Dispossession and Resistance in India and Mexico

Anti-Dispossession Movements in India and Mexico

, by BASTIAN DUARTE Angela Ixkic, JAIRATH Vasundhara

In addressing concerns of development and dispossession, two seemingly contradictory terms, in this article we draw attention towards some of the key elements of anti-dispossession social movements as we see them play out in India and Mexico in the contemporary period. The phrase ‘development-induced-displacement’ points to the close relationship between what has been termed as ‘development’ and processes of displacement and dispossession from lands, often but not restricted to rural landscapes. Resistance movements challenging such an understanding of development and defending the right of people to their lands have often been read and understood for being ‘anti-development’, brushing aside concerns of the political economy of this ‘development’. Here, we bring together some of the key set of issues that anti-dispossession movements in two very diverse, and yet in many ways very similarly structured, countries of the Global South raise through their critiques and discourses.

Key Issues

While looking at concerns of dispossession, one of the most central concerns in this context is the issue of land. Land, before any other resource, forms the most basic requirement for pursuing any kind of development project, whether it is for a mining plant, solar or wind energy project, widening of roads and highways, building industrial corridors, hydroelectric or thermoelectric power plants, or setting up manufacturing industries. Given the lower density of populations in rural areas and lower scale of constructed structures, the majority of mega-development projects, requiring large tracts of land and with impacts that often spread beyond the exact boundaries of a project, find sites in the countryside. Further, extractivist industries whose primary target is a capture of key natural resources such as minerals, water or fossil fuels, find these resources concentrated in rural hinterlands. It is for this reason that the key protagonists within these movements are agrarian and rural indigenous and peasant communities. Anti-dispossession and anti-displacement movements may be found in urban and peri-urban contexts as well, as in the case of slum demolitions. However, the key players continue to be small and marginal farmers, peasants, agrarian communities, indigenous, adivasis [1] and tribals, as well as non-indigenous.

With land at the center, anti-dispossession movements have critically raised questions of autonomy, self-determination, defense of land and territory, as well as demanded a recognition of distinct ways of life, culture and worldviews based in rural and agrarian landscapes. Through raising these set of central issues within anti-dispossession politics, what each of these movements brings forth is concerns of who decides or defines how ‘development’ is constituted, as well the broader conceptual category of ‘progress’. The question of self-determination points precisely to this process of challenging the monopoly over naming, formulating and defining the notion of development by sections of the population that have hitherto been marginalized and remained on the peripheries of such a process. Specifically, they challenge the idea that development must come in the form of massive projects, that assume certain sections of the population to be dispensable, or in other words displaceable. These projects are introduced by big corporate capital driven foremost by their bid to make profits, wreaking havoc for ecological systems and sources of livelihood for marginalized communities and rendering already vulnerable sections of the population more vulnerable to a global economy controlled by big private players. In this context, these movements have further raised concerns of impact on health of local populations, the impact on conditions of production and work conditions and adversely influencing the possibilities of cultural reproduction in a context where specific landscapes are being destroyed or altered fundamentally to reproduce increasingly homogenously urbanized and industrialized spaces.

Forms of Organization

A key feature of social movements in the late twentieth century and early twenty first century has been the organization of communities and people into localized issue-based movement organizations, networks and alliances. In the context of anti-dispossession movements in Mexico, for instance, we see the Red Mexicana de Afectados por la Minería (Mexican Network of Mining Affected People), Movimiento Mexicano de Afectdos por la Presas y en Defensa de lo Ríos (Mexican Movement of Dam Affected People and in Defense of Rivers), as well as broader campaigns such as the Campaña Nacional de Defensa de la Madre Tierra (National Campaign for the Defense of Mother Earth), and the Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales (National Assembly of Environmentally Affected People), which have regional formations. In India broader formations include the National Alliance of People’s Movements and Jan Sangharsh Samanvay Samiti (Alliance of People’s Struggles), both of which have worked to bring together predominantly land rights movements across the country, Campaign for Survival and Dignity and the All India Union of Forest Working People, organizations that have worked specifically on forest rights and the question of land in forested regions, the National Fishworkers’ Forum, that brings together fishing communities on the issue of dispossession in coastal areas, as well as regional formations such as the Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee that brings together mining affected populations in the mineral-rich state of Jharkhand.

At different points of each of the country’s histories attempts have been made to draw linkages between different people’s movements and organizations and this process has been wrought with challenges in bringing together often diverse processes, local complexities and issue-based specificities. The Zapatista movement in Mexico that came overground in 1994 has had a deep influence on civil society and indigenous political organizing, playing a particularly significant role in connecting different struggles together. An example of this is the formation of the Consejo Nacional Indigena (National Indigenous Council) in 1996, organizing indigenous communities in struggle across the country and the signing of the San Andres Accords with the Mexican government on the rights of indigenous people in Mexico. More recently, the launch of the 2006 La Otra Campaña (The Other Campaign) sought to bring a much wider range of struggles together.

Even as such central and influential movements do not have a counterpart in India, certain moments may be identified as key in shaping the discourse around questions of development, displacement, environment and sustainability. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) that was launched in the 1980s against the Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada River was neither the first anti-dam movement in the country, nor the last; neither did it succeed in preventing the building of the dam, now at its absolute final stage. However, it did occupy a significant position in the history of anti-displacement movements in India in politicizing the development discourse across the country. It was significant in prompting the formation of the World Commission on Dams that instituted mandated procedure to include requirements such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent and Environmental Impact Assessment as well as a recognition of the widespread displacement of populations caused by dams, mandating legally enforceable agreements for rehabilitation and resettlement. It also built up pressure to take many of these issues into account in the case of all mega-development projects. Alongside many of these processes of raising broader issues and working towards bringing various organizations and people’s movements together, the onslaught of governments and States continue unabated and the struggle in defense of land and territory and against displacement and dispossession takes place in a context marked by violence, repression and growing criminalization of resistance.

Strategies of Resistance

Anti-displacement social movements resisting destructive ‘development’ projects have employed a wide range of strategies during the course of the movements. These strategies are incumbent on the particular social configurations of a region, forms of already existing organizations, nature of civil society organizations, networks and alliances, educational experience and exposure of the leadership, connectivity to other regions, nature of existing power structures and implementing authorities, etc. They include direct action of people so mobilized and organized, legal methods, and use of digital networks. Local organizations often engage academics, researchers, lawyers, doctors and other specialists who can contribute towards documenting or exposing the possible impacts of projects on the lives of people in the region. Further, exchanges with civil society organizations, trade unions or other movements, particularly those with similar experiences in their own regions, are critical to building resistance into an organized form.

The recourse to law and legal methods is a particularly significant, dense and complex arena in this context. Within legal methods too, there are a range of forms of action. These include the use of legal experts, garnering safeguards or protections, registering complaints, judgments in state and central/federal courts and tribunals, such as the National Green Tribunal in the case of India, as well as in International courts in some instances, such as the Inter American Court of Human Rights and the Latin American Tribunal of Water in the case of Mexico. Law has been a sphere that has simultaneously aided, as well as obstructed people’s movements in their quest for justice and reflects the contradictions that exist within prevalent social structures. Where judgments upholding the rights of those defending their land and territory have come, they have been welcomed for strengthening people’s movements. However, such strategies and victories need to be understood as emerging from a wider process of popular mobilization, without which legal methods alone can neither sustain in courts, nor can their impact be veritably discerned. Without strong organizational backing legal actions alone are not enough to impede extractivist projects. Organizational processes form the heart of these struggles against dispossession – the central motor – while legal resources additionally offer possibilities to communities, understood as being employed as part of a broader strategy.

New Social Subjects

A critical aspect of people’s movements and conflicts in general, is the socially productive character of these conflicts. New social subjects emerge through the act of participating in these movements and engaging, in the case of many individuals and communities, for the first time in such a process of organizational and mobilizational work. Individuals who may have hitherto never participated in public decision-making processes begin to take on a central role in many of these movements and are transformed into active agents partaking in the shaping of the movement. This is often the case with women’s participation in several movements, particularly those who take on the role of leaders or spokespersons, taking on responsibilities that have not been culturally assigned to them in the past. This leads to a shift not merely in the lives of one or another woman, but in the broader gender relations that shape a particular society or community. Similarly, the youth constitute another significant category where a new emergent consciousness and understanding of self and community may be observed. Each of these changes brings about an irreversible change in communities in struggle where new situated knowledges are being produced around questions of development, as well as deeply political concerns of who decides one’s future, in other words, concerns of self-determination.

In this context, we note a process through which communities in struggle challenge the monopoly of state institutions over the ability to define that which is ‘legitimate’ or ‘real’ information and knowledge, be it regarding matters of how development needs and requirements are laid out, or about how impacts may be assessed. Where the State and private corporations have hitherto held a monopoly over the fields of the ‘scientific’ and the ‘legal’, this control is broken by communities who increasingly contribute to producing knowledge that demonstrates precisely the unscientific and illegal character of large projects that bring about displacement and dispossession. Such scientific forms of explaining their immediate surroundings can be understood as a way of making longstanding demands using newer strategies such as community research [2].


The experience of India and Mexico with regard to anti-dispossession movements throw light on broad patterns of forms of resistance, strategies and the unleashing of new processes as a result, patterns that will help in understanding similar resistance processes in many parts of the Global South, even as each country or region is shaped by its specific histories and social structures. The proliferation of issue-based organizations and social movements, the attempts at forging broader alliances, the difficulties in this process, along with the combination of a range of strategies of action and resistance, from direct actions to approaching the courts, raising issues of autonomy, self-determination and the defense of land and territory, all come to mark some of the key elements of anti-dispossession movements. Even as these movements carry on in increasingly violent and repressive contexts, with right wing governments gaining political ground across the world, they shape our world in important and significant ways, contributing to producing critical counter-hegemonic knowledge systems.


Duarte, Ixkic Bastian. (2014). Ciencia, conocimiento y movilización social en el sureste mexicano’. Cescontexto, Desafios aos estudos por-coloniais: As epistemologias Sul-Sul, Debates, Vol. 5, 81-91. Retrieved from: http://www.ces.uc.pt/publicacoes/cescontexto/ficheiros/cescontexto_debates_v.pdf


[1Communities in mainland India, i.e., except for the Northeastern region, that are classified by the Indian State as Scheduled Tribes. As a political category, they may be referred to mainland India’s indigenous people (in the Northeastern region, ‘adivasi’ refers to a particular ethnic community).

[2For more on the use of knowledge as a tool of struggle by environmental organizations, see Duarte (2014).