A Review of “Social Movements I & II”

 Gilbert Sebastian  

T.K. Oommen (ed.) Social Movements I: Issues of Identity (pp.252+x, HB), & Social Movements II: Concerns of Equity and Security, (pp.352+xii, HB), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010.

The volumes edited by T.K. Oommen constitute a sociological contribution to the study of social movements in India. The first volume deals with identitarian movements and the second, with movements for equity and security. For spatial constraints, we do not attempt a review and critique of individual articles but confine ourselves to the theoretical issues identified by the editor himself.


The first volume on identitarian movements has two sections. The first section on Religious and Caste Movements has contributions from Kenneth W. Jones on Socio-religious movements, Christophe Jaffrelot on ethno-religious mobilisation, Walter Fernandes on conversion movements, Vivek Kumar on Dalit mobilization and Shail Mayaram on the emergence of Tablighi Jamaat as a transnational relgious movement. The second section on Regional, Linguistic and Tribal Movements has contributions from Robert L. Hardgrave on the dravidian movement, Dipankar Gupta on the Shiv Sena movement, Sanjib Baruah on the Assam movement, Surajit Sinha on tribal movements and Frederick S. Downs on Christian conversion movements in northeast India. Apparently, the contribution by Vivek Kumar was previously unpublished.

Speaking of identitarian movements, Oommen mentions four processes, namely, homogenisation, pluralisation, traditionalisation and hybridisation at work leading to persistence, eclipse and mutation of identities (I: 40).

Introducing the section on regional, linguistic and tribal movements, interestingly, he mentions the three Great Traditions of India with civilisational differences – Aryan-Hindu-Sanskritic, Dravidian-Hindu-Tamil and Islamic-Urdu (I: 160). Ethnicity, religion and language come into play here.

Social Movements IThe second volume has three sections. The first section on Peasant and Labour Movements has contributions on Indian peasant uprisings by Kathleen Gough, Naxalbari movement by Partha Mukherji, Bhoodan movement by T.K. Oommen, new farmers’ movement in Maharashtra by D.N. Dhanagare, Indian labour movement by S.M. Pandey, trends in industrial relations in India during 1950-2000 by Debashish Bhattacherjee, labour activism by women in the unorganized sector by Supriya RoyChowdhury. The second section on Women and Students’ Movements has papers from Indu Agnihotri and Vina Mazumdar on women’s movement in India during 1970s-1990s, from Rajni Palriwala on anti-dowry movement in Delhi, from Martha Alter Chen on the Self-Employed Women’s Association, from Philip G. Altbach and also from T.K. Oommen on the Indian student movement. The third section on Ecological and Environmental Movements has papers from Vandana Shiva on ecology movements in India, from Ranjit Dwivedi on the role of environmental groups in the making of Protected Areas, and finally from T.K. Oommen on protests against developmental displacement. The contributions by Rajni Palriwala, Martha Alter Chen and the one by T.K. Oommen on movements against displacement are, apparently, unpublished elsewhere.

Introducing the second volume on issues of equity and security, Oommen makes a pertinent point that “equity rather than equality is the motive force behind contemporary social movements” (II: 39). He says that even “radical groups are not arguing for equality of rewards these days” but are only demanding “equality of opportunity” or going a step further and demanding “equality of condition” through ensuring “distributive justice” (II: 39). His understanding of “comprehensive security” including the military, political, economic, socio-cultural and environmental dimensions (II: 40) is, indeed, a welcome concept in these days of extreme paranoia.

In the introduction to the volumes by T.K. Oommen, the theoretical contributions of the “founding fathers” are discussed: Durkheimian structural differentiation, Weberian rationality and Marxian class analysis. He rightly argues that Marx’s “basic argument” on social movements “stood the test of time” except for his overemphasis on collective rationality and lack of emphasis on non-class collectivities (5-6).  In defining social movements, Oommen counts in all mobilisations with ideology and organisational framework, irrespective of goals (change or stability) or means (violent or non-violent) (11). He says that one of the aspects – ideology, organisation, leadership – acquires primacy at different phases of all movements (13). He says that the classification of “old” and “new” social movements is inadmissible in the Indian context (14, 38). His classification of movements based on the type of collectivity as biological (women, youth, etc.), primordial (caste, religious, linguistic, tribal, etc.) and civil (workers, peasants, students, environmental movements, etc.) is useful. A better term than “biological” (15-17) should have been used since apparently, these are primarily socially constituted categories. He distinguishes between the instrumental and symbolic goals of movements. Instrumental goals seek reallocation of wealth and power and symbolic goals seek redefinition of status and privilege. The term, “instrumental”, however, sounds rather pejorative. ‘Re-distributive’ could have been a more appropriate term.

Oommen considers mobilisation and institutionalisation as a dialectical process and does not oppose the latter. Questionably, he simply brushes aside the perspective that movements do often go through a life-cycle (25) and may even turn into vestiges of the past weighing down upon the present. He says, “[N]one of the four processes – repression, discreditation, co-optation and institutionalization – will herald the death-knell of a movement. Movements will survive if they have the required legitimacy and appropriate resources” (28). Apparently, he is not sufficiently critical of the processes like co-optation and institutionalisation.


Interestingly, right at the beginning of his introduction, Oommen briefly discusses how the disciplinary focuses – historical/political, psychological and sociological – in studying social movements, the object of inquiry, vary. Sociologists were late-comers into this field. Nevertheless, compartmentalisation of knowledge-fields as such could hamper the advancement of knowledge. Indeed, it is when history, sociology, economics and political studies are knit together in an interdisciplinary manner that we can have an enlightening study.

Oommen says, “There is no hierarchy of identities, but only contextuality of identities” (I: 40). One reason why Oommen has missed the punch is because the notion of primacy (not a hierarchy in an a priori sense) among social contradictions is missing. At any given point of social development, one or the other contradiction comes to the fore and assumes primacy and urgency over other contradictions which of course, are related to the former. Addressing this principal contradiction may lead to viewing social reality in an intersectional manner so that different kinds of oppressions can be interrelated. For instance, addressing the land question in contemporary India entails taking on the historically constituted property structure, addressing the interrelated issues of class, caste and gender.

Along with this, comes the question of the quality and extent of change. Oommen junks M S A Rao’s classification of movements as reformist, transformativeSocial Movements II and revolutionary, for shifting the defining criteria. But it would have been quite useful to retain this classification on the criterion of quality and extent of change. This would be clearer if one tries to substantively understand the social and political movements during their high point in the 20th century. We could classify them under four rubrics on grounds of the structural bases and the transformative agencies involved: (1) Class struggles; (2) Anti-colonial and national liberation movements; (3) Social liberation movements of women, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, etc., which are pitted against dominant sections within a society more than against a regressive State and global capitalism towards which they maintain a love-hate relationship; and (4) General democratic movements such as anti-globalisation movements, environmental movements, etc. The extent of social transformation achieved through radical class struggles and progressive national liberation movements are, apparently, of a qualitatively higher order than those achieved by social liberation movements and general democratic movements. This is because the former were able to take head on macro-structures of de-humanisation like State, semi-feudalism and global monopoly capitalism and therefore the consequences for the system were much more serious. The sociological classification of movements by Oommen looks more abstract than substantively historical. The latter approach would have entailed seeing the movements in a process of change or movement in time, assigning them importance according to their transformative potential.

On the Indian scenario, Oommen also makes a controversial remark: “[T]here was/is no archetype class movement in India; the equivalent of that was the anti-colonial movement (37).” Telangana, Tebhagha and Naxalbari movements and the class struggles led by the Naxalites/Maoists today, with a wide geographical spread, challenge this argument. That the Maoist movement interrelates class with other social categories such as nationality, caste and gender does not disqualify it from the status of a class-based movement. The anti-colonial movement had, most often, failed to address issues of class/social equity and as G. Haragopal says, bequeathed us the negative legacy of a false dichotomy between the ‘social’ and the ‘political’.

Oommen says that “the real threat to the state emanates from primordial collectivities”. The book “leaves out movements which are explicitly ‘political’ … such as anti-colonial or secessionist movements” (19; I: 160). This omission is serious if we consider the immense transformative potential of nationality movements. Considering the fact that Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), 1958, the most draconian legislation in the country violating the very right to life in the narrow sense of the term, is operational in the intensely militarised frontier nationalities, the issue of the ongoing nationality movements merited treatment at least from a human rights angle.

Crucially, Oommen draws a distinction between “hegemonic” and “emancipatory” identitarian movements (I: 42). Anchoring this distinction in the contemporary rights discourse, we could, better term them as “privileges-based” and “rights-based” identitarian movements. The former are disempowering and the latter, empowering. Given this perspective, the Shiv Sena movement finding its place alongside the rights-based regional, linguistic and tribal movements is an anomaly in the book.

He argues that it is cumulative dominance and coercive equilibrium that becomes the context for social movements (I: 42). However, the cumulatively oppressed and coercively repressed may, often be too weak to initiate social/political movements on their own. Instead, it may be more useful to harp back on the Marxian notion of relative deprivation as the context for movements. Moreover, ‘humiliation’ rather than just exploitation may spur movements.

We could describe a movement as ‘an idea whose time has come’. There is, at times, a simultaneous upsurge of movements in an epoch of social transformation such as the colonial period in India. The making of an epoch of social transformation involves complex interactions of material conditions including the cultural context on the one hand with subjective forces on the other. Collective human agency may be held to be the crucial factor in this process.

Oommen notes the interesting difference between old class activism of the “union-mode” and the new community activism of the ‘campaign-mode’ (50). A separate section critically analysing the global civil society movements could have been usefully undertaken in the book.

If we agree with Manoranjan Mohanty that “rights are political affirmations in course of struggle” or movements, one cannot underestimate the importance of studies on social movements. Oommen needs to be commended for this collection of otherwise scattered across papers. Along with the volumes from Ghanashyam Shah, these volumes can be useful reference material on social movements in India. Oommen’s introduction to the volumes, “On the Analysis of Social Movements” carried in both volumes is a must-read for researchers on social and political movements in India. It is a valuable contribution to the typologies of movements, bringing up many subtle insights, besides sparking off little controversies.

Oommen rightly says that ongoing movements are rarely studied (II: 322) and [probably, for this reason,] what we have is more of a “sociology of movements” rather than a “sociology for movements” (II: 318). For all the crucial insights that they provide, regrettably, Oommen’s edited volumes, may qualify only as a “sociology of movements”.

Gilbert Sebastian is associated with Developing Countries Research Centre (DCRC), University of Delhi, New Delhi. He can be contacted at gilbertseb@gmail.com.

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