Social Movements in India

By Debal K. SinghaRoy, Indira Gandhi National Open University

Societies in India have long been the breeding grounds for varieties of social movements as collective agency to protest against socio-economic dominations and exploitation and also for the articulation of new identities. Many of these movements have retained their historical legacies despite reorientations over the time.

Historically India has witnessed numerous religious reform movements and revolts of the peasants and tribal people against the rulers. During British rule starting from the early 19th century, tribal revolts surfaced in the eastern, central and northeastern parts of the country. India has also seen the phenomenal participation of the tribes and peasants in the Independence movements and also the proliferation of autonomous peasant and workers movements since the first quarter of the twentieth century. There have also been trade union movements, caste and ethnic movements like that of the Rajbansi movements in the northern parts of Bengal and the Anti Brahmin movements in the southern part of the country.

After Independence many of the previous movements continued, and India experienced an outburst of new peasant movements like the Tebhaga movements1946-47, Telangana Movements 1948-52, and thereafter the radical Naxalite movements in 1970s. It has also seen the proliferation of workers movements in the growing urban areas of the country in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Since the mid 1970s India has experienced women’s movements, environmental movements like Chipko (hugging the tree), movements against big dams (Narmada Bachaao Andolon), regional autonomy (separate statehood with Indian Union) movements like the Telangana, Vidharva, Kamptapuri ,Gorkhaland, Uttaranchal, Jharkhand, Bodoland movements, rich farmers’ movements in the agriculturally developed states, movements for the assertions of caste identity like the Dalit Panther Party , Bahujan Samaj Party, Pro-Mandal Commission Movements (movements in favor of reservations for the socially and economically backward classes in government jobs and in education), the radical Maoist movements since mid 1980s in the agriculturally backwards parts of the country. In recent years, movements against big hydro and thermal projects and dams, movements against nuclear and defense projects (e.g. Anti-Missiles Base movement in Baliapal, Orissa, Anti Nuclear Power Project in Haripur, West Bengal, movement against Jaitapur Nuclear Power Project in Maharashtra), Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption, Movement for right to Information,   Movements of agriculturalists’ against land acquisition, civil liberty and human rights, gay rights, children’s rights, and numerous localized social movements for employment, livelihood security of the poor, safety and dignify of women, tribes, low castes, religious minority groups have surfaced in many parts of the country.

Despite India’s new social movements, the old social movements persist, although in new forms, as the old issues are yet to be resolved. However in the wake of economic globalization, penetration of ICTs and communication networks, increased migration and social mobility, a high concentration of youth in the population, most of these social movements are now nationally and internationally connected, attract supporters across the geographical space, and predominantly adopt strategies of non violence (except for the Maoists), and reforms rather than transformation. Many movements are in the process of getting transformed into political parties, getting co-opted by the state, or are aspiring for realignment with varieties of social forces.

Many Indians are vulnerable, due to the contradictions between economic prosperity and livelihood insecurity, legal enactment and political commitment, the culture of inclusion and the politics of subordination. Despite being routinised and reformative, social movements have remained inseparable parts of social progress to create space for collective contestation against these insecurities and vulnerabilities and to reorient collective identities for self expression and fulfilment.