Open University ‘OEcumene: Citizenship After Orientalism’ project workshop

February 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today I took part in a workshop titled  ‘Religious organisations and their political articulation of citizenship’, led by Aya Ikegame of the Open University, as part of the first Symposium of the ‘OEcumene: Citizenship after Orientalism‘ project, and just wanted to publish a brief, enthu blogpost on this – great workshop theme, great bunch of people round the table, lots of synapses flashing as a result (to borrow a possibly felicitous but possibly biologically inaccurate? phrase from Pearl Jam). I hope to be in touch with some of you guys soon about various types of collaboration and sharing.

Here are details of my paper:

 Of bhagats, bhutalis and health rights activism: a study of a collaboration between a people’s movement and an NGO in tribal Maharashtra (India)


This paper tells the story of an unusual collaboration between the activists of a tribal movement in western Maharashtra in India and a small group of health activists concerned with the question of how health can become the issue of a social movement. Based on the author’s PhD fieldwork in 2008-9, the paper describes how the different actors in the narrative differently imagine and represent tribal culture and religion, and tribal attitudes towards health, tribal systems of medicine and non-tribal systems of medicine. To date, this particular collaboration, which began in the 1990s and continues today, has for the most part been passed over in the voluminous literature (published and grey) on community health programmes in India. 

The story of this collaboration speaks to the workshop topic by providing a fresh angle on the ways in which activists engage in what Vincanne Adams has described as ‘acts of selective recuperation’ in their engagement with tribal culture and religion. The paper discusses how the activists construct a relatively static model of ‘traditional’ tribal culture and religion and counterpose this to a relatively static model of ‘modern’ capitalist culture, and then seek to reintroduce certain elements of the former (which they deem to be in decline) in order to challenge the hegemony of the latter. In particular, the activists are keen to reintroduce elements of tribal culture and religion that most closely approximate a) modern, allopathic medicinal practices and b) forms of decentralised, nonhierarchical practices of democratic decision-making influenced by anarchist and Marxist streams of thought. At the same time, the activists are keen to challenge and disrupt ‘traditional’ tribal cultural and religious practices that go against these tendencies; in particular, they are keen to disrupt the practice of ‘bhutali’ or witch-hunting which is associated with the bhagat’s (traditional healer’s) identification and punishment of a woman deemed to be responsible for someone’s ill-health or misfortune. 

The paper discusses the history of these activists’ health work, focusing on the responses of the tribal community and the local state. In so doing, the paper draws upon a theoretical framework influenced by a reading of Bruno Latour’s angle on Actor-Network Theory, in order to challenge what has, in India, become a fashionable critique of movements that engage with funded nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), a critique that argues that such engagement leads to the depoliticisation of formerly radical movements, shifting the significance of their actions from ‘counter-hegemonic’ to ‘hegemonic’.


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