Varieties of Activist Experience: Civil Society in South Asia


Edited by: David N. Gellner

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  • Series Note

    Governance, Conflict, and Civic Action Series

    Series Editors: David N. Gellner, Krishna Hachhethu, Siri Hettige, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka

    Volume 1: Local Democracy in South Asia: Microprocesses of Democratization in Nepal and its Neighbours, eds David N. Gellner and Krishna Hachhethu

    Volume 2: Ethnic Activism and Civil Society in South Asia, ed. David N. Gellner

    Volume 3: Varieties of Activist Experience: Civil Society in South Asia, ed. David N. Gellner

    Volumes in Preparation and Planned

    Volume 4: The Politics of Belonging in the Himalayas: Local Attachments and Boundary Dynamics, eds J. Pfaff-Czarnecka and G. Toffin

    Volume 5: Governance and Development: The Postcolonial State and the Development Process in Sri Lanka and its Neighbours, ed. Siri Hettige

    This volume has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union (EU). The contents of the book are the sole responsibility of the respective authors and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the EU.

    The Asia-Link Programme was launched at the beginning of 2002 as an initiative by the EU to foster regional and multilateral networking between higher education institutions in EU Member States and South Asia, South-East Asia and China. This five-year programme, which has a total budget of €42.8 million, aims to provide support to European and Asian higher education institutions in the areas of human resource development, curriculum development, and institutional and systems development.


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    This book is the third in a series on governance, conflict, and civic action in South Asia. The series grows out of the collaborations—and in particular the international workshops—made possible by the European Commission's support, 2004–07, under its Asia-Link Programme, for the MIDEA project (see Originally conceptualized and subsequently led by Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka, MIDEA stands for ‘The (Micro)Politics of Democratisation: European-South Asian Exchanges on Governance, Conflict and Civic Action’. Based in four institutions—(a) Institute for World Society Studies (IW), Bielefeld University, Germany, (b) the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS), Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal, (c) the Social Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SPARC), University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and (d) the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA), University of Oxford, UK—the project brought together anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, development specialists, and others from South Asia and Europe (not merely from the four participating institutions and countries) for a series of workshops, training sessions, and conferences.

    A conference held at the Maison Française Oxford in June 2005 addressed in particular the ‘civic action’ part of MIDEA's brief. It grew from my long-standing interest and several years’ research on activism in Nepal, and sought to draw in a wide variety of scholars from different countries to address similar questions and focus on types of activists and their relations to civil society in diverse South Asian countries (mainly Nepal and Sri Lanka, but with several contributions on India, and one on Bangladesh). There were a large number of papers on variants of ethnic activism, and these comprised the second volume of the series. There were also papers on social, developmental, political, and feminist activists, some of which are collected here. Apart from the paper sessions, those attending had the opportunity to view Helene Klodawsky's film No More Tears Sister, about the life and assassination of Dr Rajani Thiranagama, followed by a discussion with Sharika Thiranagama, who portrays her mother in the film. There was also a session in which Bela Bhatia and Om Gurung, both of whom combine activism and research, presented their reactions to the papers. In addition to the core EU Asia-Link funding, the conference benefitted from the support of the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust, the Sub-Faculty of South and Inner Asian Studies (University of Oxford), and the British Embassy in Kathmandu; all these bodies have my belated but nonetheless heartfelt gratitude. I have an additional and substantial debt to record to the Leverhulme Trust, which entrusted me with one of their three-year Senior Research Fellowships, 2002–05, on the subject of activism in Nepal. I would also like to thank Nadine Beckmann and Anastasia Norton-Piliavsky, both doctoral students at ISCA, as well as Uma Pradhan and Kate Atherton for help in editing the contributions to this volume.

    August 2009

    David N.Gellner


  • Glossary and Abbreviations

    ADABAssociation of Development Agencies in Bangladesh founded in 1974
    ADBAsian Development Bank
    Awami Leaguemainstream secular political party in Bangladesh founded by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, now led by his daughter Sheikh Hasina
    Bahunsee Brahman
    BCsee OBC
    BDCBlock Development Committee (India): elected body at the level of the block, i.e. above the village and below the jilla
    BDOBlock Development Officer (India): civil servant tasked with assisting elected representatives at the block level
    BJPBharatiya Janata Party, founded in 1980 as a successor to the Bharatiya Sangh Party; the BJP led coalition governments and provided the Indian Prime Minister from 1998 to 2004
    BlockIndian local government unit or tier larger than a village and smaller than a district; several villages make a block
    BNPBangladesh Nationalist Party, mainstream political party founded by General Ziaur Rahman in 1978; his widow, Khaleda Zia, led a four-party government from 2001 to 2006
    Brahmanhighest of the four varnas, the priestly caste; known as ‘Bahun’ in Nepal, where they make up approximately 13 per cent of the population
    CBOCommunity-based Organization
    CDOChief District Officer Chhetri (Chetri) the Nepali spelling of ksatriya, the second, warrior-ruler varna; in Nepal it refers in particular to the largest of the Parbatiya castes, comprising approximately 16 per cent of the total Nepali population, who are in many Nepali villages the socially and politically dominant caste
    COcentral office
    Congressoldest Indian political party; for Nepal, see NC
    CPNCommunist Party of Nepal, founded in 1949, it first split in 1962
    CPN-MCommunist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the name adopted in 1995 by one of the two factions into which the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre) had split the previous year; it launched its ‘People's War’ in February 1996; following the Second People's Movement of April 2006, it entered mainstream politics and won the largest number of votes (nearly 30 per cent) in the elections of April 2008
    CPN-MLCommunist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist): communist grouping founded in 1978 in east Nepal by those who had been active in the Jhapa uprising; it later was one of the main elements that formed the CPN-UML in 1991
    CPN-UMLCommunist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), the main parliamentary opposition party in Nepal between 1991 and 2002, which formed a minority government on its own for nine months from 1994 to 1995 and was later a partner in coalitions; despite the name and the communist history and affiliation, it is essentially a social democratic party; came third in the elections of April 2008
    Dalitmodern term for ex-Untouchables, the lowest category in the caste system, outside and below the four varnas; literally ‘the oppressed’
    Damaitailor caste (Dalits) in the Nepalese hills
    DFIDthe UK's Department (Ministry) for International Development
    DWLCthe Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka, set up in 1949, then called the Department of Wildlife (renamed in 1970)
    EFLEnvironmental Foundation Limited, a non-profit public interest law foundation set up in Sri Lanka in 1981 to monitor the enforcement of environmental laws
    FFPOFauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, passed in Ceylon in 1937 and amended several times thereafter
    FNBFederation of NGOs in Bangladesh, founded at government behest in 2003
    FOfield office (of a development organization)
    GATTthe General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, set up in 1947 to negotiate reductions in trade tariffs; replaced by the World Trade Organization in 1994
    GOgovernmental organization
    GONGOsgovernment-organized NGOs
    GPSCGame Protection Society of Ceylon, founded 1894; it changed its name to the Ceylon Game and Fauna Protection Society in 1930 and later to the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS)
    gram panchayatvillage council, the lowest level of local government, with elected members and an elected chair (sarpanch or pradhan) (India)
    gram sabhavillage assembly, attended by all adult members of the village, which meets twice yearly or more regularly to check on the actions of the council (India)
    ICDRPInternational Committee on Dams, Rivers, and People founded in 1997
    INGOinternational non-governmental organization
    Janajatioriginally Hindi neologism coined to translate ‘tribe’ in the 1930s, it was adopted in Nepali at the very end of the 1980s and gained currency after 1990 to refer to tribal groups in Nepal; often translated as ‘ethnic group’ in English, the preferred translation of NEFIN is ‘indigenous nationality’
    Janajati Mahasanghsee NEFIN
    jati (in Nepal
    usually jat)caste; literally ‘birth’ or species
    JVPJanatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a violent insurgent movement in southern Sri Lanka (1971–73), later political party representing rural Sinhala nationalists
    Kham Magarsub-section of the Magars, speaking their own language, Kham, consisting of approximately 50,000 people in over a hundred settlements spread across 25 VDCs
    khasland reclaimed from rivers/sea earmarked by
    government for redistribution to the landless (Bangladesh); in Nepal the word is an old term for Chhetri
    LTTELiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: founded in 1976 it became the dominant armed group fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka until its military defeat by the Sri Lankan army in May 2009
    Madhesiliterally ‘an inhabitant of Madhes/Madhyades’, it has become a highly contested new ethnic category within Nepal for inhabitants of the Nepalese Tarai who share language and cultural heritage with Indians on the other side of the border, principally castes such as Yadavs, Rajputs, and Brahmans. Other groups, such as Tharus, Muslims and have been listed as Madhesis by the Nepalese state and are claimed as Madhesis by Madhesi political parties and activists, but their own activists organized vociferously during 2009 to insist that they should be considered indigenous Tarai-dwellers and a religious minority respectively instead of Madhesis
    Magarlargest of the Janajati groups in Nepal with a population of 1,622,399 (7.2 per cent) according to the 2001 census
    Magarant Autonomous Regionan ethnically defined political region set up by the Maoists in 2004–06, with its head-quarters in the village of Thabang
    Mahila Mandalwomen's circles (India), encouraged by local development agencies
    mandalcircle, club, association
    MLAMember of Legislative Assembly, i.e. an elected representative to a state assembly in India
    mukhiyaold Nepali term for the headman of a village
    NCNepali Congress, founded 1947; won landslide election victory in 1959; banned 1960–90; the largest Nepali political party, 1990–2002; came second to Maoists in 2008
    NEFINNepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (Nepal Janajati Adivasi Mahasangh), a federal body with one representative organization for each Janajati group in Nepal (see (previously known as NEFEN, the Nepal Federation of Nationalities, the term ‘indigenous’ was added in 2003)
    Newarethnic group in Nepal, who are included in the Janajati category, despite being concentrated in the Kathmandu Valley and sub-divided by caste. According to the 2001 census they numbered 1,245,232 (5.5 per cent)
    NGOnon-governmental organization
    Nijera KoriBangladeshi NGO founded in 1980 by activists opposed to the dependency created by ‘service-delivery NGOs’; the name means ‘We do it ourselves’
    NPCNational Planning Commission
    OBCOther Backward Classes (Indian official term for those low castes who are neither Scheduled Castes nor Scheduled Tribes but are classified as educationally and economically ‘backward’)
    Panchayat(a) literally and originally ‘rule of five [elders]’, i.e. supposedly ‘traditional’ local or caste councils widely found across South Asia; hence the name was adopted for (b) democratically elected local councils, the new institutions of local self-government in India after independence; it was also adopted as (c) the name both of specific local (village, district) and national councils and the national legislature in the period of ‘partyless democracy’ (1960–90) in Nepal; hence (d) it is also used as the name of the regime and period in Nepal of that time
    panchayati rajliterally ‘rule by panchayats’, it is the Indian term used for local government with elected bodies (panchayats) at the levels of village (gram), block (kshetra), and district (zilla)
    People's Movement(jan andolan), the commonly accepted name for the revolution of 1990 that overthrew the Panchayat regime; the revolution of 2006 is known as People's Movement II
    People's War(jan yuddha) the name given by the Maoists to their insurgency, begun in Nepal in 1996
    PRAParticipatory Rural Appraisal, techniques for involving rural people in assessing their own situation, popularized by Robert Chambers
    Pradhan Panchvillage head (Nepal) during the Panchayat era (1962–90)
    pradhanhead of a village council in India (also called sarpanch)
    Proshikafounded in 1975, Proshika is one of the largest Bangladeshi NGOs; it claims to have brought a million people out of poverty, to have made over a million literate, and to have planted over a billion trees; the name comes from the first syllables of the Bengali words meaning training, education, and action
    purdahliterally ‘curtain’ or ‘covering’; refers to rules of female modesty (including wearing the veil), and restrictions on women's movement, especially in north India and Pakistan
    Ranasurname assumed by the family (previously named Kunwar) who provided the hereditary prime ministers of Nepal from 1846 to 1951; hence the name of the period of Nepalese history when the Shah kings were reduced to figureheads without real power
    RPPRashtriya Prajatantra Party a.k.a. Nepal Democratic Party (post 1990 Nepal): rightist party led by prominent politicians who had participated in the Panchayat regime
    Sadbhavana Partyregionalist party based in the Nepalese Tarai
    SCScheduled Castes, official Indian term for
    those formerly untouchable castes placed ‘on the schedule’ and entitled to ‘reservations’, i.e. positive discrimination
    seva‘service’, particularly selfless social work on behalf of others
    SLFPSri Lanka Freedom Party, founded in 1951, generally considered more left-wing and more nationalist than the UNP
    SSNCCSocial Service National Coordination Council, Nepal, set up in 1977
    suruwalNepali trousers that are baggy at the top and tight around the shins
    swabhashaliterally ‘own language’, used for education in Sinhala or Tamil in Sri Lanka
    SWCSocial Welfare Council, Nepal, the body with which NGOs are obliged to register in order to receive funds from foreign sources
    Tarai (Terai)strip of Gangetic plains territory belonging to Nepal and bordering India, now home to half the Nepali population
    Thakuriroyal sub-caste, considered superior to ordinary Chhetris, in Nepal; equivalent to Rajput in India
    Thangmismall Janajati group numbering around 35,000 in Nepal and in the Indian states of West Bengal (Darjeeling district) and Sikkim
    Tharularge ethnic group found throughout the Nepalese Tarai and the neighbouring states of India; in Nepal it is classed as a Janajati group and is the second largest among such groups, counting 1,533,879 people (6.7 per cent) according to the 2001 census
    UMLsee CPN-UML
    UNPUnited National Party, Sri Lanka, founded in 1946, generally considered more right-wing and pro-Western than the SLFP
    UPFUnited People's Front (Samyukta Jan Morcha), the political wing and electoral vehicle of the Unity Centre, a communist group which split in 1994; one of the factions subsequently became the CPN-M Nepal
    VDCVillage Development Committee, the smallest political unit in Nepal; renamed from ‘Village Panchayat’ after the fall of the Panchayat regime in 1990
    WCDWorld Commission on Dams, founded in 1997 and wound up in 2001 with the release of the report Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-making
    WNPSWildlife and Nature Protection Society (Sri Lanka): see GPSC
    WSFWorld Social Forum, annual meetings of ‘civil society’ or ‘third way’ organizations and movements, started with Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001, and held in Mumbai in 2004, with the aim of producing more democratic alternatives to the Davos World Economic Forum
    zilla parishaddistrict councils (India)

    About the Editor and Contributors


    David N. Gellner is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of All Souls. He is the author of Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest (1992) and The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes (2001), and the co-author (with Sarah LeVine) of Rebuilding Buddhism: The Theravada Movement in Twentieth-Century Nepal (2005). Among his other edited volumes are Contested Hierarchies: A Collaborative Ethnography of Caste among the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal (with D. Quigley, 1995), Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom (with J. Pfaff-Czarnecka and J. Whelpton, Harwood, 1997; 2nd edition, 2008), Resistance and the State: Nepalese Experiences (2003; Berghahn, 2007), Nepalis Inside and Outside Nepal and Political and Social Transformations in North India and Nepal (both with H. Ishii and K. Nawa, 2007), Local Democracy in South Asia (with K. Hachhethu, 2008), and Ethnic Activism and Civil Society in South Asia (2009).


    William F. Fisher is Associate Professor and Director of IDCE (International Development, Community and Environment Programs) at Clark University, USA, Research Professor at the Marsh Institute at Clark University, and Visiting Associate Professor of Social Studies at Harvard University. He received a PhD in anthropology and MIA in international affairs from Columbia University. He is the editor of Toward Sustainable Development: Struggling over India's Narmada River and the author of Fluid Boundaries: Forming and Transforming Identity in Nepal (2001).

    Arjun Guneratne is Professor of Anthropology at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, and Editor of Himalaya, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. He is a Director of the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies. He received his PhD in 1994 for a study of ethnic identity formation among the Tharu of Nepal, which formed the basis for a book, Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal (2002); he has edited a second book, Culture and Environment in the Himalaya, published in 2010. He is currently working on a study of the development of environmental sensibility in Sri Lanka and the role played in it by Sri Lanka's urban middle class.

    Siripala Hettige is Professor of Sociology at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and is the Sri Lankan director of the MIDEA project. He is also the honorary Director, Social Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SPARC) at the same university. He had his undergraduate education in sociology from the University of Colombo, while his PhD is from Monash University Australia. He has published over ten books and edited volumes and numerous research articles on a range of themes such as social inequality, urban informal sector, migration, education, health policy, social development, and poverty. Prof. Hettige currently chairs the Social Science Research Committee of the National Science Foundation of Sri Lanka.

    Mrigendra Bahadur Karki is Lecturer in Sociology at Tribhuvan University, Nepal, and a member of the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies. He was part of the project ‘The Impact of Activism in Nepal: An Anthropological and Historical Study’, directed by David N. Gellner and Krishna Hachhethu, from 2003 to 2006. His paper, co-authored with David N. Gellner, on ‘The Sociology of Activism in Nepal: Some Preliminary Considerations’ will appear in 2007 in H. Ishii, D.N. Gellner, and K. Nawa (eds), Political and Social Transformations in North India and Nepal: Social Dynamics in Northern South Asia, Vol 2. He is currently preparing his PhD for Kwansei Gakuin University on the topic of ‘Motivation, Networking and the Recruitment Processes among Activists in Nepal’.

    David Lewis is Professor of Social Policy and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. An anthropologist by training, he has carried out research in Bangladesh since the mid-1980s. His books include Technologies and Transactions: Interaction between New Technology and Agrarian Structure in Bangladesh (1991), Anthropology, Development and the Postmodern Challenge (1996, co-authored with K. Gardner), and The Management of Non-governmental Development Organisations (2001 and 2007). His recent edited volumes include Exploring Civil Society: Political and Cultural Contexts (2004, co-edited with M. Glasius and H. Seckinelgin), and The Aid Effect: Giving and Governing in International Development (2005) and Development Brokers and Translators: The Ethnography of Aid and Agencies (2006), both co-edited with David Mosse.

    Anne de Sales is ‘Chargée de Recherches’ at the CNRS and member of the ‘Laboratoire d'Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative’ of the University of Nanterre-Paris X (France). She has published widely on the Kham Magars, including the monograph, Je Suis Né de vos Jeux de Tambours: La Religion Chamanique des Magar du Nord (1991).

    Sara Shneiderman is a Research Fellow in Anthropology at St Catharine's College, University of Cambridge. Her research explores the relationships between political discourse, ritual practice, cultural performance, and cross-border migration in producing identities in the Himalayas. She has conducted fieldwork in Nepal, India, and China's Tibetan Autonomous Region, and holds a PhD from Cornell University, USA. Recent articles include ‘Reservations, Federalism and the Politics of Recognition in Nepal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 43(19); ‘Revisiting Ethnography, Recognizing a Forgotten People: The Thangmi of Nepal and India’, Studies in Nepali History and Society, 11(1); ‘Agency and Resistance in the Thangmi-Newar Ritual Relationship: An Analysis of Devikot-Khadga Jatra in Dolakha, Nepal’, The European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 28; and ‘The Path to Janasarkar in Dolakha District: Towards an Ethnography of the Maoist Movement’, in M. Hutt (ed.), Himalayan People's War: Nepal's Maoist Rebellion.

    Celayne Heaton Shrestha is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Anthropology Department at the University of Sussex, the UK. She is currently working on a research project exploring the effects of the insurgency on non-governmental public action in Nepal, under the ESRC-funded NGPA research programme. Articles and chapters published on Nepal's NGO sector include: ‘The Ambiguities of Practising jat in 1990s Nepal: Elites, Caste and Everyday Life in Development NGOs’, South Asia, 27(1): 39–85; ‘NGOs as Thekadar or Sevak: Identity Crisis in Nepal's Nongovernmental Sector’, European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, 22: 5–36; ‘Representing INGO-NGO Relations in Nepal: Are we being Donor-centric?’ Studies in Nepali History and Society, 11(1): 65–96; and ‘“They can't mix like we can”: Bracketing Differences and the Professionalisation of NGOs in Nepal’, in D. Mosse and D. Lewis (eds), Development Brokers and Translators: The Ethnography of Aid and Agencies, Bloomfield: Kumarian, pp. 195–216.

    Stefanie Strulik is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. From 2001 to 2005 she was Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Sociology of Development Research Centre, University of Bielefeld, Germany. She has been working on India for many years with different research projects. For the last few years she has been researching gender and local democracy.

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