This blogpost is a response to Alessandra Marino's article 'Occupy Movement in India', published on the OpenLearn website in June 2012 and on the Oecumene website in August 2012. I appreciate Alessandra’s call to bring indigenous perspectives to bear on the signifier ‘Occupy’ that has been chosen (by who?) to represent and suggest equivalence between the various occupations of city squares around the world. Here I would like to supplement Alessandra’s analysis with a few additional thoughts on comparison and tracing connections between the Occupy Movement and India.
It is interesting to consider the links between Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement - NBA) and Occupy, as Alessandra has done. I agree with Alessandra that it would be a mistake to view NBA’s protest in Jobat as a product of the global rise of occupy movements. I would go further, and suggest that a more compelling claim would be that the global rise of occupy movements is in some small way a product of the NBA - at least insofar as NBA, along with the EZLN and MST, was part of the iconography of 'grassroots movements of the Global South' during the earlier phase of the alter-globalization movement, and a source of inspiration for activists in India and beyond. But by inspiration I don’t simply mean something along the lines of ‘we should do it like the NBA did’ – I mean that lessons have been learned from the movement’s limitations as well as its successes. One lesson many activists have taken from NBA’s 30-year struggle is the major problems of trying to effect change through the system – in this case, through the Indian legal system (which ultimately ruled against the Andolan in the case of the Sardar Sarovar dam).
Here I think it is important to reflect further on what some of those engaged with the Occupy movement mean by that verb. While NBA's decision to occupy land in Jobat is at least partly motivated by the fact that land is what the dam-affected farmers (who come from both adivasi/indigenous and caste Hindu communities) have been denied, Occupy is not about occupying land. It is about occupying everything – and, more specifically, about occupying political space. Why ‘occupy’ as a verb/imperative? Because the actions are specifically not about asking those in power to do something: they are about taking power. We are not asking you for land, or for space to conduct politics. We are taking that space. The indigenous critique stands – the language of occupation is problematic, and there is certainly a danger that it can be (wilfully mis)interpreted as an affirmation of private property as the basis for society. But I don’t think this critique entirely negates the value of ‘occupy’ as a signifier for what Akshay Khanna and others have termed unruly politics – a politics that refuses to accept the grammars and procedures of politics as these have been defined by those in power, by, for example, refusing to present a list of demands.
If Occupy is mostly white, middle class and male youth in Western city squares, what of middle class youth in India? In other words, what if we take demographic category rather than form of protest as the basis for comparison? Here I think it is interesting to note the recent case of an Indian college student who asked a critical question to the Chief Minister of the state of West Bengal during a question-and-answer session. The Chief Minister responded by labelling her a Maoist and storming out. The student subsequently wrote an open letter to the Chief Minister. At the end of that letter, the student pointed out that she had offers for study at UCL (University College London) and SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), and that after this experience, she was inclined to take up one of these offers – in other words, she was inclined to get out of the system.
The reason I think this is an interesting point of comparison is because I think it is suggestive of a difference between how middle class youth in the West and in India respond to a feeling of despair and frustration with the political and economic systems where they are citizens. It seems that the idea of the Occupy movement has captured the imagination of some youth in the West in a way that it hasn’t in India; for middle class youth in India, it is far more likely that 'getting out of the system' is equated to seeking a better life in the West. If the student from West Bengal goes to UCL or SOAS, it may be that she finds a life not necessarily better than her life in India. She may find, for example, that while it suits the Indian politician to label her (and her ilk) as Maoist, it suits the British politician to label her (and her ilk) as terrorist, or as someone trying to steal British jobs (as I have written about elsewhere). At that point she might wonder if there is anywhere left for her to escape to (Cuba?).