C5 Social Movements in Modern India

Topics of interest for CSE:

  1. Peasants and farmers movements.
  2. Women’s movements.
  3. Backward classes and Dalit movements.
  4. Environmental movements.
  5. Ethnicity and identity movements.


Gail Omvedt says that agrarian struggles in colonial india can be divided into two main types:

  1. Anti-zamindar protests by middle caste peasants. Deccan riots, pabna revolts. All these were anti-zamindar protests where the demands of decreased revenue were eventually met by the state. Post abolition of the zamindari system and land reforms these kinds of protests died down.
  2. Struggles of the dalit peasants for wages, freedom from bondage and land. Post independence this form of protests has intensified. Struggle against the vetti system (Telangana) and other forms of bonded labour as well as movements for land to the tiller have taken centre stage. Land to the tiller movements.

New peasant movement is emerging in areas of capitalistic agrarian development (PB, KA, West UP, GJ, MH) which aims to represent the totality of farmer interests above caste and class divisions and engages in organised gheraos, rail and road blockages. (Current farmer protest an example of this)

  • Moplah Uprising 1835-55 Malabar: Against rising revenue demands and reduction in field sizes.
  • Indigo Revolt 1859 Bengal: Against European Indigo planters. Indigo Commission set up to review the situation.
  • Pabna Agrarian Revolt 1873 Present Bangladesh: Against zamindars who were preventing tenants from acquiring occupancy rights. Bengal Tenancy Act 1885.
  • Champaran Satyagraha 1917 Bihar: Against tinkathia system imposed by European indigo planters. Champaran Agrarian Act passed to abolish the system.
  • Kheda Satyagraha 1918 Gujarat: Against raised revenues despite crop failures. Government tried to save face by saying only those capable of paying to pay.
  • Bardoli Satyagraha 1928 Gujarat: Against hike in revenue and oppression by upper castes. Revenue hike was brought down from 22% to 6%.
  • Bhoodan-Gramdan and Sarvodaya movements: Took up peasants’ interests. They were not taken up by the peasants themselves but by Vinoba Bhave and JP Narayan.

Tebhaga Movement 1946 Bengal

Despite repeated famines in the Bengal region, the tenants were forced to surrender half of their produce to the landlords. The famine was worsened when the jotedars (landlord) indulged in hoarding and black marketing of food grains.In 1946, the All India Kisan Sabha started the Tebhaga movement, demanding that tenants be allowed to keep two-thirds of the produce. The movement received the massive support from agricultural labourers. The movement declined in 1947 due to crackdowns by the police, and the divisions that developed within the movement along religious lines.The popular slogan of the movement was "nij hamare dhan tolo". The landlords were being asked to measure the produce at the tenant's place as this would reduce the ability of the landlord to cheat them.

Telangana Insurrection 1946

One of the most politically effective peasant movements which took place in the erstwhile Princely State of Hyderabad. In Telangana region, the land ownership was in the hands of very few ruling class people. The actual cultivators of the land were subjected to high rent, increasing indebtedness and a system of forced free labour (vetti system). The Communist Party of India took up these issues as the basis for a peasant’s struggle against feudalism in the period 1946-48.The objectives of this armed struggle were land grabbing and redistribution, abolition of compulsory levy to the government, and stopping the eviction of tenants under any pretext. The struggle turned violent with police retaliation against the Gram Raj Committees that were set up by the peasant groups to work as defence squads and institutions for self-governance. Later the AP (Telangana Area) Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act, 1950, was passed when the Indian Government took over from the Nizam.

Naxalbari Movement 1967 Bengal

In 1967, the Communist Party of India had started a liberation movement by imitating Chinese Model, in the village of Naxalbari, Darjeeling district, Bhest Bengal. Cause of the movement was to secure rights for the marginalized sections.In the course of the movement, several peasant committees were set up and land was redistributed. Several landlords were put on trial and executed. Village defence squads were established with agricultural labourers as its leaders. Later the revolution was quickly liquidated. The Naxalbari movement is one of the most widespread movements of the present times. Now, it no longer confines its issues to land reforms, but also on larger issues of corruption, exploitation, maladministration.


The history of feminism in India can be divided into three phases:

  • 1st phase. Mid 19th century. Initiated when educated middle class men spoke out against Sati, poor treatment of widows, child marriages, lack of access of education for women, and their poor status in society in general, etc.
  • 2nd phase. 1915-1947. Gandhi incorporated women's movements into the CDM and QIM and independent women's organisations began to emerge.
  • 3rd phase. post-1947. Focused on fair treatment of women at home, after marriage, in the work force, and right to political parity.

There has been some criticism of feminist movements in India. They have especially been criticised for focusing too much on women already privileged, and neglecting the needs and representation of poorer or lower caste women. This has led to the creation of caste-specific feminist organisations and movements. Concept of relative deprivation.

First Phase (1800-1915)

  1. Initiated by men to:
    • uproot practice of sati,
    • allow widow remarriage,
    • forbid child marriage,
    • reduce illiteracy,
    • regulate the age of consent, and
    • ensure property rights through legal intervention.
  2. Some upper-caste Hindu women rejected constraints of the Brahminical traditions.
  3. Efforts for improving the status of women in Indian society were somewhat thwarted by the late nineteenth century, as nationalist movements emerged in India.
  4. These movements resisted colonial interventions in gender relations particularly in the areas of family relations. Under the pretext of we'll do that ourselves.
  5. 1880 onwards: national resistance to colonial efforts to modernise the Hindu family.
  6. Age of Consent controversy after the government tried to raise the age of marriage.
  7. Example of Pandita Ramabai.

Second Phase (1915-1947)

  • Claiming Indian superiority resulted in a model of Indian womanhood similar to that of Victorian womanhood: special yet separated from public space.
  • Gandhiji legitimized and expanded Indian women's public activities by incorporating them into the civil disobedience movement against the British Raj.
  • He exalted their feminine roles of caring, self-abnegation, sacrifice and tolerance; and carved a niche for those in the public arena.
  • 1920s was a new era for Indian women and is defined as 'feminism' that was responsible for the creation of localised women's associations.
  • Associations emphasised:
    • women's education issues,
    • developed livelihood strategies for working-class women, and
    • organised national associations such as the All India Women's Conference.
  • Under Gandhi, the movement worked within the freedom movement. Mass mobilisation of women an integral part of Indian nationalism.
  • Participation in the freedom struggle developed their critical consciousness about their role and rights in independent India.
  • This resulted in the introduction of the franchise and civic rights of women in the Indian constitution.

However, the state adopted a patronising attitude towards women. Ex. IC states that women are a weaker section of the population, and need assistance to function as equals. Nehru said that the women question would be solved once independence was achieved.

Third Phase (1947-Present)

The post-independence movement demanded gender equality, questioned gendered DoL and highlighted the oppressive nature of the existing patriarchal structure. While framing the Constitution of India, the very important aspect of equality of men and women in all spheres of life (A14/15/16) was included.

Multiple Agendas

  • In the 1970s, feminists recognized the inequalities between men and women and also within structures such as caste, tribe, language, religion, region, class etc.
  • Challenge for feminists as  need for synergy to ensure that the demands of one group would not create further inequalities for another.

Communal Problem

  • Feminists have been unable to separate communal issues from inequality.
  • Dilemma of Indian feminists: how to assimilate Muslim women’s issues into broader feminist issues and, at the same time, safeguard their religious and cultural freedom.
  • Could not deal with the problems of women belonging to different religious groups. By the time the feminist movement started spreading in the 70s, minority identities had begun to harden.
  • Placing Muslim women’s issues in the confines of religion has marginalized them, and created hesitancy among the feminists in addressing their problems for fear of hurting religious sentiments.

Unions & SHGs

The formation of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was probably the first attempt made to form a Trade Union attached to the Textile Labor Union in Ahmedabad. It was formed in 1972 at the initiative of Ela Bhatt, and was an organization of women who were involved in different trades, but shared a number of common features and work experiences—low earnings, extremely poor working conditions, harassment from those in authority, and lack of recognition of their efforts as socially useful work.SEWA aimed at improving the working conditions of women through a pro­cess of training, technical aid, legal literacy, collective bargaining, and to teach values of honesty, dignity and simplicity, the Gandhian goals to which SEWA subscribes.

Vineeta Sharma case.In 2016 a judgment of the Delhi high court was made public in which it was ruled that the eldest female member of a Hindu Undivided Family can be its "Karta" or executor.


The main issues around which most of the Dalit movements have been centered in the colonial and post colonial periods are confined to the problem of untouchability. They launched movements for maintaining or increasing reservations in political offices, government jobs and welfare programmes.

Gail Omvedt observes that the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement was only a limited movement of dalits. It challenged some of the deepest aspects of oppression and exploitation but failed to show the way to transformation.

Oliver Mendelsohn - forms of atrocities towards Dalits changing. Traditional forms of atrocities such as flogging or exclusion now replaced with contemporary forms.

Ghanshyam Shah classifies the Dalit movements into

  1. Reformative movements. Tries to reform the caste system to solve the problem of untouchability. The reformative movements are further divided into:
  • Bhakti movements,
  • Neo-Vedantik movements, (Arya samaj)
  • Sanskritisation movements. (Temple entry movements)

2. Alternative movements. The alternative movement attempts to create an alternative socio-cultural structure by conversion to some other religion or by acquiring education, economic status and political power. The alternative movements are divided into:

  • conversion movement and
  • religious or secular movement.

The latter includes the movement related to economic issues. Both types of movements use political means to attain their objectives.

In the context of dalit identity and ideology, Shah has classified dalit movements into those:

  • Within cultural consensus, (sanskritising/protest ideologies)
  • With competing ideology and non-Hindu identity, (Buddhist dalits, anti-brahmin)
  • With counter ideology and dalit identity. (Annihilation of caste)The first two are based around religious ideologies whereas the last is based on class.

Bhakti movement in 15th century developed two traditions of saguna and nirguna. The former believes in the form of God (Vishnu or Shiv). Preaches equality among all the castes though it subscribes to the varnashram dharma and the caste social order. Ravidas and Kabir are the major figures of this tradition.

It became more popular among the dalits in urban areas in the early 20th century as it provided the possibility of salvation for all. It promised social equality. Fuller argues that through these movements devotional ethics come to be widely reinterpreted as a charter of egalitarianism.

Neo-vedantik movement was initiated by Hindu religious and social reformers. These movements attempted to remove untouchability by taking them into the fold of the caste system. Dayanand Sarawati and the varna system.The neo-Vedantic movements and non-Brahmin movements played an important catalytic role in developing anti-caste or anti Hinduism dalit movements.

  • The Satyashodhak Samaj in MH. (Jyotiba Phule)
  • The self-respect movement in TN.
  • The Adi Dharma movement in Bengal and Adi-Hindu movement in UP

These were important anti-untouchability movements which were launched in the last quarter of the 19th and the early part of 20th century.

A section of untouchables who could improve their economic condition either by abandoning or continuing their traditional occupations launched struggles for higher status in the caste hierarchy. They followed Sanskritic norms and rituals. They tried to justify their claim to a higher social status in the caste hierarchy by inventing suitable mythologies. Sanskritisation method.

Nandini Gooptu in her study analyses the emergence of the Adi-Hindu movement in the urban areas. The leaders of the Adi-Hindu movement believed that the present form of Hinduism was imposed on them by the Aryan invaders. The movement did not pose a direct threat to the caste system. It was in essence, conceived as and remained a protest against the attribution of low roles and functions to the untouchable by means of a claim not to be Aryan Hindus; it was not developed into a full blown, direct attack on the caste system.

A major anti-untouchability movement was launched by Dr. Ambedkar in the 1920s in Maharashtra. He saw the possibility of advancement for the untouchables through the use of political means to achieve social and economic equality with the highest classes in modern society. He organized the independent labour party on secular lines for protecting the interests of the laboring classes.

In the early 1930s Ambedkar concluded that the only way of improving the status of the untouchables was to renounce the Hindu religion. He found that Buddhism was appropriate as an alternative religion for the untouchables. He preferred Buddhism because it was an indigenous religion of equality and a religion which was anti-caste and anti-brahmin. Ambedkar and his followers were converted to Buddhism in 1956.

The movement for conversion to Buddhism has spread dalit consciousness irrespective of whether dalits became Buddhist or not. The Dalit youths of Maharashtra launched the Dalit Panther Movement in the early 1970s. Initially it was confined to the urban areas of Maharashtra now it has spread to GJ, KA, AP, UP and other states. Bhim Army and Chandrashekhar Azad.

Assertion of Dalit identity has become a central issue of dalit movements. This involves:

  • Local level collective action against discrimination and atrocities.
  • Statues and photos of Dr Ambedkar are an expression of dalit consciousness and their assertion for identity.
  • The Dalit movements are dominated by the dalit MCs raising issues related to identity and reservations of government jobs and political positions. Their struggles have brought dalits on the agenda of mainstream politics.
  • Public conversion to Buddhism.
  • Contestation of public spaces and protests.
  • Publication of Dalit literature, subaltern studies.
  • Flamboyant use of upper caste symbols like the twirled mustache and headgear.
  • Adoption of names like Raavan and Lankesh.

April 2018 protests against judicial dilution of SC/ST act. Nationwide protests.
In academic circles the movements have forced a section of intellectuals to critically review Indian traditions and culture, the paradigms of modernity, and Marxist analysis of Indian society. They have exposed a number of concepts and myths created by Brahminical ideology. The Dalit movements have also successfully built up a good deal of pressure on the ruling classes.However several scholars and activists feel that dalits have been reduced to a pressure group within the mainstream politics.


Development vs displacement movements (Narbada Bachao Andolan)

Equal use rights movements. Chipko

Eco-feminist movements. Navdanya

Chipko Movement 1973

In the 1970s, an organized resistance to the destruction of forests spread throughout India and came to be known as the Chipko movement. Sparked off by the government's decision to allot a plot of forest area in the Alaknanda valley to a sports goods company. This angered the villagers because their similar demand to use wood for making agricultural tools had been denied earlier. With encouragement from a local NGO, DGSS (Dasoli Gram Swarajya Sangh), the women of the area went into the forest and formed a circle around the trees preventing the men from cutting them down. They were under the leadership of an activist, Chandi Prasad Bhatt.The success achieved by this protest led to similar protests in other parts of the country. From their origins as a spontaneous protest against logging abuses in UP in the Himalayas, supporters of the Chipko movement, mainly village women, have successfully banned the felling of trees in a number of regions and influenced resource distribution policy in India.

In addition to the 15-year ban in UP, the movement has stopped felling in the Western Ghats and the Vindhyas and has generated pressure for a natural resource policy that is more sensitive to people's needs and ecological requirements.

NOTE: Original Chipko by the 84 people of Bishnoi community led by Amrita Devi Bishnoi. Struggled to save the sacred Khejri trees. India's environmental award.

Navdanya Movement 1982

Started by environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. She founded Navdanya in 1982 as an organisation promoting biodiversity conservation and organic farming. Her eco-feminist movement reinstated a farming system centered on engaging women. The organisation has helped create markets for farmers, and promoted quality food for consumers connecting the seed to the cooked food.

Navdanya has helped set up 54 community seed banks across the country, trained over 500,000 farmers in "food sovereignty" and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades, and helped set up the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country. Navdanya has also set up a learning center, Bija Vidyapeeth (Seed School) on its biodiversity conservation and organic farm in Doon Valley, UK.

Narmada Bachao Andolan 1985

Narmada Bachao Andolan announced the arrival of the Indian Greens, protesting against destructive development. NBA began with a wide developmental agenda, questioning the very rationale of large dam projects in India. It is one of the largest and most successful environmental campaigns.

NOTE: Relevance of Olga Tellis/Almitra Patel and NBA cases in Indian jurisprudence.


Ethnic and Identity conflicts in India:

  • Punjab. Sikh fundamentalism of the 1980s
  • Kashmir. Started out as a conflict over kashmiriyat. Devolved to communal violence.
  • Assam. ULFA, Bodo, etc.
  • Nagaland. NNC, NSCN (IM/K/R).
  • Mizoram. Mizo National Front.
  • Manipur. PLA of Manipur.
  • Meghalaya. ANVC, HNLC.
  • Tripura. NLF of Tripura, All Tripura Tiger Force.

Major concerns for ethnic movements:

  • Continuity of cultural values. Ex. Naga protest against women's reservation in PESA.
  • Protection against dilution of group identity.
  • Monitoring of in-group and out-group.
  • Regional autonomy.
  • Curbing influence of outsiders.

The plethora of ethnic conflicts in India coincided with an increasing sense of shrinking economic horizons and political avenues. Many things have gone awry with economic development:

  • Declining terms of trade dictated by the internal bottlenecks;
  • Agricultural underemployment and migration to cities; (STs contribute heavily to agri labour)
  • Increasing disparities of income among participants in the literacy explosion; (Y.Singh)
  • Visible pauperisation of the urban underclass.
  • Development is the lopsided and uneven growth of the national market, prosperity, and income distribution.
  • Rising awareness of the underprivileged groups to their disadvantageous placement in the national division of labour.

In some cases, the slow pace of building prosperity has given rise to the sense of relative deprivation. Equally pertinent here is to note that corruption and family or ethnic nepotism have given impetus to alienation and conflict formation.

Identity is considered as the collective sum of the unique qualities and beliefs of a people, while ethnicity is the sense of belonging to a definable group of people with a common origin and ancestry. The former flowed from the latter and the latter is only meaningful so far as the group holds it to be true. Today, identity is considered the outcome of complex and changing influences.

Lange and Westin view identity as a multi-dimensional concept which has two aspects:

  • Social identity concerns the definition of a group, for ex the definition of the Nagas by British administrators, missionaries, plainsmen of Assam, and by other tribes.
  • Personal identity is a definition of oneself either as an individual or as a member of a sub-ethnic group eg, as an Ao defines himself in relation to a Khiamniungan, or as a villager of Chanki defines himself in relation to a villager of Longsa.

Owing to the varying parameters of the process of identity transformations and the roles of external (non-ethnic) factors, ethnic conflicts and politics in India have waxed and waned.


In the North East, the impact of British administration became manifest through various means and measures such as the Inner Line Regulation in 1873 and the declaration of most of the hill areas as Excluded Areas under the provision of Government of India Act of 1935.

Most tribal communities of the hills thus remained cut off from social and political developments taking place elsewhere. Each community tended to become a rigid social formation and this was to the utmost advantage of the colonial rulers.The accentuation of tribal-non-tribal differences and the formation of rigid social blocks out of indigenous castes and communities as well as recent migrants were important developments in the colonial period.


Ethnic conflicts in India have been inconsistent in their ideology and intensity:

  • The conflict in the Punjab had a dominant linguistic thrust during the mid-1960s.
  • In the 70s and 80s it was rekindled by the rivalry of competing Sikh sects, the Nirankaris and the Akalis.
  • Later, it assumed religious and economic dimensions in the form of the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.
  • In the late 80s it acquired a fundamentalist character, with growing emphasis on the assertion of religious and cultural symbols to legitimize militancy and violence.

However resolute action by the state police and Army had stamped out the terrorist elements in Punjab by the year 1994.


Elements of the Punjab situation are also reflected in the Kashmir conflict, where the initial movement of the state's political and economic neglect has now acquired overtones of Islamic religious assertion, to the extent of becoming fundamentalist. Accordingly, the earlier concept of Kashmir identity, or Kashmiriat, has been replaced by communal confrontation, wherein the Muslim militants pushed the Hindu Kashmiris out of the valley in the 90s.


Began with the formation of the Naga Club in 1918. Made a submission to the Simon Commission to be allowed to determine their fate after British exit from India.

Post Independence, it transformed into the Naga National Council (NNC) which wanted separate electorate for the nagas. With the coming of AZ Phizo on the stage, the tendencies turned secessionist. AZ Phizo led the Naga insurgency from the 50s till their accord with GoI in the 80s. This accord was not palatable to all members and a faction broke off under Isak Chisiswu, Thuingaleng Muivah, and SS Khaplang to form the NSCN.

Later on differences arose between the two factions and they split again in 1988 to form NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K). NSCN (IM) opened talks with GoI in 2012 for a peace deal. Isak Chisiswu died in 2016. The NSCN (K) has undergone another split in 2015 to form NSCN (Reformist). This split was effected because the leadership was unwilling to accept the government peace deal on offer.

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