Political and Legal Transformations of an Indonesian Polity: The Nagari from Colonisation to Decentralisation

Franz von Benda-Beckmann and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann are well known for their anthropological studies of social workings of law, legal pluralism, and property relations in Indonesia and beyond. Political and Legal Transformation of an Indonesian Polity is the impressive culmination of four decades of their ethnographic engagements in Indonesia and with law. The authors trace how the Minangkabau polity known as the nagari has been constantly reconfigured, and how three normative pillars, namely Minangkabau matrilineal adat law, Islamic law, and state law have been navigated through Indonesian history. Beginning from pre-colonial times and working their way into the present, the authors offer an in-depth, balanced, and persuasive account of how multiple political and legal ideas are perceived, interpreted, and experienced in a particular setting.

The Minangkabau is recognized as the world’s largest matrilineal ethnic group, and their plural legal order having its base on adat (a generic term for the way of life or culture in the widest sense), Islam and the state have received much attention both nationally and internationally. The word nagari originates from Sanskrit and old Malay word negara means state, and basically designates a political and territorial association of matriclans and matrilineages. Although it has been a relatively understudied aspect of Minangkabau society compared with the constant attention given to its integration of matrilineal principles and Islamic faith, the nagari is the embodiment of Minangkabau adat. It is an important arena, in which matrilineal organization is lived, and through which unity of adat and Islam is maintained and government is experienced.

An overarching argument in this book is that what seems to be a radical change since Reformasi should be understood in larger spatial and temporal scales. In the era of political reform following the fall of President Suharto, nagari replaced the village structure of desa implemented under the New Order, and became a focal reference for negotiations about decentralization, ethnic identification, and property relations. The authors persuasively argue that one should treat cautiously the vehement debate that followed concerning success and failure of decentralization, intensifying Islam, and so-called revival of adat in which nagari came to play an important role. To provide a context for this debate, they offer a detailed and thought-provoking account of Minangkabau nagari, from around the turn of the 19th century to its recent reconstruction.

The first chapter provides a theoretical orientation and a brief summary of social and cultural background of the Minangkabau and West Sumatra. Chapter 2 portrays pre-colonial nagari and its variations, and political and legal patterns that emerged in colonial and post-colonial setting and are described in the four chapters to follow. Chapters 6 and 7 deal with the politics and legislation of decentralization, which created the conditions for the recent transformation from desa to the nagari. The authors then turn to the both smooth and uneasy dimensions of the transition (Chapters 8 and 9) before addressing the working of the new nagari governance after the new structures have been put into place (Chapter 10). Chapter 11 and 12 provides a rich description of the struggles over property, with Chapter 13 continuing this discussion by looking at the ways that property law was reconstituted. The final chapter turns attention to the ongoing debate on Minangkabau identity and its effects. Through these rich and nuanced descriptions of various actors ever since early colonial times, the authors convincingly unpack some seemingly radical developments since 1998 to indicate how the events are in fact historically and socially embedded, drawing attention on their continuities as well as changes.

Important topics discussed include the historical dynamics of plural legal order in Minangkabau society. The legal history of West Sumatra is rightly portrayed as a continuing process of pluralization, hybridization, and entanglement. The recent models of autonomy, democracy, and good governance are just one factor among many. Incompatible laws have been the norm, and Minangkabau are continuously negotiating the contradictions, and at times producing never-ending disputes. Each of the three normative pillars is interdependent, militating against radical change. So-called resurgence of adat and intensification of Islam under heated discussion should be seen from this light.

Another theme the authors bring to the fore is the consequences of decentralization. Although many critics point out that promised ideals of democracy and good governance have not been met, the authors draw attention to the greatly diverse ways in which decentralization policies are experienced, both positive and negative aspects of these policies are deeply rooted in social context. Thus they discuss what it means to return to the nagari, the authors emphasize that it was also a complex process that brought about mixed outcomes. The distance from desa structure should not be exaggerated; while the official organization has changed considerably, that does not mean the adat has acquired the all-powerful status. They argue that the current nagari shows more continuity with nagari during the desa period and before that than is generally assumed.

While the strength and originality of this volume most evidently lies in its careful interrogation of recent political changes in Indonesia, the ethnography is more generally relevant as well. The authors’ analysis of nagari in West Sumatra is thoroughly infused with the insights gained through observations in multiple arenas, and interviews with diverse and at times overlapping categories of actors — government officials, adat functionaries, religious figures, and villagers — as well as through rich historical material.

Franz von Benda-Beckman was working on Political and Legal Transformations of an Indonesian Polity in his last days, a last gift to legal anthropology as a whole. It is destined to stand as a landmark of anthropological studies on political and legal change, and also on law in context, colonialism, and of course on Indonesian society.

Sayaka Takano, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science / The University of Tokyo

von Benda-Beckmann, Franz and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann. Political and Legal Transformations of an Indonesian Polity: The Nagari from Colonisation to Decentralisation. Cambridge University Press, 2013. Read more at Cambridge University Press

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