The ideologues who laid the foundations of Hindu fundamentalism explicitly embraced fascistic theories of race, Aryanism, and so on. They may have invoked ancient symbols and images in their writings, but their ideas were very much products of colonial modernity, which is why they have now morphed so easily into an ideology of rapaciously extractivist nationalism.
But India’s drift toward a full-scale extractivist economy cannot be blamed solely on the weaponization of “mysticism” by the right wing; it was set in motion by the self-professedly secular Congress Party a long time ago. Nor did the parties of the Left prove to be a bulwark against this trend. Between 2006 and 2008 the West Bengal wing of the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India [Marxist]) embarked on a massive program of enclosures, attempting to take over thousands of hectares of agricultural lands from small farmers for the benefit of two giant multinational corporations, one of which planned to build a Special Economic Zone, and the other a car factory. The resulting resistance and repression led to the virtual erasure of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, where it had dominated the political scene for many decades.
The upshot is that India, where the historic model of colonialism was very different from that of the settler colonies, is now striving to remake itself in the image of settler colonialism. As in the Americas and Australia, those who stand most conspicuously in the way of this ambition are forest-dwelling Adivasis, who happen, by their very presence, to occupy the lands and forests that contain “resources.” In India, as elsewhere, colonialism is “first, foremost and always” about land.
Legal protections for Adivasis were never very strong in India; since colonial times, officially designated forest lands—which cover no less than a fifth of the country’s surface area—have formed an internal “state of exception” where the normal functioning of the laws of the land are suspended. This realm is controlled by the Forest Department (an immense bureaucracy with vast powers) and an army of forest guards that functions like a paramilitary force. This department bears a more than passing resemblance to the settler-colonial bureaucracies that dealt with Indigenous affairs in North America and Australia: like them, it has proved to be an effective instrument in helping corporate interests penetrate deeper and deeper into regions that were once protected by their remoteness. As in North America and Africa, the policing of reserve forests has often resulted in what amounts to ethnic cleansing, with Indigenous peoples being evicted from their homelands for the benefit of the tourism industry and its urban, middle-class clients. Displaced Adivasis are often forced to relocate to settlements that bear a strong resemblance to reservations.
The parallels abound: as with the “Indian boarding schools” of North America, privately owned institutions are now reeducating Adivasi children; in consonance with settler-colonial practice, the material basis of Adivasi life is being steadily undermined by restricting access to traditional foraging grounds and the banning of certain kinds of hunting and gathering. As in the Americas and Australia, mines and extractive industries are being sited on mountains and other locations that are sacred for Adivasis. Completing the parallels are the long-simmering, decades-long “irregular wars,” fought between government forces and tribal insurgents in central, eastern, and northeastern India.
But within this grim and steadily darkening picture, there are also a few points of light, emanating mainly from grassroots resistance movements—and it is no coincidence that some of them exemplify the possibilities of vitalist forms of politics. One of the most notable of these was the Chipko movement of the mountain region of Uttarakhand. Starting in early 1973, groups of villagers, most of them women, began to literally embrace trees in order to protect them from timber merchants. Folk poetry played a major part in inspiring the protesters and their movement, which eventually attracted so much support that the regional government was forced to enact protective legislation. The movement also inspired others around the world, and tree-hugging became a global tactic of protest. Similarly, in the Niyamgiri region of Odisha, Adivasis have made the sacredness of their mountains the basis of their resistance to bauxite mining, and have been able to gain some significant court victories on those grounds. These are just two instances of a form of resistance that remains widespread among India’s marginalized peoples.43 Ultimately, as Mukul Sharma notes, the strength of the Indian environmental movement lies in its heterogeneity: “In their practical political activities, many environmental groups and movements have been at the forefront of efforts to democratize state institutions, as well as in the creation of more democratic and accountable forms of environmental decision-making.”
All of this conforms to what appears to be a consistent pattern in the relationship between vitalist ideas and politics: almost always, beliefs in the Earth’s sacredness and the vitality of trees, rivers, and mountains are signs of an authentic commitment to the defense of nonhumans when they are associated with what Ramachandra Guha calls “livelihood environmentalism”—that is to say, movements that are initiated and led by people who are intimately connected with the specificities of particular landscapes. By the same token, such ideas must always be distrusted and discounted when they are espoused by elitist conservationists, avaricious gurus and godmen, right-wing cults, and most of all political parties: in each of these manifestations they are likely to be signs of exactly the kind of “mysticism” that lends itself to co-optation by exclusivist right-wingers and fascists.
This is not to say that a vitalist politics will always and necessarily be benevolent in intent: that is very far from being the case (ecofascism does not lack for shamans). In the end, all approaches to the planetary crisis, no matter whether technocratic or vitalist, must be judged by the same criteria, which have never been better summed up than by Pope Francis, in his 2016 encyclical, Laudato Si: “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
This excerpt from Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis’ has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.