselves. The work also criticises the dichotomy of civil versus political society by illustrating that Bhil Adivasis’ struggles are generative of claims and assertions of citizenship centred on self-rule and resource control. In seeking to understand how subaltern groups organise and mobilise in terms of their engagement with the state and its institutions for achieving their goals, this work deploys a Gramscian analysis of the hegemonic formation of state as a process characterised by a continuous dialectic between the dominant and the subaltern, enabling the latter to make demands on the state and also, setting limits on what could possibly be achieved through such claim-making. It veers away from Foucault’s conceptualisation of state as a disaggregated entity, offering to consider its patterned working through institutions over time in the context of social forces acting in and through it.

The first part of the book, ‘Subalternity’ (Chapters 2-4), discusses contemporary Bhil subalternity and its historical antecedents. It starts off, in the second chapter, with ethnographic inquiries into Bhil subalternity, exploring ‘everyday tyranny’ that the Bhils experience in their relationship with the state. They are in a double bind. The internal power relations are coercive, dominated by low-ranking state officials such as forest guards, revenue officials and village headmen. At the same time, they are embedded in the wider culture of caste stigma that designates them to the lowest rungs of society.

The next two chapters analyse the historical roots of Bhil subalternity, spanning a period between 1818 and the 1940s depict changes in colonial state-making in terms of Bhils integration into the regional political economy from their earlier partial incorporation during the rule of Marathas. This was achieved over a long period by transforming the economic geography of the region to make ‘quiet and obedient cultivators’ out of the unruly Bhils (p. 59). A series of measures such as, the push towards commercial cultivation, the increase in land assessment taxes, by hiving-off forests led to greater indebtedness and dispossession among the Bhils, and development and consolidation of new modalities of state power in the region. Bhils responded to such iniquitous power relations through a variety of means involving both armed resistance as well as petitions. They invoked moral economies of rule to register their protest and negotiate legitimate entitlements from the colonial state as its subjects. They approached the state as a disaggregated entity with which it was possible to negotiate. In the post-colonial period, these processes have been reinforced in new ways.

The second and final part of the book, ‘Citizenship’ covers chapters 5-7. It shows how KMCS and AMS painstakingly mobilised and organised the Bhils to challenge the reproduction of historically constituted hegemony by staking claims as citizens. This section has an incisive analysis of shifting ‘structures of feeling’. It is refreshing to see the integration of emotions into a study of resource conflict in India. Chapter 5 discusses the development of an emergent sense among the Bhils that resistance was possible against everyday tyranny. The role of middle class activists was a key enabler for generating the emotional and political space for such a transformation. The chapter is replete with examples that illustrate this shift (pp. 132-149). Such as, when Chotti Gendra, an AMS participant says, ‘We are no longer scared of the police. We can speak with freedom now’ (p. 148), revealing a major historic shift towards overcoming the fear of authority and the stigma of inferiority attached to their identity. KMCS and AMS activists and participants appropriate the legal and political idioms of postcolonial democracy that shape their political subjectivities and democracy on the ground (p. 171). The chapter demonstrates subaltern forays into law, civil society and citizenship in terms of their routine interactions with bureaucracy, police and other government institutions, experiences that result in deepening democracy to some extent.

The last chapter is a key anchor to Nilsen’s argument on patterned workings of state power that reproduce hegemonic formations. It reveals how dominant groups mobilise different kinds of coercion to both discourage and eliminate oppositional subaltern activism. Nilsen shows how mobilisation of such coercion is based on a steady interaction between civil society and political society as the dominant groups work in and through the state.

The conclusion presents a perspective on ways to demolish the entrenched power of dominant groups towards transformative political possibilities. It shows that this could be done possibly not just by singularly fighting for democratic rights but also by tapping the diverse oppositional political resources available in society, including those of activist networks and Left political parties, in advancing a counter-hegemonic project.

Nilsen’s book is a major work that engages with questions of subalternity, social movements and citizenship in advancing a dynamic and lucid Gramscian account of hegemony as a process. The book provides anecdotes about the gendered experience of Bhil women as activists who challenge patriarchal codes of honour by spending time outside home in mobilizational work (pp. 162-167). These sections discuss the gendered subalternity of Bhil women. It left me wanting to know more about if and in what ways the Bhil women activists have navigated entrenched power relations within homes and in their community institutions. Crucially also, there is no discussion on if and in what ways the recent struggles over wages and forest rights (discussed in Chapter 5 and 6) have shaped Adivasi consciousness in relation to their subalternity.

In sum, it is an invaluable anthropological work that uses Gramscian analysis to discuss Adivasi history and social movements. It makes a mark in providing a nuanced and accessible account of what it really takes and means for some of the most vulnerable groups to mobilise and organise themselves to claim their rights.

Minati Dash

ICSSR Post Doctoral Fellow, Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi


WILD TASTES IN ASIA: Coming Home to the Forest for Food by Madhu Ramnath and Ramon Razal. Non-Timber Forest produce (NTFP-EP), Manila, 2019.

Madhu Ramnath and Ramon Razal in their book Wild Tastes in Asia give a glimpse of the food cultures treasured by forest peoples inhabiting six countries in Asia – Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam. They suggest, with the example of these peoples, that ‘the world’s marginalized peoples… are the ones to show a way out of the modern world’s food crisis’ (p. 4).

They highlight the complex nature of this crisis. First, ‘with so many cultivated foods dominating our diet, one tends to forget that there is a range of food still gathered from wild spaces-forests, edges of fields and farms, fallow land rivers and streams and from the deserts and seas…’ (p. 3). Second, of the six countries ‘Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia are among the ten countries listed with highest deforestation rates in the world’ (p. 10). Deforestation exists in the other Asian countries as well. The biodiversity that remains is under threat. For instance, the Dong Nai Nature Reserve in Dong Nai province, Vietnam, ‘is species rich with 1401 plants, 83 mammals, 259 bird, 97 reptile-amphibians, 1189 insects, 99 different species of fish.’ These are spread over a ‘surface area of 32,000 ha. of tropical evergreen closed forest, semi-tropical closed forest, and tropical deciduous closed forest.’ However, ‘19 plants and nearly 50 animals are included in the Vietnam Red Book (2007) and/or IUCN Red List (2014); what is worrying’, the author underline, ‘is that many of the endangered and threatened species are part of the local diets’ (p. 12).

Third, legislation does not value ‘wild tastes’. In this regard the authors point out, ‘There is no doubt that the forests have largely remained intact for hundreds of years.’ (p. 161) ‘There are many practices, rituals and tools associated with hunting and foraging, showing how indigenous people conducted themselves in the forest that have kept ‘their’ land as an almost inexhaustible source of food’ (p. 162). In this regard, the authors point out, ‘food gathering, including hunting and fishing, though as old as human life on earth, became refined over thousands of years’ (p. 3). Refinement ‘concerns the method and skills of gathering… most importantly it included the precise knowledge (and movement) about animals and plants, acquired over generations of observation which allowed people dependent on these resources to use them in a manner that allowed for their continuous regeneration’ (p. 3).

This is a foundational view of the forest and it does not orient legislation such as The Ancestral Domain Claims (the Philippines) and the Forest Rights Act (India). These legislation require proof to stake claim over the traditional rights over territory. Many indigenous communities find it hard to prove that they have inhabited their territories for many generations. They are unable to give ‘solid’ proof acceptable to the government (p. 162).

In my understanding the Forest Rights Act in India does not accept ‘traditional practice and rituals’ as the markers of territory. The territory for which proof is required will not include fallows of different duration that, together with land in use, demarcate the entire geographical area covered by the ‘traditional practices and rituals’. This de-territorializes these ‘practices and rituals’ and undermines the sacred geography demarcated by the fallows. Perhaps this is the same for ancestral domain claims in the Philippines.

The exclusion of fallow time determines the instrument value of forest materials for production cycles of modern forest based industries. This undermines the foundational value of the forest. The exclusion of fallow time discriminates, separates and draws impermeable boundaries between otherwise contiguous foraging, cultivation and collective regeneration; geographical space in use and under fallow and; time for work and time for rest. These impermeable boundaries are legitimized with the force of ‘compensation’.

Fourth, that people are vulnerable. Towards the end of the book the authors introduce a small group of nomadic Penan people who were ‘forced to accept compensation... for allowing pipelines to pass through. This violation of their territory heralded a new phase in their lives… the youth… bought motorcycles and sped like wind along logging tracks, just for the heck of it…’ (p. 160). However, the Penan youth ‘have been extremely conscious about their culture and their way of life that is threatened from all sides… They wanted to find ways to keep their knowledge alive, and the youth, despite the attraction of distant towns, to hold on to it’ (p. 160).

There are efforts to deal with this crisis. In this regard the authors point out that ‘in various parts of the world people concerned about wild foods have been holding food festivals among indigenous communities’ (p. 163). In the absence of any information about what happens at these festivals I can only hope that their intention is to popularize wild tastes, generate an awareness of this crisis, persuade people to earnestly take steps to prevent any further loss of forest, discourage corporate marketing of wild taste and, alongside open a discussion about other ways to showing the significance of ‘wild taste’ for the way out of world food crisis.

The richness of the book would have been enhanced considerably had the authors discussed ‘wild taste’. In my understanding and I hope the authors would not disagree, wild taste needs to be cultivated and acquired, and without the patronage of the corporate hospitality industry markets. This is because in this market foods gathered by marginalized people is likely to lose its ‘wild taste’ and, will be prepared as ‘exotic food’. These festivals could be inviting people at large to savor ‘wild tastes’. Wholesome ‘wild taste’ cannot be had without eating the food.

From my experience of eating some of the wild foods listed in the book, I can assure the reader these infuse a refreshing energy – awaken taste buds to a new sensibility, open up knotted imaginations to recognize the foundational significance of the forest as a home, and initiate questioning of complacent systems of deforestation. Savoring wild taste is an aesthetic sensibility, it is in fact a taste for foundational significance of the forest home.

Taste as an aesthetic sensibility and its bearing on the taste of food in particular is a mentality deeply conditioned by social hierarchies and cultural values. For this reason, food habits, like language, are very difficult to change. A small change in food habit can impact a world view and could change it towards appreciating differences in cultural habits, away from production of standardized tastes of exotic ethnic foods.

To savor the wild taste of forest food cultures will require a major shift in the way marginalized people are perceived – their way of life and its contribution to making the forest a home will have to be respected. This is easier said than done.

If the instrumental valuation of the forest is not restrained and given appropriate orientation by the foundational significance of the forest it is certain that in the near future more species will be classified ‘Red’ and people will be deprived of wholesome diets. However, when foundational significance of the forest will orient the instrumental use it is certain that Red species can be recovered and people at large will get to savor wholesome food.

An inclusive foundational understanding of taste is grounded in a wholesome aesthetic, it is concerned with beauty that constitutes the wholeness of living as well as non-living entities. It is constitutive of a method to see and observe in their togetherness the unity of function and beauty that ensures the regeneration of this togetherness. Beauty is not confined to the symmetrical and asymmetrical. It includes a taste for the ‘wild’.

What we learn from this book is that concerned citizens such as those who organize food festivals can support indigenous communities to hold on to their methods of observation, and with it push for the possibility of re-territorializing ‘practices and rituals’, institutionalize the foundational value of the forest, and prepare the ground for wholesome aesthetics for ‘wild taste’.

This I expect will give a wholesome meaning to ‘wild taste’ – as a manifestation of a way of life, and a method of observation without the aid of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. These modern sciences can begin to collaborate with the indigenous forest peoples when they acknowledge the indigenous method. Such collaboration could re-territorialize the scared geography demarcated by ‘practices and rituals’.


Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi


INDIA’S FIRST DICTATORSHIP: The Emergency, 1975-77 by Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil. HarperCollins Publishers India, 2021.

THE problem that confronts any analyst of the Emergency is that of formulating an analytical framework that can capture the interplay between the events and the long-term trends that made possible the declaration of the Emergency. To put it a little differently, to locate the connectedness between structure and conjuncture. It is easy to set up a narrative of happenings that led to the Emergency; it is more problematic to situate them in a structural logic that serves to explain why the events unfolded as they did. Were there any tendencies, political, constitutional and economic, going back to the early days of the republic that help explain what happened in the early 1970s and the eventual, if for a brief period, suspension of democracy in June 1975? Was the Emergency Indira Gandhi’s unique and individualistic response to the crisis she faced because of the railway strike, the JP movement etc or were there some more fundamental lacunae in the making of Indian democracy? The great strength of this new book by Jaffrelot and Anil is that they successfully and through detailed research suture the structural logic and the conjunctural happenings. Their analysis explains the undercurrent and the surf.

There is a propensity, especially within the Congress party, to underestimate the immediate impact of the Emergency. Jaffrelot and Anil dispel that tendency: ‘When one speaks of the Emergency, large numbers are in order: over its brief duration, eleven million Indians were sterilized and 110,000 locked up. In Delhi alone, of the city’s five million citizens, 700,000 were displaced by the gentrification and 161,000 sterilized in programmes masterminded by Sanjay… A fifth of opposition MPs had been incarcerated and the rest drowned out, first by a media that was not allowed to report dissenting speeches, and second by Congress parliamentarians of the Lower House who passed law after law sanctioning and widening the scope of emergency powers. Judicial independence was similarly compromised, tampered from within by preferential appointments and from without by the transfer of competencies to the executive.’ Through these steps and measures – ‘institutional violence’ is the authors’ apt phrase – the Emergency ripped apart the fabric of Indian democracy.

The authors are careful to note that the impact of the Emergency was not uniform across India. They analyse the differential impact of the Emergency regime in a detailed and innovative chapter called ‘The Uneven Geography of Tyranny’. It goes without saying that the focus of the tyranny was Delhi: it was from there that power radiated affecting first Haryana dominated then by Sanjay’s henchman, Bansi Lal; and then into Uttar Pradesh where another Sanjay yes man, N.D. Tiwari held sway. From these areas the tyranny spread into other parts of North India. The great divide in the impact was between the North and the South. Beyond the Vindhyas, the tyranny lost much of its voltage. Also, in states that were not run by Congress ministries, the autocracy of the Gandhis, Indira and Sanjay, faced ‘considerable resistance’.

The other important point that Jaffrelot and Anil underline is the legal framework of the Emergency. When she declared the Emergency, Indira Gandhi did not abrogate or replace the Constitution. The political system though undermined remained the same as in the pre-Emergency years – federal and parliamentarian. Even though many opposition MPs were incarcerated and some of them tortured, Parliament continued to function and opposition parties were not banned. A strict censorship was put in place but newspapers and journals continued to be published and some of these displayed courage and expressed their dissent by refusing to work under censorship. Indira Gandhi continued to maintain the facade of democracy by ensuring that each of her anti-democratic steps was taken with the approval of Parliament; and constitutional amendments were carried out within the framework of the existing laws. A compliant judiciary that she had put in place facilitated these steps. These features produced what the authors call a ‘constitutional dictatorship’ – a telling oxymoron.

In trying to understand the nature of the regime, the authors underline the following features. The regime lacked an ideology. It was declared under the banner of socialism and secularism (both the terms were included into the preamble of the Constitution in 1976). The latter was manifest in the banning of organizations like the RSS, Anand Marg and the Jamaat-e-Islami. The former in the declaration, incorporated in the Twenty Point Programme, of a commitment to land reforms and public housing. But these ‘egalitarian impulses’ were swamped by nepotism and corporatist overtones of policies formulated by the prime minister. What the author’s term ‘egalitarian impulses’ were diffused by the phenomenon of political authoritarianism and social hierarchies reinforcing each other. Sanjay Gandhi’s gentrification and sterilization drives targeted Dalits and Muslims. This, according to the authors, ‘reflects the extent to which caste and religious prejudice permeated the ranks of the largely upper caste elite.’

The Emergency, because it lacked a clarified ideology, encouraged, as most authoritarian regimes do, de-politicization. Politics fosters discussion, debates and dissent. Authoritarian regimes are anti-intellectual and so the perpetrators of the Emergency were against not only freedom of expression but also against universities. The absence of ideology meant Indira Gandhi could alter the tone and content of her utterances conveniently given the audience and the occasion. To businessmen she spoke about capital formation; to trade unions she spoke about workers’ rights. At mass rallies her speeches were peppered by populism and nationalism. The principal target of the latter was the USA, a power that she accused of trying to destabilize India and other Third World countries. The absence of ideology also facilitated the building up of a cult of personality around her. The rhetoric that accompanied the growth of this cult consisted of many empty phrases which could be variously interpreted to address a mosaic of concerns. The most shameful of these was the declaration of the then Congress president, D.K. Barooah, ‘India is Indira and Indira is India’. Nationalism was the only identifiable ideology of the Emergency and it was used to silence political debate. Anyone who opposed the Emergency was labelled as being ‘anti-national’.

Jaffrelot and Anil argue that the Emergency ‘did not temporally speaking cohere into a discrete sequence’ but they believe that ‘the regime needs periodising’. They proceed to schematically divide up the twenty one months of the Emergency into two parts: from June 1975 to early 1976 when Indira Gandhi’s Twenty Point Programme dominated; and from then onwards a second phase when the driving force was Sanjay’s Five-Point programme with its focus on mass sterilization and deportation. They go on to argue that the second phase was marked by Sanjay’s promotion of ‘a cluster of personalized institutions’ and a ‘grassroots movement centred around a personality cult’. Sanjay’s power transmitted through a selected group of henchmen and hit men criminalized and lumpenized the party and the state. If Sanjay had formally taken power, the authors aver, the Emergency would have become an ‘arbitrary despotism’ where power was ‘vested in a single person’. India was saved from such a predicament because Sanjay instead of formally taking power, ‘haphazardly [captured] the state and its resources through indiscriminate acts of nepotism’.

The arguments summarized in the previous paragraph bristles with questions. Why does the regime need periodizing even for schematic purposes? The focus shifted from one set of programmes to another set but did this shift signify a change in the nature of the regime? And if it did shift, why was the shift necessary? Jaffrelot and Anil seem to suggest that there was an Indira Emergency and a Sanjay Emergency. This is almost too convenient. Sanjay, our authors aver, if he had taken power would have imposed an ‘arbitrary despotism’ where power emanated from one person. This implies that Indira Gandhi’s exercise of power during the Emergency was not arbitrary and that under her dispensation all power did not emanate from herself. Such a conclusion is not quite warranted by the evidence presented in this book. There was a continuity between mother and son in the manner that they ruled and in the smug and arrogant way they thought of India as their own personal bailiwick.

One suspects that Jaffrelot and Anil are bit too taken in by the fact that Indira Gandhi preserved the facades of democracy. She, in fact, made a mockery of it. If one were to stay with Jaffrelot and Anil’s preferred category of ‘constitutional dictatorship’, it needs to be admitted that under the Emergency the balance was heavily tilted towards the second of the two words. For the twenty-one months of the Emergency, Indians suffered and resisted a dictatorship. The title of the book would indicate that the authors are conscious of this but for some strange reason in their detailed analysis they introduce too many qualifications and caveats to somewhat underplay the real danger to democracy and democratic institutions that the Emergency represented.

The causal framework that Jaffrelot and Anil use can for analytical purposes be broken up into the triggers, the precipitants and the pre-conditions. The immediate circumstances that made Indira Gandhi decide to impose an Emergency (over and above the ‘external’ emergency that was already in place), Jaffrelot and Anil locate in the threats posed by the JP movement and the challenges that Indira Gandhi faced from the judiciary. The JP movement – eponymously named after Jayaprakash Narayan – grew out of popular protests against Mrs Gandhi and the Congress first in Gujarat and then in Bihar. In Gujarat protests grew out of rising food prices, shortages, and against the corruption of Congress leaders. In Bihar – JP’s home state – which, unlike Gujarat, was backward and poor, students and youth took to the streets against inflation, growing unemployment, corruption and a repressive state administration. JP emerged, from his self-imposed political retirement, as the leader of the movement.

The movement, based on an ‘uneasy coalition’ of various discontented sections of society moved from strength to strength during 1973-74: it formed Janata sarkars that took over power grids, rationshops, collected funds, created local bureaucracies, courts and even armies. It appealed to the citizens to withhold taxes and resign from public sector jobs. JP aimed at what he termed a ‘total revolution’. The movement withstood severe state repression and attempts to bring about a reconciliation between JP and Indira (who JP knew as Indu from the time she was a growing girl) failed. The JP movement enjoyed an almost natural synergy with the RSS and the sangh parivar – the authors call this the subtext of the movement. JP conveniently abandoned his socialist past and rhetoric to embrace the RSS. He went to the extent of declaring publicly that if the RSS was fascist so was he. According to Jaffrelot and Anil, the most lasting legacy of the JP movement was the legitimacy it bestowed on the sangh parivar.

The JP movement grew out of a deep socio-economic crisis that Indira Gandhi had failed to resolve. Its popularity was based on the Congress’s alienation from four sections of society – the smaller gentry, students, protests and the working class. The smaller gentry – Jaffrelot and Anil call them ‘bullock capitalists’ borrowing a term coined by the Rudolphs – had reasons to be disillusioned by the policies of Indira Gandhi even though immediately after independence they had consolidated their power and wealth. In 1971-72, procurement prices had fallen and so had foodgrain production; there was also the looming shadow of leftist rhetoric emphasizing expropriation and collectivization. Farmers thus chose not to cooperate with procurement agents, hoarded grain and sold it in the black market. The agrarian crisis and farmers’ protests should also be located in the macro context of agriculture growing by 12.6 per cent between 1960 and 1969 while industry in the same period grew by 55.4 per cent.

In the 1960s the agrarian sector had also experienced greater impoverishment – people spending less than Rs 15 a month grew from 38 per cent in 1960-61 to 54 per cent in 1967-68. Organized labour also had reasons to be disaffected. In the 1960s while the gross national product and inflation increased, wages grew only at half the rate of the GNP. Between 1970 and 1973, real wages declined by 6 per cent. Strikes became common and the biggest one was the railway strike of May 1974 which was brutally put down.

There was thus enough discontent in sections of Indian society to fuel the JP movement. This disaffection was also related to the ‘promissory politics’ of Indira Gandhi by which a minuscule of what was promised was actually delivered to the common people. What Jaffrelot and Anil’s comprehensive analysis of the JP movement does not quite clarify is how serious a threat the JP movement was to Indira Gandhi or was it as serious as she made it out to be. The movement made parts of North India and perhaps Gujarat ungovernable but was it strong enough, by itself, to dislodge her from power? The threat of being unseated became real for the prime minister in the course of her confrontation with the judiciary. This is the second of the triggers.

The tip of the iceberg of this battle royal between Indira Gandhi and the judiciary was the judgment of the Allahabad High Court (dated 12 June 1974) which debarred her from contesting elections for six years. But below the tip was Indira Gandhi’s efforts to centralize power around herself and the prime minister’s office and more specific to the context of the judiciary, her attempts to build, on the advice of her counsellors, P.N. Haksar, Mohan Kumaramangalam, S.S. Ray and others, what was termed a ‘committed judiciary’. The judges were supposed to be committed not to law but to the political and economic agenda of the prevailing political dispensation. Jaffrelot and Anil somewhat belittle the importance of this conflict by suggesting that the judiciary was driven by ‘their desire to exact revenge on her for her endlessly stepping on its toes since 1967.’ Their own narrative offers ample evidence that there were deeper constitutional issues involved.

The conflict began to unfold in 1967 with the Golak Nath v State of Punjab case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the right to property, which the court considered a fundamental right, could not be overturned by Parliament. This judgment became a major stumbling block the policies of land reform being advocated by the Congress. The second bout was over the abolition of privy purses for princes that Parliament passed in 1970. The Supreme Court struck this down in a repeat of what it had done with bank nationalization. The court’s view was based again on the right to private property.

After she received a massive popular mandate in 1971, Indira Gandhi decided to settle scores with the judiciary. She did so with the24th and the 25th amendments; the latter stopped the courts from challenging laws passed that ‘subserved the common good’. The Indo-Pak war helped the prime minister since by the declaration of a national emergency all fundamental rights were suspended. The judiciary, however, did not yield that easily. In the Kesavananda Bharati case it formulated the basic structure doctrine by which some features of the Constitution could not be tampered with by the legislature. In retaliation Indira Gandhi appointed a toady, A.N.Ray, as the chief justice of the apex court passing over three judges. Ray had been the sole dissenter in the bank nationalization and the privy purse cases. From the judiciary’s point of view, by the Allahabad High Court judgment, Indira Gandhi had received her just deserts. She hit back by imposing the Emergency.

Even before the Allahabad judgement and the Emergency, Indira Gandhi had displayed pronounced tendencies towards authoritarian rule centred on her personality. Jaffrelot and Anil tend to analyse these tendencies on some psychological traits in her personality. They also emphasize that she assumed for herself a destiny that dictated that she was born to rule India. Congress satraps who underestimated her and believed they could dominate her aggravated this assumption. She politically eliminated each one of them and began the process of personalizing all decision-making. She was aided in this by P.N. Haksar, her principal secretary and till the Emergency her key advisor. Neither Indira Gandhi nor Haksar had any qualms about undermining democratic institutions (the judiciary, the executive), manipulating the institutions of civil society (the media, educational institutions) and fostering nepotism. Haksar was later to be hoist by his own petard. It was not only the political institutions that were the victims of this drive but also the Congress party was made to work at the bidding of the prime minister and her handpicked apparatchik like Haksar. All this was buttressed by a leftist populist rhetoric that beguiled many left-leaning intellectuals to support Indira Gandhi and it also enabled the CPI to become her lackey.

Indira Gandhi encouraged the culture of flattery, hero-worship and bhakti – these were stepping stones, as Ambedkar had said in his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly, to a ‘road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship’. Even before the Allahabad debacle forces were at work to subvert constitutional and democratic processes and put in place a personalized and arbitrary regime. The Emergency was the overt manifestation of these propensities and Sanjay Gandhi its most malignant and crude embodiment. Jaffrelot and Anil should be complemented for not taking the simplistic route of presenting the Emergency as flowing out of certain events and movements opposed to her. Facets of an authoritarian regime were visible, to those not blinded by Indira Gandhi’s growing popularity, when she was a democratically elected leader with an overwhelming mandate from the people of India. Popularity generates power; absolute popularity degenerates democracy.

The Emergency and its precipitants were situated within certain tensions that were embedded in the Constitution of India. Jaffrelot and Anil pay inadequate attention to these roots. These tensions lay in the interstices of ensuring freedoms of a sovereign people and the priorities of the state. The former created spaces and opportunities for social and economic transformations for and by the people, while the latter wanted to confine such movements within the parameters of law and order, security and state-making. The first pertained to the people; the second to administrators and governance.

This tension was somewhat inevitable in a new republic born out of a long mass struggle which was eager to avoid what Ambedkar in his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly memorably called the ‘grammar of anarchy’. Articles 352 and 360 of the Constitution had bestowed on the new state untrammelled powers. The provisions created by the colonial state for preventive detention and suspension of human rights had all been retained intact. The first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had not hesitated to use these provisions to suppress and deal with perceived threats to the new republic though he had never imposed a nationwide state of emergency to silence dissent and opposition (except during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict). But the provisions were there for wily lawyers and wilier political parasites to use when they counselled Indira Gandhi that she would be doing nothing unconstitutional by declaring the Emergency.

The other long-term trend that the authors do not address is the question of the relationship of the emerging authoritarian trends under Indira Gandhi to the nature of capitalism in India. The latter from its emergence, first in the colonial era and then under Nehru’s premiership, had largely been driven by the state. Was the Emergency the hammer she used to exterminate dissent to enable faster capital accumulation and economic growth? The question demands some investigation especially as members of the capitalist class were the most vocal applauders of the Emergency. It can be demonstrated that crony capitalism started just prior to and during the Emergency.

Jaffrelot and Anil note the phenomenon of resistance to the Emergency which though weak and fragmented, was not without elements of heroism. Why Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency and went to the polls in 1977 remains a puzzle. The authors suggest that she had begun to regret the excesses of the regime and was worried about the fact that India’s image was being tarnished abroad. They do not explore the possibility that she was deluded enough to believe that the people of India would not reject her. They did reject her in 1977 but her defeat should be tempered by the fact that the people voted her back to power in 1980. What lessons had the people of India and Indira Gandhi learnt from India’s first encounter with dictatorship? The spectre of authoritarianism has not quite been exorcized.

Jaffrelot and Anil’s book is magisterial in its narrative sweep and in its documentation. This book will be as significant a landmark in Indian scholarship as the events it analyses are in Indian politics. The book will be a reminder, to use the words of Mark Twain, that history may not repeat itself but sometimes it rhymes.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee

Chancellor and Professor of History, Ashoka University, Sonipat


* Views expressed are the author’s own.


A RINGSIDE SEAT TO HISTORY by Pascal Alan Nazareth. Konark Publishers, New Delhi and Seattle, 2020.

AT the outset I should clarify that the book is unputdownable, replete with personal and other anecdotes that was the tapestry of Pascal Alan Nazareth’s life. It is written in a conversationalist style, where the reader is transported into the realm of the writer, face to face. His auto-biography is engaging and highly readable, as one moves from episode to event. Unfortunately, the biography does not start with the writer’s earliest memory but instead from when Pascal was a young man. We therefore are not privy to his reminiscences of early school and life as a young boy, leading to his clearing the Indian civil services examination.

It is interesting that his father had originally wanted the young man to join the Indian Administrative Service. He believed, alas incorrectly, that the IFS was a service where playing golf, socializing at cocktail and dinner parties, was the core of the job – overseas public relations – and had discouraged Pascal from opting for it. However, when he made it to the coveted foreign service, both father and son did not hesitate at all and Alan Pascal Nazareth joined the Indian Foreign Service as a probationer.

As an aside, there is an interesting and amusing anecdote that describes Alan Nazareth’s to-be-wife’s reaction when she first set eyes on the ‘candidate’ presented to her. She thought he looked too young to be her future husband!

Nazareth realized, virtually on his first day at work that being a member of the country’s foreign service was a job that had to be worked at with deft, quiet and diplomatic manipulation, to keep the peace and enhance international relations. One incident described in the book, is the invitation to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s home. It was a courtesy call at which the ‘batch’ was to be presented to the prime minister. The special occasion was rudely interrupted by some urgent news. The PM was informed that the Dalai Lama had crossed the border with Tibet and entered India. This one act was to open a fresh and turbulent chapter in the Sino-Indian interaction.

A new batches of probationers, year upon year, is trained in all the nuances of diplomatese – the do’s and don’ts, the rules for entertainment, discourse and more. I recall being invited to speak to probationers at the National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie. My visit was part of the general interest talks given by professionals from diverse disciplines. We were treated with great respect, and a probationer was deputed to look after our every need. This was intrinsic to the overall training in an effort to ensure probationers emerged from with wide-ranging knowledge and a well rounded personality. In those days, horse riding was part of the training protocol. Nazareth’s descriptions of that period in his life make for interesting reading.

One, amongst many memorable episodes relates to his district training in Gaya, Bihar. The special moment was the Dalai Lama’s visit to Bodh Gaya. Nazareth was appointed his liaison officer – a great privilege. The Dalai Lama managed rather well despite his limited knowledge of the English language at the time. When asked at a press conference if he knew Chinese as a language, the Dalai Lama smiled and replied: ‘I know the Chinese’.

Alan Nazareth’s first posting was to Japan in 1960. Thereafter he served in Myanmar (Burma), New York, Peru, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar again, back to New York, Peru, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, then to Yugoslavia, Greece, the Sudan, the United Kingdom, Ghana and Liberia, the United States of America, Egypt, Mexico, and at the headquarters in New Delhi.

All the postings were peppered with memorable events that demanded definite and clear-cut initiatives, calibrated decisions to be taken on the spot, and also, having to deal with complex issues that were outside of routine requirements. One amusing example was in Burma. Having gone through a series of extraordinary experiences that came with life-threatening consequences, he was told to counter the ‘curse’ by appeasing the spirits that were angry, as some branches of a tree in the garden had been lobbed off. As the gardener had refused to cut the branches, Nazareth had asked for outside help to get the job done. The tree spirit had been disturbed by this act and was angry with the Nazareth family. The remedy suggested, to pacify the tree spirit, was an offering of a few cakes and two bottles of gin, to atone for the ‘sin’. The family did what was the local tradition demanded and the nagging problems of the past disappeared.

During his sojourn in New York, he got into the complicated shenanigans of an elusive couple, Mr and Mrs Dharma Teja. India and the Indian courts were looking to try them for fraud on many counts, but they were elusive and slipping out of the formality of extradition, by constantly travelling from one country to another. Nazareth was assigned the task of getting hold of the couple to deport them to India. The episode is worth reading in the book, narrated as it is from the ‘horse’s mouth’.

The chapters on Ghana and Liberia are full of bloody details and illustrate the grave dangers that the officers posted abroad have to face and combat with while representing their country. The other side of that coin is the cross-section of people and professionals that ambassadors and high commissioners get to meet across the globe.

This review would have been abnormally long if I were to describe the contents in detail. I would like to recall here, my interaction with Alan Nazareth when he was Director General of the ICCR in New Delhi. I was attending meetings in the USA and also in India as a member of Indo-US Sub-commission on education and culture. The event was meticulously planned and executed without a glitch, till tragedy hit with the crash of Air India’s carrier, Kanishka, described in the book.

The final chapter deals with the author’s post retirement life and times. A range of appendices in the book addresses other events that are not part of the narrative. His remarkable attention to detail reflects an extensive database. Clearly his carefully conserved records facilitated him to quote from them, chapter and verse. To reinforce what the Foreword says, there is so much in this book that will delight, inform, intrigue and enlighten... Perhaps one could also add ‘amuse’.

Jayant Narlikar

Emeritus Professor, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune