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In Session: Dilemmas of Belonging: Senses of Situation in Asian Decolonization
1: Tolerance, Propaganda, and Belonging: The Changing Rhetoric of Frontier Governance in Northeast India, 1956-1964
Thursday, March 25, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
London School of Economics, United Kingdom
Each year, as Advisor to the Government of Assam on Tribal Affairs in the early years after India’s Independence, the anthropologist-turned-administrator Verrier Elwin helped produce a calendar featuring images of hill tribes from India’s Northeast highlands. These calendars, which showed cherubic children at play, groups of village huts or natives in traditional dress, were pedagogical tools for teaching dominant communities, including the Bengalis and Assamese of India’s Northeast, the value and beauty of tribal cultures. Elwin’s brief experiment in anthropologically informed frontier governance came to an abrupt end in 1962, following the Chinese invasion of the region. The political and military crisis ensuing forced a dramatic realignment of priorities and policies, and quickly displaced Elwin’s commitment to respect traditional tribal cultural practices. Instead the border was heavily militarized and national integration became the leading priority of frontier governance. The following year, Elwin’s calendar featured images of tribal villagers looking out from the veil of the jungle onto Hindu temples, hydroelectric projects and the Indian Parliament. These images propagandized national integration of tribal borderlands – freshly re-imagining India’s techno-democratic future, while rearticulating the relationship between the nation’s center and its peripheries. Instead of viewing these changes as a singular historical rupture, this paper – through examination of images, historical documents and anthropological writing – locates these changes within a broader history, in which the Himalayan borderlands served as a constant zone of negotiation, where the contradictions and possibilities of community and belonging have been continually reconstituted over the last 200 years.