Civil and not-so-civil forms of protest in West Bengal

Civil society has over the last more than two decades become one of those ‘Hurrah!’ words – along with eg democracy and human rights – the meaning and inherent merit of which are taken for granted and left unexamined. For precisely those reasons, most anthropologists – myself included – are of the opinion that the notion of civil society is in fact of little use when it comes to making sense of most forms of popular political mobilisation in most parts of the world.

The notion of civil society assumes a particular kind of political subject – that is, the culturally equipped citizen – who makes sense of his world using the language of political modernity. This species of homo politicus thinks of himself as a rights-bearing citizen first of all – as an individual with the personal freedom to enter into and break alliances with other similar citizens in the pursuit of shared interests. In addition, the notion of civil society – at least in some renderings – also assumes a civic polit- ical culture in which political actors behave like citizens and accept the authority of the state which, in turn, is expected to listen and be respon- sive. Such conditions do not prevail everywhere, and as anyone with a sense of realism, or with any kind of field experience in a non-Western context will know, this is not how popular politics is conducted in most of the world, to paraphrase Partha Chatterjee (2004).

With particular reference to India, Chatterjee has argued that most of the country’s inhabitants continue to be only tenuously, and even then ambiguously and contextually, rights-bearing citizens in the full sense (Chatterjee 2004, p 38): India’s poor do not relate to the organs of the state in the same manner as India’s culturally equipped and afflu- ent middle classes do; nor do governmental agencies treat the poor as proper citizens belonging to civil society. The poor make their claims on government, and in turn are governed, not within the framework of stable constitutionally defined rights and laws, but rather through temporary, contextual and unstable arrangements arrived at through direct negotia- tions (Chatterjee 2008, p 57) on a political terrain where rules may be bent, stretched or broken. Importantly, the success of the claim-making of the poor seems to depend entirely on their ability to mobilise support to influence the implementation of governmental policy in their favour.

In the remainder of this paper I show how the very uncivil act of confrontational and violent mobilisation remains an important part of the repertoire of claim-making deployed by the poor. I present two cases from the Indian state of West Bengal, where the rural poor, by using heated confrontations, mass mobilisation and violence to create spectacular public action, have managed to force the state government to listen to and act on its claims.

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