Extractive stories and
theories in Northeast
NORTHEAST India is a region rich in resources. Experts arrive here to extract information, data, and mine for minerals from nature. Yet the experiences and lives of people on the ground are often removed from the analysis. Just like in the past, present and future careers and experts emerge by mining data from the region. However, researchers fail to recognize the communities and their relations with the land as acceptable forms of knowledge. Stories that are integral for indigenous lives are regarded as empirical fodder. This is all there is to it.
For reviewers, existing scholarship on the region written by tribal scholars either lacks analysis or is devoid of concepts for serious academic readers. They are accused of neither offering central arguments nor theoretical assertions, in addition to failing to engage the audience. Their efforts are, at best, admirable. What good is any scholarship that merely offers a series of observations about lived experiences, which are inconclusive? At best, exhausted reviewers dismiss tribal scholarship as mere stories. Tribal scholars are accused of stringing along stories and descriptions because they lack the analytical sharpness to draw from existing literature. Their scholarship promises but fails to deliver anything that can be considered as analyses. These views are distilled and transcribed from my experiences as a tribal ethnographer working in Northeast India for more than two decades.
The world of
academic scholarship and experts seldom finds it necessary to introspect how
research and the production of knowledge and intellectual authority constitute
a fortified realm of reason founded on hierarchies. Ethnographers take a lot
for granted. One aspect involves the process of listening to stories.
Writing down or recording stories includes transcribing, coding, and
the connections. While concepts of entanglement and assemblage have become attractive to analyse resource frontiers and extractive regimes in the last decade, these are terms one encounters in academic journals. During fieldwork, I doubt if many of us would teach community members who narrate stories about living in extractive zones that their lives are an ‘assemblage’ or ‘entangled’. Imagine doing that! We formalize and categorize their lives into concepts, and then further argue to elaborate the mastery of our training and skills to showcase academic expertise and authority.
In this essay, I draw from oral accounts and
written texts to present the living world of an extractive landscape. Since I
started my fieldwork along the hydrocarbon foothills of Assam and Nagaland in
2007, my interlocutors – farmers, coal miners, traders, and foragers
– shared many stories about living in a land flanked by oil rigs, coal
mines and tea plantations. Over the years, I felt it was significant to
consider their stories and oral accounts in theorizing extractivism. There is
large scale destruction of natural resources in Northeast India. Water sources,
forests, and foraging areas have been devastated in mining areas across the
region. The Baghjan oil spill on 27 May 2020 in
Assam drew attention to toxic crude futures of the region.1 Yet, the exploitative nature of extractive resource regimes such as hydrocarbon and tea in Assam dictate development and livelihood models for Northeast India.
There is a sense of urgency to address the environmental concerns and the consequences of extractivism. As the rush to address and analyse the extractive regimes around us intensifies, the reference to community is inserted merely next to terms like displacement, climate change, and resistance. But their accounts, which are embedded in community practices of storytelling, are set aside. Intellectual and academic pursuits around extractivism are immersed in references to concepts and arguments. As Coast Miwok anthro-pologist Peter Nelson so eloquently noted recently, the production of knowledge in academia has stolen the authority of indigenous people ‘to tell our own story’.2 Thus, in conversation with Nelson’s work, I dwell on stories and assert their significance in creating theories about extractive worlds I encountered in Northeast India.
I learnt about erasure after revisiting my field notes and transcriptions. Irrespective of the life worlds I encountered during my fieldwork between 2009 and 2011 along the foothills of Assam and Nagaland, the stories that I attended to were grounded primarily in human connections. The village elder Uncle Kithan described how his village received different kinds of seeds after the ‘Japan War’, as the Second World War is described in this part of the world. Many elders also recounted similar stories about new seeds that led to a diversity of food crops along the foothills. The main dietary transformation was the inclusion of rice as a staple diet. In Kithan’s account, they ate millet, yam, and roots. Even the corn that grows abundantly in the hills of Nagaland today came from the foothills. Across the extractive landscape of the foothills, stories about new arrivals were common. Their ability to transform the landscape and social relationship was drastic.
While tea plants seem to be associated with plantations, references to routine land conflict between communities and tea estate managements came up in stories. ‘Before we knew it there were tea bushes here. They had travelled up here quietly’, Uncle Patton told me. Within a few years, the upper elevations of his village were populated with tea shrubs. At first it was workers from Assam who came and plucked the tea leaves, and then there were settlements of workers, and a market. ‘It is like the fish and water logic. Wherever there are people, markets follow’, Uncle Patton asserted.
Is it possible to leave out histories because we detach stories as timeless tales which are out of context? My earlier writings about extractive landscapes left out many stories about plants, seeds, and animals. Over the years, they have entered my writings and claimed a spot. Their presence in my recent writings means that I, along with other indigenous scholars, recognize land as a living and nurturing pedagogy.
To attend to extractive projects and accompanying infrastructure on the ground, including the loss of land and lives, means to find innovative ways of writing and creating theories that are grounded.3 Accounts of environmental destruction due to oil rigs and coal mines highlight contamination of various bodies: water, human, animals, and trees. A multitude of villages surround these oil rigs and coal mines in this foothill landscape. I often encountered cows grazing in the abandoned oil fields along the foothills of Nagaland. I also heard stories about fights between Naga and Assamese villages that started due to these cows.
Conflict over boundary, in that sense, pervades the bodies of animals and plants as well. Cast as stories about innocent cows from Assam who accidently enter the jhum fields of Naga villages across the border into Nagaland, these incidents often become contested accounts. The disputing parties attribute qualities and characteristics to the cows, which turn out to be about themselves. Those deemed as good-natured cows by the Assamese villages appear to be something else to the Naga villages who complain that these wayward cows eat up their crops. When cows go missing, according to the Assamese villages, they end up as food in the belly of the Naga people. It was also common to hear stories about cows that returned with injury marks; these were viewed as signs of the barbaric nature of Nagas who attack sacred animals. Cow stories in the foothills represent anxieties and fears, but they also tell us about the extractive landscape. Sprawling tea plantations, oil rigs, and coal depots along the foothills of Assam means there are no grazing land for animals. Therefore, cattle owners bring their cows and leave them close to the Naga jhum fields in the upper elevations of the foothills.
While there are numerous check gates that stop the traffic of people and resources such as coal and timber, the movement of animals, birds, and seeds are naturalized. What connects their lives with the extractive landscape? The answer seemed apparent. All stories of origin in this part of the world consist of animals, plants, and human beings. This includes water bodies of all kinds such as springs, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, and streams. Life and living are made possible on this planet not because human beings appear in the stories. The rules that define value and order centre on recognizing the interdependence of beings.
During my fieldwork across the foothills of Assam and Nagaland, I was concerned about the impact of extractive regimes like oil, coal, tea. Surveillance was heightened at sites surrounding the gas gathering stations and coal mines. In Longtssori village, Atsu, the grandmother of the household where I stayed, talked to her dogs. At sunset, as we watched the darkness fall, she asked the dogs to keep the house safe. She explained that the howl from the dogs meant a warning about the presence of spirits whom she referred to as oyum – a term in the Lotha Naga language that simply means others – while their whimper meant the dogs were frightened, probably of bad spirits.
In Atsu’s account the dogs can sense the difference between the sound of spirits passing by and the footsteps of workers heading to the tea plantation and coal mines. They also know how to differentiate the sounds of trucks carrying pipes and machines to the oilfields and the land excavators heading to the coal mines. Sunset also meant witnessing many more living creatures that returned to the trees and bushes in the tea plantations and oil fields. Combined with the footsteps of people and cattle returning home from the paddy fields and other extractive sites, the sounds of birds returning to their nest and singing grasshoppers and crickets provided a closure for the foothills. The end of another extractive day. The air is filled with compositions, a symphony of the extractive landscape. I believe that good theories emerge from complex puzzles and a persistent engagement with ongoing transformations on the ground.4
Life embraces the foothills. Domestic animals such as cows, goats, and dogs were part of the household. Stories about cattle thieves and pilferers who carry off tea leaves and crude oil were also rife. Social histories about communities and kin relations encompassed the living world. Communication with my interlocutors often included accounts of plants too. In other words, many stories were about land, relations, and community.
Geographical indications for towns and villages were often trees such as tamarind, lemon, or jackfruit. Places were named after trees such as Amguri (mango orchard), Panbari (betel leaf garden), and Simaluguri (bombax ceiba garden). I also came across places named after water bodies such as Namsa (clear water), Tizit (Water place), Bekajan (curved stream), and so on. Stories, therefore, play a significant role in generating theories about extractive landscapes. Adopting the extractive land as pedagogy means focusing not only on destruction around, but how the living beings in related landscapes are able to retain life. Dwelling on stories allows us to understand how the value of life is interdependent and reciprocal.
elders in the foothills, storytelling was part of community pedagogy about land
and its history. In
2009, when P.K. Along from Tizit town in Mon district narrated the story of the coal mines and the land conflicts, he was anxious. The number of security forces along the oil drilling sites, tea plantations, and the coal mines meant all community tribunals to resolve differences were being replaced as ‘official matters’ and handled by police officials and border magistrates. He wondered, ‘Now the issue is with whom shall we take the
oath and narrate our story?’ He explained that the purpose of stories was not
simply to resolve disputes but to remember that community accounts, including boundaries, are never straight-forward.
P.K. Along referred to the Ladoigarh line, named after the Ahom princess Ladoi. It was a fortress wall erected by the Ahom kings in the 17th century along the foothills. He noted that there was a misinterpretation, an error to be precise. The Shah Commission set up to resolve the boundary of the foothills misspelt it as ‘Ladaigar’. To tell stories about land is, according to P.K. Along, to take an oath. To take an oath and narrate a story means to stand up and testify for community and land.
This oath taking ritual to tell stories refers to a foothills practice. Community elders believe that stories contain knowledge of the land and care of neighbours. The moral obligation to remember and narrate stories of land and community was profound. This was an epistemology grounded in oral accounts and community relations. Hence, context matters. The names and narratives about rivers, mountains, and people give us a ‘continuing presence of the past’.5
Addressing what constitutes extractive epistemology, therefore, means examining and paying attention to stories about everyday practices. Stories from extractive landscapes have contexts grounded in experiences, memories, and histories. This means stories can be considered as theoretical anchors of an extractive landscape.6 As explorers and administrators mapped the extractive sites in this frontier region, there were new arrivals. People, plants, and animals also arrived to provide labour, food, and aesthetics. For Julie Cruikshank, the intersection of local knowledge, historical encounters, and oral accounts meant addressing questions such as, ‘What do participants’ narratives tell us about the epistemological consequences of such encounters?’7 Cruikshank’s reference to ‘epistemological consequences’ has been central to notions of indigenous resurgence and pedagogy.
The foothills extractive landscape contains important clues and information about accumulated lives and encounters. Many people brought to serve a colonial extractive regime remained there. They adopted the extractive landscape as home too. Thus, a theory of extractivism requires a framework that embraces the land as a living being where there is accountability for the erasures: plants, seeds, animals, and people. Theories are living ideas. They are continually transforming and communicating with the living world. They ought to be considered as collective interdependent knowledge that is dynamic and accountable. An assertion and claim over theories as exclusive and generated from individual skill and pedagogy valorizes power and hierarchy.
In this sense, our actions of editing and cleaning up stories and observations from the field calls for accountability. As we add or erase meaning and value to different accounts, we are constructing a world with a purpose. All aspects of writing theory are about creating and forming ideas that might allow us to think and engage with the world around us. To offer an analysis and frame theories about extractive worlds means being aware about erasures.
My initial understanding and knowledge about extractive landscapes also demonstrates what is erased or treated as unrelated and meaningless to the analysis at hand. I am constantly unlearning dominant frameworks to recraft a story of the living land and pace with the transformation taking place on the ground.
Thus, connections in the extractive landscape were never straightforward accounts. When I was translating the life story about the tax collector of Namsa haat bazaar, a Konyak man named Taku Wangpho, he described how he grew up in an Ao village. He said that a logger from the Ao tribe came to work in his village and took him away to work as a domestic help. Over the next ten years, as loggers continued coming to his village to cut trees from the forest, he grew up and worked as a cook in an Ao village. ‘Taku is both an Ao and a Konyak name. Only when I die people will call me Taku Wangpho and cry.’ Then he continued, ‘Just like we have two names for people we love, even this place has two names. It is both Tizit and Namsa.’
oral accounts in the foothills meant dealing with trans-
cription and translation simultaneously. From the spoken to the written text, there was always a risk of erasing value and meaning. Stories are intimately immersed in land, language, and community. Taku narrated his story in Nagamese, the language spoken along the foothills of Assam and Nagaland. He then referred to two other Naga languages, Ao and Konyak, to emphasize the meaning of names and affection for places and people in the foothills.
As a Lotha speaker, this meant educating myself about languages, and learning to listen. The name of the place Tizit in Konyak language means a place where water (ti) flows and is abundant (zit). It can also mean a place where there is a water source. In Tai Ahom, Namsa means a place where there is clear (sa) water (nam). Taku is a name of a person in the Ao language, and means bitter. In the Konyak language, there is a similar sounding word Tah kuh, but it means ‘do not steal’, and is not used as a person’s name.8
Many community members like Taku connected their life story with events that transformed the land. It became clear that they were presenting important accounts of biodiversity and connections. Timber, childhood, labour, and belonging. Taku’s account pushes us to recognize how stories are composed of arrivals, departures, and lost time. They are revelations about lost childhoods and forests stripped of trees, and the relentless nature of extractive regimes.
Ashio, Augustine, Kunti, and Yampo were all born in the foothills. I had the opportunity to hear their stories. The events in their lives – growing up, getting married, raising families, losing loved ones – happened in an extractive world. Ashio lost his community land to the expanding tea plantation and spent his life negotiating land conflicts between plantation management and his village. Augustine and his family settled down near a gas gathering station and grew rice. Kunti lived through the trauma of losing her husband, a coal trader who was killed by the Central Industrial Security Force. Yampo lived in anticipation that there was oil beneath her jhum fields which would make her wealthy. The foothill extractive landscape is violent and intense, but there are many who constantly find composure and meaning. All the aspirations about possibilities and hope for a better life come as stories.
Where do ideas and understandings about theories come from? During my fieldwork, the richness of stories and oral narratives conveyed how stories are more than sources about myths and legends. Their meanings and metaphors offer clues about practices, values, and the world. For instance, stories of wealth, love, and friendship along the foothills of Assam and Nagaland came through engagements and encounters with extractive regimes like tea, oil, coal, and the infrastructure on the ground.9 The moments of encounter, however, was much more than the texture or the material composition of oil, tea, or coal. Rather than being fixed on categories such as bodies of communities (culture) and the extractive resources from the land (nature), stories from the foothills informed us about movement and interconnections. They also signalled to stories about arrivals. Accounts of plants, animals, and communities were tied to the extractive landscape. I found their references in the numerous stories that community members shared with me.
Extractive regimes and stories about oil, coal, and tea in Northeast India are layered. Histories of exploration, exploitation, and land conflicts in the foothills are also part of community knowledge. To adopt stories as theory means to move away from adversarial arguments and pay attention to listening, taking oral accounts as part of the living world – places, plants, animals, people – as remarkable features of the landscape.
Along the foothills, events and memories are alive and find their way into stories. During my fieldwork, I seldom hung out with the employees or the people from the oil corporations. These worlds were impossible to access. On rare occasions when I was able to meet professionals from the extractive world, they were weary and refused to engage in any conversations about their work. However, everyone I met in the villages and the weekly haat bazaars were full of news and stories about the hydrocarbon explorations. Even when I walked up the jhum fields in the upper elevations of the foothills, the young women who were working pointed towards the gas gathering station, a fenced and secured compound with Indian security forces and watchtowers. I remember the stories they told me. They were about love, loss, hope, and life.
Storytelling as a framework for theory is neither argumentative nor hubristic. It is a rich form of learning, engaging, and paying attention to clues about the world around us. Stories are not merely forms of expressions but invite us to adopt a critical lens to reflect about local knowledge and relationships. Therefore, adopting stories to frame and build theories is a political project. It means connecting with forms of presenting a world that is deeply layered and extraordinary.
* Dolly Kikon is the author of Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India. University of Washington Press, Seattle 2019 & Yoda Press, Delhi, 2020. Also, Ceasefire City: Militarism, Capitalism, and Urbanism in Dimapur (with Duncan McDuie-Ra). Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2021.
1. Dolly Kikon, ‘Toxic Ecologies: Assam, Oil, and a Crude Future’, The India Forum, 7 August 2020.
2. Peter Nelson, ‘Where Have All the Anthros Gone? The Shift in California Indian Studies from Research “on” to Research “with, for, and by” Indigenous People’, American Anthropologist 123(3), 2021, pp. 469-473.
3. See, Bengt G. Karlsson, Unruly Hills: A Political Ecology of India’s Northeast. Berghahn Press, New York, 2011.
4. See, Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, 2005.
5. See, William Cronon, ‘Storytelling’, The American Historical Review 118(1), February 2013, pp. xxii, 1-19.
6. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, ‘Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3), 2014, pp.1-25.
7. Julie Cruikshank, Do Glaciers Listen? Op cit., 2005, p. 128.
8. I acknowledge the following people who guided me in translating the names of people and places. For the Ao language, Azung James and Dr. Sashipokim Jamir. For the Konyak translations, I am grateful to Rev. Dr. Ellen C. Jamir, Rev. Chingang Konyak, and Atan Konyak. For the Tai Ahom translation, I acknowledge Mrinal Gohain for his guidance.
9. Dolly Kikon, Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2019.