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"Peasants" against the nano? Neoliberal industrialization and land question in Marxist-ruled West Bengal, India

ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 2009
Dissertation
Author: Sarasij Majumder
Abstract:
Why do regimes that have been traditionally and ideologically opposed to liberal policies adopt neoliberal policies of industrialization? Why do these regimes not abandon courting the big private investors to set up industries, in spite of popular protests in the villages against acquisition of land for these industries? This dissertation tries to answer the above questions with respect to recent developments in the Indian province of West Bengal, which has been ruled by a democratically elected Marxist government for the last thirty years. These questions have been addressed in the context of China and other Asian economies, which are ruled by authoritarian regimes. The significance of looking at the West Bengal case is that it has a democratically elected regime with a considerable populist credential, especially in terms of undertaking redistributive land reforms in the villages. Thus external pressures of a global and national economy and elitist urge to industrialize are important but inadequate explanations for a parliamentary Marxist regime's adoption of neoliberal industrialization policies. Hence, this dissertation explores citizenship and moral claims on the state based on the self-understanding of the villagers formed within a social field structured as much by democracy, development and land reforms as by transnational influences and forces. I argue that the government's drive for industrialization and the protests against land acquisition have to be understood within the context of this complex field of social relations and distinctions in the villages that crucially depend upon both land and nonfarm employment. By looking at this social field, the dissertation complicates the images of protests and "peasants" which, viewed from afar, appear to be anti-neoliberal, anti-developmental, anti-industrial or anti-globalization. Therefore, this dissertation is also a critical reflection on the "distance" that pervades the urban activists' and state's perceptions and representation of the "rural" and the "peasant".

Table of Contents:

Abstract…………………………………………………………………………………..ii

Acknowledgements……………………………………………………………………iv

List of Maps………………………………………...……………………………………x

List of Illustrations ………………………………………….………………………..xi

List of Tables……..……………………………………………………………….....xii

Chapter 1: Introduction

Introduction……………………………………………………………………. 1

Broader Context………………………………....................................................3

First Paradox……………………………………….. ………………………….11

Second Paradox…………………………………………...................................12

Questions…………………………… …………………................................ .....19

Improvement Discourse and Development…................................................22

Identities and the Improvement Discourse…….............................................28

Social Field…………………………………………………..……………….…34

A Short Note on Conceptualization of the State………..…………………..38

Time-Line of Events…………………………………………………………....40

Chapter Outline……………………………………………………………..….42

Chapter 2: Research Methods and Experiences

A Brief History of My Research in West Bengal…………………………….47

Research Methods……………………………………………………………...51

viii

Chapter 3: “Peasants” and the Present History of West Bengal

Introduction…………………………………………………….…………..…..57

“The Peasant” and its Bengali Synonyms……... …………………….……..59

Left Politics, Development and the Agrarian Question in West Bengal………………………………. …………………………………………62

The Left Politicians and “the Peasant”…………………………………........67

Left Politics and Cultural Change in Rural West Bengal……………..…...90

Impact of Green Revolution………………………………………...……...…97

Conclusion…………………………………………………………………….100

Chapter 4: Meanings of Land

Introduction…………………………………………………………………..103

Green Revolution and Changing Agrarian Ecology of Singur……..……………………………………………………………………108

Social Field and the Complex Pattern of Land-Relations………………...113

Implicit Understanding between the State and the Small Landholders………………………………………...…………………………126

Limitations of Land-based Governmentality and Contradictions in the Subjectivities of the Villagers……………………………….........................138

Conclusion: What does Land Mean?..............................................................149

Chapter 5: Meanings of Protest

Introduction.................................... ………………………………...……...…152

Front Stage and Back Stage of Protests……………………………….…… 159

ix

The Urban Vs. The Rural…………………………………………………… 164 The Women’s and Children’s Participation……………………………….169

Presentation of Self in front of the Urban and NGO Activists………….. 175

Villagers who did not Protest………………………………………………..181

Dilemmas Among Protesting Villagers…………………… …...………… 191

Conclusion …………………………………………………………………....197

Chapter 6: Construction of Authenticity and Representational Dilemmas of Urban Activism

Are Isolated Protests Successful?………………………….……………….. 199

A Documentary and an Academic Paper ………………………………….203

Urban Left Activists and Radical Urban Student Activists………………208

Representations of the Rural in Activist Articles…………..……………...214

Conclusion……………………………………………………………...……..233

Chapter 7: Conclusion……………………….……………………………...……….236

Bibliography………………………………………………………………………….252

Curriculum Vitae…………………………………………………………………….260

x

List if Maps:

Map 1. Map of India…………………………………………………….…………….13

Map2. Map of West Bengal……………………………………………….…………..14

Map 3. Showing Singur in Hooghly district of West Bengal…….……………… 14

Map 5. Satellite View of the Area. ……………………………………...…………..110

Map 6. Map of the Acquired Area…………………………………….…………….111

xi

List of Illustrations:

Figure 1.1. Protests Against Land Acquisition……………………………………..14

Figure 1.2. The factory was built on the acquired land before the Tata decided to pull out due to continued protests……………………………………………...…...15

Figure 1.3 and 1.4. Counter-protests………………………………………………16

Figure 1.5. Counter-protests announcing “we are in favor of the factory.”……..17

Figure 1.6. Photograph from a government poster showing easy cohabitation of the “peasant” and the Nano……………………………………………………..….18

Figure. 5. Protests in front of the camera………………………………………......19

Figure.5.2. Village women weeping in front of the camera………………… …..163

Figure. 6.1. “Keeping with their ancient traditions the village women welcomed us by blowing conch-shells”………………….……………………. ………………221

Figure.6.2. Nagarik Mancha Poster …………………………………………..……230

xii

List of Tables:

Table 1. Percentage of distribution of population according to different categories of workers and non-workers in the Singur block…………………………………131

Table 2. Average number of members and average number of members staying or working outside the province…………………………………………………....134

.

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Chapter 1: Introduction: “Peasants” Against the Nano? Neoliberal Industrialization 1 and the Land Question in Marxist-Ruled West Bengal, India. This dissertation aims to contribute to the anthropological understanding of rural societies, globalization, and development. Through an ethnographic exploration of rural society in West Bengal and the protests against industrialization and land acquisition, this dissertation shows the complexity of rural identity formation in the context of globalization in South Asia. This dissertation critically examines the category of ―peasant.‖ Although I will refer to the villagers in the study sites as villagers and small landholders, the term ―peasant‖ has been used in many discourses concerning them and their situation. In that sense this is a study of the plight of the peasantry and peasant resistance in the context of globalization. 2 The idea of the peasant plays a key role in conceptualizing the rural society and distinguishing the rural from the urban. Most debates about and definitions of peasants have focused on their presumed social, economic, cultural, and political characteristics. However, peasants described in the academic and anthropological works as revolutionary or resistant to modernization never seemed to exist in the real world because the groups identified as peasant types have multiform identities that defy any unitary classification of them in terms of certain inherent characteristics associated with agricultural production, control or ownership of land and a

1 By industrialization, I mean expanding the manufacturing sector. 2 The key texts regarding reconceptualizing ―peasants‖ have been written by Michael Kearney (1996), Roger Rouse (1991), Anthony Bebbington (1999), Tania Li (2007), and Akhil Gupta (1997).

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primary orientation toward subsistence farming (Kearney 1996:55). The concept of peasant is deployed in various contexts to justify particular kinds of political actions and development policies and also to claim rights over land and resources. 3 However, intellectual currency of the term peasant, as Michael Kearney (1996) shows, crucially depends on an opposition between ―peasant ways of life‖ and the urban ways of life. The romanticized opposition has enormous strategic value in challenging the hegemony of policies that tend to favor large capitalists but political outcomes of such romanticized resistance are far too complex to be understood in terms of emergence of alternatives to global or national economic regimes that tend to favor large capitalists at the expense of ordinary citizens. The term ―peasant‖ privileges certain ideas about ―the rural― and certain romantic ideas about the villagers and thereby suppress multiple and contradictory voices. This creates what John Gledhill (2000:214) calls ―dilemmas of speaking.‖ Until recently, I have taken this category of peasant at its face-value. Two paradoxes that I encountered during my field work in Indian villages where land was acquired by the provincial government changed my perspectives on

3 Roseberry (1989:109) notes, ―It was not until after World War II that anthropologists began to notice, worry about, and conceptualize fundamental differences between primitive and peasants.‖ For Robert Redfield, ―the peasants‖ are situated at the midpoint on the folk-urban continuum. Michael Kearney (1996: 38) writes that ―with the government and corporate money available to support, by the 1960‘s research on peasant societies had become a growth industry in anthropology. Several milestones of this trend are the founding in the early 1970‘s [issues]of Journal of Peasant Studies and Peasant Studies Newsletter‖

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―peasants.‖ The dissertation is based on these paradoxes. It reflects on the theoretical questions that the paradoxes raise and tries to show how ethnography can address these questions. In raising the theoretical questions and addressing them through an ethnography of small landholding and landless villagers and urban activists and their politics in West Bengal province in India, this dissertation questions the categories of the ―rural‖ and the ―peasant‖ and in so doing adding to understanding of the trajectory of global policy regimes such as neoliberalism in various sites around the world. Broader Context of this Ethnography

Before, I discuss the paradoxes, I would like to clarify what I mean by ―liberalized‖ Indian economy and also what I mean by neoliberal industrialization. In this section, I will also give a brief overview the events and issues that my ethnography studies. In the post-independence years, i.e. after the year 1947 when India attained independence from British rule, the economic model that came to dominate the Indian economy was known as the ―mixed economy.‖ Mixed economy, promoted by the first Prime Minister of India—Jawaharlal Nehru and his economic advisor P.C. Mahalanobis--sought to promote capitalist enterprise within the framework of a planned economy dominated mainly by public

4

enterprises in the sector of heavy industries such as iron and steel, mining, transport, and telecommunications (see Chakrabarty and Lal 2007). In order to set up big industries, such as the automobile manufacturing plant that the automaker Tata motors was trying to set up in West Bengal, the private company would apply for permission from the Central or Federal government. The central government would influence the private entrepreneur‘s decision regarding where the latter would set up the factory (see Marjit 2000). The permission was called ―the license.‖ Since the 1990‘s, this policy of ―license‖ was partly abandoned in favor of promoting competition among provinces to court large capitalist firms. The Leftists in the Indian parliament, particularly the Marxist party that rules the West Bengal province, had opposed the policy because the policy was shaped by the wider neoliberal way of thinking that was promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The shift prompted many provinces or states in India to compete to invite investment in their provinces by providing tax-free entry and other subsidies. This competition has been identified as one of the chief characteristics of ―neoliberal industrialization‖ by anthropologists such as John Gledhill (1998: 12) and by geographers such as David Harvey (1991). Such competition, they have claimed, helps big corporations to maximize profits in low-wage production sites where investors are promised tax-free entry.

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Therefore, by neoliberal industrialization I mean the particular model of industrialization where states or provinces compete to attract private capital to set up industries inside their territories. In India, intense competition among provinces or states is fairly recent, i.e. a post-1990‘s development. 4 The 1990‘s were a watershed moment in Indian history because those years saw major changes in Indian economic policy that included participation of foreign multinationals in the economy, an emphasis on export, and incentives to homegrown and foreign corporations. These changes are collectively understood as ―Liberalization.‖ The chief architect of these policies in the 1990‘s was the finance minister of India, Manmohan Singh, who belonged to the Congress Party. The changes brought about by Liberalization policies in India were dubbed by the World Bank as ―a quiet economic revolution‖ that ―has fundamentally altered India‘s development strategy.‖ 5

Therefore, the wider political-economic context of my ethnography is the liberalized Indian economy where provinces intensely compete to court private investors by providing them with subsidies and cheap land. In 2006, the Marxist regime in the province of West Bengal joined the competition to persuade the automaker Tata Motors to build their factory in the province. To do this the regime acquired land in a place called Singur, 40 kms away from Calcutta, by

4 There was competition among states earlier, but in the post-1990‘s the competition intensified. 5 World Bank Country Operations, Industry and Finance Division, Country Department II, South Asia Region, India: Country Economic Memorandum—Five Years of Stabilization and Reform: The Challenges Ahead (8 August 1996).

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applying the Eminent Domain Act that empowers the state agencies to acquire land for a public purpose. The site was chosen by the automaker; the Marxist regime agreed to provide the land. Since then, the Marxist government and Nano, the name of the automobile to be produced at this site, have been in the news, particularly regarding the forcible acquisition of land from the peasants. Ironically, the Marxist regime is known for its land redistributive policies and also enjoys substantial support in the West Bengali villages for its pro-peasant stand, rhetoric, and implementation of policies that secured the small landholders‘ ownership of and access to land. The car that was to be produced is the Nano—the much hyped cheapest ―People's car‖ and also the smallest one. Nano became the symbol of neoliberal industrialization. Taking positions vis-à-vis the Nano, i.e. supporting it or opposing it, shaped the spectrum of political opinions in India and WB. Debates regarding the land acquisition and setting up of the Nano factory propelled certain villages in the Singur block into national and global prominence. The ultra-left parties, activists such as Medha Patkar and other left leaning urban intellectuals and activists, and the main opposition party in the province criticized the ruling Marxists in West Bengal for their dealings with the Tata company. They saw the use of eminent domain to acquire land from the so called ―peasants,‖ as a violation not only of democracy but also of Marxist ideals. Thus, like the Nano, the iconic figure of the peasant also became equally charged with

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meaning. Many activists, such as Pranab Kanti Basu (2008:1024) described the government action as land grab and quoted David Harvey (2006: 18) to show that the government is facilitating ―accumulation by dispossession,‖ i.e. facilitating the large capitalists‘ accumulation of profit and capital by dispossessing the ―peasants‖ of their land. West Bengal‘s Geographical Location and Political History: Brief Sketch West Bengal is the easternmost state of India. Before India‘s partition in 1947, West Bengal was part of the Bengal province. The eastern part of the Bengal province had merged first with Pakistan and was known as East Pakistan. In 1977 East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan and emerged as an independent nation of Bangladesh. The Partition had changed the political party-configuration of West Bengal in the post-Independence years. While the nationalist Congress Party had ruled the province for the first twenty years after Indian independence, since the late sixties, Marxists parties of various kinds started dominating the political scene of West Bengal. The current Marxist regime in West Bengal consists of many Marxist parties, which are collectively called the Left Front. However, the party that is the dominant partner in the coalition is called the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The other parties in the coalition are the Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc, and the Revised Socialist Party. The left coalition had first come to power in West Bengal in 1967 as partners in a coalition dominated by non-

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Marxist parties and the coalition was called the United Front. The redistributive land reform measures began in 1967. However, the land reforms program was discontinued since 1969. West Bengal had plunged into political turmoil because of the rise of the Maoist revolutionaries, who had broken away from the CPI (M) because of disagreements over the idea of joining parliamentary politics. Authoritarian moves by the Congress party under the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the Center or at the Federal scale also added to political instability in West Bengal. The rise to power by the Left Front government in 1977 under the leadership of the CPI (M) had stabilized the political situation in West Bengal. The effective land reform measures and registration of sharecroppers that gave tenant farmers permanent access to land had helped the CPI (M) and the Left Front maintain a strong rural support base. It is because of this support base that the Left Front government had been re-elected to power seven times consecutively. While the Left rule in West Bengal saw steady improvement in the agricultural sector, the industrial decline of West Bengal was hastened primarily due to trade union politics of the left parties. The political stability of the Left Front and West Bengal was, however, shaken by the protests against land acquisition that began in the year 2006 when I went to the field. The Marxist regime, which returned to power for the 7th consecutive time with a large number of seats in the assembly, viewed the project as a crucial one for an industrial turn-around of the state. Legally, there was little room to contest a state government's decision to site an industrial zone at the heart of a thriving

9

farming community because the Indian land acquisition act of 1894 (revised in 1984) empowers state agencies to acquire any land for a ‖public purpose‖ by paying proper compensation to the affected parties. The term ―public purpose‖ may seem to refer to projects related to general social welfare of villages or the state; however, recently the Indian Supreme Court (the court at the central scale) judges have remarked that ―public purpose‖ cannot and should not be precisely defined because the public purpose changes with time and requirements of the community. Thus, the Supreme Court has left it to the discretion of the states to decide what a public purpose is, a situation similar to that of ―eminent domain‖ in the United States. The representatives of the Marxist party in the Indian parliament had appealed to the federal or central government to centrally specify the spots where industries could be set up to avoid an unproductive competition among provinces to vie for investments from private companies and thereby agreeing to their terms and conditions. Such petitions were not accepted. Consequently, the state government in West Bengal had claimed that generation of employment in automobile manufacturing plant and in its ancillaries is a public purpose to justify the acquisition of land. Here are some important features of the acquisition of the land in Singur. There are numerous small factories in the vicinity of the area that was acquired. The most notable among these factories is a chemical factory which is located very close to the site that was chosen for the Nano factory. The state or the provincial government acquired approximately 997 acres of land. 12,000 checks

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were issued to compensate 12,000 landowners who owned plots in the area that was acquired. The compensation for each plot was a little more (150 percent) than the market price. 3,000 checks were issued to compensate the registered sharecroppers. 6 The most important feature of the acquisition was that homesteads were not touched and hence there was no physical displacement of people. According to the government ministers, physical displacement would not have let the villagers take advantage of the direct and indirect incomes that the factory generated. There were controversies regarding choice of the factory site. The government claimed that it had shown to Tata Motors five sites for building the factory, but the company chose the site in Singur because of its proximity to the city of Calcutta, the provincial capital, and also because Singur was well- connected with other parts of India through road and railway networks. Moreover, another automobile factory, Hindusthan Motors was also located 20 km away from the site. As I will discuss in the following chapters, the chosen site in Singur was not completely agricultural. Approximately, 700 acres of the stretch were agricultural and 300 acres were swampy land. The key issue that emerged out of the protests by the villagers unwilling to part with their land and the urban radical left activists who got an opportunity to vent their grievances against the large capitalists was that if agricultural land

6 Sharecroppers were offered 25 percent of the amount that was offered to the landowners. Not all sharecroppers in the area were registered. I will write about that in the second chapter.

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can be appropriated for industrialization. The activists, rural and urban, claimed that ―the peasants‖ have an emotional bonding with the land that they cultivate. The protestors, activists and the opposition party politicians said that land is like a mother to ―the peasant.‖ They asserted that land nurtures the peasant and hence the significance of land to the peasant cannot be measured in terms of monetary compensation. The state government initially offered only monetary compensation and invited the activists several times for a dialogue regarding rehabilitation. The activists refused to go into any dialogue and reasserted their claim that land acquisition cannot be compensated. The state government got approximately 75 percent of the land with the consent of the landowning villagers who accepted the compensation checks. Although the state government acquired the land with the help of the police force and started building the factory, protests continued. The protests culminated in road blockades and physical harassing of the Tata officials and the workers in the factory. Such events led the Tata Company to shift its factory from Singur to Sanand in Gujarat. After the announcement of the shift counter-protests began to bring back the factory in Singur. First Paradox

The first of the two paradoxes that I encountered in my field site was that a Marxist provincial government, open to claims on behalf of the villagers, nonetheless adopted neoliberal industrial policy in a way that threatened to

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displace peasants or dispossess them of the land that they had received under the same Marxist regime‘s land redistributive policies. Theoretically, the paradox was that a regime ideologically opposed to liberal policies was adopting neoliberal industrialization. This has become very commonplace in Asia as Leftist or communist regimes in China and Vietnam adopt neoliberal policies and invite investments from big capital even though they are ideologically opposed to liberal economic policies. For example, the newly elected Maoist Prime Minister of Nepal, Prachanda had also invited Indian businessmen to build Special Economic Zones in Nepal. 7

Second Paradox

The second paradox that I encountered was that despite local, national, and international protests, there was silent, and later overt, local approval of the project. Such approval among many ordinary villagers surfaced in the form of vehement support for Nano only after Tata motors pulled out in [2008 or 2009?] because of continuing protests. More than 5000 villagers traveled to the city of Calcutta from villages in Singur to demonstrate that they were in favor of the factory [Figure x]. Many villagers who protested against the acquisition of land and building of the factory on farmland had joined the workforce. Initially more

7 The Telegraph, Calcutta September 18, 2008 p.1. However, Prachanda has resigned as the Prime Minister of Nepal for his party‘s disagreements with the Nepal‘s army

1 3

than seven hundred villagers joined the workforce that built the boundary walls around the 1000 acres of land acquired by the government. The number of villagers who actively participated in the project rose to approximately 3000. In many cases, relatives, such as sons and daughters of the protesting villagers, took training for work in the factory. Thus, the second paradox is that actions or practices of the regime or the provincial government are viewed by the people most directly affected as arbitrary or unjustified and perfectly acceptable or justified or natural at the same time.

Map 1. Map of India

14

Singur

Map2. Map of West Bengal

Map 3. Showing Singur in Hooghly district of West Bengal.

15

Figure 1.1: Protests Against Land Acquisition.

Fig ure 1.2:The factory was built on the acquired land before the Tata decided to pull out due to continued protests (Personal).

Firgure 1.3 and 1.4

(below) Counter - protests.

16

Figure 1.5: Counter - protests announcing “we are in favor of the factory.”

17

Geographers and anthropologists have grappled with the first paradox, especially in the context of authoritarian Marxist regimes of South-east Asia, and addressed it in terms of elitist urges or external pressures (Ong 2006, Harvey 2007) External pressures of the global and national economy and elitist urges to industrialize are important explanations for the adoption of neoliberal industrialization policies in West Bengal as in China and other Asian economies. However, they are inadequate to the task of explaining why a parliamentary Marxist regime would do so, especially when it is expected to be very open to claims on it by small landholding villagers, its primary support base. By exploring the paradox in the case of the parliamentary Marxists and by interrogating the category of peasant, this dissertation will look at the complex Figur e 1.6: Photograph from a government poster showing easy cohabitation of the “peasant” and the Nano. Source: West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation website: http://www.wbidc.com/

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meanings and identities of land ownership in a neo-liberalizing but still socialist regime. The complexity is missed by both the provincial Marxist state and the Left activists because of their embeddedness in a particular culture of Leftism that fetishizes villages and romanticizes ―the peasant.‖ The peasant becomes the key actor, who acts either in favor of industries or against them—who has either a revolutionary consciousness or an autonomous subaltern consciousness, in either case un-captured by capitalism or commodity-culture. The lived realities of Singur and other villagers are far more variable, complex and integrated into capitalism and commodity culture. I argue that the government‘s drive for industrialization and the protests against land acquisition and the counter-protests for bringing back the factory must be understood within the context of a complex field of social relations and distinctions in the West-Bengali villages. This social field crucially depends upon both land and non-farm employment and is influenced by a general desire for ―improvement‖ (Li 2007). By looking at this social field, the dissertation complicates the images of protests, villagers, and ―peasants‖ that, viewed from afar, appear to be simply anti-developmental, anti-industrial, or anti- globalization.

Full document contains 274 pages
Abstract: Why do regimes that have been traditionally and ideologically opposed to liberal policies adopt neoliberal policies of industrialization? Why do these regimes not abandon courting the big private investors to set up industries, in spite of popular protests in the villages against acquisition of land for these industries? This dissertation tries to answer the above questions with respect to recent developments in the Indian province of West Bengal, which has been ruled by a democratically elected Marxist government for the last thirty years. These questions have been addressed in the context of China and other Asian economies, which are ruled by authoritarian regimes. The significance of looking at the West Bengal case is that it has a democratically elected regime with a considerable populist credential, especially in terms of undertaking redistributive land reforms in the villages. Thus external pressures of a global and national economy and elitist urge to industrialize are important but inadequate explanations for a parliamentary Marxist regime's adoption of neoliberal industrialization policies. Hence, this dissertation explores citizenship and moral claims on the state based on the self-understanding of the villagers formed within a social field structured as much by democracy, development and land reforms as by transnational influences and forces. I argue that the government's drive for industrialization and the protests against land acquisition have to be understood within the context of this complex field of social relations and distinctions in the villages that crucially depend upon both land and nonfarm employment. By looking at this social field, the dissertation complicates the images of protests and "peasants" which, viewed from afar, appear to be anti-neoliberal, anti-developmental, anti-industrial or anti-globalization. Therefore, this dissertation is also a critical reflection on the "distance" that pervades the urban activists' and state's perceptions and representation of the "rural" and the "peasant".