Skip to main content

Alcoholics Anonymous: The Maoist Movement in Jharkhand, India*

  • ALPA SHAH (a1)

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.

Hide All

1 Guha Ranajit. (1999). Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983). Duke University Press, Durham N.C.,

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

3 Hardiman David. (1987). The Coming of the Devi: Adivasi Assertion in Western India. Oxford University Press, Delhi.

4 Srinivas M. N. (1956). A Note on Sanskritisation and Westernization. Far Eastern Quarterly, XV:4, 481–96.

5 Hardiman, Coming of the Devi, pp. 157–160.

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.

7 For an insightful review see Ludden David. (2002). ‘A Brief History of Subalternity’ in his Reading Subaltern Studies: critical history, contested meaning and the globalisation of South Asia in India. Anthem Press, London, pp. 143.

8 Adas Michael. (1991). ‘South Asian Resistance in Comparative Perspective’ in Haynes D. and Prakash G.Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia, University of California Press, Los Angeles, Berkeley, pp. 290304.

9 Wolf Eric. (1969). Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. Harper and Row, New York; Moore Barrington. (1966). Social origins of dictatorship and democracy: Lord and peasant in the making of the modern world. Penguin, London.

10 Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India.

11 Hobsbawm, Eric. (1959). Primitive Rebels: Studies in the Archaic forms of Social Movements in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Manchester University Press, Manchester.

12 Gramsci Antonio. (1971). Selections From the Prison Notebooks. Lawrence and Wishart, London.

13 See Arnold David. (1984). Gramsci and peasant subalternity in India. Journal of Peasant Studies, 11:4, 155–77.

14 Sarkar Tanika. (1985). ‘Jitu Santal's Movement in Malda, 1924–1932: A Study in Tribal Protest’ in Guha, R. Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Oxford University Press, Delhi; Dasgupta Swapan. (1985). ‘Adivasi Politics in Midnapur, c. 1760–1924’ in Guha R.Subaltern studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

15 Hardiman. Coming of the Devi, p. 163.

16 Arnold, Gramsci and peasant subalterneity, p.159.

17 Chaturverdi Vinayak. (ed.). (2000). Mapping the Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial. Verso, London, p. 10.

18 Singh, Dust Storm and Hanging Mist.

19 Fuchs, Rebellious Prophets.

20 Ortner Sherry. (1995). Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 37, 171–93.

21 Ludden David. (2001). ‘Subaltern and Others in the Agrarian History of South Asia’, in Scott James and Bhatt Nina. Agrarian Studies: synthetic work at the cutting edge. Yale University Press, New Haven.

22 Spivak Gayatri. (1985). ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’ in Guha R.Subaltern Studies IV. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 335337.

23 O'Hanlon Rosalind. (1988). Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia. Modern Asian Studies, 22:1, 189224.

24 Gupta Dipankar. (1985). On altering the ego in peasant history: Paradoxes of the ethnic option. Peasant Studies, 13:1, 524.

25 Duyker, Edward. (1987). Tribal Guerrillas: the Santhals of West Bengal and the Naxalite movement. Oxford University Press, Delhi.

26 Sinha Shanta. (1989). Maoists in Andhra Pradesh. Gyan, Delhi.

27 Communist Party of India Maoist. (2004). Party Programme. Communist Party of India, (CPI) Maoist.

28 Bhatia Bela. (2000). The Naxalite Movement in Central Bihar. PhD Thesis. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

29 Corbridge Stuart. (2002). The continuing struggle for India's Jharkhand: democracy, decentralisation and the politics of names and numbers. Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 40:3, 5571.

30 Skaria Ajay. (1997). Shades of wildness tribe, caste, and gender in Western India. The Journal of Asian Studies, 56: 3, 726–45; Skaria Ajay. (1999). Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers and Wildness in Western India. Oxford University Press, Delhi.

31 CPI (Maoist)(2004) Party Programme.

32 Banerjee Sumanta. (2009). ‘Reflections of a One-time Maoist Activist’, in Shah A. and Pettigrew J.Windows into a Revolution: Ethnographies of Maoism in South Asia. Special edited collection of Dialectical Anthropology, 33: 253269.

33 See de la Cadena, Marisol. (1998). ‘From Race to Class: Insurgent Intellectuals De Provincia in Peru’, in Stern S.Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980–1995, Duke University Press, Durham North Carolina, pp. 2260; Mallon Florencia. (1998). ‘Chronicle of a Path Foretold? Velasco's Revolution, Vanguardia Revolucionaria and “Shining Omens” in the indigenous communities of Andahuaylas’, in Stern S.Shining and other paths: War and society in Peru 1980–1995. Duke University Press, Durham North Carolina.

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: 365381; 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: 383401.

36 See Hardiman David. (2006). ‘From Custom to Crime: Politics of Drinking in Colonial South Gujarat’, Histories for the Subordinated. Permanent Black, Delhi. (Essay published earlier in 1985, ed., Subaltern Studies IV. Oxford University Press, Delhi); Skaria, Shades of Wildness, p. 737.

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: 225251.

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

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, Delhi; Lakra John. (2001). Rice-beer in tribal culture. Sevartham, 26: 2130; 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, 97120; Roy J. K. (1978). Alcoholic beverages in tribal India and their nutritional role. Man in India, 58, 98326. 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); 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) 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, 129–45.

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, 91119.

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, Delhi.

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: 198221.

* I would like to thank Stephan Feuchtwang, Crispin Bates and Chris Gregory for comments on an early draft of this paper. I am grateful to the participants of the ‘Savage Attack: Adivasi Insurgency in India’ workshop that Crispin and I organised in London in June 2008, and to the anonymous reviewer at Modern Asian Studies, for engaging in the ideas and ethnography that have shaped this paper.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 2
Total number of PDF views: 25 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 585 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 18th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.