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Witches, Tea Plantations, and Lives of Migrant Laborers in India

Tempest in a Teapot

Soma Chaudhuri

Witches, Tea Plantations, and Lives of Migrant Laborers in India: Tempest in Teapot is a unique book that brings together a holistic theoretical approach on the subject of witchcraft accusations, specifically those taking place inside a tea workers' community in India. Using a combination of in-depth and extensive qualitative methods, and drawing on sociological, anthropological, and historical perspectives, Chaudhuri explores how adivasi (tribal) migrant workers use witchcraft accusations to deal with worker-management conflict.

Chaudhuri argues that witchcraft accusations can be interpreted as a periodic reaction of the
adivasi worker community against their oppression by the plantation management. The typical avenues of social protest are often unavailable to marginalized workers due to lack of organizational and political representation and resources. As a result, the dain (witch) becomes a scapegoat for the malice of the plantation economy. Within this discourse, witch hunts can be seen not as exotic and primitive rituals of a backward community, but rather as a powerful protest by a community against its oppressors. The book attempts to understand the complex network of relationships—ties of friendship, family, politics, and gender—that provide the necessary legitimacy for the witch hunt to take place. In most cases examined here, seemingly petty conflicts within the villagers often escalate to a hunt. At the height of the conflict, the exploitative relationship between the plantation management and the adivasi migrant workers often gets hidden. The book demonstrates how witchcraft accusations should be interpreted within this backdrop of labor-planters relationship, characterized by rigidity of power, patronage, and social distance.

Witches, Tea Plantations, and Lives of Migrant Laborers in India should appeal to criminologists, sociologists, anthropologists, labor historians, gender scholars, labor migration scholars, witch hunt and witchcraft accusation global scholars, adivasi scholars, South Asian scholars, and anyone interested in India’s tribes, witchcraft accusations, gender in a global world, labor conflict, and Indian tea plantations.
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Lexington Books
Pages: 190Size: 6 1/4 x 9 1/4
978-0-7391-4994-2 • Hardback • August 2013 • $80.00 • (£52.95)
978-0-7391-8525-4 • eBook • August 2013 • $79.99 • (£52.95)
Soma Chaudhuri is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.
Chapter 1: The Politics of Witchcraft Accusations and Witch Hunts: An Introduction
Chapter 2: Theory and Literature on Witchcraft Accusations and Witch Hunts
Chapter 3: Two Leaves and a Bud: The Beginning
Chapter 4: Categorization of Witch Hunts
Chapter 5: Women, Moral Boundaries, and Gossip in the Plantation
Chapter 6: Tea Plantation Politics, Oppression, and Protest
Chapter 7: Towards a New Direction: Activism and Protests
Appendix A: Outline of Interview Guides
Appendix B: Selected List of Participants for the Interviews
Appendix C: List of Abbreviations
Appendix D: Glossary
About the Author
The book is based on rich qualitative fieldwork. . . .Chaudhuri’s book is an engaging analysis of contemporary forms of witchcraft accusations and witch hunts. Not only does it go through interesting bodies of literatures and rich empirical data, it also offers an important discussion on the work of local NGOs campaigning against witch hunts. . . .Chaudhuri’s book will be of interest to a wide range of scholars who do research on witch hunts and witchcraft accusations not only in India, but globally. It is also an interesting book for any sociologist concerned with labor relations and labor conflicts in postcolonial contexts.
American Journal of Sociology

Chaudhury has written a very important book on the plight, simultaneously, of the millions of tea plantation workers in India and of 'indigenous' groups. . . .The book is a significant contribution to the scholarship on popular cultural and religious performances in South Asia. Chaudhuri’s book, and such ethnographic understandings in general, are a must-read for state administrators whose knowledge and interpretations continue to bear significantly and directly on the subjects’ lives and circumstances. It will be a valuable resource for scholars studying the tribulations of 'indigenous' workers in postcolonial nation-state setups; for students of gendered sufferings in precarious living conditions; and, of course, for comparative understanding of tea plantation workers and modern witchcraft practices. It should be standard reading for themes of gender, indigeneity, development, and rituals in graduate courses on contemporary South Asia. Additionally, Chaudhuri provides a welcome peek into the paradoxes and problems facing NGOs intervening in such visceral social conflicts, which will benefit both graduate and undergraduate students of rural and community development.

Gender & Society

Soma Chaudhuri offers a wealth of fresh insights in response to this age-old question through an in-depth study of witch-hunts among migrant adivasi tea plantation laborers in the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal. The book paints an empirically rich, analytically nuanced, and deeply unsettling portrait of the horrifying social pathologies that may result from the confluence of exploitation, marginalization, and a lack of opportunities for mobilization. It also highlights the challenges against violence perpetrated by oppressed populations. . . .Among the book's most valuable contributions is its juxtaposition of the ways in which different forms of mobilization play multiple and often contradictory roles in the constituting power relationships. . . .Interspersed with heartrendering stories, vivid descriptions, and photographs, Chaudhari's book transports her readers to the study's field site at a level that few sociologists have managed. The book contributes to the existing debates and will no doubt spark further ones on determinants of collective behavior, strategies of framing, and the material roots of ritualized violence.

The book offers vivid descriptions and accounts of the social dynamics and the complex web of social relationships that determine witchcraft accusations and witch hunting. . . .Chaudhuri’s approach and reasoning are linear, serious, intriguing, and attractive. She is able to accompany the reader through her research questions and answers, and through her journeys in the region, and through her explanations. In conclusion, Tempest in a Teapot is a serious and rigorous study of a phenomenon – witchcraft accusations and the witch hunt – that concerns different peoples and religions, different cultures and countries. Chaudhuri achieves her aim of drawing scholarly attention to this social problem of the social elements and circumstances that can trigger collective violence against scapegoats, not only at the local level of the tribal community, but also on the global level. The book is also an excellent example of field research on sensitive topics. Thus, the book is a key work for sociologists interested in gender issues, labor migration, witch hunts and witchcraft accusations, and India’s tribes, as well as scholars who do not specialize in South Asian studies but are interested in the social construction of deviance, moral panic, and collective forms of violence.
International Sociology Review

Chaudhuri’s new perspective enriches the literature on applied sociology, tribal studies, and labor and gender studies. The study highlights how the discipline can be used to explain complex social phenomena and promote meaningful changes.
Contemporary Sociology

Soma Chaudhuri uses the thoroughly impressive privileged knowledge she gained in her study of adivasi migrant workers to describe and analyze witchcraft accusations among them. Utilizing a highly persuasive line of reasoning, Chaudhuri invites us to a splendid tour-de-force description of the phenomenon, culminating in a scholarly serious and intrinsically captivating sociological interpretation. To really understand witchcraft accusations we need to realize that they do not simply reflect violence against women, but have to be understood within the specific cultural context of politics within the plantations where the accusations take place, and where victims are caught in a web of conspiracies constructed by their fellow men and the plantation owners and managers. Chaudhuri’s book is an eye opener and a must read for anyone interested in this topic.
Nachman Ben-yehuda, Hebrew University