Many conservation organisations use religious symbolism to save species. Elephants, tigers, snakes, leopards, nilgai, cranes and the gharial are some examples. It doesn’t always work, but the accepted theory is the more revered a creature is, the more people will care about it.
Or take the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project. Years of well-reasoned petitions, protests, and editorials highlighted the enormous financial and ecological costs of dredging through the Gulf of Mannar. But they had little effect in changing the course of the project.
However, when Hindu nationalists belatedly jumped on the Sethusamudram case, claiming it would destroy the land bridge believed to be created by Lord Rama, the project came to a stand-still. The appeal of religious sanctity was greater than cold reasoning. Events like this suggest that conservationists can make common cause with nationalists for a win-win situation. But is that true really?
In his book Green and Saffron, Mukul Sharma highlights three projects: Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi village, the anti-Tehri dam movement headed by Sunderlal Bahuguna, and the Vrindavan Conservation Project run by Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). While the politics of the first has been dealt with already, let’s see the power dynamics of the other two.
Bahuguna actively partners with Hindu nationalist organisations like the RSS and VHP and their political party, BJP, while WWF partners with the Hindu religious group, ISKCON in Vrindavan. Since the Himalaya, the Ganga, and Vrindavan are places of religious and mythological importance, one could see these religious organisations as stakeholders. But such alliances have coloured these environmental movements with caste and religious discrimination, and xenophobia, argues Sharma.
According to the nationalistic worldview, Hindus always lived in harmony with nature and each other until India came under foreign rule. Trouble began when we followed not only the western model of development but bought into its philosophical underpinning: domination of nature.
In Nehru’s time, dams were viewed as an essential part of the national landscape. Today, environmentalists “see the preservation of a pristine Indian ecological landscape, free of the dam, as true nationalism.”
Viewed from the nationalistic prism, the Tehri dam becomes a symbol not only of destructive Western technology, but a lethal weapon in the hands of India’s enemies. In the event of war, Chinese and Pakistani missiles could blast the dam and cause catastrophic devastation downstream.
Should the dam break or be caused to break, the catastrophic avalanche of water will drown more than 1000 cities in its path, said a speaker in July 2000 at the Ganga Raksha Yatra. While Swami Chinmayanand, a BJP MP, feared, ‘Ganga flow ensures enormous cash flow in our ashrams of Haridwar-Rishikesh. If something goes wrong with this flow here, the money flow will dry out.’ Of Vrindavan, Sharma says, “Temple trusts, ashrams, and land dealers have interests in common: together they own 70 percent of the urban land.”
How do we protect our ecological heritage? The answer, nationalists say, is to embrace the value system of the glorious Vedic past when society was non-industrial and rural. Agriculture was not merely a way to earn a livelihood but an act of piety. In this utopia, the caste system is not an abominable practice, but “a sustainable and ideal system within which everyone lived and worked as part of an organic community.” However, there is no historical evidence ancient Indian society was devoid of strife or lived in harmony with nature.
A similar glory-of-the-past theme runs through the Vrindavan project as well. The major environmental problem with the town is the lack of urban planning and sanitation. The centrally planned sewage treatment plant and system was never completed. So raw sewage overflows on to roads and is illegally connected to storm water drains which dump it directly into the River Yamuna. Several successive attempts to fix the problem were all unsuccessful.
WWF in partnership with ISKCON began a comprehensive project to clean up Vrindavan. As a conservation organisation, WWF appears to have wholly bought into the Hindu nationalist agenda. It claims credit for UP Government’s decision to include traditional Hindu religious views of nature in the state’s official school curriculum.
In a strange reversal, the religious organisation preaches environmental practices. Ranchor Prime of ISKON argues for a return to the traditional method of waste disposal. It’s not clear if he means manual disposal of human waste or open defecation in fields. As a Westerner, he joins the Hindu nationalists in glorifying Hindu tradition, and he blames centuries of Muslim and British rule for all that ails Indian society and environment.
Meanwhile the conservation organisation preaches family values. In a background paper, WWF argues, ‘pure married life is the basis of a strong and organised human society’; and to ‘separate lust from love-making’. Its recommended solution to various problems include ‘restriction on electricity’; ‘total ban on non-vegetarian food, liquor, tea, smoking’; ‘removal of hospitals, factories, modern educational institutions, from the Vrindavan forest area’.
(Aside: In a curious case of regional chauvinism, WWF even argues that the name of Madurai, the South Indian city, is a corruption of Madhura which is really Mathura.)
The symbolism, language and thought underlying this project are aggressively upper caste Hindu. Dalits, who participated in a cleanliness drive, were beaten up and chased away. Apparently, their mere presence, even as far as 100 metres away, was polluting claimed priests and devotees. The effort was stopped.
The far greater clout of the religious nationalists allows them ease of entry into environmental conservation discourse. Borrowing environmental terminology, nationalists talk of nation as a fragile ecosystem that needs to be safeguarded from external pollutants. They don’t just mean environmental pollutants but caste and religious pollution purportedly caused by Muslims and Dalits. In the case of the anti-Tehri dam movement, representations of the Ganga and the Himalaya as Hindu cultural icons dovetails with Hindutva politics thus tapping into Hindu support, patriotism, and xenophobia, says Sharma.
Use of overt violence and a glorification of a past that was brutally discriminatory ensure that the environmental movement remains the preserve of elite upper castes while remaining closed to marginalised castes and communities. Gail Omvedt, a sociologist working on dalit issues, highlighted this in her seminal op-ed in The Hindu in 1997, Why dalits dislike environmentalists.
While right wing environmental nationalists in Europe see immigrants as a threat, here, some environmentalists and Hindu nationalists see our own citizens as threats. This is the same politics that governs our forest management system. Many urban conservationists and the forest bureaucracy see people living inside forests as the main threat to the integrity of the wilderness area.
Several environmentalists disdainfully turn a blind eye to politics and societal injustice, but it would be naïve to believe conservation action is politically neutral. By using particular icons and tapping specific belief systems, many environmentalists and conservationists reaffirm the worldviews of the dominant caste and religion. Can we preach respect for nature while practicing hegemony over other people?
Updated Date: Jul 01, 2012 11:47 AM