Indigeneity, environmental movements and representation


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THIS essay attempts to understand how, in the contemporary history of environmental movements in India, discourses on indigeneity have impacted environmentalist representations, and more crucially, effected self-representation of the adivasis. In other words, I ask: do deeply ingrained ideas of indigeneity enjoy certain traction in the environmental discourse? When adivasis are involved as actors in struggles over land, forests and rivers, does a certain depiction prevail – a depiction that is conspicuously absent when non-adivasi or heterogeneous communities raise similar concerns? What does this mean for adivasi representation and self-representation within contemporary debates over ‘development’ and industrialisation?

This essay primarily uses two documentary film songs that have been part of critical environmental struggles, and their underlying imageries, to try and answer these questions. The first, Gaon Chodab Nahi (inspired by a song composed by Bhagwan Majhi, leader of the adivasi struggle against bauxite mining in Kashipur, Odisha), is possibly familiar within groups working for environmental causes not just in Odisha but also in far off cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. On the other hand, Chennai Poromboke Paadal, a song in Tamil, is part of an on-going campaign to ‘Save’ the Ennore Creek in Chennai in South India.

It is important to note that these songs have been chosen precisely for the markedly different ways in which they argue against environmental damage, industrial pollution and ‘development’ projects. Each, in a sense, represents a specific genre of campaign within the Indian environmental movement. Each embodies a specific style of portraying human societies’ connection with nature. It needs to be emphasized that these campaigns possibly speak to largely similar audiences – policy makers, bureaucrats, politicians and urban middle class audiences in cities such as Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and New Delhi.

I do not claim to state with any degree of authority that the songs chosen here are the typical representations within the environmental movement in India. There is significant diversity of voices within the dispersed environmental movement.1 It is surely possible, if not inevitable, that other styles and genres of campaign exist. In this sense, this paper is limiting itself, since it is concentrating on just two possible representational styles. As mentioned, these styles have been chosen to understand the enduring impact of notions of indigeneity and expanding the scope of this enquiry in future is perhaps necessary and inevitable. In fact, I will touch upon other campaigns and styles (not necessarily contemporary) in the course of this paper, though this material might not consist of songs. Pamphlets and posters will also be used as complementary sources.


The paper begins with a short review of environmental debates and representations in India. It briefly underlines the manner in which the adivasi has been framed in academic as well as statist discourses. This review suggests that there is a long history of framing the adivasi as the archetypal ‘other’, the culturally unique, intrepid challenger to modernity. This framing, while it can be traced to the work of British anthropologists, has fashioned and refashioned itself in myriad ways. Appearing in various forms, it has indeed proved to be particularly stubborn. The next two sections will attempt a detailed study of Gaon Chodab Nahi and Poromboke, revealing the manner in which environmental concerns are portrayed. This is followed by a section on the politics of representation, and on the possible reasons as well as limitations of specific representations. I will finally end with some modest suggestions and conclusions.


Adivasis and the Struggles over Nature in India: Nature based conflicts increased in frequency and intensity in India in the 1970s and 1980s, and as two historians of India’s ecological movement – Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha – point out, these conflicts ‘revolve[d] around competing claims over forests, land, water and fisheries’.2 Attempting to capture the various ‘material, ideological and political’ expressions within the environmental movement, Guha and Gadgil identified three main strands: the Crusading Gandhians, the Ecological Marxists and the Appropriate Technologists.3

Crusading Gandhians, within this framework, reject materialism and consumerism and pin their ecological hopes on a village-based economy and society. Influenced by ‘western socialism’, appropriate technologists seek a synthesis of agriculture and industry, big and small units, and western and eastern technological traditions. Ecological Marxists, point out Guha and Gadgil, identifying class as the primary contradiction in society, display an ‘unremitting hostility to tradition’ and a corresponding ‘faith in modernity and modern science’ and concentrate exclusively on issues of industrial pollution and workplace safety.


As various conflicts over nature played out, ideologues and interlocutors of the Indian environmental movement pointed out that ‘western’ models of environmentalism and conservation could not be merely copied and transplanted in India. An influential strand of Indian environmentalism emerged wherein the poor were portrayed not merely as ‘allies’ of the environmental movement in India. This framework averred that adivasis, fisher people, nomads, peasants and artisans would shape and drive Indian environmentalism, bearing as they did a vastly disproportionate burden of ecological damage. This ‘environmentalism of the poor’, as Guha and Martinez-Alier eloquently put it, is the ‘empty-belly’ environmentalism of the South, originating in ‘social conflicts over access to control over natural resources’.4 This environmental imagination, which essentially sees ecological degradation and social injustice as two sides of the same coin, has been particularly influential within environmental discourse(s) in India. The question for us is to locate the role of adivasi indigeneity in this framework.

Alpa Shah, in delineating what she terms a ‘dark side of indigeneity’, speaks of how deeply compelling and appealing stereotypes about indigeneity now frame the adivasi as the noble savage, and the ‘bearer of an alternative future’.5 The adivasi world, in this imagination, is an idyllic repository of powerful institutions and belief systems that can counter the evil/imbalance that modernity and attendant industrialisation has bestowed on us. This world is then epitomised through the tropes of communitarian equality, spirituality and worship of nature. Amita Baviskar similarly argues that concerns of ‘village community, hill women’ and ‘tribal/indigenous, religious/traditional’ representations enjoy a certain traction within the environmental movement and are privileged perhaps over other equally compelling ones.6


In confronting the state’s discourse of development engendered by the ‘modern’ industrial project, ‘culture’ is thus frequently employed to counter notions of environmental management and ‘sustainability’. In Scotland, for instance, ‘pure, unspoilt, environmentally clean’ culture was posited against the modernist project when notions of community and collective identity were invoked against a quarrying project.7 In Mexico too, the language of indigenous rights, ‘pristine’ culture and ‘sacredness’ was an integral part of opposition to a mining project, ironically in a region with a 200-year long history of mining and livelihoods based on mineral extraction.8 In the Indian state of Jharkhand, Uday Chandra points out, adivasis do at times invoke adivasi custom and law, ‘speaking back’ to the state in its own language of primitivism.9 In India’s context, it would be useful to understand the roots of this particular framing of the adivasi as ‘primitive’ and culturally distinct. This author (along with Rama Naga) has undertaken this exercise elsewhere, some of the findings of which I shall recount and expand here.10


The ‘colonial episteme’, Sujata Patel tells us, incorporated two master narratives – the superiority of western civilisation and a belief in the continuous growth of capitalism through modernisation, development, and the creation of new markets.11 In this framing of what Patel sees as the ‘Eurocentric episteme’, the ‘history, culture, reason, and science’ of the West was posited against the ‘space, nature, religion, and spiritualty’ of the East.12 Besides, as the discipline of anthropology developed in India in the 19th century, ‘tribes’ were seen in contrast to ‘castes’; they lived in jungles, used ‘primitive technology’, and were animistic.13

As Patel usefully points out, intellectual thought in independent India, rather paradoxically perhaps, has echoed and mirrored the colonial project’s usage of the attribute of race to not just divide but equally to explain the world. Once again, knowledge of the ‘other’ has been constructed by the ‘I’, the latter being an upper class/caste, male India which, in the process of framing this vision of the ‘other’ (including that of the adivasi), has naturalised ‘the so-called "traditional" features of Indian society’.14


It is pertinent to examine the consequences of what Patel has so eloquently pointed out. Aditya Deo, in his reading of the relationship between the ancestral deities of the Gond peoples and the raja of the princely state of Kanker in the Chhattisgarh region of Central India, shows how the deeply political nature of this relationship (and the attempted negotiation and sharing of sovereignty embedded within it) has been divested of its politics, and ‘hived’ off as merely ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ in historical writings.15 Moreover, as Amrita Tulika points out, academic discourses undermine histories of adivasis engaged in occupations which do not seem to fit into simplistic cultural narratives of forest dwelling people perpetually involved in warfare against the state (in this volume). Prathama Banerjee speaks of how the adivasi is almost inevitably discussed in a cultural framework.16 In what she terms the ‘irresoluble double-bind of the Indian Adivasi’, Banerjee explains how the adivasi insurgence, even as this is initially recognised as a redoubtable, even radical, modern political activity, is thus relegated to the realm of ‘culture’, and to a ‘peculiar "tribal" state of being’.17


If the adivasi was shaped as a ‘criminal’, wild, forest-dwelling person in the colonial framework, the supposed ‘primordiality’ and primitiveness of the adivasi was invoked in nationalist discourse as the ‘pure’, ‘if extra-rational’ resistance to colonial and universalising modernity.18 Given the adivasis’ specific ecological contexts – characterised by a combination of individual ownership, common property and communal and village rights, and by economies based simultaneously on forests, fields and hills – Banerjee argues that these communities have been seen as misfits in the modern regime of ‘property and productivity’.19 For Banerjee, this is a peculiar situation: on the one hand, the adivasi is sought to be ‘assimilated’ and seen as a citizen of the nation, even as she is embodied as nothing but culture and the perfect ‘counterpoise’ to the West and to notions of the ‘modern’ nation. The authentically ‘primitive’ adivasi is a trope that is desperately required in order to shape ‘difference’ in colonial and postcolonial narratives, a figure perpetually on the frontiers of the mainstream.

Examining various developments in South Asia, van Schendel makes the point that the adivasi discourse continues to frame adivasis as distinct and removed from the modern political and economic systems.20 Rycroft and Dasgupta, like Banerjee, state that a persuasive ‘binary model’ often casts the colonisers, the market and the state as agents of ecological destruction, and adivasis as ‘nature’s conservators’.21 There is, therefore, a long history wherein the adivasi has been shaped in terms of cultural ‘difference’, ‘exclusivity’ and primordial sensibility. With the emergence of the environmental movement, the adivasi thus becomes a useful pivot around which the discourse of ecological sensibility can be woven.


We will not leave the village (Gaon Chodab Nahi), directed by activist and filmmaker K.P. Sasi, the documentary film was released in 2009. It is a description of the ‘present day exploitation of tribal land and forests in the name of development’, as the film’s blurb informs us. Based on a song composed by the adivasi activist Bhagwan Majhi, the film is envisaged as a campaign against resource alienation inflicted on adivasis by development projects. What is the cultural universe that Gaon Chodab Nahi seeks to portray? It begins with a scene of some adivasis gathered around a fire at night, with a man playing a haunting tune on a flute. Though interspersed with visuals from various struggles against land acquisition from across the country, the film spends considerable energy on showcasing the world of the adivasi: mud huts with thatched roofs, green and breathtakingly beautiful forests with clear streams flowing through them, the mountain mist occasionally blurring the landscape. The filmmaker wants the humans in the film to blend with consummate ease into the background. Women work in the village, scantily clad men play a locally constructed drum, and an animated version of a Warli painting takes us through the economic and cultural world of the adivasi.


The film, in other words, portrays a world where the market (and the concomitant consumerism) seems somewhat removed, if not absent. A shot of women harvesting rice tells us that the practice of agriculture is prevalent, but exactly how the protagonists are connected (if at all they are) to the larger food economy is left largely to the viewer’s imagination. Unlike the arguably more familiar depiction of the ‘typical’ Indian village – replete with images of the peasant/agricultural labourer, the farmer driving a tractor, the village school, the village tank and ponds, the demure purdah-clad women, the government-appointed health worker and the bike-owning, aspiring youngster – this film sets up the adivasi world as an anachronism in ‘modern’ Indian society.

When the protagonists assert that they will never leave their village, they draw an explicit connection between their village, the local forest and ‘Mother Earth’. Jangal chodab nahi, maimaati chodab nahi (we will not leave the forest and Mother Earth), they add. It is, in a sense, a reiteration of the stereotype that adivasis are primitive and out-of-this-world, exotic, primarily forest dwellers, whose lives have little to do with ‘modern’ institutions of governance.

The battle lines are thus etched out very clearly. The ‘other’ for the protagonists, the ‘they’ in the film, is spelt out in no uncertain terms. ‘They’ are the ‘Vikas ke Bhagwan’ (Gods of Development), who build dams and factories, who dig mines and sets up wildlife sanctuaries and conservation parks. ‘They’ cut down forests and drown entire villages. The adivasis need land, water and forests which these Gods are ruthlessly taking away. A stunning visual of a train weaving through a dense forest dominates the screen at one point, as we are told that the Gods are destroying lives. The extensive railways network crisscrossing the country is also an aberration perhaps, a symbol of ‘vikas’ and of the dance of the destructive Gods. A suggestion is implicit: the railways are a symbol of how the Gods reach the world of the adivasis and the marginalised, only to run roughshod over their lives.


The protagonists live in communion with nature, a cultural universe dominated by uninhibited dancing, and an almost spiritual union with birds and wildlife. This is precisely the world that is under threat. Rivers Ganga, Krishna, Yamuna and Suvarnarekha, magnificent givers of life, are now nothing but dirty drains and mere black lines in the landscape, thanks to the Vikas ke Bhagwan.

The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ metaphor is deeply ingrained within the film, a clear thread that runs throughout. ‘They’ drink water from Bisleri bottles, ‘they’ are consumers of products marketed by Coke and Pepsi, while ‘we’ depend on mountain springs, wells and rivers. ‘They’ worship the Gods of Development, ‘we’ worship Mother Earth. ‘Our’ God are rivers, rocks and mountains, not the better-known Prophets, Messengers, Gods and Goddesses who are revered in the various well-established religions of the world. ‘Our’ ancestors protected forests, and made sure rivers remain pristine and clean. ‘They’ enter this comfortable script to disrupt it irrevocably, and to spread chaos, poverty and insecurity for generations to come. ‘They’ are infinitely more powerful because they are backed by governments and local bureaucrats. ‘The minister has become the industry’s broker and snatched away our lands’, while armed platoons protect industry. Bureaucrats and contractors make money off ‘our’ lands, while our village becomes ‘their’ colony.

Gaon Chodab Nahi is however not a story of passive acceptance of a defeated people. It portrays resistance – cultural, physical and political resistance. The protagonists dance to highlight their anger, they depict their ‘otherness’, they adorn their heads with peacock feathers. The struggles are in some ways a performance of indigeneity, the performance of the unique and the exotic. At this point, we need to ask whether the performance of ‘otherness’ is the only remarkable feature of this film and the protests it depicts?


In the 1970s and 1980s, we saw the emergence of what is now often termed as the ‘New Farmers’ Movement’ in India. In 1988, Mahendra Singh Tikait’s Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) for instance held a 3-week long protest in Meerut, in western Uttar Pradesh where an estimated 20,000 farmers camped in the city throughout this period demanding waiver of their electricity bills. This powerful struggle, as Dhanagare points out, ‘brought farm issues to the centre stage of the political and ideological discourse in India’.22 The movement had recognizable and influential faces, ranging from Tikait in the north, to Sharad Joshi in the west, to Ramaswamy Naidu and Nanjundaswamy in the south of India. While these movements have variously been termed ‘kulak’ and ‘middle peasantry’ mobilizations, the Rudolphs have termed their chief protagonists and participants as ‘bullock capitalists’ (small to medium sized, self-employed independent agricultural producers operating between 2.5-14.5 acres of land).23 Sharad Joshi, founder of the Maharashtra based Shetkari Sangathana (Farmers’ Association), called their battle a struggle of ‘Bharat’ versus India, an epic struggle of farmers in the rural hinterland against industrialized, urban India.


Researchers have gestured to the fact that the ‘new’ farmers’ movement in India in the 1970s and the 1980s based themselves on, and revealed, tensions between urban and rural India.24 This urban/rural tension had several political, material, cultural and economic aspects. We may ask, why is this discussion useful to us in our current study of influential environmentalist representations in India? I suggest that the urban/rural divide which was used to explain the new farmers’ movements of the 1970s and 1980s, fails to adequately address adivasi/peasant representations visible in Gaon Chodab Nahi. What is at play here is not merely an urban/rural divide, which it undoubtedly is. The ‘rural’, in this case, is a specific cultural, ideological construct, not wholly shared by the ‘rural’ invoked by the BKU and farmers’ movements in the 1970s and 1980s.

This ‘rural’ is almost quintessentially about deep, organic links with nature, with forests and water bodies. Connections with ‘land’ (which might indeed seem common in both the cases) are framed as a reverential celebration of human (and non-human) life. For instance, Krishnan and Naga point out that the adivasis in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha have a particular vision of agriculture.25

They remind us that agriculture in these hills is preceded by a ritual act of appeasing the earth/mountain deities through sacrificial gifts in the form of chickens, pigeons and pigs. In this ritual act, agriculture is not framed as a ‘natural right’ available to the human species. It is an intrusion for which permission needs to be sought (and presumably granted) from the other players in the mountain ecosystem. Gaon Chodab Nahi is therefore not really about aspirations for an equal share in the ‘development’ pie. It is not merely an emotive cry for a balance (political, economic and cultural) between industry and agriculture, as perhaps the kulak movements were. It positions itself as a quest for dignity, as a defender of nature as well as culture.


Poromboke: From ‘Communitarian’ to ‘Pejorative’ and Back – Chennai Poromboke Paadal (henceforth referred to as Poromboke) is an attempted journey of recovery, a recovery of words and meanings, of lost cultural worlds. The Vettiver Collective, as it introduces Poromboke, explains that this film is part of a campaign to reclaim the word poromboke – an old Tamil word meaning ‘shared-use community resources like water bodies, seashore and grazing lands that are not assessed for tax purposes’ – and to ‘restore its worth’.26 In colloquial Tamil, the word poromboke is now a pejorative, a word used to describe something that is worthless. Poromboke seeks to alter this meaning, and perhaps the value system which engendered the changed connotations of the word. This film, shot as part of a campaign against pollution in the Ennore Creek in Chennai, is a song rendered by the musician T.M. Krishna in the Carnatic classical tradition.


This campaign, conceptualised by the Chennai-based environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, is set in the backdrop of the 2015 floods in Chennai. The last couple of months of 2015 had seen an unprecedented crisis in Chennai, and the torrential rains were only part of the problem. For days together, areas like Kuruvimedu, Athipattu, Athipattu Pudunagar, Ernavur, Manali New Town, Kodungaiyur, Vyasarpadi, Tondiarpet, and Korukkupet remained flooded. Encroachments in the Ennore Creek were cited as one of the crucial causes of this prolonged flooding. A year later, in December 2016, the cyclone Vardah struck India’s eastern coastline and made a landfall in the Ennore region. A storm surge of more than one metre resulted, inundating low-lying areas in the region. The Creek, which has traditionally been a shock absorber, taking in the storm water, found its capacity vastly reduced. Once again, attention began to centre on the Ennore Creek and encroachments in the region.

A little information on the creek is in order at this point. The Ennore creek is a backwater in South India, located along the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal. Lagoons, salt marshes and backwaters make up the coastal zone of which it is a part. The creek itself is said to spread over approximately 8000 acres, out of which 1090 acres of wetland has been lost to encroachments, according to the Save Ennore Creek campaign.27 In addition, the creek is (possibly illegally) inundated with fly ash generated by the Chennai Thermal Power Station located nearby. New industrial projects, which would convert more of the existing wetlands into real estate, are in the pipeline.

According to the law, the creek is a protected wetland under the Wetland Rules, 2010. Within these protected wetlands, reclamation of land, setting up of new industries and expansion of existing industries is prohibited. Apart from the Wetland Rules, the Ennore Creek is also governed by the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notifications issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests of the Government of India. Ennore Creek has been declared an ecologically sensitive area, in other words, a ‘No Development Zone’.


Despite these regulations, there have been encroachments in the creek since 1996. Apart from the impact on Chennai’s natural drainage capacities, these encroachments have arguably reduced the availability and diversity of fish, prawns and crab in the creek. This scenario forms the background for Poromboke. In its stated objective to reclaim the original meaning of the word, and to divest it of its pejorative connotations, the film begins by rescuing the Poromboke as a communitarian space, which belongs to the earth and exists for it. The message and narrative is simple. Poromboke is not for ‘you, nor for me’, it is ‘your’ care/responsibility and ‘my’ care/responsibility. It is ‘our’ responsibility towards nature and the earth to care for Poromboke, the common wetlands and grazing grounds. A possibly enduring image is invoked for its intended audience, the recent floods and the chaotic memories associated with it: ‘The flood has come and gone, what have we learnt from that?’, Poromboke asks poignantly.


Drawing an explicit link between the floods and the encroachments on the creek, it questions the wisdom of constructing buildings on water bodies, and on the path that takes rainwater to the sea. ‘What need have we of concrete buildings?’ The rivers are ‘natural’, and the cities growing around them are the unnatural intrusion, the film suggests, a response perhaps to the common sense that avers that river/sea water entering the cities is ‘unnatural’. Tanks and lakes, the natural reservoirs for rainwater, are now poromboke – useless and valueless – in an economy that celebrates a fly ash-spewing Thermal Power Plant. The sea and the river are forcibly kept apart, the sky blackened, as a discourse of ‘growth, jobs and opportunity’ becomes the new ‘natural’. This new ‘natural’ is persuasive, even as it is a ‘flimsy excuse’, the film tells us. Anyone who sells the water bodies and sees no value in the lake is a deceiver, a salesman of false dreams. ‘You’ and ‘I’ need to become Poromboke.

What strikes us about Poromboke is, unlike Gaon Chodab Nahi, the scarcity of human actors in the film. It is designed like a Carnatic classical music kutcheri (concert), where the attention is on the musician and his/her accompanists. The rest is merely the stage, a background required to support the centre of attention. In Poromboke, the ‘stage’/prop is the Ennore Creek, intentionally kept dark, forbidding, and depressing. The protagonists wear masks over their mouths, as a grim remainder of human depredations over nature. There are visuals of a pipeline disgorging its vile contents into the creek. Huge electric transmission lines dominate the screen at one point. A massive crane gorges mud out of the earth, and long chimneys appear in the background, adding to the gloom. The railways make an appearance in this film too, as the protagonists remind us that the cities have intruded into the rivers and not the other way round. The railways here are a metaphor, perhaps, for an ever-moving, relentless human intrusion and ‘development’.


Poromboke speaks of an on-going tragedy and impending doom, a world where the commons will forever become ‘poromboke’ and useless. Much like Gaon Chodab Nahi, there is a palpable sense of things going awry, of chaos, of human hubris with its tragic consequences. In both films, the industrial project is identified and named as the ‘problem’. And yet, the difference between the films is palpable. Unlike Gaon Chodab Nahi, the sharp distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is conspicuous by its absence in Poromboke. The film instead seeks to invite self-reflection and a redefining of ‘us’ and ‘our’ responsibilities. It is a conscious effort to speak to the self, rather than to the ‘other’. Implied in this framework is the idea that ‘we’ are the problem which needs rectification, the ‘we’ being residents of urban India – aspiring, well-to-do ‘success’ stories of ‘modern’ India.

When the film asks us why ‘we’ need concrete buildings for instance, the ‘we’ is clearly etched out. It is not the ‘we’ and the ‘us’ of Gaon Chodab Nahi. This specific definition of ‘we’ in fact explains the choice of the Chennai floods as a defining feature of the film. Poromboke focuses on encroachments caused by ‘development’ and their role in the frequent floods in the city, not on the fisher people who are differently perhaps wrecked by the encroachments.


Gaon Chodab Nahi and Poromboke moreover invoke different imageries. As we have discussed earlier in this article, there is a deep sense of collectively, and collective connections with mountains, rivers and land in Gaon Chodab Nahi. The ‘we’ in Gaon Chodab Nahi posits itself as defenders of nature and culture, of organic roots and primordial sensibilities which respect ‘Mother Earth’. This ‘we’ is a culturally distinct entity, an apt subject for reverence as well as protection, conjured up as it is as a protector of nature. The ‘we’ in Poromboke is the ‘they’ in Gaon Chodab Nahi, those who have over generations lost the deep connect with nature. ‘We’/ ‘They’ have inverted the very cultural meaning of life and nature, and have converted life-giving earth into a ‘useless’, poromboke-like pejorative entity.

There are thus two clearly defined and identified worldviews here, articulated by different sets of actors. The first set of actors being defenders of earth and nature, keepers of an ancient common sense and ecological sensibility; the second set being the proverbial ‘sinners’ (to use a Biblical analogy) and those who have lost their way. Gaon Chodab Nahi speaks from, and uses the lens of, the first category. Poromboke clearly identifies with the second.

What should interest us is not merely the existence of these categories and their associated worldviews. Possibly, this existence is but natural. Instead, I ask, what factors influence the choice of lens for an environmental campaign? How does this choice affect the impact of the campaign, if at all it does; and more crucially for us, what does this tell us about the politics and representation and the discourse around indigeneity?

Let us reiterate that both these films, both these environmental campaigns, cater to the same audience. The viewership is the ‘they’ or tum (you) in Gaon Chodab Nahi (Tum Piyoge Pepsi Cola, Bisleri ka Paani, ‘You’ will drink Pepsi/Cola and Bisleri water). It is you/me/we in Poromboke. In Gaon Chodab Nahi, the director chooses the first lens, the viewpoint of the adivasi, in pitching his campaign. He chooses the adivasi as his subject and clearly portrays the non-adivasi as the alien ‘other’. In doing so, the film, unlike Poromboke, speaks of and concentrates on, how some humans (in this case, the adivasis) have retained the art of living with nature.

The question of why this lens was chosen is harder to answer. Arguably, the long academic and statist history of portraying the adivasi as the culturally different, primordial species, might have played a role in this choice. Much as we speak of how the category of the primitive, perpetually rebelling adivasi stands challenged, clearly this category does continue to enjoy some traction in environmental discourses. As Baviskar and others point out, this traction can be substantial. Moreover, as we can see, this traction, this discourse around indigeneity, can obtrusively and unobtrusively have an influence in a multitude of ways. It can influence the choice of lens, even as it influences the nature of portrayal and representation of adivasis within that lens. In other words, it can ensure that the adivasi remains somewhat trapped in a specific culturist frame.


The Politics of ‘Representation’: As he brilliantly dissents Gaon Chodab Nahi and then follows the film through multiple screening across adivasi villages of Jharkhand, Uday Chandra pertinently remarks: ‘The makers of GCN (Gaon Chodab Nahi), assuming the mantle of the indigeneity activist, endeavour to speak for adivasis to non-adivasis’.28 There are obvious repercussions of doing so, including both advantages as well as perils, which need to be understood.


As I traversed through Gaon Chodab Nahi, the simplicity of the script was palpable. It was a narrative of the greedy versus the non-greedy, the destroyer of nature versus the worshipper/preserver of nature, the powerful versus the powerless. This apparent simplicity appears as a distinct advantage for the environmental and/or indigeneity activist, ironing out as it does potential tensions and contradictions within their chosen subjects. This simplicity precludes the need to address adivasi aspirations for good schooling, decent public healthcare and access to institutions of justice. The perils are in fact part of the advantages of this politics of representation.

Chandra, during his journey through the villages of Jharkhand, asks whether the film portrays an ‘overly romantic portrait of adivasi village life’.29 The activist-filmmaker Meghnath Bhattacharya answers this question, with a touch of pathos: ‘These days, young people are the same everywhere. They want money, mobiles, guns. They don’t respect their own traditions. That is a major cause of the problems adivasis are facing today’.30 Clearly, the subjects will (at least occasionally) deviate from a preferred, easy script. They will, in other words, have a mind of their own.

When asked why this mind of the adivasi, this ‘internal challenge’, was not a part of the film, Meghnath replies, ‘How could we put it? All our middle class friends in Delhi and Bombay will say these communities are backward and the problem lies within them’.31 Clearly, the discourse of indigenity, heavily tilted as it is in favour of a primitivist, culturalist representation of the adivasi, has far-reaching influences. It plays out in conscious (and possibly subconscious) ways, as adivasis represent their claims, and are represented by non-adivasis.


A crucial caveat is in order here. I am not suggesting that Gaon Chodab Nahi is a false representation of ‘facts’. The ongoing tensions over land acquisition and industrialization in the mineral-rich regions of India exist for everyone to note. The skewed power relations and state repression is real, the resource alienation of adivasis after displacement caused by ‘successful’ industrial projects is real. The fact that adivasis bear the brunt of displacement and ecological damage wrecked by ‘development’ projects is undeniable.32 The widespread opposition for the industrial project in mineral rich areas is thus not ‘irrational’, it is a reality based on adivasi experience. It is therefore not useful to simply ask why the adivasis are opposed to the industrial project. It is equally necessary to ask why their opposition is presented to non-adivasi audiences the way it is.

Why, for instance, is it difficult for Gaon Chodab Nahi and other environmentalist/indigenist representations to suggest that adivasi youth (like youngsters anywhere else) aspire for education and a dignified, secure employment? Is it tricky to point out that public healthcare in adivasi areas is often non-existent, and adivasis might desire to have access to good hospitals and competent doctors? Moreover, what prevents a discussion on the precarious nature of livelihoods based on subsistence agriculture in adivasi areas?


At the root of this dilemma is an interesting question: Will such portrayals take away from the overall environmentalist/indigenist message of the film? This is of course a difficult question for which no simple answers are available. This question takes us into the realm of political priorities in India, into the track record of adivasi ‘upliftment/empowerment’ schemes in independent India, into the nature of (largely mechanized and low on labour-intensity) industry in modern India. Perhaps, the makers of the film believe (based on the trajectory of industrial growth in India) that jobs from industry are simply not available, especially for adivasi youth who would be termed ‘unskilled’ or ‘semi-skilled’ in the job market.

Similarly, one could point to the apathetic implementation of ‘tribal welfare schemes’, to gesture towards the absurdity of asking adivasis to give up existing (even if precarious) livelihoods in the hope of state-sponsored ‘upliftment’, education and healthcare. Whatever be the complex reason(s), the makers of Gaon Chodab Nahi, and perhaps equally of Poromboke, clearly sense that giving voice to the multiple strands of reality within adivasi communities could dilute the message they intend to convey to their audience.

The sense therefore exists that adivasis need to be portrayed as uncomplicated defenders of the environment, as communities who need to be revered for their unique relationship with nature, because middle class audiences expect precisely this. We are suggesting that the entire gamut of adivasi experiences tends to get muted in the environmental discourse, due to manner in which the adivasi has been framed in academic and statist discourses. The film The Real Avatar: Mine – The Story of a Sacred Mountain, produced by Survival International, is possibly an archetypal representation of the need felt to flatten out the adivasi experience in the mainstream environmentalist/indigenist discourse. Equally perhaps, adivasi self-representation responds to this need. ‘Performances’ of indigeneity follow, as adivasi communities attempt to make their voices heard in the corridors of power, and in the drawing rooms of middle class households in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai.


In studying the experiences of the Dongria Kondh adivasis in Odisha in eastern India, Prakruti Ramesh for instance informs us that the politics of indigenity leads to curious performances, as adivasis and forest dwellers are compelled to ‘refashion themselves as conservationists’.33 Indigeneity thus needs to be ‘produced’ and ‘demonstrated’ in order to be recognised within the ambit of the law.

At this juncture, it would be useful to understand the origins of indigeneity, as we analyse how indigenist ‘performances’ came to be, and how differences and contradictions between adivasis tend to be glossed over. In tracing the global rise of indigenism, Ronald Neizen points out that a tremendous organizational effort went into creating a feeling of ‘commonness’ amongst indigenous people the world over, given the diversity of their experiences, cultures, concerns and aspirations.34 This ‘commonness’, then, was an attempt to fashion a commonality amongst significant diversity, and was possibly a response to a perceived political opportunity.


Charles Tilly, as he attempts to understand the dynamics of social movements, sees movements as arising not so much from certain desires and discontents, but because of successful mobilization processes and existence of political openings vis-a-vis the state and other influential opinion makers.35 In this framework, ‘indigenous’ mobilization was about utilizing the opportunity created by the international and transnational organizations and networks, and the subsequent influential traction they enjoyed. As David Harvey suggests, political, ideological as well as economic and structural processes interact to produce significant shifts in modes of resistance, as older forms become ineffectual.36

Thus, the use of indigeneity as a political tool by resistance movements might signify a variety of factors – not just a simple back-to-the-land argument. As Uma Maheshwari points out from her study of the Kondareddis in Andhra Pradesh, adivasi responses can tell us much about the nature of the state and its various agendas, including the agenda of ‘development’. In a very different context, Swargajyoti Gohain argues that indigenist claims subsume within themselves contested definitions, attempt to navigate political minefields, and attempt to fashion an identity that addresses immediate concerns. Given these complicated and fascinating subjectivities, how do we conceptualise the modern adivasi subject? How do we read, and make better sense of, environmentalist representations in films such as Gaon Chodab Nahi and Poromboke? Delivering the key note address at a seminar on ‘Anthropological Histories and Tribal Worlds’ held at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla in March 2017, Virginius Xaxa spoke of how categories, including the very category of ‘indigeneity’ can be circumscribing and limiting in our project to understand the modern adivasi subject. Adivasis who dare to fall out of the frame, so to say, by deviating from the script of primitivist indigeneity, tend to be relegated as ‘out-of-focus’ figures, Bindu K.C. pointed out in the seminar. This essay, in fact, gestures precisely to this circumscribing effect that Xaxa warns us of.


As I have mentioned earlier in this paper, I do not claim that the environmentalist representations considered here are in any way conclusive. There are indeed a variety of environmentalist representations, by adivasis and non-adivasis alike. In the 1980s for instance, the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Chhattisgarh Liberation Front, CMM, a trade union operating in central India), ran campaigns against the Bhilai Steel Plant, portraying the industrial unit as a gigantic, industrial helmet bearing demon – a destroyer of forests, an emitter of vile pollutants, an inveterate water guzzler and a stealer of workers’ jobs.37 This environmentalist representation by the union, even as it invoked regional and ethnic (read adivasi) identities of its members, cannot be simply categorized under the framework of the primitive adivasi.


In this essay, therefore, I seek to make some modest claims. First, environmental discourses tend to privilege certain representations – notably representations by adivasis, as well as hill/forest dwellers. This argument has been made by several scholars, as we have duly noted. I suggest that this privilege pushes environmental campaigns to shape themselves in specific ways. More specifically, when adivasis constitute the active subjects of environmental campaigns, the discourses around indigeneity portray an image which enjoys some influence. Thus films such as Gaon Chodab Nahi draw explicit distinctions between the adivasi way of life, their culture, their deep, spiritual connections with land and so on, and the ‘other’. Adivasis are portrayed in this framework as the well constructed ‘other’, as having specifically distinct aspirations and lifestyles. We can see from Poromboke exactly how environmentalist representations can be different. Yet, when adivasis figure as actors, there is a predilection for a certain portrayal, and a concomitant ‘performance’.

Second, I suggest that the discourses on indigeneity can result in a certain undermining of the complexities of the adivasi experience, selective representation and circumscribing if you may. Thus, differences and contradictions within the adivasi world tend to be ironed out, impacting not just non-adivasi representations of adivasis, but equally adivasi self-representations too.



1. See for instance, Radhika Krishnan, ‘The Environment and Civil Society in India’, in S. Ravi Rajan and Lise Sedrez (eds.), The Great Convergence: Environmental Histories of BRICS. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2017, pp. 159-180, for an account of the varied voices within the environmental movement.

2. Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, ‘Ecological Conflicts and the Environmental Movement in India’, in Mahesh Rangarajan (ed.), Environmental Issues in India: A Reader. Pearson Longman, New Delhi, 2008, p. 385.

3. Ibid., p. 407, pp. 416-420. See section ‘Ideological Trends in Indian Environmentalism’ of the same article for Guha and Gadgil’s analysis of the ‘ideological expression’ of the Indian environmental movement.

4. Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. Earthscan, London, 1997, p. xxi.

5. Alpa Shah, ‘The Dark Side of Indigeneity? Indigenous People, Rights and Development in India’, History Compass 5(6), 2007, pp. 1806-32; Alpa Shah, ‘Eco-incarceration? "Walking with the Comrades",’ Economic and Political Weekly 47(21), 26 May 2012, p. 32.

6. Amita Baviskar, ‘Red in Tooth and Claw? Searching for Class in Struggles Over Nature’ in Raka Ray and Mary Katzenstein (eds.), Social Movements in India: Poverty, Power, and Politics. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2005, p. 172.

7. A. Fiona D. Mackenzie, ‘"The Cheviot, The Stag...and The White, White Rock?": Community, Identity, and Environmental Threat on the Isle of Harris’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16(5), 1998, pp. 509-32.

8. Andrew Boni, et. al, ‘Sustainable Mining, Indigenous Rights and Conservation: Conflict and Discourse in Wirikuta/Catorce, San Luis Potosi, Mexico’, GeoJournal 80(5), 2015, pp. 759-80.

9. Uday Chandra, ‘Beyond Subalternity: Land, Community, and the State in Contemporary Jharkhand’, Contemporary South Asia 21(1), 2013, p. 55.

10. See the section ‘Indigeneity: Real, Perceived, Constructed and Performed’ in Radhika Krishnan and Rama Naga, ‘Ecological Warriors’ versus "Indigenous Performers": Understanding State Responses to Resistance Movements in Jagatsinghpur and Niyamgiri in Odisha’, Journal of South Asian Studies, Special Issue on Resource Extraction and Discourse, forthcoming.

11. Sujata Patel, ‘The Challenge of Doing Sociology Today’, Economic and Political Weekly LI, no. 46, 12 November 2016, p. 34.

12. Ibid., p. 35.

13. Ibid., p. 36.

14. Ibid., p. 39; Sujata Patel, ‘The Challenge of Global Modernity for Sociology in India’, in N. Jayaram (ed.), Ideas, Institutions, Processes: Essays in Memory of Satish Saberwal. Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2014, p. 62.

15. Aditya Pratap Deo, ‘Of Kings and Gods: The Archive of Sovereignty in a Princely State’, in Gyanendra Pandey (ed.), Unarchived Histories: The ‘Mad’ and the ‘Trifling’ in the Colonial and Postcolonial World. Routledge, New York, 2014, p. 127.

16. Prathama Banerjee, ‘Culture/Politics: The Irresoluble Double-Bind of the Indian Adivasi’, The Indian Historical Review 33(1), January 2006, p. 105.

17. Ibid., p. 100.

18. Ibid., p. 101.

19. Prathama Banerjee, ‘Writing the Adivasi: Some Historiographical Notes’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 53(1), 2016, p. 142.

20. Willem van Schendel, ‘The Dangers of Belonging: Tribes, Indigenous Peoples and Homelands in South Asia’, in Daniel J. Rycroft and Sangeeta Dasgupta (eds.), The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi. Routledge, London and New York, 2011, pp. 19-43.

21. Daniel J. Rycroft and Sangeeta Dasgupta, ‘Introduction to Part III’, in The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi, p. 98; Also Shah, ‘The Dark Side of Indigeneity?’

22. D.N. Dhanagare, ‘The New Farmers’ Movement in Maharashtra’, in T.K. Oommen (ed.), Social Movements Part II: Concerns of Equity and Security. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010, p. 109.

23. Dipankar Gupta, ‘Farmers’ Movements in Contemporary India’, in Ghanshyam Shah (ed.), Social Movements and the State: Readings in Indian Government and Politics – 4. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2002, p. 193; See L.I. Rudolph and S.H. Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987.

24. See for instance, Tom Brass, ‘The Politics of Gender, Nature and Nation in the Discourse of the New Farmers’ Movements’, in Tom Brass (ed.), New Farmers’ Movements in India. Routledge, New York, 2013, pp. 27-71.

25. Krishnan and Naga, ‘Ecological Warriors versus Indigenous Performers’.

26. ‘Chennai Poromboke Paadal’, Vettiver Collective, accessed 4 May 2017, V5AHM

27. Material released by the campaign to Save Ennore, accessed 10 May 2017, www.

28. Uday Chandra, ‘Primitive Accumulation and "Primitive" Subjects in Postcolonial India: Tracing the Myriad Real and Virtual Lives of Mediatized Indigeneity Activism’, Interventions: International Journal of Post-colonial Studies, 2016, p. 8, accessed 15 February 2017, DOI: 10.1080/1369801X. 2016.1231583.

29. Ibid., p. 9.

30. Quoted in ibid.

31. Quoted in ibid.

32. For instance, see Debasree De, ‘Development-induced Displacement: Impact on Adivasi Women of Odisha’, Community Development Journal 50(3), 2015, pp. 448-462 for an account of the disproportionate brunt of displacement borne by adivasis. Accounting for approximately eight per cent of India’s population, adivasis constitute an estimated 50 per cent of people displaced by development projects, according to an Indian government working group quoted in this article.

33. Prakruti Ramesh, ‘Rural Industry, the Forest Rights Act, and the Performance(s) of Proof’, in Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Patrik Oskarsson (eds.), Industrialising Rural India: Land Policy and Resistance. Routledge, London and New York, 2017, p. 170.

34. Ronald Neizen, The Origins of Indigenism. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003, p. 2.

35. Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution. Random House, New York, 1978.

36. David Harvey, The New Imperialism. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.

37. Radhika Krishnan, ‘Red in the Green: Forests, Farms, Factories and the Many Legacies of Shankar Guha Niyogi (1943-1991)’, Journal of South Asian Studies 39(4), December 2016, pp. 758-772.