Meghalaya, the resource frontier

Unruly Hills: Nature and Nation in India's Northeast
by Bengt G Karlsson Social Sciences Press and Orient BlackSwan, 2011

It is with a sense of déjà vu that one reviews academic books on the Indian Northeast these days. Publishers, authors, editors and contributors to compendiums are always under pressure to find policy-oriented solutions to problems that embarrass incipient superpowers; oftentimes, this leads to lazy research and even worse suggestions. Thankfully, Unruly Hills does not purport to speak to a policymaking elite, leave alone offer tedious prescriptions for a region that has long been posited as the weak link in India's self-anointed road to regional superpower status. Instead, the book is a refreshing analysis of social change and a highly competent account of the layered underpinnings of contemporary political events in Meghalaya. In Meghalaya, constitutional provisions are supposed to protect the resources of indigenous people, but as the author argues, it is a frontier and 'an unruly place, not yet fully governed or incorporated into the expanding nation-state structures … [(frightening)] but also a place of hope.'

'Northeast India' is an unwieldy category that confounds most people, in an era when the attention span is all too brief. To some international journalists stationed in New Delhi, it could mean a wide swath of land that covers the seven states plus Sikkim, northern West Bengal, even Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh. To a specialised group of policymakers in India, the term refers to the eight states (including Sikkim) that are administered by a specialised cadre of administrative services, departments and ministries. For many homeowners in New Delhi, 'Northeast' is both place and person (sometimes synonymous with Nepal), as it denotes any individual with the epicanthic fold of the eye and who is willing to pay high rents for squalid, slum-like housing. For security analysts, 'Northeast India' is a laboratory for testing the limits of democratic institutions, by continuing to maintain military control as a dubious state-of-exception, within a country celebrated for its periodic elections and multi-party democracy.

However, there is a growing group of academics and intellectuals who understood the Northeast as a landmass with more texture, an area where Tibetan, Burmese/Tai and Indic civilisations have fused at different times and to different degrees. That fusion has created a region fascinating to students of anthropology, sociology, political science, history and folklore, geology and geography, and they in turn have contributed a great deal of academic knowledge to the study of cultural diversity of the region – and have provided a detailed (at times controversial) description of the structures and politics of the small, kin-based communities who live here. It is through this body of work that one can engage with the bewildering diversity of meanings that is attributed to the idea of 'Northeast India', and can challenge the intellectual stranglehold that security-oriented policymakers have had on descriptions (and prescriptions) of this area since 1962. It has taken several decades of painstaking, often uncoordinated work by academics and researchers – the author of this book is fortunate to be part of that group – to revive interest in the Northeast beyond the national-security lens.

Older modes

As Unruly Hills unfolds, Bengt G Karlsson, a Swedish professor of social anthropology who has worked among the Rabha of North Bengal, makes a cogent case for choosing his area (Meghalaya) and methodology (patchwork fieldwork) to discuss a series of thematic concerns – nature and nation, land relations, mining, indigenous politics and political ecology. Ultimately, all of this comes together to offer an intimate biography of Meghalaya. Karlsson critiques a particular kind of development being pushed by a canny set of actors, ranging from international finance institutions to dubious local politicians and the ubiquitous law-enforcing state. His is an honest effort to explain the weight of history and politics on the tiered world of those who live and work in the Northeast, especially in the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills.

Karlsson manages to complicate the easily recognisable corpus of work on the Northeast by subjecting it to contemporary debates on indigenous issues and development being conducted elsewhere in the world. Hence, the formulaic narratives of political history are eschewed in favour of a nuanced reading of history, social formation and resource extraction. Sliding from archival sources to contemporary politics, the author draws parallels between the current resource-use regimes and the first forays of European speculators in the region, when British officials used their colonial offices to secure favourable concessions for limestone quarrying in the Khasi Hills. In doing so, he handles several delicate issues, especially those related to identity and territory, by engaging key interlocutors and commentators on contemporary politics and society in Northeast India, such as Tiplut Nongbri, Julius Marak, A K Nongkynrih, Sanjib Baruah, David R Syiemlieh and Patricia Mukhim.

Karlsson uses his wealth of experience from the field to question, or supplement, positions taken by commentators on the Northeast in general and Meghalaya in particular. Offering the reader an annotated description of the layered and contentious politics of self-determination and conflict in the state, he is able to widen the often-obscure yet shrill debates on insurgency and development. The author is cautiously sympathetic to narratives of autonomy that emanate from the region, but is also critical of the archaic, sometimes destructive political projects, including ethnic violence, that these movements typically engender. Thus, the reader is offered a complex yet coherent picture of the intriguing dynamics of social change.

While there is an existing, polarised debate on the role of traditional institutions in Meghalaya, Unruly Hills presents an altogether more plausible set of explanations as to how such institutions and ideas become tools of resistance for people who have seen only the rapacious side of the modern, developmentalist state. Rather than dismiss such traditional institutions as opportunistic expressions of chauvinism, or romanticise them as remnants of a pristine and noble past, Karlsson questions the causes that have led to emergence of these bodies. Alluding to the failure of the modern state to secure an equitable and just distribution of wealth and resources, traditional institutions appear as attempts at developing alternate principles of association and modes of formation of collectives.

In a particularly rich description of the different layers of administrative and moral authority that oversee land use (and relations) in Meghalaya, Karlsson analyses the meanings ascribed to land by local communities and the manner in which their ascriptions were undervalued in the encounter between them and the colonial-era state. In a section entitled 'Shifting land rights', Karlsson marshals archival data on the encounter between colonial land commissions and Garo peoples, where the former are unable to understand the notion of custodianship of common lands. Instead, British officials sought to reinterpret community custodianship to mean hereditary rights of particular individuals (nokmas), so that they could deal with the nokma as the representative of the people. According to Karlsson, in introducing the notion of land as private property, the colonial encounter was 'the most critical event' in the history of moving away from community-based land tenure.

Resource frontier

Meghalaya is being transformed at a rapid pace, pushed by a combination of external pressure and internal social fissures. Karlsson's ethnographic notes serve to highlight the disconnect between the Government of India's ambitions to become a responsible energy-producing regional power, and its radical reshaping of the landscape by surreptitiously and cynically weakening democratic institutions. In his examples of uranium, limestone and coal mining in Meghalaya, the author shows how external forces (mining companies and lobbies) constantly use local players and legal loopholes to create pro-mining pressure within communities who live around areas where minerals are found. Karlsson therefore manages to present a credible picture of the re-emergence of the 19th-century days of primitive accumulation, where individuals used brute power to create new rules and laws that helped them to secure common resources for their own private use.

It is true that the hills of Meghalaya appear as a 'resource frontier' today, just as they did more than a century ago to the erstwhile British collector of Sylhet who set up extensive monopolies over limestone quarrying in the area. Yet with the transfer of power in 1947 and the accession of the native states (including the Khasi-Jaintia-Garo dominions), one envisaged a more just, accountable system of representation and governance. Instead, as Karlsson points out, the reader is left with a sense of unease at accounts of local resources being bartered away to foreign (La Farge) and domestic corporations (Uranium Corporation of India), who are driven by the impervious logic of profit and 'national good'.

What makes Unruly Hills essential reading is the manner in which Karlsson weaves different threads of his ethnography together to explain how people in the hills of Northeast India, with all their contradictions and compulsions, still appear to unsettle imperial ambitions and crass economic calculations. In doing so, they are sometimes heroic, sometimes craven but always imbued with agency.

~ Sanjay Barbora is a sociologist from Assam who writes on human rights, conflict and travel.

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