Centre for Development Practice and Research, Patna

TISS Patna Lecture Series on Migration, Lecture 13


Venue: Jagjivan Ram Institute of Parliamentary Study and Political Research, 10 Mangles Road (Veerchand Patel Road Area), Patna - 1

Title: The Plantation Labour and the Performance of Identity

Speaker: Dr. Jayaseelan Raj, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram


Majority of the plantation workers across the world today are the descendants of colonial migrant labour. They were originally brought to the colonial plantations through various modes of labour migration such as slavery and indenture system. The very fact that they were all migrant labour demonstrate the centrality of migration for the plantations and other similar establishments such as mines. One of the major concerns discussed in the anthropological literature on the ‘migrant’ nature of the plantation workers is the question of their identity in the migrant context. It has been addressed mainly on two aspects:

First, how various forms of workers’ identity based on language, ethnicity, gender and region were employed in the reproduction of class order in the plantations. Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois (1989) termed this process as ‘congugated opression’ which has become a popular term for understanding the use of social identities in the capitalist production relations. In the Indian case for example, the traditional values of caste have been appropriated into the system of class relations in the plantations. The values of caste-ritual status are symbolically engaged to affirm class position and to facilitate the naturalization of the class order in the plantation.

Second, what ‘identity’ really mean for the migrant workforce beyond its use in the production relations. In other words, how forms of identity are evoked within the workers’ society (or social relations) in a migrant context. For example, as Chandra Jayawardena points out in the context of Indian labourers in British Guiana, a high caste can add to, and a lower caste can detract from, the prestige of a status achieved on other grounds (1963). This strategic employment of caste identity within social relations among the migrant workforce is as important as its use within capitalist production relations. Through a situational analysis of plantations and mines (focusing on the situational selection of categories of identity), the lecture will trace out the significance of ‘categories of identity’ both for the production relations and for the wider social relations among the migrant labour.

About the Speaker

Jayaseelan Raj is a social anthropologist, currently works as an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Development Studies [CDS], Thiruvananthapuram. Until recently, he was a research fellow in the Egalitarianism Project at the Department of Anthropology, University of Bergen, Norway. Before joining the Egalitarianism Project, he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology, the London School of Economics and Political Science [LSE] for three years. He is a co-author of Ground Down By Growth: Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in 21st Century India (Pluto Press/Oxford University Press, 2017).