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Social movements and their effect on political change

The 20th century in India witnessed a fierce independence movement, a mid-century struggle over post-colonial identity politics, and a prolonged period of regional political and economic turmoil. Tracing these developments in South Asia’s largest nation can be a daunting task.

The changes sweeping across Indian society and politics, says Nandini Deo, are part of a story of shifting borders between public and private realms. To make sense of India’s complex history, says Deo, an assistant professor of political science, one must understand the activist social movements that seek to define and redefine political boundaries.

Deo’s research, to be published in an upcoming book titled Mobilizing Religion and Gender in India, revolves around two distinct—and sometimes opposing—movements over the course of the last century. The Hindu nationalist movement has its roots in post-colonial conservative thought, while the women’s movement is closely tied to feminist ideology.

Her surprising conclusion is that the success of social movements has more to do with their political tactics than with the ideas associated with their ideologies.

“Social movements create the subject on whose behalf the movement tries to speak,” says Deo. “That has become harder over time as there are more voices trying to speak on behalf of various groups.

“But when we ask questions about who is going to end up winning the battle to actually govern, it turns out it won’t be the people whose ideas are the most resonant, but the people whose activists are the most trusted.”

Opposing movements, similar investments

The two movements Deo is studying often fall on opposite sides of the same struggles. The Hindu nationalists seek to bring religion more fully into public political life, while the women’s movement contests the boundaries between the public and domestic realms.

But Deo argues that the two groups’ insistence on entering the debate about the appropriate boundaries between public and private lives is essential to understanding Indian society. Moreover, a comparative approach to understanding their strategies can account for some of the oscillation between the progressive politics of the women’s movement and the conservative ideology of the Hindu nationalists.

“Political fragmentation in India since the 1980s has turned the national discourse towards regional politics,” says Deo, “so as this has occurred, both movements seek to establish some kind of solidarity.” But whether that solidarity occurs by organizing society along religious lines or through the continual struggle for women’s role in public life matters less than one might think.

The biggest predictor of a successful social movement, says Deo, is the degree to which it engages long-term, deep-seated strategies on the ground. Both the Hindu nationalist movement and the women’s movement have made crucial investments, for example, in education.

“Investments in education tend to have a high payoff in terms of legitimizing the goals of the movement,” says Deo, “but also in producing new activists who will continue engaging in these issues.”

Her study of the two Indian social movements, says Deo, contains larger lessons for understanding the nature of political change.

“For those of us who study social movements, these findings show us that if we want to understand how activist movements become successful, we have to look at the work they do on a day-to-day basis.

“Successful movements invest in long-term strategies. We shouldn’t expect change to come from rapid, shallow engagements.”


Elena Gambino
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