It’s been over a year since I wrote a post for this blog, but returning to India, and an intriguing conversation with Vanya about the therapy of writing, encouraged me to continue. If you’re new to my page, check out Why This Blog is Here, any of my (copious) travel posts like The Great Rann of Kutch, or Visions of New India for an op-ed. There’s no particular rhyme or reason except a place, person, or story, to inspire a post.
The heady scent of jasmine flowers at dusk coming from my small window as I write this makes living in India feel like yesterday. I’ve switched gears from a development professional to an anthropologist, and also moved 1000 kilometres North from Ahmedabad to Dehradun. I applied to a MSc program which includes 2 months of independent field research, with the hope to be able to return to India. Unlike a PhD, a MSc is restricted in time, funding, and the researcher’s experience: really, it’s an exercise in research. Coming up with a topic achievable in a 2 month time frame was a struggle, especially as my interests are so diverse, and tend to fall into complex over-arching structures like growth, resource exploitation, and global capitalism…I needed a narrow frame, and I’ve hopefully found it in Dehradun.
I started out by questioning: what are peoples’ relationships with the environment? Through a lot of reading and following rabbit-holes, I came upon India’s Forest Rights Act (FRA) and also the Van Gujjar community. The FRA is a massively ambitious piece of legislation that is (supposed) to undo historical injustices for Indigenous people in terms of their access and rights to forest land. Expectedly, such a monumental shift in perspective is actually really difficult to implement, and local people’s rights continue to get thrown under the bus (especially with the fervour of 2019 elections in India – for example, see the recent Supreme Court ruling). As a nomadic group, the Van Gujjars don’t fit neatly into conventional legislation. So, following the excellent existing research on pastoralism in India, I hope to generally explore how pastoralist groups are implicated in environmental legislation.
I’m spending my time here on the campus of RLEK, a legal and social justice organisation who have a long history of supporting the rights on Van Gujjars and other traditionally marginalised groups. I’m generously making use of their networks, though things are running…well ‘IST’, or Indian Standard Time. Still, I’m looking forward to eventually speaking with people from diverse backgrounds and understanding how their perspectives and experiences fit into the literature and current politics. My research questions will certainly be taking a lot of twists and turns in the next few weeks!
Dehradun, in the state of Uttarakhand, is a unique place to be in the lower Himalayas. It was just recently established as a separate state from Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in 2000. The capital of Dehradun has deep colonial and elite roots, as the favoured summer escape of the British, and home to the famous Doon boarding school. Uttarakhand’s landscape holds the confluence of this colonial past, as well as the history of Sikhs, Tibetans, Nepalese, Parhari (hill) communities, and various tribal groups. With natural beauty and access to the Himalayas, vast jungles, and the headwaters of the Ganges, Uttarakhand is also a popular base for outdoor tourism. But long before river-rafting or ecotourism was established, Hindu pilgrims traveled to the banks of the holy Ganga, as the Himalayas play a central part in Hindu mythology. From this history and for its beauty, Uttarakhand is known as dev bhoomi or ‘land of the Gods’. I landed in the middle of this tangle of hairpin highways, spirituality, hidden cave temples, and growing urban sprawl.
I think that when doing ethnographic research, finding your feet and foundation is incredibly important, but often overlooked. In order to gain my bearings, and have a legitimate, ethical reason for research, I believe than connecting to people and place is incredibly important. I am so thankful for Sadvhi, a driven legal intern at RLEK, and Vanya, a local to the Doon valley and cousin of a close friend from Ahmedabad. With their eagerness and knowledge of the region, we explored hidden corners I would never have known about otherwise, such as Ram Rai Gurudwara, an important religious and historical landmark in the valley. Built by Shri Guru Ram Rai Ji, the eldest son of the 7th Sikh Guru, the gurudwara was set up in 1676 as a resting place during travels. In fact Dehradun gets its name from this historical moment, as Guru Ram Rai Ji built his dera (camp) in the doon/dun (valley). The influence of Mughal architecture is unmistakable – this is because the famous emperor Aurangzeb was highly impressed by the charisma of Guru Ram Rai Ji, and extended help and favours towards him.
This anecdote is just one piece of the stories, emotions, and colours that make up Uttarakhand. It’s moments like these which that can never be fully grasped in a book – this is the learning through conversation, connection, and being-in-place that is so integral to field research. I’m looking forward to 10 weeks more.
This blog is dedicated to Varun, Harsh, and Vanya, for our strange inter-continental friendships and the kindness you each had in introducing me to one-another.