Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In a political context dominated by affiliation to castes, religions, and parties, what possibilities are there for universalist enactments of “the people?” Politics in Kerala, India is primarily enacted through membership in myriad parties and interest groups, but over the last two decades “people’s struggles” have emerged as a form or protest that has no members and claims to speak on behalf of all. Moreover, this new genre of politics has taken shape via an articulation with a variety of environmentalism claiming to fight for an even more all-encompassing, post-human ecological collective. Popular protests in Kerala today are usually, though not exclusively, protests of pesticide use, industrial pollution, granite mining, road construction, overfishing, or coastal degradation. Like populisms elsewhere, these enactments of the people catalyze around experiences of economic marginalization, but they do so in a specifically environmentalist mode, responding to inequities as they are materialized in soil, water, and air. Employing historical and ethnographic materials from two years of fieldwork, this paper explores why this particular hybrid of environmentalism and populism has proliferated and examines the continual semiotic suturing people’s struggle activists do to sustain a unitary politics of “the people” and “nature.” In doing so, the paper compares and contrasts Kerala’s environmentalist populism with the global rise of “environmental justice” organizing, assessing the possibilities and limitations that people’s politics may hold for environmental movements, and vice versa.