Decentralized action & Great social movements of Tamil Nadu 1

This article is a part of a short series introducing my book, “Delivering Public Services Effectively: Tamil Nadu & Beyond”

During my fieldwork in Tamil Nadu, my discussants mentioned that a culture of protest evolved in in the state starting in the 1970s.  This was puzzling since TN had a rich history of powerful social movements including the Dravidian movement, Communist movement, Women’s movements, Dalit movements and various movements of caste groups.

It turned out that there were important differences between decentralized public action that started in the 1970s and the great social movements.  The former is decentralized and is mostly initiated within villages.  In contrast, the nerve centre of the great social movements was their leadership, which had a state-level presence.  The impetus for decentralized action came from within villages, in response to local concerns.  While leaders of such action consulted and took the support of external sources, the insiders played a critical role in shaping the protest.

Another difference was that even though the great movements were powerful, relatively few people were active in them.  In contrast, a lot more people participate actively in decentralized public action today[1].

The instances of decentralized action increased substantially from the 1970s.  Before that time, most common people were scared or unwilling to enter government offices or to assert themselves with the local elite including Panchayat presidents. This led me to the next puzzle in my research: why did decentralized public action explode starting in the 1970s, and what made people assert themselves with holders of public offices.

[1] By this, I do not mean that less people were present in any given protest of the great social movements.  What I mean is that if we took a survey within a village and asked people what kind of protest they had participated in, very few would have participated in one organized by a great movement – and much more would have done so in decentralized action.

Articles in the series

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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