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.

Anusha Sundar interviews Varun Sharma over a long telephonic conversation.

Varun Sharma is an independent researcher based out of Assam, who has previously lectured for short periods at the University of Delhi and Tezpur Central University. His areas of interest range across the history of asylums, wild animals, and the hitherto criminal tribes of colonial/postcolonial India. He is particularly interested in the manner in which colonial legacies with respect to the above were simultaneously contested and rearticulated in the first quarter of India’s independence.

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: By ‘space’ one can mean many things. But for brevity, we may confine ourselves to physical landscapes, which were modified, altered, and re-arranged through the processes of town planning, land settlement, and last but not least, the territorial delineation of the forests. These processes, however, were undergirded with certain norms, such as stable residence and settled agriculture.

An important two-part article by Sanjay Nigam points out how colonial documents continually made idiomatic references to the settled peasant as an ideal moral subject. While there were as many reasons as possible for this, itinerant communities defied much of it. They disturbed the colonial imagination of rural properness, if not wilderness. By the mid- nineteenth century, processes of space ordering, as you call it, started yielding the regimes that have largely transitioned into today’s protected areas. This was in the form of reserved and protected forests, also game sanctuaries. But, as expected, this was matched with increased anxieties over the presence of itinerant communities.

For which reason alone we notice a temporal overlap between the passage of the two Forest Acts of 1865 and 1878, and the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871. While the former two acts enabled what Mahesh Rangarajan describes as the ‘fencing’ of the forests, the CTA gave anxieties over itinerant communities the shape of an encompassing colonial policy. Several present-day nomadic/semi-nomadic Schedule Tribes (STs), such as the Banjaras, Pardhis, Mogiyas, Sansiahs, Yerukulas, Saperas, etc., were pronounced as ‘criminals by birth’ at the behest of the CTA. This was an extreme measure.


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

V.S.: Yes, in the colonial period wild species such as wild dogs, wolves, jackals, bears, wild boars, leopards, snakes, and even tigers, were widely regarded as perilous for livestock, standing crops, peasants and British officials. Rangarajan explains how such species were categorized as ‘vermin’ and slated for a program of extermination in collaboration with native hunter- gatherers.

This undoubtedly intensified the pressure on India’s wildlife, but the agenda was self-defeating in some ways. As early as the 1870s, the Times carried a series of articles on the number of humans killed by tigers in colonial India. In 1873 Francis Napier seized the opportunity and brought up the issue in the British Parliament. It may be that Napier’s speech paved the way for a debate. It came to be increasingly questioned whether British sport-hunters were not secretively discouraging native hunters from killing more tigers, so that they may be preserved as game for the future, if not secured as personal trophies.

Indeed, the emergence of vermin as a category did not merit any uniform treatment on the part of the colonizers, or the colonized for that matter. It is with respect to the latter that the question of socio-religious dimensions came up. There is no denying that in certain instances—the most famous being the Bishnois and their blackbucks—human communities will forbid the slightest harm to an animal of a given species. But in several indigenous societies, it is equally possible that a species otherwise regarded as a religious totem, may also be hunted, bartered, cooked, and eaten to meet dietary requirements. The notion that that which is sacred cannot be eaten is rather mainstream, and not so much the defining quality of indigenous value systems. The adivasi life world, much to the contrary, opens like something of a bewildering spectrum, one which can be stretched from anything between feelings of total protectiveness to practical considerations concerning food and survival. If we turn back time with this reasonably anthropological understanding, it becomes possible to understand how native participation in colonial campaigns aimed at exterminating ‘vermin’ could only be highly variegated, with much depending upon where on the spectrum the concerned tribe found itself.


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 imaginations?

V.S.: Let me begin by answering the second part of your question. It is not as if the colony was the proverbial birth ground of the sport-hunter. Wildlife historians have variously thrown light on how illustrious maharajas in precolonial, and later colonial India, delighted in sporting pastimes. Julie Hughes’ more recent work on the subject attends to how the rulers of Mewar preserved their interests in tiger shikar, duck shooting, and pigsticking, deep into the colonial period. What changed with the advent of colonialism, however, was the scale. If sporting privileges were largely restrained to ruling kings in pre-colonial India, a significant number of British officers began to appropriate the privilege during the colonial period.

It was in this context that shikar became a metaphor for statist power, even if predicated on pre-colonial traditions. If officers set out to rid a landscape of a so-called man-eater, it could easily be advertised as an act of public good. Jim Corbett, the famous slayer of man-eaters in colonial Kumaon, proved to be no exception.

Not to forget, as you ask, sportsmen also prided over their contribution to the field of natural history. Some went on to refer to themselves as sportsmen-naturalists. But, seen closely, the contribution of sport-hunters to the processes of knowledge generation was equally inconsistent. It varied from site to site.

It was significantly higher in the case of birds. The life of the legendary British ornithologist, Stuart Baker, reminds us how being a good shot always helped in collecting specimens for taxonomic classifications and intricate comparisons. But when it came to big game—elephants, tigers, leopards, bison, deer, wild buffaloes, etc.—a gap opens. Indeed, colonial authorities till as late as the 1930s, such as Dunbar Brander, Colonel A.E. Stewart and John Hewett, provided crucial information on the average size of a gaur, the number of deer in a range, and the nature of a tiger’s attack. But their writings offered little in terms of how such species coped with drought, tended to specific age and sex ratios within a herd, migrated, nurtured their young, and the like. Much of the latter dimensions did not fit into the rituals of sport-hunting, if not shikar writing, which was more intent on impressing an audience with narratives of the White Man’s triumph, glory, and accomplishments.

Then again, there were fields such as ichthyology, herpetology, and entomology—in other words, the study of fishes, snakes, and insects—which also made advances in the colony. Progress in such fields was largely independent of the sport-hunter.


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.: From the gradient of your questions, I think you might find the person of E.P. Stebbing reasonably compelling. Stebbing was a forester, an entomologist, and a self-professed sportsman-naturalist, all rolled into one. Stebbing’s Diary, relating to his experiences as a forester in the early part of the twentieth century, also betrayed colonial anxieties over nomadic hunting-gathering tribes.

In brief, Stebbing preserved much regard for the settled peasant. But hunting-gathering tribes were described in terms such as noxious, devilish, ruthless, and from what I remember best, the ‘most inhuman class of slayers.’ Stebbing maintained that even though the methods of native hunters were crude, such methods could orchestrate unimaginable destruction of wildlife. The concern over these methods, however, tells us more about how colonial surveillance could get articulated. Stebbing requested colonial officials, not excluding sportsmen, to secure information about the hunting equipment used by natives. This exercise was required to translate into schedules/lists of ‘contrivances’ for different regions. These lists were subsequently required to be shared with different wings of the administration—forest, revenue, police, and judicial—to assist in the all-round pursuit and persecution of tribes found to be in possession of the listed contrivances.

Important to state, that it was not as if shikar and surveillance were disconnected in the pre-colonial period. Even the likes of Abu’l-Fazl heaped praise on Akbar for using his hunting expeditions as means to survey and monitor the regime. In colonial India, however, knowledge-power was turning the possession of an ordinary bow, a spear, catapult, or net, into a guarantor of criminal culpability, if not criminal identity.

But this does not mean that there was no scope for subversion. Native hunter-gatherers could always impress police officials and magistrates that the contrivances in their possession were being used to cull ‘vermin,’ or eliminate agricultural pests on behalf of the ryots. If a native vouchsafed that the birds in his hands were harmful to crops, the colonial official did not always have the knowledge to verify it, no matter how familiar he was with the list of contrivances. Otherwise also, Ezra Rashkow’s work on the ‘subaltern shikaris’ of central India, opens the window into how tribesmen, often serving as trackers, could mislead British sport-hunters in a way as to give them the impression that there was no game in a forest. Disappointed sport-hunters who were less likely to return, left behind a forest free of the surveilling gaze. Colonial surveillance was never foolproof, but it remained relentless.


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.: I think we have already seen how the category of vermin was variable for both native hunter-gatherers and colonial sport-hunters. Like I said earlier, natives gauged vermin not simply based on a list prepared by the administration, but their position along a spectrum that ranged from non-violent benevolence to practical requirements of survival. British sport-hunters, on the other hand, could either dedicatedly go after vermin along with native hunters in keeping with a colonial mandate, or self-sabotage the mandate if their interests lay more in preserving game or hoarding trophies. Vermin, as a category, was selectively dispensable.

Then again, there could be cases where animals shifted categories depending upon several cultural parameters. Deer could be game, but also ‘benign’ in a different context, such as in a zoo. Bears could be perceived as benign in a circus or street show, but in the game sanctuaries of Kashmir, they could be more easily treated like vermin for preying on the young of the hangul. Likewise, certain varieties of birds could be game, others a type of vermin which destroyed crops, and still others could amount to benign pets in a cage. So, the categories were not collapsible per se, but porous and far from watertight, and that’s in addition to being dispensable.


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.: Even as nomads came in handy to subdue wild nature in the form of vermin, the alleged wildness/criminality of the nomads was simultaneously waiting to be tamed out of existence. Indeed, the nomad and his “inborn” criminality remained the target of various colonial measures ranging from forced sedentarization to pretentiously welfarist measures, from evangelization to imprisonment. Taking cognizance of the same leaves us with the feeling of how the traditional livelihoods of nomadic hunter-gatherers sat on edge, asking to be leveraged and extirpated at the same time.

Interestingly, the self-contradicting gestures of the colonial state did not spare the peasant either, even if he was ranked above the criminal tribesman on a civilizational scale. During the later colonial period guns increasingly came into possession of cultivators for the purpose of protecting crops. But there was no guarantee that such cultivators would not use the same guns to pursue wild animals in the fashion of their game-seeking sahibs. This became a matter of sustained paranoia. Some officials proposed that the barrels of guns intended for protecting crops be ‘swan off short.’ Such guns could be used to ward off wild animals, but not without being effectively useless for game hunting. Other ideas included withdrawing the guns during select seasons.

In short, the itinerant hunter had to be made to resemble a settled peasant by degrees; the settled peasant had to be made a little more like a hunter. And then the whole thing had to be controlled with a series of checks and balances, to further colonial ends. I wonder if this is why we call it the colonial amphitheater.


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.: No, the endangered was, and is, not a stable category. Whereas the elephant was the main subject of conservation in the 1870s, things changed with the passage of the Wild Birds and Animals Act, 1912, which brought avifauna to the fore. From the 1930s onwards the Indian rhinoceros gained ground. Concerns over the species dominated discussions in naturalist circles till the initial decades of independence. By the late 1960s, however, a league of politicians, naturalists, and foresters, worked in tandem to initiate a program of tiger conservation, which, of course, went on to transform the animal into a global conservation icon. The scale of the tiger’s transformation from vermin to endangered was so spectacular, that it practically shadowed the rhino, birds, and elephants.

There were economic reasons for the same. The conservation of the elephant, for instance, remained untenable against the fact that the species was of a highly roving nature. The animal’s habitats and corridors could spread over vast swathes. If the land had to be opened for agriculture, irrigation, dams, railway lines, tea plantations, mining, and the like, the conservation of the elephant had to be compromised. In contrast, the rhino, by virtue of being confined to select pockets, offered a model of conservation which simultaneously served to release landscapes for the ingress of colonial capital, and later nation-building. Only with the tiger do we witness a reconsolidation of wildlife habitats for conservation, but I suspect this also transpired with the motive of attracting increased tourist traffic to different parts of the country.

This economically deterministic line of analysis still leaves us with questions such as why it was the birds that gained primacy in the first decade of the twentieth century and not, say, the Gangetic dolphins; why the rhino at the turn of our independence and not the gaur; and why ultimately the tiger and not the chital deer. In each case, one finds, concerns over endangerment—even if this was not the word in vogue—were grounded, and re-grounded, with an eye to the very native hunter-gathers that were severely criminalized by the colonial powers. In a longish article appearing in the journal, Conservation and Society, I have tried to underscore the relative indispensability of the poacher for the setting of conservation priority in South Asia.

Indeed, developments spread over a century from 1870 to 1970 reveal that if a species was poached, it had to be protected. And if it was not, it could very well be doomed to a silent and anonymous extinction—which is precisely how it has been with several species. Our colonial legacy is such that victims of ‘crime’ are more likely to translate into the objectives of conservation; but not without the rhetorical, racial, and colonially informed ideas of the criminal tribesman serving to obfuscate the parallel history of capital.


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

V.S.: The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 has a slightly different scope. It brings dairy animals, livestock, and street dogs, within its ambit. While the relevance of the Act can scarcely be undermined, I am not the best person to comment on how much it embodies colonial legacies, and to what degree it amounts to a departure.

That said, I don’t think historians have the privilege, at least not anymore, to settle for one school of thought over the other, such as continuity over change, or change over continuity. Any phase of time always presents itself as a mottled landscape, one which is characterized by both continuities and discontinuities at the same time. Everything I have just told you about the erratic journey of the endangered in the Indian subcontinent proves this to be reasonably true. Even though conservation priorities keep shifting, the entrenchment of a criminogenic outlook in our ecological discourses remains constant. I see the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972 as a part and parcel of the aforementioned processes.


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.: Colonial India was home to several game associations. The Nilgiris Game Association (NGA), for instance, functioned as a club of tea planters and other influential administrators, brought together by a shared interest in sport- hunting. The attitudes of such associations towards tribal communities, such as the Mudugars of the Nilgiris, were never uniform and prone to their share of contradictions. If members of these tribes could be co-opted, they came to be prized as useful trackers and beaters for the member-sportsmen of the concerned game association. Those who could not be co-opted practically fell on the wrong side of the law, and tended to a fate not very different from that of the criminal tribes.

With time, of course, sport-hunting came to be banned in independent India. And many such associations have come to be replaced by civil society initiatives working on different issues. Some of them are doing truly commendable work. But every now and then we come across an outfit, most often engaged in ‘ecotourism,’ which tells you of how one or more of the tour guides/operators was previously an inveterate poacher. More so, a former poacher from a tribe of ‘hardened poachers’.

I find this a little uncanny. Marginalized communities that succeeded in establishing a patron-client relationship with game associations in colonial India were often projected as reformed criminals, and the same appears to transpire within the ambit of today’s ecotourism.

Furthermore, game associations rarely reflected on the pressures their clientele exerted on wildlife, just the way tour operators refuse to acknowledge how tourism has grown into a billion-dollar industry that leaves worrisome footprints on ecosystems. Thus, despite the banning of sport-hunting, some things do remain the same. We are accosted by the same interplay between discontinuities and continuities.


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

V.S.: You have brought me to the fold of my current research interests. In a brilliant piece of anthropology, Annu Jalais has shown how refugee populations trapped in the Sundarban islands were displaced, pushed around, and eventually turned into ‘tiger food,’ through the very state processes that elevated the tiger to the status of a national animal and simultaneously transformed the Sundarbans into a World Heritage Site. But whereas Jalais explains such developments within the framework of global cosmopolitan concerns over wildlife, I am more interested in the figure of the citizen.

More precisely, I am interested in how the environmental consciousness of the citizen was framed in the years immediately following 1947, in a way as to grant public legitimacy to events such as those that transpired in the Sundarbans in the late 1970s. Indeed, looking at the post- independence history of the citizen can help us tell a broader story about how we—we the people—not only seek to protect wildlife out of otherwise earnest intentions, but also end up using wildlife concerns to criminalize, stigmatize and marginalize human others. I personally feel that the latter leaves us with a self-limiting idea of how to care for the wild beyond borders.