Ethnic Activism and Civil Society in South Asia: Governance, Conflict, and Civic Action: Volume 2
Sonali Huria ·       

Ethnic Activism and Civil Society is a valuable collection of essays which looks at the multi-faceted interactions between ethnic activism, civil society and states in South Asia, particularly India and Nepal and the several tensions and contradictions that characterize these interactions. South Asia is home to a plethora of ethnic, linguistic, religious and other identity groups and a region where public spaces are deeply contested. The book is a valuable ethnographic study of the internal dynamics (and their interaction with external dynamics) that shape and mutate ethnic identities in the sub-continent.

The book attempts to locate ethnic activism in South Asia within the ambit of civil society and highlights the multitude complexities and limitations that the latter, as defined in a western tradition, poses in a South Asian context. Ethnic activism thus, is not necessarily a selfless or objective campaign to seek greater visibility and rights for marginalized groups, but can be self-interested and self-serving, and aimed at particular political ends as in the case of Thangmi activism in India and Nepal. 

Gellner’s introductory essay is a broad theoretical exploration of these concepts and a critique of the Euro-American conception of civil society. In the first section on Hindu Nationalism as a Form of Ethnic Activism, the two essays by Mio and Froerer draw on ethnographic studies undertaken by the authors in Udaipur and Chhattisgarh respectively. These essays attempt to problematize the dominant conception of civil society by locating Hindu nationalist organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena within its ambit, despite their blatant ‘uncivil’ character, based as they are on a virulent ideology of Hindu chauvinism. The essays highlight the incongruity between the dominant notion of civil society as one that is predicated on ideals of ‘dialogue, tolerance, accommodation and associative freedom,’ and its applicability to the engagement of these organizations in the civic affairs of local communities in these two regions.

The book also explores the external dimension of ethnic activism – wherein national boundaries are permeated with relative ease, the national and cross-boundary interact, and identities are constructed and deconstructed in complex ways to create newer forms of activism with sometimes entirely different purposes, as Shneiderman’s essay on Thangmi ethnic activism demonstrates. The use of case studies of ethnic activism from the region highlight how boundaries between the state, market, society and family are often blurred, complex and in a constant state of flux.

The chapters by Gerharz and Shneiderman investigate the transnational linkages that underpin several ethnic movements in the region – an exploration of the links between the diasporas and locals in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka during post-conflict reconstruction processes and the Thangmi ethnic identity that traverses national boundaries – across India and Nepal. The essays are an interesting exploration of the points of convergence, diversity of objectives and antagonisms that characterize the relations within and between these ethnic groups, that is, between the ‘local and foreign’ in the case of the former and the ‘rural and urban elite’ in the case of the latter.

The volume also poses enduring questions about the nature and production of knowledge and history and how ethnic movements seek to challenge and reconstruct dominant discourses to create spaces for themselves in public consciousness. In particular, the chapters on Nepali Dalit activism and Tharu and Tamang activism address the issue of the social construction of history. Who writes history, whose history is ‘known’ and which ethnic groups remain marginalized in a nation’s historical narrative are questions the book explores through these essays.

Vasily’s study of Nepali Dalit activism highlights the hold that “higher caste groups have maintained over governance systems, education, and mainstream print media (thus) prevent(ing) much of its history from being widely circulated or known” (p.218). A similar theme runs through the essay on Tamang activism by Mukta Tamang, who argues that the history texts prescribed for schools and universities for instance, “rarely mention the territory and political organizations of the indigenous ethnic groups” (p.273) and thus, the Tamangs for instance, have largely remained ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ in Nepal’s national historiography.

This absence of subaltern voices in a largely ‘elitist’ historical narrative has served to push to the periphery the Tamangs who have suffered from significant political, social and economic oppression and disadvantage. Their form of activism therefore, has taken the form of a re-construction of history with a view to make themselves ‘visible’ in the national discourse by “delineating a territory and mobilizing people around the theme of (their) distinct indigenous identity and relative autonomy” (p.274). They have gone about doing this through a reinterpretation of national history and tapping into subaltern sources of oral history from villages and clans with their efforts being geared towards bigger political ends – of gaining an autonomous territory and independence in their political life.

Another interesting facet of ethnic activism the book explores is the multitude challenges that activists face while attempting to contest the marginalization of their ethnic groups and creating spaces for themselves in their respective national political and social arenas, demonstrated, perhaps most effectively, in the case of Dalit activism, both in India and Nepal. While Dalit activism has raised awareness about the structural injustices that Dalits have and continue to be subjected to in large parts of both these countries, the lack of established financial and ideological support structures to sustain Dalit activism has, in many cases, led to an exacerbation of the vulnerability of Dalits to an upper caste backlash against their activities. The essay by Gorringe documents for instance, the experiences of Dalit youth who despite being part of the Liberation Panthers, the largest Dalit activist movement in Tamil Nadu, have been subjected to “daily indignities…since daring to reject (their) ‘caste duties’…(they) found that the movement could not protect them” (p.156).
Another fascinating aspect of these movements is that while they are predicated on a declared goal of bringing to an end their marginalization and acquiring socio-economic and political parity with other communities, these groups are themselves riddled with several inequities, organized as they are along caste and other hierarchical lines. The essay on Dalit Christian Activism in South India, specifically Tamil Nadu, by Mosse elucidates this paradox. The movement, far from negating social hierarchies, has served to further entrench caste identities, since according to Mosse, Christian Dalit activism itself was a reaction against the caste relations of superiority and subordination which had become institutionalized within the Church over time.

Ethnic Activism and Civil Society in South Asia will be useful not just to sociologists, but also political scientists who may be unable to see the multitude currents of ethnic tension that run beneath political waters. It will also be of interest and use to those involved in the study of ethnicity, anthropology, and more broadly, the South Asian region.