Vikramaditya Thakur’ 14

In 2014, Vikramaditya Thakur completed his PhD in Anthropology at Yale. Thakur wrote his dissertation forced displacement of thousands of Bhil families who were forced to relocate from their homes following the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. Thakur, now an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Delaware, continues to study and teach about environmental anthropology and the anthropology of displacement. Among a number of publications, Thakur has also co-written book, titled Ground Down By GrowthTribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in 21st Century India. Our South Asia Fellow, Ram Vishwanathan, caught up with Dr. Thakur to learn a little more about his research, his time at Yale, and his personal journey as an academic.

RV: Can you speak a little about your research? How did you arrive at your interests? What has your intellectual journey been?

My research focuses on the Bhils, a Scheduled Tribe (ST) group in the rural part of Maharashtra state, western India. I combine long-term fieldwork along with oral history, archival research and local vernacular writings among other sources to understand how people at the margins learn about modernity as a historical phenomenon, and how it impacts them. My study covers the topics of politics of development and environmental change, both mediated by social movements, and social history. My PhD dissertation studied the forced resettlement of over four thousand Bhil families from the hills to the plains due to the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) Dam on River Narmada. I’m currently revising it into a monograph. My research data has led me to see things not from a victim’s perspective; it instead highlights how people make sense of markets, state and development across time in an effort to reproduce their socio-economic and cultural lives in an ever-changing situation.

After a degree in Economics from Fergusson College, Pune city, Maharashtra, I worked for a couple of years as a grassroots activist in Nandurbar district of northern Maharashtra working on some of the issues described above including the Narmada dam resettlement, rights of the local villagers to forest department land along with constructive activities such as adult literacy campaigns. That inspired me to take up research and led me to Anthropology and Yale.

The circuitous route I took to academic research is partly a reflection of the times I grew up in the 1990s in coal mines across rural central India where my father worked as a government engineer. Engineering and medicine were the only two fields known to us as stable middle-class professions but didn’t interest me much. A new subject called MBA started becoming popular during the 1990s as the Indian economy got liberalized. I took economics with the aim of studying management later but did not find the idea of working for corporates and making money exciting enough by the time I was 20.

RV: I want to push you a little more to talk about method, given that your own economics background, your experiences with sociology and history, and then your choice of anthropology. What exactly about it appealed to you? Why have you continued with anthropology since? What were the sort of thoughts going through your head?

VT: That’s a great question. But before I answer, I’m curious — what are you majoring in?

RV: I’m majoring in history.

VT: Okay. And at any point, have you studied any science subjects, or mathematics?

RV: Oh, yes. My, my parents are techies from Bangalore. So the idea that doing engineering or medicine was a natural path was something I experienced too, to some extent. And I also liked Math for a while, and I came to Yale as a Math Major, but that has changed. I think where this question comes from, personally, are my own internal thoughts between history versus anthropology as academic disciplines. I am a history major, but I’m personally leaning more towards the ability to do ethnography. I also work in activist circles, and in some ways, it is difficult to compare working with people and working in a dusty archive. That is perhaps an uncharitable description of history. But yes, it’s a question that I’m thinking through. I know a lot of my peers are as well, and that’s why I wanted to ask it.

VT: This is fantastic. Science and positivistic disciplines such as Economics are rooted firmly in empirical data. That approach still stays with me as I am always looking for ‘facts’ meaning my research is grounded in empirical research data unlike a lot of work in Sociocultural Anthropology. However, due to my prior academic training, I used to think in pretty linear ways. The realization that the question ‘what actually happened’ has no straightforward answer was a new lesson that took some time to sink. Anthropology in particular and non-positivistic social science in general helped appreciate that ‘what happened’ depends on the data you have at hand as a researcher, and on the narrative that gets constructed which in turn depends on the choice of theoretical framework as well as the researcher’s biases. Thankfully, my involvement with activism before coming to academic research came handy. I was a witness to several dramatic events as an activist yet the narratives from the various other participants later during conversations were multiple conflicting versions. It was almost like Rashomon, the Kurosawa movie. I mean, I’m getting four different versions, even though I was there!

Social Anthropology allows me to draw on History, Sociology and Political Science along with ethnography to make sense of the world I live in and the past that shaped it, and also try to project how it may look in the future. I have always been fascinated about people’s lives especially those at the margins of society even before I knew of Anthropology as a discipline.  I am fortunate to be paid to read, write and teach something I truly enjoy.

RV: You have explicitly mentioned your connection to the region, and how your background inspired you on your path. I want to ask: how did that fit into an Area Studies approach in the South Asian Studies Council? And also: is that connection something you still find easy to maintain while working in the US?

VT: When I joined Yale in 2007, Prof. K. Sivaramakrishnan, or Shivi to all, also moved from University of Washington, Seattle. There was no South Asia Council at Yale nor much focus on studying contemporary South Asia. Yale’s library did not even subscribe to Economic and Political Weekly, the most popular journal in South Asia. Shivi helped set up the council with his superb managerial abilities and also brought in funding. Kasturi came with her fantastic managerial skills, also my boss at one point, to help realize a flourishing center with many visitors, speakers and events. The council’s activities played a key role in keeping me in touch with research on South Asia.

Coming to the US as a scholar helped me move beyond my approach of seeing and imagining things only in terms of India. India and South Asia were absolutes; but, when I moved to the US, I realized that South Asia is just one region of the world. I had cohorts who were studying Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea and China. I now learned a new way of seeing things in terms of common conceptual threads, for example, issues of agency, exploitation, colonialism, or of different colonialisms.

I’m the first South Asia faculty at my Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware. We have a small department, typical of Anthropology setups. Among other courses, I offer a class on South Asia where most students are from the US, and we have some international students too. Most of them only know that there is a country called India, or Pakistan, that exist somewhere. I am able to teach them about South Asia, but more importantly, help them appreciate the issues there by linking it to shared threads such as markets, gender, minorities etc. that connect other places and people, something they can relate to. It is this perspective that I developed while being a part of South Asian Center at Yale, and also as a student.

RV: To zoom in slightly into your specific work, I’m wondering if you can speak to speak to the relationships between caste and displacement. I read that your work focuses on the Bhil community, and I’m wondering if you could speak about the intersections between caste and the very idea of development, modern day capitalism, and how the effects of displacement and these large-scale processes are felt on the ground in specific ways.

VT: This is a complex question that I will cover briefly drawing on my own research. Hierarchy and monopolization of economic resources and creation of cultural markers of superiority is a hallmark of every complex society from the ancient period. India with its caste system is no different; caste-system itself is widespread and not just unique to India or South Asia, for example Japan’s Burakumins.

I see colonialism merely as another layer on an old and complex society that is India. The British rule did create some opportunities for lower castes, but the socioeconomic ascendancy and domination of the upper castes also got reinforced in newer ways, for example through their traditional monopoly of education, now wielded through their access to English language in particular that persists in the present. Commerce and capital were and remain monopolized by the various business castes, from tiny mom-and-pop stores to huge corporations. Industrialization and the modern state caused huge upheavals. They destroyed many traditional vocations involving millions from service castes such as pottery and blacksmiths over time, while groups such as Bhils, that I study, were both marginalized as well as cutoff from the socioeconomic process of the larger society by the British colonial processes that marked them as ‘tribes;’ they are now categorized as ‘Scheduled Tribes’ by postcolonial India for affirmative action.

Both news media and academic scholarship, monopolized mostly by urban upper caste, view rural India, lower caste groups and ‘tribes’ as ‘backward’, ‘ignorant’, ‘victims’, ‘nature’s children’ and in other imaginary ways that is either negative or patronizing in nature. I learned during my activism that there is a rich history of various farming castes, and service castes, all part of ‘Shudras’ in the four-fold varna hierarchy, engaging constructively with capital, modernity and development that is simply overlooked. It is even worse for groups such as the Bhils.

To highlight some contrasting scenarios, large dams were the icons of development for the upper-caste government officials and news media personnel in the 1960s-80s as part of the nationalist project while their children and grandchildren in social science academia and NGOs see the same dams largely as pure evil that displace people and adversely impact the environment. What gets lost in these dominant narratives is the voice of the lower castes who are both beneficiaries and victims of these dam projects and how they have been engaging with these government projects for decades. I found how there was limited research, confined to the regional language of Marathi, when the farming castes in Maharashtra mounted a sustained nonviolent campaign for land-for-land resettlement laws at the provincial level for big dams and have successfully fought for over five decades to have it implemented in many cases beginning from the 1970s. They did not oppose all big dams since they were farmers and keenly aware of the value of assured irrigation in a country such as India with long summers and precipitation confined to less than three months of monsoon. But the moment a few urban upper caste people fluent in English landed in a remote hilly area to ‘save’ the Bhil ‘tribal’ from the Narmada dam, it was now ‘national’ and ‘international’ news and dozens of academics were writing about the ruthless state, helpless Bhil victims and altruistic activists. The voice of the Bhils and their constructive engagement failed to get highlighted in the numerous studies and media coverage till date. The more the things change, the more they remain the same.

RV: To end, I was wondering if you could speak to one anecdote from your time at Yale that you feel you remember best, or was most transformative?

VT: There were several moments. I recall feeling uncomfortable calling professors who were my father’s age by their first names or having wine with them. It also transformed the way I saw the world. Both the US in general and Yale in particular, I think it is the dignity of labor which impressed me most. In India, hierarchy and the unwillingness to do certain tasks comes naturally, not just because we have a big labor pool. It is also a living reflection of caste dynamics, where everybody’s place is already predetermined in many ways. Professors in India write about exploitation and democracy but have a bunch of servants from drivers, gardeners to several maids working at home. Here, I would see my professors load their own books on a cart, and then push it all the way to the library and do it without a fuss.

Vikramaditya Thakur