Carnegie Mellon University

Contesting ‘Green Imperialism’: Rights and Ecology in South Asian Literature

Author: Pavithra Tantrigoda

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2018

In the last decade, the field of postcolonial ecocriticism has offered important insights into how ecological transformations are intertwined with histories, narratives, and the material practices of colonialism and globalization. This dissertation contributes to critical conversations on how the history of imperialism is pivotal to understanding contemporary environmental trajectories in South Asia. It is the first sustained interdisciplinary inquiry that brings together law, literature and postcolonial ecocriticism to gain a multifaceted understanding of the co-constitution of legal, cultural, political and ecological formations in South Asia.

This dissertation examines the onto-epistemic effects of imperial environmental legislation on environmental cultures in South Asia from the 16 th century to the present. It focuses on the establishment and diffusion of legal norms, particularly, the discourses on human rights, and its impact in shaping ecological thinking and practices in India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Further, it inquires into the epistemic violence that the ecological formations of the colonized were subjected to under colonial laws, as well as the novel configurations of ecological thinking and practices that emerged with the imposition of instrumental ways of thinking about nature. This study draws on a diverse range of historical and theoretical essays, philosophical writings, legal texts and South Asian novels to delineate legal, material and cultural contexts within which such ideas and practices emerged.

Focusing on contemporary South Asia, this study underscores the ways in which the originary, founding violence of Western law and rights has persisted in postcolonial settings, acquiring new implications. South Asian novelists—Amitav Ghosh, Romesh Gunesekara, A. Sivanandan, Minoli Salgado, and Uzma Khan—depict how ecological destruction and the dispossession of marginal groups have become interconnected issues within the contexts of war, militarization, natural disasters and neoliberal development. As an aesthetic response to the anthropocentrism in law, these writers suggest an ethic of living and being that eschews the hierarchical frameworks for thinking about man/nature relations, developing a deep ecological perspective.