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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Maoist Movement in Jharkhand, India*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 November 2010

Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW, UK Email:


From millenarian movements to the spread of Hindu rightwing militancy, attacks on adivasi (or tribal) consumption of alcohol have gone hand-in-hand with the project of ‘civilizing the savage’. Emphasizing the agency and consciousness of adivasi political mobilization, subaltern studies scholarship has historically depicted adivasis as embracing and propelling these reformist measures, marking them as a challenge to the social structure. This paper examines these claims through an analysis of the relationship between alcohol and the spread of the Maoist insurgency in Jharkhand, Eastern India. Similar to other movements of adivasi political mobilization, an anti-drinking campaign is part of the Maoist spread in adivasi areas. This paper makes an argument for focusing on the internal diversity of adivasi political mobilization—in particular intergenerational and gender conflicts—emphasizing the differentiated social meanings of alcohol consumption (and thus of prohibition), as well as the very different attitudes taken by adivasis towards the Maoist campaign. The paper thus questions the binaries of ‘sanskritisation’ versus adivasis assertion that are prevalent in subaltern studies scholarship, proposing an engagement with adivasi internal politics that could reveal how adivasi political mobilization contains the penetrations of dominant sanskritic values, limitations to those penetrations and other aspirations, such as the desire for particular notions of modernity.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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2 See Singh, Kumar Suresh. (1966). The Dust Storm and the Hanging Mist. Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay, CalcuttaGoogle Scholar; Fuchs, Stephen. (1965). Rebellious Prophets: A Study of Messianic Movements in Indian Religions (1908). Asia Publishing House, BombayGoogle Scholar.

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6 It is important to note that this paper is based largely on research conducted between 1999 and 2002 in an area of rural Jharkhand where the Maoist movement was just beginning to spread. My current field research, in an area where the Maoists have been present for the last 20 years, shows that the sociology and dynamics of the movement and its recruits are likely to transform as it becomes more established in an area.

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31 CPI (Maoist)(2004) Party Programme.

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34 Skaria, Shades of Wildness.

35 See de Sales, Anne. (2009). ‘From Ancestral Conflicts to Local Empowerment: Two Narratives from a Nepalese community’, in Shah, A. and Pettigrew, J.Windows into a Revolution: Ethnographies of Maoism in South Asia. Special edited collection of Dialectical Anthropology, 33: 365381Google Scholar; Lecomte-Tilouine, . (2009). ‘Terror in a Maoist model village in mid-western Nepal’, in Shah, A. and Pettigrew, J., Windows into a Revolution: Ethnographies of Maoism in South Asia. Special edited collection of Dialectical Anthropology, 33: 383401Google Scholar.

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37 For a comparative ethnographic analysis of the Maoist movement in India and Nepal, see Shah, Alpa and Pettigrew, Judith. (2009). ‘Introduction’ to Shah, A. and Pettigrew, J., Windows into a Revolution: Ethnographies of Maoism in South Asia. Special edited collection of Dialectical Anthropology, 33: 225251Google Scholar.

38 Shah, Alpa. (2006a). Markets of protection: The ‘terrorist’ Maoist movement and the state in Jharkhand, India. Critique of Anthropology, 26:3: 297314CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Ibid..

40 For comparative material on adivasis and customs of alcohol consumption, see the excellent essay by Hardiman (‘From Custom to Crime’) as well as Froerer, Peggy (2007). Religious Division and Social conflict: The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in rural India. Social Science Press, DelhiGoogle Scholar; Lakra, John. (2001). Rice-beer in tribal culture. Sevartham, 26: 2130Google Scholar; Rao, S. V. A. Satyanarayana, and Rao, C. R. Prasad. (1977). Drinking in the tribal world: A cross-cultural study in ‘cultural theme’ approach. Man in India, 57, 97120Google Scholar; Roy, J. K. (1978). Alcoholic beverages in tribal India and their nutritional role. Man in India, 58, 98326Google Scholar. Froerer's account explores the conflicts and tensions which arise around the consumption and production of alcohol in adivasi areas and especially how these tensions are appropriated by the spread of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh, a militant wing of the various Hindu Nationalist parties and groups in India. Unlike the adivasi areas I describe in Jharkhand in this paper, in the village of Mohanpur across the border in Chhattisgarh, arkhi, mahua wine is differentially produced and consumed by different adivasi groups. In particular, Hindu adivasis (e.g. Ratiya Kanwar) consume the liquor produced by Christians adivasis (mainly Oraon). It seems that there men and women do not drink openly together and in fact Hindu adivasi women, concerned about their husbands stealing and spending household resources on drink, accused the Christian Oraons of producing and selling drink to their men. Most Oraons felt that these growing tensions were really about Hindu jealousy over increasing Oraon wealth and material status. Froerer argues that such ongoing tensions would have been contained and resolved locally. However, RSS activists in the area transformed them into issues of communal concern, of Hindus versus Christians (as opposed to Ratiya Kanwar versus Oraon for instance), thereby ethnicizing the tensions and linking Christian acquisition of land through liquor sales to similar practices elsewhere in India.

41 Douglas, Mary (ed.) (1987). Constructive Drinking: Perspectives on Drink from Anthropology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)Google Scholar; amongst others (see also Dwight Heath. 1975. ‘A Critical Review of Ethnographic Studies of Alcohol Use’ in Gibbons, R, Israel, R., Kalant, Y., Popham, H., Schmidt, R., W., and Smart, R.Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems. Vol 2. John Wiley and Sons, New York)Google Scholar have argued that the focus on alcoholism and ‘problem drinking’ expresses a strong bias of western cultural norms and that from the wider comparative standpoint of anthropology, ‘problem drinking’ is rare and alcoholism is almost absent, even in societies where drunkenness is frequent, actively sought and highly esteemed. In India, in his analysis of the consumption of toddy and mahua, David Hardiman also reports that although consumption of alcohol was customary among the tribals and lower castes of South Gujarat, very few villagers were real addicts and drinking certainly did not lead to crime and acts of violence (See Hardiman, ‘From Custom to Crime’, p. 190).

42 Shah, Markets of Protection.

43 Shah, Alpa. (2007). Keeping the state away: Democracy, politics and the state in India's Jharkhand. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 13:1, 129–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 In ‘From Custom to Crime’, David Hardiman is careful to draw attention to the existence of individual adivasi families, usually more prosperous than the rest, giving up alcohol in order to rise above other adivasis. He notes, however, that such isolated types of renunciation that have long existed in adivasi villages is different to the wholesale temperance movements such as the ‘Coming of the Devi’ whereby communities which were undergoing pauperization attempted to give up liquor and toddy in order to save themselves from further impoverishment (pp. 223–224).

45 See also Shah, Alpa. (2006b). Labour of love: seasonal migration from Jharkhand to the brick kilns of other states in India. Contributions to Indian Sociology (n.s), 40:1, 91119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 I have elsewhere (Shah, Keeping the State Away) described and analysed the adivasi desire to keep away from the state in this area which emerged both from their historical experiences of the exploitative state as well as rural elite reproduction of the state as beyond the moral pale for the Mundas.

47 Gupta, On Altering the Ego.

48 Hardiman, Coming of the Devi.

49 Baviskar, Amita. (1995). In The Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley. Oxford University Press, DelhiGoogle Scholar.

50 Baviskar, In the Belly of the River, p 100. To the thesis of ‘democratization of Hindu values’, Baviskar notes important qualifiers—one, that the mata greatly profited the non-adivasi traders who sold the items of worship and clothes the mata desired, and two, that such movements are often temporary—most people regarded the mata as a goddess who had to be propitiated so that life could get back to normal. Thus attempts to evaluate the degree of Hinduisation (or challenges to ‘sanskritisation’) involved must ultimately assess the permanence of changes in beliefs and practices induced (p 103). Three, ‘possessed’ women frequently identified marginal women as daakans who were then put to death, thereby worsening the social position of women who were already badly off (p. 101). This latter, point, reemphasizes the need to differentiate the adivasi community participating in such movements to show the important internal politics and conflicts which also emerge and which act to marginalize some adivasis.

51 Hardiman, ‘From Custom to Crime’, p. 231.

52 Cohn, Bernard. (1980). History and Anthropology: The state of play. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22: 198221CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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