A Review of Alf Gunvald Nilsen’s “Dispossession and Resistance in India”

Bhumika Chauhan

Alf Gunvald Nilsen, Dispossession and Resistance in India: The River and the Rage, Routledge, 2010

The book seeks to explore the processes of dispossession and the accompanying resistance within the context of post-colonial India, and more specifically that located in and around the NarmadaValley. Nilsen hopes to build this understanding on the basis of a perspective on social movements and struggles that is very different from those conventionally applied in the social sciences, and by most who have studied the movement around the Narmada, i.e. the Narmada Bachao Andolan (henceforth, NBA).


Developed out of his doctoral thesis, Nilsen’s book offers a vast and critical survey of much that has been said about the NBA along with ample information on the course of the two main and most controversial projects, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and the Maheshwar Hydroelectric Project (MHP). Supplemented with his own field notes, Nilsen is able to provide a picture in which one does not see only the costs and benefits of the projects, but also the class nature of the distribution of these costs and benefits, or what he calls the distributional bias of the post-colonial development project. Nilsen’s attempt considerably helps place the NBA and similar movements within the new social movements of India as well as within neoliberal restructuring.


The main contribution of the book is perhaps the perspective it introduces into the social scientific discourse over social movements, particularly (and hopefully) into Indian social sciences. Nilsen rejects those perspectives that posit a social movement as a “fixed institutional entity” with a set of demands and means (p.4). Rather he looks at it as a collective action that gradually developed in “activist skills, practices, forms of consciousness and knowledge” (p.5). It is asserted that movements have internal processes of learning that are involved in initial mobilisation and further radicalisation. He also rejects the popular idea that social movements are organisations engaging in extra-parliamentary collective action within a more or less stable and given socio-economic background in favour of a broader and more dynamic view. For Nilsen:

“A social movement is the organisation of multiple forms of materially grounded and locally generated skilled activity around a rationality expressed and organized by (would-be) hegemonic actors, and against the hegemonic projects articulated by other such actors to change or maintain a dominant structure of entrenched needs and capacities and the social formation in which it inheres, in part or in whole.” (p.14)

It is asserted that sociality of praxis for the satisfaction of needs under the given level of capacity produces dynamic structures, which are reproduced over extended periods of time in accordance with extant relations of power between the “dominant and subaltern groups” within a social formation. Furthermore, praxis within this “structuration of need and capacities” (mode of production?) involves a constant contention between the dominant and subaltern social groups that embody the internal contradictions of the structures (classes?). These contentions may bring about changes in the dominant “structure of needs and capacities” and/or within the overarching social formation, therefore both groups are forever on the move, so to speak. This implies that social movements may happen from above or below. The author means to stress the fact that not only the subaltern groups but also the dominant groups engage in collective actions based on the dominant rationality to maintain or strengthen the dominant structure. It is the central argument of this book that the post-colonial development project and the ongoing accumulation by dispossession are part of a social movement from above, a result of collective action of the dominant social groups (p.13-14).

Significantly, the movement process is seen to start from the “common sense” of “concrete lifeworld in which people are situated”, the “particular as opposed to the universal” (p.193), and works outwards to the “good sense”, “local rationalities” and “militant particularisms” which transform the concrete lifeworld into a “locale or resistance”. The social movement project per se is said to emerge when a common ground is found between different militant particularisms through a “campaign”. This social movement project addresses the totality, the universal. Nilsen’s engagement then with the NBA starts from its constituent local mobilisations, their coming together and divergences, the formation of the NBA as a pan-state, anti-dam movement, its eventual questioning of the post-colonial development project. However, the project is not complete here (and here lies one of the key problems of the NBA according to Nilsen). Nilsen suggests that the few activists[1] who make the connection between the local conflicts and the universal structures that reproduce them – that is, they who have a political agenda against the totality – will have to convince others to come along. This can be accomplished only by grounding the social movement project again in militant particularism and local rationalities from whence it originated. This dialectic of the particular and universal that Nilsen tries to demonstrate in the, admittedly incomplete, trajectory of the NBA may provide some practical insights worth heeding.


An interesting, even brave, aspect of this work is its attempt to bring back concepts of class and class conflict in the analysis of the NBA, and other such movements in India. Nilsen takes note of the distributional bias of the SSP and MHP that constitutes accumulation by dispossession. It is precisely by situating this displacement within class relations that Nilsen demonstrates its nature as accumulation by dispossession and as a “social movement from above” (p.14). The distributional bias expresses a “dual transformation” where (a) property rights in water and electricity, as well as profitable investment opportunities are concentrated into the hands of regional, national and global propertied elite, and (b) the displacement of peasant producers from their land without adequate resettlement and rehabilitation generates pressures towards proletarianisation (p.20).

This thesis is substantiated in the case of SSP by first tracing the class formation of the agroindustrial capitalist patidar elites of south and central Gujarat, as well as the expropriation of the subsistence peasants (Bhil and Bhilal adivasis of Alirajpur) and petty commodity producers (caste Hindu peasants of Nimad) of Madhya Pradesh. While the former, after mobilising themselves to push the project (from Vallabhbhai Patel to the recent chief ministers of Gujarat have all had their support base in these patidars), accumulate the benefit of irrigation and electricity in the farms and factories, the latter are proletarianised and are expected to join the migrant labour force of south and central Gujarat.

In the case of the MHP, the petty commodity producers of Nimad bear the costs of the project, but the support for the project does not come from local elites but private corporations and national and transnational financial institutions that seek investment opportunities. The MHP, Nilsen argues, needs to be viewed in the context of the privatisation of the power sector and the liberalisation of the finance sector. The “structural inefficiencies” of the power sector led to the consensus on privatisation. But when S. Kumar, the private corporation took up the MHP, it had trouble acquiring foreign equity due to the resistance of the NBA. The solution came from the liberalising Indian finance institutions – LIC, SBI, IDBI, PFC, PNB and many others. Other than the MHP, it is a general trend that many transnational finance institutions are financing the restructuring of the power sector. Nilsen refers to David Harvey’s remarks about privatisation and about the management of fiscal crises, like the one that initiated the 1991 reform, being intimately linked to accumulation by dispossession as it creates opportunities both for devaluing public assets and for releasing them onto the market where capital may seize them.

Nilsen argues that the aforementioned distributional bias is not a glitch particular to big dams; it is part of India’s passive revolution (p.41). At Independence, capital was not singularly dominant, nor would universal suffrage allow forcible expropriation, and moreover, a counter-check was needed against the growing radicalisation and socialist tendencies. The Bombay Plan was to offer the solution: capitalist planning. Instead of a total assault, capitalist development was to, and did, progress gradually on the basis of the fragile coalition of “industrial bourgeoisie, the landed elites and rich farmers, and the politico-bureaucratic elites”.  And instead of forceful dispossession, developmental planning, with its big dams and the like, was instituted. The elite support for state intervention was strong, though only for state protection and not so much for regulation. This untenable position eventually led to the fiscal crisis of 1990s. Also, new business groups emerged to support the neoliberal reform that saw state controls as impediments to their growth. All in all, Nilsen argues following Harvey, that “Through the management and manipulation of a fiscal crisis, dominant proprietary classes have managed to push ahead reforms centered on privatisation, liberalisation and financialisation.” And with this accumulation by dispossession has also been facilitated.


The other way in which class enters his analysis is when Nilsen explores the “movement process” of resistance struggles. He asserts that subaltern groups experience constraints of their needs and capacities in their concrete, everyday lives. Collective experiences like in movements can combine and extend the individual “fragmented knowledges” to develop a better view of the underlying structures and relationships. Nilsen calls it a movement process when a social movement from below expands its collective oppositional action beyond specific, local, particular experience, scope and aim to a more “encompassing counter-hegemonic project” and a conception of a universal alternative to the social system (p.15).

In his study of the NBA, Nilsen exposes the appearance of homogeneity of the NBA as well as that of the local communities that constituted it, as is characteristic of all populist struggles. The discourses of the movement came to be hegemonised by the local elites, the rich farmers (p.161-8). Class, gender and caste, posed a challenge to the NBA mobilisation that the latter could not in the end surpass. “Oppositional populism”, Nilsen argues, has been responsible for obfuscating relations of oppression and exploitation within this and other such movements. For instance, the ‘farmer-worker’ organisation within the Nimad region that arose in response to the hike in electricity prices, were undeniably more for the farmer and less for the worker.

The stratified nature of seemingly homogenous identities and communities becomes evident, Nilsen notes, when we look at the various kinds of views of alternative development that emerge when one digs beneath surface discourses. Relatively marginalised groups within these communities are obviously unable to develop or express their position. The subaltern groups of women, dalits and landless labourers fail to expand their “fragmented knowledges” of the social structures. The cause, Nilsen points out, is firstly the “differential appropriation” of the discourse of resistance by the different groups, and secondly the “limited dissemination” of the discourse to the mass base of the movement.


Strangely, it is at this point, where Nilsen’s understanding of the internal segmentation of communities comes out most clearly, that we espy a possible problem in his argument. The solution that Nilsen proposes for the abovementioned issues of discourse dissemination and appropriation is the development of methods for collective and participatory learning, to “deepen processes of conscientization” (p.187). From his thorough analysis of the political economy of accumulation by dispossession, we now seem to have arrived at a vague statement that in this notion of “collective learning” once again ends up positing the “collective” that he just deconstructed. Evidently what he is suggesting is that such learning can allow the collective to overcome its internal divisions, so that it could begin its attack on totality. What Nilsen seems to have forgotten is precisely the materiality of this segmentation, that he brought out so well, and which is not suitably addressed by a concept like “collective learning”. What is this collective learning? Who learns? Do all segments of the collectivity learn from the same experiences, forgetting, one would assume all they have learnt from experiences that vary according to socio-economic positions?

When the traditional, the “orthodox” Marxist stresses the importance of a working class for-itself perspective, or the importance of the leading role that the working class must play in the attack on totality, the idea is to take cognisance of precisely this class-ified nature of experience, that subjectivises individuals and groups differently, in keeping with the unequal apportionment of value and power in society. To be clear, one is not saying that Nilsen ignores the social inequalities – that would contradict much of what was said in the preceding paragraphs – but only that he ignores the leading role that the downtrodden must necessarily play, owing precisely to their history of being downtrodden. While it is hard to miss the author’s clear attribution of post-colonial development project to the capitalist class, it is surprising to find that the working-class is completely absent from this narrative of resistance and change.

Another possible way of addressing the problems of addressing the limits of movements like NBA also emerges, though it never gets spelt out explicitly, from Nilsen’s own work. A movement against displacement can easily stagnate and take on a petty bourgeois character unless it generalises its proletarian moment and builds “alliances” with (in Nilsen’s terms) other movements that are articulating that same moment. Nilsen quotes an essay published in Radical Notes:

“Understanding all these diverse processes in the framework of primitive accumulation has several strategic implications. Perhaps, most urgently, this can provide a unified framework to locate the numerous struggles going on in the country…”(Chandra and Basu 2007 cited in p.201)

If we read beyond the segment he quotes, we could understand better what this “generalisation,” that could allow movements to transcend their own internal limits means:

“… right from the ‘new’ social movements, like landless workers movements, Narmada Bachao Andolan and other local mobilisations of ‘development-victims’, to anti-privatisation movements of public sector workers, all the way to the revolutionary movements led by the Maoists. This unified framework can then possibly facilitate dialogue among these movements, something that is more than essential at this juncture if the movement of labour against capital is to be strengthened.” (Chandra and Basu 2007)

Although an understanding of the contradiction between capital and labour is implicit in most of Nilsen’s analysis, in the end he either remains blind to, or sidesteps the implications of the centrality of this contradiction. In a famous review of Raymond Williams’s The Long Revolution, EP Thompson observed Williams’ unwillingness to use Marxian terms. He noted that though sometimes it is not entirely clear whether Williams is merely steering clear of using that language for the sake of wider intelligibility, or is he also trying to move in a non/anti-Marxist direction with his conclusions. The same can be said about Nilsen’s work. Though his analysis is usually spot on, the attempt to stay away from the register of a Marxian analysis has to be explained. Either he is out to, despite the validity (from a Marxian perspective) of his analysis, find non-Marxist answers to anti-Marxist questions, or his is an attempt to appease the vulgar anti-materialists who rule the academia today – a Gramsci like self-censoring to fool the fascist prison-guards.


[1] However, there is reason for concern about what it is that Nilsen means by “activist”. On several occasions he uses the term to refer to the external agents that provided a much needed perspective and impetus to the oppressed communities within the Narmada Valley. In fact, on most occasions, it seems Nilsen is addressing such external agents, and only on rare occasions does it seem possible that he might be referring to agents from the militant communities themselves as activists.

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