A review of Mini India: The Politics of Migration and Subalternity in the Andaman Islands, by Philipp Zehmisch.
In this doctoral dissertation, Philipp Zehmisch takes us to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, and deconstructs colonial and postcolonial myths about the subaltern groups that have come to inhabit these islands. These myths, much like the groups that inhabit the Andamans, are varied, ranging from colonial anthropological assumptions about the “primitive” lifestyles of forest-dwellers to recent nationalist folktales about the socio-cultural mosaic on these islands mirroring the diversity of the Indian mainland. The inhabitants of the islands too are a varied lot reflecting the layered and checkered history of the place: descendants of convicts in the infamous jail there, partition refugees from eastern Bengal, Adivasis from the Chotanagpur region, and Telugu- and Tamil-speaking migrants from southern India.
In deconstructing myths about the Andamans, Zehmisch relies on a mix of historical and ethnographic research. He reads secondary historical sources closely and fills in crucial gaps with his own oral-historical research. He also pursues in-depth, multi-sited ethnographic research among different segments of Andamans society in order to present a complex portrait of everyday life and politics on these islands. In Zehmisch’s work, the past and the present are braided together in richly textured narratives, which vividly capture the social conflicts and divisions in his field sites as well as the ways in which ordinary people struggle to impart meaning to their lives. His long engagement with individuals and communities living in the Andamans has enabled him to take advantage of a wide network of friends and informants who have made fieldwork not only possible, but insightful and enjoyable. By candidly describing his interactions with his interlocutors, Zehmisch offers a personal account of what it is like to do research in the islands, what challenges and rewards it brings, and how the data we generate as fieldworkers is inevitably entangled with the social ties we forge in the field of study.
Central to Zehmisch’s dissertation is the claim that subaltern agency ought to be placed at the centre of our understanding of Andaman history, society, and politics. The agency of subaltern actors may be seen, firstly, in the human mobilities that settled the Andamans in response to modern state policies over successive phases, during the past century and a half. These settlers from various parts of South Asia crafted new lives for themselves on these islands, often transforming both the landscape and themselves in order to generate new notions of belonging and community in relation to each other. Subaltern agency, Zehmisch shows, may also be seen in the forging of an “island mentality”: a kind of hybrid popular consciousness that reflects the processes of cultural creolization that successive waves of migration have generated in the Andamans. Lastly, subaltern agency is at work when the most marginal groups on the island, Adivasis from Chotanagpur, resist the state by engaging with it strategically at times while avoiding and evading it at other times.
If subaltern agency is so central to understanding the past and present of the Andaman Islands, it is important to avoid the dangers of encoding subaltern speech acts in frameworks of what Zehmisch calls “bourgeois” history. This is exactly what Zehmisch does in the final section of his dissertation, which is an extended discussion of the “Ranchis” who migrated from Chotanagpur in multiple waves over the past century. The Ranchis are far from homogenous: not only are there different Adivasi or “tribal” groups represented in this category, but there are also salient differences in religious identity as well as in the time of their settlement in the Andamans. Yet on the islands, the Ranchis are seen as distinctively “backward” and “primitive” by the various settlers from the Indian mainland. Drawing on Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak’s arguments about voice, silence, and the workings of power, Zehmisch argues that the silence of Ranchis in official state documents and archives ought to be read in terms of the power relations produced by modern governmentality. At the same time, however, he points to a politics of resistance among the Ranchis as they avoid and evade a state that does little for them, on the one hand, and threatens their ways of life on the other. Whether close ethnographic study can recover subaltern voices and agency in an unproblematic way, of course, remains an open question, but Zehmisch certainly makes a strong case for doing so.
To sum up, Philipp Zehmisch has written a thought-provoking dissertation that challenges our received notions of the Andaman Islands as well as subaltern politics and history. It builds on recent historical scholarship on the Andamans by Satadru Sen, Aparna Vaidik, Clare Anderson, as well as the long-term fieldwork of anthropologists such as Vishvajit Pandya. Much like these scholars, Zehmisch deconstructs colonial and postcolonial ideas, policies, and practices in these islands, revealing the complex workings of power in a nuanced, sophisticated manner. Yet he also charts his own path in this dissertation by rethinking subaltern agency in the Andamans’ past and present. Moreover, by combining historical and ethnographic methods expertly, Zehmisch offers a new methodological perspective on the multifaceted relationship between the modern state and subaltern groups over time. In doing so, Zehmisch draws on the canon of subaltern studies, but also extends it fruitfully in ways that will generate fresh discussion and debate on subaltern agency in the margins of the modern state.
Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service
Georgetown University, Qatar
Multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in the Andaman Islands
Oral histories of key informants, representing different settler groups in the Andamans
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. 2014. 335 pp. Primary Advisor: Frank Heidemann.
Image: Andaman Islands scene (photograph by the author).