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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 11, March 7, 2015

Depoliticising People’s Protests

Monday 9 March 2015, by Suranjita Ray


The idea and practice of democracy has always remained a subject of political negotiation, revision and reinvention. Its history is inseparable from the history of people’s assertions, protests, struggles, and increased consciousness of rights and liberation. Though the nature and issues raised by people’s protests and social movements are not free from controversies and internal differences, they remain an important force of socio-economic and political transfor-mations in society. Irrespective of the differences in their character-istics, ideologies, and strategies, people’s unrest and resistance largely question the hierarchical caste-based, patriarchal, feudal, capitalist, and undemocratic structures of state, and its development policies, which have resulted in greater inequalities, oppression, deprivations, alienation, marginalisation, injustice, and denial of rights. They redefine freedom, rights, equality, justice, citizenship, and development in specific contexts and thus weave together a history of remaking democracy and the democratic statethat empowers the people.

In fact, people’s assertion has been both the cause and consequence of the larger process of democratisation in India which is an ongoing process. (Pai, 2013: xvi-xvii) However, notwith-standing the fact that the increasing political consciousness of such struggles has always strengthened the practice of democracy, at this conjecture it is significant to understand the attempts by the powerful state to depoliticise contemporary people’s protests and grassroots movements. The neoliberal state has not only been successful in restoring the interest of the capitalist class, but also in manufacturing consent for its campaign for an ‘inclusive society’ which is defined by the mainstream corporate elites. It has ignored the political dimensions of people’s protests which demand structural changes to alter power relations which can make the society inclusive by empowering the marginalised to sustain their lives and livelihood. Instead the state has usurped powers to itself to either undermine people’s struggles or crush them in the name of law and order. It is pertinent to understand that the future of democracy and the democratic state in India lies in the political articulation of the diversities and aspirations of the large masses, empowering them towards liberation and self-determination.

New Forms of Assertions

The emergence of newer identities in the new social movements made it important to move beyond the orthodox Marxist ideology centred on the theory of surplus value and class struggle organised around economic production, to understand multiple exploitations and oppressions based on caste, gender, ethnic community, regional identity and so on. (See also Gail Omvedt, 1998; Manoranjan Mohanty, Partha Nath Mukherji and Olle Tornquist, 1998)

It is important to note that the increasing economic inequality based on an integrated ownership of the productive resources in the hands of a few, is embedded in the social structure of society. The Dalits, tribals, other lower and backward castes, and women amongst them, ranked lower in the social strata, also become vulnerable to processes of economic deprivation, impoverishment, marginalisation and exclusion.

Though the processes of systemic exploitation dates back to maximising land revenue by the East India Company and annexation of land and forest by the British colonial powers, the pace of uprooting and deprivation has escalated since the 1990s by the neoliberal state. The doctrine of ‘eminent domain’ that empowers the state to use common property for the benefit of larger society, public interest, and public purpose, has, in practice, enabled the state to protect the interest of the dominant class which invariably belongs to the higher caste and that creates conditions of deprivation and impoverishment for the large majority who remain disadvantaged and disempowered. While the exploitation of tribals by non-tribals was an integral part of colonial political economy, alienation of land, other productive and common property resources, and infringement into the customary right has increased since indepen-dence. Economic Reforms that privilege market economy, industries, mining, dams, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), and an unprecedented land grab and land acquisition in the name of development in contemporary times has resulted in new forms of exclusions bydisplacing large masses of people who have lost access to basic resources of livelihood.

Despite a series of socio-economic and political reforms and policies based on ‘protective discrimination’ to ameliorate injustice and inequa-lity, dismantling of the traditional production systems has disintegrated the livelihood systems resulting in dispossession, deprivation, landless-ness and distress migration. Physical uprooting of the villagers from their habitat is a traumatic experience and results in a sense of isolation and alienation from the community, culture, and loss of ones’ identity. This has caused increasing unrest across the deprived and marginalised and has brought the majority of the small and marginal farmers, peasants, landless, tribals/adivasis, Dalits, indigenous people, pastoralists, and fisher folks directly in confrontation with state. The prolonged confrontation with the state has raised serious questions about the class character of the state.

The configuration of new form of globalisation in the 21st century from the old form has seen the coming together of the democratic assertions of people’s rights, and struggles of the economically marginalised and socially excluded that were active yet fragmented in the 1980s, to join the larger world wide alliances and forums which protested the hegemonic policies of the global economic, military, and political power. (Seth, 1990) Many national and international solidarity activities, campaigns, alliances and movements have come to be known as anti-global, anti-nuclear, anti-consumerism, and anti-development as they oppose big dams, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), Information and Technology parks, mining corporates, land acquisitions/encroachments, disinvestment policies, privatisation of basic social services, and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in retail and social security.

It is because of the increasing conflict with the state that the neoliberal ideology attempts to appeal to the large masses of society to believe in the ‘consensus view of society’ (as against the conflict view) that has seen changes in one’s perception and understanding of the contem-porary state. The global actors/forces have not only dismantled the welfare state but have also replaced it with the neoliberal state that campaigns for an ‘inclusive society’ to generate consensus amongst the majority to believe that the interests of the marginalised and deprived can be accommodated in a growth-centric capitalist development based on free competitive market economy.

While the developmental state protects the interests of the capitalists and corporate sector that create conditions of deprivation for the majority, its political slogans are masked by rhetorics that promote the conceptual apparatus of ‘human dignity’ and ‘freedom’ as fundamental and central values of civilisation. (Also see Harvey, 2005) Though the idea of human dignity and freedom has empowered the dissident movements across the world, it has neither challenged the interest of the capitalist economy nor moved beyond the dominant framework of neoliberalism. It is important to note that while the social and cultural dimensions of the grassroots movements are addressed, the economic dimensions are ignored.

The global media has played a vital role in manufacturing consent for the development agenda of the state which privileges the capitalist economy that focuses on human rights, group rights, private property rights, intellectual property rights, consumer rights, cultural rights, global citizenship rights and so on and ignores the redistribution of ownership and control of basic productive resources. Development is understood by the parameters defined by the corporate financial elite and free-market champions without locating it in the history, socio-economic structure and political culture of a country.

Therefore, while the political upsurge by the local people, in particular, the tribals and Dalits, against the developmental state reflects positive democratic transformation of modern India (see also Mohanty 2011) in the context of increasing democratic assertions, the attempts of the neoliberal state to depoliticise people’s protest needs to be understood. The argument that the state becomes stronger when people’s protests are weak and unorganised (Rudolph and Rudolph, 1987) is important and it becomes critical to understand how the contemporary state makes all possible efforts to work out strategies to weaken people’s struggles. While it has distanced itself from movements and protests that question the class character of the state, it uses its discretionary powers to negotiate with the institutions and organisations that are in agreement with its ideology and policies.

Political Institutionalisation

It is important to note that the state has been successful in its attempt to depoliticise many radical movements and organisations that have shifted to either being competitive political parties confining to contesting elections or middle class activism demanding benefits from the development policies thereby compromising their demand for structural changes. (Though Sudha Pai analyses the shift in the context of the developments in Dalit identity and politics, it explains similar shifts in the protests by the farming, tribal and regional communities.) The shift from successful social mobilisation to political institutionalisation has seen co-option of move-ments by the dominant ruling class and their ideology. (Shah, 2000; 2001: 13; Pai, 2013: xxxvi, 159) While the leaders of the movements argue that they can bring changes when they hold political power (Gorringe, 2005 in Pai, 2013: xxxviii), we have seen how political institutio-nalisation of social movements has depoliticised issues by bringing the debates on critical issues to a close.

Many radical movements that emerged as representative political parties of the excluded, including that of a separate state, to influence mainstream politics and to empower the deprived, increasingly dissociated from issues that demand an alteration of the dominant power structure. They have either aligned with the powerful hegemonic technocratic state in its attempt to depoliticise issues that concern the large masses of society or have confined their demands to only marginal benefits from the campaign of an ‘inclusive society’ by the developmental state. The idea of the political that aimed at empowering the powerless has been weakened as it has remained confined to winning elections and emergence of new icons creating politics of symbolism. (Pai, 2013: xx, 152) Since they became part of the electoral game and gave up the movement aspect of their activities, mobilisation politics by popular movements outside the institutional politics of representation have become important. (Kothari, 1988)

Myron Weiner argues that a strong civil society is important to check the authoritarian tendencies of the state which curtail democracy. (Weiner, 1983) However, it is important to note that the forces of global capitalism have pressurised the state to design the civil society of their choice. The alliance between the market and the state has made the state strong enough to undermine the powers of the people’s organisations. Free competitive market economy champions the cause of flexible laws for trade, investments, organi-sations, manufacturing, and labour, in order to keep the trade unions, workers and peasant organisations out. Thus the organisations that were powerful in protecting the rights of the workers and peasants have been weakened. National interest itself has been redefined to privilege privatisation, promote global trade, protect giant corporate sectors and global financial companies, and boost economic ties with the capitalist world. By legitimising its responsibility for nation-building and economic development, the neoliberal state has either worked out several strategies to manufacture consent by promising benefits through its campaign for an inclusive growth, or it has excluded people’s organisations, movements and protests that demand structural changes, from the processes of negotiation and deliberations. The point of concern is that the democratic state undermines the people’s protests and grassroots movements politically, alongside their role in the socio-economic and political transformations.

Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion 

Neoliberalism as a hegemonic mode of discourse has not only brought the debate of ‘market versus state’ to a close but has also favoured the state which is market-friendly and facilitates market economy that claims to be citizen-friendly. Indian democracy and development are expected to adjust to the international norms of the free competitive global market economy that ignore the redistribution of basic productive resources. It is pertinent to understand that despite the response of the state to the demands of various protest movements through its rights-based approach that guaranteed a series of rights—such as the Right to Information Act 2005, Right to Protection against Domestic Violence 2005, Right to Work, 2005 through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Reservations for the SC, ST, OBC and Women in the Panchayati Raj Institutions, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2008, National Food Security Bill (NFSB) 2013, Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) 2013—the state has made all possible attempts to ensure that the dominant power structure remains unaltered. While these are positive interventions to protect the rights of the deprived and underprivileged, they have failed to empower the latter socially, economi-cally, and politically to negotiate with the state on issues of livelihood.

Democracy, citizenship, human rights, economic growth, development, policies in land use, labour legislation, poverty, environment and sustainability have been redefined in terms of the dominant liberal economic discourse which is radically different from the perspectives of the people’s rights and grassroots movements. They are no longer seen as political issues that need to be discussed and debated. Though the significance of economic growth is indisputable, by itself economic growth neither ensures socio-economic security nor leads to development. Therefore it is pertinent to engage with the debates on issues raised by many people’s protests because it is a question of survival and not development for the majority of the deprived and impoverished. The state has failed to address the underlying causes of processes of exclusion, systemic deprivations, impoverishment, subjugation, and marginalisation, which not only persist but also continue to increase. Many a times the state not only remains a passive observer of denial of the basic rights to live and livelihood but is also its perpetrator.

The more the state undermines people’s struggles, the more aggressive the latter would become and this will give rise to more and more repressive measures by the state. We have seen how during the past the Maoist movements, which denounce globalisation as ‘a war on the people by market fundamentalists’ and the ‘caste system’ as a form of social oppression, have raised fundamental issues to protect the rights of poor peasants and landless agricultural labourers against the big development projects, but their “protracted armed struggle” to undermine the state has resulted in violence, aggression, insurgency and counter-insurgency operations. Their aim at establishing a “people’s government” through the New Democratic Revolution, which is the people’s war and support to the struggle of the sub-nationalities for self-determination, including the right to secession through violence, has given rise to repressive measures. Therefore the neoliberal state needs to rework and reinvent the strategies to negotiate instead of suppressing people’s protests from below against the development agenda which facilitates handing over productive resources to the corporate sector.


It is the political assertions of people’s struggles that compels us to rethink the insensitivity of the hegemonic global world order to the historical, social, cultural,economic, and political contexts in which people’s protests are embedded. If the deprived and excluded have to be brought to the mainstream polity, economy and society, it is pertinent to address issues of increasing alienation of people from the productive resources such as land, forest and water reserves, increasing exploitation of mineral resources, displacement and alienation from livelihood resources, increasing farmers suicides, unemployment, poor health care, lack of education, hunger, malnutrition, famishment and starvation deaths, distress migration and the very right of the communities to lives and livelihood.

The strategy of development should uphold freedom, rights and values that protect the basic needs, livelihood, ecological sustainability, socio-economic justice and lead to empowerment of the deprived and marginalised. Therefore it is important to re-politicise people’s protests and grassroots movements as important forces of social and political transformation in a democratic society that will empower people’s struggle for liberation and self-determination.


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Kothari, Rajni (1988): ‘Decline of Parties and Rise of Grassroots Movement’ in State Against Democracy: In Search of Humane Governance, New Horizons Press, New York.

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Mohanty, Manoranjan (2011), ‘Adivasi Awakening and Emergence of New Politics’, Frontier, Vol 44, Nos 11-14, September 25-October 22, 2011.

Omvedt, Gail (1998): ‘Peasants, Dalits and Women: Democracy and India’s New Social Movements’ in Manoranjan Mohanty, Partha Nath Mukherji and Olle Tornquist (ed.), People’s Rights Social Movements and the State in the Third World, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

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Shah, Ghanshyam (2000): Social Movements in India: A Review of Literature, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Shah, Ghanshyam (2001): ‘Dalit Politics: Has It Reached an Impasse?’ in Democratic Goverrnance in India: Challenges of Poverty, Development and Identity, Sage Publications, New Delhi.

Weiner, Myron (1983): ‘The Wounded Tiger: Maintaining India’s Democratic Institutions’ in Peter Lyon and James Manor (ed.), Transfer and Transformation, Leicester University Press, Leicester.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at

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