Saturday, June 5, 2010

Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological history of Bastar 1854-2006, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2007 (2nd edition), (1st edition 1997, OIP 1999).

Anthropologists are often accused of wanting to keep tribals or indigenous people as museum pieces. Subalterns and Sovereigns shows how misplaced this charge is, arguing that forested and hill areas like Bastar have never been outside the ‘mainstream’ of history, and that the flattening out of local politics to create the appearance of isolation and homogeneity is essentially a product of colonialism and post-colonialism. The choice today, as in the past, has never been one between ‘tradition’ and ‘modern civilisation’ or between ‘development’ and ‘backwardness’, but over alternative visions of democracy.
 By exploring the expansion of the state in Bastar over the past century and a half, and resistance to the particular forms it has taken, this book has been part of redefining the way in which history and anthropology are thinking of tribal India.
Based on an unusually rich combination of field and archival research, deployed in methodologically innovative ways, the book is divided into three parts: the ethnohistorical first section portrays the pre-colonial economy and polity, showing also how the significance of kingship and Bastar’s famous Dussehra festival have changed over time. The second part uses more standard archival sources to explore critical rebellions, yet these too are countered by oral histories of the same events. This section documents the growing restrictions on popular access to land and forest, the multiple historical understandings that shaped the encounter between different actors, and the relationship between colonial anthropology and contemporary laws. The final section, `Uncertain Futures,' highlights the contradictions faced by tribal societies today. The book is brought up to date for the second edition, by an afterword on the ongoing Naxalite movement and the government’s counterinsurgency efforts in Chhattisgarh.