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On Social Movements: An Interview with Smitu Kothari

by Manu Mathai, 31 March 2009

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- Briefing of the Human Development and Capability Association
- Number 4, February 2006

Interview with Smitu Kothari: Part I

In our conversation we explore social movements and their relationship with public participation and debate. Smitu Kothari is one of the founders of Lokayan ("Dialogue of the People"), a centre in India promoting exchange between non-party political formations and concerned scholars and other citizens from India and the rest of the world. At Lokayan, he is the Program Director of the Seeds of Hope and the Tribal Self-Rule Programs. He is a political organizer involved in ecological, cultural and human rights issues striving to collectively forge a national and global alternative that is socially just and ecologically sane.

He also directs Intercultural Resources, a centre promoting national, regional and global intercultural dialogues, exchanges and interventions. He is President of the International Group for Grassroots Initiatives, a Contributing Editor of The Ecologist and of Development, a founding member of Jan Vikas Andolan (Movement for Peoples’ Development) and has been a visiting professor at Princeton and Cornell Universities. He has published extensively on critiques of contemporary economic and cultural development, the relationship of nature, culture and democracy, developmental displacement and social movements.

Dr. Kothari recently spoke with Manu Mathai over the telephone.1 Excerpts follow:

How would you define a ’social movement’?

Activists and scholars have tried for decades to define social movements. But given the plurality and diversity of movements and their complex trajectories, definitions have largely been inadequate. However, to enable identification, we can highlight some prerequisites. Broadly, a social movement can be identified as a collective mobilization of people sustained over time that seeks to inform and influence a larger constituency and
through various strategies and actions attempts to create a larger mobilization to bring about the change it desires. However, often, the term is used loosely creating a great deal of confusion. Consider as illustrations, the women’s movement or the environmental movement.

Here, ‘movement’ serves more as an umbrella, which has under it a vast array of institutional forms—individuals, small NGOs, large organizations, corporate groups, etc. representing the entire gamut of social and political opinion. In fact, a majority of those involved are not even active in any movements. Therefore, it is important to distinguish between protest, social mobilization and social movement. Consider, for instance, the case of an organization resisting a hike in bus fares. This is not a social movement but a protest or a social mobilization. If, however, this protest is sustained over time and transits from being a mobilization focused on one specific issue in an individual neighborhood to, say, a citywide mobilization for urban renewal, achieving political stridency and expanding its political base
in the process, it can transit into becoming a social movement.

What in your opinion are special contributions of social movements to a more dynamic public debate in society? Could you share illustrations of social movements and their contribution to public debate?

By definition a social movement can also be a movement of right-wing activists and groups; for instance, mobilizations of the Hindu right in India are also a social movement.

Thus we must note that ‘social movement’ is an ideologically neutral category, and, therefore, it does not follow that all movements are fighting for social justice or, generally speaking, for a saner, more equitable and just world. However, for the rest of this conversation if we agree that we are talking of movements that seek to contribute towards the building of a world with less deprivation and suffering, more equity and ecological sanity, there are numerous contributions of social movements that we can discuss. The Indian independence movement is a superb example of a social movement; its achievements towards contributing to public debate and a comprehensive transformation of society are outstanding and clearly evident.

Another comparable example is the civil rights movement in the US or, more recently, the movement for indigenous rights in Bolivia (and at numerous other sites around the world) or movement for the independence of East Timor.

In terms of the actual mechanics, a social movements’ contribution to the quality, intensity and spread of public debate is related to the capacity of the social movement to make itself visible. In turn visibility is largely dependent on a) the tactics and strategies that the movement employs b) the capacity to engage with the institutions and structures that it seeks
to change c) the resonance that the movement creates with larger publics, and, d) the ability to bring the media to pay attention to the issues that it is raising and to provide an empathetic and sustained presentation of these issues.

What are some of the internal challenges facing social movements?

Even while social movements contribute to the creation of important changes within our societies, they do not automatically guarantee that citizens will realize a better life. Therefore, there continues to be an ongoing need to ensure that what has been secured manifests itself in people’s lives. There is also a need to initiate new movements to address
unfinished tasks. For instance, India’s Independence movement created widespread aspirations and expectations opening up the need for new movements to address and fulfil them. The success of the movement in bringing about independence from the British did not automatically guarantee a better deal for tribals and Dalits and an overwhelming majority of unorganized workers or create a process of decolonizing society and the human mind. A grossly unjust and unequal world remains despite centuries of social movements. This points to the continuing urgent need for people to respond to their conscience, to engage structures and systems of injustice and oppression and to join or create new movements that are struggling to fulfill such unfinished tasks.

Have movements moved from one gain to the other?

At one level yes, social movements have moved from one gain to another. However, a gain often creates a new set of challenges, which therefore needs sustained social engagement and mobilization as well as new movements. Often, success can lead to complacency and a consequent decline of the movement. As Sydney Tarrow has remarked, social movements go through “cycles of protest” and have to keep radicalizing in order to gain more support; the radicalization in turn could lead to a loss of support. However, it is not necessary that all movements have to go through cycles. For instance, the dominant economic and political system continues to be predatory and antagonistic to ‘ecosystem people’ and their way of life. Even as we speak, communities of ecosystem people are subject to threats from mining, pollution, conservation, and infrastructure projects, among others. Ecosystems face ever-escalating challenges and thus, the impetus for sustained social movements to arrest and reverse this crisis remains.

Can you share illustrations of social movements which have changed the priorities of governments or which have reversed a policy decision? What makes social movements successful in reverting policy decisions?

Illustrations abound, but we are constrained by space. Social movements have had significant impacts on public policy. For instance, the Zapatista movement in Mexico involving thousands of indigenous people have not only been largely successful in defending their land and their forests from predatory processes but have also managed to influence national and global politics and policy in the process inspiring and giving confidence to
scores of movements and millions of others around the globe. Another illustration is the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement). Although the movement has not stopped the construction of large-dams on the Narmada River it has dramatically transformed
the global debate on large dams and their claimed benefits. It has also strongly influenced national and global policy on harnessing water and given strength to hundreds of movements across the world that are fighting for fairer and saner water practices and policies. The movement also led to the first ever, significant international commission—the World
Commission on Dams—that had equal representation of all stakeholders and functioned for over three years in an open and democratic manner.
However, challenges remain. If political, social or legislative change is achieved, how can these changes be sustained? What kinds of structures, institutions and processes need to be in place to ensure that these gains are not lost? How can local movements engage national questions or global challenges? How can they creatively resist attempts to co-opt or crush
them? These are just a few of the numerous challenges.

Being as I am, involved in social movements as well as engaged in scholarship, I also focus on understanding and interpreting these processes for wider audiences. We need to be constantly vigilant of the structures and implications of political, economic and cultural power. While these structures are definitely under strain, they are by no means disintegrating, but selectively reinventing themselves. Just look at the continuing onslaught on a majority of the world’s peasants under the present neo-liberal policies. I very much hope that Maitreyee’s readers will further engage themselves in addressing these structures and situating their work towards the wider realization of justice, peace and ecological sanity.

Our conversation with Smitu Kothari will be continued in the October issue of Maitreyee and addresses structures of power and human development.

Dr. Kothari has since had to attend to a family health emergency and was unable to review this edited version of the conversation before publication.

- Briefing of the Human Development and Capability Association
- Number 6, October 2006

Interview with Smitu Kothari: Part II


In our earlier interview with Smitu Kothari, we discussed the definition of social movements, the contributions they have made and the challenges they face. We conclude our discussion with Dr. Kothari in this issue of Maitreyee.

How do social movements contribute to the formation of values?

Before responding to your question, I would like to remove one misunderstanding that often creeps into discussions on social movements. This is framed by the question: what is the difference between social and political movements? It needs to be clarified here that for me, social movements are intensely and inherently political. As discussed in the first instalment of this interview, they engage with power – whether legitimised by patriarchy or by corporate capital and such engagement is both social and political.

Now to your question. As more of the world comes under the aggressive influence of neo-liberalism, the dominant economic and political systems continue to privilege the materialist side of human beings. The neo-liberal system and its institutions continue to seek to maximize private profit and in the process see value only in what the system can commodify. Nature is equally victimized so a complex ecosystem like a rainforest is only worth its value in tradable timber. The values of caring, of justice, of dignity, of self-restraint in the interests of the common good, are all subordinated to the dominant pursuit of iniquitous economic growth.

In this context, the contribution of social and political movements has been to bring back into the centre of political, cultural and economic reality a deeper engagement with those aspects of human beings’ role on this planet that further social justice and a recognition that we are an integral part of the natural world and what we do to that complexity of systems we do to ourselves. In that sense, values of interdependence, of responsibility, of ethical and moral life, as well as a deeper striving for equity and dignity are integral to an engagement in social movements. For instance, the traditional fishworker’s struggles against intensive commercial and corporate fisheries are struggles for life against the maximization of private productivity and profit.

Another set of values are the values of collective action. This is of critical importance since the contemporary world gives increasing primacy to individuals and individual self-fulfilment rather than to collective well-being. Social movements re-engage individuals in collectivities that nurture complex levels of interdependence, in ways where the collective is able to engage in transformative action.

Finally, social movements have also been able to enhance our understanding of deeper spiritual connections between human beings and their past and future and of the need to build a relationship between the spiritual and the just.

Social movements are often seen as a direct form of democracy in which people directly affected by a decision participate in it. However, political decisions are ultimately made by the elected Legislative Assembly. Is the role of social movements then only limited to ’social protests’ or does it announce another age for democracy? Do they urge us toward theoretical
innovations or different approaches to theorizing democracy? If so, could you share some ideas on what these might be?

Social movements contribute both in protesting and providing society with a wider array of creative and innovative ideas for building a sane, dignified and just world. In doing so, both in its ‘protest mode’ and its ‘idealism mode’ (both of which are in a creative synergy in most movements), social movements engage with dominant institutions of democracy not only seeking to make them more accountable but also to highlight the serious limitations of these institutions. For instance, social movements have demonstrated that representative governments are extremely limited forms of democracy. In the case of India, the numerous issues at the heart of people’s lives and livelihoods which parliaments and state legislatures
rarely concern themselves with reflect how a few hundred elected representatives cannot represent over a billion people.

Further, social movements have shown that those in power are resistant to pursuing a politics of demilitarization, de-nuclearization, justice and ecological sanity as narrow self-interest and other political, religious and economic considerations have side-lined the most critical issues facing life on the planet. The politics of climate change is but one example that
reflects the narrowness of dominant political and economic processes.
Therefore, social movements, point to the need to take away power from the centres of power and to create institutions with more decentralized and direct forms of democracy. So if you look at the experience of deepening decentralization in states like Kerala, India, to institutionalize decentralization and devolve decision making to village level or social
movements around the world to assert self-rule and control over productive economic and natural resource systems or look at growing disillusionment with the capacity of governments to rule in favour of those who have historically been disadvantaged, you see in all of these a deep desire to strengthen a vast creative set of institutions and processes that nurture dissent and direct forms of democracy.

It is also critical to highlight the fact that social movements have contributed to the evolution and enrichment of theory. They have not only played a dialectical role with practice but also a powerful dialectical role with theory and contributed to the transformation of disciplines, to the need to transcend disciplinary boundaries, to the redefinition of democracy,
and in challenges to western institutional forms – from the institutions of representative democracy to the very structures of finance and corporate capital. Movements have shown how dominant power sustains and legitimizes itself and how countervailing power that would nurture more egalitarian, equitable and just social, economic and political systems can be
strengthened. They have also highlighted the need for a radical change in personal attitudes and sensibilities that would bring the necessary shifts towards a more just and caring world.

They have thus demonstrated in practice alternatives to dominant worldviews, institutions and attitudes.

Also, really, do social movements mark another age, or historically, is there a continuum or evolution that should check our characterization of social movements as a ‘new age’ for democracy?

That’s a really good question! There is continuity and disjunction. Continuity in the striving for dignity, agency and participation. Discontinuities because everyday forms of resistance and spontaneous revolts and protests are being framed around dramatically new issues. For instance, there is no longer a central focus on seizing the state. The focus is increasingly on democratizing society itself therefore drastically rethinking the role and structure of the state.

What, in your opinion, have been the most significant challenges that such movements have faced and where have such challenges come from...politically and institutionally, speaking?

Given the vast range and diversity of social movements, it’s very hard to do justice to this question in the space and time that we have. But at a very broad level, one could generalize as follows: In the recent history of social movements, the biggest challenges have come from dominant institutions of power, particularly economic, social and cultural power,
as well as institutions of religious power. Challenges also come from deeply held beliefs that people have as they have been informed, socialized and influenced by the dominant myths of economic and political development. At the level of individuals, challenges to social movements come from deep insecurities and personal ambitions and a vested interest in sustaining the status quo. Further, social movements are challenged from within seeking to change internal hierarchies and power equations, personal insecurities, financial and resource limitations.

The diversity in our world presents a range of alternative proposals to mainstream economic development. Yet, the popular discourse on development seems to be limited to a fairly narrow set of priorities, which are ‘globally’ endorsed. In such a situation, how can movements within countries challenge development discourses that are geo-politically sanctioned/necessitated?

One of the things that one must appreciate is that nothing changes in a linear form; there is no action-reaction type of phenomenon. The process of change is an extremely complex political process. Most often it is difficult to predict how a particular issue will appeal to a particular constituency. For instance, let’s take the random example of the French Revolution. The mobilization against the monarchy in France did not start off with the
realization of the revolutionary potential it had to transform the system they were seeking to change. Nor did the tribal communities who first resisted British colonialism in India realize they were laying the foundation of an anti-colonial movement that would make history. The important thing is not to look for the results for what you do. This is not to deny the need for validation, which is necessarily sought as part of the struggle’s evolution. There is clearly a need for affirming victories. However, struggles are not for winning or losing.

Struggles are inspired from strong beliefs to oppose say, environmental destruction or unjust or iniquitous development. They emerge from a belief that your cause is a just cause, that the awakening of your conscience needs to be channelled to strive for change. How and when it will resonate or create the conditions for transformation are hard to predict.

Consider the case of Bolivia where the majority indigenous people have been ruled by an authoritarian minority. For decades now, the majority’s struggles for democracy and justice had met with repression and state violence. Even just ten years ago, many individuals in the movement, some of whom I’ve know personally, felt deeply frustrated because decades of struggle had yielded few gains and changes in the nature of the dominant system. The important thing, however, is that they persisted and as we’ve all recently seen and heard, they now have their first indigenous President. Victory is a struggle that has just started. There is no dearth of powerful people inside and outside Bolivia who would like to see their new President fail; there are numerous vested interests that will try to and therein lays the need for sustained struggle and eternal vigilance.

Would you have some insights to share with younger scholars who seek to combine scholarship with activism?

First thing: A good scholar must also be a good activist and vice-versa. It is a false dichotomy. This is not to say that diligent, engaged research is illegitimate if it is not combined with action; it is extremely necessary. But it is critically important for scholars across the academic spectrum to be self-critical about whether scholarship is legitimizing unjust, iniquitous and ecological disastrous systems, or is it affirming greater ecological sanity, equity and dignity.

Unfortunately an overwhelming majority of research is oriented to protecting the status quo. Therefore it is critically important to nurture the dissenting imagination and spirit and strive to better understand the structures of injustice and to engage the human consciousness and conscience to make this planet a more humane and just place. The younger generation has a historical role to play in whether they will legitimize the structures of injustice or will they contribute to a better world.

Social movements are the crucibles of experimentation and change. Therefore, it is critically important for scholar-activists or activist-scholars to relate with, learn from and inspire movements.

With this we conclude our interviews with Smitu Kothari.

2 For a biography of Smitu Kothari and the first part of the interview on social movements, see Maitreyee 4, February 2006.