In September and October 2011, thousands of young people occupied the squares of New York, London, Madrid and other major cities across the globe. The waves of protests, including the indignados in Spain and the student demonstrations in Athens all involved claiming back iconic spaces of Western politics; squares being a modern designation of the Greek agora.
Their common denunciation of the economic and social inequalities exacerbated by the system of financial and corporate capitalism led the international press to present local occupations as parts of an interconnected ‘occupy’ movement.
Almost a month after the installation of the camp in front of St Paul’s cathedral in London, a plot of government-owned land was occupied in Jobat, Madhya Pradesh, India. The occupiers were mostly hilly adivasis (indigenous people) ousted from their land by the Sardar Sarovar dam and linked to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) – an anti-dam movement.
The adivasis were joined by other villagers affected by the Jobat dam. They called for compensation for the more than 150 citizens displaced since 1994 by the construction of thirty large dams along the Narmada valley in central India.
Cash pay outs
Despite various promises and ‘action plans’ completed by regional and national authorities, some of the claimants have never been legally compensated for their loss.
Others were betrayed in the compensation process, being persuaded to accept small cash payouts instead of the cultivable land and house plots to which they were entitled.
The adivasis’ non-violent demonstration for the right to land (zamin haq satyagraha) started when a tent was pitched on a piece of government land identified as complying with the basic characteristics set out in an earlier Supreme Court for the resettlement.
The symbolic protest unveils the utter lack of implementation of the Narmada Tribunal Award (1979) and the Supreme Court’s judgments granting people displaced by the dam cultivable, irrigable, non-encroached land and house plots with rudimentary civic amenities. This compensation package still exists on paper only.
In December 2011, I spent some time in the camp with NBA activists and wrote two blogs about their occupation, hoping to draw attention through the digital media to an issue that was not covered by mainstream newspapers.
Given the complicity of the labeling devices of tags and keywords, the written pieces moving in the blogosphere became instantly reconfigured as another ‘occupy movement’.
The campaigns in Western squares have diffused and the Indian protest continues still; now is an opportune time to reconsider what was gained and lost in the labeling of specific political activities with the language of the ‘occupation’.
It is remarkable how the demonstrations in Western cities raised international solidarity amongst members of the middle and working classes facing the harshness of economic policies introduced to handle the international crisis.
But the Occupy movements have also faced several critiques. Assuming an indigenous perspective leads us to doubt the democratizing aims of the movement in Wall Street and other city squares, and to question the composition of the crowd of the protesters for its homogeneity in terms of race, age and gender (a number of newspaper articles have reported on its gender imbalance, women remaining largely unrepresented).
Indigenous writer and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson said that the use of the language of occupation inherently reiterates the semantic of colonialism and excludes indigenous people from participating in the debate.
If the ‘occupation’ of the squares is performed by a prevalently white, male and middle class youth, it is also because, for indigenous people, its signifier stands for both the colonialist and the nationalist projects that were founded in the grab and theft of natural resources.
In the praxis of protest of the NBA in India, such a concern is shared and echoed in the very slogan that describes the satyagraha not as land grab but as ‘right grab’. Employing the language of rights, adivasis in Jobat question the state and the inequality of its supervisory function. They stress the resistance to governmental actions that support the growth of corporate capital through the sacrifice of the poor.
Nevertheless, they refuse to endorse the aggressive language of land acquisition, which was used to displace them, and do not talk about land occupation or grabbing. They aim at redirecting people’s attention to the dangerous overlapping of neoliberal and neocolonial projects.
In the eyes of indigenous people, anticolonialism also stands for the struggle against capitalism. Founded on the legitimacy of individual property rights, capitalism is foreign to indigenous economic structures and was introduced by colonial acts of occupation that took place through the categorization, reconfiguration and distribution of lands. The ‘Land Acquisition Act’ (1894) exemplifies this process.
Shared cultivation and exchange economy, which are widely in use amongst adivasis and animate everyday life in the protest camp, reveal such ‘foreignness’. While the struggle of the NBA against the dam represents a strenuous opposition to the contemporary transnational economic alliances (the NBA persuaded the World Bank to withdraw from funding the dam construction), the adivasis are not directly protesting against bankers or the so-called financial oligarchy.
The ‘Occupy movements’ not only appear as distinctively Western in the composition of their actors and in the language chosen as emblematic of their grievances, but also in their method of protest. Camping in a city square stages a resistance against the power reiterating a Western iconography of the political.
When the spaces of collective action are peripheral fields of rural India rather then the main centres of capitalism, can the two social phenomena of illegitimate land occupation be equated? More specifically, can the NBA’s protest in Jobat be seen as resulting from the global rise of ‘occupy movements’?
Considering the specificity of the adivasis’ history and culture, the answer is far from straightforward. On the contrary, it might generate a new question: what can indigenous perspectives reveal about the various forms of ‘Occupy’? They stress the need to redefine anticolonialism within resistance movements, bringing at the forefront both a critique of capitalism and of modern states’ acquisition of common resources (a form of colonization itself).
By doing so, they seriously question the Occupy movement by displacing a common understanding of who the occupiers are and which or whose land is taken up. Should this not make us think before we take up again the very metaphor of ‘occupation’ to imagine other possible worlds?