Against Ecofeminism: Agrarian Populism and the Splintered Subject in Rural India

By Roy, Tania; Borowiak, Craig | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

Against Ecofeminism: Agrarian Populism and the Splintered Subject in Rural India


Roy, Tania, Borowiak, Craig, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Over the last decade, peasant protests in India against multinational businesses and international institutions have emerged as a significantly new form of social movement in which local agrarian interests are articulated through and against both national and transnational idioms. Targets have included businesses such as Monsanto, Gargill, Rhone-Poulenc Agro, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise and institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the World Intellectual Property Organization. (1)

At one level, these protests mobilize post independent critiques of political economy, aligning government-funded commercial and technological agriculture with statist conceptions of national development. At the normative level, they appeal to a politics of cultural identification centering around the notion of "indigeneity." The history of this identification designates the development policies undertaken by the postindependent state to be "borrowed" From the West. In this way, questions of distribution and social justice are couched within the idioms of postcolonial cultural politics: the material interests of peasant protestors are thus specified through the image of a denationalized, urban elite--a hegemon whose moral authority is ultimately derivative of, or imported from, the historical power of the "West."

In this article, we seek to comprehend the political identity of the protesters by situating their claims in a historical and discursive context. We argue that there is a continuity between these protests and a broader national history in which the relationship of "development" to postindependent identity has been the repeated occasion of normative and practical contestation. For this reason, we suggest that contemporary peasant protests are misunderstood when their claims are reduced to the status of an ill-conceived antiglobalization sentiment. In our view, through these multifaceted and multitargeted protests, Indian farmers are exerting critical pressure upon the terms of an ideological history that has, from the inception of the modern Indian nation and nation-state aligned the normative authority of scientific expertise with dominant economic and political powers. (2)

The conflation of technology with conceptions of the social good is a basic philosophical premise of what, in this article, we term the "discourse of development." We suggest that agrarian mobilization has taken place along the pressure points and ideological fractures of a discursive space--the developing "nation"--in which the representation of peasants and their practices have been a principal site of contestation. Today, the key agents in this field of contestation are the Indian state, transnational legislative bodies, corporate multinational interests, and organized peasant demonstrators.

The first half of the article investigates the historical production of a unified "peasant" subject, an identification that has been mobilized successfully, into a contending agent within this particular constellation of players. As a point of entry into the shifting constructions of Indian agronomy within the political imagination of postindependent India, we approach the question of the peasant as political agent genealogically.

While our focus in this article is on discourse and representation, we understand our claims to be not merely theoretical; rather, we take the practice of representation to be a central facet in the institutionalized exercise of power--one bearing fundamental implications for the regulation of daily life. While we write of a singular development discourse, we assume that it operates on different levels, through different media, histories, and communal identifications. Given this assumption, the affinity between the discourse of agrarian nationalist politics in postindependent India and recent philosophical challenges to Enlightenment conceptions of science are of particular interest to us. …

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