Political Violence and the Politics of Ethnography

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  • BOOK R E V I E W ESSAYS 831

    lowland forests of peninsular Malaysia (p. 98). Anotherhas been the reduction of some 19 indigenous groups,from autonomous forest dwellers and traders, to abso-lute destitution and dependence on a paternalistic andineffectual bureaucracy. The various Orang AsligroupsBatek, Semai, Temuan, and othershad forcenturies maintained effective adaptations based onvarying combinations of swidden horticulture, hunt-ing, foraging, agroforesty, trade, and wage labor. Thepostwar development boom and the systematic refusalof the Malaysian government to recognize any form ofindigenous land rights (even in areas it had reservedfor the Orang Asli) opened their lands to appropriationby loggers, industry, and colonization. Nearly half ofthe Orang Asli no longer live in the forest and have infact been actively and acutely impoverished by the de-velopment process.

    Richard Reed's illuminating account of theGuarani of eastern Paraguay since the beginning of the1970s is another case in point. The Guarani effectivelymaintained their own religious and cultural traditionsover 400 years of contact with colonial and nationalsocieties, in spite of missionary zeal and slavers' incur-sions. And, as in the Malaysian case, they elaborated asuccessful insertion into national and internationalmarkets, through their diversified agroforestry swid-dens as well as yerba mate collection and skin hunt-ing. Only with massive deforestation for ranching andagriculture since the 1970s (in part internationally fi-nanced), which laid low 30 percent of Paraguay's for-ests, have many Guarani groups been dispossessed oftheir lands and impoverished. Reed's point thatGuarani use of the forest has permitted them to guardtheir independence and gain adequate access to mar-kets while protecting the forest is a critical one. Hisown account of Guarani mixed subsistence and mar-ket production, however, belies the claim that theiragroforestry system is more profitable than the log-

    ging, cattle ranching, and commercial agriculture thathas replaced it. The point of the Guarani adaptation isthat the Guarani are not profit maximizers; they his-torically privileged their independence, a secure sub-sistence base, and access to a limited array of marketgoods over investing everything in surplus for the market

    Guarani use of the forest is undoubtedly betterfrom an ecological perspective than unsustainable log-ging and agriculture in that it preserves the uncountedbut immense value of the forest. It is also no longernovel to note that the critical but diffuse services thatthe forest provides (preservation of biological diver-sity, soil conversation, climate regulation, sequestra-tion of carbon dioxide, and watershed protection), ifaccurately accounted for, would outweigh the benefitsof much of the development that destroys it. The valueof the forest is also broadly distributed, whereaspredatory development often concentrates wealth up-ward. In this sense Guarani land use, like the Brazilianrubber tappers' extractive reserves of which Reed pro-vides a useful comparative discussion (pp. 123-128),has a compelling ecological, economic, and social ra-tionale. His central point is well taken: guaranteeingland rights to local peoples who practice sustainableland uses, such as the Guarani or Amazonian rubbertappers, is critical to the prospects for sustainable andsocially equitable use of forest lands.

    Should the Ethnicity and Change series continuealong the lines of Dentan et alia's and Reed's ethnogra-phies of development, it will be an invaluable re-source, for students not only of anthropology but envi-ronmental studies, international relations, and a broaderaudience concerned with the global environment, hu-man rights, and development. Anthropology has muchto gain from joining the debates raging at the intersec-tion of these issues, and a good deal to contribute aswell.

    Political Violence and the Politics of Ethnography

    VERNE A. DUSENBERYHamline UniversityThe Sikhs of the Punjab: Unheard Voices of State andGuerrilla Violence. Joyce J. M. Pettigrew. Atlantic High-lands, NJ: Zed Books, 1995. 212 pp.Fighting for Faith and Nation: Dialogues with SikhMilitants. Cynthia Keppley Mahmood. Philadelphia: Uni-versity of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.314 pp.

    Political violencea troubling feature of whatJohn Comaroff has termed our contemporary "age of

    revolution"has become, in recent years, an urgentand increasingly fashionable subject of ethnographicinvestigation. As the hegemony of the modern nation-state system is challenged by post-Cold War globaliza-tion, the moral legitimation of the state and its controlover the exercise of force within its borders is fre-quently contested. In this context, contemporary iden-tity politics have taken an often violent turn.

    Although political violence is a global phenome-non and anthropologists have borne witness to it in allparts of the world, perhaps no region has in recent

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    years experienced more incidents of political violencethan South Asia. Here, the legacies of colonialism andthe tenuous legitimacy of the postcolonial states, fedboth by internal contradictions and by external rival-ries, have created insecure states particularly suscepti-ble to collective violence. And this political violencehas in turn produced some powerful recent ethnogra-phies (by, among others, Veena Das, Peter van derVeer, S. J. Tambiah, Paul Brass, and Val Daniel) thatattempt to represent and interpret cultures of violenceon the Indian subcontinent.

    The two books considered here are ethnographicaccounts of the political violence that engulfed theIndian Punjab from 1978 to 1993. During this period,an initial appeal to the government of India for greaterautonomy for the Sikh-mpjority state of Punjab wasrebuffed only to feed a separatist movement for Khal-istan, an imagined sovereign Sikh homeland, whichgained significant popular support among Sikhs as aconsequence of state repression after 1984. Tens ofthousands were killed and many times more victimizedby political violence in Punjab and surrounding areasuntil massive state repression and disarray amongmilitants at least temporarily exhausted the movementin 1992-93. Pettigrew's book analyzes the violence andrecords, through audiotapes smuggled out of Punjab,the voices of one party to it, guerillas belonging to theKhalistan Commando Force (Zaffarwal). Mahmood'sbook represents accounts of the violence as articu-lated by Khalistani militants, from various guerrillafactions, now living in Canada and the United States.

    How and to what end one writes the ethnographyof political violence is the key issue raised, in theirdifferent ways, by both Pettigrew's and Mahmood'sbooks. James Clifford's observation that ethnogra-phers inevitably can tell only "partial truths"partialin the dual sense of incomplete and not without bi-aseshas become for some contemporary ethnogra-phers not simply reason to be wary of totalizing eth-nographies but license to revel in ethnographic partialityor what Mahmood calls "one-sidedness" (p. 268). In-deed, both of these authors deny "balance" as theirethnographic goal. Pettigrew explains her publicationof the interviews with KCF (Zaffarwal) guerrillas as"giving them prominence since their voices have notpreviously been heard at allw (p. vii) and goes on todefend their ideological commitments to "moralistic[Sikh] socialism" not only against "state terror" butalso against the "ghetto syndrome" of other Khalistanis(p. 76). Mahmood, for her part, explicitly calls intoquestion traditional "objectivist" standards of partici-pant-observation and writing, which, in dealing withpolitical violence, turn the ethnographer into "a merevoyeur of human suffering" (p. 263). Positioning her-self with a movement within the discipline toward an

    "engaged," "partisan," or "militant" ethnography that"speaks truth to power," she seeks "to create a spacein which their [i.e., Khalistani] voices coulH be heardwith dignity" (p. 24).

    What makes the partiality of these accounts sur-prising is that the subtitles of both books suggest con-siderably more pluralism and movement across posi-tionings than the ethnographies actually deliver Onemight, for instance, expect Pettigrew to representvoices of various agents of state violence as well asvoices from various guerrilla factions. Instead, we getinterviews with "a small number of ideologically com-mitted people who are members of the Khalistan Com-mando Force, Zaffarwal" (p. vii), a group whose ideologyPettigrew admires but who are not even representativeof the main guerrilla alliance. In Mahmood's case, de-spite the book's subtitle and her self-characterizationof her work as "dialogical rather than 'objective1 w eth-nography (p. 25), the text itself records little actualdialogue with Sikh militants. Rather, as Mahmood ad-mits, she is interested in serving as "an archivist orchronicler" (p. 97) providing a "translation" (pp. 3,211), conveying "a sense of the immediacy of the Sikhmilitant world" (p. 21). What actual dialogue turns upin the text mainly takes the form of Mahmood reaf-firming statements of her "interlocutors," a role sheherself likens to that of "psychotherapist" (p. 54) or"therapeutic echo" (p. 127). There will be few hardquestions or contested statements or disruptions ofthe dominant narrative in this "dialogue."

    Mahmood makes much of her commitments to"write the truth as I, in my best effort, understand it"(p. 14) and to "speak truth to power" (p. 211), but indeferring to others the "contextualization" of her work(p. x), in eschewing knowledge of the "concrete de-tails" of her interlocutors lives (p. 13), and in settlingfor "reaffirmation of what somebody said" (p. 54), shecan do little more than transcribe "how it felt to besomebody wh

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