Existential questions faced by the subaltern

When accepting the 2004 City of Sydney Peace Prize, Arundhati Roy remarked, “there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” This quote aptly captures the persecution and repression faced by people marginalized by society’s relentless pursuit of “progress”. Ms. Roy’s comment cuts to the bone of the issue of Adivasi (subaltern) development in India.

When it comes to the issues faced by the Adivasis, two things stand out in stark contrast to the narrative presented in mainstream academic debates. Firstly, the debate about growth and development is problematic in this context. The conventional notion of development is contentious as it rests on the subordination of tribal indigeneity to an urban bias. Development programmes for the welfare of the Adivasis are often tailored and implemented by the administrators from the metropolis, leaving little space for a democratic engagement with them. Secondly, the “we are the 99%” movement fails to find space in the debate. The subaltern almost always constitutes a minority of the general population and their plight has remained the same in colonial and post-colonial times. For example, industries that were to provide employment to the general population, and accelerate GDP growth, have often acted at the expense of the well-being of the Adivasis.

Development via dispossession

The first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, who recognized the value of multiculturalism in a newly independent nation, had some definite guidelines to develop the Adivasis. Popularly called the Panchsheel principles for tribal development, Nehru stressed the need for an approach of non-coercion, respect for tribal rights, tribal leadership, simplicity in administration and human development. Despite this, the implementation of major development projects like dams (referred to as “temples of modern India” by Nehru himself) displaced the local tribal folk without adequate rehabilitation. This raises serious questions about the concept of development. What exactly is development and who is it for?

The state-centric model of development pursued after Independence largely catered to the interests of the metropolis. This is why development projects faced considerable opposition from the locals; they were seen as state-led accumulation projects, via dispossession. This continues today through what Amit Bhaduri calls “developmental terrorism” (2007).

Parallel to the land alienation that Adivasis were constantly subjected to, attempts were made to bring their lifestyles into accord with the dictates of the metropolis. Tribal indigeneity was further threatened by the idea of a “global reality”, envisioned by the globalization project. The Adivasis were either seen as an obstacle to development or as the “Other”, to be desacralized and modernized. The continuous “othering” of the Adivasi gained momentum as the neoliberal regime redefined the roles of the state and the market. There was repression on one hand and homogenisation on the other.

These socio-cultural and economic impositions were a deliberate attempt to subvert existing pre-capitalist systems. Mono-cropping was imposed to commercialize agriculture, formerly subsistence-based, to serve both global and domestic capital. This was exploited by the state as well as corporates to bring in much needed foreign exchange and profits. Modernity was equated with capitalist progress and, subsequently, the rationality pursued in the name of development was “instrumental” in nature. A Weberian disenchantment was concomitant with this development via dispossession. As with the expansion of markets, there was a disintegration of the Adivasi order in the socio-cultural sphere, leaving them worse off than before.

This is where the narrative of the popular “growth versus development” debate falls apart. The state is obsessed with imposing a paternalistic strategy in these tribal hamlets, from a metropolitan perspective that is unidimensional in nature. Elites, by virtue of the epistemological hegemony they enjoy, branded indigenous knowledge and wisdom as unmodern and primitive. This unfolded as the merciless subjugation of the latter by the former within a dialectical process of conflict between “tradition” and “modernity”.

Modes of resistance

An idea that is gaining popularity is to train the Adivasi in entrepreneurial skills and to encourage them to embrace the “immense opportunities available in a neoliberal economy” (Kunhaman 2017). This argument is in line with the much disputed “success” of the Dalit capitalist model (Dalit refers to the most oppressed in the Indian caste system). There are three problems with this argument. First, such arguments fall prey to the TINA (There Is No Alternative) logic of Margaret Thatcher and ignore the mechanisms of rapid capital concentration that takes place under neoliberal capitalism. Financialisation, an integral part of neoliberalism, is notorious for its focus on the virtual speculative economy rather than the real economy. Short term profit making is encouraged over long term production goals. Moreover, the market is dictated largely by the interests of monopoly capital, not disaggregated small capital. This hampers the ability of the Adivasis to capture a fair share of the market, as they do not have enough market power. Secondly, while entrepreneurs should be encouraged, it is unwise to push them into the uncertainties of the global market. One should not expect communities that have been isolated for centuries to embrace the modalities of a neoliberal economy: it may usher in unforeseen psychological costs, including anxiety and depression. Thirdly, it worsens the inequalities that exist in the fragmented social order of the Adivasi community by accelerating a capital-labour class conflict. This may sabotage movements striving for the collective solidarity of the Adivasis.

The quest is thus to empower the Adivasi through the provision of basic site-specific resources and services without statistical fetishisms: empowerment should not be measured solely on the basis of quantitative indicators but by actual improvement in the well-being of the people. The need of the hour is to implement contextual initiatives in a decentralised governance system. This is essential, as the needs of the Adivasis may differ from one place to another. For example, the needs of the Attappadi Adivasis are different from those in the tribal hamlets of Wayanad. Both places are in the southern state of Kerala. Attappadi continues to receive huge amounts of state funding with no commensurate improvement in actual living conditions. As such, Attappadi Adivasis are indifferent to further fund inflows. Adivasi activists in Wayanad, however, welcome more state spending. Traditionally, such policies were metropolitan-centred and had disastrous leakages due to corruption, much to the benefit of the metropolitan administrators. So the solution does not lie in cutting off state spending per se, but rather in ensuring that these funds are effectively channelled to the intended beneficiaries.

An alternative lies in encouraging intellectuals, who are organic to the community in the Gramscian sense of the term, to help foster community-based resource management systems that work on a co-operative model. Such initiatives tend to be in the long-term interest of the community and hence, can strengthen social agency via resistance. Nevertheless, these measures will only be successful insofar as they raise the consciousness of the metropolitan masses via an education system that cultivates empathy and ethics. Only then, will this process of “othering” that has persisted for centuries cease to exist.


  • Bhaduri, Amit (2007): ‘Development or Developmental Terrorism?’ Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 27(7), pp 552-53
  • Kunhaman, M (2017): ‘Adivasis in Kerala: The Development Question’. Paper presented at the national seminar on ‘Adivasis in Kerala : The Development Question’ hosted by Department of Economics, University of Kerala
  • Raman, KR (2017): ‘Subaltern Modernity: Kerala, the Eastern Theatre of Resistance in the Global South’. Sociology, Vol. 51(1) 91 –110