Towards an Anti-caste and Abolitionist Epistemology for Environmental Justice

– Thank you so much for joining us for this really exciting talk. I’m so excited today to
welcome Dr. Malini Ranganathan, who is an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University. Dr. Ranganathan is a
critical urban geographer with a broad interest in
environmental justice. She uses history,
ethnography, critical mapping, and social theory to study the struggles surrounding urban water,
land dispossession, and climate change vulnerability
in India and the US. She is especially
interested in the relation between colonial and
post-colonial history, and housing and environmental inequities shared by race, caste, gender, and class. Much of her research
focuses on the politics of the urban environment and neoliberal real estate
development in Bangalore, India. She’s a recipient of an American Council of Learned Societies Andrew
W. Mellon Foundation grant for a collaborative book
project across the humanities and geography, examining
how contemporary land grabs are narrated through diverse and situated understandings of corruption. Dr. Ranganathan also
investigates environmental racism in the US, and has
written and spoken on NPR on climate justice in Washington, D.C. Please join me in
welcoming Dr. Ranganathan. (audience applauds) – Thank you so much to
Aparna Parikh and Nidar Raman for convening us at this
very exciting workshop. I’m so happy that some
of you came to this talk, and I’m especially happy to reunite with some of my friends and colleagues. Thank you to the Urban Studies Foundation and Dartmouth College for
financially supporting this workshop and this talk. So my talk today is based on some work in a book project in progress,
and it grows out of research, as Aparna said, that
I’ve largely conducted in urban India for the
last decade and a half, but also the US, and
that’s especially been work that I’ve been doing for
the last seven years. Rather than thinking of mine as a comparative research project, I think of it as translational. To what extent do concepts and ideas that have developed
from specific historical and geographical contexts lend themselves to traveling theory across contexts? So one of the questions that
I’ve been really grappling with over the last few years is if and how the term environmental
justice is appropriate at all for the South Asian context. Environmental justice,
let’s say with a capital E, and a capital J, grew out
of a specific constellation of civil rights activism
and law in the US. Data showing the correlation between race and toxic sightings provided
grist for the movement, and grist for a legal language around distributional justice. The North American juridical
approach to EJ activism and scholarship cannot
be reconciled easily with the South Asian historical context, where not only is there little precedence around disparate environmental outcomes being thought of in terms of legal rights, but a history of colonial
and post-colonial government has effectively rendered certain subjects devoid of standing and rights altogether. So, thus the liberal,
legal Rawlsian framework of distributive justice makes little sense when applied to the South Asian context, and in this workshop,
we’ve really been grappling with questions of environment,
inequality in South Asia, and so I just want to
start with thinking about the kind of limits of that concept. But at the same time, decolonial and black and indigenous scholars have stepped outside of this Rawlsian
juridical framework. Historical geographies of the plantation, of the reservation, of the carceral state and the military base,
help us to understand how the ruination of the environment and the dehumanization of the other have always gone hand in hand. Abolitionist, indigenous,
and decolonial thought, when brought to bear on
environmental justice, say little E and little
J environmental justice, have allowed us to think
outside of the time and space of state-centric
and juridical frameworks. So keeping that in mind,
keeping in mind the ways in which scholars have traveled outside of that original history of activism and legal frameworks for
EJ, I want to take you to the scene of my research where I want to test these
kind of understandings outside of state frameworks
in the South Asian context. The scene of my research
is Bengaluru in India, where I’ve been engaged
in research, activism, and public scholarship
for about 15 years now. Focusing on the peripheral
area of Bommanahalli, which is depicted in this
map here, south of the city. And in the photograph, you have Bangalore in the 2005 floods, and
this is what a typical scene looked like in south Bangalore. Like many cities, Bangalore
has been developing rapidly and informally. In the background, you can
see the city in the making, the not as yet painted, concretized, informal housing blocks. This informal urbanization
confounds binaries between urban and rural,
between legal and illegal, and in ways that are unique
to Bangalore’s urban ecology between water and land. And I’ll come to that in my talk. Like other cities, Bangalore is witnessing increased climate-induced flooding. Commons, especially lakes,
or (speaks foreign language) in Kannada, have been
drained and built over from the late colonial period
to the contemporary period through straight projects of improvement, land acquisition, and development. So in such a context, what
drives environmental injustice and narratives for justice or a more emancipatory environment? What drives environmental injustices, or what I’ve termed in my
work, environmental unfreedoms, to step outside of the
Rawlsian framework of justice and signal a kind of positioning within the critical literature? What I’m going to argue today is that the making of casteist
and colonial property regimes is a vital, yet neglected, process driving urban environmental unfreedoms. I show that colonial
logics of land alienation were strategically tied to and fueled by a dehumanizing notion
of caste untouchability. Caste untouchability, while
outlawed in the constitution of India, is a cultural norm
of treating specific castes as inherently impure and polluted, locking them, people who
belong to such castes, in an exploitative
political economic cycle of landlessness and bonded labor. Untouchability is reproduced, both culturally and structurally. Lower castes and untouchable castes, while experiencing some gains
over the last seven decades since India’s independence,
nevertheless continue to be marginalized from
access to property, from employment, and from education. In the context of a Hindu
nationalist government in power, such groups are
experiencing a renewed spate of violence and dispossession. Untouchability has rightly been theorized among anti-caste intellectuals
as a class project, and so this is by Marxist
and anti-caste intellectuals and historians of India. However, I’m going to argue
and insist joining historians of caste that untouchability’s
also a spatial project. I find that focusing on the spatial logic of untouchability as narrated and embodied by intersectional Dalit groups, which is the term for untouchable, and I’ll explain that momentarily, especially Dalit Muslims
and Dalit Christians. This is what I call
intersectional Dalit groups. So focusing on their
narratives and experiences enables a robust lens on the perpetuation of environmental unfreedoms
in the South Asian context. Second, just as I argue that
environmental unfreedoms are wrought by casteist and
colonial property regimes, so, too, do I argue that political agency on the part of these
intersectional oppressed groups arise from anti-caste spatial imaginaries, and what I’m going to
call fugitive commoning. Drawing on Mukul Sharma’s understanding of Dalit commoning,
and J.T. Roane’s notion of plotting the black commons, I use the term fugitive commoning to interpret the use and
efficacy of anti-caste symbolism in reclaiming public space
and common land in Bangalore. In thinking across these literatures and traveling concepts, ultimately, I’m going to call for an
abolitionist epistemology for environmental justice in India. Not only must critical scholars recognize how caste is perpetuated and destructed in the urban environment,
we must also take seriously the history and strategy
of activist movements that think across race and caste, think tran-nationally across
India and the United States, and who are calling for
a more universal humanism through this type of
trans-national solidarity. So I’m going to bring into the fold two major bodies of
literature to kind of enrich our understanding and thinking of the ways that environmental justice can travel. So first, in centering caste as a category of difference shaping urban
environmental unfreedoms, I’m really excavating an
anti-caste and Dalit thought. With few exceptions, caste
and untouchability have been practically invisible in
critical urban geography and urban political ecology literatures with a few exceptions, as I mentioned. Subaltern studies and post-colonial theory often referenced in
post-colonial urban studies has either been thin on caste or has had the tendency to be read as reducing caste to a colonial construct. Both stances are problematic. In contrast to these positions, I turn to Dalit and
anti-caste intellectuals to think through these
silences and reifications. Drawing on the thought of B.R. Ambedkar, who’s probably one of the most
important Dalit intellectuals of the 20th century, Jyotirao
Phule, an abolitionist, Suraj Yengde, Anil Teltumbde,
Anupama Rao, and others, I show caste was mutated through colonial and capitalist projects of
modernity and property-making. I also draw, because of a
kind of paucity of literature, especially in the urban context, I draw on Dalit biography and poetry, notably the volume “Steel
Nibs Are Sprouting: New Dalit Writing from South India,” which features the experiences
of Dalit, or untouchable, activists and students living in slums and informal settlements
in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Second, I borrow from abolitionist and black radical thought to rethink notions of
environmental justice. I’m drawn, in particular, to Sylvia Wynter and Paul Gilroy’s
insistence that struggles for the environment and struggles to rehumanize cannot be separated. There can be no environmentalism without what Gilroy calls a reparative humanism. I bring reparative humanism together with literature on black place-making, particularly Ruth Gilmore’s insistence that abolition geography starts from the homely premise
that freedom is a place, and as mentioned in the previous slide, J. T. Roane, along with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s thinking on
fugitivity in black commoning. It is this literature that
has enabled me to understand and interpret some of
the commoning strategies and their symbolic import that
I’m seeing in my field work, as well as in my archival
and literary reviews. So the rest of my talk is
divided into three parts. In part one, which I’m titling
Environmental Unfreedoms, I discuss two ethnographic
stories from Bangalore that show how property-making
undergirds all manner of embodied environmental harms, from flooding to dengue fever to evictions to poor sanitation to sexual violence. In part two, Casteist and
Colonial Regimes of Property, I draw on the aforementioned literature, as well as oral histories
and my own primary archival research to
understand casted constructions of property and personhood in the crucible of colonial capitalism. Finally, in part three, An
Anti-caste and Abolitionist Epistemology, I turn to a
new research partnership I’ve forged with slum-based
Dalit journalists in Bangalore to bring untold stories of trans-national and Dalit black solidarities to light, particularly struggles focusing
on the urban environment. Part one, Environmental Unfreedoms. So as mentioned, I structure this part through two ethnographic stories. Story one is set in an informal settlement called Madina Nagar. One morning, in February
2014, I was walking through the neighborhood of Madina Nagar, located on the far southern
peripheries of Bengaluru. A Koranic name for City of the Prophet, Madina Nagar is a low-lying neighborhood built illicitly near two major wetlands, Agara and Bellandur. It’s highly flood-prone. A sign at the entrance of the
ward iconizes Tipu Sultan, also known as the Tiger of Mysore, the last Muslim emperor
who fought to his death the encroaching army of the British East India Company in 1799. With his death, Mysore
and the rest of India fell to the British Empire for 150 years. That morning, I was
accompanying Mr. Magid, assistant executive engineer
of storm water drains, on a site visit to
understand why Madina Nagar had become quote critically flood-prone. As I walked through Madina
Nagar with Mr. Magid, I couldn’t help but
notice not for sale signs peppered throughout the neighborhood on empty plots or on what
looked like swamps and wetlands. I asked Mr. Magid, “What
do these signs mean, “not for sale?” He said to me, “All this you see, “these are unauthorized areas.” I had heard the word
unauthorized many times before. I had read it in the news. I had read it in property law. I had read it in planning rules, but I wanted to hear it from him. “What do you mean unauthorized?” Mr. Magid explained that
Madina Nagar was formed without proper planning permissions out of land officially zoned as government land or waste land. The Urdu word kharab
literally is used here, meaning waste, for kharab land. Such kharab land includes
marshes, swamps, wetlands, lakes, or (speaks foreign
language), or parcels of land that scholars might call the commons, scholars working from a Western framework. During a spurt of technology and globalization-led
development in Banaglore in the early 2000s, many
newer and lower-class migrants to the city had settled unlawfully, without authorization, on such lands. Developers had realized
that they could cash in, and they could transact
such land for a profit, and had, of course, more
than willing buyers. To prevent this type of transaction, not for sale signs had been erected by the municipal government. However, as I learned from Mr. Magid, the term unauthorized is not
fixed, but politically fluid. We arrive at a waterlogged
section of the neighborhood not far from the not for sale signs. It was February, and it
had been several months since the last monsoon. We picked our way through
the stagnant water, plastic waste, and
makeshift walkways arranged throughout the neighborhood, reminding me of the more
than human ecologies and materialities that shape
landscapes of uneven risk. We come to a clearing through
which a large storm canal, or (speaks foreign language) runs, and we stop and speak to residents there. Mr. Magid, the one with
the cap on the left, is looking down at his phone. Mangela on the right is
dressed in the orange sari and is offering up stories
on the woes she faces, including the lack of a
formal water connection, reliance on ground
water, and tanker mafias, and the lack of proper sanitation. She talks about flooding
that damaged her home. She says, quote, “The
developer who sold this land “never told us that this area “was going to be flooding
so much,” unquote. She also enumerated the various harms that she and other women
had faced in the last flood, including fearing for their babies’ lives and losing a number of domestic items. The storm water drain that we came to was very commonly sited
throughout peripheral Bangalore. Such storm water channels and flood zones have been developed
illicitly all over the city, especially the peripheries,
giving rise to a precarious ecology of flood risk. However, it is really crucial to note that this political ecology
of flood risk is uneven, with particular groups and
geographies often being punished and evicted for their
unauthorized settlement, while the wealthy and elites
group do so with impunity. Luxury real estate built on
wetlands all over the city, high profile encroachers,
look world-class, as Asher Ghertner has argued in his work, whereas places like Madina Nagar, with all the stigma associated with it, do not and are not spared from
future proofing evictions. This expose by a journalist, Akshatha, reveals that one of Bangalore’s
biggest malls, Orion, built by the city’s
most wealthy developers, the Brigade Group, has
built over a storm drain, much like Madina Nagar, thus contributing to flooding in northern Bangalore. Her investigative report,
which I got ahold of, shows the mall was built
on three point four acres of Kharab land meant for a storm drain. As Mr. Magid and I walked
out of Madina Nagar that day, I noticed a demolished house. “What happened?” I asked. He says, “That house is a violation. “We had to give the order to demolish.” What he was talking about
was a major demolition drive by the city to make it more flood-proof between 2011 and 2013. And what the city had
done is it criminalized and removed so-called
unauthorized settlements. But the question in my mind, of course, was which unauthorized
settlements are targeted for such future-proofing,
flood-proofing measures undertaken by the Bangalore government? Certainly, Orion Mall has not
been among the demolished. Madina Nagar, along with numerous poorer unauthorized layouts, especially layouts bordering lake bands on
Bangalore’s peripheries were among the areas that bore the brunt of eviction and punishment. Now, upon a more careful
demographic look at Madina Nagar, and this had not been apparent to me in the early stages of my field work, but became more and more
apparent to me later on, I learned that a majority
of residents there are Dalits and lower-caste Muslims. Now what is Dalit? The Marathi word for untouchable, Dalit, so assigned by the anti-caste
abolitionist activist Jyotirao Phule in the late 1800s, roughly translates to
broken or scattered people. Officially, Dalits, who make up about 17% of India’s total population, fall within a census
category known as SCST, or schedule caste schedule tribe. Because of this, they’re supposed to receive affirmative action
benefits, aka, reservation. As mentioned at the outset, while outlawed in the
constitution of India, untouchability is not
only practiced subtly and not so subtly, but it is also very, very interestingly filters
into other non-Hindu faiths. So you are seeing more
and more stories of people being lynched for eating beef or tortured to the point of suicide, raped, or evicted, as in this case. Now almost all the
inhabitants of Madina Nagar are of Dalit Muslim castes, engaging in occupations
such as drain cleaning, leather making, sweeping,
(speaks foreign language), which is scavenging, auto
drivers, or butchers. It is typical for Dalit and Muslim areas not to have urban drainage
and sanitation infrastructure. So a question of how areas are both Muslim and untouchable really
began to make me question and realize the kind of
depth of my lack of knowledge of caste intersectionality in India, class, caste, and religion,
extraordinarily complex and entangled categories, in South Asia. A sociologist M. N.
Srinivas has documented, even among non-Hindu religions, Islam and Christianity
being the chief ones, caste-like occupational
stratification continues to persist. The Urdu word (speaks foreign language), used among South Asian Muslims to denote family, kinship, or brotherhood, literally we get the
English word brother from (speaks foreign language),
right, this Persian word, has over time been saturated
with caste-like undertones. Thus, while caste should not
exist for converts to Islam, in reality, if you converted
from an untouchable caste, which was the case for 70%
of Muslims in South India, and 70% of Christians in South India, and in part, if you did this to escape the heinous institution of caste, you continue to be
thought of as untouchable within those non-Hindu faiths. These intersectional groups
are thus multiply ostracized as the Marxist historian
Gail Omvedt has put it. They are ostracized for
being Muslim or Christian with Hindu society. Among Muslims and Christians,
they are ostracized for being lower, or untouchable, caste. So this is what I will refer
to as caste intersectionality, and it is honestly something
that critical scholars have not sufficiently gotten a grasp on. Left out of formal planning mechanisms, and even left out of affirmative action, why, because the constitution of India says affirmative action
should only be for Hindu or Buddhist Dalits, these
groups continue to live in and produce extraordinarily
precarious urban ecologies, so relationships with faith leaders, lower state functionaries,
and the political class. As Samantha Agarwal and
Mike Levien have argued in a recent article, caste blindness, the implicit notion that
caste has receded in India, tends to characterize
much scholarly writing on development and dispossession
in rural and urban India with a few notable exceptions. Agarwal and Levien find
that caste hierarchy matters greatly for land acquisitions in rural and peri-urban India. Lower caste groups and untouchables have significantly less
capacity to speculate on land or make use of land brokers, in large part because of
the more tenuous forms of land tenure that they possess. I concur with this finding,
and also bring into view the types of environmental unfreedoms that stem from caste hierarchy
and land tenure insecurity. So this brings me to my second story, which in particular brings to the fore the kind of precarity of land tenure for intersectional caste groups, in this case Dalit Christians. On the morning of January 18, 2013, bulldozers dispatched
by the city government, the BBMP, move into the
site of the Ejipura Slum in Southeast Bangalore. Most residents were up,
washing in the few public taps available in the settlement, and preparing their children for school and themselves for the construction, domestic labor,
waste-picking, drain-cleaning, clothes-washing, tannery, and other kinds of labor intensive jobs they had. The police move in quickly,
jump out, and provide warnings on loudspeakers before they hurl people’s possessions onto the streets and give the order to evict. The order for eviction had been given by the Bangalore high court
just a few months earlier. When residents protest, they are threatened and dragged away. One woman, in the third
trimester of pregnancy, was reported as having delivered
a child on the pavement three days after the evictions. According to a doctor who had been caring for the evicted, Dr. Silvia Karpagam, many women today are facing
dehydration and sexual violence, while evictees in general are suffering from a lack of water supply, dengue fever from stagnant water, and urinary tract infections. I came to learn about the Ejipura eviction through several fieldwork trips in the ensuing months and years. Acclaimed photojournalist Javed Iqbal captured the site for a multimedia project conducted by the Maraa Arts Collective, titled The Afterlife
of Structural Violence. When the eviction was done,
a large fence was placed around the evicted land to signal that the property was now
private and off-limits. Over 5,000 people, 1,500 families
had been evicted that day. Where once had stood
the nearly 30-year-old government-recognized slum was barren land ready for a luxury real estate project, including a shopping mall, car parks, and a high-rise condominium complex. The project was a public-private
partnership, a PPP, between the city government, the BBMP, and Maverick Holdings Private Limited, a subsidiary of one of Bangalore’s largest real estate groups, Gurda
Enterprises Limited. When I visited the barren
site in February 2018, I snapped this jarring and ironic picture. In the background is the
fence guarding the property with the sign PPP Project of BBMP Maverick Holdings Private Limited signaling that this was now enclosed land. In the foreground was an
image of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, finger pointed up to the sky, book in hand, iconic blue suit. One hundred percent of the
people who were evicted that day are Dalits, according to
a post-eviction report, that is, members of India’s
so-called untouchable castes. But crucially, they are Dalit Christians. Now, Dalit Christians are a
very particular intersectional caste group within kind of the
Dalit population in general, and like Dalit Muslims, which is another intersectional group I talked about earlier,
face very particular types of ostracizations and stigmas. And I’ll come to that in a second, but I want to return to the
image of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar here. As mentioned, he’s pictured
here with a blue suit, holding a book, most likely
the constitution of India, finger raised as if to educate
a caste-crippled nation. Ambedkar was a barrister, an economist, and an architect of the
constitution of India. That he is wearing a Western
blue suit is symbolic. Unlike his intellectual
rival Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar did not romanticize rural India or traditional customs. In fact, he encouraged lower caste groups to move to the city to shed
the shackles of Hindu culture and to embrace enlightenment philosophy. But what Ambedkar did not anticipate was the degree to which
caste would continue to adhere in India’s cities and social and political systems, and
that constitutional law and affirmative action
were not going to be enough to redress the lasting
discrimination that caste, once bureaucratized by the colonial state and post-colonial state, mutated to fit liberal property norms was going to have. He also did not anticipate
the degree to which caste intersectionality,
that is the degree to which casteism was going to continue to be practiced in non-Hindu religions was going to continue to unfold. A bit about Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who was an anti-caste
philosopher and most famously associated with his book,
“Annihilation of Caste.” Ambedkar belonged to an
untouchable caste himself known as the Mahar, and he
theorized caste untouchability in his writings as an
indirect form of slavery. He gets this notion of slavery from the abolitionist Jyotirao Phule, who I mentioned earlier, who dedicates his 1873 book “Gulamgiri,” which translates to slavery, to quote “the good people
of the United States “as a token of admiration
for their sublime “disinterested and
self-sacrificing devotion in the cause of Negro slavery,” end quote. As the intellectual historian
Jesus Chairez-Garza, with whom I organized a
conference this past April, writes for Ambedkar, untouchability, which he called an
indirect form of slavery, was sustained not only
by social interactions and structural discrimination, but also by spatial features and by demarcations of
public and private property. In his epic book, “Annihilation of Caste,” which is essentially a
treatise against Hinduism and it is an argument against Gandhi, because who believed that
Hinduism could be reformed, Ambedkar did not believe that, Ambedkar writes in very
spatial and geographic tones, which was really
interesting to mine the text for the kind of salience it
has for critical geography. He writes that the
village well, the temple, and even roads, were
off-limits for untouchables, who were relegated to peripheral ghettos, exactly the word he
uses, within the village. Ambedkar most poignant
act of civil disobedience was one of both spatial and
environmental transgression. In 1927, he took fellow untouchables to a water tank in Mahad in western India that was off-limits for untouchables. So in a lot of Indian villages, water tanks and public spaces and commons, Dalits were prohibited
from accessing them, because it was believed that they would contaminate the resource. As depicted in this painting,
the presence of the dog drinking water from this tank is symbolic. As the caption in Hindi reads, “While the Brahmin,” meaning the highest caste Hindu, “will allow even his dog
to drink from the well, “Dalits are prohibited,
according to Hindu law.” The caption decries the extreme
dehumanization of Dalits, and the spatial
segregation that they face, treated as even lower than animals, as shown by the symbolism of the dog. Caste has always been a
project that entangles spatial, ecological,
and dehumanizing logics. I give this context on Ambedkar’s life and radical thought so that
you can better understand the narratives emanating
from Christian Dalits who were evicted that day from
the Ejipura Slum eviction. In an impact assessment
undertaken by a nonprofit, it was found, as I mentioned, that 100% of the evicted
are Dalit Christians. Similar to the lower-caste
and untouchable Muslims I’d encountered in Madina Nagar, Dalit Christians were
considered untouchable, even after they had
converted to Christianity, and they continued to be
ostracized by the church, they continued to be
structurally discriminated against within the city, they continued to be structurally
discriminated against in terms of labor, in terms of education, in terms of accessing various types of government institutions. One evictee, Rose, said, quote, “Ambedkar has fought so
much for our emancipation, “but the situation still has not changed. “Injustice has only continued. “We’ve lost our jobs,” meaning after the eviction, “our children have dropped out of school, “and our health has worsened, “but we are invisible in
the eyes of the government. “They are chasing us
like thieves,” end quote. Rose was not wrong. The city government indeed narrates such groups as criminals. In fact, a government official
in charge of the eviction was reported as justifying the eviction as quote, “many of these
residents who live in Ejipura” have quote, “criminal connections,” right? “The slum was rife with all
kinds of illegal activities “and most are from
Parapanna Agrahara Jail,” which is, of course,
an anecdotal statement that has no basis in actual fact. As Yafir Truelove has argued, environmental harms are
embodied differentially by gender, religion, caste, and ethnicity, and the criminalization of minorities often serves state projects
of urban improvement, policing, water governance,
and slum evictions. When I began to look more deeply at the historical roots of
this kind of criminalization, especially as it’s tied to property, I realized that this is kind of rooted in particular ways in
which caste and criminality were bureaucratized by
the colonial apparatus, so this brings me to part two, Casteist and Colonial Regimes of Property. In 2018 and 2019, I launched
a research partnership with Isaac Arul Selva, a
Dalit Christian activist who runs a newspaper called Slum Jagattu, or Slum World in Kannada. Selva and his colleagues had started a campaign against slum land grabs in the aftermath of the
Ejipura Slum eviction. In the process, Selva had
gleaned valuable insight into the history of the land in question, and I’m very grateful to his insight here for the history I’m about to narrate. When I entered Selva’s
small office in Koramangala, I noticed this (speaks
foreign language) proverb scrawled on the white board, associated with the Nigerian
post-colonial author Chinua Achebe, “As long as
lions have no historians, “tales of history will
glorify the hunter.” Selva and his colleagues laid out a (speaks foreign language) for us to sit on and poured coffee from a thermos. Several hours into the conversation, three of them went out on a moped and brought back biryani, a Persian dish of rice,
spiced meat, and vegetables. “We normally order beef biryani,” Selva said with a twinkle in his eye and a smile playing on his face, “but because you’re here, we thought we’d better
order mutton biryani.” I laughed, because here
was a jab at my Brahmin, non beef-eating, pure veg,
last name, Ranganathan, but little did Selva know, of course, that I’m an anti-caste,
anti-racist atheist carnivore, but he eventually found this out. He said to me, “Bangalore
is like a village. “In the center is the Agarahara, “or place for upper castes,
the land-owning community. “On the outsides are the untouchables. “All the slums are dominated by Dalit “and untouchable communities. “Land-grabbing is
reinforcing untouchability. “What we are facing now
is modern-day slavery, “which is against the constitution.” Official estimates put
Bangalore’s slum population at around 11% of its population, but most activists and
researchers in the city say it’s much, much higher than this. Now this is still significantly lower than Mumbai’s slum population, which is widely put at
about 60% of the city. Indeed, the labor
histories of the two cities are quite different,
but Selva’s assessment, corroborated by the best available data, suggests that slums are
disproportionately occupied by Dalit intersectional
groups in Bangalore. This is because of a
particular spatial history of how urban villages and village commons were incorporated into the city through improvement projects, and through various types of building of improved residential property, and notions of property
tied to personhood. And it’s also, of course,
because of a history of migration, where landless Dalits have left (speaks foreign language) in search of work in Bangalore. So, indeed, even though
there’s a smaller proportion of total urban dwellers living in slums, slum dwellers are disproportionately
untouchable groups and intersectioned Dalit groups who have experienced a particular
history of dispossession. Selva explained this history
in a little bit more detail. The land upon which the
Dalit slum, Ejipura, sat was once gomala land, which farmers, which is a term for village grazing land, that the root go means cow. So this was land on which
farmers could graze their cattle in the erstwhile Ejipura village, and here you can see pictured in green, the green rectangle, is
the 1973 survey of India topo map before the
Bangalore had experienced rapid urbanization, showing
kind of the very outskirts of the city corporation, and this village existing outside of it. You can see the term vegetable garden if you look a little closer. It might be hard to read, but that’s the gomala land, right, which is the common land on which this Dalit slum sat. Now, in “Caste and
Nature: Dalits and Indian Environmental Politics,” Mukul
Sharma traces the history of common land in India
from the vantage of caste. It’s an anti-caste epistemology, which we don’t see very much in the environmental literature. He says, quote, “In
contrast to the way commons “are typically discussed in
mainstream environmentalism, “commons have a distinctive
valence for Dalits. “They are places for conflict and protest. “They are places of
domination and resistance. “They are regions of exclusion,
captivity, and fear.” The Dalit ghetto, Selva explained to me, was separated from the upper caste areas of Ejipura village, and
often these common lands were off-limits for people
living in that village. However, during a spate of land reforms in the latter part of the 20th century, the government of India redistributed, though patchily, such
common land and waste land to Dalits and scheduled tribes. With rapid urbanization, in 1995, the Bangalore municipal
corporation amalgamated, and basically swallowed
up this common land into the corporation, into
the city of Bangalore, which entailed a transfer of ownership and management of this
common land to the city. What the city ended up doing, then, was that because this
land had sort of been squatted on and occupied
by lower-caste groups, it decided to build
public housing tenements for those Dalit villagers, who are now labeled as slum-dwellers. So in fact they were transformed from villagers to slum-dwellers. The tenements were of abysmal quality. They lacked water and sanitation. They lacked sufficient daylight. They were basically like boxes, and they lacked structural soundness. When the roof of a part
of a tenement collapsed, killing a young child in the early 2000s, the city government then
moved the tenement dwellers out into tin sheds. So this is the kind of transformation from a village commons to a slum land to then a public tenement unit to then these tin sheds, pictured in these protestors’ pictures. And this is a long decadal history. Now, fed up with the conditions of housing and mistreatment by the government, many of the older villagers
turned slum-dwellers had moved out, renting their sheds to the extremely poor, and in this case, Christian Dalit laborers, who
were essentially landless. But given the commons nature of land, and given the fact that land
tenure could not be proven, or land ownership could not be proven, Dalit residents did not
possess proof of land tenure, and this made the high court decide that they weren’t actually
legal occupants of the land. So because of a kind of
slew of government policies and transformations, right,
these groups basically lost their security of access to the land and lost their tenure security. Now new opportunities for
investment in real estate in Bangalore’s new liberal period has brought the dawn of
public private partnerships and special economic zones in real estate. PPPs, like the Maverick Project, which basically took
over that common land, took over that slum land, are signed behind closed
doors and given fast clearance at investor meets in chandelier
clad ballrooms in Bangalore, facilitating the
transformation of common land, right, gomala land, turned into slums, now into luxury real estate. As Vinod Gidvani and
Raj Reddy have argued, the enclosure of wastelands, common lands, gomala land for the
establishments of SEZs are quote, “unfolding chapters in the annals “of eviscerating urbanism,” end quote. Selva spoke precisely to this process when he told us the story of the land, and how its historical evolution from a village commons to slum land and finally to an SEZ was not accidental, but a planned strategy of
what he termed Brahminical, or upper caste, urbanism. The CEO of the Maverick
Enterprises is Uday Garudachar. Uda Garudachar is not only the CEO of this real estate enterprise, he also moonlights as a BJP politician, that is a member of India’s far-right Hindu Nationalist party. Selva spoke about how casteism functions in every day spaces, and refracts the national
and nationalist climate. And he said, quote, “Uday Garudachar,” who is the CEO, as mentioned the PPP, “is Brahmin, so he gets all the support “from the upper caste government people. “Just imagine when Garudachar
goes to the corporation office “the lift boy rushes and tells everyone “to move from there, “so that he can ride the lift,” end quote. The toxic concoction that
is Hindu nationalism, neoliberalism, and anti-minority today is particular to India’s
historical moment. Shantha Mary, one of the displaced, echoes exactly what Selva had said, and kind of translates
this into her own words at an activist meeting after the eviction. She says, quote, “The
process of displacement “that is done through slum evictions “and forced rehabilitation
at the outskirts, “is an enactment of segregation “along caste lines that has
been historically practiced “and continues in the
name of development.” To understand this kind
of workings of casteism within the bureaucratic apparatus, I launched an archival
extension to my work for the past several years, four years, including a stay at the
Karnataka State Archives earlier this year. I’ve drawn on labor,
health, and hygiene reports from the late 19th and
early 20th centuries, the writings of colonial
spectators and governors, and planning journals spanning
India’s nationalist moment, i.e. the 1930s to the 1960s. As if to foreshadow what was
to come in 2013, in 2014, here’s a picture I found of the demolition of quote, “native quarters”
by colonial engineers in the aftermath of the Bubonic plague that struck Bangalore and the
rest of South Asia in 1896. In the aftermath of disease
epidemics in the colonial era, engineers and planners
targeted the homes and bodies of lower-caste natives and Mohammedans, the archaic word for Muslims, for removal. And it’s really interesting
how, in many ways, the kind of, this idea of improvement that really targets lower-caste areas, that targets common land
that is now being occupied by slum-dwellers, continues
to very much animate improvement measures today in the city. Using Orientalist discourse,
colonial engineers framed the plague as caused
by irreducible differences between the sanitary Christian European and the non-European, non-sanitary, and in some cases, criminal other. J.H. Stephens, who was
the engineer in charge of plague-proofing Bangalore
and improving the city, was also one of the major architects for the criminal tribes and caste act, who sat on the vice-roy’s council and was very instrumental in creating a colonial category that
criminalized particular castes. So you can see that there’s a kind of cross-fertilization
between the categorizing of certain groups in a particular way, and then urban planning and improvement. And so, he says, quote, “For
while so many Mohammedens died, “the plague hardly touched the English. “It took some time for
these people to understand “that the principal
cause of all the trouble “was insanitary habits
and manner of living.” And he basically equates
and creates the notion that insanitary living and behavior was kind of innate to particular groups, which you also see very much filtering into discourses about criminality, and actually the
institutionalization of criminality within laws, basically denigrating
entire groups of people. Having demolished native quarters, areas that were thought to be criminal, areas that were thought to house
insalubrious slum-dwellers, unsanitary groups, many of these so-called depressed classes, which is
the term the British used to refer to untouchables,
were not rehoused. Through projects of improvement laid out in acts such as this one, which is the 1945 City of
Bangalore Improvement Act, colonial planners built new hygienic private property suburbs
through eminent domain, which were largely catering
to upper-castes and classes, and the British, in purpose, wanted to kind of
maintain class segregation and caste segregation, and so
you can see many of the areas built according to kind
of private property and Western norms were very much occupied by Brahmins or upper castes
throughout Bangalore. And to think about empire and property, and kind of the co-evolution
of the liberal empire and property norms,
Thomas Metcalfe explains that this notion of improvement became the currency through
which English attitudes and practices toward
property and propriety were to be imparted in India, often in violent and racialized ways. For Ranajit Guha, the intellectual origins of property in India can
be traced to the notion that value could only be achieved by improving waste lands, common lands, agricultural lands via demarcating
private property rights, via essentially converting common land and enclosing it into private property. Castes that were typically denied property in the first place because
of Hindu caste hierarchy, such as untouchables, were framed through colonial discourses as criminal castes, where not only was criminality
seen as group heredity and a trait, but also being property-less was sufficient cause for being criminal, and thus being denied property. So it was a kind of circular reasoning by the colonial regime, which, as I said, bureaucratized and gave this
kind of bureaucratic form to the caste system in property. And you can very much kind of see that in various ways even in contemporary laws. Scholars who have looked
at this phenomenon and particularly looked
at the ways in which, under British rule, there
was a sort of ferocity in the ways that landlords
and money lenders conspired together to
enclose agricultural land and common land, and
manufacture indebtedness, thus creating a class of landless, indebted lower caste laborers
who had no other option but to sell their labor power. The pernicious mix of
colonial land alienation and casteism did not just
end with independence, as I mentioned, rather it was a cocktail that was appropriated by
India’s nationalist leaders and structurally codified
into government laws and institutions, despite
the existence, later, of anti-discrimination laws
and affirmative action. Through eminent domain, for instance, the Bangalore City
Improvement Trust Board, which later became the BDA, or the Bangalore Development Authority, continued to target and criminalize the homes and bodies of slum-dwellers, while continuing to, in
a very casted manner, create subdivisions,
private property norms, for upper class and elite and those who had cultural
capital in Bangalore. So these logics continued to play out and be appropriated and articulated with neoliberal land grabs today in the production of environmental risk. In the final part of my talk, I want to turn to how these
kinds of articulations of colonial and casteist property norms that have engendered all manner
of environmental freedoms have been disrupted, and
so here’s where I’m going to turn to some of the influences from abolitionist thought
and black humanism. In the face of lynchings
and violence committed against minorities, Dalits, Muslims across India since the
election of a far-right, ethno-nationalist party, the BJP, Dalit protests in India today
have consistently returned to a core question: aren’t we Dalits human
like the rest of them? For black feminist and
humanist scholar Sylvia Wynter, the degradation of the environment cannot be separated from
historical dehumanization. Along these lines, Paul
Gilroy has recently argued for a reparative humanism, a reparative humanism, a
humanism that speaks to and redresses the experience
of anti-blackness. Specifically, Gilroy says that against the flattening ontologies of the anthropocene narrative,
the narrative that humans and non-humans are somehow
on the same essential plane, we need a reparative humanism. When we talk about the
non or more than human, we should be reappraising which humans have typically been treated as non-human or sub-human or dehumanized. So what would a reparative
humanism look like in the context of the
millennial lynching of a nation, of slum evictions, and of
rampant environmental unfreedoms that beset intersectional Dalit groups? Returning to the evictions, in 2013, slum and human rights activists
took to Bangalore’s streets, calling for quote, “no
malls, we need homes.” The protest coalesced around a statue of the anti-caste
intellectual B.R. Ambedkar. Political anthropologist
Nicolas Jaoul documents how in many villages across
north and south India, Dalit political parties, such
as the Bahujan Samaj Party, have erected Ambedkar statues, much to the objection
of upper-caste Hindus, as a way of making Dalit presence felt and noticed in public space. The installation of Ambedkar statues also happened in slums and outdoor markets all over India as a way to attach identity to a threatened space,
especially threatened in terms of access to that space. This work echoes my findings. As one Dalit activist put it to me, quote, “Once we start calling
slum land Dalit land, “by putting up DSS flags,” that is Dalit party, “and Ambedkar’s pictures,
it becomes more difficult “to evict us, since the constitution calls “for Dalit protection. “It becomes more possible to
treat us as human beings.” If abolition starts
from the homely premise that freedom is a place,
then Dalit place-making and fugitive commoning
are ways of rehumanizing. While I’m not trying to
romanticize such expressions, I still want to emphasize
their material outcomes. For instance, in the particular
case of the evictions, while the slum-dwellers were evicted and many of them are now being rehoused at the far peripheries in Sarjapur, Selva feels as if this struggle has helped to stem the tide
of evictions in the city, because, quote, “they are more scared “of how we can organize to name “and symbolize common land as Dalit land.” Last December, as the city slept, a four-foot bust of Ambedkar
was installed secretly in KR Market, a market where a number of lower-caste traders
make and sell their wares, a market that has been routinely
threatened for eviction. Who put the statue there? Where did it come from? These questions made for comic relief as the police were at pains
to identify the culprit. In his article “Plotting
the Black Commons” in the journal “Souls,” J.T.
Roane uncovers a history of slavery in the Anacostia
region of Washington, D.C. He talks about how slaves
use the cover of night, as well as alternative knowledges of forested and swampy
landscapes and commons to forge an infrastructure of hidden paths and fugitive geographies
that helped give shape to the black commons. This fugitive commoning
consisted of a kind of hidden, sometimes hidden in plain sight, alternative black landscape. Beyond neighborhood struggles
has been also the movement, the (speaks foreign language), or the statewide anti-land
grabbing movement that protests a flurry
of land dispossesions in Bangalore’s millennial period. I’ve been researching
this group since 2014. In particular, I’ve been interested in how it draws together
communist Dalit activists. In the background, you can
see the blue iconic wheel of the Ambedkarite party. In the foreground, you can see
several notable characters, including a politician with the Janata Dal party, A.T. Ramaswamy. You can also see the
kind of tactics they use, so it’s very material. You see one of the protestors
having a basket of mud on their heads, kind of symbolizing (speaks foreign language), the earth, we’re kind of taking back the land. It’s a very material
call for claiming land, and they’ve really kind of
pointed at this hypocrisy of land grabs and
illicit land transactions very much being condoned for the wealthy, but really, when it comes to
the poor and marginal groups, very much being policed and criminalized. Such entangled narratives, right, where you have these material and more discursive politics and display of public space claim-making
have also filtered into cinematic imaginaries, so in 2018, Dalit filmmaker Pa Ranjith
created and directed the film “Kaala” on
the threatened eviction of Tamil Dalits from
Dharavi slum in Mumbai, and the protagonist here,
pictured here sitting on the front of a car, is Kaala, a name that plays on the
Hindi word for black, but is also short for the
Tamil proper name Karikaalan, and he’s an insurgent dark-skinned
Dalit slum leader, right, who’s played by Rajinikanth,
who is a very iconic, very famous Tamil, actually
Angra film star in south India. He embodies these emancipatory politics, this kind of fugitive commoning, of claiming the land and
the slum at all costs against an evil light-skinned politician who wants to grab the slum land, while also making India clean and pure, a thinly veiled reference to
(speaks foreign language), or clean India sanitary cum
ethnic cleansing politics. If the film could be faulted for a kind of simplistic colorism,
it is nevertheless rich with anti-caste symbolism and quotes from Ambedkar’s “The
Annihilation of Caste” and the works of other
Dalit intellectuals. It centrals environmental freedoms, such as safe water and sanitation, as being possible only
with secure land rights. It also indexes a global black power through reference to the Black Panther, to hip hop through music and dancing. Near the end, Kaala triumphs
over a corrupt light-skinned upper-caste politician who
wants to seize the slum and turn it into a luxury
real estate project. And so with kind of this
song and dance sequence, where there’s this black
fairy dust that flies, slum dwellers sing about
abolishing slavery, they sing about our land is our right in a grand kind of finale, which is obviously a very,
very uplifting imaginary. However, such a cinematic imaginary of trans-national ethics of freedom that indexes black emancipation and also kind of locates
that within land struggles, within environmental struggles in India, this also courses through the journalism of Slum Jagattu, which is
the slum-based journalism, Dalit journalist that I’ve been shadowing. In a project that I co-launched this year with Selva, we’re working
on translating the archive of news and radical political philosophy contained within Kannada
slum-based newspapers. In the April 2018 Slum Jagattu edition, it commemorates the 127th birthday of Dr. Ambedkar on the front cover. Inside the issue, the
newspaper carries an article on Afro-Brazilian political
activist Marielle Franco, who was assassinated the previous month for speaking out against police brutality and defending Rio de Janeiro’s black favela-dwelling LGBTQ communities. Titled “A Wake-Up Call for Us,” the article is a call to
trans-national intersectional black Dalit solidarity
in ways that I think are particular to the kind of insurgent vernacular journalism that you see in Bangalore and
haven’t really been picked up in kind of mainstream outlets at all. So, observing such
trans-national reverberations and activists in intellectual discourse, in April 2019, I co-organized a workshop with the support of the
Antipode Foundation, titled “Rethinking Difference in India: Racialization in
Transnational Perspective” with several colleagues, and our keynote was Suraj Yengde, who is the author of “Caste Matters” and editor of “The Radical in Ambedkar,” which is one of the major pieces that I’ve drawn on for this work. But among other things we discussed, we talked about the long history of Afro-Dalit political solidarity. In 1946, B.R. Ambedkar wrote to DuBois to ask him for a copy of a
petition DuBois had filed in the UN on quote, “the
condition of Negroes in America.” “There is so much similarity
between the position “of the untouchables in India “and the position of Negroes in America,” Amedkar wrote in his letter, “that the study of the latter “is not only natural, but necessary.” So I’m just going to
end now with a couple of key kind of take-aways, looking at both the longer history of solidarity here and the kind of murmurings of solidarity, the emergence of this radical politics that we’re seeing that’s
disrupting the casteist and colonial regimes of property that have led to these
environmental unfreedoms. So I think some broader
conclusions that we can draw from this work is that
caste intersectionality, the particular issues faced by groups that are non-Hindu, but are nevertheless experiencing untouchability,
is woefully understudied in India, it’s woefully under-researched, and rarely talked about,
and it’s implicated in some extraordinarily serious questions of unequal urban land access
and environmental unfreedoms, and this is, I think, true not
just for the Indian context, but also in Pakistan and Bangladesh, because these are categories
that continue to filter and structure societies there as well. So this is just kind
of a call and an appeal to think more seriously about this issue. Second, fugitive commoning,
this idea of surreptitiously, or perhaps, by groups that have been historically marginalized kind of reclaiming the commons through
symbolic means, you know, it is perhaps a more symbolic
gesture at this point. It’s a narrative politics,
but it does disrupt, albeit partially only,
these kinds of legacies of casteist and colonial property regimes that I talked about, in
which property-making is very much tied to
upper caste personhood. And finally, I’m really taken by the, not just the longer history
of solidarity building across contexts, right,
across the United States and South Asia, but the ways
in which that solidarity continues to filter in
insurgent journalism and narratives that I’m
trying to study on the ground, and I think the ways in
which they’re trying to build this trans-national ethics
of abolition and humanism, why shouldn’t Dalits
be treated like humans, helps to reframe environmental
justice so that it has a salience in the South Asian context, and I think this humanism
is very, very important and actually deepens the
more than human critical social science approaches. So I’ll end there, thank you. (audience applauds) – Okay, I think it’s working. Thank you so much, Malini, for such a rich and thought-provoking talk. I can kind of walk around
and hand over the microphone to anyone who has questions. Okay, I’ll start with my own. So I’m still processing
the various insights that you’ve provided,
but one of the questions that I had was how does an intersectional Dalit understanding of propertied regimes help us rethink the idea
of environmental commons? – So, the question is how does attention to caste intersectionality, or kind of intersectional subjectivities, as far as untouchable
groups in South Asia, help us to rethink the commons, and I think, so I think the
kind of mainstream environmental literature on the commons has tended to think of this as a space that is endangered, that
is, that we need to kind of create rules and regulations around, but that these often
emerge from institutions that are local in nature. So I’m thinking very much about the institutionalist literature, and I think what the
Dalit epistemology does, is to warn us that commons
have not always been accessible to all groups, and that
institutions aren’t caste-neutral, and they’re not power-neutral, but to think about the
specific histories of commons, and the ways in which commons are, one of the problems with the mainstream environmental literature is that commons are very ahistorical, so
you just have the sense of like commons and institutions and all these committees,
these village committees, all of that literature, which is very core in political science or
environmental politics, has a very thin historical
appreciation of commons, so I think the Dalit literature, Dalit standpoint does two things. One is that I think
it’s much more attentive to the histories of commons and the ways in which
commons have been transformed through various types of state projects, from the colonial era through
to the post-colonial era, and it has been very good about kind of tracing histories of land. The second is to not take for granted kind of the access to the commons, but to show how these
commons have been accessed through insurgent claim-making, so that’s why the idea
of fugitive commoning, which again, it’s the
same thing, for instance, the African American
environmental literature, a lot of the national parks, these kinds of open, wild spaces, the spaces of wilderness,
were not necessarily accessible to African-Americans. And Carolyn Finney has
this incredible piece in her work, “Black Faces, White Spaces,” about how the outdoors
have often been associated with lynching, for instance,
for African-Americans. So if there is to be a
claiming of the commons, it has to be done through, it has had to be historically done through these fugitive means, but that we should recognize those kinds of claim-making around
the commons as well. And sometimes they are more
symbolic than material, but in many cases that
symbolism has power. – Thanks. (clears throat) That was great, Malini,
I really enjoyed it. Such rich mixes of contemporary
and historical material. I have, I guess, two questions. The first stems from the
beginning of your talk, where you’re putting the American, more legal framework of
environmental justice in conversation with the Indian one. And what strikes me about the
US environmental justice work is the ways that it comes out
of a more legal tradition, and yet it’s kind of
institutionalization becomes largely detoothed through the requirement that you have to demonstrate
discriminatory intent. And so while we often think of this kind of Rawlsian
distributive justice framework underpinning EJ in the US,
it seems that, in fact, in the Indian context, there’s
actually quite a rich vein of environmental law that
provides, in some ways, more robust statutory
means for the remediation of what you’re calling these
environmental unfreedoms. So, and I think part of that
is specifically represented in the Ambedkarite tradition, right, the figure of Ambedkar
holding the constitution is, I think, in the current moment, my understanding is that
there is quite a body of thinkers in the Ambedkarite tradition who are insisting that
his constitutionalism not be moved beyond, but insisted upon, as the very foundation
upon which Dalit liberation might be imagined,
particularly in the context of the current regime that’s weakening some of those constitutional bases. So I’m just sort of thinking that maybe the kind of move away from the law is not actually the point of difference, but perhaps a stronger
rooting in the Indian context, because the right to life, and the arrange of means by which environmental protections
can be mobilized, even if always in a
partial and incomplete way. That’s one question. The second is on Dalit intersectionality, and I’m always reminded
that the formation of Dalit is a political project. It’s a naming project to pull together a community as a political act. And I wonder if the move
towards intersectionality might too quickly presume
a kind of togetherness when we see, for example,
the ways in which, in some contexts, Dalit
place-making is a violent form of place-making
that’s not necessarily one aligned with Muslim minority concerns, but very much against it. – Yeah, that’s fair. So, yeah, great questions,
thank you so much, Asher. I think on the question of law, and you’re right, ’cause I
think you’re spotlighting a possible tension, where I open up with kind of moving away from the
Rawlsian juridical framework and then show several images of Ambedkar holding the constitution, so what does that mean? So I think there’s a couple of things. I think the decolonial
environmental scholars have staged an important critique against that distributional
justice framework, which is that there’s this idea within EJ to reduce the law to
distributional justice, where the law becomes essentially only about proving distributional harms, and therefore distributional justice. Like how do we distribute these harms in a more racially egalitarian way, and decolonial scholars are, like, that doesn’t make sense
for a lot of contexts. So in some sense, it’s almost like maybe we hae to put aside the
distributional part, but then still uptake the law part. What does law bring into the fold? And here it’s interesting, ’cause I think, I think, I think different
contexts in India rely and the law is kind of
validated to different extents, so you know, I think in Delhi, the high court has been really important in creating laws around pollution and laws around greening, and et cetera. But in other parts of India, I don’t know if the court
has been as powerful in the environmental stance, but they have been powerful
in terms of questions around land and land acquisition, both regressively and
progressively, right? There’s been both. And now there is, of course, since 1987, there’s the Prevention of
Atrocities against SCs and STs, the Prevention of
Atrocities Act, the POA Act. So there’s different
types of legal machinery that can be leveraged in the service of environmental unfreedoms, rectifying environmental unfreedoms that aren’t necessarily
environmental laws. So I think they’re making
a really important point about how do we take the law, not necessarily environmental law-making, but other forms of law, into service, and this is part of the conference’s goal is to imagine environment
more capaciously, as various types of
freedoms and rights, right? And so, I think other arms of the law can be leveraged, and it’s
important, as you said, I mean, the constitutional
law around affirmative action that Ambedkar really was the architect of has been used as a
rallying cry among Dalits, but you know, I didn’t mention this, but some of the later work of Amedkar actually laments a little bit. He even admits that the
constitutional provisions are not likely going to be enough, that we’re going to need
structural economic change in order to, right, so it’s
not just the law itself. So he even admits that it’s not enough, and I think anti-caste Dalit intellectuals have also said that the
constitutional provisions aren’t enough, so I think
there’s this kind of, the law has to be taken
for what it’s worth, and used as much as possible, but also we have to recognize
the limits of the law. And perhaps, I should
foreground that in a way that both kind of is in conversation with the environmental justice literature, but also departs from it. Because I think the
environmental justice literature is guilty of too much relying
on environmental laws, whereas law is very, very
broad beyond the environment, but then can serve the environment. So yeah, absolutely, to that question. So then the question in kind
of identitarian politics and intersectionality and the fact that imagining a presumed solidarity might be a little bit too quick given the kinds of fractious politics even within the untouchable castes, right, which is, of course, a
very diverse category. And Dalit, itself, is highly political. You’re absolutely right about that. Historically, in fact, even Shudras, and some of the OBCs, the
other backward castes, have been recategorized as SCSTs, so it’s very, very full
of maneuverings, right, and very much true. But I agree with you
that there might not be a kind of unified political consciousness. I think that sort of the
movements that are more violent, anti-Muslim, have to be recognized, but I also find that, at least within the urban political
movements that I’m studying, there just seems to be,
because of the lynching that’s really been, I think the lynching has really been directed
by cow vigilantes, especially at beef-eating groups. And so it seems like lynching has especially done
bodily harm to Muslims, and so there is a kind of solidarity against the ethno-nationalist
state, right, that brings together
these strange bedfellows that might have not otherwise
been brought together. So there’s something
about the political moment that might provide opportunities
for more solidarity than we’d see otherwise, when there’s always been
Hindu-Muslim animosity. So there’s potential there, but I agree that it
shouldn’t be romanticized, because even Dalit Hindus
have been recruited by the Sanghese, by the right wing. And so I think there’s a kind of, of all hues and stripes
that have been incorporated into political projects, but
I guess I’m holding onto hope that there is solidarity, because of these embodied violences that have been disproportionately heaped on particular groups, so among groups that have been experiencing harm. – So first of all thank
you for such a rich talk, and there was so much there that I’m going to try to enjoy digesting over the coming weeks, and also looking at some of the readings that you draw our attention to I think was incredibly useful for thinking through a number of issues on urban ecologies and property regimes and water, and all kind of topics that we’re discussing these two days. So thank you for that. And to kind of, I’m adding on a little bit to what Asher’s question was, but from a different angle. I really appreciated the
term Dalit intersectionality, and I think that precisely what
the intersectionality work, I know you’re using it in a different way, but you’re drawing from Crenshaw, and the sort of history
of intersectionality, which isn’t necessarily
presupposing solidarity, but is actually saying, oh, we have to actually
look at all of these different subjectivities and identities and how they intersect and
actually position people in very unique ways, and
how that can be transcended and changed, and so I’m
really curious about if you could say more about, not necessarily the solidarity component that you were just discussing, but more about how
intersectionality of Dalits might lead to different outcomes in terms of this history
of colonial dispossession, this history now, what’s
kind of transcribed into neoliberal
dispossession, to think about what the outcomes, maybe tell us more about what the different
outcomes might be, for example, when you were
mentioning Dalit Muslim groups that actually, they
don’t have reservations, they have very different kinds
of experiences and outcomes, versus, and I think your case
studies were showing this a bit with Christian Dalits, but if you could say more about how that intersectionality
actually shows differentiated the way that processes become contingent on these intersections and then lead to differing experiences, results, and consequences of dispossession. – Yeah, thanks very
much for that question, and I’m reminded just as as in America there is a conversation
around black capitalism, for instance, the idea
that there are certainly, and Nathan Connolly has
really helpfully talked about the history of black
capitalism, for instance, within periods of redlining
and the history of segregation within the United States,
you had, in Washington, D.C., other parts, black landlords
essentially dispossessing other black lower income groups from land, and so there’s very much, you know, we have to be very
careful about homogenizing about racial difference and
disparate racial outcomes. So akin to that conversation, there is a really thriving
conversation on Dalit capitalism, which is, actually, there’s
a chapter on Dalit capitalism in Suraj Yengde and Anand Teltumbde’s book “The Radical in Ambedkar,” and I’ve been really interested
in that literature because, I think, again, akin to kind
of where Ambedkar was going, often, with the sense of like embracing really liberal modernity
and embracing aspects of colonial rule, this
idea that at some point, capitalism is going to actually, perhaps, be the way out of the
shackles of casteism, right, and actually provide the avenue from which to emancipate. And there is a good group, I mean, there’s a Dalit business bureau, there’s various types of
actually existing formations that really advance this project that the only way to kind
of escape the shackles of casteism is to become an urbanite, to become a capitalist, to
embrace the market system, and I think there’s a
really important discourse that we can’t lose sight of. So on that point of then, well
how does intersectionality, right, whether you are
a more educated Dalit, whether you are an urban-dwelling Dalit, whether you are a Dalit
Buddhist, Dalit Hindu, that can avail of affirmative action, versus the Christian Dalit, Muslim, I think that will very much dictate, let’s say, the outcomes
of a new property scheme, the outcomes of a particular
urban scheme, right? Different people are able to
avail of this differently, and empirically, I think the survey work of Mike Levien and his
colleague Samantha Agarwal has done a survey showing
that within the context of land acquisition by
the government, right, who really is benefiting from this? And you find that it is that
intersectionality that matters, it is, even within lower caste OBCs, it is the more educated,
the already landed, right, the ones that have more
social capital, connections, cultural capital, that’s
able to avail of it, versus the lower downs. And even in my own case,
it was actually interesting that there was a handover
of that slum land from kind of more better-off
Dalits to lower-off Dalits, which were the Dalit Christians. So what I think I’m
realizing through all this is that there are categories of Dalits that are really completely marginalized, multiply marginalized, and left out. Whereas there are other categories that are able to avail of
India’s liberalization trajectory and make advances, economic advances, and just as there is a
rising black middle class in the United States,
in Brazil, et cetera, places that have had racial histories. So I think there’s a
lot to say around that, and empirically, that’s the way, we need to understand that better. – Hello, I’m sorry, I
didn’t attend the talk. I’m so sorry, I was not here, but maybe this is a little out of context, but since we have you here, so I just wanted to ask you what’s your opinion on
the reservation system that is basically privilege
based on caste system. Maybe you have talked about it. Sorry I was not here. I really wanted to attend this talk, but I was stuck somewhere. But what’s your opinion on that, because I don’t want
this opportunity, yeah. – It’s interesting, I think, for me, I’m better positioned to almost comment on the opinions of the,
so I have an opinion on the opinions of the reservation system, and for me, it strikes me that there’s a very powerful opposition
to the reservation system that has come from, again, you know, maybe middle-income, even lower-income, upper-caste groups, lower-income Brahmins, lower-income powerful castes have said that they really find that
the reservation system discriminates against them, and they have not gotten
opportunities in colleges or government jobs or what have you because somebody else
who was Dalit, whatever, who didn’t score as well on exam got in. I know there’s a very kind of
emotionally-charged narrative around the unfairness of the
reservation system, right? For me, I think just
observing that narrative, trying to understand where it comes from, I mean, I’m sure that there
is some empirical grounding around that, but I really
think that affirmative action, reservation, at least in
principal, has a lot of merit, and I think that especially because of this extraordinarily long
history of multiple forms of ostracization and discrimination, I think that it is certainly
one important avenue through which to, basically
a form of reparations, a form of rectifying those
forms of discrimination. And so, I think, in
principal, it’s a good idea. I understand there’s a lot of critiques and kinds of frustrations around it, but I think, from where I stand, that’s kind of the limit of
what I can really say about it. I also know that there are places where it’s been heavily abused, I think, like all major federal
programs, there’s a lot of scope for corruption and abuse of the system, and I think that also
needs to be attended to, and it cannot be let
off the hook for that. But so yeah, I think that’s the extent of what I kind of know. But I know it’s a very vast topic, and is not exactly in the
purview of my empirical research, but it’s certainly been something that, you know, when I encounter, that activists have talked about how the upper castes are really trying to get rid
of the affirmative action, because they believe that
it unfairly benefits us, but it’s like such bullshit, because there’s so many things that we still are completely
locked out of, right? So anyway, that’s, I
think I have more validity to comment on the narrative than I have to actually provide a
kind of judgment on it. – Thanks so much for your talk. It was really illuminating to hear about Dalit intersectionality,
because until now, I mean, I would read
about scheduled castes, and just read about Dalit Hindus, but I was thinking a lot
about the case of Asia Bibi in Pakistan, which really
highlights how, I mean, people of scheduled castes
were seeking some kind of emancipation in converting to Islam, where they thought they
would find equality. Didn’t find it, then
converted to Christianity, where they were given land. But then, I mean, what’s
been happening in Pakistan is also, like, after Gurdwara, where there was just
attempts to like seize all of that land, which was
seen as sort of unfairly gotten, but just to kind of show that
that prejudice is still alive, that hatred is there. And what are, like, it’s
alive all over South Asia, regardless of whichever
majority, religion, whatever kind of fundamentalism
is being practiced, and so how does one begin to form a more intersectional
narrative around that and a context to it,
which takes into account all of these different histories and different kinds of dispossessions? – I think one of the starting
places is that there has to be recognition that casteism exists across the religions in South Asia. There is such a kind of
barrier, a mental barrier, to accepting that the
caste system continues to work in both insidious and more subtle, and then also more overt, ways,
and I think that the moment, the ethno-nationalist moment
has really, basically, forced us to take our
heads out of the sand and really admit that
casteism is alive and well in South Asia, and it’s not only the Hindus that practice it. Although certainly that’s
a disproportionate level of the population in India,
but across South Asia in Bangladesh and Pakistan,
there are also forms in which casteism seeps into other types of social stratifications. I was actually curious to
ask you about the film today, whether those laborers were of particular effective caste grouping
because of the kind of work that they did, even though
it might not overtly be called that, right, because several of my Pakistani friends
and colleagues have talked about this biradari system
within that society, and how it actually, even though it’s not supposed to be caste, it basically works like caste. It’s really interesting is
that syncretism of religion, how religion kind of continues to adopt traditional
practices, even if it changes. And it’s interesting,
like, Christians continue to have Hindu deities
in their house, right? Which is really interesting, like, so they have (speaks foreign language), which is like your house deity, which is practiced in
Christian households. I think the first step is really to recognize that it exists, honestly. I don’t see any other
way to addressing it, and that’s, I think, particularly hard for upper castes to do. – [Aparna] I would love
to keep taking questions, but I also want to be mindful of time. So I think we’re going to end here, but I’m sure we can keep
the conversations going in other spaces. Thank you so much, Malini.
– Thank you. (audience applauds)

1 thought on “Towards an Anti-caste and Abolitionist Epistemology for Environmental Justice

  1. It's always the upper class women injecting the cancer of feminism and racism against whites.

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