Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

In the Eyes of the Beholder: Discourses of a Peasant Riot in Java

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

In the Eyes of the Beholder: Discourses of a Peasant Riot in Java

Article excerpt

Small-scale protests mounted by disgruntled peasants seeking redress from grievances associated with growing commercial crops on a large scale were a common phenomenon in Java after 1830. These rural protests disappeared once the cultivation of commercial crops became successfully incorporated into the indigenous agricultural life and peasants began to enjoy a degree of material benefits from commercial crops. [1] From the 1880s onwards, however, another kind of rural protest emerged, led by rich peasants and religious leaders. The Dutch colonial state treated such incidents as subversive political activity inspired by Muslim fanatics threatening peace and order [rust en orde] under colonial rule, and dealt harshly with them. [2] The colonial bureaucracy was at first perplexed by this outbreak of rural unrest -- which occasionally assumed a grand scale as in the case of the notorious Banten uprising in 1888 -- and made a great effort to understand the nature and causes of these episodes in order to deal with them effectively. [3]

Colonial officials developed a rich vocabulary to describe rural unrest, ranging from riot [opstootje or relletje] to uprising [onlusten], that suggested the scale and severity of incidents. Their nature and causality came to be embodied in a conception centred on Muslim hatred of the rule of unbelievers. This conception emphasized the necessity of suppressing rural protests with utmost severity, for they posed a serious threat to the wellbeing of private interests involved in commercial agriculture, which were closely associated with the colonial state. Peasant grievances against private enterprise in commercial agriculture, as reflected in rural protests, were ignored or explained away as irrelevant factors put forward to hide the deep-rooted religious hatred against Europeans among indigenous population. The official colonial perspective excluded peasant uprisings from the category of legitimate if unsanctioned and undesirable political protest led by the intelligentsia. [4]

The nationalist narrative of the struggle for independence and freedom, on the other hand, has depicted rural protests as occasions when the peasant masses rose up against an oppressive colonial regime. Numerous indigenous political organizations campaigning for political rights took up the cudgels on behalf of suffering peasants after 1912, when a major populist political organization -- Sarekat Islam -- brought the peasant masses into the arena of modem politics. A new perception of peasant uprisings under colonial rule came into being as the political struggle created its own narrative depicting all political movements as a part of the struggle (pergerakan) for freedom (merdeka). [5]

In nationalist discourse, peasant uprisings tend to be viewed as "undercurrents of great political events" or antecedents of the nationalist struggle for freedom. [6] Indonesian historians subscribing to this school of thought accept colonial definitions of rural protest as politically subversive without undertaking a close examination of the ways in which events occurred and came to be constructed in the colonial discourse. The nationalist narrative of rural unrest has been absorbed into Indonesia's official history, which suggests a weak but important link to the mainstream political struggle for freedom. Such episodes are seldom nationalist, it is said, and differed in character and purpose from modem political movements, but often followed parallel courses and were eventually absorbed by the latter. [7] This perception is perhaps not surprising, for the doings of peasants are written for them by the educated class, which either explains away sporadic rural unrest as an exception to the rule of peace and h armony in peasant society, or absorbs such activity into the mainstream of anti-colonial nationalism. [8]

In the process of being appropriated by the nationalist narrative of history, the identity and significance of rural protest for the people involved has been lost, because nationalist discourse often follows colonial definitions of rural unrest and seldom sees through the layers of colonial explanations. …

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