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People’s Struggles in India

Intercultural Ressources

07 / 2011

The following set of articles, entitled “People’s Struggles in India,” documents a variety of facets of social movements in India. The movements are set in different regional contexts – the militarized Northeast of India, urban spaces, forests and coastal areas – and document several kinds of processes – a trade union movement, radical street theatre, working class people’s organisations and middle class environmentalism amongst others. They are meant as a reflection of the plurality of struggles in India.

The largest group of articles presented here has a common theme of ‘development’-induced displacement. On the one hand, this reflects the centrality of the issue in present times and the commonality of experience; on the other hand, the articles show the different positions within such a critique, in terms of how the central problem is posited as well as what strategies are adopted to counter it. Such differences reflect the plurality of realities of these movements and the vibrancy of their struggles.

There are several elements that tie these struggles together. The first is a competition for resources between unequal players, as shown by the articles on the Kerala fishworkers’ movement, the women’s movement centered on the traditional Ima Market in Imphal, Manipur, the movement against Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Gujarat. While the Gujarat and Kerala cases show the struggle over coastal waters between traditional fishworkers and large mechanised industrial fisheries, the battle over the Ima Market demonstrates the ways in which a rhetoric of development and modernisation instead infringes on traditional rights of women who have had a strong control over domestic trading since before India’s independence, to instead make way for a male-dominated market. The rhetoric of development is one that cannot be missed in India, and it has been the source of conflict in many struggles across the country. The articles on uranium mining in Jadugoda, Jharkhand, the anti-Mapithel dam struggle in Ukhrul, Manipur, the anti-Koel Karo dam struggle in Ranchi district, Jharkhand and the resistance to repeated interventions in Loktak Lake in Manipur all shed light on one or another aspect of the development debate in India.

The articles also reveal how development has wreaked havoc on local environments and communities. The massive coastal SEZ run by the Adani Group in Gujarat, large dams across India that drown entire villages and surrounding areas, unsustainable mining by Lafarge in Meghalaya and highly dangerous uranium mining by the State-run Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) in Jharkhand, the massive pumping out of water resources by Coca Cola in Plachimada and the interventions in the Loktak Lake by the government of Manipur all have proven to be ecologically harmful for the environment. At the same time, they raise issues of accessibility to resources and reflect a struggle over this access that directly or indirectly affect the livelihoods of local communities.

These articles also reflect the different processes of each of the movements, in terms of the strategy of opposition they have adopted. Therefore, while the Plachimada struggle shows the success of using a judicial process to assist the grassroots struggle that led to the final shutdown of the Coca Cola factory, the struggle against mining by Lafarge demonstrates the way legal procedures, while carrying on, have been set aside by the company to continue mining. Similarly, while resistance of fishworkers in Gujarat, considered amongst the most repressive states in India, has organised itself as broad people’s organisations, the fishworkers’ movement in Kerala chose to organise itself as a trade union. The Kerala fishworkers’ trade union (known by the acronym KSMTF) has been a formidable force in the state and even led to the formation of a National Fishworkers Federation (NFF) across the coastal states of India, of which the Gujarat fishworkers are also a part.

The struggles in the Northeast are set apart owing to the context of a long history of militarization of the region by the Indian State and consequently, the exacerbation of ethnic fragmentation. The struggle for autonomy amongst the Hmar indigenous tribals in Northeast India documents a struggle that challenges a long process of ethnic, socio-economic and political marginalisation of the community. The two articles on resistance in Manipur, one of the most volatile states in recent times, around Loktak Lake and against the Mapithel Dam, depict the constant surveillance of local communities through scattered army posts and the repeated use of the armed forces to repress constitutional means of resistance.

The article on resistance and repression in Jharkhand throws light on the extent of brutalization movements are put through in the context of a state on the offensive. In recording a history of martyrdom that has no end in Jharkhand, the article is meant as a reflection of the violent context of many of the most democratic and peaceful struggles across the country. Repression has been a common theme in most struggles as the articles show. The article on the Telangana peasant movement that arose in the context of a feudal princely state (Hyderabad) on the eve of India’s Independence depicts most clearly the conflict that arises when concentration of power in the hands of a few comes to be challenged. A classic peasant insurrection, the movement was a pivotal moment in Indian history because of its impact on the future of the communist movement in India and its highlighting of the condition of the Indian peasantry.

Finally, a last set of articles discusses movements in an urban context. The article on the Manipur Cycling Club looks at an innovative initiative aimed at protecting the environment as an opportunity in Manipur’s long history of armed conflict to imagine a more peaceful way of life in a community severely affected by violence. The article on the campaign to save the Ridge in Delhi reflects on the life of a middle-class environmental movement and the ways in which it imagines the environment within the urban space. The article on the Jan Natya Manch (Janam) or People’s Theatre Front, based in Delhi and its surrounding industrial areas, reflects on the relationship between theatre as a cultural art form, and trade unions as a form of political organisation and struggle.

The larger context for many of these struggles is the location of India within a global political economy. Following economic reforms from the nineties onwards, India has become a prime target of national and foreign corporations for what is alternatively seen as valuable natural resources by some and cheap raw materials by others. As a result, what we have now is a State that increasingly uses its resources in the assistance of these corporations instead of benefiting its citizens. Through many of these struggles a challenge is posited, directly or indirectly, to the very model of development the Indian State is promoting – a model that furthers corporate private interests under the cover of ‘development’. The State’s rhetoric is used, on the one hand, to legitimise this model to the broader public, and on the other hand, to isolate and delegitimise its opponents. In turn, people’s movements are questioning the State and its allies. The question being asked is simple – whose development?

This dossier is available in French / Lire le dossier en français : Les luttes populaires en Inde

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