The Politics of Endangerment: In Conversation with Varun Sharma

in Interview
Published on: 15 November 2018

Anusha Sundar

Anusha is currently pursuing an MPhil in History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She is interested in histories of labour, environment, and gender and is currently studying the mica mining industry of early 20th century Bihar. She can be reached at

Anusha Sundar interviews Varun Sharma over a telephonic conversation.


Anusha Sundar: How do we understand colonial processes of space ordering—the emergence of sanctuaries and protected areas—with anxieties about itinerant communities?


Varun Sharma: Itinerant communities is a broad terminology that is not limited to denotified communities alone. Space reordering can be understood through the colonial treatment of resource shifting agriculture, peripatetic communities, the curbing of shifting agriculture, etc. The colonial logic that comes into force in terms of banning shifting agriculture and pastoralism becomes very important in this context. Many of the spaces in which shifting agriculture was banned or areas where pastoralism was halted were essentially those spaces which were labelled or characterized as present day protected areas and sanctuaries/national parks.


The initial logic lay in what was termed by the colonizer as 'scientific forestry'. Then a gradual shift in the characterization can be noticed as game animals become wild animals and woodlands transform into wilderness. However, the colonial reservation regarding shifting agriculture/ pastoralism remained intact. There is a shift in terminology and perhaps, even in use—these spaces become available for tourism, leisure and others—but the production of these spaces continued to be based on the treatment of pastoralists. Colonial science provided the rationale for the need to ban shifting agriculture by claiming that pastoral activities negatively impacted the ecology.


The figure of E.P. Stebbing is useful to illustrate this further. As the Inspector-General for Forests in the later colonial period, Stebbing marked the transition in the characterization of spaces that were previously timber woodlots to reserve forests and wilderness. In this sense he retains all the earlier colonial anxieties about the itinerancy and peripatetic communities while maintaining a narrative of romanticizing the forests for their own sake. In many ways Stebbing's ideas were taken up as a blueprint for ecological conservation by many conservationists and institutions in independent India, particularly the National Board for Wildlife (the statutory organization was constituted under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972). The role of a powerful tea planter in Assam, Edward Pritchard Gee, in the NBWL, reveals this inherited 'wisdom' from Stebbing -- the act of the production of wilderness was to happen alongside an active advocacy to ban pastoral activities and remove tribal population out of these protected areas.


A.S.: Many communities share a socio-religious relationship with wild animals such as snakes, storks, and elephants, etc. How did their categorization as ‘vermin’ affect the colonial treatment of these animals and the native communities that they encountered?


V.S.: Vermin was not a clearly defined ontological body—the number of species that were listed as vermin differed from one district/ local administration to another. Some administrations did not declare any at times. The regional disparity of the usage of this term and the extermination of such species reveals that it had mixed results. Mottled terminologies such as 'rogue', 'vermin', etc.  led to diverse treatment of these animals as these colonial categories were never clarified.


A.S.: What was the role of the sportsman-hunter in producing knowledge about wilderness? How did this category emerge during the colonial period and what changes did it undergo in both public and statist imagination?


V.S.: Much of the writings in the natural history and science journals in colonial India—Bombay Natural History Society, Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta Journal of Natural History, Madras Journal of Literature and Science etc., particularly in the field of Ornithology, were by sportsmen-hunters. One of the earliest compilers of data and its first publishers, many sportsmen-hunters employed a taxonomy from the West to make sense of the flora and fauna they encountered. Sportsmen came to play a very seminal role in the production of knowledge which involved a dual articulation of a love for nature and the exercise of imperial power in the conquest of nature. Often, they also hired local artists to generate more knowledge.


Although the figure of the sportsman-hunter has a significant precolonial past—in the writings about Jahangir and Ashoka as nature-lovers and protectionists—the trope reached a particular threshold only in the colonial period. The power that was once restricted in the hands of the rajas was distributed to that of the sportsmen-hunters scattered across the colonies, marking the Foucauldian transition from sovereign power to bio-power. It is here that we find the colonial state stepping in—through the introduction of ceilings on hunting, emergence of clubs, establishment of ethics of hunting, permissible technologies etc. State policies intervened to curb the powers of the native rajas in hunting. This transfer of knowledge and power over the wilderness from the raja to the sportsman made him the spokesperson on many platforms.


Trophy hunting, taxidermy, production of texts and journals etc., became new sites of agreements and disagreements between people. Another important factor in this knowledge production was the native shikari who was extremely crucial to the white sportsman and served many functions such as providing vital information, tracking, constituting the entourage etc. However, the figure of the shikari could also very quickly be antagonized as the poacher. This dual characterization continues into present day India where they are often employed as 'authentic' tour guides but double up as a poacher if their actions are suddenly deemed illegal.


A.S.: The question of surveillance—of both people and animal—is underlined in colonial ventures in forested areas. How did this materialize? How was this challenged/ negotiated by the locals?


V.S.: There is a significant precolonial character to the question of surveillance. Abul Fazl talks about the importance of hunting to Akbar as an opportunity to look over the affairs of the state. However, the economy of surveillance really exploded in the colonial period. As this power comes to be vested in the hundreds of sportsmen in colonial India, the intensity of surveillance multiplied. The assumption that the presence of the sportsman as a watchful entity would prevent poaching, transformed his figure into a surveilling power holder. The natives also negotiated and subverted this surveilling gaze by often misleading the sportsmen, withholding/ denying information, or by not cooperating in entourages.


There are many cases where sportsmen accounts narrate feelings of harassment by the fact that they are not receiving the required support from the population in terms of hunting. This becomes not only a way of subverting the sportsman and his quest for the trophy but the logic of surveillance itself, from preventing them from gaining a grip on their regime. In the case of the Baigas, the belief that they cannot kill a tiger that has killed one of their own led to scenarios where they willingly allowed for intervention by the sportsman. Here, the sportsman is used by the locals for a purpose that is entirely their own.


A.S.: How sharply distinct do you think were the colonial categories of game animals, ferocious life-threatening ‘vermin’, and other ‘benign’ animals? Can we argue that these categories were collapsible to suit the needs of the time?


V.S.: Yes, they were indeed collapsible but never became synonymous with one another. Birds offer an interesting case here. They are essentially favoured game animals as they appeal to the white mindset. They are not vermin the way snakes are—arousing feelings of disgust and fear for their vile and slimy nature. Crocodiles and snakes suffer a kind of cultural bias and are characterized very often as vermin and described as ugly and loathsome. Birds largely escape this characterization except birds of prey—hawks, eagles, vultures etc. Here, the prejudice is applied again and they are categorized as vermin. So, within the species of birds we notice three kinds of characterization: benign, game and vermin. These categories are not hermetically sealed or watertight compartments and often collapse into one another depending on the context of the kind of species in question.


Hunting vermin offered an opportunity to collect trophy game in situations where the native maharaja would host hunting expeditions for colonial officers as high up in the order as the Viceroys. The vermin traverses this distance by suddenly becoming valuable trophy and serving a certain political purpose. In such a scenario, were a native shikari to kill it, it was looked upon as an act of poaching. While the larger policy would advocate for the extermination of such vermin and the shikari would ideally be rewarded for serving that function, he is instead punished for killing precious game. As the vermin traverses the distance to become trophy game, the native shikhari travels the opposite distance—from being a protector of the Raj to somebody who offends the sentiments of the Empire. There was a high degree of ambivalence which characterized these categories— while they were collapsible they were also not.


A.S.: How do we understand ideas of livelihood upon which many differing and contradictory discourses were based (while agriculturalists needed to be protected from marauding tigers and rogue elephants, nomadic/semi-nomadic communities dealing with wild animals such as monkeys, bears, snakes etc., needed to be protected from the former)?


V.S.: The livelihood question again shows a high degree of ambivalence in how native communities were/are treated. An interesting debate that elaborates on this ambivalence is whether gun licenses should be given to agriculturalists or not. Although the gun would equip him to protect his field from raiding animals, a license also induced a tribulation that very soon he could use it to hunt wild animals. This would directly affront the sovereign right of the sportsmen on animals.


In the later colonial period many debates on whether agriculturalists should be given gun licenses rested on a middle path—gun licenses could be given provided the barrels of these guns were limited. This would ensure a supply of the revenue from the agriculturalist but his power to hunt would be limited. In the 1960s and 70s, this question resurfaced again as India began to face food shortage. While the shortages led to the loosening of license regulations, it was tightened again at the time of the Green Revolution. As we can see, every livelihood has a trajectory of its own.


Plumage offers a similar example. There was a thriving plumage trade in the early part of the 20th century—it was a thing of passion, used in fashion in high society. In 1912, the Wild Birds Act was passed following a rising Ornithologist interest. After this Act came into power, the plumage trade which saw a number of middlemen and merchants in Bombay and Calcutta suddenly ran into serious and heavy losses. This typical twist of fate almost always transformed a thriving business into an illegal trade. Here the conditions of nomadic, semi-nomadic and peripatetic communities witness a rise and fall where livelihoods are concerned. The circus offers a similar case study. A sight of colonial entertainment which become highly exoticized with the figure of the snake charmer, it suffered a decline and dwindled away following the passage of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. As the circus disappears, the itinerant/semi-itinerant people that constituted it get wiped away into the margins.


A.S.: What were the political and economic imperatives that governed the classificatory status of endangerment? Could we argue that the ‘endangered species’ was a stable category?


V.S.: Colonial India witnessed a series of protectionist laws and reform come into force—1870s Elephant Preservation Acts, the 1912 Wild Birds Act etc. In the 1930s, the rhino becomes very important and in the 1970s the Tiger arrives on the scene and is unveiled in all its glory as the national animal. At every step a series of political and economic interests were at play. While elephants were very important for colonial scientific forestry, with the emergence of dams and mining areas, these beasts gradually fell out of favour as they occupied vast areas of land as their habitat.


Birds do not occupy as much land space as other mammals but an estimate of their population was difficult to ascertain, especially in the case of migratory birds. The rhino does not need as much space as the elephant does, its numbers could be calculated and its slow, lethargic character would easily allow for it to be brought under sanctuaries. This would circumvent the problems faced with birds. This convenience enabled the entire conservation debate to converge on the figure of the rhino well into independent India. The tiger, as a more representative animal, was capable of establishing a tourist economy. Such a politics of endangerment and the contexts for the creation of protected areas needs to be taken into consideration.


A.S.: The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 and the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 mark the conservationist tendencies of the postcolonial state. Could we argue that these legal enactments were as fraught as its colonial antecedents—were there significant continuities or discontinuities from colonial India?


V.S.: The either/or collision between continuities and discontinuities do not stand. Instead of arguing along the lines of timeless traditions or putative ruptures, we need to chart a middle path along the tensions between continuities and discontinuities. In the terms of a discontinuity, it is very clear in the case of the tiger that it goes from being a dangerous beast in colonial India to being endangered in Independent India. This marks a very clear break, yet a continuity is also established. As we move from the elephant to the birds to the rhino and finally the tiger, one can notice an increasing preoccupation with the figure of the poacher. Animals which are objects of crime become translated into objects of conservation. The growing concern with crime and criminality irrespective of the animal we are dealing with is a definite continuity from the colonial times.


A.S.: What was the role of non-state actors such as NGOs as pressure groups/people’s watches in ensuring the prevention of misuse of natural resources and flouting of legal norms? Is their dominant idea of conservation pitting animal protection arbitrarily against that of tribal/marginalized communities?


V.S.: This takes us back to the figure of the sportsman who established clubs and game associations which translated into the NBWL in Independent India. In today's India there are a number of these groups which prize their role as watchdogs, as concerned citizens who are nothing but the colonial bloodhounds of surveillance. Not only do they reproduce these modalities of governance but are very often against the native shikari/ itinerant communities or peripatetic tribes. The imagery employed by these groups often employ an ethnic bias between the people watching and those being watched. Deleuze's concept of the role images play in controlling society is relevant here—the reproduction of the colonial idea of the racial logic of surveillance through visual technologies.


As the figure of the poacher/ criminal begins to define the man-animal relations in society, it becomes evident how the conservationist ideas operate. Conservationist laws criminalize communities first and as they become displaced, they fall prey to big developmental projects.


A.S.: How can we locate the processes of criminalization and the resultant marginalization within the framework of national citizenship?


Let’s use the figure of the Bangladeshi to understand this. The Bangladeshi is characterized as anti-nature, anti-tiger and anti-national in reports, literature, and the vernacular press. The Bangladeshi is seen as a refugee and a nuisance in India. Nature becomes a place where the concerns over an animal, particularly a national animal also feed into hyper nationalist sentiments and vice-versa. The state of Bangladeshi refugees who are trapped in the Sunderbans and the extreme aversion to this figure is centered on the notion of the outsider and the tiger as a coveted national animal for conservation.