On Ethics, Justice, and Politics

From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Animal Intimacies

Photo by ILRI, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

I read the four beautiful essays collected here with immense pleasure and a deep sense of gratitude. They reminded me that the ideas and conjectures we put forth in our work have rich and exciting lives beyond us, that they take on new meanings and possibilities as they travel with other companions. The wide-ranging commentaries by Marios Falaris, Dana McLachlin, Whitney Russell, and Isabel M. Salovaara prompted me to reflect anew on the larger commitments that animated Animal Intimacies (University of Chicago Press, 2018)—ethics, justice, and politics.

Let me start with Whitney Russell’s essay, which poses a crucial and powerful question about the dangers of a politics of belonging fueled by historical experiences of injury. Pahari (literally, of the mountain) stereotypes about creatures—human and nonhuman—from the plains, she warns, might run the risk of flattening other similarly marginalized groups (such as the nomadic herders in Haryana that she works with) into a homogeneous category of oppressor. I share Russell’s legitimate concerns that a “politics of victimhood” can, upon occasion, birth its own injustices (Jeffery and Candea 2006). As I had noted in Animal Intimacies, “victimhood is a complicated terrain upon which to base political action . . . Discourses of pahari victimhood as they emerged around the issue of the monkey menace naturalized pahari claims to belonging that were dependent on the exclusion and othering of human and animal others” (94–95). These concerns have become all the more urgent in my recent research on right-wing cow-protectionists, mostly urban pahari men, who claim that the project of gau-raksha (cow-protection) is driven by a “decolonizing” impulse. The absence of a national ban on cow-slaughter, they argue, is incontrovertible evidence that “indigenous” Hindu beliefs about the sanctity of the cow were delegitimized and suppressed by centuries of “colonial” rule by Muslim and British empires. The violent, majoritarian politics of cow-protection thus comes to be framed, in the words of the historian Romila Thapar (2019), as Hindu nationalists “asserting their historical rights and avenging their victimization.” Recent efforts by right-wing Hindu organizations to draw pahari grievances around exclusion and expropriation into a broader discourse of “Hindu victimization” speak to the importance of Russell’s caution about the potential erasures and violence of a politics of belonging and exclusion.

And yet, as Isabel Salovaara so astutely notes in her essay, anthropologists must resist the urge to flatten the contradictions, fissures, and ambivalences within seemingly homogeneous discourses. Drawing on her fieldwork on tutorial, coaching, and test-preparation centers in India, Salovaara asks how we can denaturalize the connection between technical education and Hindu nationalism by exploring how daily interactions between students and tutorial instructors might produce a range of competing attachments—love, hatred, hostility, uncertainty—that are both commensurate and incommensurate with majoritarian nationalism. In thinking about this question with and through Animal Intimacies, Salovaara focuses on my discussion of love and the very different kinds of politics it can mobilize, a theme also at the heart of Dana McLachlin’s thoughtful essay on the relationship between love, violence, and ethics in Animal Intimacies. Both Salovaara and McLachlin pick up on my claim that while “all love is decidedly uninnocent” (180), some invocations of love are seeded with more ethical potential than others. In the book, I attribute this difference to the ways in which love affected those who felt and claimed to be moved by it. For gau-rakshaks their love of Gau-Mata, the cow mother of the Hindu nation, affirmed the purity and purpose of their political project; it left little room for uncertainty, remorse, or guilt about the violence that love inflicted on Muslims and Dalits. However, for many rural women declarations of love were always accompanied by an uncomfortable, sometimes shameful, recognition of its impurity and limits. This self-interested, uncertain love, I argued, compelled rural women in particular to “dwell in the ambiguity and contradictions of violence” and opened them up “to new kinds of relatedness and thereby to new kinds of ethics” (180). As McLachlin notes, I am committed to the idea that love, for all its “injustices,” might still be transformative (Dave 2016).

I think similarly about pahari stereotypes about human and nonhuman animals from the plains: they are unjust, uninnocent, but also fractured, and open to contestation. Marios Falaris opens his perceptive essay on intimacy as object and method with one of my favorite moments from fieldwork, the day I learned about Bubu’s secret soft spot for one of the outsider monkeys that he spent most of his days railing about. Despite the fact that the group of plains monkeys who had descended on Bubu’s orchard had destroyed his livelihood, his everyday encounters with individual monkeys created the possibility for mutuality, understanding, and affection even in the midst of hostility and suspicion. My friend Mamta’s deep affection for her Jersey cow Chanduli, and the grief and shame she felt upon selling her to a man she suspected was taking her to slaughter, flew in the face of exhortations by cow-protectionists to reject “foreign” cows as unworthy of love and respect. Further, as McLachlin notes, situated histories of relatedness with specific animals were often invoked to challenge structures of caste and gender oppression within pahari communities. For instance, women often used bhalu ki baat (bear talk) to challenge Brahminical patriarchy, asserting their status as unapologetic sexual subjects in search of pleasure. Similarly, pahari Dalits would sometimes employ discourses about the differences between Jersey and pahari cows to mount powerful critiques of caste oppression by their fellow villagers. In practice, seemingly pure categories of belonging—human/nonhuman, pahari/desi, insider/outsider—were interlocking, contingent, and enacted both unexpected closures and openings.

All four commentaries perceptively observe that such openings and ambivalences in the midst of what often seem like unyielding situations reveal themselves through ethnographic attention to the intimacies of everyday life (cf. Das 2006). As Falaris notes, this means that interspecies intimacy is not just the subject of my ethnography, but also my method. To better apprehend the affective intimacies between specific humans and animals, he argues, ethnographers must themselves be caught up in these “affective swirls.” This entails a “politically situated approach” in which the ethnographer is attentive to how seemingly abstract and undifferentiated discourses and practices of “exploitation, hierarchy and displacement are reworked in everyday life through engagement with concrete others.” Falaris astutely recognizes that my commitment to the everyday is at the heart of my commitment to definitional openness and contingency. For me, to situate oneself in the politics of the everyday and the ordinary is to give up on the desire to impose purity and order on what Martin Manalansan (2015) calls a messy itinerary. It is to hold out hope that the many alternate ethico-political futures that present themselves, however fleetingly, in the course of ordinary relationships between situated individuals might hold out the possibility of other, more just ways of being in messy, ambiguous relation to one another.


Das, Veena. 2006. Life and Worlds: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dave, Naisargi N. 2016. “Love and Other Injustices: On Indifference to Difference.” Humanities Futures, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University.

Jeffery, Laura, and Matei Candea. 2006. “The Politics of Victimhood.” History and Anthropology 17, no. 4: 287–96.

Manalansan, Martin. 2015. "The Messy Itineraries of Queerness." Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, July 21.

Thapar, Romila. 2019. “They Peddle Myths and Call It History.” New York Times, May 17.