Indian environmental discourses through the lens of caste.

On August 15, 2019, the Prime Minister launched the Jal Jeevan Mission to provide piped water supply to every rural household by 2024. While the operational guidelines of the programme emphasised the use of modern technology, it did not even once mention the linkages between caste and traditional or modern water supply systems in India. That too, when caste conflicts over water have become more widespread and intense. Not only water, but also land, forests, mountains, climate and commons are spaces for everyday contestations between Dalits and savarnas.

Nature is common to all. However, nature is a complex historical and social construct. Thus, village, occupation, agriculture, food, water, land, and irrigation have been important sites for imposition of hierarchies of caste, and caste economy thrives on the use of natural resources. Dalit experiences, conceptions and desires underline the ecological burden of living and working within natural caste system. Dalit have their own environmental thought — mythological, anecdotal, theoretical, and rational.

The issue of Dalit participation in, and access to, natural resources is read more as an expression of social justice and human rights, which of course it is, but it needs to be centrally recognised by the environmental movement as well. Unless the intertwining of caste and nature is seriously addressed in environmental and policy discourses, there will neither be justice for Dalits, nor for the environment.

In fact, the experience of Swachh Bharat Mission should alert us that the evasion of caste in environmental concerns can have disastrous consequences, where the increasing construction of toilets puts more burden of cleaning them on Dalit communities. The Ministry of Jal Shakti’s recent data claim that 10,28,67,271 household toilets (cumulative) have been built between 2014-2020. However, according to Safai Karmachari Andolan, Dalits are forced to clean a large number of these toilets, often manually, without the accompanying improvement in sanitation infrastructure.

Power acquired on the basis of caste and nature can be exceedingly repressive and extraordinarily episodic. Dalits of Fatehpur village in Madhya Pradesh recently bore the brunt of such brute power. On February 16, 2020, Madan Balmik was shot dead in the village because his wife and daughters went to fetch water from a public hand pump. Just 60 kilometres away from the district headquarters Shivpuri, Fatehpur has treated-untreated tap water supply available all-round the year, but only in the dominant caste homes. For 361 Dalits (20% of the village population), there are a few uncovered wells and hand pumps. Since drain water is discharged directly into these water bodies, there is only one hand pump, fit for potable water, which has been traditionally barred to Dalits. The atmosphere became tense when a Dalit woman began fetching water from that hand pump. It became further strained when “one of the daughters swilled a pot, some water splashed on a forester, who, enraged, hurled casteist slurs at them, and shot dead Madan when he reached the spot to quell tension,” narrated a report.

Like water, land issues in contemporary India continue to be determined by caste. India’s current land conflicts have been framed mostly as struggles between farmers and forest dwellers, and corporates collaborating with the State to destroy community’s life and culture. However, such understandings often elide over stark inequalities existing around the axis of caste, gender and class.

In a significant research — ‘The Politics of Caste in India’s New Land Wars’ — academics Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Siddharth Sareen and Patrik Oskarsson underscore how caste crucially matters in contemporary land conflicts. They locate the ways in which caste and land are recursively linked categories that are produced and reproduced in continuous interaction, even as multi-scalar political economies (re)shape them.

There are new avatars of caste in the development march. This ‘new casteism’ has several strands in the environmental field: (a) Renewed caste aggression to appropriate natural resources and impose notions of purity-pollution, as exemplified in Fatehpur and hundreds of such incidents in the recent past. (b) Maintaining the status quo of caste-based occupation and its conservation, which became obvious in Swachh Bharat. (c) Evading the caste question in culture, environment and development, for example, in Jal Jeevan.

We need to recognise this interlocking of caste and nature in a somewhat new colour and complexion across regions in India, and its interrelationship with a new India project.

Caste and Nature: Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics 

– Mukul Sharma

Two key themes that Sharma addresses are: One, discerning and problematising the homo­geneous, romanticised and Brahminical interpretation of environment in the various movements and writings in post-independence India; and two, highlighting the agency, resistance and assertion of Dalits on the question of environment. The intent is to showcase the play of power and caste within the environmental politics and highlight the multiple perspectives on environment that have been neglected. At a time when “going native” and “indigenous lifestyle” is being propagated as a pill of the environmental ills, Sharma brings in a cautionary interjection.

The book contains five chapters with Chapter 1 illuminating the casteist and Brahminical roots of Indian environmental politics. Chapter 2 presents the Dalit reading of environment and the complexity in their relationship with nature that cannot be understood in the binary opposition of nature/culture. Chapter 3 focuses on Ambedkar’s thoughts on nature, the criticisms he is often subjected to, and the justification for his stance on the environment. Chapter 4 looks at the resistance and assertion exerted by the Dalits on the issue of water rights. Chapter 5 of the book, through a study of Jitaram Manjhi, discusses the experiential mediations with nature where caste never gets sidelined. Methodologically, the author does not follow a singular approach with each chapter relying on a different method, offering evidence from multiple sources. These range from “songs and narratives of early bonded labourers; writings by leading Dalit ideologues, leaders, and writers; myths, memories and metaphors of Dalits around their nature; their movements, labour and footsteps” (pp xiv–xv).

Brahminical Roots

Sharma contends that the environmentalists in India, both in academia and outside, have been exclusivist in their approach. Their standpoint has been caste-blind and has on numerous occasions, often implicitly but also explicitly, justified caste as logical or “natural.” Sharma categorises these practices as eco-casteism, eco-organicism and eco-naturalism. He argues that scholars such as Madhav Dhananjaya Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha have worked in an eco-casteist frame which has provided ecological and functionalist justification of caste. Eco-organicism, on the other hand, has been visible in the ideas that have looked at the construct of the society as natural, based on an “ecological model of nature.” This naturalises the “dominant” principles of the society, making them uncontestable and legitimate. From this perspective, the Brahminical idea of society has been treated as natural and authentic and its destruction through the Western incursion has been seen as the cause for environmental troubles.

Scattered throughout the book are instances that show the romantic and hegemonic Brahminical understandings of nature, which determine the contours of Indian environmentalism. The most prominent among them is the belief in the idea of a village society as an environmentally sustainable structure. A corollary of it is the propagation of traditional water-conservation methods. Sharma exhibits how these are not benign concepts but reflect “sustainability” by ignoring the violence these ideas and practices have subjected on Dalits. Unlike M K Gandhi, B R Ambedkar had resisted the idea of a village society because it had been a site of oppression for the Dalits. Ambedkar had also made an assault on the “non-dualistic ontology” of Brahminism, which has many philosophical takers in the contemporary times. He had argued that by aligning the physical nature and moral realm, such a philosophical position rationalised the oppression of Dalits as a result of their past “karmic crimes.” Through a case study of Sulabh International, Sharma also highlights as to how Dalits continue to be paternalised. The entire process of Sulabh International functions on the basis of kindness, not rights, charity, not liberty, and reform from above, not radical change from below.

Myths and Traditions

The book provides a rich account of Dalit environmental knowledge and experience, covering illustrations from Bihar to Tamil Nadu and Gujarat to Odisha. Sharma shows how these voices and sounds are “rooted in the soil” and intimately linked with the everyday lives of the Dalits. There has been a conscious attempt by the Dalits to build and preserve an alternate history which is ridden with suffering but, more importantly, asserts their agency beyond suffering. Particular emphasis is placed by Sharma on three Dalit artists, C J Kuttappan, Basudev Sunani, and Dalpatbhai Shrimali and the narratives they have constructed.

Kuttappan’s folk songs touch on various aspects of nature and labour of Dalits, all maintaining a visible distance from the Hindu religious texts. Sunani’s writings are particularly interesting as they talk of rituals in which the earth is seen as a powerful body that houses the souls of the Dalit forefathers, the Duma, who are worshipped for discovering the secrets of nature. Sharma then mentions that Sunani writes that the Dalit cultural manifestation here is an antithesis of Aryan culture. In the latter, the departed soul goes to heaven, whereas in the former, the departed again come back to the pidar [a sacred place inside the house where the souls of the forefathers are worshipped], and are worshipped by the same family members. (p 76)

Shrimali’s words provide access to the popular folk song of Mayavel, which, according to Sharma, is a “social document” and not just a folk song. This singular narration helps in grasping the extensive knowledge of the land that the Dalits had, the power dynamics in the society, aspirations of the Dalits for liberation and the caste significance of water.

Dalit agency is also reflected in the gods and goddesses they worship, their relation with animals and their food habits. It reflects a markedly different tradition than what is eulogised in the mainstream writings. One gets to know of deities such as Saatbaheni Jalkaamini, Kattamaisamma, Birs, and many more spanning the forests of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to the land of Bihar as well as the mythical roles they play in the lives of the Dalits. Sharma also highlights how Dalit relations with animals have been presented in artworks such as Mithilai/Madhubani paintings, and how the lens of Dalits makes us see pigs, cows, and buffalos differently.

Casteist Waters

In another incisive chapter, Sharma deals with the question of water and its place in the Dalit memories and struggles. Water, particularly the river, has been given meaning through the frames of Hinduism, but more deliberate has been the exclusion or the denial of the relation between caste and water. To counter this, Sharma relies on autobiographical accounts, historical narratives and anthropological studies on water to showcase the injustices meted out through culture, social practices and institutions on the Dalits. Dalit relation with water has been that of “alienation and painful memories of punishment.” The autobio­graphies of Sharankumar Limbale and K A Gunasekaran, proverbs still in use in Rajasthan and historical memories of castes such as Voddas, Arundathiyar and Chakkiliyars, bring home the point that be it the precolonial period or the postcolonial one, water has always been ridden with caste. Dalits have often been denied access and have even been sacrificed in rituals in order to maintain the social order.

Sharma states that in “the past thirty years Dalit assertions on water have accelerated” and in the face of limited state support and overt upper-caste repression, it has been the Dalit cultural myths and symbols that have given strength to these water struggles. These are forms of ecological imaginations and pro­mises, which not only unearth their pasts, but also provide critique of caste practices and dominant Hindu mythologies. They are simultaneously negative and positive idioms, with both destructive and constructive functions. (p 184)

Sharma gives an account of various Dalit “eco-symbols” such as Raja Bali, Deena-Bhadri, Ekalavya, Toofani Baba, and Baba Amar which have been taken up by Dalits in Maharashtra, Mallahs, Musahars and Nishads in Bihar. These work as “negative and destructive” as they challenge the Brahminical imaginings and “positive and constructive” because they provide counter cultural language to the Dalits.

The New Commons

The final chapter of the book has a high dose of normative reflection. Speaking of the common spaces, Sharma contends that these are the places where dominance on Dalits is exercised and exclusion and violence get perpetuated. However, it is these very spaces from where resistance and protest can emerge. Through a detailed biographical description of Jitaram Manjhi’s life, Sharma shows how his attempt of carving a path through the mountain reflected a silent but powerful attempt at “universalization of space,” which shall be accessible to all and shared by all. Manjhi’s struggles also showed the specificities of Dalit relations with nature, which is layered and complex because of the social position of the Dalits. Despite raising an important issue, this chapter is the weakest in the book as it is fraught with many discontinuities in argumentation and filled with unnecessary details, which distract the reader from the primary focus of the author.

Despite the book opening various new frontiers on Indian environmentalism, it has its own share of shortcomings. In an attempt at providing a meta narrative, Sharma jumps to and fro between various historical times and geographical spaces, leaving the reader confused of the specific periods he is referring to in his illustrations. This becomes a particularly serious a limitation because the book relies heavily on descriptive analysis in building its case. In the absence of properly delineated time frames, it appears that the condition of Dalits vis-à-vis the society and nature has remained stagnant across time. This lack of temporal demarcation takes away the nuances that could have emerged in the narrative. Sharma engages with Ambedkar’s thoughts and rescues him from the criticism he is subjected to with respect to his thoughts on modernity. However, the book falls short of engaging with the current debates on environment where the excesses of modernity and consequences of it are well known.

There is growing interdependence and intersectionality of issues. Pushing Ambedkar’s thoughts and the general tenor of the book in engaging with the contemporary challenges would have further enriched the intellectual contribution of the book. Despite these unfulfilled expectations of the reader, the book heralds a much needed interjection in the environmental literature. It needs to be read for its vast and detailed coverage of the Dalit engagement with environment.

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