Political powers, empires, kingdoms, nation-states, and other governance systems have repeatedly sought legitimacy through their interactions with nature. Preservation, conservation, transformation, or exploitation of nature exhibit different methods of interacting with the natural world. Yet, the common thread connecting them is that they all assume that those engaged in these actions have some control over nature. Nature is seen as wild, uncontrollable, and something that has existed even before the human species' birth. Therefore, any small way nature has been subdued, transformed, or preserved can be considered god-like. Moreover, every meagre way in which power over nature is exerted is simultaneously a declaration of the superiority of the human species as it is doing something that no other species has ever done and that those humans who are controlling nature are also capable of controlling other humans in the best way possible. There is no doubt that it is possible to co-exist with nature and use natural resources without it being a relationship of dominance. Yet, in the consolidation of political power, interactions with nature play a major role in providing legitimacy.
The nation-state, unlike the natural world, is a relatively modern conception. Unlike in empires, kingdoms, or feudal societies, those who rule cannot rely on a divine or historical right to exist. Ironically, they seek the same historical value while being modern creations by associating with nature to gain legitimacy. Preservation of nature as heritage in India after independence is an example of this historical association with nature through which legitimacy as a nation amongst its citizen was sought. The failure of democracy within and outside India has been predicted multiple times at various junctures in its recent history. To convince Indians that as a newly independent nation, they are capable of ruling themselves, there was a reliance on ecological patriotism. Preserving nature in its pristine form during the Indira Gandhi years emphasised wildlife protection and the forest bills became a priority (Rangarajan, 20). There was an attempt through these measures to create an association with the historical ability to survive through the survival of these spaces of supposedly pure nature and wildlife. If the Indian people and their habitats have been able to survive for so many years, they will be able to survive in the future. Their natural heritage became a symbol of this survival both in the past and the foreseeable future, giving legitimacy to this newly established state. This government also rejected the historical claims of power now by delegitimising the control over nature that shikar companies, hoarders and traders, ex-princes, and large landholders had. The use of nature as heritage served to legitimise the new state. By making pre-existing natural spaces the states or rather the new India’s, the country gained legitimacy as an independent nation.
American nationalists also used nature to gain legitimacy by creating a common bond amongst their citizens. Unlike European nations, America didn’t have historical monuments to rely on to create a feeling of love for the nation that bound its people together. France, England, and other European nations had their illustrious past to instil pride and anchor national identity. However, American settler nationalism didn’t have historical monuments dating back a thousand years or a history of strong ties to the land. The natural landscape in the country took the place of these symbols to establish legitimacy for the nation (Rangarajan,22). The Grand Canyon is one such example of transforming a natural feature into a symbol establishing that the American nation deserved to exist. It allowed the people to claim that this land was suited for civilisation and was also on par with the nations in Europe. While they had man-made creations to take pride in, here was a naturally occurring phenomenon signifying that this land was meant for greatness. It rooted the American settlers in this new land, created common symbols to bind them together, putting them on par with other countries in the world.
However, nature is not only used in countries to legitimize its existence but also for governments to communicate to the people their own capabilities and world views. Dams and the implicit control over nature became a means to communicate the power of the newly established state and the fact that the state cared about the concerns of its people. In Soviet Russia, dams not only created electricity and aided industrialization but also legitimized Communism as they were symbols of communist control over nature.
Kathleen Morrison shows how dams became symbolic even in India. Nehru is reputed to have seen them as the temples of modern India. At the time, India was a newly democratic nation that needed faith in its leadership. The dams were entrenched in a familiar historical association. They also represented a new, diverse India with a future based on science and industrialization. The control and transformation of nature through dams communicated the presence, politics and policies of the government. This symbol of state power and successful governance still has currency today as governments seem to invest in dams and reservoirs even without clear monetary outcomes. The control over nature within nation-states allowed them to legitimize governments' existence within a nation-state as well the systems and ideologies they wanted to espouse.
Nature played a crucial role in legitimizing nation-states by tying them to a sense of history while also allowing them to become symbols of the future. It bound citizens together. It provided them shared symbols and became a medium through which they could identify with each other as well as with the state. However, this forces one to ask whose nation it is legitimizing.
We have seen cases when nature is co-opted by elites within nations, such as the state. As the claims over nature become more contested, the battles over nature can play a role in defining the nation. The protest against the Forest Rights Act in 2006 which prevented Dalits and Adivasis from making claims on the forest is one such dual contest over nature that underlined relations within the nation. The cries of the protestors, 'Jo jangal sarkari hai, woh jangal hamara hai!' (The government's forest is ours) and ‘Van vibhag jangal chhodo!’ (Leave the jungle, Forest Department!) highlight the state's contested relationship and the oppressed through their access to nature (Vaidya,4 ). Nature, therefore, is not merely a symbol. Defining actual claims that people have over nature legitimizes the quest for a nation and the kind of nation that it becomes. These complex forms of engaging with nature within nation-states set them apart from previous forms of governance as these are debates that one can enter in a democracy. While dominant groups, elites, and ancient hierarchies continue to dictate and speak for nature, the modern nation-state gives greater access to the previously voiceless to come forward and speak for themselves and nature. Nature emerges as a symbol of the power and control of the dominant and as a way to shape and reshape power relations within the nation.
Nations are constantly evolving. They are spaces for defining and redefining themselves as well as the relations between the people within them. In this transforming landscape, nature legitimizes the nation but also to certain groups within the nation. With dwindling resources and more people staking their claim onto it, only time will tell the kind of nations it legitimizes.
Sanjana Sarsam is a Political Science student at Ashoka University.