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An Ambiguous Actor: 'People' in the Movements

Social movements are often labelled "people's movements" though the analytical value of the expression is ambiguous in a context where the word "people" is never all-inclusive and signifies different things to different people. It would be better if we stick to a classification that situates the subject of a movement at the centre of the discourse than an umbrella term that is loosely used to cover almost anything.


An Ambiguous Actor: ‘People’ in the Movements

Paramjit S Judge

Social movements are often labelled “people’s movements” though the analytical value of the expression is ambiguous in a context where the word “people” is never all-inclusive and signifies different things to different people. It would be better if we stick to a classification that situates the subject of a movement at the centre of the discourse than an umbrella term that is loosely used to cover almost anything.

Paramjit S Judge ( teaches sociology at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

Economic & Political Weekly

november 12, 2011

ocial movements are understood as organised collective efforts working towards achieving change. All social movements have an ideology to identify what is wrong with the present and what needs to be done in the future. However erroneous this understanding may be, it has to be remembered that a band of individuals have got together to right a wrong. Sociologically, there is no misunderstanding about the meaning of social movements though there could be disagreements with their ideologies and their orientations towards change. These issues, however, are marginal to an understanding of the concept of a social movement but crucial when it comes to the classification of various movements. An important dimension of contemporary social movements is the close relation they have with consciousness. Social scientists across disciplines and perspectives are of the view that movements can be consciously launched and their ideologies can be articulated in different sections of society. In other words, contemporary social movements tend to be consciously organised with well-defined strategies and tactics.

The Category

Elaborate efforts have been made to classify social movements. We thus have various titles in the contemporary literature such as peasants’ movements, farmers’ movements, women’s movements, workers’ movements, and so on. Such a classification situates the subject at the centre of the discourse on movements. They could also be classified as revolutionary, reformist, revivalist, or value-based by situating their ideology at the centre of discussion. Characterising movements in terms of their subjects, it may be argued, constitute a way of understanding their classification and serve certain heuristic purposes. Yet, such a classification becomes heuristic only if clear, distinctive features of each type are identified and it is demonstrated that this

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heuristic device performs a particular function or adds to our understanding of an issue from an already existing but limited perspective.

In the light of the above, the concept of a “people’s movement” poses serious problems because the analytical value of the

expression is not unambiguous. The major difficulty is not with the word “movement”, but with the word “people”. The notion of “people” has remained quite vague, though it is frequently used in speech and writing to signify citizens in general. The word is also quite often used in the literature on social sciences. Subaltern historians use the term “people’s history” though the words “people” and “subalterns” seem to be interchangeable for them. One may ask: Who constitute the “people”? To write a history of the “people” is a problem unless certain markers are established, which could tell us how other kinds of history can be distinguished.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to use the word “people” in his important but controversial The Social Contract (1762). He was of the view that the sovereign ruled by virtue of his contract with the “people”. In a way, the view seems quite radical for the 18th century Enlightenment thinker who was opposed to Voltaire’s atheism. It is now clear, as Will Durant pointed out, that the notion of “people” in Rousseau is not inclusive. He never considered the poor and ignorant masses as worthy of being included in the category “people”. For that matter, many Enlightenment philosophers, particularly Voltaire, had disdain for the poor and illiterate. The contract between the sovereign and the “people” meant that governance was essentially based on an understanding between the ruler and the people who mattered in public life. The English E nlightenment had already conceptualised a sphere distinct from the polity and called it civil society. It was a product of the emergence of capitalism in which the divine basis of the sovereign was replaced by the notion of legitimacy.

So “people” would comprise heterogeneous individuals and groups that did not have a common interest and an ideology based on their existential condition. The major issue for a social movement then would be forging the unity of heterogeneous people on a common issue. The unity of a social movement is not a temporary


one like that of a crowd, which is highly against racial discrimination in the US in
unstable and unorganised. Creating sus the 1960s was one such example. Similarly,
tained and durable collective behaviour dalit movements or women’s movements
requires leadership and a common ideology in which dalits and women belonging to
or interest. One could say that when leaders different classes participate could be
claim that a specific issue concerns the regarded as “people’s movements”. But,
“people”, it is unlikely to get translated into when characterising across-class move
collective action. A simple agitation does ments as black, dalit and women’s move
not constitute a movement; it is closer to ments on the basis of the social character of
crowd behaviour than a movement. Since the participants, it seems logically falla
the typology is based on the character of cious to group them under the vague cate
the participants, it is important that plau gory of “people’s movements”.
sibility exists in the case of a movement
that is christened a “people’s movement”. People and Civil Society
As mentioned, social movements are also This leads to a simple but theoretically
classified in terms of their orientation pertinent question. Why has the idea of
towards the change they wish to bring “people’s movement” emerged at all? It
about – such as revolutionary, reformist seems that it has something to do with the
and revivalist. Or to use Neil Smelser’s resurgence of the concept of civil society
t ypology, they can be norm-oriented or under the impact of a global world order
value-oriented. In a monocultural setting, in which socialism has been marginalised.
it is possible to launch a movement that Notably, the concept of civil society has
covers people from all walks of life but undergone a radical change. Georg Wilhelm
such a movement would tend to lack appeal. Friedrich Hegel conceptualised civil society
A movement of this sort is less probable by separating it from two other entities,
because it presupposes a consensus of family and state. He was of the view that the
values. The functionalist paradigm pre emergence of civil society could be under
supposes social order to be predicated on a stood in terms of the disintegration of
consensus of values, whereas the political family into a plurality of families. He wrote,
economy perspective considers all forms of The concrete person, who is himself the object
consensus to be coercive in n ature. Coercion of his particular aims, is, as a totality of wants
is regarded as inbuilt in the system due to and a mixture of caprice and physical neces
the unequal distribution of resources and sity, one principle of civil society. But the par
power in society. Therefore monoculture is ticular person is essentially so related to other particular persons that each establishes him
a myth; it is generally linked to the prevail self and finds satisfaction by means of the oth
ing ideas of a period, which, according to ers, and at the same time purely and simply by
Karl Marx, are the ideas of the ruling class. means of the form of universality, the second
From the Marxist perspective, the possi principle is here (Knox 1953: 122-23).
bility of consensus exists only in a classless Accordingly, civil society has three
society, which, many believe, is a utopia. d imensions – the system of needs, the ad-
The paradox involved in the organisa ministration of justice, and the police and
tion of a movement is that it is generally the corporation.
aimed at ameliorating conditions perceived The emergence of the concept of civil
to be unfavourable by its proponents. If society could be seen in terms of an arti
there is a consensus of values, there is no culation of the desirability of what is re
plausibility to the emergence of a movement. quired in post-communist societies. Kaviraj
It is considered an aberration, deviant and is of the view that three strands of concep
undesirable, something that can legitimately tualisation exist in contemporary discus
be suppressed by the state. So, there is only sions on civil society (Kaviraj and Khilnani
one axis along which it is possible to talk 2001: 2). These are concerns to encourage
about a “people’s movement” – one in which institutions outside legal jurisdiction in post
the participants belong to different classes communist societies; the emphasis laid on
but share common interests or existential the revival of “associative initiatives of
conditions. In these terms, race, caste or non-state organisations in civil society” in
gender could be the common criteria of a the face of the retreat of the welfare state
movement. The civil rights movement in capitalist countries where trade union
20 november 12, 2011

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vol xlvI no 46


militancy cannot be revived; and the a rguments for new social movements different from working-class ones.

Two things emerge from this. First, the concept of civil society is linked to the collapse of the socialist system of the Soviet Union. Civil society is not what Hegel thought it to be. Civil society has now emerged as an alternative to working-class movements by becoming an associative initiative of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In other words, the concept of civil society has been delinked from the autonomy of the social sphere and linked to the juridical sphere. It is because of this that Chandoke says, “Civil society began where revolution ended” (2003: 29). Tandon makes it more explicit when he writes, “Civil society is a collection of individual and collective initiatives for the common public good” (2003: 64). Second, it is also a sphere of new social movements. These are not working-class movements questioning systems of exploitation. They perform their duties for the public good by making active interventions. So we have movements such as the Right to Information, Save the Tiger, environmental movements, and so on. It is quite clear that such movements do not threaten the existing arrangements of power and economic relations that are asymmetrical and oppressive.

To support such movements led by NGOs (also called voluntary organisations), there are international agencies, industry, the state, the middle classes, and so on. Foreign money through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and development aid from developed countries is poured into the NGO sector in a big way. There used to be a time when the same money was received by the Indian government and invested in various development schemes through its inefficient and also corrupt bureaucracy. Much before the arrival of globalisation, India witnessed a discourse in which the inefficiency of the public sector was denounced as an incurable disease and the private sector’s efficiency was glorified. NGOs gained from this discourse and it has to be admitted that there was better distribution of development aid by the government-run bureaucracy. What is now called civil society is nothing but an ineffective micro-level transformation process in which most of the money

Economic & Political Weekly

november 12, 2011

goes to those who run the NGOs, accompanied by corruption in new shapes. This scenario suits the progressive sections among the upper-middle and upper classes because the youth and other change-oriented individuals can contribute to the transformation of the country without any harm to themselves. However, the problem remains, as can be seen in various movements like the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Chandoke 2003a) and others that question systems of exploitation. Such movements are not called “people’s movements”.

Three Illustrations

But illustrations can be given from the Indian experience of various “people’s movements” whose objectives were presumably meant to cut across various categories or sections of society. Here are three of them.

Anti-colonial and anti-imperialism movements can be regarded as people’s movements because of the reason that a colonialist or imperialist country adversely affects the sovereignty and sense of national pride of the colonised people across castes, regions, religions, classes, genders, and so on. Even given that rulers always create a class loyal to them from among their subjects, the sense of sovereignty could prove to be more powerful. How a revolutionary struggle turns into a “people’s struggle” could best be described by looking at the Naxalite movement in 1969 when the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) was formed. The party’s programme thus described objective conditions in India,

US imperialism and Soviet Social imperialism have brought the vital sectors of the economy of our country under their control. US imperialism collaborates mainly with private capitalism and is now penetrating into the industries in the state sector, while Soviet Social imperialism has brought under its control mainly the industries in the state sector and is at the same time trying to enter into collaboration with private capital (CPI-ML 1971: 61).

In view of the comprador character of the Indian state, the communist revolution was to essentially be a “People’s Democratic Revolution”. The use of the word “people” as a concept was highly qualified by the Naxalites but they tried to convince everyone that the category meant all the citizens of India.

The recent emergence of environmental movements, which question the relevance

vol xlvI no 46

of India’s development path, also claim to be “people’s movements”. Under the cover of saving the environment, we see diverse issues being raised by organisations that mostly comprise middle-class youth wanting to do something meaningful for society without getting into any physical danger. The Narmada Bachao Andolan, movements for the protection of wildlife, anti-nuclear test movements, water-related movements, and the like all fall in the category of environmental movements. These movements do create a discourse that provides a global perspective on the way our environment needs human intervention to save it. Both the national and international contexts are sufficient bases to argue that people from all walks of life should participate in the struggle to save the environment. The question, however, is: Who is the enemy? Baviskar argues that “the defining feature of ‘environmental movements’ in India is not that they represent an ‘environmentalism of the poor’, but that they emerge through collaborations with middle-class actors and audiences” (2005: 161).

The word “people” is quite loosely used in common parlance. Take, for example, that Ratan Tata’s Nano car is meant to be a “People’s Car”, which is quite close to the way some historians say “people’s history”. Anything can be covered by such an u mbrella term.


In the end, whatever may be the level of the inclusiveness of such movements, certain sections are excluded from the category of “people’s movements”. It would make more sense to use better analytical terms to understand social and political movements in India. The concept of “people’s movements” is ambiguously structured and situating the subject/actor/agency in it becomes difficult, making a discursive analysis problematic. Coming to the plausibility of having a “people’s movement”, one can think of working-class movements and dalit movements, in the sense that both these could be oriented towards classless and casteless societies. But we all know that such a situation can be envisaged only in terms of actual consequences of the movements, not in terms of their objectives. Guru and Chakravarty (2005) have commented that movements aimed


at ending the caste system end up by becoming caste movements themselves. A similar argument may be made about women’s movements. It may therefore be wiser if we avoided becoming vague and ambiguous just to be different.


Baviskar, Amita (2005): “Red in Tooth and Claw? Looking for Class in Struggles over Nature” in Raka Ray and Mary F Katzenstein (ed.), Social


Movements in India: Poverty, Power, and Politics

(New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 161-78.

Chandoke, Neera (2003): “A Critique of the Notion of Civil Society as the ‘Third Sphere’” in Rajesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty (ed.), Does Civil Society Matter? Governance in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Sage).

Chandoke, Neera (2003a): “When the Voiceless Speak: A Case Study of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha” in Rajesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty (ed.), Does Civil Society Matter? Governance in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Sage).

Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) (1971): “Programme of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Adopted at the Party Congress Held in May 1970”, Liberation, 4 (4), pp 60-63.





Guru, Gopal and Anuradha Chakravarty (2005): “Who Are the Country’s Poor? Social Movement Politics and Dalit Poverty” in Raka Ray and Mary F Katzenstein (ed.), Social Movements in India: Poverty, Power, and Politics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 135-60.

Kaviraj, Sudipta and Sunil Khilnani, ed. (2001): Civil Society: History and Possibilities (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press).

Knox, T M (trans) (1953): Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Tandon, Rajesh (2003): “The Civil Society-Governance Interface: An Indian Perspective” Rajesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty (ed.), Does Civil Society Matter? Governance in Contemporary India (New Delhi: Sage).









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