Nonhuman Governance: The Violence and Benevolence in South Asian Animism
February 2022 – September 2022
In many ways the Sundarbans, the site of my research, embodies a classic conservation conflict exacerbated by the climate crisis, where protected sanctuaries for the ‘man-eating’ Bengal tiger alongside frequent cyclones have pitted ‘people’ against ‘nature’. My research transcends this false binary, which I show misidentifies the conflict. Instead, through 22 months of long-term ethnographic research situated within an assemblage of actors and flows—Sundarbans residents, government offices, conservation organisations, activist groups, supply chains and discursive flows, I locate a distinct set of moral, political and ontological fault lines. Even as conservation in these times of extinction and biodiversity loss is one of the most urgent contemporary global challenges, my research shows the ways in which the practices, ideologies and imaginations of contemporary conservation in fact negates life.
The current research project with ICAS: MP explores the fault lines within nonhuman forms of governance. First, I will explore the ontological fault lines between the secular rights-discourse and its relation vis-à-vis more-than-human sovereigns. By exploring how Sundarbans residents relate to the forests, what becomes evident is that not only are current conservation practices antithetical to their relationship to the landscape but so is the language of rights. I ask what might the unintended consequences and erasures be of a language of rights that ignores the powers of ‘cosmic polities’—deities, demons, ghosts, spirits—and their concomitant ritual practices in relation to the forest?
Closely related, I contend that acknowledging the power of more-than-human sovereigns needn’t imply a more convivial relationship between humans and nonhumans. In response to the current ecological crisis, a plethora of scholarship condemns ‘Western’ Cartesian separations between nature and culture and proposes that in order to ‘save nature’ one ought to ‘reclaim animism.’ My research reveals how such a critique of ‘Western’ secular modernity on the one hand, and the valorisation of ontologically distinct animistic life-worlds is problematic not only because it ignores the ‘animism’ within several ‘Western’ repertoires of thought and action but also glosses over the violence, extractivism and forms of predation within animistic ontologies in South Asia and elsewhere.
Megnaa Mehtta is an environmental anthropologist with an interest in values, mythologies and ideas of well-being as they intersect with debates in global conservation and political ecology. She is currently working on a book manuscript tentatively titled Conserving Life: Political Imaginaries from a Submerging Forest based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh. Megnaa received her PhD in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics in 2020, before which she studied at Yale University, Delhi University and the University of Cape Town. She is interested in sharing insights gained through anthropological and environmental research with wider reading publics. Alongside her academic writing, Megnaa mediates between a range of environmental stakeholders, including lawyers, activists, filmmakers and conservationists, with the aim of working towards locating specific fault lines and debates within conservation practices, as well as convivial forms of learning across regions, disciplines and forms of intervention. In October 2022, she will join the IRDR at University College London (UCL) as a Lecturer in Social Anthropology.