Taking his cue from James C. Scott’s controversial study on Southeast Asia, The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), Bhangya Bhukya takes a long-term view of the history of the ‘tribal’ or adivasi Gond community of central India. He argues that the Gonds had a long and proud tradition of independent sovereignty, preserved through legend and oral history and still manifest in the ruined remnants of their rajas’ stone-built forts. Although he uses the now customary term adivasi to describe them, Bhukya suggests that there was little originally to distinguish the Gonds from other ‘non-Aryan’ populations: their designation as ‘tribal’ was a product of their increasing separation from, and subordination to, the Hindu communities of what he (somewhat oddly) terms ‘mainland’ India, as if these landlocked people were island populations. The process was further accelerated, he argues, through the formation, under colonial rule and its instrumental ethnography, of hegemonic notions of ‘tribal’ primitiveness and marginality (the ‘periphery’ of his title). Until Mughal times, the Gond chieftains maintained a degree of sovereign separation from the surrounding plains by means of warfare, backed by periodic raiding, by negotiation and the acceptance of a loose-fitting mantle of overlordship. However, beginning with the expansion of the Marathas into central India in the eighteenth century and the accompanying advent of Hindu settlement, the Gonds found themselves increasingly displaced and, from choice or necessity, pushed further and further back into more remote hill and forest regions. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, these interior tracts were themselves passing under the control of British India and the princely state of Hyderabad. Although there were differences between these intruding regimes, both encouraged the spread of agricultural settlement, the expansion of rice-cultivation, combined with restrictions on traditional Gond practices of shifting cultivation, and laws designed to save the extensive forests and their lucrative resources from local exploitation, while supporting state revenue generation and commercial timber extraction. Legal process and the incoming administration favoured the market economy and property in land, and gave protection to usury and land-seizure. The Gonds thus found themselves stripped of the land they had once occupied and, as their chiefs lost power and authority, the last vestiges of an ancient sovereignty. At the same time, colonial ethnography highlighted and accentuated the Gonds’ distinction from caste-Hindu society and stressed their ‘primitive’ beliefs, customs and subsistence. In part, this informed a paternalist policy of seeking to defend the Gonds from further inroads and exploitation by creating what were, in effect, special reserve areas, while at the same time advocating ‘development’ and their transformation into ‘civilised’ and settled subjects. The Gonds’ frustration and anger, evident as early as the 1857–8 rebellion, erupted in an uprising in 1940 led by the Gond Kumaram Bhimu, which the authorities effectively suppressed; but Bhukya is keen to stress that this was a political revolt aimed at the re-establishment of a Gond Raj and not merely a dispute over land rights and grievances. Since Indian Independence in 1947, administrative attitudes to the Gonds, largely derived from the colonial era, have not greatly changed: in some ways, the pressure to transform them socially and economically, even while denying them political sovereignty, has intensified and occasioned fresh, often violent, conflict. Bhukya uses oral history (much of which he collected himself) and ethnographic source material to supplement official archives and published sources to build a detailed and empathetic account of the Gonds, focusing in particular on the Chanda territory on the southern border of the Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh). With only sketchy material available for the pre-colonial era, his discussion is necessarily strongest for the British period. This leaves some uncertainty as to when and how the separate identity of the Gonds emerged, though what he does suggest is the extent to which Maratha rule began to eat into Gond independence well before the arrival of the British. His narrative is most detailed in discussing the economic and political changes affecting nineteenth-century Gondwana: the vitality of the Gonds’ cultural and social life and the environmental conditions that (arguably) underpinned and long sustained their autonomy are only partly assessed. This is primarily a political interpretation of Gond history, seeing the Gonds as the victims of long-term processes of change over which they had little control and shedding historical light on the adverse conditions in which they now find themselves. This is less of a path-breaking study of an adivasi society than some that have appeared in recent years (notably works by Ajay Skaria and Nandini Sundar), and, since Bhukya describes a steady decline in Gond autonomy, it only partly meets the challenge posed by Scott of ‘the art of not being governed’. But it nonetheless makes a significant scholarly contribution to the literature of a once neglected dimension of India’s history. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: May 28, 2018
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