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Confused and Contradictory Worlds

Nandini Sundar

By Alpa Shah
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 273, 695.00

VOLUME XXXV NUMBER 12 December 2011

At a time when adivasis are both central to the national political discourse on conversion, migration, the environ-ment, and insurgency, and yet strangely silenced, Alpa Shah's straight up ethnography of a Munda village in Jharkhand is very welcome. It grounds her critical discussion of these larger issues in much needed empirical detail. But if Alpa's adivasis live in the shadow of the state, Alpa writes in the shadow of unnamed activists, and both are much the worse for their shadow boxing. Writing about the life worlds of adivasis and rural elites in Ranchi district of Jharkhand, the book aims to provide an alternative to the received wisdom in many cases. For instance, as against activists who claim that traditional institutions of governance are secular alternatives to the state run panchayat system, Alpa Shah argues that what is important to the Mundas about this traditional system is its sacral rather than its secular character. As for the exploitative state, she shows how this is a bogey fetishized by rural elites who have an interest in becoming mediators between the poor and the state. As against the activist idea of adivasis in harmony with nature, she argues that adivasis have an interest in cutting down forests to keep rampaging elephants away and it is the rural elite who want to promote afforestation. As against the depiction of migration as a blight on rural lives, she emphasizes the freedom and romance associated with it; and as against the notion of Maoists as representatives of the very poorest, she shows their connections with the rural elite. The book is often interesting and insightful, but occasionally falter on counts of theoretical and empirical coherence. Much of what Alpa writes-though certainly by no means all-has been covered within the academic literature on indigeneity or environmentalism. It is the activists, therefore, and their received wisdom, who serve as the straw men in chapter after chapter. But we never get a sense of who these activists are beyond a couple of paragraphs. We are told that the 'Indigenous rights activists (are)…. urban based and highly educated middle classes', 'recognized as advocates of Jharkhand's indigenous populations by the likes of….Survival International.' Apart from ICITP (Indian Council of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples), no other organization or alliance is named, and nor is there any analysis of how important these groups are within the Jharkhandi political arena, and not ...

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