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People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans

Tides, Tigers and Tears Maureen Nandini Mitra The Sundarbans

Tides, Tigers and Tears

Maureen Nandini Mitra

T
he Sundarbans – the last frontier of the Bengal floodplains – an immense archipelago of several h undred tide-washed mangrove islands stretching nearly 300 km between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Formed from sediments deposited by three mighty rivers – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna – as they empty into the Bay of Bengal, this is a region so remote it usually inhabits the fringes of public consciousness. It would be safe to say that a decade ago, the Sundarbans was mostly of interest to scientists and wildlife conservationists who knew of it as the largest remaining natural habitat of the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger. Moves to protect what remained of this deltaic habitat (including declaring the Sundarbans a World Heritage Site and biosphere reserve with restricted access) helped promote the image of Sundarbans as a mysterious mangrove forest that unfortunately relegated the region’s sizeable human population and their struggle for survival to the background.

However, in the past few years another factor has led to an increasing interest in the Sundarbans. Rapid erosion of these mangrove islands caused in part by rising sea levels has been making headlines across the world as compelling evidence of the devastating effects of climate change. And for once, some attention is being paid to the human inhabitants of the Sundarbans alongside its star wild resident.

Annu Jalais, who began researching the lives of islanders in the West Bengal Sundarbans long before the current wave of interest in the region, rues the sparse historical accounts of the human facets of the region as compared to its forest and wildlife. This “lopsided” documentation, she rightly notes, is unfortunately echoed in most present-day studies of the region and reflects “a history of discrimination against the poorest and most marginalised”. I nspired by her visits to some of the islands as a schoolgirl, Jalias began exploring the

book review

Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans by Annu Jalais

(New Delhi: Routledge), 2009; pp xvi+245, price not mentioned.

“parallel histories” of the islanders and t igers for her anthropology PhD thesis in 1999.

In Forest of Tigers, her maiden book based on her thesis, Jalais lays out her years of investigation into the complex sense of shared identity Sundarbans i slanders feel with the Bengal tiger. She uses this relationship

as a tool to understand both social relations in the WB (West Bengal) Sundarbans, and to focus on how tigers have been appropriated into urban literature as one of the most prominent trademarks of global conservation, as well as the absence of humans in the literature on the Sundarbans (p 8).

The result is a rich ethnographic narrative that not only maps the diverse sociocultural influences in the region, including the encounter of Islam and Hinduism, but also uses contemporary anthropological theories to build a nuanced understanding of the ways islanders perceive themselves, their location in the network of islands, and the non-human species with which they share their environment.

Up vs Down

The West Bengal Sundarbans comprise 102 marshy alluvial islands most of which are still in the process of being formed and reformed by continuous siltation and powerful tidal currents. Forty-eight of these islands are covered by dense mangrove forests that support a diverse plant and animal population. The remaining 54 are inhabited by an estimated 50 lakh people most of whom are subsistence farmers, fisherfolk and forest produce collectors. The population density is high – 1,200 people per square kilometre. Yet, human settlements are hard to access – subject largely to the ebb and flow of tides and the availability of ferry rides. The entire 45,000 sq km of inhabited area has only 280 km of paved roads and a mere 42 km

is accessible by rail. Lack of basic i nfrastructure such as electricity, drinking water, hospitals and roads make the Sundarbans one of the West Bengal’s poorest regions.

In recent history, most of these islands were reclaimed and inhabited under the British, who in the 1700s and 1800s undertook a massive drive to clear the forests and make the land cultivable in order to obtain revenue from the settlers. They brought in groups of lower caste landless labourers and tribals from other parts of West Bengal, neighbouring states of O rissa and (what is now) Jharkhand and even from the Arakan coast in Burma. But, as Jalais notes, these migrants were not the first human inhabitants of the Sundarbans. The mangroves are believed to have been “settled, destroyed, abandoned, and then resettled, for thousands of years”, most notably by Sufi holy men, who in AD 1200 cleared forests, introduced agriculture and were responsible for the initial spread of Islam in the region.

According to Jalais, the inhabited i slands are divided into two categories. The “up” islands – those closer to the mainland, located to the north and west of the region that are part of the stable delta, and therefore, less vulnerable to the wrath of storms and tides – and the less developed “down” islands – those further south by the mangrove forests, that are part of the “active delta” and far more, at risk to the vagaries of nature. Jalais, who conducted most of her fieldwork in Satjelia – one of the down islands, describes how in the Sundarbans social hierarchy, living on the up island or the mainland is considered more prestigious than living on r emote, less developed, down islands. This distinction between northern and southern islands is repeated in how the i slanders view the Sundarbans (down) as a whole with respect to the rest of West Bengal (up).

The initial chapters of the book talk of how land is central to status and introduces

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the four main communities in the down islands – adivasi, Muslim, Midnapuri and East Bengali. The chapters detail differences between caste/ethnic group (jati) and religion (dharmo), villagers (gramer lok) and gentlefolk (bhadralok), forest workers and landowners, and shows how the overarching social divide is between bhadralok and gramer lok. Some space is also given to the social experiments of Daniel Hamilton, a Scotsman who in the early 1900s bought three down islands and established a cooperative system based on his vision of a classless society. The experiment was successful during Hamilton’s time but fell apart after his death.

Much of Jalais study on the Sundarbans social systems is based on French anthropologist Philippe Descola’s suggestion that anthropologists analyse relations between humans and their environment by examining different patterns societies d evelop to represent the non-human just as they would different kinship patterns. She also follows French theorist/philosopher of science, Bruno Latour’s idea that one cannot separate the natural from the cultural/human, that there can only be hybrids and networks of humans and nonhumans (Latour’s theory resonates with recent findings by evolutionary biologists that prove that culture is a particularly e ffective means of driving genetic evolution in humans).

With these concepts in mind, Jalais observes that social relations in the Sundarbans are conducted according to whether one’s livelihood depends on agricultural land or on the forest and rivers. Those who work in the forest and rivers risk l osing their life to wild animals, while farmers/landowners are relatively safe. Economic status is mainly derived from land or from holding a government job or a combination of the two. Consequently, the forest and river workers are lowest on both the economic and social status scale. Extending this idea, Jalais argues that the islanders’ interactions with each other are based on how they perceive themselves in relation to either the land or the forest.

The two most intriguing discoveries she makes in these chapters are – first, none of these identities are fixed. All communities have varying degrees of access to both land and forest and share “overlapping cultural repertoires” thus their relation with their environment is not univocal. Second, the islanders view landownership, though desirable, as “fundamentally alienating” for it leads to hierarchical relations and divides people. In contrast,

the forest is seen as instilling ‘an ethos of equality’ between humans and animals, men and women, Hindus and Muslims, rich and poor (p 29).

The Great Leveller and Kali

Jalais’ narrative of the ethos of the forest, considered the realm of Islam, yet inhabited by a mix of Islamic and Hindu deities, makes for compelling reading. In the middle section of the book, she explains in considerable detail, the story of Bonbibi – “the woman of the forest” – sent by Allah to protect islanders from Dokkhin Rai – the man-eating, half-sage, half-tiger d emon. Bonbibi, as legend goes, defeated Dokkhin Rai and established peace between non-human residents of the forests (represented by the tiger-demon) and humans. She then decreed both groups were to treat each other as “brothers” and share the forests’ resources equally, neither taking more than what they need to survive. The forest deity is thus seen as ushering in “Islamic egalitarianism” between different jatis – in this case, tigers and humans, and by extension between humans.

Jalais notes this “levelling effect” is seen in the way forest fishers practice “economic morality” (production for use rather than for profit), avoidance of divisive behaviour, and “elected” kinship ties that often overrule caste and religious a ffiliations. On the flip side, she shows how such understandings of land and f orest and corresponding expected behaviour are major causes of dilemma for the villagers when it comes to matters of dispute, especially “between conflicting rhetoric around marriages, society and social relations” (p 89) as well as with respect to certain occupations.

The tension between the ethos of the forest and the ecologically destructive (and profiteering) occupations of poaching and prawn seed collection have led many islanders, especially women, to take up the worship of goddess Kali over the more pacifist Bonbibi. Jalais says, those involved in these occupations explain K ali’s growing popularity on grounds that their work is both bloody and risky, and therefore, necessitates a violent cosmic deity. (Due to the bloodthirsty aspect of her nature, Kali is often the deity of choice of those involved in risky professions.) This apart, Kali worship is also an indicator of the spreading influence of Hindutva in the region which makes w orship of the Islamic Bonbibi increasingly problematic.

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BOOK REVIEW

Jalais devotes quite a bit of space to chronicling the growth of prawn aquaculture industry in the 1970s and 1980s, termed the “blue revolution”, that made tiger shrimp seed collection a popular livelihood option in the Sundarbans, empowered women and connected villagers to the great global market. Despite the grave risk of crocodile and shark attacks, this occupation became popular “because it could be practised along the banks of one’s island during one’s leisure time and required a very modest investment (a mosquito net mounted on a thin wooden frame)” (p 116). Though prawn seed collection afforded even the poorest islanders some economic stability, it soon came to be severely criticised because of its negative impact on the delta ecology, disrespect of forest rules, and its subtle reversal of traditional economic and gender hierarchies. Yet, the occupation endures for lack of any viable, safer alternatives for the poorest islanders.

Brothers and Rivals

The Sundarbans people’s perception of the tiger is central to any understanding of their world view, and Jalais uses much of the latter half of the book exploring the diverse ways the islanders relate to the tigers.

The villagers’ ideas of relatedness i nclude ones based on peace, brotherhood and the principles of the forest, as well as ones based on violence – connected to an assumed transformation of tigers’ nature due its migratory history, tough living conditions. Jalais observes the islanders’ multiple understandings of tigers often undergo conceptual and ethical changes depending on shifts in economy, religion and politics.

The Sundarbans islanders could be called “environmental determinists”, Jalais says, not only because of their strong b elief that their environment affects their behaviour, but also because they see themselves as similarly endowed with the power to affect their environment. The i slanders believe tigers have changed from meek to ferocious because of their harsh environment as well as their migratory history of being chased out of different lands before ending up in the Sundarbans. They draw parallels between the tigers’ migration and their own histories of migration as well as the sense of rejection by mainstream society, and see themselves as consequently sharing the “badtemperedness of tigers”.

But many islanders also believe that t igers became regular maneaters and began ignoring their brotherhood pact with humans only after the state’s brutal eviction of refugee settlers from Morichjhanpi island in 1979 in the name of forest conservation. Villagers have several theories for this – the tigers were “annoyed at the violence unleashed in the forest” and started attacking people; corpses of murdered refugees floating through the forest and had given them a taste of human flesh, etc. Some go so far as to say that introduction of “hybrid” tigers developed in city labs had made their tigers (the original Sundarbans tigers) arrogant because now they felt they were a superior species.

According to Jalais, these narratives help islanders voice their fears about b eing viewed as mere “tiger food” by the state, while tigers become “first-class citizens”. This feeling of marginalisation is exacerbated by the appropriation of the Royal Bengal Tiger as a cosmopolitan trademark for global conservation and tourism, which Jalais argues is limiting because it refuses to acknowledge alternative understandings of tigers. She underlines how islanders reject “the ‘tourist t iger’ voicing instead their own narratives, dilemmas and arguments in terms of ‘their tigers’, they express their feelings of marginalisation and also belonging” (p 201).

Jalais questions the “assumed superiority” of “scientific knowledge” (theories supported by the State and mainstream society) over indigenous knowledge and stresses the importance of taking into account plural understandings of nature. In the realm of conservation, she highlights the need for more knowledge sharing between biologists and social scientists in

o rder to dispel the notion that humans in this region are “excess baggage” which, she warns, will lead to “an increased a lienation between the inhabitants of the Sundarbans and its wildlife”. In the context of the nation state, she asserts that a more meaningful exchange between the Sundarbans peoples and the State can happen only if the administration, especially forest officials, pays more attention to “the way local people conceptualise e cosystems and try to deal with their changing world” (p 216).

Conclusions

Forest of Tigers raises crucial questions regarding how to deal with what Descola calls a “primitive conflict” between urban elites wishing to protect the natural beauty and biodiversity of an area and the local populace whose access to lands they have lived on, sometimes for generations, is forcefully curbed.

Peppered with anecdotes that reveal tensions between different world views – State, forest worker, landowner, prawn seed collector, it offers new and important insights into a little-known region and its peoples.

Unfortunately, the impact of the book as a whole is compromised by its rather haphazard organisation of chapters and sub-sections resulting in a weak narrative arc. Unnecessary, and in some cases verbatim, repetitions of same ideas/concepts too, serve to distract rather than reinforce. Some sections of the book have been published earlier in different journals and it almost seems like these parts have been added on here without being adapted fit into a coherent structure that keeps in mind the necessities of synthetic exposition.

Yet all said, this book is definitely of great value to those interested in the Sundarbans and in the study of subaltern groups, and will hopefully promote greater understanding of the region and needs and aspirations of its peoples.

Maureen Nandini Mitra (nandini.mitra@ gmail.com) is a freelance journalist who divides her time between the United States and India.

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