ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

The Uses of Difference: Adivasis as Laboring Subjects in the History of Indian Capitalism


Raianu Mircea - University of Maryland, History, College Park, United States


38 – Adivasis and Adivasi Studies


 The colonial and nationalist imaginary of Adivasis in 19th and 20thc. India, as Prathama Banerjee has shown, rested on a contradiction between the primitive ‘tribe’ (coded as purely cultural) and the modern citizen (endowed with political agency). In the economic realm, Adivasis’ contribution to industrialization as a sizable labor force in factories, mines, and plantations produced a parallel contradiction. Adivasis were seen as both constitutive of capitalist modernity and a potential locus of resistance to its dynamics. Despite recent critical attention to indigeneity in the historiography of global capitalism, the spectre of difference continues to haunt engagement with Adivasis as laboring subjects. Using the relatively underexplored archive of the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) plant in Jamshedpur during its first five decades of operation, this paper traces the origins of thinking with Adivasi difference in the writings of colonial technocrats, swadeshi intellectuals (Radhakamal Mukerjee), and anthropologists (Verrier Elwin). Through case studies of urban planning, managerial control, and ethnographic investigation, I show how the Adivasi ‘coolie’ emerged as a liminal figure that could never be made to stand for the working class as a whole (a tendency that persisted in debates between postcolonial and Marxian historians). The promise of modernization through technical skilling was repeatedly undercut by mobilizing difference to serve the interests of capital.