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The Role Of Environmental History In India’s Historiography

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The history of India is rich and copious, which features information dating back as early as the Bronze Age, however when questioning the nature of the historiography of the subcontinent – a few issues become prevalent. It withstands that everywhere has a past, but not all societies have records of the past in documentation that can be researched and examined, creating somewhat of a problem between defining history as ‘historiography’ and simply ‘the past’. Historiography itself must first be defined, the ‘modern’ historiography used by historians is a western formed concept that developed in the modern period around the Age of Enlightenment but particularly during the mid-19th century which propelled the writing of history to the discipline we understand it as today. Before the development of modern historiography was formed through western civilisations, societies would look at their pasts through other means, such as religion. These methods that weren’t conventionally history decreased in popularity as the western frame took precedence and imposed itself on the rest of the world. However, in the modern day there is no need to rely on this western approach, and other fields of history have developed in order to examine the past from different perspectives. Modern historiography as we understand today didn’t exist in places such as India before the colonial era, which was when the western influence was directly exerted in the East, however this doesn’t mean that these areas were void of a history. To clarify, an example when looking at the history of India; it features records of the ancient civilisation of the Harrapans in the Indus Valley. This civilisation took place long before the introduction of the development of modern historiography as an approach, but still features in historiography as historians can now look back to the Harrapans and contribute to historiography because they can use the modern historical methodology alongside source material to understand this particular period of the past in history. Historians in the modern day have the luxury of utilising the western approach and using it to develop different fields of history came to be after and during colonial period – histories like environmental, military, and colonial feature heavily in the historiography of India. These fields use the same documentation but in a new way which allows them to unveil hidden voices and perspectives that were left out in older work, seen significantly in the postcolonial approach known as the Subaltern Studies. Although the historiography of India has developed tremendously and taken on these new methods of studying history, obstacles still remain that prevent or discourage studying history from a particular angle. I will be revising some of the methodological issues that arise from this Subaltern approach, and environmental history of India that have emerged following the colonial period and how far they have shaped India’s historiography.

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Environmental history is a type of history that was born out of global concerns during the environmental movement in the US, although its intellectual root of the study comes from the French Annales School, who took the focus away from political history and more towards agriculture, demography and geography-based matters. In terms of its approach to historiography, environmental history refers to the relationship between human societies and the natural setting they depend on; however, includes subgroups which home in on how humans have adapted the natural environment over time and the self-conscious efforts that humans have taken in attempt to regulate the relationship between themselves and the environment. Environmental history in the context of India is mainly documented through British colonial historians, although Indian historians have published their own ecologically related work, granting it is typically bound to the ancient period of the subcontinent. The main bulk of environmental history comes from the colonial period and is often contrasted with the post-independence era, although not limited to this period. The field is advancing in India rapidly in the present day as serious academic research only began in 1980s, this research has proved to not only contribute to the discipline of history in regards to India, but is significant in other environmentalist matters; through bringing attention to conservation movements and highlighting threatened conditions of certain species of animals (Fisher, 2015).

The concept of environmentalism in India emerged from forestry studies which emphasised the British imperial role in regard to Indian forests and now plays a central role in the history. Chakrabarti, a prominent Indian environmental historian argues that forest history is in fact the ‘core component of this historiography’ (Chakrabati, 2007). This is seen in much of the historiography, such as the theories put forward by historians Guha and Gadgil which demonstrate the mass scale deforestation, which they argue to have increased vigour and intensity from the colonial period. The arrival and settlement of the British came hand in hand with a distinct rise of the Anthropocene, referring to a largely irreversible human impact on natural ecology. This was partly due to the legislation passed by the British, the Indian Forest Act of 1878, which controlled the conditions of the forest. It took away the use of forests for everyday lives and enforced indigenous tribes to clear forests and cultivate plots of land for other uses. The British have justified their time in India by explanation of the ‘civilising mission’ they had embarked on in which was an attempt to replicate western standards into Indian society, as they believed Europe to be the model civilisation. Due to this, tribal groups such as the ‘Bhils’ faced a displacement, they were categorised as criminals – colonial era publications describe the Bhils as ‘marginally superior to animals’, the British viewed them as the lowest stage of social evolution due to the fact they survived solely on hunting. These publications by British officials are therefore completely riddled with Euro-centralism and outright racism and cannot contribute to the historiography of India when looking at environmental factors such as forests and their nomadic people. However, these documents can be used as sources to contribute to the historiography of India in the post-colonial era, seen in publications on environmental history in India in the present day, such as in the work of Guha and Gadgil. The colonial documents that give us specific information about the evolution of the forest and deforestation in India can help us to understand the treatment of forest dwellers during the British Raj, a part of historiographical research in India that the environmental approach has opened up.

Doing environmental history we can find evidence from a variety of sources, information on weather patterns, crop yields and animals allow us to do history for the subcontinent in areas that other fields would overlook. A recent issue that scholars have begun to pick up on in India is the issue of farmer suicides. India being an agrarian country naturally relies on agriculture heavily, and the failure of crop and debt burden have been accredited as reasons for these many losses of life. Environmental history may help us to pick apart the reasons, as theories have been put forward relating to the environment: droughts, floods, unreliability on the monsoon season, but the issue of government policy also arises. Although states are affected by these suicides all over India, focusing in on Punjab in the northern part of the subcontinent is famously labelled as the ‘bread basket of India’ and is arguably affected by these suicides in correlation to the policies of Indira Gandhi, and the development of the Indira Gandhi Canal. This system stores water from two of Punjab’s rivers, restricting the water supply within the region which in turn limits the irrigation system, (Maitra, 1987) leading to failure of crops. This is an example of environmental history and how the actions of humans interacting with the environment affects the course of history and how things are played out. However, the issue of farmer suicides are not heavily touched on in historiography as of yet, but becoming an increasingly prevalent area, more scholars are accessing environmental data to help explain and write on the topic and expanding India’s historiography. Indira Gandhi’s policy coincided with the ecological factors of India demonstrates how environmental history can be applied to other fields of history, and even other disciplines to help explain certain phenomena. A field that environmental history aids in particularly well is big history, environmental data has demonstrated the importance of different perspectives and how they can add to the research of history. Some of big histories methodology has in turn been lent to environmental history, the contextualisation of humans into a broader picture allows the barrier between humans and nature to be broken down, allowing a deeper research from different views into this relationship. This can be seen in how the weather conditions and the direct manipulation of the natural environment of Gandhi’s policy are affecting economic and social conditions in India, and how they’ve changed over time, leading to a more sound overall understanding of India over a longer timeframe.

Following the recognition that the modern historiographical frame does no longer need to be used by historians, following the colonial era – a field of history arose specifically to research post-colonialism itself, alongside this emerged Subaltern Studies. A theory aimed to liberalise marginalised voices through challenging authoritative voices and rediscovering lost voices. Started by Ranajit Guha who took an interest to the intellectual side of colonial impact, he started his research through work on Bengal land revenue system functioned (Guha R. , 1983) and the field eventually expanded into the postcolonial history theory we know today which includes a much broader spectrum of areas of research. The field itself began in 1977 and looks backwards at historical movements to see any similarities in rhythm and these trends to help identify the roles of everyday people in history. Usually everyday people are only mentioned in history as flickers of larger narratives that lay there focus with wealthy Indians, elitist institutions and colonial systems, therefore Subaltern Studies is beneficial to the historiography as it gives attention to the working classes, impoverished, and those who faced oppression. The study relies on texts of some kind, often elitist colonial documents, and by looking at these and comparing allows the history of the subalterns to be revealed.

Prior to postcolonial studies, the Cambridge school has dominated Indian history; this was problematic as they were predominantly white males, meaning no agency was given to everyday Indians and it reigned as a very much a British dominated field. When Subaltern Studies first came into being it focused on the peasantry, and how far they engaged in political participation. The history of peasant behaviour was identified as pre-political but through researching colonial documents the Subaltern historians concluded that peasants didn’t engage in official participation such as use of petitions. They instead expressed political opinions through other means; such as rebelling against the state through violence, or imitated social superiors seen through appropriation of religious ceremonies that were otherwise denied to them. This examination of peasants attacking symbols of state and social policy gave a clear political domain. The colonial records that were examined to reveal peasant behaviour followed codes that needed to be ‘cracked’. The original documents could manipulate the classification of peasants from bandits to insurgents by flipping the codes based on how large the peasant activities or transgressions of law were. This means that the way that the codes were read would directly influence the archival accounts of how peasants. However, the matter arises that Subaltern historians are writing a history of peasants, but peasants left no written records themselves, they also needed to interpret the coded colonial records that were available, they had to be decoded, and therefore a matter of validity arises. The documents were not solid evidence as colonial documents could be decoded in ways that categorised peasants as bandits or insurgents depending on how much data they had on them. Subaltern historians are reading them from a different angle however just because a different approach and aim are given, this doesn’t make the sources any less inferable. However, it demonstrated the success of Subaltern studies, taking a previously British historian dominated field which used British documents; into Indians using these documents and looking at the Indians who were missed out of previous historiography. The issue does arise that the study still relies on British documentation which is available plentiful in India but no longer attributes agency for historical developments to imperial interventions such as the civilising missions and modernisation.

The response to the Subaltern approach was mixed, it generally was received well by the audience in the US, but Indian historian Gayatri Spivak critiqued Guha’s work stating that it was male biased and celebrated male peasant rebels; while ignoring the role of women. For a history that claims to speak on behalf of the subalterns, the fact that it didn’t celebrate gender was hypocritical. Guha responded to this matter during the second wave of Subaltern history, to which he focused on lower caste women and looked at gender and caste to make women’s solidarity visible. By introducing gender to subaltern studies a new shift started, which looked beyond peasant resistances and subaltern insurgency. Spivak made another point that when historians tried to speak about subaltern resistance, they themselves were assuming right to speak for them, it withstands that they were not utilising evidence of their oppression to write historiography, but evidence of documents. Although this is true, it can be said that the very nature of Indian documents necessitates a need for the subaltern approach, as other evidence is simply unavailable. Subaltern Studies is a suitable means to help bring light to the subaltern experience as it works as a means to deconstruct colonial power, and makes this work globally important, giving a place on the world stage. Although it is not ideal to be interpreting British documentation, the historiography being written by Indian historians benefits history in taking on the different perspective to what was typically available.

Returning back to environmental history, a well-established field of history which does share a boarder with other fields of history, and similarities are seen with the Subaltern approach. Environmental history, although has access to much a vast amount of primary and secondary sources, still utilises colonial records as seen in forestry studies which allow us to see the conditions of the tribal people in India. Environmental history does therefore allow us to gain insight into non-elitist people much like the Subaltern approach, but has the ability to be much broader in its historiography, and covers more of history. Due to this, Subaltern Studies may be more suitable for writing historiography when considering the lives of everyday people, as its focus is on postcolonial and its main aim is to bring a voice to marginalised voices. Although this makes its approach much more limited, it can still contribute to other fields and disciplines, such as Big History. This is due to the unique angle it employs by bringing those who don’t feature in the nationalist historiography of India to the forefront and rectifies the flaws of previous flaws of the Cambridge School. This provides a valuable contribution to historiography as it includes the history of a whole new section of society that was otherwise overlooked.

When considering how the methodology of these different fields have a shaped some of India’s historiography, they refer to very specific parts of the subcontinents past. When considering the Subaltern approach, it would be unsuitable to use this history when researching the elitist figures of the colonial period such as Nehru and Gandhi, as it is only useful when looking at history from below. Although the nature of documentation in India is very limited to elitist records, Spivak does raise a valid argument when suggesting that Subaltern historians are very much assuming the capability of speaking on behalf of subalterns, such as the peasantry who left no written documentation themselves. Subaltern Studies can’t be considered the voice of liberalising the voice of marginalised in India, but an attempt to understand the marginalised as they do not have the correct source material to really understand the lives of everyday people as the information is still coming from elite places.

Environmental history covers a much larger area of historiography in India, it is not limited to the colonial era and post-colonial era, and can go further back into history. It is subsequently able to access a much larger range of sources, and due to the vast size of India, differences in ecology, geology and landscapes mean that the environmental history of India can be a deeply rich and plentiful history. However Environmental history is often expressed as the relationship between humans and nature not a fact, this simple relationship limits the approach as it is difficult to prove this relationship between environmental data and historical consequence as genuine.

10 Jun 2021

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