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Meghalaya: Abode of Unruly Politics

Unruly Hills: Nature and Nation in India's Northeast by Bengt G Karlsson (New Delhi: Social Science Press and Orient Blackswan), 2011; pp 336, Rs 695






uncomfortable questions – where does

Meghalaya: Abode of Unruly Politics

one locate the acquisition and privatisation of resources by traditional elites among hill communities in societies where Sanghamitra Misra community ownership was meant to nec

engt Karlsson’s well-researched ethno graphy focuses on the appropriation of nature in Meghalaya, primarily in the more recent times of global capitalism, and constructs a steady narrative of transformation in the local environment of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, of the visible deforestation of previously verdant forests, the exploitation of rich local resources including minerals and water and the accompanying shifts in contemporary environment politics.

This is a product primarily of rich ethno graphic research and hence it is only appropriate that the voice and methods of a social anthropologist frame the book: interviews with members of local communities, scholars and activists combined with the author’s observations from long periods of fieldwork in the region and buttressed further by archival sources and political documents. Karlsson’s work and method is particularly relevant when we move to societies where historians have traditionally been less able to locate their narratives in oral cultures, making little use of the oral research undertaken by scholars of other disciplines, particularly anthropology.

Ethnographer’s Dilemma

In parts of Asia, as in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, in researching highland societies

Economic & Political Weekly

february 4, 2012

Unruly Hills: Nature and Nation in India’s Northeast by Bengt G Karlsson (New Delhi: Social Science Press and Orient Blackswan), 2011; pp 336, Rs 695.

that are at a distance from the centres of

regional and global power, mainstream

historians have been visibly less inclined

than their colleagues from neighbouring

disciplines to “climb the hills”. And the

difficult physical terrain in which these

societies tend to be located offer only a

partial explanation for the lack of suffi

cient histories of these regions. An expla

nation perhaps lies in the rather daunting

multitude of their speech practices and

(often unpreserved) scripts, but also in

their location on the margins of erstwhile

imperial empires as well as of contempo

rary nation states, and their refusal of

and resistance to the state and the market

(economic choice as political strategy),

all of it amounting to a powerful rejection

of a schematic presentation of history

from the primitive to the modern and

simultaneously accounting for their exist

ence being ever so marginally acknow

ledged in intellectual universes and

academic realms.

In Unruly Hills, Karlsson combines long periods of fieldwork with the benefits of documented archival research to produce an ethnography that raises many

vol xlviI no 5

essarily translate into a protection of natural resources? Can these important shifts in economy and society offer any credible explanation for the violent politics of identity in north-eastern India? Can they provide convincing answers for some?

While a key objective of Unruly Hills is to look into the conflict over the ownership and extraction of resources for markets outside the state, many of the chapters are written as strong unambiguous indictments of the neo-liberal policies of the Indian state, its exploitative extraction of the rich forest and mineral (coal, limestone, uranium, bauxite) resources of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and their decisive impact on local society, rupturing ties of community and kinship and introducing new forms of social conflicts that have their origins in the recent processes of privatisation and commodification of land. In its ability to sustain this argument quite persuasively throughout the period of its study (1970s until the present) as it proceeds to make significant connections between people’s movements against the state and the market, and the loss of the rights of indigenous people in forests and lands, lies the credibility of this work. And it does not hesitate to make these connections emphatically, as in the following


analysis of violence and forest resources (p 291): is not primarily an environmental condition that generates violence, but rather a political predicament of marginalised people in resource-rich peripheries who are under pressure from outside interests that seek to exploit their land and resources. This is a situation faced by indigenous peoples around the world. That such pressure can cause resentment and frustration among these people which in certain situations can translate into armed resistance, can hardly come as a surprise (p 293).

Notion of ‘Indigenous’ in the North-East

This is by no means an isolated paragraph in the book which is all the more commendable because it could be read as a demonstration of the author’s comfortable negotiation and apparent resolution of the ethnographer’s dilemma: the ethical and political consequences of the translation of experience into text. This is evident, for instance, in Karlsson’s reading of the much contested notion of the “indigenous” in north-eastern India. Refusing to homo genise the experience of “being” or “becoming” indigenous, he chooses to argue instead that

in situations where people experience a loss of control of the land or the resource base of the community, we can also assume a profound experience of ontological insecurity… (d)espite some of the troubling aspects of (the) turn to indigeneity – a phenomenon we observe among marginalised people around the world – it nevertheless seems to open a critical space for resistance against State and capital intrusion into the life of the inhabitants of resource-rich global peripheries’ (p 21).

It is then only appropriate that the text does not hesitate to underline the similarity of objectives that bind multinational companies such as Lafarge, an important investor in the limestone resources of the region, the Asian Development Bank, which is its main financier, and the Government of India’s Look East Policy together, indicting all of them in perpetuating an extractive economy in the region that “will, of course, severely undermine local autonomy and perpetuate further environmental degradation”. These reflections of sensitivity in the act of “writing up” the results of individual experience of research assume also a sensitivity to the specificities of histories and cultures within which the ethnographer locates his categories and discourses.

Which is perhaps why the disappointment is greater than when reading a more conventional ethnography of north-eastern India, when the book demonstrates an almost persistent refusal to bring in the contingent and the specific into its reading of local cultures; critical as they are to the issues in political ecology that it seeks to research. In his Introduction, the author “hopes through his strategic ethnographic intersections in combination with archival material and a variety of sources (to) be able to capture the


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Available from

Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd Mumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur Lucknow Patna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact:

february 4, 2012 vol xlviI no 5

Economic & Political Weekly


central dynamic of the historical process with regard to the appropriation of nature”. By consistently refusing to extend his analysis to include an exposition of the historical roots of (such) forms of state appropriation and violence, the author ensures that the book disappointingly falls short of this declared objective. The sketchy reading in the introduction of the very intrusive and violent process that was the British conquest of the hills is combined with an analysis that sets up colonialism as an “encounter”, and an equal one at that, reading with empathy the writings of colonial officials who are presented as pondering on framing less elaborate laws for the inhabitants of the hills.

The first chapter falls short of the rather ambitious canvas it gives itself, that of connecting “nature” and “nation” or “environment” and “politics” in contemporary north-eastern India. An engagement with some key dimensions in the consolidation of the colonial state in the hills – its spatial ideology that sought to reorganise society “rationally” through knowledge and technology and through violent conquest, the flattening of cultural and social spheres as differences were reduced to repetitions – would have been a useful approach here. Instead the text fumbles, in a span of three pages, with a scattering of thoughts of an eclectic mix of philosophers and thinkers on the state and sovereignty: Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, Arjun Appadurai and Achille Mdembe among others.

What appears as ambivalence towards the character of the colonial state in the first chapter takes on the form of an overtly sympathetic reading, both in its prose and analysis, of British policies in the region in the later chapters on land rights and forest use, as in the following paragraph on the conquest of the Garo Hills in the mid-19th century:

The British took charge of the frontier markets on which the Garos depended for their trade. But things did not work out as planned (emphasis mine) and after decades of continued raids in the plains, countered by sporadic punitive expeditions and the closing down of the frontier markets, the British finally found it necessary to take direct possession of the Garo Hills...the last ‘independent Garos’ in the interior areas were pacified and peace was thus secured in the entire Garo Hills (p 139).

The acceptance of the now much contested idea of a restricted colonial presence in the hill areas of north-eastern India in the form of a reluctant “light administration” that is implicit in the quoted paragraph is surprising, to say the least. This is because it ignores much recent work on the history of this region that are explorations in the violent policies of conquest and control of the colonial state, on the politics of raids, road building and village burning, and on the forced reorientation of trading practices in the hills to meet the demands of a colonial capitalist expansion elsewhere in the empire. Karlsson’s refusal to engage with available historical research also affects the picture of the subsequent period that he so carefully constructs as in the discussion on the Land Transfer Act of 1971 (that prohibits the sale of land to non-tribal persons) where the absence of any mention of the predecessors of this Act, as in the Inner Line regulation, makes for an incomplete analysis. Similarly, the chapter titled “Elusive Forests”, which explores debates around forest management and rights, creates a false opposition between a precolonial “romanticised notion” of the relationship between tribal communities and nature “that fails to explain how it came about as most of India was deforested long before the period of British rule”, and the “tremendous impact” (unexplained) that was colonialism, to escape any allusion to the scale and objectives of the imperial project altogether.

Insightful Analysis

To be fair to Karlsson, the text is interspersed with references to a new property regime that followed the British conquest of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and the accompanying shifts in notions of community rights and identity although these remain perfunctory at best or confined to the conclusion of the book. This is not to take away anything from the book’s insightful analysis of indigenous community rights framed around the debate on deforestation (in particular, the Supreme Court imposed timber ban) and the rethinking of popular perceptions of community ownership and management of land resources that it offers. Each chapter in different ways fleshes out the core argument of the book, about the ongoing process of primitive accumulation in the interests of capitalist expansion not just by the state and market, but also by the local elite, rendering thereby the latter’s selfimage as “prudent forest managers” a fictive one. The sections on community forest management that draw upon two distinct case studies – the regeneration of the sacred grove at Mawphlang and the deforestation of Cherrapunji – combine local narratives of the loss of forests with a range of reports, interviews and archival documents to offer a fine analyses of the tension within communities as they negotiate with traditional knowledge, both old and reinvented, of the environment and the relentless process of the capitalist transformation of the hills. The demonstration of the networks of profit maintained by the local elite with their interests in mining, land and forests are the kernel in the book’s exploration of property regimes, and most effectively brought out in the details of the fourth chapter, “Mining Matters”.

Unruly Hills therefore remains an important book for scholars and activists alike, not just because its rich research addresses the paucity of good ethnographies and environmental histories of Meghalaya, but because its concerns are at the heart of political and social movements in northeastern India in recent times.

Sanghamitra Misra (sanghamitramisra@ teaches at the department of history, University of Delhi.

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Economic & Political Weekly

february 4, 2012 vol xlviI no 5

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