Skip to main content
Log in

Adivasis, Communists, and the rise of indigenism in Kerala

  • Published:
Dialectical Anthropology Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

Although the notion of the ‘adivasi’ has come under academic scrutiny and the ‘dark side’ of indigeneity discourses is increasingly criticized, there has been relatively little attention to the question of why, under adverse circumstances, activists have nevertheless started articulating their political program in the language of adivasi-ness while surpassing the particularistic politics of earlier tribal movements. Explaining the emergence of indigenist politics as a new democratic force is all the more pertinent for the case of Kerala since this state has the Communist movement as an obvious alternative for the articulation of such a transformative political agenda. This article therefore seeks to explore the forces that gave rise to the politics of indigenism. It begins with a discussion of shifts in the structural power context shaping subaltern activism in Kerala—particularly the impact of neoliberal restructuring and the new ideological environment created with the demise of the Communist block. The paper then moves to consider the political dynamics operating within this structural context that led indigenist activists to form a separate political movement. It looks particularly at the sense of both ideological and material disillusionment these activists feel toward the Communist party in Kerala.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1

Similar content being viewed by others

Notes

  1. Nattukar probably translates best as ‘plains men’, as opposed to kattumanushyar, ‘forest people’. The latter term is hardly ever used anymore however, and the former is usually translated into English as ‘natives’, since nattu can also just mean ‘place’ and nattukar thus ‘those who belong to the place’. It is particularly ironic, and frustrating to activists in the AGMS, that thereby over time the settlers who moved into adivasi areas have in fact come to be called the “natives” of these areas.

  2. It is not the first time in Kerala that those calling themselves “Dalit” today have engaged in the politics of indigenism. In 1929, for example, a then short-lived political initiative was undertaken by Cherumas, an ex-untouchable caste in Kerala, to be called “Adi Keraliyar”, an identity meant to replace their caste stigma by a proud claim to being “the first settlers in Kerala” (Menon 1994: 85).

  3. Partly this is also because contemporary gender norms in Kerala make it commonly unimaginable that the “brains” of a movement could be those of C K Janu, an adivasi woman.

  4. Apart from Dalits and adivasis, it is particularly also women who now feel betrayed by the Communist Party—similar to Dalits and adivasis, their material standards of living are better than in the rest of India but this has not prevented intense forms of patriarchal control.

References

  • Aerthayil, Mathew. 2008. Impact of globalization on tribals in the context of Kerala. New Delhi: Rawat Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Aiyappan, A. 1992. The Paniyas: An ex-slave tribe of South India. Calcutta: Institute of Social research and applied anthropology.

    Google Scholar 

  • Backer, Aboo. 2002. Kerala: Adivasis on war path. In People’s democracy: Weekly organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Vol. XXVI, 28.

  • Bates, Crispin. 1995. Lost innocents and the loss of innocence: Interpreting adivasi movements in South Asia. In Indigenous peoples of Asia, ed. R.H. Barnes, A. Gray, and B. Kingsbury. Michigan: American Assoc. for Asian Studies.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baviskar, Amita. 2005. Red in tooth and claw? Looking for class in struggles over nature. In Social movements in India, ed. R. Ray, and M.F. Ktzenstein. Rowman & Littlefield.

  • Beteille, Andre. 1998. The idea of indigenous people. Current Anthropology 39(2): 187–192.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bosu et al. 1993. Indigenous peoples of India: Identity crisis and search for a new identity. In Indigenous identity: Crisis and reawakening. Published for the Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ICITP) by NPK of the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Delhi: Naudin Prakasha Kendra.

  • Boughton, Bob. 2001. ‘The Communist Party of Australia’s involvement in the struggle for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ Rights 1920–1970. In Labour and community: Historical essays, ed. R. Markey, 263–294. Wollongong: University of Wollongong Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Breman, Jan. 1996. Footloose labour: Working in India’s informal economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Breman, Jan. 2007. The poverty regime in village India. London: Oxford University Press.

  • Cederlof, Gunnel, and Deborah Sutton. 2005. The aboriginal toad: On indigeneity, exclusivism and privileged access to land in the Nilgiri Hills, South India. In Indigeneity in India, ed. Bengt Karlsson, and Tanka Subba. London: Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2005. Politics unlimited: The global adivasi and debates about the political. In Indigeneity in India, ed. Bengt Karlsson, and Tanka Subba. London: Kegan Paul.

    Google Scholar 

  • Chathukulam, Jos, and M.S. John. 2006. Issues in tribal development: The recent experience of Kerala. In Tribal development in India: The contemporary debate, ed. Govinda Chandra Rath. London: Sage Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cheria, Anita, K. Narayanan, and Edwin Bijoy. 1997. A search for justice: A citizen’s report on the adivasi experience in South India. Bangalore: St. Paul’s Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clifford, James. 2001. Indigenous articulations. The contemporary Pacific 2(Fall): 468–490.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Devika, J. Forthcoming. ‘A people united in development? Egalitarian developmentalism and the question of caste in Kerala state, India’, forthcoming in. Critical Asia Studies.

  • George, Jose, and P. Krishnaprasad. 2006. Agrarian distress and farmers’ suicide in the tribal district of Wayanad. Social scientist 34(7/8): 70–85.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ghosh, K. 2006. Between global flows and local dams: indigenousness, locality and the transitional sphere in Jharkhand India. Cultural Anthropology 21: 501–534.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Guha, Sumit. 1999. Environment and ethnicity in India, 1200–1991. Cambridge: Cambridge Studies in Indian History and Society.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Harvey, David. 2003. The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jacob, T.G. 2006. Wayanad: Misery in an emerald bowl. Essays on the ongoing crisis in the cash crop economy—Kerala. Mumbai: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra.

    Google Scholar 

  • Karlsson, Bengt. 2003. Anthropology and the indigenous slot. Critique of Anthropology 4: 403–423.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kerala State Committee of the CPI(M). 2003. ‘Casteist organizations and the party’. The Marxist Oct–Dec. http://www.cpim.org/marxist/200304_marxist_caste.htm.

  • Kuper, Adam. 2003. The return of the native. Current Anthropology 44(3): 389–395.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kymlicka, Will. 2007. The internationalization of minority rights. International Journal of Constitutional Law 6(1): 1–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Li, Tania. 2000. Articulating indigenous identity in Indonesia: Resource politics and the tribal slot. Comparative studies in society and history 42(1): 149–179.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Mamdani, Mahmood. 2010. Lessons of Darfur: Human rights activism and Africa, public lecture. Cornell University, April 29th.

  • Mathur, P.R.G. 1977. Tribal situation in Kerala. Thiruvanathapuram: St. Joseph’s Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Menon, Dilip. 1994. Caste, nationalism and communism in south India: Malabar 1900–1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Menon, Dilip. 2006. The blindness of insight: Essays on caste in modern India. Pondicherry: Navayana.

    Google Scholar 

  • Menon, Nivedita, and Aditya Nigam. 2007. Power and contestation: India since 1989. Halifax/Winniped: Fernwood Publishing//London, New York: Zed Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morris, Brian. 1982. Forest traders: A socio-economic study of the Hill Pandaram. New Jersey: Athlone Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Namboodiripad, E.M.S. 1984. Kerala society and politics: A historical survey. Kerala: National Book Centre.

    Google Scholar 

  • Niezen, Ronald. 2003. The origins of indigenism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Omvedt, Gail. 1993. Reinventing revolution: New social movements and the socialist tradition in India. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rajagopalan, Arvind. 2004. The menace of hawkers: Property forms and the politics of market liberalization in Mumbai. In Property in question: Value transformation in the global economy, ed. Caroline Humphrey, and Katherine Verdery. English Ed. Berg Publishers.

  • Shah, Alpa. 2007. The dark side of indigeneity? Indigenous people, rights and development in India. History Compass 5(6): 1806–1832.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sider, Gerald. 2003. Living Indian Histories: Lumbee and Tuscarora people in North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of Carolina Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Singh, Kumar Sanjay. 2001. The dark clouds and the silver lining: Adivasi struggle in Kerala. New Delhi: Kalpana Printing House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sinha, Surajit. 2002. Tribal solidarity movement in India: A review. In Social movement and the state, ed. Ghanshyam Shah. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sissons, Jeffrey. 2005. First peoples: Indigenous cultures and their futures. London: Reaktion Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sreekumar, T.T., and Govindan Parayil. 2006. ‘Interrogating development: new social movements, democracy and indigenous people’s struggles in Kerala. In Kerala: The paradoxes of public action and development, ed. Joseph Tharamangalam. Delhi: Orient Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Steur, Luisa. 2010. Indigenous identity: burden or liberation? Reflections on ‘adivasi’ politics in Kerala. International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter 53. http://www.iias.nl/files/IIAS_NL53_26.pdf.

  • Surjeet, Harkishan Singh. 2000. The CPI(M) programme: Updated in tune with changing times. The Marxist 16: 3–4.

    Google Scholar 

  • Thachil, Tariq. 2009. The saffron wave meets the silent revolution: Why the poor vote for Hindu nationalism in India. Dissertation, Cornell University.

  • Tsing, Anna. 2007. Indigenous voice. In Indigenous experience today, ed. Marisol de la Cadena, and Orin Stark, 33–68. Oxford/New York: Berg.

    Google Scholar 

  • Whitehead, Judy. 2007. Sunken voices: Adivasis, Neo-Gandhian environmentalism and state-civil society relations in the Narmada Valley 1998–2001. Antropologica 49(2).

  • Wolf, Eric. 1990. Distinguished lecture: Facing power—old insights, new questions. American anthropologist 92(3): 586–596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

I thank participants of the “Savage Attack” workshop in London, 2008, and in particular Amit Desai and Amita Baviskar for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. I also thank John Clarke and Crispin Bates for their insightful comments on a later draft. Finally, I thank the Central European University in Budapest for making the research on which this paper is based financially possible.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luisa Steur.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Steur, L. Adivasis, Communists, and the rise of indigenism in Kerala. Dialect Anthropol 35, 59–76 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-010-9206-6

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-010-9206-6

Keywords

Navigation