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Updated: March 10, 2014 22:24 IST

The vindication of the artisanal fisher

Nityanand Jayaraman
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Shorelines - Space and Rights in South India; Ajantha Subramanian; Yoda Press, 268, Sector A, Pocket C, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 495.
Special Arrangement Shorelines - Space and Rights in South India; Ajantha Subramanian; Yoda Press, 268, Sector A, Pocket C, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 495.

In September 2012, the Tamil Nadu police brutally broke up a peaceful anti-nuclear sit-in by fisherfolk and farmers in Koodankulam — the site where two nuclear power plants of Russian origin are being set up. Rajesh Das, one of the state’s top cops, who oversaw the police attack had this to say about the protestors: “They are very simple people, knowing nothing but fishing and eating. They are being manipulated.”

Ajantha Subramanian’s book, Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India reminded me that Das is merely the latest in a long list of simple-minded people who are blinded by their own positions of privilege from seeing fishers as anything but primitives that are led by the nose by one or the other manipulator. Ajantha recounts her conversation with N. Dennis, a Congress politician from Kanyakumari, about the time in 1970s when local fishers belonging to the Mukkuvar community switched from voting nationalist Congress to the Dravidian DMK. “When I suggested that perhaps Mukkuvars knowingly voted for someone who they thought might respond to their concerns,” Ajantha recalls, “Dennis laughed and said, “What do coastal folk know about democracy? In their world, there is only prayer and fish.”

This book is a painstaking effort that succeeds in arguing for a nuanced understanding of Mukkuvar fishers and their negotiations with power and politics. Ajantha rejects the notion of the subaltern as outside and incapable of engaging in democracy, and brings out the rich creativity of catholic Mukkuvars in negotiating institutional power structures — be it of the Raja, the catholic or protestant church, of political parties or the state.

The author’s treatment of the subject of space and rights in India’s southwestern coast makes this book a valuable resource for social commentators, activists and bureaucrats. It is a remarkable feat that the author has achieved in weaving together the complex interplay of class, caste, notions of science and tradition, of religion and morality and fishers’ “projects of intermediacy” to present a narrative on the history of developmentalism in the region in an engaging style.

Science vs. Folk

More valuably, Ajantha presents an effective and replicable framework of analysis that can be used to tease out important details on how people perceived to be without “agency” actually influence and shape powerful institutions and their own destinies.

What has been said in the book about the Mukkuvars can just as easily apply to the Paravar catholic fishers of the Southeastern coast. And the Mukkuvar stereotype described in the book — of fishers as a brawling, ignorant, superstitious, unscientific, tribal and primitive peoples resistant to change and modernity — is invoked equally to describe fishers from other parts of Tamil Nadu by state actors and inland communities.

The treatment of the ongoing anti-nuclear protests epicentred in the Paravar village of Idinthakarai provides a case in point. Fisher concerns regarding radiation, pollution and safety were summarily dismissed as the rantings of ignorant primitives. The state positioned itself as “scientific” and invoked the “folk” nature of the fisher community to relegate their concerns to the realm of nonsense. The stand-off between “science” and “folk” was most evident when fishers were blamed for being obstinate, unreasonable and unscientific for not changing their minds even after former President Abdul Kalam gave a clean chit to the nuclear plant. At various points, the anti-nuclear protests — and by implication, the fisherfolk — were projected by the state as being led by the “church,” by some “foreign hand,” and by “maoist” infiltrators.

Dismissing fishers as people without agency is a terrible folly, and this conclusion is forcefully argued in Ajantha’s book. The author presents a comprehensive exploration of what agency actually means, and how Kanyakumari’s fishers have manoeuvred and negotiated secular and religious spaces as deftly as they have moved in and out of patronage and rights.

Shorelines is peppered with examples that testify to the fact that loyalties are never permanent, never unconditional, and that things are not always what they appear to be. Some examples are downright amusing — for readers, if not for the subjects mentioned in the example. One example recounts the predicament of a parish priest who was nominated by the parish fishers to represent them in a negotiation with the Public Works Department regarding the construction of a bridge to their village. The priest’s consent was not sought. Not only was he forced to represent them against his own will and convictions, the parishioners insisted that he wear his cassock to the meeting. The representative role of the priest, the book argues, is often a conscious choice exercised by fishers rather than “an automatic by-product of unquestioned clerical authority.”

Those, like the reviewer, who are fascinated by all things coastal, will find chapters 3 to 6 particularly interesting. The changing attitude of the colonial and post-colonial state towards fishing, fishers and fish as a resource is effectively documented using a combination of historical research and ethnography. It is in these chapters that one sees the arrogance of “western science” and its literate practitioners at war with the perceived superstition, primitiveness and non-science of the artisan protesting against mechanised trawl and gillnetter boats. Unfortunately, trawlers as the “scientific method” stands exposed today as a major mistake as grounds after fishing grounds are becoming barren and bereft of fish. The artisanal fisher stands vindicated, though impoverished.

War against trawlers

The deployment of trawlers in the seemingly inexhaustible seas was and continue to be resolutely opposed — often violently — by artisanal fisherfolk. Caste and community did not prevent the artisanal sector from banding together as a class to wage war against the wealthier minority of trawler owners from their own community.

The state hoped that the conflict would die down as more and more people shifted from artisanal methods to the more lucrative mechanised sector. But, the artisanal sector was not pushed into obsolescence as was predicted and hoped for by state actors. Far from it, it not just grew in size, but also succeeded in forcing a reluctant state to yield significant rights — be it territory in the form of a 3-mile exclusive artisanal fishing zone or special buses for fisher women. Rather than jump from ‘kattumarams’ to trawlers, artisanal fishers opted for the intermediate technology of motorising their traditional crafts. This allowed them to go further quicker, and more importantly to police their 3-mile territory and chase off errant trawler boats preying within their zone.

Chapter two “From the Inland Out” provides a basis for understanding the evolution of developmentalism in the coast — the subject of the rest of the book. This chapter deals with the agrarian interior and the assertion of agrarian low-castes – primarily, the Nadars – and their social mobility from erstwhile farm labourers to a powerful and influential mercantile class. Contrasting the entry of the inland subaltern into “modernity” with the persistent primitivity of the coastal subaltern, Ajantha explains “coastal marginality from the inland out.”

Ajantha concludes by underscoring the importance of the shades of grey. She appeals for a “Gramscian understanding of subalternity that highlights a dialectical nature” and warns against a tendency to “maintain stark distinctions between religious and secular, spiritual and material.”

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