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Practices as Political

Tribal Citizens and Indigenous Knowledge Practices in the East Himalayas

Whether the “practising Adivasi” or the practitioners of traditional knowledge are subjects of different rationality is examined here. Through a study of the Lepcha traditional practices in the east Himalayas, it is argued that the practising Adivasi or indigenous peoples are indeed presenting empirical sites of “ethico-political articulations,” or “Ecosophy,” a term Félix Guattari uses in The Three Ecologies to advocate a normative theory and a “futuristic” approach. The study affirms that the recalcitrant Adivasis, who, as groups of our times, are presenting us with life-sustaining zones of pristine biodiversity as alternatives to the nature-devouring, deep industrialisation models of the modern state.


The author sincerely thanks Mayalmit Lepcha, Tenzing Gyatso Lepcha, Tempa Lepcha, Hee Moo Ongkit, Anum Namgyal, Kyacho Lepcha and many more nature warriors in Dzongu (North Sikkim) who have diligently used their modern education to spread awareness on the imperatives of preserving forests and rivers in their pristine glory.

The cultural practices of indigenous peoples and the Adivasi Indians often appear to present an alternative position to the foundationalist political theory that governs modern nations. The catalytic role that modern technology-backed developmental projects play in upsetting the equilibrium of local ecologies is brought into focus by many resistances of the indigenous communities the world over. These resistances to the assimilationist powers of modern governmental regimes are often claimed on the grounds of autonomy of their world view and lifeworld practices. The aim of this paper is to examine whether the practising Adivasi or the practitioners of traditional knowledge, more than being citizen–subjects (self-interested individuals answerable only to the regime of the modern state), are instead subjects of indigenous knowledge and different rationality.

Through a study of the Lepcha traditional practices in the East Himalayas, this paper engages with a cultural community with different rationality. The study explores whether the “sites of difference” in the traditional habitats of indigenous peoples also offer possibilities of “becoming,” that is, becoming ecological subjects from being subjects of scientific rationality. With their indigenous knowledge practices, the Lepcha language-speaking people of Dzongu in North Sikkim offer alternative sites of modern scientific knowledge. Their skills in biodiversity conservation have helped them sustain the pristine East Himalayan ecosystem over centuries, and have lately attracted international recognition from professional ecologists around the world who are alerting people to the dangers of the forest-devouring and water-polluting models of industrial growth.

Lepcha Forests in Dzongu

The Lepchas of Dzongu, the forest-rearing community in North Sikkim, offer an excellent example of indigenous habitants preserving and protecting the unique forest cover in the East Himalayas. Any visit to the Dzongu region of the Khangchendzonga National Park would confirm the oft-claimed statement that Lepcha people—with their traditional practices of farming, jhoom cultivation and hunting, and annual rituals of worshipping the deities of forests, snowcapped mountains, lakes and rivers—have helped the world famous eastern Himalayan biodiversity to prosper in its pristine form. The 700 acre wide region of Dzongu is a part of the Khangchendzonga National Park, identified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage site. “The Lepcha practice of worshipping the mountains, lakes and the forests of Dzongu has not only helped us preserve our culture but has also helped the forests grow in the region. The Lepcha indigenous practices have made Dzongu a unique land, a ‘hidden paradise’ or the Myal Lyang, says Sonam Rinchen Lepcha, a botanist from the region.

Lepchas, like the local Bhutias of North Sikkim, were encouraged to settle permanently in the areas of their traditional habitation by the then king of Sikkim. The royal notification No 3069 of 1958 identified the region of Dzongu as the traditional habitat of the Lepcha forest dwellers. The Government of India, in lieu of respecting the old laws of Sikkim enshrined in Article 371(f) of the Constitution, too recognises Dzongu as the Lepcha protectorate in north Sikkim.1 The forest department of the Government of India recognises these rights of the Lepchas as well, and abides by the 1956 land survey records that had demarcated acres of forests as private lands of the Lepcha people. It is common knowledge in Sikkim that because of the Lepcha indigenous practices, the forests in Dzongu have retained their multiple vegetation, otherwise the forest department would have transformed them into plantations of timber-rich trees.

As per Lepcha oral scriptures, there is a hidden paradise at the base of their guardian deity, Kanchenjunga, from where the Lepchas have originated, and that the rituals of worshipping Mount Kanchenjunga, the glacial lakes and forests of the region, will keep the hidden paradise protected. All the revenue blocks inside Dzongu maintain this annual Lepcha practice of worshipping Mount Kanchenjanga; each village monastery also decides upon the specific dates when the deities of forests would be locally worshipped. Even when the modern developmental project blueprints for high dams and long tunnels in the deep mountain gorges are drawn up, the Lepchas are firm in their belief that their gods who reside in and around Dzongu shall always protect them; for the Lepcha people have very loyally served the mountains, lakes and forests of the region.2

It is with this conviction that the Dzongu Lepchas are resisting the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation’s (NHPC) stage-IV dam on upstream Teesta river. Their ecological knowledge tells them that tunneling of the hills for carrying piped water to the powerhouse hugely upsets the water tables on hilltops. It has an immediate toll on the natural vegetation around, and for homestead farming on its slopes. The hilltop water seeps into the tunnels and dries up many streams in the region. If disturbing the water table on the top affects all streams in the region, boring of rocks creates huge debris, leading to major erosions of soil and recurring landslides. This upsets the entire ecosystem around the site of the dam. Says one farmer, who is resisting the hydel dam on Teesta in Dzongu,

We Lepcha people have preserved the storehouse of pure oxygen and clean water for humanity. People in the plains must realise this, and if they love mountains and rush to them during summers, they should also not allow the destruction of hills, streams and forests by supporting the developmental projects on the mountains.

Offering Sites of Difference

The tribal resistance to becoming developmental subjects or the subjects of a modern industrialised state stems from their preference to remain traditional knowledge subjects instead. The collective agency of the groups of our times is perhaps best expressed in the observation of a young college graduate, who now lives in Dzongu.

In Dzongu, through our lived practices, we have offered an alternative site to the modern urban living. As a student of Namchi government college I have seen how growing urbanisations have adversely affected the towns in Sikkim. I don’t want Dzongu to suffer the impact of modernisation. So I fully support the ACT [Affected Citizens of Teesta] movement.

By alternative site to modern urban living, the youth was referring to the forest cover, organic farming, and the numerous mountain streams and pristine hills in Dzongu. The ACT is the movement that is resisting the damming of the Teesta river, and tunneling of the hills in Sikkim. The point is to view these interventions and disruptions from the political position of the indigenous peoples in different natural habitats, who on the one hand are simply not convinced by the industrial model of development, and on the other, want to religiously guard the repository of ancestral knowledge practices that have helped them preserve their life-nurturing local ecosystems for centuries.

The site of a major state-owned dam on the upstream Teesta falls inside the Dzongu region. Many Lepcha students sat on an indefinite hunger strike in 2007 to stop the damming in both upstream and downstream Teesta. Initially, the rhetoric of development, in the political slogan that people of Sikkim need to give up their forestlands in the “interest of the nation,” did find some supporters for dams in Dzongu. However, post the 2011 earthquake devastations in North Sikkim and the more recent hill slides on river Rongyoung (a major tributary to Teesta),3 there exists today a unanimous voice of resistance among the Dzongu Lepchas to any hydel dam. “We will not let the hydel projects destroy our ‘myal lyang,’ the hidden paradise,” is a sentiment that overwhelmingly reflects the zeal of the Lepchas opposing the NHPC’s stage-IV dam inside Dzongu. The demonstration at a proposed site of the big dam in May 2017 did reaffirm the Lepcha people’s resolve to ensure only a free-flowing Teesta river inside the forestlands of Dzongu. The author observed three generations of Lepchas: the village elders, the middle-aged employees of Sikkim government, and students of modern education system were all there in the protest to express their collective will against development projects at the cost of fragile ecosystem of the mountains. Below is an excerpt from the conversation between a student from Darjeeling, researching the regional development, and a Dzongu farmer, recorded during the May 2017 protest.

Student: Why is your love for Dzongu stopping development projects in the region?

Farmer: I want to save this unique land of biodiversity for our future generations.

Student: For your future or others’ future?

Farmer: For the future of my children.

Student: So you think landowners should refuse all compensation that the government is ready to pay?

Farmer: Money cannot bring back our hills and rivers. Dzongu is the storehouse of pure oxygen and cleanest spring water for us.

Student: So your only motivation is to save the environment in Dzongu?

Farmer: Yes, our only motivation is to save the biodiversity in Dzongu.

Student: What makes you so confident that the resistance will make government withdraw their hydel dam project? For they have techno-scientific reasons to push forward these power projects on Teesta.

Farmer: We are confident of our resistance because we are speaking the truth.

Student: Well, I think if the Lepchas in Dzongu resist the dams because of their belief system you may have some chance of winning, but if you say your struggle is for saving the ecosystem and the environment, then the argument won’t stand, for science and technology have answers to that concern.

Farmer: Our practices of worshipping mountains, rivers, caves, lakes and forests in and around Dzongu are our cultural practices, and these practices have saved the ecosystem of Dzongu in its present form.

The conversation above presents the differing political perspectives on the natural world. In his diligent role as a guardian of the forests and rivers in Dzongu, the Lepcha farmer’s position speaks of a philosophy that the Lepcha language and its belief system have preserved.

The idea here is to connect such indigenous practices with the philosophical approach of Ecosophy, or the philosophy of political ecology that Félix Guattari (2000: 90) talks about in The Three Ecologies. Also, in the domain of scientific knowledge production, there exists an initiative to present an account of the cost of “human economy” on the “capital of nature,” which underlines the embryonic link that modern humans have with nature.4 This paper argues that there is a conscious agency of the Adivasi Indian in presenting alterity to the governmental practices of a modern state in the form of a political position that is different from the universalism of industrial modernity and a displacement-based idea of development. The tribal citizens as subject–agents of indigenous knowledge practices are offering a radical critique of the techno-industrial regimes of modern states. Having fought the British colonisers to retain their autonomy over land and livelihood, the tribal citizens in modern Indian democracy too are steadfast on their rights to access the forests and to their traditional nature-nurturing practices.

Different Rationality

Civilisational societies like that of indigenous peoples in their traditional habitats do continue to offer “sites of difference and different rationality.” A different set of reasons have helped the Lepcha cultural community preserve the ecosystems of their native lands over time. The rationality is different here, because it is borne out of the phenomena of traditional knowledge and collective experience and rarely on scientific structuralism. The inevitability of scientific structuralism is often replaced in these sites by the phenomenon of life as it appears in their world view, social beliefs, and in the codifying of lifeworld practices as per oral traditions. Adivasi thinking, I would argue, is also political thinking as it offers a very contrasting view of governing the collective self and the natural world around. Such thinking can emanate from a knowledge system that holds the unit of survival as “organism plus environment” and not as species against other species (Guattari 2000: 90).

The universality of Western modernity is claimed on the “ultimate ground” of scientific knowledge that rationalises lifeworld practices of human societies. This scientific reason-based structuralism makes modern political theory a universal theory too, one that rationally governs polities and industrialises societies all across the world. Whereas, habitations of indigenous peoples, like those in Dzongu, reiterate that there are simultaneous ways of living, even in the contemporary times. Multiple ways of living are often backed by knowledge worlds that are based more on the phenomenon of given experience to a subject, than on structures that scientifically and theoretically explain life. The presupposition that man is a rational animal is sweepingly uniform and it misses out the phenomenon of aff­ect and experience; for Gilles Deleuze, a phenomenon is best explained as a “given experience to a subject.” Any truth, nature of being, or the world that we know, is an experienced world. “What cannot be doubted or what remains beyond question is the subject, the one who experiences or doubts” (Colebrook 2002: 72).

Let us, for example, hear about the Lepcha rationality of speaking in different and distinctive languages while hunting and gathering rare plants; during these activities, Lepcha hunters and plant collectors speak in a version of Lepcha different from their normal language. The use of a distinctive language for the collection of a special tree fern called Pooshen is made more unique by the practice of speaking a specific language to the plant just before extraction. The tree fern is rare, collected as staple food as it is rich in carbohydrates and can also be used for preparing organic liquor. The traditional belief is that this rare plant needs to be addressed with respect, and in a special language, or the plant will not reveal its food value and would not be edible after extraction.5 This customary practice is but an enunciation of experience acquired over time by the Lepcha hunter–gatherers.

Lifeworld practices—such as worshipping Mount Kanchenjunga, the annual ritual of animal sacrifice to the god of hunting, and to the deity of the jungle on respective days by each village panchayat in Dzongu—may appear non-rational, or be seen as irrational beliefs to modern knowledge subjects. However, for a Lepcha forest dweller, these practices have a perfect rationale as these annual rituals help maintain a balance in the ecosystem. Hunting is usually done of those animals whose increase in population would disturb the food chains in the forests, and a female specie is rarely hunted. The Gompa gardens, termed sacred groves, preserve some of the widest varieties of edible plants unique to the forests at the base of Mount Kanchenjunga. This preservation is sacred, as the Lepchas believe that these plants will help them survive in the event of natural calamities or changing climate. From the toughest breed of indigenous cane to some rare variety of maize (cultivable in all weather conditions), to numerous varieties of pulse seeds, Dzongu offers one of the widest ranges of crops and plants; yet the Lepcha farmers do not cultivate them as cash crops as has been the case with large cardamom, in the last decades.

For structuralism, knowledge is not founded on experience but on structures that make experience possible. The necessary contingency of structuralism is perhaps best explained in the lifeworld practices of many cultural communities of our times. Foundationalism of scientific rationality (meaning scientific reason as the foundational principle of human life) is also contested with the ontology of diversity of knowledge systems, and their distinctive thinking. Multiple knowledge forms and their practices in contemporary times go on to reiterate the contingency of theory, thereby contesting the technological universalism that govern decisions of most of the societies and states today. The corpus of Lepcha community knowledge, as one finds here, reiterates the power of divergent thinking in pushing boundaries and transforming life beyond the models and structures of modern science.

Lepcha Tribal Citizen

I have used the term tribal citizen earlier in discussing the border thinking of the cultural communities who are neither outside the categories of “nation state,” “market,” and “capital,” nor are they wholly dictated by the logic of these concepts in their everyday lives and lifeworld practices (Dastider 2016: 49). The practices are evident in the experience of those social groups who, when confronted with the modernisation drive, have more often than not exhibited unpersuaded social behaviour like that of the marginalised indigenous groups in postcolonial societies.

The Lepchas, identified as one of the indigenous tribes of Sikkim, today, curiously enough are introducing themselves as affected citizens of Teesta (dams). They are presenting, in the process, their split subjectivity between the categories of rights-bearing citizens and their tribal/communitarian identity that allows them to be subjects of the Lepcha world view and belief system. As rights-bearing citizens of the Indian state, they remind the state of its constitutional promises made to the Scheduled Tribes/indigenous people vis-à-vis their cultural rights. The English-educated Lepcha youth perhaps present the most interesting case of being tribal citizens who are more of a subject of the Lepcha indigenous knowledge and world view than subjects of a modern state in terms of industrial modernisation.6 The ACT movement diligently fights for a free-flowing Teesta and Rongyoung, because if the Lepchas allow the hydel dams to destroy the mountains and the forests, then the sacred spirits of these mountains, forest and streams will also destroy human, that is, the Lepcha civilisation. For Itbu Moo (creator and the divine mother) had maintained a chronological pattern in her creations, creating humans at the very end, after the mountains, rivers, forests and all the plants and animals in them.

Resisting the state initiative of upstream damming of Teesta and Rongyoung, Lepcha youth from the region had continued with an unwavering 91-day hunger strike in the harsh winter conditions of Sikkim. It is important to note that most of the hunger strikers from Dzongu were English-educated young men who have travelled widely and are also well informed of modern lifestyles. Working in urban centres, these young people from Dzongu can easily switch over to their non-modern way of life once they arrive in their villages. For instance, once inside Dzongu, they usually trek for about two hours on a forested hill trail to reach their houses. They often cook on a firewood oven and carry headloads of fodder plants for the livestock at home. “We do not mind these little inconveniences, for we have seen the bane of urban life; we do not want Dzongu to suffer the impact of modernisation,” says one 21-year-old Lepcha youth who had returned from Namchi, a town in South Sikkim, after completing his college education. He thinks he represents the future generation and therefore would not let Dzongu follow the path of urbanisation, for he has already seen how urbanisation has adversely affected other towns in Sikkim. “The nature is with us,” says one member of the ACT movement, after the Panang hydel project on Rongyoung in upper Dzongu was closed down due to a sudden hill slide on the river in August 2016. The ACT movement is already a decade old, but continues to be endorsed by a new generation of educated Lepcha youth, who are determined in their struggle against the NHPC stage-IV dam on upstream Teesta. It is this border thinking of the Lepchas that makes their struggle under the ACT banner similar to that of the border thinking of other tribal citizens in India or the Adivasi Indians.7

Modern political theories of governance based on modern knowledge system offer rational explanations to lifeworlds. Adivasi world views, on the other hand, link human well-being with the well-being of the natural world around, and this necessarily comes in conflict with the techno-industrial modernisation of the state, aimed at making human lives comfortable at the cost of nature and its resources.

Finding ‘Ecosophy’

As mentioned earlier, Guattari, in his book The Three Ecologies, puts forward the concept of “Ecosophy,” or the ecosophical perspective, which he believed would be the only way to deal with the ecological disequilibrium generated by the techno-scientific transformation of the earth.

Pointing to the all-pervasiveness of “profit economy” and its univocal way of regulating all social relations, Guattari suggests that the ethico-political articulation or the ecosophical perspective between the three registers of environment, human social relations, and human subjectivity will be the only way to save the planetThe ecological crisis at the global scale will require a social, cultural and political revolution, and Guattari emphasises on the need to reshape and reframe the objective of production of both material and immaterial assets. This is a result of his realisation that the present practice of finding technocratic solutions for tackling industrial pollution has already exposed the “limits of humanity’s techno-scientific power and the backlash that nature has in store for us” (Guattari 2000: 18, 27).

Citing the path-breaking work of Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (1972, New York: Ballantine)—that points out the epistemological error of western civilisation in theorising species versus other species around it, or versus its environment; whereas the “unit of survival is organism plus environment”—Guattari (2000) brings in the parallel of Batesonian argument. He outlines the “epistemological fallacy” of industrialised civilisation and proposes that “ecology of bad ideas” should be altered to an “incorporeal value system,” a value system that is borne out of knowledge, culture, sensibility and sociability. He also identifies the task of transforming human subjectivity from its dominant capitalistic subjectivity to an ethico-political, value-oriented one.

In The Three Ecologies, Guattari also underlines the need for an aspired ecosophical perspective which will help produce a nascent subjectivity; an ethico-aesthetic discipline in which the individual, instead of being the dominant subject of economic relations, would also struggle for an end to deforestation and nuclear industries along with their struggle against hunger. This aspired nature of nascent subjectivity is imagined from the givenness of the late capitalism that Guattari encounters in his social conditions, and evidently is not cognisant of the many contingent conditions that could exist in the non-capitalist knowledge worlds of indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America; or among those recalcitrant peasant communities in early capitalist economies. A significant aspect of this “ecosophical perspective” therefore lies in its location of advanced capitalist conditions of Europe, where the author finds himself. For Guattari, “savage deterritorialisation of the Third World,” is assumed to be absolute, affecting the cultural texture of its population, its habitat and its climate. Such convictions are regardless of the contingencies of the contrariness of indigenous subjectivity in the former colonies, namely in the local habitats of the Adivasis/indigenous peoples in India, parts of Asia, Latin America or Africa, and therefore is insistent upon reorganising, reframing, and recomposing the capitalistic-economic subjectivity into a nascent subjectivity that would combine the outcomes of knowledge, culture, sensibility and sociability (Guattari 2000: 49).

It may be argued here that finding Ecosophy through the prism of global capital will always make European ecologists miss out on the persisting worlds of peasants and indigenous peoples in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The inevitable global role of capital and capitalistic modernity is the kind of historicism that even the post-structuralist critics in Europe could not free themselves from. Further, it is due to this historicism they fail to appreciate the peasant–political, that is, the political role of the peasantry in their refusal to transform into a capitalist subject, despite their interface with modern institutions of economics and governance.

Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000: 7) has pointed out that the post-structuralist critique of historicism emerging essentially from the characterisation of “late capitalism” overlooks capital’s unresolved role with the peasantry in the Third World. It is this historicist understanding, Chakrabarty argues, that made capitalism or modernity look “not simply global, but rather as something that became global over time.” It is imperative to acknowledge the political role in the peasant consciousness. The subaltern or the marginalised peoples’ fight for their organic relations with land, forests and the free-flowing river, in spite of capitalism, introduces a political world view of “different rationality.” This rationality tells them it is possible to live a good life with unpolluted air, clean water, and a general sense of well-being. To do this, it is not essential to follow the same trajectory that Europe had followed, where the peasant needs to become a worker first, who through struggle for rights would one day metamorphose into a citizen and hence become “political,” in order to conform with the ideology of “progress or development.”8

In his forceful argument for a futuristic ecosophical project, Guattari remains oblivious of the fact that several non-capitalistic contingencies of indigenous ecologies—in the rainforests of Amazon, pockets of Central America, Australasia, the Zomia hills of South East Asia and in the biodiverse zones of Eastern Himalayas—local habitants are showing the world how to live by replenishing and not depleting nature as required by capitalism. This paper would argue that in his urging for a “nascent subjectivity of different knowledge systems,” Guattari is addressing only the subjects of late capitalism, and certainly not the recalcitrant peasant societies of the non-European world. Also, in his assessment of the inevitability of the role of global capital and capitalistic modernity, Guattari remains oblivious to the instances of peasant communities in postcolonial societies who—even after being introduced to the logic of capital, nation states and its modern development—have preferred to remain subjects of their traditional knowledge system and its incorporeal values. These are the values that make them respect mother earth and her natural resources, abide by the ethics and morals of nurturing nature borne out of the peasant beliefs in the agency of gods and spirits, and in the wrath of mother nature when gone astray.

The Lepcha indigenous ecology in Dzongu presents one such unique contingency of Asian existence in the East Himalayas. It is imperative to recognise that through their traditional knowledge practices, the Lepcha community in Dzongu offers the “world of inevitable capitalism” simultaneous existences of ecological economy. As the project of deep modernisation and its techno-scientific remedies fail to tackle the life-threatening industrial pollution, it is these contingencies of indigenous ecologies that show the world how to live by replenishing nature and natural resources. The champions of “reason” and “progress”—the two factors that give legitimacy to capital-based production and hence capitalism—will therefore have to engage with the ethics and reasons of “other” lived practices. In practising ethics of life, these different rationalities teach us the most important wisdom: “the organism that destroy its environment, destroys itself.”

Diversity of the Political

This paper has offered to argue that the culture of practising indigenous knowledge for protecting local ecosystems is also about taking a conscious political position. This argument has been elaborated with substantial evidences from the Lepcha practices in the east Himalayas, and helps us realise the ecosophical practices of these cultural groups, often assumed to be “backward.” The Adivasi Indian is a defiant subject who rejects techno-industrial agency of the modern state in favour of the fast-depleting biodiverse habitats and resources. The “political” in such indigenous agency is most pronounced in its determination to save natural resources vital for human survival. In saving forests, hills and rivers from the yoke of capitalist modernity, indigenous peoples around the world are ensuring the future of humanity. In their struggle to retain the autonomy of their world view, the Adivasi is neither for integration (into values of Western liberalism), nor for separation (secession from the territorial sovereignty of the modern Indian state) (Chatterjee 1998). They simply belong to those cultural communities that refuse to get assimilated in the modern mainstream of industrial societies.

It is imperative to acknowledge the political role in this peasant consciousness. The argument of diversity of the political also emerges from the very divergent lived practices that offer us the sites of contingent foundations, namely the foundational knowledge that all species (including humans) survive in their environment, and not without it. The absence of scientific structuralism and methods in traditional wisdom does not however make Adivasi knowledge devoid of reason and rationality; the reason of ecosystem is all-pervasive in indigenous knowledge practices. The task is to identify and endorse these different rationalities. Similarly, political theory based on values of industrial modernity is but one contingent foundation to explain the society around. The defiance of the universality of industrial modernity by indigenous peoples in favour of indigenous and local knowledge practices points out the necessary contingency of the political, where “theory” is contingent upon a foundation or a ground that explains the given context. The contrary political position of the Adivasi in their struggle against the modern state system over equity—autonomy of their world view, and self-governing practices with the distinctiveness of one equal to the other—diversity, and sustainability, does challenge the hegemony of the supposed superiority of the modern state in all its political forms: the empire, the nation, and the global market.

Their resistances and defiance in becoming modern governmental subjects are indicative of a subjectivity that does not subscribe to the universalism of the money economy and the economic growth-based model of the nation state. Therefore, it is imperative to note that political theory based on values of industrial modernity is, but one contingent foundation to explain societies around. “The difference or divergence in the political,” as Oliver Marchart (2007) writes while discussing post-foundational political thought “indicate towards the crisis of this foundational paradigm.” As soon as we accept that human society cannot be grounded on one “ultimate foundation,” “essence” or on “one centre,” the notion of foundation is immediately split between the impossibility of the final ground on one hand, and the possibility of contingent foundations on the other (Marchart 2007: 5). Indigenous societies across the continents of this world have indeed offered themselves as important sites of political ecology that reaffirm the impossibility of a single foundation to explain the practices of life on this earth.

The lived practices of the indigenous peoples expose the contingency of that scientific theory which only promotes human comfort and the human profit economy at the cost of the destruction of the same natural world inevitable for human survival. In short, my argument for diversifying the political emerges from an often explored question: Should the European enlightenment reason be the only basis for the “political?” Answers in the negative have come up from post-structuralist critics in the West like Theodor Adorno, who has rejected the modern rational claims of mastery over nature (Cook 2014: 5–6); Hannah Arendt (2005), in her emphasis on the shortcomings of Western political traditions in accepting human distinctiveness/diversity and open-ended debates between equals; as well as the Deleuzian opposition to structuralism in support of difference. The answer, however, has always been negative in the lived practices of numerous indigenous groups of our times. The idea of this paper was to remind the modern world that these practices perhaps present the greatest evidence of the critique of the claimed universality of European enlightenment reason.


Modern social science identifies the discourse of the political within the confines of scientific structuralism and is convinced about the backwardness of cultures that are entwined with the environment, and hence, it refuses to see anything political in their reverence of nature. The purpose of this paper was to narrate the experience of one such society that continues to live with the autonomy of their nature-centric know­ledge practices. By dwelling on the narratives of one such cultural community, the rationale of this work was to assert for, and identify the political in the ecosophical thinking and ecological reasoning of the many other cultural communities in our world. It is time we understood that the environment-centred culture is but a political position that questions the sovereign power of the modern state as an agent of unbridled industrialisation. By accepting the diverse nature of the political, we could perhaps liberate ourselves from the bondages of the profit economy, and instead enliven ourselves with the reasons of the eco-economy. The political, therefore, is in viewing the world from its divergent perspectives: be it environmental, egalitarian, gendered, or that of an aesthetic vision of the world.

Dzongu is not a mythical story of a distant land, it is a story about different rationality; a political thinking that nurtures distinctive ideas on human civilisation. The lived practices there remind us that the “organism that destroys its environment destroys itself.”


1 The Supreme Court of India’s judgment as recent as 10 February 1993 in R C Poudyal v Union of India (1993), refers to Article 3069/O.S./Gangtok/Sikkim Durbar Gazette, Part III/ March 1958, to identify the Lepchas as the indigenous tribe of Sikkim and Dzongu as the Lepcha protectorate. The Government of India is bound by its constitutional obligation of respecting old laws of Sikkim under Article 371(f) of the Constitution.

2 The belief that their annual worshipping of mountains, forests and lakes will make Mother Nature protect the Myal Lang (the hidden paradise) in Dzongu, is expressed by almost all the residents that the author met. They were farmers, monks of the several village monasteries, students studying in Gangtok, teachers in government schools and colleges, as well as government employees residing inside Dzongu.

3 On 16 August 2016, a major hill slide on the river Rongyoung had submerged the office of the Panang hydel project that was to be built near the confluence of Rongyoung and Teesta, leading to the scrapping of the hydel power project inside Dzongu.

4 Biologically productive areas are the zones of biodiversity that have the capacity to “regenerate” what is being depleted from nature in the form of extraction, for our everyday modern living. A recent report on the Global Ecological Footprints has studied the human impact on earth’s ecosystem by calculating in figures peoples’ demand from nature in their everyday existence. The report goes on to show that the “capacity of nature to regenerate” is far slower than the rate at which it is extracted by the demands of our modern living. The list of our demands include, clean drinkable water, requirement of food, clean air relatively free from industrial and vehicular pollution, building of roads and concretisation of urban spaces.

5 Devy et al (2014) in his study of tribal literature in India observes that given the immense odds (of land alienation and displacement) that tribals have been fighting, it is nothing short of a miracle that they preserve their stock of wisdom through their languages.

6 As a special governmental category of citizens, the Scheduled Tribes or the backward communities in India, perhaps provide a good example of being neither being fully subaltern (unengaged with institutions of modernity), nor are they the liberal rights-claiming modern individuals or citizens. This crucial “neither–nor status” in effect brings out the inherent tension that the ideas of both “tribe” and the “citizen” produce. Though, I employ the category of tribal citizens with respect to being more of a collective subject of their own world views and lifeworld practices and less of Western knowledge–subjects or individual-rights-based Indian citizen.

7 The Lepcha students and members of the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) coming from Dzongu, are aware and active in protecting the status of Dzongu as a protected area for the Lepcha indigenous people. This protected status was laid down by the old laws: under the raja of Sikkim Tashi Namgyal’s proclamation of August 1956 that assured continued protection of the interest of the indigenous peoples of North Sikkim, and enshrined in Notifications No 3069/Sikkim Durbar gazette, Part III/1958; No 988/Land Revenue/July 1958; Order No 105/Land Revenue/1961; as well as the Revenue Order No 1 of 17 May 1917. These existing laws of the kingdom of Sikkim were later guaranteed protection by the Government of India during Sikkim’s merger in 1976 and by the Indian
Constitution under Article 371(f).

8 Dipesh Chakrabarty (2003: 220) in his essay “Subaltern History as Political Thought,” brings in the references of Russian populism of the 19th century, a mode of thought that not only sought political goodness in the peasant practices, but also worked to convert their so-called “backwardness” into a historical advantage.


Arendt, Hannah (2005): The Promise of Politics, New York: Schoken Books.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2000): Provincializing Europe: Post Colonial Thought and Historical Difference, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

— (2003): “Subaltern History as Political Thought,” Discourse, Democracy and Difference: Perspectives on Community, Politics and Culture, M R Ansari and Deeptha Achar (eds), Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Chatterjee, Partha (1998): “Secularism as Tolerance,” Secularism and Its Critics, Rajiv Bhargava (ed), New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp 345–79.

Colebrook, Claire (2002): Gilles Deleuze, Oxon: Routledge.

Cook, Deborah (2014): Theodor Adorno: Key Concepts, Revised edition, Oxon: Routledge.

Dastider, Mollica (2016): “Marginalised as Minority: Tribal Citizens and Border Thinking in India,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, No 25, pp 48–55.

Devy, Ganesh N, Geoffrey V Davis and Kalyan Kumar Chakravarty (eds) (2014): Knowing Differently: The Challenge of the Indigenous, New Delhi: Routledge.

Guattari, Félix (2000): The Three Ecologies, London: Bloomsbury.

Marchart, Oliver (2007): Post-foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Updated On : 25th Nov, 2020


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