As part of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum, we interview scholars about a recent article they’ve written for either an academic journal or popular publication. We ask these scholars to discuss their article, as well as some of the books that have most influenced them. This week’s featured scholar is Mukul Sharma. Sharma is Professor of Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. His article is “Caste, Environment Justice, and Intersectionality of Dalit–Black Ecologies.”
Roberto Sirvent: Can you please share how you became interested in studying Dalit-Black ecologies?
Mukul Sharma: In-depth academic works in the recent past, for example, Global Black Ecologies, Racial Capitalocene, and A Billon Black Anthropocenes, prompted me to think of Dalits (ex-untouchables) and lower castes in India and South Asia in a framework of global racialization, casteization and marginalization of the majority of people. Like race, caste has also been central to the extraction of natural resources, and development of accumulative, capitalist economy. Amidst a theory and practice of ‘environment justice’, and the role of African-American environmental struggles in the USA, which raised issues of pollution, toxicity, health, housing and sanitation, I noticed its ample resemblances to concerns of Dalits in their everyday social and ecological struggles. Of course, in the case of Dalits, pollution and toxicity do not just impact their health and environment; their very existence is considered polluted by birth, caste and occupation. At the same time, there are mutually cognizant ways in which pollution, violence, environmental inequality, injustice, and disquiet about mainstream environmentalism, characterize Dalit-Black ecologies.
Working as a journalist, civil society representative and an environmental scholar in select Latin American and African countries for three decades, I also understood how race has been a critical element within the larger politics of environmental justice in Latin America, particularly amidst a looming legacy of Afro-American slavery, segregation and social hierarchies, which correlate to inequities in the distribution of environmental resources. In the African region, the white imagination of wilderness, creation of wild enclaves, development of white tourism, opening of several destructive extractive industries, eviction and exclusion of local people from forest and natural areas, and curtailment of their human rights, have been the dominant themes of environmental injustices. Since I was already working on caste, Dalits and environmental politics, I became deeply interested in understanding the convergences and divergences between Dalit and Black ecologies, and the constitution of an alternative archives by both.
What were some of the political links between the Black Panthers and Dalit Panthers? What lessons might this history offer us for today’s liberation struggles?
The political links between the Black Panthers and Dalit Panthers should be understood in a historical perspective, as Dalits and African Americans have shared their struggles since long. We have several historical references of how nonviolent campaigns and civil disobedience against the British colonial rule in India led by Mahatma Gandhi was an important inspiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., and many of his followers. Gandhi himself developed many of his ideas on nonviolence and civil disobedience by reading African-American and other authors. Several black and white abolitionists have extensively used the idiom of caste for mounting their critique of race relations in the USA. Historian Gyanendra Pandey notes how W. E. B. Du Bois, who was deeply invested in the internationalist and anti-imperialist dimensions of the African American movement, declared ‘color-caste’ to be an ideology of imperialism, and also noted that the ‘caste of color’ was so pervasive in his own country so ‘as to correspond with the caste of work and enslave not only slaves but black men who were not slaves’. Leading Dalit intellectuals – Jyotirao Phule and B. R. Ambedkar – repeatedly invoked the black experience in their articulation of Dalit struggles.
In the early-1970s, the rise of Dalit Panthers in western India and other parts of the country, built on this background. The links between the Black Panthers and Dalit Panthers were ideological and inspirational in nature. The parallels and commonalities between the two provide many lessons for today’s liberation struggles: how to reenergise our cultural and literary realms, and reflect on the struggles and aspirations of Dalits and marginal people; how to build a broader unity of Dalits with other sections of subjugated populations; how to radicalize politics and create ground-level mobilization of Dalits and poor; how to empower the community through education, political empowerment, and economic enterprises. We can take a leaf from J. V. Pawar, a key organizer of the Dalit Panthers, who in his recent publication Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History talks of the lasting legacy of the movement. It transformed the youth through new ideas, organizations and issues; created Dalit art, literature and communication; and launched militant struggles, not just for the economic upliftment of Dalits, but also for the implementation of their constitutional rights and establishment of liberty, equality and fraternity.
What do you mean by “the environmentality of caste”?
The environmentality of caste has many strands what I call ‘eco-casteism’. First, the history of caste has shaped the history of environment in India in some prominent ways. Caste creates a concept of natural and social order, where people, place, occupation, and knowledge are characterized by pollution and ritual cleanliness; where bodies, behaviors, situations, and actions are isolated, ‘out of place’, and ‘untouched’, because of deep-down hierarchical boundaries. Second, caste shaped environmental attitudes and values of both Dalits and non-Dalits in different ways. Third, caste made it possible for dominant, powerful castes to appropriate and exploit natural resources, by segregating and subordinating certain sections of the population. Fourth, low castes, especially ‘untouchables’, developed their own understandings of environment and its resources, which were co-habitations of love and sorrow, pain and joy, alienation and attachment.
Contemporary eco-casteism also represents a distinctive form of Indian environmentalism, which is often grounded in a justification of the caste system, and a simultaneous opposition to modernity and enlightenment. Under an over-arching, broad rubric of ‘social-ecological’ system, caste, division of labor and traditional occupation is sometimes seen as ‘a progenitor of the concept of sustainable development’. It has thus been argued by some that caste system signified ‘conservation from below’, a ‘remarkable system of ecological adaptation’, and ‘high level of specialization’, where caste groups ‘in a web of mutually supportive relationships’ helped resource conservation.
Purity and pollution of our body, touch, taste, space, place, and people, are key markers of caste, creating essential qualities and differences within and outside the naturescapes. Nature itself cannot determine the identity of a place, but caste creates a natural essence and ambiance to establish power relations and social order. Thus, we have vast landscapes of purity and pollution in India that maintain strict lines for caste identity, dominance and exclusion. From sacred groves to natural water bodies, from village to city, these demarcations between cultured and uncultured, holy and unholy, natural and unnatural, are alive and active through natural and social dispositions. The caste of place is naturalised in different ways – boundaries of village are identified with caste; areas of ponds, wells, and rivers are marked by caste; landfill sites have caste.
Why is it important for you in your article to emphasize that “Dalit ecologies is a plural term”?
Rural and urban environments, industrial, technological and agricultural systems, developmental and anthropogenic activities, economic, political and cultural spheres, and Dalit social and political organizations offer a range of perspectives on how, and in what ways, Dalit ecologies can be constituted, which also signify particular identities and ecological places and spaces. I have dealt in detail with the plurality and diversity of Dalit ecologies in my forthcoming book Dalit Ecologies: Caste and Environment Justice. For example, Musahars, an ‘untouchable’ caste in the Indo-Gangetic plains of India and Nepal, create their ecological world through folktales, stories and songs, woven around the two warrior brothers Dina and Bhadri. Musahars situate them as their ecological ancestors in contemporary struggles over land, ponds and rivers, particularly during the agricultural seasons in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states. Nek Chand, a low-caste Mali (a caste that has been described as embodying nurturers and gardeners of the earth), builds a Rock Garden to celebrate peoples’ lives, as well as document his story of Anthropocene through wasted, discarded and broken materials, focussing on a history of violence in the making of the modern Chandigarh city in the Punjab state. National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights considers that the daily existence of Dalits – their labour, place, occupation, discrimination, violence, and the intensity of living in hard and hostile situations – are the real issues of Dalit climate environmentalism. Each of the subjugated castes – the lower, the lowest, the untouchables (or ex-untouchables) – can have their own vantage points to underline the ecological consequences of the caste system, and its enduring old and new lives in Indian society.
Further, Dalits – also referred to in official parlance as ex-Untouchable castes, Depressed classes, Scheduled castes, and Backward classes of India – have been characterized by deep internal divisions, even as they tried to build new solidarities under the leadership of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the preeminent and towering Dalit leader of the twentieth century. Under the broad umbrella and politically assertive term of Dalits, different castes have varied and diverse levels of political articulations on questions of ecology, justice and development.
A lot of organizers, artists, and academics can often point to books that helped radicalize them. Are there any books that radicalized you? How so?
In my youth, I was very moved after reading An Unfinished Song: The Life of Victor Jara by Joan Jara. Victor Jara was a great Chilean singer, guitarist, theater actor and left activist, who played a critical role in the Chilean workers’ movement. The moving biography of Victor traces his journey through songs, plays, political activism, years of Salvador Allende, military coup, and the torture and murder of thousands of activists. Victor symbolized the power of cultural politics, and new, experimental works in music and theatre, which can play an important role in liberation struggles. I still read these words of Victor: ‘I am moved more and more by what I see around me… the poverty of my own country, of Latin America and other countries in the world…. But I have also seen what love can do, what real liberty can do, what the strength of a man who is happy can achieve. Because of all this, and because above all I desire peace, I need the wood and strings of my guitar to give vent to sadness or happiness, some verse which opens my heart like a wound, some line which helps us all to turn from inside ourselves to look out and see the world with new eyes’. I have also been deeply impressed and inspired by the writings of Kabir, a 15th century low caste, poor Indian mystic poet and saint, who questioned the orthodoxy of the Hindu religion and the discrimination of the caste system. Persecuted for his views in his lifetime, he has held a great appeal for the oppressed and the poor in Indian society.
I think that the influence of Victor Jara made me an active participant in the street theatre movement of India during the late 1970s and 80s, when we formed a street theatre group, and I wrote, acted in, and directed several street plays related to workers’ movement, social discrimination and democratic struggles. Reading Kabir took me closer to issues of religion, caste, community, autonomy, culture, and bhakti movements in India, which also contributed to my research on environment, caste and Dalits.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these works in your future scholarship?
Amitav Ghosh’s The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis historically and creatively chronicles the role of western colonial powers in exploiting human life and the natural environment of Banda islands, Bandanese communities and nutmegs. In the background of Black Lives Matter, climate and migrant crisis, Ghosh offers a sharp critique of present global western capitalist regimes. In my future scholarship on caste, Dalits and climate change, I would like to understand how Dalit and lower castes in India, like the Bandanese indigenous community, had to suffer in the making of the Indian Anthropocene, and how caste played a critical role in anthropogenic activities, leading to serious climate challenges in many parts of India. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age remarkably combines natural, human and social perspectives, to comprehend the complex history of humanity, and the resulting climate crisis. His work is also significant for its understanding of the Dalit body as a contemporary and emancipatory political site of liberation from Anthropocene. Reading into the suicide note of Rohit Vemula, he tracks the emancipatory and nonanthropocentric thoughts of a young political Dalit student activist. In my future scholarship, I would like to build on such case studies and perspectives.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.