Editor’s Note: This month, that is June 2020, FII’s #MoodOfTheMonth is Feminism And Environment, where we invite various articles about the diverse range of experiences which we often confront while interacting with our natural as well as social surroundings. If you’d like to share your article, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What could be the mode of resistance and form of protest against the social order that denies the access to nature and environment? The feet that carry the weight of this institutionalized system is still not a thing of the past. Due to the denial of agency, Dalits had to struggle for dignity and to attain consciousness in order to develop a knowledge system and garner some cultural capital. An access to it has brought horror and pain to Dalits today.
We usually come across environmental movements encompassing voices of women and indigenous groups but it fails to articulate the perspectives of Dalits and their ecological positions. Their relationship with nature remains constricted from the ambit of dominant environmental framework. Furthermore, we should take a moment to consider and reflect this crucial aspect which forms the Indian environmental paradigm and take cognizance of Dalits both as victims and agents of resistance in environmental disputes that remain mostly unheeded, since only one facet of ecology is reiterated. Dalits are largely unmentioned and remain unacknowledged.
The area of operation under Vrindavan Conservation Project, that started in 1991 and went on to last for a decade, was biased towards people which includes a sizable population of Scheduled Caste communities such as—Chamars, Balmikis, Koris, Khatiks and Dhobis. The rhetoric of environmentalism in the name of religious reverence was a problematic initiative. Their sense of belonging and cultural traditions were not of primary concern.
Chowdhary Bhagwan Das, a resident of Kishorepura Valmiki Basti, recounts his experiences of the cleanliness and conservation drive of Friends of Vrindavan, a partner organization of World Wide Fund For Nature,
“The cleanliness drive was launched at six temple points. The 100 metre diameter of Banke Bihari Mandir was the starting place. However, the priests and the Krishna bhaktas bitterly objected to the presence of us, bhangis, even after the 100 metres, because according to them we were ‘polluting’ the people and the mandir. The drive was stopped after their objections. In this environment, we do not want to live with Krishna or within traditions in his name. Our condition is pathetic here.”
Likewise, Charandas Jatav narrates,
“We do not belong to Krishna. Thus, we do not believe in him. We have this painful experience that however much we live with feelings of love and cooperation, we can never be incorporated into the Krishna fold. Brajbhoomi is for Brahmans. Neither forest destruction nor pollution, but the three Bs – Brahmans, Babajees and Banders – are the real culprits for the problems of Vrindavan.“
Hari Mohan Valmiki also shared his experiences,
“After taking bath, when I pray to the sun, I often remember Krishna, along with Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. I am also human. After work, I would also like to go to a Krishna temple and listen to Krishna bhajans, but I cannot do this. Even when I take a bath properly, wash my clothes and dress up cleanly, I am not allowed in the temple and the parikrama area. I am completely defeated here.”
Rakesh Das, a Valmiki, and other Valmikis who work with Michael Duffy in Friends of Vrindavan share,
“We are sewaks. Service – cleaning up the dirt – is our sacred duty, so that Krishna bhakts do not feel the dirt. We try hard to be faithful to our service. Wherever the bhakts put down their feet, we wish to clean that area.”
These incidents of exclusion of Dalits provide a completely different picture and is seen as a threat to the “ecological legitimacy”.
Often these forms of ‘services’ performed by the Dalits are also romanticised by many to maintain the status quo. An environmentalist says, ‘Sewa and sewak, these two things are understood by everybody in Brajbhoomi. Unconditional love and sacrifice are a hallmark here. The only people who are the true sewaks are Valmikis and in our environmental drive, we are trying to demonstrate this’.
By associating Vrindavan and the Dalits, we can understand the stark reality of the exclusion of Dalits from the dominant representation of cultures and environmental traditions. Where the former resonates with purity and cleanliness, and the latter with pollution. This practice of untouchability is sustained and its dominant imagery is reinforced. The celebration of the divine figure of Krishna, who is seen as an environmentalist, social and political reformer, tend to invalidate past injustices and historic subjugation of Dalits by the virtue of his aura. The veil of religion hides underneath the ambivalent environmental narratives and imaginations of Dalits. The regeneration of environment depends upon protection of belief and faith of the Dalit community, in order to create a holistic ecological narrative. The socially exclusionary nature of this project seeks to legitimize the inveterate prospects of certain sections of society.
Similarly, a group of Dalit women farmers are fighting caste, patriarchy and survival against climate change in an inhospitable environment, therefore being the most vulnerable inhabitants of Cauvery delta in Tamil Nadu. They sought to collective farming, financially supporting themselves by pooling resources, cultivating sizable acres of land by growing vegetables and splitting the labour. Amidst the daunting challenges put by unpredictable weather conditions, it is difficult for these women to legally own lands, also due to their socially disadvantaged position.
In Tamil Nadu itself, 86% of Dalits are landless labourers which render them helpless. Women here have to negotiate with the local NGOs to lease property. The members of a politically influential group called Vanniyars harassed 15 women engaged in collective farming. They also inhibited the flow of rainwater and didn’t allow them to walk through their piece of land to reach theirs.
However, they are no more afraid of such upper caste wrath. A great effort undertaken by them helped them to fight back and turn the unproductive pieces of land into healthy and profitable ones despite erratic weather conditions by contributing to their share in the environment and preserving it for generations to come, which were earlier the repositories of men in general and upper caste people in particular. Their local leadership encouraged them to increase the membership of the collective and they are actively involved in cultivating the land in their own chosen ways which contributes to a healthy environment.
These incidents clearly show politics of access to the environment and how it corresponds to one’s caste occupation. Dalits’ access to the environment has become a matter of denial and neglect, as most dominant environmental narratives fail to incorporate their experiences. Due to inefficiency and apathy on the part of government authorities, every inch of progress of these communities attempt is hindered. There is a need for intersectional environmental consciousness, through efficient policies and initiatives which shouldn’t be patronizing but more participatory in nature.
Note: The purpose of this article is to describe the complex ways of social exclusion in reality. Caste based discrimination even after 28 years (1991-2019) stands blatantly exposed. Dalits are denied access to the environment in every step of the way. The substantive basis of this article is to create awareness and initiate deeper investigation as against the frequently articulated, dominant environmental narrative.
Featured Image Source: Feminism In India