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Borders and Ecotones in the Indian Ocean

Markus Arnold
Corinne Duboin
Judith Misrahi-Barak

II—Individuals and Communities: The Human and the Nonhuman Ecotone

The Human and the Nonhuman: ‘socio-environmental’ Ecotones and Deep Contradictions in the Bengali Heartland

Annu Jalais


Highlighting recent debates around environmentalism and its meanings and purposes in the context of South Asia, this paper reintroduces caste and religious marginality, to critically examine the different ways people have of apprehending their environment. The paper argues that the use and understanding of ‘nature’ in contemporary middle-class India contrasts with modes of engaged multi-species environmental ‘ecotones’ that have been experienced by the subaltern majority of Bengalis both in Bangladesh as well as in West Bengal. The paper does that by exploring some of the recent politicised use of the cow and contrasting it to how ‘ecotonal societies’ have lived with nonhuman animals to argue that these engagements are linked to ways of understanding our purpose within our environment. In a way, the politicised Hindutva middle class regulate, control, protect what they have come to see as ‘their world’ and this is distinct from a position where subaltern groups from ecotones see themselves as part of a whole collective, one not theirs to ‘regulate’, ‘control’, or ‘protect’ but one to experience and try make sense of.

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1‘An Ecotone describes an area that acts as a transition or boundary between two ecosystems. This could be, for example, an area of marshland between a river and the riverbank, a clearing within a forest or a much larger area’ (Thorpe 2014). Ecotones are both of great environmental importance as well as being very fragile ecospheres. For the convenors of this conference, and I cite, ‘an “ecotone” may also indicate a place where two communities meet, at times creolizing or germinating into a new community.’ As they explain, this term, traditionally used in environmental studies and geography, has here been applied to postcolonial studies in disciplines such as literature, history, the arts, social and political sciences, ethnic studies, ecocriticism, etc. in an urge to explore the ‘complex chemistry’ of creolizing worlds (Cohen 1997). As ecotones are the ‘contact zones’ between cultures (Pratt 1991) in contexts such as migration, diaspora, refugee movements and other postcolonial displacements and environmental evacuations, ‘how do the languages, the cultural practices, the scientific knowledge, and environmental concerns meet and transform in these newly constructed ecotones?’—they ask. Literary and political movements necessarily cross paths and pollinate, following different routes and creating a diverse universe, in which a single and fixed origin can only be questioned. So certain communities, usually lesser known as on the margins, as well as subaltern, help us understand new forms of belonging, bonding, and citizenship to specific places. In the context of Bengal, for example, how do different communities negotiate shared space when notions of about nonhuman animals and human bodies differ?

2Specific but little known ‘points of contact’ are fascinating as they have necessarily germinated novel cultural practices. Social anthropology as a discipline has, more recently, helped us understand these ‘ecotones’ of sorts. This chapter will discuss recent perceptions about nonhuman animals, meat and bodies between Indian middle-class higher-caste urbanites and subaltern Bengali communities (mainly of the Sundarbans) to critically compare their paradoxical differences. One can argue that Bengal itself is a kind of ecotone compared to the Hindi-speaking, Hindutva-loving, deeply patriarchal north Indian belt. The region of Bengal was partitioned twice in the 20th century and Bengalis have numerous representations of what the Bengali ‘homeland’ meant and means (Jones 2011: 373; Kabir 2013). In a way, both Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal and its urban centre, as well as the Sundarbans, the low-lying essentially rural and poor region that is made up of hundreds of islands, are socio-cultural ‘ecotones’. But in different ways. Kolkata holds in its bosom both the Bengali heartland as well as the diverse religious and ethnic communities that came and settled because of its trading and political position during the British Raj. It has also been at the heart of a deep reflection of what it means to be ‘Bengali’, as opposed to ‘Indian’, by 19th century authors such as Tagore (in this connection read Supriya Chaudhuri’s probing piece on Tagore’s novel Gora 2012). The Sundarbans are a liminal space—an ecotone both geographically as it is between land and water as well as socio-culturally as it is a borderland between Bangladesh and West Bengal, between Hindu and Muslim, between land-based and forest-based and river-based occupations.

3As pointed out by Sonali Dutta Roy in her recent article on Bonbibi, Bengal is a particularly ‘syncretic’ place with 19th century scholar Akshoy Kumar Dutta listing how—out of some fifty syncretic sects found in India—forty of them were found in Bengal (66). She discusses how the spread of Chaitanya’s Vaishnavaite movement and Bengali Sufism, both of which preached egalitarian values, gave birth to numerous ‘syncretic sects such as Karta-Bhajas, Ram-Ballabhis, Lalanshahis, Darbeshis, Bauls, etc, some of which are popular till date in many parts of rural West Bengal’ (66) as well as in Bangladesh. Similarly, the mythic figure of Satya Pir (believed to be both an avatar of Krishna as well as a Sufi saint), has a wide following amongst Hindus and Muslims alike in Bangla-speaking regions of South Asia (Stewart 2004). Sumanta Banerjee rightly points out how this syncretic ‘intermixing’ is more obvious in the ‘popular’ lesser known religious rituals and practices, than in the elite orthodox and mainstream versions of Bengali Hinduism or Islam, and says that this is because:

While the ‘great’ traditions of orthodox Hinduism, Islam or Christianity had become powerful mainly through sustenance by, and orientation towards, state power, the ‘little’ traditions of popular syncretic religions in India developed in nooks and corners of civil society primarily from the needs of the common people in their daily struggle for survival as well as salvation, rather than intervention in the polity. (79)

I argue that these contradictions between contemporary urban Hindutva and more rural and subaltern Bengali Hindu and Muslim religious practices reveal not just deep-seated ideas about caste and community but also reveal a particularly distinct relation to the nonhuman.

4The first proposal I wrote in relation to what I wanted to explore for my doctoral thesis concerned the ways in which Bengali literature had represented the Sundarbans. My supervisors weren’t too keen on me working on that. So I decided to focus on what the islanders thought of mainland Bengalis. This was brought forcefully into my consciousness the first week I was there when an islander, upon hearing that I would be writing about them, had quipped ‘aren't we just tiger food for you lot?’ This made me look at how the islanders saw the disjuncture between island and mainland, between ‘down’ and ‘up’, between them as fishers or peasants versus the upper-caste, cultured, people of Kolkata and beyond, between tigers and humans, in a completely new light (Jalais 2005; 2007; 2008; 2010a and 2010b). I call the Sundarbans a ‘socio-cultural ecotone’ because it is a place where communities coming from many different places: mainland Bengal, Chotanagpur, more recently from East Bengal as refugees; observe, as I mentioned above, decidedly mixed forms of religious practices. The area is known for how Hindu and Muslim communities venerate a ‘super-power’ called Bonbibi. It is a region where the divisions of religious doctrine do not interfere, as much as in other parts of India, in the pragmatics of daily living. It is indeed a place where one’s caste, one’s religion or one’s gender identity happens, often enough, to be less important than whether one works in the forest or on land (Jalais 2014; Alexander et al. 2016).

5What had also struck me, after that initial sarcastic remark, was how the islanders spoke about the forest and nonhumans. I was curious to know why, for example, the Sundarbans islanders kept insisting that I enter the forest to understand ‘their’ tigers. The forest was seen as some sort of ‘pilgrimage’ site even though it wasn’t called as such. One of the forest deities’ place of worship—the Gazi’s—was called pithasthan [pilgrimage place]. Going to the forest could be seen as a sort of ‘liminal’ experience that brought people who are in its realm to partake of a sense of community feeling (or ‘communitas’) with each other (Turner 1974: 166). As such, the forest served inherently to isolate one from one’s socio-cultural environment, bringing people into ‘a form of institutionalised or symbolic anti-structure’ (Turner 1974: 182) by becoming a sort of ‘ecotone’—an ecotone that extended to the rest of the region. One of the important philosophical dilemmas of forest fishers, and especially of tiger-charmers, was trying to find a compromise between living a life ruled by the demands of the cosmology of the forest versus one ruled by those of rural Bengali sociality (Jalais 2010a: 86; 2010b). If those who worked in the forest as fishers believed that the forest had a common law for all humans and nonhumans who entered and lived in the Sundarbans forest, they also believed that that ‘forest law’ was superior to the laws dictating the segregations of caste, class, religion and gender between humans. This ‘forest law’ was believed to have been established by the forest ‘super-power’ Bonbibi sent by Allah to the forest to establish some sort of understanding between nonhumans and humans. An entity represented as a goddess by Hindus and as an earthen mound by Muslims, venerated with fruits and sweets and the reading of a booklet that exhorted humans and nonhumans to live together as ‘brothers’ as all were her children. And this was why, they explained, humans and nonhumans ‘understood’ each other. The cordial relations between humans and nonhumans, and by extension between humans themselves, were very different from the relations organised around the divisions of land and property where befriending the powerful and the well-connected i.e. having exclusive links to the mainland bigwigs as well as the heartland of Bengali culture, brought one success (Jalais 2010a).

6I started to see Sundarbans islanders’ ‘interactions’ with nonhuman wild animals as similar to what the Amazonians (as discussed by Descola 1996; 1992) practiced and felt for their own wild nonhumans. For the Sundarbans islanders, tigers could be humans and vice versa just as for the Jivaro (in the Amazon), humans could be Jaguars and vice versa. Similarly, even though the majority were Hindus, cows were not really seen as nonhumans that were due any more respect than say goats or buffaloes. The nonhumans that were owed respect were the wild ones that resided in the forest because they lived lives dictated by the precepts of equality and compassion of which the ‘laws of the forest’ were made up (Jalais 2010a: 85). This different set of meaning-giving to two symbolically charged nonhumans i.e. the tiger and the cow, was very different from the ways in which I had been sensitized to seeing these animals while growing up in Kolkata. I had been brought up to see animals as either ‘sacred’ i.e. the cow, the monkey or the crow, or, auspicious and special like the hilsa fish, or as wild specimen contained in zoos with which we could satisfy our curiosity about distant lands and wildernesses. In none of these cases was the nonhuman—whether the recipient of certain beliefs about the sacred, whether the harbingers of happiness or whether as subjects of the budding naturalists’ gaze—seen as sharing much with the human. They were seen as ‘animals’: decidedly inferior creatures when placed in some sort of hierarchy with humans. They were not ‘equals’.

7Initially, when I had first arrived and heard ‘aren’t we just tiger-food for you lot?’ I had inscribed this question within the hierarchy I was familiar with—the one between humans and animals. I thought the young islander was in a way sarcastically responding to what he believed was the way I, a person from a city, viewed him as well as the rest of the Sundarbans islanders. He assumed I saw them in a hierarchy with wild animals and in that hierarchy we urbanites saw the wild animal, here the tiger, as more important than the humans of the Sundarbans. Yet, as the days went by, I was often urged to travel to the forest by the islanders. I kept being continually plied with stories from the forest so that ‘I understood their tigers’. These stories about their tigers seemed to be based upon a belief that in the Sundarbans region in general, and in the Sundarbans forest in particular, humans and nonhumans share similar essences and that these similarities had more to do with a certain collective geography and a mutual history than with anything else. Indeed, tigers in the Sundarbans were not mere ‘animals’, they were endowed with so many human traits that I had to call them by a more appropriate term and decided, from them on, to call them ‘nonhumans’. This was also because for the islanders, in some sort, tigers were ‘equals’.

8Harriet Ritvo (1987), Tim Ingold (1988), Philippe Descola (1992: 107–26; 1996), Viveiros de Castro (1996), Molly Mullin (1999), Adrian Franklin (1999), Nurit Bird-David (1999), Mahesh Rangarajan (2001), Rane Willerslev (2007), Haraway (2008), Harvey Neo (2012, 2016; with Yeo 2010; with Ngiam 2014), Alan Mikhail (2015) and in the South Asian sphere Mann Barua (2010, 2013), Annu Jalais (2010; 2018); Sivaramakrishnan (2015), Ambika Aiyadurai (2016), Radhika Govindrajan (2018), Yamini Narayanan (2018), Krithika Srinivasan (2019), show how people’s interactions with animals form the basis of both their social practices and their understandings of the social. For any one society, says Franklin, the ‘animal world’ is never seen as an indivisible category but as a historically constituted and morally loaded field of meanings that derives from the human habit of extending social logics, complexities and conflicts onto the natural world, and particularly onto nonhumans. If, following these authors, ideas of ‘nature’ are fundamentally intertwined with ideas of society, we need to address what ideas of society and it’s ordering become reproduced, excluded or validated through nature and nonhumans. Let’s take the case of the Sundarbans, what are nonhumans—especially forest-based ones—for the islanders? How are their ideas about these nonhumans intertwined with their ideas of themselves and others? Or how do the Sundarbans islanders make sense of their society through both their understanding of as well as their practical engagements with cows and tigers? In some narratives tigers were invested with the human qualities of ‘understanding’ and ‘kindness’, whereas in others, they were understood to be vicious and cruel, the state’s killing machines. Cows on the other hand were gentle and kind, but not really seen as sacred even though most Hindu islanders, Dalit or otherwise, did not kill them for meat. If ideas of society and of its ordering become reproduced, legitimated, excluded, validated and so on, through appeals to nature, as Macnaghten and Urry (1998: 15) argue, the project which remains is that of determining what is a ‘nonhuman’ for the Sundarbans islanders and how do their ideas of the nonhuman tell us more about how they view themselves and others within their ecotone.

9The Sundarbans islanders often explained that because the Sundarbans environment was tough, it had unified humans and nonhumans by investing them both with a common ‘cantankerousness’—a sort of an irritable, angry nature. Also, just as they saw the locale as influencing them and making them more ‘cantankerous’, they believed that history, especially the violence witnessed in the politics of the Sundarbans, had increased the harshness of their environment (Jalais 2005: 1758). In other words, the islanders explained that the growing violence of humans expressed through their polluting paraphernalia such as motorboats, prawn seed collectors’ mosquito nets and poachers’ rifles entering the forest, as well as the more dangerous political viciousness linked to the creeping divisions of caste and religion affected the locale of the forest, which in turn affected tigers and other non-humans’ need for peace and security. This made nonhumans more ferocious and increased the danger of working in the Sundarbans. The two (humans and non-humans), however, were ‘sealed’ together by the Sundarbans (Jalais 2010a: 198). Ethnographic studies based on South Asia have usually studied social collectives in relation to caste and religious distinctions. These are of course important analytical grids. But to truly understand the ‘ecotone’ that is the Sundarbans region, one needs to do so through the social collective of the islanders. For the islanders, society and its divisions made more sense when looked at through the lens of the nonhuman than through caste or religion.

10So where does caste fit into all of this? Caste remains the organizing principle of Indian society and often the main marker of division between people. As argued by Dipankar Gupta, the very act of according value to various caste groups endorses hierarchy—one which necessarily sees certain groups as diminished (2000). However, interestingly, one could argue that in the ecotonal zone of the Sundarbans caste distinctions between people are less marked and practiced. This is the case in other such ‘ecotones’ and I will give two examples of such ecotones close to home. The first is Sivaramakrishnan’s study of a region that lies to the Sundarbans’ north east called Midnapur. Through a detailed examination of colonial forestry plans and their implementation, Sivaramakrishnan, by drawing upon Foucault’s notion of genealogy, looks at the interpenetration of the colonial state, local environment and indigenous communities and how these impacted each other (1999: 13–19). Another particularly apt description of an ecotone space is that of a region which lies to West Bengal’s northwest and its ‘frontier peasants’ who brave very violent national borders with teacups and conversations highlighting shared conviviality (Sur 2016; 2019). Most researchers have made similar argument in relation to communities living in or near forests. These are often composed of Adivasis or the ‘original settlers’ who are organized along tribe lines and not caste lines. In the Sundarbans, there were four main communities, a) those of East Bengali origin and who belong to two of the lowest castes of Bengal, Pod and Namasudra, b) the Adivasis of Oraon and Munda origin, c) the Midnapuris so named because their origins are in Midnapur (mainly OBCs), and d) the Muslims from both the Sundarbans and areas in the North 24 Parganas outside the Sundarbans. The islanders maintain that the divisions between these four communities are based on essential physical, cultural and psychological traits, yet they sometimes intermarry and share aspects of religious devotion. In fact, the ordering of social positions of the four groups is often locally specific and linked to each group’s successes on particular islands. Hence the island one comes from, whether one lives nearer the mainland or amenities such as schools and hospitals, whether one is landed or one works in the forest, whether one has family in Kolkata and its vicinity or not, are all markers of social status (Jalais 2010: 50).

11But if caste is not too important for communities living in close proximity to forests, caste, however, as Mukul Sharma argues, ‘is one of the central categories that frames environmental politics’. Even though that may be the case, argues Sharma, there seems to be ‘an environmental blindness on questions of caste’ (Sharma 2012a: 46). In his book Green and Saffron: Hindu Nationalism and Indian Environmental Politics (2012b), Sharma links together environmentalism and Hindu nationalism. This discussion was really started a couple of decades back with Sinha, Gururani and Greenberg arguing that Indian environmentalism is often Brahminical, Hindu and conservative, and is couched in a language of ‘new caste’ and ‘new traditionalism’ (Sinha et al 1997: 65–99). Studies such as those of Sinha et al (1997), Jalais (2005; 2010), Sharma (2012a, 2012b), Aiyadurai (2016), have looked at the ways in which caste, Hindutva and environmentalism mix. Through a study of present-day growing middle class obsessions about nature tourism, banning beef-eating and eating sattvik or vegetarian food, leading lives sanctioned by Vedic principles of purity and pollution and believing that these are somehow superior ways of living, what happens in the process is the alienation of certain more subaltern ‘ecotonal’ practices and food habits. Through some of the contradictions between the commercial use of ‘nature’ amongst the Indian middle-class and that of subaltern populations living in socio-cultural ecotones and their everyday use and symbolism of ‘nature’, I would like to highlight the deep contradictions between the two understandings of nature and nonhumans and by extension, the notion of the ‘collective’.

12One of the ways in which this chapter furthers Sharma’s argument is to talk about the ways in which people think of non-vegetarian food and why environmental politics sits very uneasily with the politics of those living in ecotones such as the Sundarbans. The recent killings, mostly of Muslims and Dalits, over beef in India are very telling in relation to subaltern identities. The present right-winged National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government [a coalition of right-winged political parties the largest of which is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)], was in a quandary in September and October 2016. They were committed on the one hand to the hardline Hindu right such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that adheres to a rigid form of Brahminical Hinduism which leaves little room for subaltern identities living lives unprescribed by Brahminical norms. The cow as a political symbol and its protection as a rallying cry for extreme right-wing groups to get the Hindu-majority country to vote the Modi Government to power has a long history. One that took off during colonial times with the Cow Protection movement being at the root of much communal violence during British rule by giving its adherents ‘a much wider influence’ (Gupta 2001: 4295). Political parties like the RSS and the VHP focused on Hindu revivalism and started the process of building gaushalas or cowsheds in India (Lodrick 1981; 2008). Gaushalas, as argued Yang, became political spaces seen as ‘sanctuaries’ for cows from a sociocultural and religious ‘other’ (1980) implying that if one were a good Hindu one would not risk a cow’s life. We just need to look at how the cow has been flaunted by the NDA government as ‘Gaumata’ or ‘mother cow’ and how it can stand in for the mother and how killing it is tantamount to killing one’s mother to understand that complexity of the cow as a political symbol (Van Der Veer 1994: 83–94). What I want to argue is that a lot of the arguments around beef have to do with not just the supposed sacrality and purity of the cow and her symbol as a ‘mother’ but with the ‘dirty’ Dalit or Muslim body—‘dirty’ both because of the kind of work these communities are seen as engaging in as well as because of the food they consume (Ghassem-Fachandi 2009: 78, 2012; Sen 2007; Hansen 1996).

13The gripe over the cow and its consumption started getting media attention after an event that occurred the 21st December 2015 when a Muslim man called Md Akhlaq living outside Delhi was killed for supposedly having beef in his fridge. When the police arrived, they did not go after the murderers but went to the fridge to retrieve the supposed piece of incriminating beef to have it forensically tested to find out if it was beef or not. It was not. But it was too late for Akhlaq who had been literally lynched to death and his son who had been so hurt that he lay in hospital. The news started circulating more the three days after it had occurred. Several Muslims were attacked and murdered by cow vigilantes. On none of these occasions did Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister of India, call for the instigators of mob violence to be brought to justice and his BJP party later celebrated and garlanded many of the lynchers. Indeed, senior BJP leaders, including Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma, the chief ministers of Jharkhand and Haryana, minister of state Sanjeev Baliyan and others, have either soft-pedaled these crimes or provided oblique justifications for them. In July 2016, seven Dalits were severely beaten up whilst four amongst them were lynched, their bodies strapped to a moving car and beaten with chains in Una in the western state of Gujarat. A famous Indian scientist returned the honours he had received from the Indian Government and reiterated the fact that beef was in fact prescribed in Ayurvedic medicine and that Hindus used to happily eat beef and sacrifice it to Vedic gods. The Una attack forced the resignation of Gujarat’s Chief Minister Anandiben Patel and awoke the Prime Minister to the seriousness of the situation. Modi ostentatiously declared ‘If you have a problem, if you feel like attacking someone, attack me, not my Dalit brothers. If you want to shoot anyone, shoot me, not my Dalit brothers’ in a speech made in Hyderabad on 7th August, 2016. However, the attacks did not stop. By the end April 2019, the total tally of Muslim and Dalits lynched to death, mostly over beef, was fifty-five, and more than 300 had been brutally assaulted. [But not a single murderer has faced justice to date (mid-June 2019)]. The outbreak of violence at Una brought Dalit organisations together. Jignesh Mevani, a prominent Dalit leader from Gujarat, held a rally in which thousands came together vowing to refuse to clean the carcasses of dead cows. ‘Your mother, your duty’ was the byline. Trucks of cow carcasses were dropped in front of Government offices and for days they stayed there rotting as nobody from the other castes came forward to remove them.

14Mukherjee writes in The Telegraph (27/6/18), ‘Periodic lynchings—most of the victims are Muslims and Dalits—have succeeded in turning the consumption of certain kinds of food, essentially meat, into a criminal transgression. The morality and attendant violence concerning meat (. . .) are, undoubtedly, integral to the ideological project of transforming a pluralist nation into a majoritarian polity’. I’m not going to delve into the long literature on the importance of the cow in Hinduism and the both profane and sacred aspects of this creature (for a good historical account on the doctrinal analysis of the cow’s sacrality in Hinduism read Korom 2000); what I’m going to focus on here is the link of the cow to caste. Ambedkar really hits the nail on the head when he makes two important arguments in relation to beef-eating and caste. The first is that even if in the Vedic period, ‘for the Brahmin every day was a beef-steak day’ (1948: 193) this is no longer the case and the second is that with the abandoning of meat-eating by Brahmin communities, the meat of the dead cow now became the chief item of food consumed by communities which are generally classified as ‘untouchable’ (1948: 184). All untouchable communities have some relation to the dead cow—some eat the flesh, some remove the skin, some manufacture articles out of the cow’s skin and bones. An easy way to understand caste hierarchy today is to see who eats beef—those who do are at the bottom of the caste pile, those who are non-vegetarians but do not eat beef are in between and those who are vegetarians are at the top. The majority of Dalits, for all kinds of reasons, refrain from beef-eating; but whether they eat it or not, the fact that they are potential beef-eaters puts them in the category of the ‘untouchable’. Even though the presumed ‘holiness’ of the cow in Vedism or ancient Hinduism is a myth as its flesh played an important part in the cuisine of ancient India, today its consumption is seen as Islam’s ‘baneful bequeathal’ to India (Jha 2009). Indeed, beef is considered by the majority of middle-class Hindu India as something that is not part of Hindu culture and that it is ‘foreign’—indulged in by Muslims and Christians, minorities often also called ‘anti-nationals’ by BJP supporters. Partha Chatterjee’s formulations about nationalism are particularly relevant in this context. He argues that Indian nationalists in the mid- to late nineteenth century made a distinction between a material sphere of power, regarded as exterior to the individual, where the British were superior, and a spiritual sphere of moral value where ‘traditional’ Hindu beliefs, located within the individual, were regarded as superior to, and somewhat immune from, the Western culture of imperialism (Chatterjee 1989: 624). For Gandhi, control of the body was superior to brute masculinity and believed to be tied to the kind of food one ate. This alternative male body as studied by Ashish Nandy (1983), Partha Chatterjee (1989; 1994), Mrinalini Sinha (1995) in the context of the ‘other’ is one that focuses on the male middle-class that refrains from eating beef so as to be independent from the burden of colonialism.

15The argument I want to raise, through this cow-caste politics, is how in the South Asian sphere, it is difficult to organise people around a common collective. Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare tried in the summer of 2011 to create a common ground on the issue of corruption. But it was mainly Delhi-centric and based in a middle-class Brahminical culture. The BJP unapologetically upholds the ideology of the high caste. History books in a few states of India have erased passages on how bovine used to be both sacrificed and feasted on in ancient times. On a national level, the Modi Government is trying to enforce ‘one cow’—the sacred ‘Hindu cow’, and those who dare resist, are termed ‘anti-national’, ‘seditious’ or seen as up for being lynched. This ‘one Hindu cow’ is sacred, pure, motherly, chaste. But if it is about protecting milch cattle why is the buffalo given no such status even though it provides seventy-five percent of India’s milk, pertinently asks Kancha Ilaiah (2004: XXV). Similarly, foreign bulls get bad press. In 2016, the Haryana MP argued that foreign bulls had ‘loose characters’ and wanted to have sex anytime with the poor Indian cows who, he said, were on the contrary regulated, when it came to copulation, by seasons. The loose character of the foreign bulls undoubtedly reflected the character of the people from the foreign lands from which these bulls came. So there is an entire taxonomy of caste in the way bovines are described and perceived. If native cows are ‘burdened with representing Hindu purity’ (Narayanan, 2018: 331), buffaloes are exposed to exploitation and oppression and represent the ‘whole Dravidian, now Dalit-Bahujan, culture’ (Ilaiah 2004: XXX), and foreign bulls are ‘loose’ and sexually promiscuous. As aptly argued by Shoma Sen, ‘Indians are known to be publicly coy about sex, as the dominant Brahminical culture, coupled with the Victorian prudery of the colonial rulers, erased earthy Indian folk songs and dances, instead promoting the classical culture of the elite class’ (2019: 42); a culture where sex is seen as something the superior person does not engage in or at least tries to control.

16Being judged in relation to the kind of food one eats has become an effective way of policing citizens and those seen as minority ‘anti-nationals’. The recent outcry by the Modi-Government condemning the fact that Durga puja in Bengal is an occasion for a veritable orgy of all kinds of food—most of them being non-vegetarian—became a huge issue in Kolkata. Trying to equate Durga puja as celebrated in Bengal with the festival of Navaratri as celebrated in Gujarat, many Modi-Government supporters said that it was shocking that while the ‘rest of India’ was fasting, Bengalis were feasting and that too on non-vegetarian fare. West Bengal is 99% non-vegetarian, however many Hindus are vegetarian on certain days of the week or some women when they become widows. How could, in these circumstances, Bengalis argued, Durga puja, which is the celebration of the coming of goddess Durga as a daughter returning to her father’s home with her four children, be a time for sadness (as vegetarianism is mainly equated to the sadness of widowhood)? Durga isn’t a widow so she couldn’t be served vegetarian food and neither could the rest of the population celebrating in the joy of having her back ‘home’. But what the Hindutva brigade tries to do, through these repeated assaults on peoples’ eating habits is a kind of ‘shaming’. As astutely observed by Mukherjee in his article in The Telegraph on the dish haleem,

The spectre of Hindutva nourishes itself on the idea of shame. Shame functions as a double-edged sword in this enterprise. It is demanded of Hindus for their alleged enfeeblement, the figment of a jaundiced imagination. Hindutva also seeks to shame its opponents—democrats, rationalists, liberals, Dalits, leftists—for their efforts to engage with the demonized. That the shaming has been effective can be gauged from the emergence of insular communities. (June 27, 2018)

Communities that have, in the last few years, stopped sharing in each other’s cultures, dishes, songs and stories. As Veena Das has said, ‘images of hate between social groups may take a volatile form when the social order is threatened by a critical event and so transform the world that the worst becomes not only possible but also probable’ (1998: 126). Indeed, India has recently also seen a spate of public attacks, both in rural as well as in urban spaces, on migrants or travellers seen as ‘child kidnappers’ or ‘love-jihadists’ (the term used by radical Hindutva groups to target Muslim men who have married or are in a relationship with Hindu women); many have been lynched to death. As argued by Atreyee Sen, a lot of the public paranoia around women and rape in India today has to do with both a cultural history about the threat of the sexual conquest of Hindu women by the ‘other’ as well as a discourse by the global Right that pitches the migrant (in the West oftentimes synonymous with Muslim) as rapist (2019: 747). It is in this scenario that ethnographies of ‘ecotonal subalterns’ that share a sense of ‘religiously-prescribed brotherhood’ (as exemplified by the exhortations made by Bonbibi as written in the booklet read out during her ritual veneration) between communities, becomes important as they challenge the status quo of the dominant and violent conservative group.

17What I’m arguing in the case of both the Sundarbans and Kolkata, is that today’s modern environmental rhetoric is often based on ideas of tradition that do not necessarily sit very comfortably with ideas of a pan-Bengal transcending Bengali subaltern identity that does not care for the more Brahminical strictures of caste and religion. In the West, today, the bombast is about protecting the remaining ‘wilderness’: natural forests, highlands, moorlands and wetlands. Other natures closer to cities are seen as ‘denatured’, ‘unclean’ or ‘lost’ and are not fought for in the same way. The environmental movement in the West started off a bit like the Romantic movement which privileged similar types of pristine natures, and led by similar kinds of people–the educated middle classes. Sharing parallels with the start of the environmental movement in the West, in South Asia, specifically in India, the Green movement has a lot of tie-ups with right-wing politics (as argued by Sharma 2012b, Gururani et al 2014). In an article on Ayurveda, Alter argues that for the Indian middle-classes, ‘advocacy for nature cure is, in many ways, an expression of indigenous dehati (rural or rustic) or deshi (local, as distinct from videshi, foreign) cosmopolitanism’ (2015: 14). Similarly, the environmental initiative led by Anna Hazare in a place called Ralegan Siddhi was autocratic and bereft of diversity and social justice. It did not include shared ideals and banned consuming beef or alcohol—practices which end up excluding subaltern communities. Be it though the growing fashion of karva chauth fasting where married women fast for the well-being of their husbands, the practice of astrology for gaging the suitability of a potential marriage partner, of centres to help couples have ‘designer babies’ (Sur 2018), or by-products (such as those by Patanjali, Dabur India ltd, Sri Sri Ayurveda), etc., believed to be ‘natural’ and ancient and therefore beneficial for the body, there is a certain emergence of an Indian middle-class revivalism of ‘ancient nature’ which in turn valorises ideas of caste and old-fashioned gender roles. How otherwise can we explain the high number of educated middle-class women who stay at home to rear children in India today? How to explain that despite the Swachh Bharat Mission (a nation-wide campaign to supposedly ‘clean’ India’s streets, roads and cities in general) practically nothing has been done for manual scavengers who still die by the hundreds while manually cleaning dry toilet in insalubrious conditions. Is this traditionalism, steeped in Vedic notions of caste and gender hierarchies, a new way of finding meaning in a post-weberian world? Or are these subtle ways of transforming the self to help build a ‘Hindu nation’—one very closely attuned to a certain kind of Brahminical Hinduism—with little space for dissident, non-Savarna, ecotonal subalterns’ voices and practices?

18There is interest, amongst the Indian middle-class (only about 10% of the population of India) for example, at ‘preserving nature’ and nonhumans for tourism, for eco-parks, for recreation have been very neoliberal with nature commodified and nonhumans only valorised for the visual consumption they offer as pertinently argued by Vasan (2018). Very little has been done to safeguard the rights of those who have been living in close proximity to natural landscapes and who, by default, have been its champions. What is now dominating Indian politics is the reinsertion of caste within arguments for ecological/environmental rights in relation to the Governments’ so to speak enforced vegetarianism and its dismally poor support towards farmers and the poor in general. As Mukul Sharma has argued, ‘with a few exceptions, Indian environment studies are ‘caste blind’ (Sharma 2012a). What one needs to remember in the case of the Sundarbans, for example, are the engaged ways in which the subaltern communities think and relate to nonhumans and their ‘ecotonal’ traditions when it comes to shared religious practices. In a way, these are very much in sync with the redemption offered via the collective movements that were the Bhakti or the Sufi strains of religious experience in the South Asia of the 16th century or later through the movements such as the Matua religion (Bandyopadhyay 2004). Rising against the Brahmin priests’ organized ritual performance and Savarna ethics of hierarchy based on purity and pollution, the Bhakti movement asserted that emotional enthusiasm or and treating everyone with respect was perhaps a better way of attaining emancipation from the miseries of human existence. The term bhakti is loosely translated as ‘devotion’, but its meaning is more complex. ‘Bhakti comes from the verb root bhaj. In its earliest usage, bhaj means divide or share, as one divides and partakes of the sacrificial offerings’ (Davis, 1995: 29). The later Bhakti movements that began in the 12th century and continued through the seventeenth centuries in the Deccan and throughout northern India really brought a sense of ‘collective’ based in ‘equality’ (Davis 1995: 30).

19In some way, these collective struggles ushered the notion of the ‘collective’ via the message of equality and redemptive hope. I do not propose here a culturalist idealisation of community but an exploration of how ‘a collective can represent itself as a community through shared experiences of marginalization as well as subject-formation’ (Sen and Pattanaik 2018: 1). As argued by Nixon we live in an era of increasingly elaborate global entanglements that we need to engage with in relation to the wide spectrum of what counts as environmentalism in different parts of the world as this gives us the opportunity to generate vital new forms of storytelling alongside fresh interdisciplinary perspectives on some of the most challenging concerns of our time (2013). And this is why stories of how nonhumans are perceived by the Sundarbans subaltern ecotonal collective make sense. As Subir Sinha argues, the ways in which subaltern communities understand domination, oppression, and exploitation on their own terms, rather than only through a lens exterior to subaltern consciousness offers new transgressive ways of understanding nature in the South Asian realm. ‘In hitching their demands for rights to nature to “universalist” notions of law, science, and solidarity, subalterns both uphold and subvert universalism. As subalterns become intelligible to powerful others, and as they make power intelligible to themselves, the domains from which they are excluded themselves get transformed, as does subalterneity itself’ (94–96). I am however, not as optimistic as Sinha. It is not as if the cultural engagements with nonhumans of these ‘ecotonal collectives’ are recognized or respected. Frederic Landy has made an important observation in that what he calls groups with ‘eco-ethnic identity’ and how that get recognised only when ‘flamboyant’ (such as that of the Maasai for example) as opposed to those seen as un-iconic (such as the Adivasis of India) (77).

20I would like to conclude with recent subaltern ethnographic examples from South Asia that have allied both scholarly and public writing on environmental concerns with those on social movements. It is of course important, as argues Kashwan, to enter into partnerships and a genuine dialogue with forest rights movements because of the historical legacy of exclusionary conservation (2013) but one needs to ally it to other subaltern movements and literatures (such as the exegesis on myths offered by Doniger 1988). As argued for Dalit literature, the importance of having an in-depth contextual knowledge cannot be downplayed (Thiara and Misrahi-Barak 2019; Lorea 2016). In Kandhamal, Arpitha Kodaveri learnt that sacred groves were being demarcated based upon the customary practices of the Kondhs, who upon conversion to Hinduism took on a different understanding of sacredness where Dalits were excluded from such cultural pockets (Kodiveri 2016). Ambika Aiyadurai has made a similar observation in Arunachal Pradesh (2016). The different ways of understanding our world is linked to ways of understanding our purpose in it. In a way, the politicised Hindutva middle class regulate, control, protect what they have come to see as ‘their world’ and this is distinct from a position where subaltern groups from ecotones see themselves as part of a whole collective, one not ours to regulate, control, protect but one to experience and try make sense of.


21This essay wouldn’t have been possible without Judith Misrahi-Barak’s gentle suggestions that I think harder with the term ‘ecotones’ and how it might be useful for my work. I would also like to thank all of the participants to the December 2018 Kolkata Ecotones conference and the generous invitation extended to me by the organisers. I would also like to thank all those who engaged in the question and answer session, especially Supriya Chaudhuri and Sukanta Chaudhuri who both provided many valuable insights. Mistakes, however, are my own.


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Annu Jalais is an environmental anthropologist who works as an Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore. She teaches and has written articles on the human-animal interface (mainly South Asia, and more recently China and Singapore), the environment, migration and subaltern identities and is the author of Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans (Routledge, 2010), and co-author, with Joya Chatterji and Claire Alexander, of The Bengal Diaspora: Rethinking Muslim Migration (Routledge, 2016).

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