Nationalisms and the writing of environmental histories


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LAST autumn a delayed monsoon finally lashed North Indian states, causing floods in Bihar and landslides in Kashmir. Pilgrims and insurgents alike were stranded in the breached mountain roads that uncertainly traverse both the sacred and secular geography of the Indian nation. A vast bank of ‘dirty’ clouds hung over the subcontinent. Peering through this murk, scientists and policy analysts dredged up tired arguments about whom to blame. The usual suspects: paddy farmers, tropical shifting cultivators, woodcutters and pastoralists were in the sights of world environmentalists again.

Indian seasons are viewed more intently through a global prism than ever before. This, not least, because world climate historians have revived the study of linkages between ocean currents, temperature, rainfall and food security, that had first captured the imagination of colonial governments in tropical Asia and Africa during the 19th century.1 The World Conference on Sustainable Development in South Africa constituted another high profile venue for international scrutiny of India’s environment. At this location India’s ecological nationalism was again summoned to work.2

Nations gather, regularly now, in rituals of international confabulation that have come to characterize late 20th century managerial environmentalism. On the world stage nations redefine their mutual relations and responsibilities amidst heightened global insecurity. Simultaneously, the agenda of environmental history is also being rapidly rewritten. In the 1990s, as environmental studies permeated social science and humani ties disciplines, the interdisciplinary rubric of political ecology became very influential for researchers in Europe and North America. A historical turn in the way problems were defined and research was conducted could be detected across the disciplines – notably anthropology, geography, sociology and political science – that embraced and refined the concepts and tools of political ecology.



More so than other fields of history writing, and most clearly in the Indian case, environmental history also brought together scholars in diverse traditions who discovered a shared anxiety and urgent concern for the degradation of forests, lands, water, wildlife habitats and air quality. They came to share a common mode of inquiry, environmental history, as they moved into the study of contemporary environmental problems.

The origins of Indian environmental history have already been persuasively traced to the critique of nationalized economic development that gathered momentum in the aftermath of Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘total revolution’ movement of the early 1970s.3 Engagement with the nation state and international development policies was, thus, a key point of departure for Indian environmental history. In this respect, Indian environmental historians anticipated the more systematic incorporation of historical modes of inquiry and argument into environmental policy analysis in different parts of the world that were made objects of development.4



Stephen Dovers has, since, forcefully argued that environmental history must take as its central concern culpability and relevance – urgent policy issues. He says, ‘crucially, relevance to sustainability demands a form of environmental history that goes well beyond tracing the history of traditional environmental protection and amenity concerns of pollution and nature conservation … environmental history needs to have explanatory power regarding the roots of and reasons for such things as institutions, consumption patterns, economic activities, settlement arrangements, and scientific approaches relevant to particular environmental phenomena’.5 To this diagnostic mandate we might add a prognostic agenda of specifying conditions for global and local coexistence and stewardship, made more immediate by the spread of war, calamity, disease and income disparities within and between nations.

Expansive visions of what should comprise the subject of environmental history, such as the one sketched above, help us recognize the mutual imbrication of regional and world histories. The multi-scalar analyses that this recognition should prompt is already taking shape in Indian scholarship as it ranges from river basin studies to tank irrigation, vast biosphere reserves to community-based forest management, and poisoned wells to the pollution of major rivers and coastal fisheries. But sensitivity to scale and regional variation, recognition of heterogeneity and stochasticity, are insights and refinements won from hard, cumulative work and intense debate in the young but rapidly maturing field of environmental history in India.

Like most other histories written after colonialism, environmental history suffered initially from particular preoccupations. A brief detour into debates on writing history in the post-colonial moment will, therefore, be helpful here. Many issues are salient but this essay will only discuss the question of nationalisms and their relationship to trends and contestations within Indian environmental history.



Tension between continuity and rupture, mimesis and repudiation, lived hybridity and the quest for authenticity, is a central condition of postcolonialism. It has become the subject of much scholarly inquiry into colonialism and its consequences in India and other countries in Asia and Africa. Disciplinary divides have separated these inquiries into questions concerning institutions (including state formation) and identities (including subject formation). A fruitful synthesis emerges when both sets of questions jointly animate inquiry, and often it is in the realm of environmental history that a new materialism has interwoven with the study of ideas and representation in the examination of postcolonial predicaments.

Colonial hybridity was a product of confident policy assumptions that colonial subjects could be taught to mimic and imitate the authentic coloniser. These policies also presumed that there would be no danger of perfect assimilation because of ineradicable differences of race and evolution. But hybridity was also a weapon in the hands of colonized elites fighting for freedom and decolonization. They invoked the ideas of western societies not only to hold them true to their own beliefs, but also to claim a hybrid identity for the colonized that was a product of foreign and indigenous values.6



The impact of these processes on the writing of history has been considered at length in the debate surrounding Subaltern Studies. Dipesh Chakrabarty notes that British rule was presented by colonial historians as an opportunity to introduce civilization. Rule of law, private enterprise and secular education were to create a modern economy, urban professions and civic consciousness. Several generations of Indian nationalists, well into the 20th century, participated in constructing the transition narrative where India needed to overcome immense barriers to enable movement from arbitrary to constitutional polities, feudal to capitalist economies, and traditional to modern societies. He concludes, ‘most modern third-world histories are written within problematics posed by this transition narrative, of which the overriding (if implicit) themes are those of development, modernization and capitalism.’7

Arguably, environmental history emerged within the confines of these dominant perspectives. Both in its early intimations principally as a subtle undercurrent in agrarian history,8 and in later self-confident, overt forms in forest and social movement history,9 Indian scholarship on the environment was caught up in the critique of colonialism, the nation state, development and the transitions to capitalism that engrossed a wider nationalist and postcolonial historiography.



In the hands of some practitioners of subaltern studies this has led to a critique of history itself as a modernist enterprise regulating collective memory and producing forms of sanctioned popular remembrance that favour the nation as the preferred mode of political solidarity. Most environmental historians have not been so ready to dismiss historical modes of knowing as hopelessly compromised.10 As pointed out above, in fact, historical analysis has been crucial to the growth and diversification of environmental studies both in India and other third world locations even as postcolonial historians have become anxious about history and the silences it enforces.

Critics of sweeping indictments of historical consciousness have argued that the poststructural turn in historical scholarship promotes a critique of essentialism in the writing of history from which it exempts itself. Also, by overestimating the power and reach of colonialism, the role of precolonial ideas and social formations in building colonial rule and sustaining or diminishing aspects of it is underestimated.11 Most recently these exchanges have led to a call for histories of struggle, and histories of ambivalences, contradictions, ironies and tragedies, that are also part of the history of modernity.12



Indian environmental history has participated in many of the twists and turns taken by this debate. It has also provided the lead occasionally in nudging discussions in more intellectually rewarding directions. An early preoccupation with colonialism as a watershed in environmental history has yielded to more nuanced analyses in studies from different parts of the country. These works show how the control of land, water, forests and wildlife varied across regions, and did not follow a clear developmental trajectory. Struggles over natural resources, we now know, reflected the opportunities and limitations created by a longer history of socioeconomic change in which colonial interventions were but one, if influential, dimension.



Environmental historians led the charge on secular-metropolitan nationalism and its ecologically disastrous manifestations in large dams, forest policy, industrial pollution and nuclear proliferation. They were also instrumental in propagating a strategically essentialist, celebratory, indigenism (inspired equally by Gandhian ideas and romantic primitivism). This perspective has on occasion stimulated ethnonationalism, regionalism, and forms of religious nationalism drawing upon the romanticized precolonial/premodern subject and society that they evoke in their writings.13 The discussion of sacred groves among environmental historians illuminates the tension between competing metropolitan, indigenist and ecological nationalisms. Scholars manifest these struggles in the ways they choose to record how Indians lived in engagement over time with the physical environment, where the environment is considered as context, agent and influence in human history.

Colonial foresters, tribal rights activists, and ecological scientists are among a distinguished array of experts who have described sacred groves in India’s forest history. In the words of a scientist, who in collaboration with an anthropologist has spent many years documenting these sacralized and, thus, protected landscapes in India, sacred groves are ‘ancient nature sanctuaries where all forms of living creatures are afforded protection through the grace of some deity.’14 In most instances the groves are associated with Hindu mother goddesses, fierce deities who have preserved old growth and endemic biodiversity. By aligning the deities with religious cults predating agrarian sedentarism, this account claims forms of rural religiosity for a wider and antique nature devotion embedded in the Hindu pantheon.



In contrast, a group of philosophers and religionists have dealt in greater detail with this question – to what extent do indigenous religious ideas have the potential to support ecological awareness in India? They provide a useful typology of Indian environmentalism by speaking of Brahminical models, tribal models, renouncer models and modern secular activism and rightly identify the inherent tension always present in Indian environmentalism between learning from western struggles and defining a distinctive Indian cultural practice.15

In a study specifically directed at discovering the shape, role and politics of sacred groves, Rich Freeman finds ‘little correlation between the concerns and depictions of the modern environmentalist’s models, and the actual local reasons for instituting and maintaining sacred groves.’16 He goes on to demonstrate the fluidity of both society and its natural environment in the recent historical period, challenging thereby what he describes as ‘neo-Hindu ecology’.17

Ecological nationalism, thus, refers to this kind of functionalist analysis of religiosity and conservation ethics. But it also refers to many other late 20th century products of the dialectical working out of some of those metaprocesses that we discussed earlier as inevitably the focus of modern history and colonial history. The chief among these is the commodification of nature.18 A wide range of scholars, most notably Green Marxists, understood the relationship between modernity and the environment as one where people were increasingly separated from lived environments.


In this account all aspects of that environment, including human labour and the body, became commodities circulating in a world economy driven largely by the emergence of capitalism in Europe and North America. Initially the commodification of land, forests and water was a central theme of environmental history and Indianists participated impressively in this literature. This trend, as scholars have shown, greatly facilitated national development as so-called natural commodities were harnessed to agendas of progress elaborated by the nation state. Green Revolution agriculture, production forestry, command area irrigation and multipurpose power generation, are some of the secular-metropolitan nationalist programmes that were enabled by the commodification of nature in India.



What I have already referred to as celebratory-indigenist nationalism is equally a product of these processes. Disaffection with the outcomes of national development and the rise of environmentalism coincided in the 1970s to unite urban radicals and rural leaders of tribal and peasant movements. Environmental NGOs, whose work coalesced in the immensely important Citizen’s Reports on the Indian Environment19 published in the early 1980s, contributed in good measure to this strand of nationalism. In their accounts plants, animals, water sources, and the poor people who subsisted on them and, thus, took care of them in traditional ways were all part of a national heritage. This heritage, they argued, was rich in customary knowledge, cultural diversity, ecological wealth, and forms of benign local government all of which was jeopardized by the standard and authoritarian formulae for environmental management offered by secular-metropolitan nationalism.

During the 1980s environmental activism and policy took Indian federalism simultaneously toward legal centralism and administrative devolution. Environmental historians were busy, from the late 1980s, explaining both impulses in terms of the complex legacy of colonialism and the national development imperatives of the first three decades of independence. In the 1990s the clash of these two kinds of ecological nationalism within India, and the rise of the international sustainable development network of regulations and economic incentives, has generated a whole new set of concerns that are nationalist in character. Parks (for the conservation of endangered species), biodiversity protection and its associated concerns of endemicity, intellectual property rights and the patenting of biogeographically unique plant materials, invasive species and genetically altered seeds are just a few of the issues where nature commodification and nationalism have intersected again in the last decade.20

These issues have given ecological nationalism new justification as strong national laws and policies are seen as possibly the only recourse in the face of international forces that would wrest culturally embedded knowledge, unique plant matter and quality entitlements in global commons like the atmosphere and oceans, from overpowered localities.



Scholars are only beginning to grapple with the research questions raised by the new ecological nationalism. But it is already clear that environmental history is being moved to greater, not lesser, interdisciplinarity as a consequence. Atmospheric sciences, information technology, international law, institutional economics, comparative religion and transnational cultural studies are just a few of the domains of expertise that environmental historians are moving into. They are acquiring methods from fields as diverse as physical sciences, linguistics and medicine to prosecute their studies. The impact of this inescapable interdisciplinarity on environmental historians is the discovery of new archival sources. In some cases otherwise well-used sources have yielded wonderful new insights because different questions were asked of them.21



The skilful use of settlement reports, census documents and forest working plans in a series of Indian environmental histories produced in the 1990s, is a fine example of such new discoveries in old sources. The use of judicial records, obscure sporting and hunting serials, scientific and technical reports and private papers of individuals who were not of any consequence for other kinds of history illustrates the search for new sources.

More significantly, the methods of ecologists, anthropologists and geographers have entered history. A combination of field research and archival sources has come to be a distinctive characteristic of environmental history, and here social historians have also contributed in refining the collection of oral histories, ethnographic data and folklore for histories of everyday life. The history of science and technology and environmental history have fed each other’s growth. It is fair to say, in the words of a review made in the context of American history, that ‘in addition to opening up new areas of inquiry, environmental history provides a new way of seeing the terrain we think we already know well.’22

One of the important gains of environmental history has been its rather bold delving into long duration studies.23 Apart from pioneering the design of studies across the received boundaries of colonialism and independence, environmental scholars have also interrogated the dominant periodizations provided by other historians. Even within the confines of the colonial period we find that new and meaningful periodizations have emerged. For instance, the 1870s and 1880s are now recognized as key decades when the legal and administrative apparatus for land management rapidly expanded. The turn of the last century takes on new meaning as a period when scientific research in forestry, agriculture and tropical disease accelerated and expanded state development programmes for intensification of agrarian change, forest management and medicalization of the human body to cure and prevent tropical diseases.

But, to my mind, the most exciting trend arising from the maturation of environmental history is the renewal of efforts to combine forms of materialist and idealist analysis. From postmodern cultural theory to the new ecology and chaos theory, environmental historians are making innovative connections. These synthetic approaches defy epistemological divisions of an earlier period. Eclecticism has its dangers, of course, some of them are illustrated in the brief example of sacred groves discussed earlier. But surely the eclectic spirit is ultimately more curious than anything else, and so less susceptible to the congealed notions that hold more exclusive aspects of nationalisms together. Can we introduce this palpable curiosity into textbooks that cultivate nationalist sensibilities?



1. See Richard Grove, Ecology, Climate and Empire: Colonialism and Global Environmental History, 1400-1940, White Horse Press, Cambridge, 1997.

2. Ecological nationalism, in my usage, refers to a condition where both cosmopolitan and nativist versions of nature-devotion converge and express themselves as a form of nation-pride. In what follows I will elucidate how this form of nationalism has coloured the writing of history even as environmental history more generally has challenged other histories in their polemical moments.

3. See David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha, ‘Introduction: Themes and Issues in the Environmental History of South Asia’, pp. 1-20 in David Arnold and Ramachandra Guha (eds), Nature, Culture, Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1995, pp. 17-18.

4. The most striking instance of the use of environmental history to unsettle smug policy circuits is the work done by James Fairhead and Melissa Leach in Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996; and Reframing Deforestation: Global Analyses and Local Realities: Studies in West Africa, Routledge, London, 1998.

5. Stephen R. Dovers, ‘On the Contribution of Environmental History to Current Debate and Policy’, Environment and History 6 (2000): 131-50, p. 138.

6. This summary is indebted to Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Routledge, New York, 1998.

7. Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for "Indian" Pasts?’ pp. 263-93 in Ranajit Guha (ed), A Subaltern Studies Reader, 1986-1995, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000, p. 267.

8. Elizabeth Whitcombe, Agrarian Conditions in Northern India, I, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1972; David Ludden, Peasant History in South India, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985.

9. Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1989; Amita Baviskar, In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1995.

10. One work where environmental history is produced in a mode that questions ‘History’ is, exceptionally, Ajay Skaria, Hybrid Histories: Forests, Frontiers, and Wildness in Western India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1999.

11. Sumit Sarkar, ‘Orientalism Revisited: Saidian Frameworks in the Writing of Modern Indian History’, pp. 239-55 in Vinayak Chaturvedi (ed), Mapping Subaltern Studies and the Postcolonial, Verso, London, 2000, p. 242.

12. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2000; Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

13. See various essays in Arun Agrawal and K. Sivaramakrishnan (eds), Social Nature: Resources, Representations, and Rule in India, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2001.

14. Madhav Gadgil, Ecological Journeys: The Science and Politics of Conservation in India, Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2001, p. 160.

15. Various essays in Lance Nelson (ed), Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1998.

16. J.R. Freeman, ‘Gods, Groves, and the Culture of Nature in Kerala’, Modern Asian Studies 33, 2 (1999): 257-302, p. 258.

17. Freeman, ‘Gods, Groves, and the Culture of Nature in Kerala’, pp. 281-96. This revisionist work by religionists that shows up the indigenist nationalism of urban activists and scientists is gathering support from ongoing ecological research in South India on sacred groves. See Claude Garcia, ‘What Sacred Groves Are Not’, paper presented as part of the panel, ‘Nature, Empire, and Nation in South Asia’ at the Modern South Asia Conference, Heidelberg, 13 September 2002.

18. For lack of space I will no more than acknowledge here that much ink has been spilled on the question ‘what is nature?’ See, for an introduction to this discussion ranging across philosophy, environmental history, science and technology studies, cultural and literary studies, William Cronon (ed), Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, W.W. Norton, New York, 1995; and Bruce Braun and Noel Castree (eds), Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millennium, Routledge, London, 1998.

19. Anil Agarwal, Sunita Narain, et al., First and Second Citizen’s Reports on the Indian Environment, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1982 & 1985, respectively.

20. In many of these novel environmental concerns nationalism is manifest as nativism or autochthony. Nature may become ‘a fertile allegory for making people and objects strange, thus to forge critical new social and political distinctions.’ Jean and John Comaroff, ‘Naturing the Nation: Aliens, Apocalypse, and the Postcolonial State’ in HAGAR: International Social Science Review 1, 1 (2000): 7-40, p. 8.

21. For similar findings in the African context, see the comprehensive review by William Beinart, ‘African History and Environmental History’, African Affairs 99 (2000): 269-302.

22. Adam Rome, ‘What Really Matters in History: Environmental Perspectives on Modern America’, Environmental History 7, 2 (2002): 303-18, p. 304.

23. Sumit Guha, Ecology and Ethnicity in India, c. 1200-1991, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, remains the outstanding recent example.