Politics of Environment: Language and India’s Climate Change Movement

A few weeks ago, the Global Climate Change Strike took the fight for climate awareness on to the streets of Delhi, and organisations like Fridays for Future started marching to mobilise the population against the silence of the government and policymakers on the environmental degradation of our planet.

What appeared to be an excellent initiative and righteous action in theory raised unsettling questions when seen with a critical lens on the ground.

A security guard walked up to us during the march at Jantar Mantar, and asked one protester, “Yeh morcha kis liye kar rahe ho aap log? (What are you guys marching for?)”

The person whom he addressed had been sloganeering a few moments ago, but she fumbled to express the basic agenda. This is not to highlight that she was ignorant of the cause – which, in our millennial thirst for ‘wokeness’ may not be an absurd possibility – but to showcase that she could not communicate the pressing issue in the language this situation required (Hindi, in this case).

In today’s times, while social media may be the chosen instrument for activism and propaganda, there is an inevitable class and cultural divide when it comes to the fight for the environment – one which makes it very hard to pass on the message and take the fight forward.

The slogans and popular references employed in the recent strikes are largely monopolised by the English language, catering to a mainstream understanding accessible to a rare few. I’m referring largely to one strata of the India’s diverse society – the English-speaking, upper/middle class. There are many like the security guard who do not have access to the Instagram stories of English-speaking, highly privileged influencers (which in it’s own way, may not be the worst thing). 

The movement in India appears to take this language divide for granted. Knowing at least a minimal level of the English language has become a prerequisite for being included within the ambit of youth environmental activism in India, since our ideals of the movement popularised through social media are essentially non-Indian, ‘Americanised’ versions – far away from the ground reality of the India we inhabit today.

Also read: ‘Enough is Enough’: Delhi Students Gather For Another ‘Fridays For Future’

While Greta Thunberg is an inspiring figure for the movement, a western icon should not become the beginning, middle, and end of our understanding of the movement’s practicality in India. This becomes a tool for exclusionary caste politics of the movement since Adivasis and other marginalised tribal communities have been on the streets fighting for the cause even before it gained momentum we’re seeing today.

Mainstream media and television channels also bear significant responsibility for not allowing an informative discourse on environmental change to reach Indian households. The media will broadcast the prime minister stating, “Climate has not changed. Our habits have changed,” or the education minister claiming that cows exhale oxygen, but it never quite exercises its agency by bringing in a panel of experts to dissect the very real threat of global warming and climate change.

A vast majority of Indians have happily been sucked into this illusory realm because our movement against climate change ignorance has excluded the social capital of vastly revered politicians.

The movement for environmental conservation is not an individualistic fight, and it cannot be a successful one if we delude ourselves in believing so. As youth, these strikes and marches showcase the strength of collectivism and have the power to bring significant policy change.

However, all movements are rooted in the context of their times, or else they lose any real power to create a change. It is imperative for us, as privileged and educated post-millennials, to keep our jargon aside, keep the banners down, and explain our fight to those who will then join their voice with ours.

Anushree Joshi is an over-thinker who studies English literature at Lady Shri Ram College who has strong opinions on why your #IAmHumanistNotFeminist attitude is a problem and why Manto should be taught in schools and colleges across the country.

Featured image credit: Anushree Joshi