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Adivasis, Communists, and the rise of indigenism in Kerala

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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.

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  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.


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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.

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Correspondence to Luisa Steur.

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Steur, L. Adivasis, Communists, and the rise of indigenism in Kerala. Dialect Anthropol 35, 59–76 (2011).

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