ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Contested sovereignties and popular protests on the Kerala coast: artisanal fishers’ struggle against the construction of the Vizhinjam “International Deepwater Multipurpose Seaport”


Osella Filippo - University of Sussex, Anthropology, Brighton, United Kingdom


11 – Rethinking governmentality: Sovereign agency beyond the state in South Asia


 Reflecting on the artisanal fishers’ recent protests against the construction of a new container port, we explore the unfolding of multiple modalities of sovereignty in Kerala (India).  Built in Vizhinjam as a public-private partnership by the Adani Group,  the construction of the port has been opposed by coastal communities.  As the protest gathered pace, the ruling Left Democratic Front government sided with Adani Group, refusing to address fishers’ demands.  On the contrary, they orchestrated a campaign accusing fishers of violence against police, initiating penal actions against protesters and protest leaders.  Whilst the presence amongst the latter of prominent Church leaders underscores the historical role of the Latin Catholic Church in mediating between coastal communities and the state, the government branded the protest as antithetical to the avowedly secular politics of the state, dismissing fishers for their apparent submission to Church hierarchies.  The state government appealed to imperatives of modernisation and development to assert its political will over the interests of  coastal communities.   And yet such an assertion of state sovereignty is fraught with tensions, simultaneously enabled and undermined by market forces.  In this tourney of concomitant sovereignties—of Church, state and market—fishers appear as losers but the protest also demonstrates their capacity to exercise forms of sovereignty from below and to express autonomous political will.