Awaaz in Focus: the Dalit Critique of Environmentalism in India

In Conversation with Dr. Mukul Sharma

Dr. Mukul Sharma
Ashoka University

Ques: What do you think are the counter-narratives to the dominant Hindu, Brahmin current of environmentalism? For instance, you talk about Dalit environmental symbols. What kinds of symbols are these and how do they challenge existing assumptions about caste and environment/nature? 

Giving the reference of my earlier work that the dominant narrative of Indian environmentalism has been showing a serious lack of understanding about caste and Dalit issues in India. Consciously or unconsciously, we have seen the dominance of Hindu Brahmanical contents. In the recent past, many ways have emerged to build a new narrative or counter narratives on environmentalism, an example would be the Dalit folklores and its environmental meanings. Several people have worked on this and Dalit folklores are an important part of Indian folklore tradition and they have existed for centuries. Often in every complex kind of relationship with the dominant culture, the development of Dalit cultural, political or public spheres in the recent past since the past two-three decades;  have really galvanised a dynamic Dalit system of organization of folk tools in their folklores or folk tales in their performances, festivals and protests, leading to a diffusion of its contents and forms and making a very close connection with everyday life of the community.  

The folk tale has now become an expression of Dalits environmental risk, environmental conflict and environmental rights. It’s mythical characters have been transformed into symbols of ecological ancestors with immense physical, natural and spiritually skills, who have the courage to liberate the community Dalit community from oppressive ecological and social systems. For example, during my field work I found how in the entire Indo-Gangetic plain of India and Nepal, their folk tales, stories and songs are woven around the Musahar brothers. It is a very known Dalit caste. Two Musahar brothers called Deena and Bhadri, thrive among the Dalits particularly among the Musahar community. Dalits living in the borders of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Nepal, have used voices and a diverse sets of folk traditions and culture, such as,  oral-tales, stories, songs, music, ballets performances, proverbs, theatre, dance-festivals crafts and idols, to celebrate their folk heroes Deena and  Bhadri. The folklore also frequently sung in Northern-Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with many kinds of performances, as many as 52 wars of the heroes, that are being used as ways to protect the poor labourers from exploitation by the rich landlords. The folk tale Deena and Bhadri, has helped in transforming the rich cultural capital of Musahars, into their political, developmental, environmental and capital for the betterment of the community as a whole. This legend of the two brothers has become effective for the mobilization of marginal communities like Musahars, because of their strong anti-feudal, anti-bondage and pro farmer qualities. This folklore has also acquired a dynamic ecological meaning; the motives of Deena and Bhadri are created as ecological ancestors that are increasingly inspiring Musahars to mobilise and assert their environmental rights as well as their agency over their struggles on ponds, rivers, fresh water, fishing rights and many such issues including land rights. 

The folklores, cultural treasures and the cultural symbols that Dalits have since the past many centuries which have been suppressed, has become a medium to build their counter-narrative against dominant environmentalism. Folk Tales or folk symbols are only one source to build the narrative. There are many other sources to build a counter-narrative on environmentalism. For example we have a rich tradition of anti-caste thinkers who’s thinking and actions can be understood and analysed from the perspective of environment and environmental politics. Ambedkar, Periyar, Phule and many more can be read, analysed and understood from environmental angles to build counter narratives. These are a few examples which tell us how Dalits or any marginal community can build this kind of counter narrative on the environment. 

Ques: The environmentalism movement has invoked Hindu mythology in its discourse and sometimes valorizes or presents the “traditional village” as an ideal. How does this impact or relate to the caste dynamics of a space? Do these ideas manifest differently in the urban space? 

Species that support everyday life-making practices and the living spaces of different physical dimensions, spaces that are for common or public use, all embody caste and symbolise conflict ridden past and present for Dalits.

Spaces of various kinds in rural and urban India demonstrate the tension between caste inequality and social integration. Simultaneously, the various ideals of common spaces that are supposed to be collective and inclusive, they are supposed to be supporting people’s lives and livelihood, make them also an ideal site for Dalits struggle in their quest for equitable distribution of physical and social spaces. Space has an over arching  influence on Dalit lives and thinking. It’s being argued that in the case of Ambedkar and Gandhi, space determines the emergence of their thoughts. The work of Gopal Guru, a political theorist, believes that the language of discrimination, humiliation and segregation in Ambedkar, was a result of his location and space. A social ghetto was historically produced and reproduced according to him, Ambedkar had no choice to move out of the space and open up a new space. Whereas Gandhi had a seamless space, that was quite hospitable and receptive. He had the opportunity to move in and out of any space, he could even go to the bhangi colony and come back from there. Gandhi had the choice to leave and create a new space, which was not there with Ambedkar. 

In Dalit discourses, village has been seen, experienced and lived in their everyday life as an exclusive caste-space that was visible and prominent. The village is structured by caste in many ways and it determines the power relation in many ways. In the village caste, the dominant caste occupy the main power and main resources, while Dalits live in the periphery and remain at distinct disadvantages in terms of access to and control over resources. The resources are of various kinds such as materials, natural, social, political and ideological. The exclusive caste space in rural or urban India also often means exclusive control over common spaces including, forests, common land, ponds, streets, parks and such common spaces. 

In Dalits environmental imagination, in contrast to the rural spaces,  urban and city spaces have symbolised freedom from caste discrimination and sights of entry into the modern spaces. The journey from the village to the city, has often been considered by Dalits as a leap into a new world space. According to Nagaraj, a prominent Dalit thinker it is an escape from persecution and a journey towards a promised land. However, there has been a good amount of research that shows that urban spaces have also developed a different kind of segregation and discrimination. This urban space did not prove as liberating as it was promised in the beginning of Urban Development in our country. However, it is important to note that urban spaces are better than rural spaces, in terms of caste discrimination and atrocities. At the same time, urban space is also becoming a contested site and one can find various kinds of initiatives, struggles and movements to make the urban space free or to capture the urban space from the different vantage point of equality and inequality. 

In the recent past, especially in the form of space, in rural and urban India, Dalits and their various kinds of organizations, social, political and cultural, have taken up the challenge to restructure the common rural or urban spaces.  These various kinds of spatial form become an integral part of their cultural assertion and their local tradition and contest against power structure. They engage with that common urban and rural space individually, socially and politically to structure the space as per their understanding of rights and their understanding of their own identities. For example the issue of a statues of Ambedkar, in the public common space  in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu; in small hamlets, village and small towns, at rural crossroads,  on bus stands, on roadsides, on the street corners, on government and panchayat land, in front of schools and colleges. There is a case in point, how Dalits in rural and urban India are trying to restructure the politics of a space, according to their own cultural understanding and their identity. Space is a new area of contest and struggle in Dalits environmental imagination. The aspiration to universalise the space is a rallying point for different kind of Dalit organisations to put forward their environmental imagination as a counter narrative or as their own environmental narrative. 

Ques: How do the eco-feminism and the eco-socialism movements function in India with respect to caste? What are some criticisms of these movements, are they caste-blind? 

The discourse on environmental justice was generated by African Americans and has not been able to take note of the role of caste in organising social and environmental relations. The complex ways in which Indian caste system creates hierarchical  power structure and works through centres of power to naturalise and organise environmental inequalities. Environmental justice has been anchored in race and African environmental movements, but it is hard to find the place of caste in the discourse and discussion. Even the new plural discourse of environmental justice which offers many ways to include the diversity, difference, recognition and participation for unpacking histories and geographies of exclusion and discrimination, makes any reference to caste and Dalits. In the wealth of literature on environmental justice in India and abroad, Dalits have largely been non-existent in the discourse of the environmentalism of the poor.  The environmentalism of the poor has a rich vocabulary and language regarding the rights of the subordinate, but it doesn’t address the issue of caste and Dalits. 

Through historical and various kinds of comparative perspective which include gender, it has been argued in the environmentalism of the poor or in the variety of environmentalism which is being propounded by Ram Chandra Guha or Joanne Martin. They try to address the issues of property conflict and gender in many ways. For example, conflict between farmers and industry over forest produce, conflict between rural and urban population over water and energy, or the struggle for the poor against corporations, market and state to retain their rights over natural resources. However, they  treat struggle for social justice by various social groups as discrete from caste and Dalit issues.

There has been little understanding about how caste intersects with environment to create socio-environmental inequalities in India or South Asia, even within the environmental poor or varieties of environmentalism. 

There has emerged a Dalit critique of environmental justice in India which has also specified the need to evolve a new perspective and prioritise certain areas in various movement, which should take into account the issue of untouchability, low-castes, pollution and occupation. Research has tried to redefine environmental justice in South Asia by including caste and discrimination into its fold. On the other hand regarding eco-socialism, it has been noticed that Dalit and Dalit politics also have not invested much intellectual and political energies in developing a caste perspective of environmental justice. It is because of cast blindness, its universal language, it’s ‘western’ or hidden colonial agendas etc. Against this background and currents and crosscurrent, the question is still remains that if we perceive environmental justice as a casteless pursuit like environmentalism of the poor or like varieties of environmentalism, then how it is relevant for Dalit environmentalism. The question also arises whether a universal language of the poor and environmental justice, which largely exist in denial of caste, can articulate the resilience of Dalits. The concept of eco socialism and ecofeminism and the way it has developed internationally, is a deeper question as to how much it is anchoring itself and how much it is localising itself to include caste and Dalits into its discourse. 

Ques: In an article titled “Why Dalits dislike environmentalists”, Gail Omvedt wrote about how the environmentalism movement was disliked by Dalits and Adivasis, and how the upper-level leadership of the movement was made up of upper-caste people. It has been over 20 years since the article was written, do you think the movement and/or the views of Dalits and Adivasis changed over these years? Has there been any effort on the part of UC activists to change their strategies?

There has been an increase of critiques and voices of difference and dissent, that are questioning the omission of caste and Dalit environmentalism by diverse activists and organizations coming from Dalits or non-Dalits. Gail Omvedt and many others have written about this issue. There are voices of protest that are questioning, who are within the movement or outside the movement, in academia, in social movements etc. During the UN conference on climate change at Copenhagen, in 2009 which is also called COP15. Dalit women from Andhra Pradesh burnt their accreditation badges in protest against the lack of recognition of caste and Dalits in climate discussions. They were standing outside the conference centre and demanded to bring in the voices of the small and the excluded. They said that if one wants to understand climate change then they should talk to people like us. During COP15 they also spoke about untouchability, occupational hierarchy and the way it’s still being practiced, the landlessness and how all these are very well connected with the issue of climate change and increasing climate crisis. On the 5th of December 2014, there was a Dalit march that was organised by the National Confederation of Dalit Organisations, on the eve of Ambedkar’s birthday. They displayed prominently, a banner with demanded Dalit climate justice. The chairperson of that committee also submitted the memorandum to the then Prime Minister of India,  demanding not to comprise the interest of Dalits in countries commitment to cut carbon emission. While giving this example of Dalit women burning their badges at COP15 or Dalit organizations demanding Dalit climate justice or submitting memorandum to the government; it has been noticed that Dalits and anti-caste writers are beginning to articulate their criticism and trying to address this issue of caste blindness, omission and commission in their understanding and action in a very significant way. 

The situation is not entirely corrected, but there is more sensitivity and realization to address the caste and Dalit environmental discourse recently. This is not highlighted in the  mainstream media, but many academicians are getting sensitive to include in some other way, the issue of caste and Dalits. However, there is still a long way to go. There is a need for Dalits to get their voice and visibility. This does not mean just including them in organisations or allowing them to participate in the decision making process. That is only one component. It also includes revisiting radically the environmental discourse such as images, languages, symbols, perspectives and how all these take note of Dalit aspirations and experiences. 

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