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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 347-350

Revisiting the Politics of Ecology and Identity

Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, Jamia Nagar, New Delhi, 110 025, India

Correspondence Address:
Archana Prasad
Centre for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, Jamia Nagar, New Delhi, 110 025
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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Prasad A. Revisiting the Politics of Ecology and Identity. Conservat Soc 2006;4:347-50

How to cite this URL:
Prasad A. Revisiting the Politics of Ecology and Identity. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2020 Apr 5];4:347-50. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2006/4/2/347/55800

Gunnel Cederlof and K. Sivaramakrishnan (eds.), Ecological Nationalisms: Nation, Livelihoods and Identities in South Asia, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2005, Hardcover, 399+ xi pages, Rs. 750. ISBN: 81-7824-124-2.

Historians have reconsidered the nationalist project in history writing since the late seventies and early eighties. The work of Sumit Sarkar, Ranajit Guha and the subaltern studies school amply highlighted the limits of the old nationalist project and showed that the aspiration of the lower class and caste people and ethnic groups could not be met through the dominant notions of nationalism. About two decades later, the opening up of this idea of nationalism to include several local movements and struggles for rights also gave ideological and intellectual support to the rise and growth of the Indian Environmental Movement. The practice of cultural ecology and nationalism promoted by this movement forms the context of this book. Apart from the theoretical introduction, which forms the basic conceptual framework, the book is divided into three sections. The first section is titled regional natures, nation and empire and concentrates on mapping local and regional politics in a colonial setting covering south India and North Western Frontier Provinces in Pakistan. The second section is titled competing nationalisms comprises of articles from different parts of India (Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Western Ghats and Meghalaya) elucidating multiple forms of cultural nationalism and identity politics which have offered new political spaces for marginal groups. The last section of the book is on commodified nature and national visions primarily by the apparatus of the nation state and comprises articles from all over south Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan).

The main strength of the book is its South Asian sweep and its intent to provide a framework that seeks to push the limits of both the subaltern studies as well as environmental history frameworks. It does so by arguing for multiple ideas of nation to include the relationship of human beings and their communities (including ethnic groups) with ecology, nature and landscapes. Thus the editors of the volume write that "ecological nationalism in out usage and refers to a condition where cosmopolitan and nativist versions of nature devotion converge and express themselves in the form of nation-pride in order to become a part of processes legitimising and consolidating the nation. The concept of ecological nationalism links cultural and political aspirations with the programme of nature conservation and environment protection (p. 6). Thus, movements by ethnic groups are seen not merely as the construction and reaffirmation to a cultural identity, but also as claims to territory, resources and a desire to maintain livelihoods. This formulation places the paradigm of ecological nationalism as defined in this book within the ideological parameters of the 'environmentalism of the poor' which has been the underlying force of the work of Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier who also see this as the assertion of cultural identity as an integral part of the history of conflict over natural resources. However the book's attempt to link the idea of nationalism and nationhood to perceptions about nature is new, and can in fact enrich the work of previous environmental historians.

In the main the editors state that the articles within the book fall into to two categories of ecological nationalism. The metropolitan-secular appropriation of nature aims to meet the aims of national integration and legitimise the politics generated by the nation-state; whereas the indigenist or regionalist expressions of ecological nationalism are reactions to the politics of the nationsstate and or global predatory regimes on the life styles of communities (p. 7). However the book asserts that it is not proper to see these indigenist and regionalist aspirations as reactionary, for these claims are made in the context of rights promised by a liberal nation state for political representation and equal citizenship. These are claims of culture on the idea of the nation and its places in the environment or nature (p. 8). The book repeatedly aims at showing the dialectical relationship between how one constitutes the other and to an extent achieves its aims through densely descriptive regional histories of policies and movements. However it's relative neglect of the 'gray areas' (i.e., the overlapping terrains between metropolitan-secular and indigenous expressions) makes it prone to the weaknesses that have plagued both the subaltern studies school as well as environmentalism of the poor. Thus the creation of a binary opposition between the nation-state and community is preserved within the broad framework of this book and limits its potential to challenge the accepted theoretical underpinnings of present-day environmental history.

We can understand the book's attempt to place local histories at the centre of its analysis (especially in the section on regional histories) in the context of this broad theoretical framework. With the exception of Kathleen Morrison's article on the spice trade in south India which highlights the need to study local trade relations in the context of the history of colonialism, the other two articles in this section discuss the colonial regime in terms of its ideology and the nature of the national interests that they projected in order to meet their own ends. The refusal to correlate the way in which regional and local histories impact to a larger understanding of structures that underlie the relationship between the colony and the colonised leaves the reader dissatisfied. The editors are quick to point out that regional analysis has little space for general statements about colonial rule and the colonial state (p. 17). If this is so then we need to explain how these regional histories will make an impact on our understanding of the political economy of colonial rule in India? Are we to deny that the relationship between the colonised and the colonial state is fundamentally affected by the relationship of unequal exchange between the coloniser and the colonised in different regions? Further, if the 'colonial' is different things to different people and localities, then can we talk of a 'colonial state' at all or are we arguing that there was no colonialism at all? If these questions are undermined then the regional histories of colonialism will be nothing more than some more examples of how the larger processes of imperialism impacted on different people and regions differently: a theoretical formulation that has by now been well accepted by historians of all hues.

Further though the argument about the use of 'traditional identity' as a political tool and strategy for engagement with the state in order to alter the balance of power is well taken (especially in Damodaran's article), it is time to question whether merely strategies of protest can alter the balance of power that are structured by processes of uneven development and underdevelopment that are reflected in power imbalances? The discussion of regional and indigenist identities fails to answer the basic question on why the nature of these identities and their engagement with the nation state has had limited impact on the every-day life of the people who they seek to represent. For example, the creation of the Jharkhand state was considered by most political activists of the 'adivasi' movement as a significant step for the long drawn out Jharkhand movement. While this secured political representation for one section of the 'adivasis', the core problem of the unequal relationship between this tribal state and the larger 'mainstream' economy remained unaddressed. In fact the policies of the representatives of the 'adivasis' have led to greater imbalances because of the neo-liberal policies of both the central and state governments. Therefore the path of development and vision of development pursued by those who led the Jharkhand movement has left much to be desired. Clearly the nature of production and the relations of production need to change if this balance is to be altered and for that a new vision of development is needed. The articles in this book show that this vision does not exist within the parameters of the indigenist movements. But more than this it is the inability of the authors to grapple with the path of the development debate that makes their discussion of identities incomplete as nationalist visions cannot be void of questioning the nature of development pursued in marginal areas. In one sense the authors have missed an opportunity to question and enlarge the ambit of the analysis of cultural identity politics as it has been seen within dominant modes of environmental history writing today.

In conclusion it would be apt to state that this book is valuable for the kinds of issues it attempts to raise and the dense regional histories that it provides us for the South Asian region. But in the end it raises more questions than it answers, perhaps that too may lead to more complex understanding of the links between environmental history and other mainstream historiography.


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