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The Hindu on : The conceits of representation

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, February 07, 2001

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The conceits of representation

By Neera Chandhoke

THE COGNOSCENTI have followed the crossfire between Ramachandra Guha and Arundati Roy in the columns of The Hindu (November 1, 1996 and December 17, 2000) and the Frontline (January 19, 2001) with some glee. Which of the combatants possess greater access to rapier sharp wit? Which of the combatants can choose and use words with greater felicity: words calculated to wound, to hang, draw and quarter the opponent? Who has managed to decimate whom? This is intellectual theatre at its best: two formidable intellectuals with more or less equal power over arguments, over style, over presentation, and over rhetoric aim at the jugular of his or her opponent. What else could we want?

And yet this feast of words leaves at least me with a feeling of profound irritation. Certainly both Guha and Roy have the right to argue their own positions on who represents the voice of the marginalised better. Should, as Roy puts it, concern or empathy guide the voices of those who are doing the representing? Should passion or cool and careful scholarship dictate the project, as Guha argues? These questions are legitimate, but I cannot help feeling that somewhere in all these polemics, the wider questions have been left out. Surely the issue is not only one of who does the representing better, for the issue is and should be: why do the tribals need to be represented at all? Why do they need the vocabularies of those who possess power over words, or scholarship, as the case may be, to translate their aspirations, their desires, their passions, into the language of the translator?

Is it because they lack voice inasmuch as they are unfamiliar with the terms of the dominant language? I am by no means suggesting that the marginalised lack agential capacity when I say that they ``lack voice''. Nor am I indicating that the marginalised cannot represent themselves, or that they are incapable of self-representation. To ``lack voice'', is to lack linguistic authority in the domain of civil society simply because both the sphere and the state happens to be governed by a specialised set of languages.

For the languages that govern the Indian state and civil society are those of modernity: of legal entitlements, of rehabilitation and resettlement, of compensation. The tribal simply does not possess, for structural reasons, access to these languages, and both the state and civil society refuse to recognise the language of the tribal. This is the tragedy of modern India. There is an apocryphal story about the Narmada valley that may illustrate what I am trying to say. Incidentally, I use the term ``tribal'' in a dual though not unrelated sense. First, the term literally indicates the inhabitants of the valley who have been subjected to massive displacement, but the term can also be used as a metaphor for those inhabitants of civil society who have been marginalised from the politics of dominant languages. To return to the story: a revenue official surveying land holdings in the valley for the purposes of assessing the amount of compensation asked a tribal about his land holdings. The tribal pointing towards an area of land claimed proprietorship of that land. Expectedly he was asked to show the relevant papers that establish land ownership - the patta. Equally expectedly, the tribal did not possess any such patta. ``How do you know in this case that the land is yours,'' asked the revenue official. ``The bones of my forefathers are buried along the boundaries of the land,'' answered the tribal. ``No compensation,'' stated the revenue official as he walked away, condemning the tribal who had been cultivating the land under usufructurary rights to landlessness, without any hope of compensation even as his land fell under the submergence zone of the gigantic Narmada valley project. (This story of course predates the movement to recognise the landless cultivator as a legitimate claimant for compensation).

This story can be read in many ways. Let me read it this way: the impossibility of translation between two languages, simply because they express different understandings and social worlds. For the revenue officer, ownership of land holding can only be established through legal entitlements. Our tribal, on the other hand, speaks an entirely different language: that of tilling land that his ancestors had cultivated. And since the former language belongs to the genre of modern political vocabularies, which govern our public life, other languages are sidelined, their historical understanding is denied, their meanings are ignored, and in the process, their perfectly legitimate claims are disregarded. The language of the patta has already set the boundaries of the discussion; the terms of deliberation have been pre-ordained, pre-formed, and pre-validated. The conversation has ended before it even began. In effect, the more powerful language in civil society does not even have to practice savageness - to bludgeon, club, or hammer, the less powerful language into insensibility. For our space has been already colonised, already saturated with power that privileges certain ideas of land proprietorship; it has already set in place the mechanics of exclusion and those of monitoring, it has already institutionalised ``procedures of exclusion''. It has done so because the more powerful language, which reflects power structures of our society, has set the terms of the deliberation.

Now at this very point of the argument, someone can justifiably point out that the tribal has in an important sense not lost out, for we have seen in the Narmada valley the consolidation of one of the most powerful social movements witnessed in independent India - the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The tribal, someone can again justifiably point out, has managed to negotiate, mediate, and challenge official languages through the protest movement, which has dared to question the very credentials of the Indian state to do with its people as it wills. It is true that all this has happened, and that the NBA has raised important issues onto the political agenda such as the illegitimacy of displacement, the destructiveness of large projects, the dark underbelly of ``development'', the insensitivity of the developmentalist state, environment, and the rights of the people to their dwelling. But when we look closely at the movement, it may illustrate the very point I am trying to make.

For whereas it is undeniable that a powerful social movement has arisen in the area; it is equally undeniable that it has been led and continues to be led by those very social activists who are able to represent the agony of the tribal in languages that are familiar to the inhabitants of civil society. The tribal in other words does not represent himself or herself historically for she does not possess the linguistic competence to do so. She has to rely on others who possess this competence. That means that between the tribal and civil society and the state, we find layers of mediation provided by activists who are conversant with the convoluted vocabularies, the intricacies and the rhetoric of modern languages.

Certainly, activists have made the pain of the tribals their own, but this is not the point at all. For can the tribal be represented at all? The historian of the tribal after all can never be a tribal herself. She is condemned to being at the most a translator, but the control over translation, recollect, is hers and hers alone. Therefore, we have no way of knowing whether the tribal speaks in her own voice, or whether others speak for her.

This, let me hasten to add, is not an adverse comment on the integrity of the social activist. It is a comment on the restricted languages of our civil society, languages that condemn large sections of our people to being spoken for, being written about, being represented by others who are, to put it bluntly, outsiders. The issue is not whether rigorous scholarship or passionate writing is a better tool of representation; the issue if deeper. When will the tribals acquire agency as self-confident members of our civil society? Will they ever be able to represent themselves as the dalits or women have learnt to represent themselves? This is the question.

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