THE CHIPKO MOVEMENT: A People’s Historyby Shekhar Pathak (Translated by Manisha Chaudhry). Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2021.
THE Chipko movement holds an iconic place in the history of environmental conservation in South Asia and has sparked many scholarly enquiries. The glacial-lake outburst flood in Chamoli earlier in February 2021 is a stark reminder yet again that the prescient concerns and questions thrown up by the Chipko protests continue to be meaningful for our times.
In this new book, historian Shekhar Pathak delves into the eventful decades of the 1970s and ’80s when hill villages and towns of Uttarakhand bustled with socio-ecological and political protests popularly called Chipko. He firmly anchors this movement in the regional setting of Uttarakhand and its socio-political history, from the colonial period to independent India. Not only does he highlight the centrality of forests to the hill economy and society, but by paying careful attention to landslides and flash-floods in the region, he also successfully captures the risks of inhabiting a geographically vulnerable mountainous landscape historically subject to multiple pressures. This people’s history aims to highlight the role of women, students and regional and national political organizations in the Chipko movement.
The book is an English translation by Manisha Chaudhry of Shekhar Pathak’s Hari Bhari Ummeed: Chipko Andolan Aur Anya Janglat Pratirodhon Ki Parampara, published two years earlier in Hindi by Vani Prakasan and Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (Shimla). Regrettably, a fascinating set of black and white photos of protest gatherings and personalities present in the Hindi book has been dropped from the English translation.
Organized in ten chapters, it narrates events around Chipko while interweaving them with the more immediate political and ecological events of the 1960s and early ’70s as well as older protests against restrictive forest regulations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Central to the story of Chipko told here is the rich diversity of sites, personalities (eminent and common), ideologies and institutions that shaped the protests. Gandhian activists such as Sarla Behn and Sundarlal Bahuguna led anti-liquor agitations in Gopeshwar and Tehri, but in Reni in Chamoli district, protests were mainly led by ordinary village women such as Gaura Devi and other women of the Mahila Mangal Dal. In the towns of Almora and Nainital, it was young students who gathered to disrupt forest auctions in protest.
Besides Sarvodaya and Gandhian workers such as the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS)-leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt, the author also throws light on the work of less-known student leaders such as Shamsher Singh Bisht; members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) such as Govind Singh Rawat and Govind Singh Negi; poets from Uttarakhand such as Ghanshyam Sailani and Girish Tiwari; editors and journalists such as Ramesh Pahadi and a range of ordinary women and men, several of whom are meticulously named in the different chapters of the book. Importantly, he points out that the CPI was perhaps the first political organization to give serious attention to the forest question in the hill region in the immediate decades following independence.
The primary focus of the book is the 1970s and two broad phases of Chipko are identified – before and after the Emergency. The first Chipko protest took place in 1973 in Chamoli’s Mandal village in the aftermath of destructive flash floods in the catchment area of river Alaknanda. A series of ecological disasters exposed the geographical vulnerability of the landscape damaged by the cumulative impacts of decades of extractive commercial forestry practices since the colonial period. Contract-based commercial tree-felling and differential rates of resin-tapping had put local residents at a disadvantaged position. Thus, when loggers of the Allahabad-based sports company Symonds arrived in Mandal to fell its angu trees from which ploughs and farm implements were made traditionally, Chandi Prasad Bhatt was alarmed and gave a call to embrace the trees to prevent them from being felled. Protests soon spread to other places in Chamoli such as Phata, Reni, Joshimath and even to districts such as Tehri, Uttarakashi, Almora, Nainital, Pithoragarh and Dehradun. In parallel, demands for a separate hill state and a hill university in Dehradun and Srinagar respectively, added momentum to these movements.
A more aggressive phase of Chipko unfolded following the repressive Emergency period which exposed significant differences in attitudes of Chipko leaders to the Congress government. Two new groups which played a pivotal role in the demand for a separate hill state were formed – the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini (USV), influenced by Jayaprakash Narayan’s work and the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, the first regional political party committed to establishing a separate state.
The author convincingly shows that leadership and expressions of Chipko protests did not have a singular form. DGSS’s members played a crucial role in protests near the Gopeshwar area of Chamoli, but in the Bhotiya villages of Reni and Lata it was CPI members who were more influential. Similarly, while the USV activists advocated the strategy of disrupting forest auctions held in hill-towns, others such as Bahuguna preferred less confrontational modes of protest. In the case of Bhyundaar valley and Doongri-Paintoli (chapter 7), the protests were led by residents themselves and it was only later that activists of DGSS, CPI or USV got involved. Expressions of protest also derived strength from sacred and religious beliefs in some cases. Srimadbhagwad Kathas were held in the forests in Badiyargarh (1979) and women of Reni sang devotional songs dedicated to the mountain goddess Nanda Devi as they stood guard over the trees at night (1974).
The author draws upon an impressive range of Hindi newspaper sources, including publications from Nainital, Almora and Dehradun, as well as private collections. Additionally, his primary sources include oral material as well – conversations and interviews with more than 180 people, spoken with over a long period of forty-two years, from 1974 to 2016.The narrative is enriched by the author’s own engagement in some events documented in the book. Voices and vocabularies of resistance are noted in Hindi as well as in vernacular languages of Uttarakhand. Notably, he points out that the word ‘Chipko’ is a later Hindi-ised form of ‘angavaltha’, the Garhwali term used by Chandi Prasad Bhatt. (p. 104) A variety of historical slogans and poetry scattered throughout the book, especially between chapters 4 and 7, make for delightful reading – ‘Angu bachao, Symonds bhagao’ (Save the ash tree, send Symonds packing; p. 107) ‘Aa gaya hai lal nishan, lootne walon ho savdhan’ (The sign of Red has arrived, looters beware; p.120) and ‘Kya hain jangal ke upkaar, mitti, paani aur bayaar; mitti paani aur bayaar, zinda rehne ke aadhaar’ (What do forests give our lives: soil, water and air; Soil, water and air are what keep us alive, p. 257). This really invites the reader to take a dive into the Hindi original.
In his assessment of the colonial period, Pathak implicitly follows Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha’s seminal work This Fissured Land (1992) which argued that the colonial period was a watershed moment in India’s ecological history. Among other things this is evident in the way the chapters are organized, beginning with the 19th century and a discussion on the imposition of harsh restrictions on forest use through colonial legislations. The introduction to this book, ‘A Man to Match his Mountains’, is written by Ramachandra Guha who has edited this English translation. Guha’s introduction is an intimate account of scholarly solidarity and a close friendship with the author. Reading The Chipko Movement takes the reader back to Guha’s The Unquiet Woods (1989) where Guha drew scholarly attention to ‘peasant rebellions’ against state-led commercial forestry during the British rule in the Kumaon Himalayas. Subtle differences, that remain understated in the book, distinguish Pathak’s approach from Guha’s. In Pathak’s account, anti-colonial resistance does not figure as the defining feature of the relation of the hill peasant with the state. This can be seen in the aspirations and demands for better education, employment, more equitable rights of access to forests and forest products and subsequently the demand for a separate state within the Indian Union. Further, here we see a more complicated and disaggregated picture of the protests and the protestors than what Guha described. It is clear that even though Chipko protestors were primarily rural hill peasants, the role of educated youth and organized political activists – both regional and national – needs to be recognized. The richness and variety of Pathak’s sources stands out but there is also a noticeable similarity in the broader outline of The Unquiet Woods and The Chipko Movement. In both books agitations against forest policies of the British government and the Tehri Raja in the 1920s and 1930s provide the key historical background to events of the 1970s and ’80s.
The title, The Chipko Movement, aptly captures the focus on Chipko but the account also offers a modern history of the Uttarakhand state, formed in 2000. Region-making seems to go almost hand in hand with the trajectory of ecological protests in this book leading us to think that the demand for a separate hill state always enjoyed a wide popular base. But this is at odds with Emma Mawdsley who has previously argued that until 1994, when the SP-BSP government of Uttar Pradesh implemented the OBC reservation, the demand for a separate state was primarily restricted to elite-urban groups and did not have much of a popular base among the rural population in the hill districts. On a somewhat related note, the hill-inhabitant identity sometimes appears as an overarching uniting identity in this book and the author offers a limited discussion of the tensions in power relations between different social groups in the hills. If women were a key force behind the ecological and anti-liquor protests, why is it that political leadership across the ideological spectrum remained largely confined to a male caste-Hindu background in this region?
Pathak emphasizes that the relation of rural women with the forests was primarily an economic one but at some places he implicitly subordinates their political agency to that of the male activists and leaders. For instance, with respect to protests led by Gaura Devi and other women in Reni in 1974, he writes that by resisting forest contractors in the absence of Chipko leaders, these women ‘had saved the repute of’ Chipko’s male leaders (p. 132) and later again, with reference to the women-led protests in Doongri-Paintoli in 1980, he credits a founder member of the USV for ‘activating’ women of Doongri-Paintoli. (p. 285) At the same time, one also wonders if these issues are dealt with differently in the Hindi original.
Pathak perceptively notes that in border regions of Chamoli populated by the Bhotiyas (Tolchhas-Marchhas), CPI activists had greater influence than Sarvodaya workers of the DGSS. What explains this difference in reach with respect to tribal communities in this region? We would have liked to know more about this rather interesting observation. While a more elaborate discussion on the entanglements of caste, tribe and gender in this region would have widened the scope of this book, it remains an important contribution to scholarly writings on Chipko as it offers a regionally situated history of this globally famous ecological movement.
PhD scholar, Department of History, Ashoka University, Sonipat
HOW TO AVOID A CLIMATE DISASTER: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need by Bill Gates. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021.
HOW we tell the story of climate change matters. In How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Bill Gates tells the story of climate change through his lens, which is that of a skeptical billionaire-technocrat-philanthrocapitalist. In Gates’ view, climate change is a technical problem with social consequences, which needs philanthro-capitalist models of innovation to create zero-carbon tools as solutions. Gates begins the book by introducing us to two numbers – 51 billion, the tons of greenhouse gases added into the world every year, and zero, the number we need to get to in order to tackle climate change.
Gates sets the stage by laying out the enormity of the challenge of tackling climate change in no uncertain terms. ‘This sounds difficult, because it will be. The world has never done anything quite this big.’ (p. 1) Gates describes his own introduction to understanding climate change through the problems of energy poverty and lack of energy access in the global South, where Gates’ work on public health (through the Gates Foundation) took him. In late 2006, Gates’ former colleagues at Microsoft bring climate experts to him to explain climate change. At the time Gates was akin to a climate change skeptic, believing that cyclical variations would self-correct the climate problem and naturally prevent a climate disaster. A few years later spent learning, reading, and talking to experts, Gates shares his three main conclusions (p. 8): (i) To avoid a climate disaster we need to get to net zero carbon emissions; (ii) there is a need to deploy existing tools such as clean energy technologies faster and smarter, but these will not be sufficient; and (iii) there is a need to create new tools in the form of ‘breakthrough technologies’ to achieve the remaining carbon emission reduction required.
The next three chapters, Why Zero, This Will be Hard, and Five Questions to Ask in Every Climate Conversation, are a well-written compilation of Gates’ notes from his studies through reading and conversations with climate science experts. Gates explains what fossil fuels are – buried organic matter compressed over time that have been fossilized into combustible materials like oil, natural gas, and coal. Gates explains why carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, by vibrating molecules which get energized through the reflected sunlight. How the temperature has already risen one degree Centigrade over preindustrial times. How a warming atmosphere causes sea level rise, and affects plants, animals, and agriculture. How global energy demands are increasing due to the increasing prosperity of the erstwhile poor, and how that will increase emissions even more. How fossil fuels are cheap and energy dense. And so on.
Most of this information will not be new to anyone who has kept themselves informed about climate change over the last twenty years, but the information is presented in an easy-to-understand way, with no academic citations, and its presentation style will likely be perceived as less daunting to an average non-academic reader, than an IPCC report (whose purpose is also to synthesize the latest academic research of climate change).
The following five chapters – How We Plug In, How We Make Things, How We Grow Things, How We Get Around, and How We Keep Cool and Stay Warm – describe what Gates thinks we should do to tackle the five major sources of global carbon emissions: electricity (responsible for 27% of total global annual emissions), cement, steel, and plastic (responsible for 31% of total global annual emissions), agriculture and animal husbandry (responsible for 19% of total global annual emissions), transportation (responsible for 16% of total global annual emissions), and heating, cooling, and refrigeration (responsible for 7% of total global annual emissions). Gates’ suggestions range from ‘electrify every process possible’, (p. 111) cutting down on meat consumption from livestock, (p. 118-119) and use energy more efficiently. (p. 157) These are the book’s best and most interesting chapters to read.
Gates is a credible and engaging writer when he discusses his views on various technologies and processes related to mitigating carbon emissions. One may disagree with Gates on whether the risks of nuclear energy are worth it or not (see discussion on pp. 84-89), or whether home heating energy uses are purely techno-economical choices, (p. 155) but these chapters overall provide engaging arguments and discussions related to technologies that a reader interested in climate change would want to be familiar with.
In the last third of the book, Gates describes the need for continued investments in climate adaptation measures like helping farmers manage climate risks, transforming urban growth, and restoring ecosystems to shore up natural infrastructures, why government policies matter and can have a huge impact, and a plan for getting to zero emissions. The final chapter, What Each of Us Can Do is an excellent summary of individual actions immediately possible as a citizen, consumer, employer/employee, and a call for more thoughtful and constructive dialogue on climate change across our individual differences. I appreciate Gates expanding this chapter to include non-technological actions like running for office and engaging in the policy-making process.
Where the book shines is when Gates describes the folly of focusing on climate change solutions at the cost of public health, education, energy access, and other technologies and services that millions in the global South desire but do not yet have access to. Gates bluntly critiques the diversion of international aid to ‘climate sensitive’ projects (which invariable focus on reducing emissions from the world’s poor, which on a per-capita basis is miniscule compared to per capita emissions in the global North) through the elimination of funding for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, vaccines, and other basic primary health services.
Gates does well to explain clearly to readers that while many people living in wealthy parts of the world should decrease their carbon emissions, for vast numbers of people living in the global South the focus is on providing access to lighting, electrification, primary healthcare including vaccines, drinking water, sanitation, education, different agricultural technologies, all of which require an increase in energy consumption (from the relatively miniscule amount it is today). The book does well to describe the inequity of the world’s poor facing the brunt of climate impacts when they did not cause it.
But there are several vexing aspects of this book. First, it is unclear who the intended audience for this book is. Clearly it is not for those who already know the basics about climate change as the book is written in a register to explain those very basics to a climate neophyte or skeptic. Neither is the book meant for climate experts, as there is no original research or new information in this book that cannot be obtained from academic journals, IPCC reports, or a myriad other publications on climate change. The book is for those who know little or nothing about climate change – are there very many of those out there? Let’s assume yes, that Gates imagined this book would be useful for those who know next to nothing about climate change. That still does not answer the question why readers would turn to Bill Gates to learn about climate change, given that his professional work at Microsoft had nothing to do with climate change, and his philanthropic contributions through the Gates Foundation are largely in the field of global public health.
If we imagine who would care about what Bill Gates has to say about climate change, it becomes clear that there are two categories of people: those who are in awe of his technological expertise in software development and assume it translates into other technical and social domains as well, and those who admire his wealth and assume that his success in amassing vast sums of money means he has something worthwhile to say on any topic he chooses. As a critical social scientist of energy, society, and environmental change, I will fully and grudgingly accept that there are likely people who fit these categories. The very fame and wealth Gates has amassed give him a loud microphone, access to experts to explain things to him, and a publishing contract which allows Gates to flood bookstores at airports, train stations, and universities with his musings on climate change, not to mention primetime spots on television and late night talk shows to promote his book.
Putting aside my vexation that Gates has this unearned platform to pontificate about climate change, I think it is a positive development that someone with Gates’ platform is learning about climate change, trying to stay informed, and sharing what he has learned. But this leads me to the main critique of the book, which is that while Gates, to his credit, admits to richsplaining, he still goes ahead and does it anyway. Furthermore, Gates totally ignores the fact that his personal wealth (and platform upon which he stands to make his voice heard about climate change) is predicated on the functioning of a socio-economic and political system that allows such vast inequality to accrue in the first place, and is directly linked to the climate catastrophe.
Gates studiously avoids examining the political-economy of climate change, and shies away from analysing the socio-political reasons we are where we are with regards to climate change. He retrenches the idea that we can have technological fixes absent an understanding of (as a precursor to grappling with) the politics of technological change. In doing so, he plays into the myth of the apolitical and neutral technical expert who cannot muddy his mind with the messiness of human life and politics.
Taking a step back, I reflect on whether I am glad this book was written, and who I would recommend it to. First, although congratulations are due to anyone who writes a book and gets it published, it is reasonable to expect that for someone like Bill Gates it is hardly difficult to get writing partners, publishers, experts to explain things, and fact checkers as he freely admits in his acknowledgements. Should you read it? The answer is yes only if you are already interested in Bill Gates’ views on things in general, curious which technologies Bill Gates thinks have promise in addressing climate change or need a refresher on the basics of climate change.
As I stated in the beginning of the review, how we tell the story of climate change matters. The framing of the climate story shapes our imagination of solutions. If we frame the problem of climate change as a technical one (although needing some policy change for effective implementation), then a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions through technical solutions seems the most logical way to tackle it. If we frame the problem of climate change as a social justice one predicated on the exponential rise of inequality of wealth and power in the world, then technical solutions remain only a small piece of the puzzle, and used only as a means to create a more just world. Gates tells the story of climate change through two numbers – 51 billion, and zero. But if I told the story of climate change with two different numbers, 8 men, the richest people in the world (including Gates), and 50 per cent, the share of world’s emissions they produced, we might think about the problem of climate change and possible solutions differently. Alternatively, I could tell the story of climate change through two other numbers – 20, the top fossil fuel corporations in the world, and 35 per cent, the share of global greenhouse gas emissions they have produced cumulatively since 1965; or another example of a pair of numbers to hinge the climate change story on – 10 countries, the top emitters, and 67%, the share of global emissions they are responsible for emitting.
All these versions of the climate story are true; all are partial perspectives of climate change and cause us to look at climate change differently. Inspired by feminist science and technology studies scholars, I suggest we embrace the partial nature of every perspective, and avoid privileging any one view as the definitive, whosever it may be.
Assistant Professor, Environmental Studies, Humboldt State University, Arcata, California
WILD AND WILFUL: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species by Neha Sinha. HarperCollins Publishers India, 2021.
THIS is not a book you would pick up to read on a quiet relaxed evening. It titillates, forces your brow to cloud in deep furrows, makes you look away into the distance once in a while, reminds you of your favourite books, and, if you love the wild as I do, maybe it will even have a tear or two roll down your cheeks. The title and the stunning cover photo of intertwined elephant trunks are enticingly deceptive; they promise a sojourn, perhaps jolly, into the wild with animals. While the book certainly packs some incredibly interesting and stunning wild animals, it is a deep, delicious dive into a land where the wild and the human are deeply intertwined. Neha Sinha’s writing forces one to pause, think, agree or disagree, shake your head and sigh deeply. It is one of those books that needs a careful review so as not to disclose too much detail and allow readers a full-on experience on their own.
India is a country of diversity like, perhaps, none other. And in this book you will experience and witness some of that diversity related to us by an artful writer, a deep thinker, and an exasperated lover of the wild whose affections are laid out unfiltered. Sinha clearly lives to experience the wild. But unlike many accounts of natural history and wildlife experiences, she is not, by any stretch of imagination, a mere visitor to the land she writes about. Her stories are not uncluttered and neat – mere narratives of beauty or science or philosophy. No, hers are nuanced with every observation, taking her back to her mother, the complexity of institutions in India, the plight and might of the wild species she is describing, and an urgent reminder of how nothing is truly wild here.
The book is broken into chapters, but that is a mirage meant only to hero a species. The protagonist of each chapter is introduced to us with a stunning black and white photograph. And that is where the mirage ends. Each chapter is akin to a single page of a stamp collection, where each individual page and stamp is different, varied, unique, yet requiring the entire collection to tell a full story. In the chapter championing the imperilled Great Indian Bustard in the dry dusty desert, for example, you will be transported to the lush perennial forests of the Northeast to meet the White-bellied Heron. In the middle of a detailed account of species behaviour, you will be reminded of Harry Potter and the Game of Thrones. And so on it goes, somewhat confounding yet always drawing back to the one species that set each story in motion.
Sinha is a people person almost as much as she is for the wild. The book is generously dotted with names of scientists, tribal leaders, government officials, and historians who provided the fodder for this book. She does not shirk from naming the minister whom she disagreed with, nor with the elephant biologist whose assessment about elephants being natural wanderers was almost too much to bear. She meets snakes, bustards and butterflies with the same aplomb as she does hunters in Nagaland, scientists at the Wildlife Institute of India, and the man who cares for a crocodile. (That is me trying hard not to give away too much!)
Having said that, Sinha shirks not from exploring the deep divisions in India where humans appear, at the same time, as deeply passionate yet limited in their imaginations. She questions the basis of institutions, some formal like the Supreme Court and others much deeper like Hinduism, that appear inept even unable to secure better lives for the animals they purport to protect and worship. Why, she asks, do people who worship monkeys, so easily consign them to a live of imprisonment and indignity. Why is it so easy for privileged folks to easily build a wall beside a world-famous nature reserve on which young elephants have died trying to make a hole, and so difficult for the poor villager inside a tiger reserve to gain access to basic amenities like a hospital that would have prevented many a woman dying during childbirth?
In laying bare these divisions, Sinha performs an extraordinary service. She forces clear views of the reality of a complex, constantly struggling, deeply tragic, and frequently illogical world where both humans and animals have come together in an unforgiving meeting of history, culture and government. These views should give everyone pause since the majority of information on Indian wildlife conservation provides a delusion neatly academically packaged into phrases such as ‘man-animal coexistence’, and the like. She proudly showcases the knowledge of tribals as theirs that they freely share rather than be a trophy of ‘discovery’ that many scientists tout their published papers to be.
The smallest chapters, I could not help but notice, were also the ones in which Sinha appeared the most unencumbered. These stories are rich and patterned in ways that the other longer ones are not. These stories, I realized, were of species that have not seen too much scientific research. Sinha appears freest when she accosts and experiences species whose habits remain to be discovered, providing tales that soar the highest. This is not to say that the other longer tales are less worthwhile – only a bit more weighed down by the evidence gathered painstakingly by the scientists she works with. We the readers are not spared the details of these well studied lifeforms but find ourselves in pages where Sinha’s mind conjures up relationships, distant memories, indignance at science being ignored, and revelling in what remains to be discovered of these species.
In a country that is obsessed with predatory mammals largely confined into reserves where they can be commercialized, it was refreshing to read so many stories that covered such a different set of lifeforms all of which could not escape the human. This was true also of the few species that Sinha visits inside nature reserves. This writer had brought us out of the 5-7% of India from where over 95% of tales are written, to the 90+% of the country, where countless tales remain to be told. Most natural history writings, if not already written by Caucasians, have the underpinnings of a foreign discoverer who writes of his conquest of the wild. Here, we have a quintessential Indian woman scouring her country, little missing her sharp eyes, and frequently letting emotion triumph over the vagaries of inane science.
Why is this set of stories and tales so different? Sinha is certainly not the first naturalist in India to roam the country, and she is certainly not the first Indian to do so. She is not even the first person with a training in science and writing to be penning her thoughts on things wild and human. Could it be that she is a woman who also had all these traits of past writers? She is one among a very small tribe of Indian women writers – a tribe so small that ought to shame us collectively as a nation. If this book is a view of what Indian woman writers are capable of, I feel a deep loss of what could have been had many more written. And if this book is a glimpse at what is to come, buckle up folks, the ride will be worthwhile!
K.S. Gopi Sundar
Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru
LEOPARD DIARIES: The Rosette in India by Sanjay Gubbi. Westland India, 2021.
Sanjay Gubbi, or Sanjay as I will refer to him, has secured a singularly unique position when it comes to leopards. He was born in a town that has leopards and is among the few fortunate wildlifers to roam a diversity of leopard habitats, some of which he has been instrumental in conserving. He is one of the few people with a doctoral degree based on studies on the leopard. And lastly, he is the only leopard scientist in the country to have been literally chewed up by a wild leopard. This background gives him a perspective, evident throughout his new book, that no one else can possibly have on this secretive animal.
Leopard studies in India are rare but thanks to an uptick in top-notch training and mentorship of students, researchers, and conservationists, we look forward to more readable accounts by other writers. The last book on leopards in India was a compilation of published papers in the distinguished Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society, but it was not really accessible to the non-technical person.
Sanjay makes no effort to hide his admiration, even reverence, for the leopard – he openly invites the reader to share with him his joy and pleasure. Superlatives such as the leopard being a ‘star of the wildlife world’, and ‘poster boy against extinction’, are, however, provided in a thoughtful context. We also learn, for example, that this animal’s current ‘mecca’ is not the African wild lands or Southeast Asian forests, but crowded India.
Sanjay puts together ingredients that will likely allow this book a long shelf life – there is so much to discover, unpack and ponder over. Archaeological findings, Egyptian perspectives, Elizabeth Taylor using leopard skins, and museum holdings go hand in hand with field biologists excited over leopard droppings, technological advancements that allow field research, and the long arduous path to conserving leopard habitats. In a way that is unusual for writings on one species by a trained biologist, but one that I found enjoyable, Sanjay leads readers along paths, tangents, experiences, and findings that have kept him busy for the best part of two decades. Almost every new finding is carefully contextualized so we, the non-expert, may come away with an understanding that is much deeper than merely anecdotal.
The book is arranged into chapters, but more unusually, each chapter has several sections that are sometimes related and at other times only loosely connected. Each section is almost like a new thought the writer wanted to share. This format lacks the familiar polish of books by better known or professional authors, but for me, it allowed a child-like excitement in not knowing exactly what to expect next, usually ending in finding another nugget or two of interesting information. It also made the book easy to open on any page and read a section without really needing to know the rest of the book.
Leopard Diaries is not written for a specific readership. It’s sometimes rustic prose appears alongside esoteric details, providing an insight into the mind of a person striving to make sense of a large number of details, experiences, and analyses. This the author does by laying bare many of the details and providing painstaking descriptions of some experiences that can only be described as remarkable. For example, we learn of the extensive use of camera traps in the study where 7,658 photos were taken in the field. We are then walked through the findings of the photographs with factoids such as <1.1% of these showing more than one leopard together – evidence that the leopard is largely solitary. We are told of the unexpected findings of the author and his team about the secretive ratel, the erstwhile hidden chinkara in Karnataka, and the various leopards that trotted by the cameras with prey in their mouths.
The author describes in some detail how he used the unique spot patterns on the leopard to estimate numbers, and how camera trapping enabled his team to better understand what is required for the leopard to survival in a diversity of landscapes. We are taken on multiple journeys that include lush forests along rivers, scraggly scrublands, agricultural areas that had over 40 different crops, and sprawling mega-cities complete with traffic jams. All these areas, we discover with the author, have leopards. After each journey we are cautioned to think carefully about what Sanjay and his team observed. The leopard, it seems, is not as adjustable to human settings as the increasing number of attacks in the media would make one believe. Instead, they can only use human settlements if other elements of land use continue to exist. These could be as diverse as forests playing the role of corridors, or even agricultural lands mixed with plantations. There was no completely human-modified area that had leopards, but only those that also had some natural features like outcrops or were surrounded by fields like corn that gave the leopard much-needed cover during the day.
Sanjay deftly uses comic references, simple but detailed descriptions, current affairs, and festivals like Christmas to bring home his points about leopards and their ways. His writing is uncomplicated and helps connect with the large number of situations he describes. He plays the role of both explorer and conservationist in equal measure with equal honesty. We feel his joy at getting to know a leopard on whom he has placed a satellite tracking device. We feel his frustration when he runs into bureaucrats and politicians who are not helpful. We also learn in great detail the physical damage a leopard wreaks on him and feel anger at the ineptness a doctor displays that could have made an already horrendous situation much worse for Sanjay.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book for me was the various images Sanjay invokes. There are many that relate to the protagonist of the book – the leopard. These include a rare moment of meeting a leopard’s eyes while in the field, the thrill of touching a tranquilized leopard, and the fascinating differences in behaviour of leopards that were captured. Others provide important views into the world of the people beside forests, including a famous eatery that became, along with the area’s leopards, victims of development. Having grown up in Bengaluru and wandered the outskirts of the city before it became a concretised centre of information technology, I was pleased to read the many pages dedicated to the rocky outcrops around the city. While admiring the leopards that he was studying, Sanjay provides a rare celebration of these neglected habitats, and underscores the surprisingly high diversity of animals, people, and habitats these small yet lovely bits of curious geology retain.
This book, however, does not pretend to be an encyclopaedia of all things leopard. While it does provide historical and literary accounts, and includes experiences and learnings of other scientists, it is by no means an exhaustive review of the literature that exists on the leopard. Sanjay also does not delve into the formal socio-logical and anthropological explorations of the people that leopards live with, or the people in power whose decisions will determine the animal’s long-term future. Though the author is not a trained sociologist, he does a good job of introducing aspects of multidisciplinary studies that can be taken up by experts in those fields.
Though I came away from the first reading of the book feeling heavy hearted, strangely, it was not entirely disheartening. This is because of two reasons. One, Sanjay does not use the book only to describe the ways of the leopard, which would have been relatively simpler. He works hard to include the overall landscape and the people relevant to each of the settings he has worked in. This juxtaposition of the ecological and the human helps us understand an animal like the leopard and the cunningness required to survive in a world where cities and towns are eating up natural and agricultural areas. It is difficult not to feel sympathy for an animal that is struggling to survive despite the odds it continually faces, and for the people whose interactions with leopards sometimes ends in great tragedy. Second, Sanjay is among the few scientists who has worked tirelessly to conserve habitats by working with government departments, politicians, village heads, and anyone who could help. While the difficulties in conserving a predator like a leopard alongside the growing juggernaut of the human population are immense, these descriptions and successes provide hope.
After I read the book, I realized that there is a lot that Sanjay has not yet written. Also, there are other scientists like Sanjay working on leopards and other poorly-known beasts in India. It would be a real pleasure, and a great service, to have other field biologists in the country write such books. I for one am all agog with the anticipation.
K.S. Gopi Sundar
Scientist, Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysuru
LIVING WITH OIL AND COAL: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India by Dolly Kikon. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2019; Yoda Press, New Delhi, 2020.
Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India tells a story of intimacy. This is an empathetic window into the lives of the inhabitants of the foothills of Assam and Nagaland under extractive regimes that permeate their desires, anxieties, and fears with coal and oil. The book demonstrates how oil and coal dictate the contours of the interspersed frontiers strewn across these foothills in the form of the federal governments of Assam and Nagaland, the Indian state, and the financial and political aspirations, gender norms, ethnicities, and memories of the inhabitants. In many ways, this book is a borderland study about the borders within.
The book is divided across seven chapters bookended by an introduction and an epilogue. The first three chapters demonstrate the relationship between intimacies or loves or ‘morom’ and coal and oil in the foothills. The first chapter discusses the role of memories and folktales in the relationships the inhabitants of the foothills share with resource extraction. This chapter shows how origin narratives get interspersed with colonial cartography and administrative divisions as they are deployed to contend with present-day developments around resource extraction, such as inter-ethnic competition or cooperation. While folktales and origin narratives have been employed by traditional scholarship to portray a detemporalized tribal universe in the Northeast, Kikon uses it to demonstrate a temporality effected by these narratives. The author shows how folktales and mythology are recontextualized at every utterance by agents spread across different divisions, giving us a sense of the time in which they are being invoked. Origin narratives and folktales may be difficult to date, but in this book, folktales give us a rich picture of the times in which the inhabitants recollect and redeploy them.
The second chapter foregrounds the relationship between the two analytical categories of the foothills as a topographical and environmental outlier in a universe dominated by hills and plains and the role of ‘morom’ in the way inhabitants of the foothills view the state’s relationship with the people in the higher altitudes of the hills and in the plains and across the body of the hills. We are also given a glimpse into how the division of hills and plains is played on the bodies of women who dare to love and live beyond the foothills. Such and other accounts of the inhabitants of the foothills give us an important insight into how environments and the kind of politics attached to them influence the nature of the relationship between the citizens, the federal governments, and the Indian state. This is perhaps the most important contribution of the book.
The foothills not only come across as a rich critique of the binary of the plains and hills, and the scholarship that sees the hills just as sites of state evasion, but the notion of the monolithic hills is also challenged as they then seem highly variegated in terms of the greater attention the people in the higher altitudes receive as compared to those who live in the foothills. This is seen through the memories, emotions, aspirations, and perceptions of those who inhabit the foot-hills and in the relationships, they share with those who live in the plains, as they are more connected to them through markets and movement of goods.
These themes are then discussed in greater detail in Chapter three, which discusses the varying degrees of state love, whereby the people of the foothills perceive state love to be something reserved for the people of the higher altitudes in Nagaland and in the valleys of Assam, while residents of the foothills only face suffering and abandonment by the state which they perceive as multiple sovereign authorities in the form of the cultural state of Nagaland which projects itself as the head of the Nagas and seeks to consolidate power for itself by maintaining close relations with the chieftains in the higher altitudes, the economic state of Assam which guarantees prosperity for the valley dwellers as it is seen as an economic power-house due to its association with Assam tea and oil and the security state of India, who are represented by the overwhelming presence of security forces in the foothills. Added to the mix are non-state agents like the insurgents with whom they have to negotiate a coexistence.
Chapter four talks about the importance of ‘haats’ as contact zones where along with economic goods, information too is circulated. Haats, in Kikon’s rendering, emerge as a dynamic stage of performance where power relations are played out, inter-communal animosities find expression leading to disputes between ethnicities and states, and also as the meeting ground of friendships and objects of desire divided across state lines. The vignettes of unlikely alliances, acknowledgment of cultural differences and empathy for one another in an atmosphere of land disputes, insurgency, and inter-communal animosities in this chapter perhaps makes it as much an act of philosophical consolation to the reader as it is a study on the weekly markets which, although culturally and economically indispensable for the people in the foothills, find themselves precariously settled in disputed tea gardens and against walls of oil and gas gathering stations.
Chapter five discusses the relations of exchange between the peoples of the foothills and the plains in the context of the events of conditional cooperation within the Nagas and the Assamese and the traditional cooperative institutions between women of landowning Adivasi families while practising jhum cultivation, a technology they self-professedly have learnt from the Nagas.
The following chapter talks about how aspirations of the inhabitants of the foothills are shaped by the extractive regime which controls these resources. This chapter gives us a peek into notions of Naga masculinity and society whereby the labour of women does not threaten it, but female inheritance does. The final chapter discusses how the extractive regime has turned the foothills into an immensely militarized zone where every inhabitant has to provide constant proof of being good, obedient citizens. Their citizenship or whatever is left of it, is completely contingent on how much they can invisibilize themselves in the resource extraction processes which take place here. Failing to provide proof of which, one may be subjected to untold brutality in the hand of the armed forces. Similarly, non-military participants of the regime, such as the experts in ONGC with whom Kikon engaged, see extraction as a technical issue completely separate from the social, political and economic realities of the area. However, it is this reviewer’s view that Kikon could have problematized the notion of ‘carbon citizenship’ a bit more into elaborating as to what is specific to a citizenship which is contingent on these natural resources. While she manages to show how the state deems their citizenship vis-a-vis carbon, how the inhabitants of the foothills imagine their citizenship vis-a-vis carbon perhaps required more attention. A subsequent question which then could have been asked would have been how the foothill dwellers perceive the call for a separate Naga nation. This would have contributed to making a richer discussion on their perception of citizenship in India.
Published as a part of the University of Washington Press’ ‘Culture, Place, and Nature: Studies in Anthropology and Environment’ series, which seeks to publish anthropologically centred works on environmental issues that employ an interdisciplinary approach with a focus on the ‘intersection of culture, ecology, and politics in global, national and local contexts’, Kikon produces an ethnography which not only stays true to this declared aim of the series but is also thoughtful in its approach to the lived realities of the participants in the study. The author is also exemplarily mindful of her position as an ethnographer in the narrative.
Kikon’s positioning of the Northeast as an ‘important location through which we can understand new forms of heterogeneity, citizenship, indigeneity, legitimacy, and gender relations in contemporary India’, is not a very commonplace approach to talk about the region.1 A good amount of studies on the Northeast are overwhelmingly structured around the notions of geographical remoteness, cultural differences and economic backwardness perpetuated by exceptionalism and neglect from the Indian state. While it is not untrue that these two factors largely impact the lives of the people in the region, scholars have often run the risk of essentializing the Northeast as an exception and a neglected part of India. This trope of neglect and exceptionalism is then employed to explain everything. So much so that anything pertaining to the Northeast then becomes a fallout of these two conditions. However, Kikon is sensitive to this issue and her narrative is laden with the many face-offs and alliances that take place in the borderland thus allowing us a fresh perspective into the lived realities of peoples in the militarized zones, literally from the foothills of Assam and Nagaland and not just the corridors of state power. Dolly Kikon’s book, undoubtedly a fascinating work of ethnography, compels us to problematize seemingly unitary categories of hills and other land and waterscapes and also to think of the impact of extractive regimes not only on the environment but also on how environment then comes to exist for the human societies who experience them.
Ph.D student, Department of History, Ashoka University, Sonipat
1. Dolly Kikon, Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2019, p. 10.
JUMBOS AND JUMPING DEVILS: A Social History of Indian Circusby Nisha P.R. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2020.
AT a time when the circus is rapidly fading from the city centre, Nisha P.R. brings the untold yet compelling history of the community, the performers, and many associated cultures which contributed to the formation of what quintessentially shaped the Indian circus. The dearth of any consolidated archive on the circus poses a major problem and is reflective of the paucity of academic writing on the circus in the Indian context. What is the alternative to reconstruct the history of Indian circuses when the records of its chronology and of the genealogies of the circus pioneers are absent from the annals of cultural history?
It is in the key moments that Nisha reconstructs the circus history; entry of colonial circus forms and initiation of artists into a multidisciplinary circus training, banning of performing animals, formation of circus unions, the travelling tents and the child performers. P.R. offers a treatise on circus as a socio-historical entity, undertaking an extensive ethnographic research, replete in oral histories, narratives, and detailed interviews as she collates diverse voices from Indian circuses.
Drawing from the prevalent traditional practices – physical, dietary, and medicinal – the book approaches the development of this colonial form through its indigenous roots emerging in circus kalaris. The chapter, largely based on circus history in Kerala, encompasses other regional physical cultures – kushti (Indian wrestling), yoga, the Sandow system, and the Swedish drill. P.R. makes critical reflections on how circus kalaris provided an alternative space where ‘the rigid caste-based physical culture such as kalaripyatt were radically reimagined and refashioned to accommodate a "modern" form, and the circus kalari became a social space for different castes, communities, and genders.’ (p. 26) She explicates how the circus undermined a system of exclusion set by caste-based practices.
Like humans, the animal performers are also a marginalized lot and do not figure in any of the histories on animals and wildlife in India. The second chapter lays out the history of animal laws from the colonial period, when hunting was promoted as a ‘manly sport’, to the postcolonial which witnessed banning of performing animals from circuses, but continued in the vulgar exhibitions of animals in the traditional sports. Bringing the legal debates on animal rights, ownership, liberation, conservation, and religion to the forefront, she raises the ever-pertinent but discomforting question of how, under the garb of tradition and religion, several animals are tortured on an annual basis, whereas other performance practices are not even considered to be legitimate.
The following section chronicles the other non-human performer – the objects. With growing importance of object-oriented theories that challenge anthropocentrism in cultural studies, it is imperative to frame the conversation of circus objects by addressing their absence from the history of circus. P.R. approaches the history of tents, which define the very identity of the big top, through the history of modernity itself. Major components, technologies, structure, and material for tents kept evolving with travel and the need to adapt to the local conditions. Presumably, in India, the circus tents came from colonial circuses. Although Nisha does not establish a direct link between the two, she traces the history of use of tents in other sports and entertainment forms from early 20th c. through anecdotal narratives and local myths. Using Bruno Latour’s theory of ‘Interobjectivity’, P.R. focuses on the specific kinds of human-object relations. She collates the many stories of pitching a tent, a recurring and one of the many important aspects of circus, which is rarely told. She finds that ‘it is these networks, exchanges, intimacy, and skilled knowledge that the circus tent demands from its humans and animals, enabling a whole world particular to that of circus that is most remarkable.’ (p. 145)
The strength of the book lies in the investigation into the excluded yet portentous history of circus labour; especially the emergence of circus unions and the ensuing strikes by the workers owing to the growing conflicts between the owners and the workers that are discussed in detail. These events remained confined to local causes and could never expand to a pan-Indian circus employees’ movement, hence the absence of benefits and laws to protect the circus workers. The distinction between artists and labour becomes starker in the circus space, which employs both ‘skilled artists’ and ‘unskilled labour’ in equal numbers. She brings the perennial debate of caste and marginalization in cultural practices into focus, the primary reason for why the circus artists have remained deprived of state recognition and protectional though having been available to classical artists and those from other disciplines.
It is because of the shift in government ideologies and the recent change in laws concerning child labour which has pushed the circus practice to its brink. There is an urgent need to document cultural practices and art forms which are disappearing under the burden of the neoliberal state, its economic policies, and laws which do not benefit the artists who are already in a precarious condition. P.R.’s book comes at a significant time when there has been a drastic reduction in the number of Indian circuses in the last few years owing to the changes in laws. It is an engaging read not only for circus enthusiasts but also those invested in the studies of physical cultures, labour, state, laws, performances, and performers – human as well as non-human.
Circus is one form which even if it did not appear to be changing, was constantly evolving with the times. The presence of the performers and their acts constantly changed with the shifting cultural policies of the state. The periodization of circus history is essential to understand the evolution of the form as much as the body in performance. This book instead traces a continuous history of circus divorced from periodization.
Being a performance studies scholar, my question is whether the history of a performance form can be studied without actually studying how that history shapes the performing body itself. Can the history of circus be looked at without analyzing how that history is encoded into the performances and how the history of the performing body has evolved in circus? P.R. recognizes the dominance of women performers and animal tamers inside the circus ring, but does not identify the reason for this in the act itself; it is the very physical danger of the act and the risk which gets conflated with a seductive sexual identity of female performers for the audience, as circus scholar Peta Tait suggests in her seminal work on cultural identities in circus. (2005, p. 21) What does it do to the gendered audience which is trained to watching women as victimized beings who are mostly rescued by the male hero? Is the physical prowess of the female artist sidelined by the sexual allure of the act confining the male gaze to that of a mere voyeur? – are some questions which remain to be answered.
The indigenous Indian artist was trained in multiple physical cultures which made him uniquely hybrid but also cosmopolitan – essentially local, but also global. This created a unique experience inside the ring with the presence of indigenous bodies trained in foreign performance practices. How was this cosmopolitanism reflected in his performative presence inside the ring and received by a cosmopolitan audience outside? Her main emphasis is descriptive, and not explanatory, leaving such gaps unaddressed.
Social history provides a crucial framework to create an understanding of the many circumstances which changed the course of the circus and its performers over the last century. However, a reading of the performative codes which have evolved over time and created new gendered and social identities within those performative codes of circus, is a potential area for furthering this research.
Performing artist, lawyer and PhD scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi