The book is a very skilful coming together of anthropology and history. It exhaustively chronicles the story of Bastar from the time colonial administrative structures sought to impose “order” and “civilisation” on the ‘adivasis’ by imposing colonial prejudices and stereotypes to the present time when state-sponsored private vigilantism in the name of countering the Maoist movement threatens to wreck an entire way of life. It also details the way in which the ‘adivasis’ have resisted the colonial state in the past and a repressive state now.
But Sundar’s study is not an attempt to romanticise either the ‘adivasis’ or their history as one of “undiluted innocence or even heroism.”
Anthropologists are often accused of wanting to keep tribals or indigenous people as museum pieces. Subalterns and Sovereigns shows how misplaced this charge is, arguing that forested and hill areas like Bastar have never been outside the ‘mainstream’ of history, and that the flattening out of local politics to create the appearance of isolation and homogeneity is essentially a product of colonialism and post-colonialism. The choice today, as in the past, has never been one between ‘tradition’ and ‘modern civilisation’ or between ‘development’ and ‘backwardness’, but over alternative visions of democracy.
By exploring the expansion of the state in Bastar over the past century and a half, and resistance to the particular forms it has taken, this book has been part of redefining the way in which history and anthropology are thinking of tribal India.