“The Plant that is not One”

By Swarnima KritionJul. 08, 2020in Perspectives

The last five years of Chinhari’s work has carried the undercurrent of ‘becoming’ democratic (what however is democracy?). This practice has made us realize ‘being democratic’ is not a given condition or a given subject-position one can achieve and live with. It is rather a struggle in every process of decision-making, one has to constantly work towards be-ing democratic. The moment we accept ‘democracy’ as a granted achievement or stage and stop working towards it, we may lose it. Derrida’s “democracy to come” perhaps gives us a lead in this direction. The phrase “democracy to come” does not aim to cover Derrida in the clothes of an astrologer. Derrida’s phrase has no prophesy encoded in it, no ‘determinate’ future or future form of democracy (Patton; 2006). However, it does hint towards a kind of action, and, action in thought. The ‘to come’ here, is infinite, a future that may never be actualised. The present none the less carries the ability to invent/craft/sculpt the future. Is ‘democracy to come’ then an invitation to rethink the so-called democracies in the world? Perhaps. Derrida too, urges us to consider democracy as work, as praxis; democracy is not self-made, but made by how we practice it in the everyday.

The argument above leaves behind a bigger question; i.e. what form of democracy should we start working towards. Democracy is, in its conventional sense, “both a method to arrive at collective decisions and a set of values and behavior with which people approach decision making” (Srinivasan 2008); where, however, both the nature of the collective as well as the process and method of decision-making could be put to question. Dutta (2015) identifies six modes of being democratic in India: a) the liberal version tied to Raja Ram Mohan Roy making claims of freedom on the state, b) the idea of swaraj (self-rule and rule over self) promoted by Gandhi to establish decentralised systems of governance, c) the Nehruvian legacy representing a mixture of liberal democracy and state-led development, d) the nationalist communitarianism of Savarkar based on Hindu majoritarianism, e) Ambedkar’s articulation that India’s democracy is burdened and fractured at the grassroots by inner contradictions and fundamental inequalities of caste, f) and lastly, Tagore’s idea of nurturing atmashakti (roughly translated as the ‘inner strength of the self’ or the ‘strength of an inner self’). Does Chinhari need to think of a seventh strand i.e. democracy among the always already democratic adivasis. Our stand may be found very close to that of ‘radical ecological democracy’ (Kothari, 2014).

Chinhari works in a (Gond adivasi) context that carries an a priori sense of democratic ways of being and life.The Gond samaj has nurtured, albeit with exceptions, the value of a relational self, and of inter-dependence. The young women (and men) in Mardapoti and Dokal (the two villages Chinhari works with intensively) have been nurtured in the Gond philosophy of interdependence. Chinhari made an effort to critically conserve the essence of this interdependent collectivity in Gond spaces and to bring to dialogue what Spivak designates rights-based and responsibility/care-based cultures and practices. Chinhari perhaps tried to make a shift from focus on rule (kratos) in the development sector practices to sustained deliberations (demos) among the young, on questions of women’s experience, on the sexual division of labor, on marriage, on “seed sovereignty”, on (post-capitalist) agricultural futures etc. Chinhari was thus in search of a non-violent relationship among gendered subjects within the group as also with the Other and the world outside.

In Chinhari’s praxis of democracy, incomplete albeit, Marder’s work on “vegetal democracy” looks to be a philosophical milestone; as it shows how even a secret form of monarchy could continue to function under the robe/garb of democracy (2013). Marder’s work could be an inspiration for Chinhari’s praxis; because Chinhari’s notion of (cosmic) democracy is also born out of a complex understanding of ecological diversity, and is respectful of plurality. Ecology has a foundational role in the lives of adivasis and ‘vegetal democracy’ gifts us (the ‘human’-kind) a platform to reflexively look at our Self, as one among multiple, as part of an interdependent cosmos. It makes one think; what if, human beings are not the most relevant indicator of life on the planet; what if, there is something more relevant than human beings; what if, the importance of life was not just in reason and human intelligence but in the (hitherto unknown) logic of plant worlds and plant growth?

Marder (2013) argues “the plant is not one”. A deconstructive reading of this statement may take us to the multiple in the plant. First, ‘the plant is not one’ because parts of the plant are like miniature plants within an infinitely divisible plant. The plant is not only a whole but at the same time an assemblage of several parts that are self-dependent as also can live on their own without assistance from the whole as in case of stem grafting, root grafting, natural or man-lead ways of seed sowing etc. Two, ‘the one plant is not of one kind’ i.e. each plant differs from the other even if they belong to the same species marking variability on the basis of growth, adaptability etc. Three, the plant may not necessarily have only an external body, the plant as a living and growing ‘organism’ may have a “soul” too (Marder, 2013: 116). In adivasi worlds plants (not just animals) are a totem for several clans; these totems are not only a symbol that represent their ancestry but are also their saviours. How do the adivasis believe plants could save them? The Greek word for plant was phuton meaning ‘growing things’ or creatures and were conceptually understood as phusis i.e. ‘totality of growth’ before the Latin immobilization and the dilution of its senses took place. This made plants turn into an entity “which is enchained to a place,” “that which is driven into the ground,” the planted, plantare (Marder, 2013: 116). In the Greek era plants were part of a large group of things that could grow, move [for Aristotle, growth was the quantitative principle of movement, arkhēn kinēseōs, inherent in natural things (Marder, 2013: 118)] and sense; it included animal and human beings. The group takes this name because plants have pre-existed all creatures and survived most dead-ends of life on Earth. On this pre-text, plants in adivasi spaces may have been looked at as soulful living and growing organism that had the intelligence and morale to protect their clans, also suggesting, as if plants had ‘memory’ (Trewavas, 2003). Finally, ‘the plant is not one’ also because vegetal democracy underlies relations other than the conscious and transparent ones; these relations may refer to unconscious and/or spiritual relations.

This picture of Kupar Lingo offers a peak into the Gond life-world (as also worldview) that seems to suggest the co-habitation of gods, humans, animals and plants. The picture was painted on the walls, of Bada Deo’s (the divine form in Gond life-worlds) temple in a small Gond village Dokal, Chhattisgarh. As Kupar Lingo sits at an elevation the picture and its philosophy may be suggestive of an anthropo-centric viewpoint that merely registers and respects existence of other kinds of organisms. The painting could also present a sense of inter-species harmony. The philosophy of Gonds is perhaps changing with time. They seem to have moved from the theory of plants as totems (their saviours) i.e. plants as above human beings or plants and animals as powerful, to a perspective where humans are at the centre of the ecological setting. Does this change in perspective also indicate a change in the meaning and practice of democracy? This is of course not to reject that adivasis continue to register and respect the existence of non-human organisms; but …

Vegetal democracy offers perhaps to Chinhari a new (ecological) perspective as to how to become democratic. The plant world is multiple and is functioning without One principle or One Order of Things. Marder suggests ‘plants grow without reason’. This is not to say plant does not have any reason for growth but that, it has several complex intertwined reasons because of its existence in a cosmic ‘pluriverse’ (Kothari et all, 2019) that encapsulated all growing and non-growing organic and inorganic beings. When motivated by this non-One ontology of plants, the nature of participation in the social and the political are destined to change. There is a call for a shift from “democratized monarchy” to “anarchic democracy” in Marder. Novalis (1997) blurs the boundaries between monarchy and democracy, tracing in the latter political regime the same sovereign head, albeit “a head made up of many minds” (Mander, 2013: 122). Democracy from the perspective of Novalis, was “an image-concept of multiplicity gathered into the One, the hydra of democracy remains tethered to a principle, an arkhē, a single head split into many minds, … majestic in its highest authority” (Marder, 2013: 122). However, Marder makes another radical move and suggests, “what this image-concept ignores is precisely the headless, acephalic, unprincipled, an-archic vegetal democracy (for, whenever one comes across the acephalon, one already treads on the ground of the phuton), more monstrous than Novalis’s allusion to the democratic hydra because, in it, in acephalic and anonymous growth, we fail to recognize ourselves altogether.

And, failing to recognize ourselves, we mime the plant that is not one” (Marder, 2013: 122). It seems the adivasi today is lost between Novalis’s multiplicity gathered into one and the headless, acephalic, unprincipled, an-archic monster. Novalis’s imagination reminds me of the image of Hobbes’ Leviathan (figure 2). The sovereign created by the consensus of most. On the other hand, Marder’s imagery of vegetal democracy takes me to the figure of Ravana (Figure 3); Ravana who is multiple in an originary sense. Ravana who is believed to be an adivasi in Gond worlds; Ravana who is considered to be the ancestor of Mandavi Gonds (a clan among Gonds). He symbolises the multiple in the adivasi life-world and is marked by perhaps the understanding of the cosmic pluriverse. Ravana who is not One; Ravana who has no Head, because he has multiple heads; Ravana who is anarchic, perhaps more monstrous and more ‘savage’ than Hobbes’ Leviathan. Although this time Ravana’s monstrous image is not seen as evil. It is not the remains of a brutally violated (indigenous) population that must be remembered to be demonized every year. Every year the ceremony of burning the effigy of Ravana (the Mandavi ancestor) has left burn marks on the past and the present of the adivasis. Chinhari, hopes to follow Mander’s directions and take this turn to ecology, to vegetal democracy such that it revives parts of adivasi democracy and becomes a Ravan like headless acephalic vegetal democracy, that is necessarily more monstrous than Novalis’s allusion to the democratic hydra. This is a different rendition of monstrosity – monstrosity not reduced to the Evil (see Deleuze on Monstrosity; even the King in Tagore’s Red Oleander was monstrous).

[I would urge the readers to think where does the question of democracy stand in these difficult times; in times of Covid-19? Who is a part of the ‘decision’ (even representatively)? Is the decision actually representing the poor in the country? Did the decision represent the migrant workers mostly from rural India who were made to believe since 1950s that industrialization and a shift to city life (i.e. largely slum-life and road-side corners for the urban poor) is the path to India’s development? Sixteen migrant workers who had once taken the responsibility of carrying India’s glory on their shoulders were run over by a goods train on the railway tracks on 8th May 2020. These sixteen migrant workers have as if become a symbol of the fate of they who migrate in India. The crisis perhaps raises a question about the nature of democracy followed in the country; followed by us at every event of decision making. We can look at the making of every decision as a space for all, as a space for the mutiple or the not-One – as a space for adivasi, Dalit, women, children, poor, etc. too]

This post would not have been possible without Praveena Mahla. She drew my attention to “Vegetal Democracy” and the plant that is not One. She made me, and by default, Chinhari rethink its steps. This post would also not have been possible without insights from the discussion group Praveena runs with Saurabh Chowdhury, Imran Amin and Anup Dhar.

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First published on Chinhari website

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