Hills of despair and hope
Book>> Unruly hills-nature and nation in India’s Northeast • by Bengt G Karlsson • Orient Blackswan, Social Science Press • Rs 695
At one point in his memoir, A Writer’s People, V S Naipul notes, “All my life I have had to think about ways of looking and how they alter the configurations of the world.” The celebrated writer's method holds true for not only a novel but also an academic work, especially when it is set in a politically volatile and culturally diverse region. Seen this way, Bengt G Karlsson’s Unruly Hills-Nature and Nation in India’s Northeast is an honest attempt to document the land, its people, its economy and socio-cultural textures through the disciplines of ethnography and political ecology.
It begins with the story of the destruction of a sacred grove in Meghalaya, Law Kyntang of Lum Shyllong. The episode sets up the book's aim: tracing changes that have led the worshipers to desecrate their “sacred” icons.
For Karlsson, the origin of much of these changes lies in colonial times. Taking away land-resource control from indigenous forest-based societies by colonial India’s capitalist regime sowed seeds for conflicts in post-colonial times. The colonial and post colonial reorganisation of the region gave rise not only to new political entities but also to insurgency movements. People began seeking recognition of their imagined nationalities and ethnicities. He displays how violent struggles, stemming from various impulses—assertion of ethnic identities, reactions to political marginalisation and nationalistic aspirations—intersected with politics of resource control, use and exploitation.
Karlsson also attempts to document the state of forests of Meghalaya. He dwells a lot on the Supreme Court-imposed timber ban of 1996. But leaves several questions unanswered. What are the types of forest governance and management regimes and which ones have proved successful in conservation? How have forests fared under the direct control of the forest department? Answers to these questions might have improved our insight of Meghalaya’s forests and helped understand its future. Karlsson cautions us against “alarmist environmental discourse”, but leaves us uncertain about his stand vis-à-vis the forest scenario. I, in fact, found the title of the second chapter, “Elusive Forests”, a bit alarmist since the state still has substantial forest cover.
The author is on a sure-footing while dealing with the turmoil that ensued in the state as a result of introduction of private property regime. He shows the colonial and post-colonial state’s endeavour to treat land as private property was fraught with complications as people treated land as a communal resource. Their customary laws had to grapple with the complexities of legal documentation, and Karlsson documents the complexities arising out of multiple structures of parallel and competing legal machineries. Unruly Hills has a few more things going for it. There is a chapter on minining activities in the state and a rich presentation on recent indigenous people’s movements to revive their grassroots governance systems.
But I need to register my disagreements on two counts. Karlsson writes that one of the key reasons for the lack of development in the Northeast is its physical distance from New Delhi. This is a lazy endorsement of a widely held notion that does not account for the federal nature of India’s polity. In the same chapter he mentions that the absence of globally celebrated signposts of development—IT-enabled industries and manufacturing units—is an apt indicator of the region’s economic backwardness compared to the rest of India. This view does not appreciate that both within the Northeast and the rest of India, development has been variable. Northeastern states (except Assam) fare much better than developed states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in the Human Development Index—increasingly accepted as a better indicator of development. These disagreements aside, Unruly Hills is an important academic achievement.
Rajkamal Goswami works with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru