What are the current discourses and practices of hegemony and counter hegemony in world politics? Scholars from four continents gathered at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute in Berlin on 27 August 2018 to discuss this important topic. Empirical insights were provided from both Western and non-Western contexts.
The theme was challenging and timely given my own research on political violence as practiced by the British Raj in India, as embodied by the postcolonial Indian state in its quest for dominance and sovereignty, and as embedded in subaltern politics, in acts of resistance by non-state actors and marginalised subject populations. There are more continuities than ruptures in the configuration of structural violence between the colonial rulers and their postcolonial successors. Hegemony is critical to the violent contestations in the postcolonial state where dominance of powerful groups relies on both coercion and consent. Resistance by subaltern groups in postcolonial contexts involves a challenge to the statist status quo as well as an aspiration to belong to the inherently hegemonic architecture of the modern nation state system, which perpetuates violence and exclusions from the global, national to individual levels.
To understand hegemonic and counter hegemonic systems and practices in India, it is first important to demystify the current representations of India in national, regional and global discourses. In the last two decades the ‘Rising Power’ image has dominated both international and national media, with also consistent spotlight on the violence and negative stories that often make headlines especially in the international press. Negative reports on India particularly irk the postcolonial sensitivities of both the Indian government and the citizens, often reflected in social media discussions and outrage.
The national elections in 2014, which brought into power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his centre right political coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, with a clear majority, was a watershed moment in recent Indian politics. It conveyed the widespread appeal of the right-wing forces peddling the development agenda in the quest for a powerful India, which could boast of ancient glories. During the last four years much has been debated about the turn India has taken, towards a majoritarian and hegemonic state with violence being reported regularly against women and minorities. Cow protection vigilantism, mob lynchings, ‘love jihad’ and violence against women have dominated international media headlines, while most national media has obsessed over a confident and stronger India standing up to the regional hegemon, China and arch rivals, Pakistan. There is an even bigger federal election next year, which will establish whether the current right wing regime holds sway or has squandered its previous mandate.
In the midst of these stories about India’s recent successes and cacophonous critiques and protests, what is the accurate picture? In recent decades, India has definitely become part of the ‘the rise of the Global South’ narrative, an economic power with impressive growth rates in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Indeed, the combination of economic vitality with the remarkable stability and continuity of India’s parliamentary democracy has led some observers to hail India as a role model in the Global South. However, the story of the ‘Indian boom’ has to be understood in the context of widening inequalities, and poverty that is more than the sub-Saharan Africa. Rapid urbanization and industrialization has meant a deepening agrarian crisis across the country with consistent reports about farmers’ suicides, loss of rural economy and employment and in several cases famine like situation. The precarity of lives is enhanced by caste, class and gendered marginalizations and exclusions perpetuated by the violent postcolonial state.
This is an unprecedented time in Indian polity and society with ruptures and polarization visible everywhere; new alignments are being forged and both the state and non-state actors inflict new kinds of violence. How then do we understand hegemonic structures of power, hegemony itself and its role in producing these acts of subaltern, counter hegemonic resistance? For purposes of this discussion, it was important to revisit subaltern studies scholarship that has tried to make sense of the colonial and postcolonial politics of dominance and resistance.
Reading hegemony in colonial and postcolonial conditions
While subalternity and resistance is well theorised in subaltern studies, hegemony and forms of dominance are less developed. The most attention to the concept of hegemony was given in Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India by Ranajit Guha published in 1998, in which he build a case for ‘dominance without hegemony’ in colonial and postcolonial India. Guha argued that dominance under colonial rule has quite speciously been endowed with hegemony by liberal historiography that believed precolonial material and spiritual relations had all been conquered by capital, enabling a bourgeois control of polity and society like in England and France. This view of hegemony was based in an understanding of power as the outcome of the interactions between the forces of domination and subordination.
Guha points out that the colonial state in South Asia was fundamentally different from the metropolitan bourgeois state which controlled it. The metropolitan state was hegemonic in character, and its claim to dominance was based on a power relation in which persuasion outweighed coercion. Conversely, the colonial state was non-hegemonic, and in its structure of dominance coercion was paramount. South Asian colonial state was, therefore, a historical paradox, a dominant autocracy managed by a leading democracy of the Western world, a dominance without hegemony. This dominance without hegemony had a nationalist aspect as well. This arose from a structural split between the elite and subaltern domains of politics, and the consequent failure of the Indian bourgeoisie to integrate vast areas of the life and consciousness of the people into an alternative hegemony.
Consequently, the lack of a hegemonic ruling culture ensured a heterogeous political domain where civil society remained active and separate from the state (the consequences of which can be witnessed today in the form of numerous resistance movements). This ‘dominance without hegemony’, Guha argues, was reproduced under the postcolonial state because the leadership of the Indian bourgeoisie shaped the form and trajectory of the Indian freedom struggle. Central to this narrative is the story of the power contest between two dominant elite groups: one representing the bourgeois colonial rulers, who gained political dominance in India by coercion, and the other, the Indian elite bourgeois nationalists, who hoped to displace colonial domination to perpetuate their own, in the same language and idioms as the colonial masters. Neither was hegemonic for Guha as in the strictly Gramscian sense, their dominance had neither moral persuasion, nor consent.
The organic, class consciousness of the Indian masses who constituted an autonomous domain of anticolonial and antibourgeois politics of their own, parallel to the domain of the elitist power contest, has been missing in the colonial story. These masses, organised themselves into various interest groups, offering violent resistance to both the colonial state and the elite nationalist movement in order to realize their political “hegemony.” Guha and his subaltern studies colleagues believed that these histories of resistance had been silenced and erased in the rewriting of history in postcolonial India, which had perpetuated the elite versions.
Can hegemonic and non-hegemonic forms of elite dominance over society be separated as Ranajit Guha has proposed?
In Guha’s work, hegemony is arguably conceived of in a way that, on the one hand, points to the significance of subaltern agency in the construction of hegemonic formations, and, on the other hand, emphasizes the element of consent over coercion. Consent of the governed and bourgeois hegemony was not immediately established even in English and French Revolutions and subaltern groups in these states had to wage unceasing struggle to gain any substantial political rights as exists in a hegemonic order.
Moreover, Gramsci argued that hegemony evolved through a continuous process of interactions between dominant and subordinate groups and always had an element of coercion in it. This is visible in India when some subaltern groups are incorporated into the hegemonic state whereas others have been dealt with more brutally through violence. Understanding hegemony as a contested process in which consent and coercion are closely intertwined is particularly apt for understanding the character of India’s neoliberal turn and subsequent counter hegemonic struggles of various subaltern groups against elite interests. Three such counter hegemonic projects, which have also intersected with each other, have been led by adivasis, dalits and women of India as discussed in the next section.
Counter-hegemonic encounters in India
The postcolonial Indian state has always mobilized coercive power and violence to counter popular insurgencies and resistance movements that challenge its legitimacy and territorial sovereignty. This is visible in the state’s deployment of security forces to deal with the Naxalites or Maoists, the insurgent groups in Kashmir and in the north east of India. However, the state has also attempted to draw citizens into its model of governance and development, seeking legitimacy from below. The hegemonic narrative and majoritarian politics of the Indian state thrives on consent and power that is derived from subject populations and citizens alike.
Counter hegemonic resistance, on the other hand, draws from a rich legacy of social movements and insurgencies that have produced and sustained political communities at the margins. In fact, the nature of hegemonic politics in India has, paradoxically, engendered a powerful postcolonial state grappling with cultural and political modernity and economic neo liberalism, while also creating conditions for counter hegemonic protests and resistance movements. The adivasi, dalit and women’s movement have been most effectively organizing against the dominance and hegemony of the Indian state. While protesting the violence and exclusionary models of the state, these groups have also relied on the state for rights, privileges and empowerment opportunities. What they seek to achieve is also what they seek to overthrow.
The advent of British colonial rule in India segregated the Adivasis (tribes) from the mainstream Hindu caste system. The British colonial administration, which set out to convert India into a modern state, enforced rigid boundaries between tribe and non-tribe and provided a political and legal framework to construct a distinct tribal identity. In 1871, the British implemented the Criminal Tribes Act to control the movement of tribes labelled as criminals. This was followed by the Indian Forest Act of 1878, through which the government claimed a direct proprietary right over forests. This single act not only dispossessed the traditional owners of the forestlands but also brought in a wave of immigrants, which led to widespread displacement of the tribal people. A number of tribal revolts occurred against the British rule.
The dilemma of assimilation-exclusion of the tribal people with the rest of the community was inherited by the independent Indian state and it has led to half-baked interventionist policies, which are ultimately counter-productive to the welfare of the tribal population. However, despite the constitutional provisions and launch of several of the affirmative actions by the Indian state, the inherent economic logic of the exploitation of natural resources has caused greater harm to the tribal societies. The erstwhile Naxalite movement of the 1960s and 70s and the contemporary Maoist movement largely comprise of tribals who have been completely excluded and marginalised in the current politico-economic system.
A large section of India’s poor population comprises of Dalits (lowest in the caste hierarchy) who have survived as landless peasants and bonded labourers in the rural economy. The Indian constitution’s abolition of the practice of untouchability has neither altered the hegemonic social structure nor has liberated the Dalits from oppressive upper caste regimes in India. Dalit resistance has taken many forms over the years, from social reform movements, mainstream political participation to more violent forms such as the Maoist movement in India. In 2016, thousands of Dalits in the eastern state of Gujarat participated in a 10-day march from Ahmedabad to Una to protest against atrocities against the community. More recently, the protests by Dalits against the dominance of upper caste politics took a violent form in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra.
The women’s movement in India has a long history of both working with and outside hegemonic structures. The violence of the postcolonial state and its coercive institutions have been highlighted consistently in feminist works and by women activists. However, the state has also been a source of legislative changes and constitutional reforms that have guaranteed rights for women across the spectrum. One could argue that women have contributed both to sustaining the postcolonial elite bourgeois hegemony based on consent, and have also situated themselves in counter hegemonic struggles, resisting the coercion, policing and violence of the state. The contradictory positions within the women’s movements alludes to the caste, class and religious differences, which may not always have been negotiated in an enlightened intersectionality. It would also not be an exaggeration to claim that for many women, the benefits of the neo liberal state, far outweigh the violence that the state upholds and the general backlash against women in the name of culture and traditions. Dalit and adivasi women have been at the receiving end of violence from state institutions and have joined violent counter hegemonic movements, such as the Naxalites and Maoists.
The hegemonic contestations among various elite groups and counter hegemonic resistance in India can be explained by being attentive to both the colonial legacies and the intricacies of postcolonial state formation. The mobilisation of subaltern groups such as dalits, adivasis and women against hegemonic formations can be traced back to pre-colonial and colonial state formations. The violence and dispossession unleashed by the neo liberal agenda of the postcolonial state and the rise of the populist right wing in recent times has led to enormous political activity at both the centre and the margins of politics. The elite groups will continue to wage the battle for cultural and political hegemony, and against this backdrop, subaltern groups will continue to reinvent their strategies for struggle and survival, as we have witnessed in India in recent times.