The Complex Intentionality of Social Movements

They’re usually less coherent than they appear on the surface

Mike Youngblood
Jul 12, 2017 · 6 min read

[Author’s note: The following is adapted from the Introduction to my new book Cultivating Community. One of my key assertions in this book is that, although powerful social movements may appear to be united by broadly shared ideology and intentions, their followers actually represent a surprising range of subjective interests and attempt to shape movements to serve their own goals. This has significant implications for the ways governments and society at large think about and engage social mobilizations of all political stripes.]

On a chilly winter morning in 1997, an organized group of peasants and farmers in Maharashtra state, India, armed themselves with monkey wrenches and wire cutters. Addressing each other collectively as shetkaris — the caste- and class-ambiguous term for people who work in agriculture — they gathered in a field marked by tall electrical towers and high tension power lines in the state’s eastern, less prosperous, and overwhelmingly rural region called Vidarbha.

For seventeen years, the mass movement in which they participated had been experimenting with a variety of tactics to pressure the state government into meeting their demands. Under the banner of their movement, the Shetkari Sanghatana (pronounced “Shayt-kuh-ree Sung-huh-tuh-nah”), they had closed off their villages, denying entry to urban outsiders. On other occasions they had refused to send their produce to market. They had thrown onions at urban politicians and bank loan officers who they viewed as enemies, or paraded them around for public humiliation on the backs of donkeys. And they had stopped traffic on crucial railroad and highway routes for days on end throughout the state.

In this, their latest and perhaps most dramatic bid to bring the urban-based government they called the “black British” to the negotiating table, the Shetkari Sanghatana set out to disconnect one of the state’s most critical conduits for electric power — the high voltage lines that run from Vidarbha far across the state to fuel the economy of India’s and Maharashtra’s most important industrial city, metropolitan Mumbai. The Sanghatana gave an advance warning, printed for the public to see in the Indian Express, a newspaper popular with urban, English-literate Maharashtrians.

In the newspaper notice, the black British were given a choice: either negotiate with the shetkaris or pay the consequences. When the government failed to respond, the Sanghatana prepared to make good on its threat.

Early on the morning of January 6, the activists assembled and made a solemn declaration. Henceforth, they announced, the electric towers were no longer part of India. Like so many of the villages that surrounded them, the towers now belonged to another, unrecognized country lying within India’s borders — a country once ruled by an honorable, god-like demon named Bali, whose mythological kingdom of rural villages is known as Bharat.

After a brief ceremony, waving banners bearing Marathi slogans of “cut power to Mumbai,” and “Bali will return,” the volunteers began scaling the high-voltage towers. Untrained for the job, many of them risked electrocution. All risked confrontation with the police who would appear on the scene to arrest them and beat them with batons. As the morning wore on, at least one activist met his death while attempting to disconnect the power lines.

This was not the first time that the nonviolent and unarmed participants in the Shetkari Sanghatana had put their lives and livelihoods at risk in the name of Bali’s kingdom. Nor was it the first time the Sanghatana had lost comrades in the struggle.

In one of its first major road blockages in 1980, two shetkaris were shot and killed by the police, hundreds were wounded by blows from police batons, and thousands were sent to prison. In two other actions the following year, sixteen shetkaris had died in confrontations with the police, and hundreds of others were beaten or taken to jail. These risks are well known to the shetkaris. Those who have died in the struggle live on as martyrs in conversation, posters, songs, and poems. Almost two decades later, gathered around the electricity towers, activists were still risking all in the name of Bali and of the movement’s charismatic leader — Sharad Joshi — a man whom many of them profess to be the incarnation of Bali himself.

A few days before the attempted unplugging of Mumbai, I was drinking afternoon tea in the shade of a banyan tree, talking with a Shetkari Sanghatana activist named Sandeep. He and other local villagers had been speculating on the impact the electricity agitation might have.

“I’m not sure if this will move the government to listen,” he said, “but our men and women are willing to die trying.”

When I asked him why, he began with a familiar explanation I had heard many times during my two years of research on the Shetkari Sanghatana. He explained how the government systematically expropriated wealth from the rural areas of Bharat in order to fuel the economy of the cities. He described how the economic agenda of the movement — known as the One Point Plan — calling for higher prices on agricultural produce addressed the challenges faced by “everyone” who lives in the villages of Bharat. He also described the leadership and charisma of Sharad Joshi, the movement’s chief strategist and ideologue.

“Sharad Joshi,” he said, “is a god for us.”

Sandeep looked at me for a moment as if concerned that I had not weighed the full import of his words. Putting down his teacup, he grabbed my hand and led me down a narrow lane. We took a short walk through the village and entered a home. There he directed me toward the family god house — a small, rectangular shelf recessed into a chipped, oil smudged, blue-painted concrete wall. By the light of a dusty bulb hanging dim over the room, Sandeep pointed to a photograph of Sharad Joshi nestled among the symbols and figurines of the gods.

What is going on here?

We see a deified human leader, a millenarian call to restore a glorious and mythic past, mobilized rural populations willing to die in a struggle against elected government and modern urban life, and soaring narratives of martyrdom about those who have fallen.

These snapshots of social rebellion summon up apparent analogues in many parts of the developing world.

But to understand the Shetkari Sanghatanaor other movementsmerely through such simple snapshots is to misunderstand a great deal about how social movements emerge and proliferate, how they are perceived and experienced by their adherents, and how they are entwined with broader social processes in the world around them.

Our popular and scholarly perceptions of social movements tend to regard them as a body of loyal followers united by shared ideology and objectives.

Some social movements seem to offer easy cases in point. The Shetkari Sanghatana is one of these. This is not simply because its adherents collectively speak of the political landscape in terms of a mythological demon and a semi-deified leader, but also because they appear to struggle and risk their livelihoods for a singular political goal and a singular vision of the future.

My contrary argument is that participation in mass social movements may often be better understood by diverse and contextually shifting participant objectives and fluctuating, opportunistic engagement.

In other words, even when they are massive and powerful, social movements may be relatively ambiguous in terms of what they mean to their participants and what they aim to achieve.

Surprisingly, ambiguity is not necessarily a failing or a hindrance for social movements. Quite the opposite, it can actually enable their expansion and sustainability — as, I argue, it did for the Shetkari Sanghatana. Moreover, ambiguity does not necessarily signal a lack of thoughtfulness or political consciousness among a movement’s participants. On the contrary, Shetkari Sanghatana participants were highly aware of the ambiguity of the movement’s overarching ideology and its stated goals, as well as the ambiguity of their own “membership” and action in the movement. Indeed, to a large extent, participants were actually empowered by this.

Adapted from my book Cultivating Community: Interest, Identity, and Ambiguity in an Indian Social Mobilization with permission from SASA Books, Copyright © Michael Youngblood, 2016.

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Mike Youngblood

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Mike Youngblood is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersection of positive social change and human-centered design.