Valuing the People’s Knowledge

Last month in Varanasi, India, the First International Conference of Lokavidya Jan Andolan, or the Peoples’ Knowledge Movement, was held. The original call for participation talked about the situation of the displacement, environmental destruction, and poverty experienced by people throughout India:

All these people, the displaced, the communities they belong to, have never gone to college and live by the knowledge they posses[s], called lokavidya, which they have acquired from elders, from peers, in the community, at the site of work, through experiments and by their own genius. […] In fact lokavidya, that is people’s knowledge, skills, ways of thinking, values, methods of organization, aesthetic and ethical sensibilities, in short, their world of knowledge as a part of their own world, is the main source of their strength. […] It is important to understand that the emancipatory pathways today traverse through the world of knowledge. The Lokavidya standpoint is the people’s standpoint in the Age of Information.

Looking around online a little, I came across a post from a 2008 gathering, which noted, among other things:

“Most people, peasants, artisans, adivasis [indigenous people], very small shop-keepers and women have never been to a college or a university, but they have their own extensive knowledge.”


“The reason for the very bad condition of their life is that their knowledge, lokavidya, is not organized. Their knowledge gets no recognition in politics, in the big bazar, in leading cultural institutions and in the universities. Actually the power centers of the society refuse to give the status of knowledge to lokavidya.”


“So long as lokavidya is not organized, the lokavidyadhars will not be able to effectively intervene in the public realm. Lokavidyadhar samaj needs to take initiative to organise lokavidya under its own leadership, then only can they command respect and get rid of poverty.”

I don’t know enough about the Indian context, but from the U.S. I can’t see that poverty and other manifestations of inequality could be traced to a lack of “organization” of knowledge. Here, voices on the left celebrate the knowledge, traditions, values, and culture of unprivileged communities (of which they may or may not be part). But I don’t think anyone is suggesting that society would change appreciably if only their “lokavidya” were respected by the centers of power.

This also makes me think of a workshop/discussion I attended at the Critical Resistance conference in 2008, where people were riffing on a variety of facts and ideas about prison and justice. Finally the longtime activist Kai Barrow took the floor and said something like, “Okay, now, what are we going to do when we leave here? We have all the information. We don’t need any more information.”

In other words, information (which leads to knowledge – obviously these are two different things) is not emancipatory in and of itself. But I think Kai’s plea does speak to an aspect of this lokavidya concept, a sort of active quality, coming as it does “from elders, from peers, in the community, at the site of work, through experiments.” It’s not just book-reading that’ll learn you. And given that Kai wasn’t actually suggesting that people take up pickaxes and start hacking away at the nearest prison walls, even in an active activism, the work of a prison abolitionist would involve creating new knowledge as a means to making real change.

Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, and in a chapter about Bangalore and engineers and IT, Deb writes:

There is also something Brahminical in the very way engineers perceive their work around computers, if by Brahminical one means the idea of exclusive access to knowledge that cannot be shared with commoners. There is no glamour in India, for instance, associated with being a civil engineer, and in this it differs remarkably from countries in the West, where, through the nineteenth and a great part of the twentieth century, the civil engineer was celebrated for his rugged masculinity, especially in the way he dominated nature by building dams and bridges.

Today’s Indian middle class, in contrast, celebrates the engineer-entrepreneur who makes money or the engineer-functionary who sits at a workstation. The cubicle is clean, air-conditioned and unpolluted, while the factory is dirty and physical. The cubicle is Brahminical, the factory is Sudra, the realm of the low-caste craftsperson. (p. 99-100)

Anyway, to conclude this sort of stream-of-conscious post – despite my relative unfamiliarity with India, I wanted to write up something here because I haven’t been able to get the idea of this lokavidya conference out of my head.

One comment on “Valuing the People’s Knowledge

Comments are closed.