University of Sussex
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Defending the sacred: discourses of development, identity and everyday resistance among the Dongria Kondh

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posted on 2024-06-10, 10:58 authored by Saumya NathSaumya Nath

This thesis explores the historical anthropology of the Dongria Kondh, an Adivasi group indigenous to the Niyamgiri Hill range, in Odisha, within the context of the ongoing Niyamgiri Andolan (Niyamgiri resistance struggle) that began in 2002. The main focus of this work is to offer the first comprehensive biography of this resistance movement, utilising detailed archival and ethnographic methods against the backdrop of the history and culture of the Kondh community. The work analyses both colonial and post-colonial constructions of the Kondhs and their resistance to dominant and prevailing state narratives, employing a decolonial framework. It does this by uncovering subaltern voices through historical archives and deep ethnography that illuminate oral narratives, ritual practices, songs, and recitations. This approach transcends colonial and nationalist framings, which harbour biases and propensity to perpetuate oppressive stereotypes. This is particularly evident in cases where post-colonial Odisha’s upper caste-class elites who traditionally held positions of power and influence have vigorously advocated for developmental state agendas and extractive visions of development, resulting in violent outcomes for the Kondhs. The study is unique as it’s located in Odisha, a hitherto princely state with a significant Adivasi population. It is pioneering in its adoption of an interdisciplinary methodology blending history and ethnography to explore Kondh identity and resistance. The study employs a historical revisionist approach by examining the ways in which British colonial discourse worked to construct the Kondh as the ‘other’ and defined their material landscape as ‘unproductive’, ‘distant’ and a barrier to the extension of British colonial power and civilisation. Much of the recent, post-colonial scholarship examining the Kondh has focussed on colonial and missionary sources highlighting the nature of mid-19th century colonial subjugation and the establishment of a military and diplomatic mission justified by unconfirmed claims of human sacrifice. The thesis argues that this interpretation of human sacrifice is not supported by the archival evidence but is borne out of colonial constructions of difference. By contextualising the social and environmental history of the Kondh within the context of the Garhjat or Princely States, and their role in relation to processes of state formation in Odisha the thesis examines the double pronged oppression of the Kondhs by the Princes in league with the British. By re-examining the archives , it describes in detail how colonial powers, in collaboration with Garhjat states, sought to marginalise and destroy Adivasi social structure and identity and threatening their survival through land alienation, forced labour, revenue extraction and forest management. It looks at the ways in which the imposition of settled cultivation in Adivasi regions of Odisha encouraged Hindu migration during the pre-colonial period , and how enclosure and commercial exploitation of the forests in the colonial period curtailed communities access to forests, leading to further marginalisation, famine, food insecurity and land alienation. One of the main contributions of the thesis is on the conceptualisation of Adivasi resistance then and now. The thesis argues that the assaults on Adivasi livelihoods provoked significant resistance to the colonial administration creating a lasting legacy and vocabulary of resistance that endured across the 19th and 20th centuries and into the post-colonial era. The discovery of valuable mineral deposits by the colonial state in Adivasi regions provided the basis for collaboration between imperial authority, the Princely States, and the Indian capitalist class, against Adivasi interests. Through studying the various and overlapping stages of development and the extension of nationalist industrialism in Odisha, undertaken by the nascent Indian state, this work identifies a post-colonial revival of the civilising mission across the first three decades of Indian independence, which lent increased momentum to growing Adivasi resistance. The work finds that under the increasing neo-liberalisation of India’s economy and processes of development advanced by state and corporate forces working in tandem has led to increased displacement and dispossession among Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised communities in the last few decades. Since the 1990s, the State’s aggressive pursuit of growth and development rooted in ‘resource extractivism’ has also been accompanied by ever-increasing levels of surveillance and securitisation in Adivasi regions, by which police and paramilitary institutions have sought to suppress traditional and developing forms of democratic, day-to-day resistance rooted in the ‘sacralisation of the landscape’. In this context of unprecedented, institutionalised violence, which has led to extreme forms of human rights violations. The hegemony of this corporate-state alliance continues to be actively contested through local, collective struggles, transnational mobilisation and solidarity movements which have sought to defend and secure traditional culture and access to resources despite it is costing lives and livelihood . While the study of what I have termed ‘Adivasi environmentalism’ needs to be reconceptualised and historicised situating it within the cultural, social and environmental history of the region, the current resilience and vigour of mass mobilisation of subaltern groups through democratic resistance in Odisha today between 2002 and 2024 is thus not a new form of ‘Adivasi environmentalism’ but has emerged in this current violent context as an alternative politics of hope. This thesis argues that at the core of this resistance is a conception of Kondh’s ‘sacral polity’ that is embedded within the environmental history of the region and remains a fundamental aspect of their cultural and political resistance to outside interventions. In this context, contemporary internationalised movements of resistance to state hegemony have presented Adivasi communities an opportunity to identify with the global politics of indigeneity, increasing their power to negotiate, and in the longer term, to survive the onslaught of neoliberal extractive capitalism. The thesis will interrogate Adivasi environmentalism against the language of the global of politics of indigeneity using a longue durée approach and will contribute to the literature of indigenous identities, and resistance against the colonial and post-colonial state . By focusing on the biography of one movement it highlights agency, affect and bottom up perspectives on an iconic and enduring global resistance movement through the eyes of a resilient community with important implications for learning and transformation in the era of environmental and climate change.


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  • History Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • phd


University of Sussex

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Professor Vinita Damodaran