Gopal Guru: Environmentalism and Social Justice

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Gopal Guru is a Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. In this discussion, which took place in MCPH on Friday 18th October 2013, Guru attempted to contextualize the themes of environmentalism and social justice with regards to the present and possible future of the Dalits in India. At the outset, he expressed his firm belief that it is the Dalit community that can, and ought to, make meaningful contributions to mainstream theorizing, especially in environmentalism.

In Guru’s analysis, the ‘common Dalits’ are cornered by two dominant viewpoints. The first, ironically enough, is held by Dalits themselves, who believe that they have been deprived of the power to exploit nature, which has prevented them from becoming capitalists. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) supports this kind of discourse. The second viewpoint is that of a group of people that Guru calls ‘ecological fascists’ or ‘ecological extremists’. They argue that the Dalit community lacks ecological consciousness, which would be apparent through their illegal land encroachments. Guru criticized both these approaches and, in doing so, provided an alternative way of understanding the various sites of injustice in these areas. In this context, he also addressed the larger questions pertaining to the state, justice, and rights.

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Guru suggests that the increasing gap between what he calls the ‘microscopic Dalit middle class’ and the ‘common Dalits’ is due to the various impacts of liberalism. Drawing on Babasaheb Ambedkar, who believed that ‘liberalism could only raise the dust and not the labor’, Guru described the predicament of the Dalit middle class as being analogous to rising dust suspended in the air: it can neither settle down in the elite urban spaces (agraharas), nor in the slums. The circular logic of liberalism is visible through the migrating Dalits who come to cities, only to end up shifting from one slum to the other, never reaching the agraharas. It is in the tension between the Dalit middle class and common Dalits that inter-generational injustices and inequalities can be explored.

Guru argued that liberalism is similar to the karmic theory of rebirth: both necessarily lead to social exclusion by postponing the question of injustice and inequality. The karmic theory entertains the hopeful possibility of a Dalit being reborn as a Brahmin, thereby tying Dalits to their ‘traditional duties’ and reinforcing the status quo.

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Given this Dalit condition, Guru critically addressed the arguments made by the ‘ecological extremists’, who defend the view that the present generation is morally obliged to preserve natural resources to ensure the well-being of the future generations. Guru believes that the situation leaves a set of important questions unanswered: have future generations of Dalits, who have been unable to become capitalists, forfeited their right to a meaningful existence? What are the reasonable grounds for giving Dalits access to natural resources? Do Dalits, who are unable to sustain their own livelihoods, have the right to reproduce? Is environmental protection given the moral and legal priority at the cost of the Dalit community?

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Without giving any definitive answers to these questions, Guru explained how, owing to the impoverished condition of the Dalits, natural resources are primarily a source of guaranteeing their livelihood, and not a source of profit. He also highlighted the strong emotional bonds Dalits as ‘insiders’ have with nature: close linkages that the urban elite is apathetic towards.

Guru emphatically asserted the importance of legal rights as opposed to moral rights, given the problematic of primary occupancy and land rights. Through the example of Punjab, where Dalits did not have the right to own land till 1965, Guru showed how the legal (and not moral) right to land becomes of central important to the Dalits. Guru claimed that the state is ‘infinitely incapable’ of addressing such issues of injustice and inequality.

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The power relations between humans and nature are widely discussed in the discourse of environmentalism. Drawing from Sundar Sarrukai’s notion of inter-generational inequality, Guru emphasized the need to use negative notions such as injustice and inequality, and not their positive counterparts, especially while addressing matters of hierarchy between humans themselves. He questioned whether there could be an ontological relationship between negativity and Dalit expression. When ‘holy cows’ are more privileged than Dalits, is it morally acceptable, and intellectual coherent, to assume a hierarchy between nature and humans, with humans supposedly on top? Ambedkar struggled for the right to access drinking water in public spaces, a right that was enjoyed by the higher castes as well as by animals, but not by the Dalits. Guru argues that one hierarchy is acceptable: one that places humans above nature, thereby defending the rights of the Dalit community to access natural resources, without resorting to the romanticized notion of a nature-human relationship.

The Dalit future seems all the more precarious if the hierarchy between rights is not asserted. This concerns the question of reproductive rights. Reproductive rights, Guru said, are not natural but conditional; the material conditions of the Dalit community greatly determine their ability to reproduce and sustain a ‘meaningful life’. Dalits give birth to ‘twins’: babies and their anxieties. They form what Guru calls an ‘empty essence’, embodied in the lives of the 300,000 manual scavengers that India depends upon. Guru ended the discussion mentioning remarkable illustrations of how such empty essences manifest in the urban settings.

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