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Swidden Farming among the Yimchunger Nagas

Jelle J P Wouters ( teaches at the Department of Political Science and Sociology, Royal Thimphu College, Royal University of Bhutan, Thimphu, Bhutan.

The Politics of Swidden Farming: Environment and Development in Eastern India by Debojyoti Das, London and New York: Anthem Press, 2018; pp 272, £70 (Hardback).

This book offers a sociopolitical ecology of swidden agriculture (jhum) among the Yimchunger Nagas. Debojyoti Das, the author of this book, throws into focus the dialectic between jhumming as a cultural lifestyle and jhumming as a presumed marker of backwardness in need of amelioration. Jhum cultivation has, indeed, long recei­ved bad press, especially from statist epistemology that sees its practice not only as ecologically damaging and economically unrewarding, but also its practitioners as difficult to control and ­govern. Both colonial and postcolonial governments, this book illustrates, have long sought to dissuade Naga villagers from jhumming and to make them take up settled agriculture, horticulture, and plantation cropping.

While this attempted shift is deemed justified in the name of science and deve­lopment, in actual reality, Das ­posits, it is driven by political expediency. This argument, which is the book’s main proposition, is hardly original, as James Scott (2009) influentially typified swidden agriculture as “escape agriculture,” as its mobility, dispersal, the inaccessible terrain and social fragmentation worked to keep tax-hungry states away. However, showing the precise ways through which eventual state enclosure unfolded, and the role of state-directed agrarian changes in this process, merits historical and ethnographic study in particular settings.

Settling Swidden Farmers

Das explains that his initial research was meant to study a state project aimed to transform swidden agriculture to settled agriculture, namely the Nagaland Empowerment of People through Economic Deve­lopment (NEPED) project. By his own ­admission, Das soon failed to nourish the trust and empathy the project officers first had towards him and his research, and he lost all access to the project (p 199). That opportunity lost, Das now offers us a partly historical, partly ethno­graphic, and partly speculative ­account of the history and politics of jhum cultivation among the Yimchunger tribe in particular, and the Naga in ­general. He does so over eight chapters, ­including an introduction and conclusion. Chapter 2 is a reflection on research methodology and ethics while carrying out fieldwork in the volatile local surroundings, given the protracted IndoNaga conflict and the factional divides internal to the Naga movement for the right to self-determination. Chapters 3 and 4 offer a historical reconstruction of the Nagas’ relation with the state, both colonial and postcolonial, and emphasises how state control was effectuated thr­ough violence, indirect rule, and thr­ough development efforts aimed at settling swidden farmers.

Chapter 5 claims to be ethnographic and offers a few vignettes of agrarian change and land relations in the Yimc­hunger village of Leangkonger (although Das, elsewhere in the book, also confusingly spells it as “Leangkunger” and as “Leangkangru” [p121]). It discusses the social hierarchy and differential land rights that exist between “first” and “second settlers” in the village and shows how, in recent decades, the arrival of state-led development programmes and electoral politics enabled second settlers to contest their traditionally disadvantageous social status and standing in the village. This is an important insight that, in terms of contemporary relevance, transcends the case of the Yimc­hunger. However, for all the claims to be an ethnographic work, we learn little about the village’s inhabitants and their social life. Across the book, sentences such as “the tribe’s members offered ­insights,” “a tribe member was quick to present his views” (p 5), “the elders ­replied,” “a church member smilingly ­remarked” (p 37), or “villagers explai­ned” (p 125), and the general absence, with few exceptions, of Yimchunger names and voices, make the ethnography ­appear generic. It also produces a certain ethnographic anony­mity, and therefore fails to breathe ethnographic life in the hitherto scantily researched Yimchu­nger Naga.

Chapter 6 is arguably the most insi­ght­ful of the book and links the arrival of Baptist Christianity with changing social appropriations of labour, time, ethics, and the body. Chapter 7 presents the data the author collected regarding the NEPED project before its officers pulled the shutter down on him, and shows the kind of gap between policy and practice that one has now learned to expect from any development project.

Missed Opportunity

This book offers some useful historical and ethnographic insights into the dial­ectics of agrarian change among the Naga. It also does so from the vantage point of a community that, both in the colonial and postcolonial eras, did not ­attract the kind of scholarly attention that several other Naga communities ­received. However, it is the many missed opportunities, failures, internal contradictions, and factual and spelling errors that draw the most attention in the book. This starts with the title that ­locates the Naga highlands in “Eastern ­India,” a term that is usually reserved for the east coast of India, near the Bay of Bengal, including the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Odisha. Including the Naga highlands as part of eastern India is quirky at best, and risks the obliteration of North East India as a distinct historical, political, and social space within the Indian dispensation.

I am also rather confident that none of Das’s Yimchunger informants would agree that they reside in “Eastern India.” What they would disagree with even more is to Das classifying them as a “subtribe” (p 5). Not only are the Yimchunger listed as a fully fledged Scheduled Tribe by the Nagaland government, but they also speak and think of themselves as a ­major Naga tribe, and for which they have very good reasons. One further wonders what Yimchunger elders, who generously sha­red their knowledge, experiences, and time with Das, will think of him deno­uncing their narratives as often being “distorted and unconvincing” (p 77). This is not a conclusion worthy of an ­empathic anthropologist, who rather should concern himself with explaining, even theorising, the difference between official accounts that were written down by colonial officers and oral histories, or between what the Yimchunger say they do (or did) and what they actually do (or did).

What afflicts the book are the factual mistakes, internal contradictions, and sweeping claims that go unsubstantiated. Exa­mples are galore, and brevity of space allows me to mention only a handful. Foreign missionaries were expelled from the Naga hills in 1955, not in 1947 (p 71) as Das claims. Nagas were not “outside the colonial remit of registered census subjects” (p 15), but figure, in ­detail, as early as 1891 census. On page 12, Das specifies that ­between 1835 and 1851, the British carried out 10 punitive expeditions in the Naga hills. On page 57, these 10 expeditions, however, become “innumerable punitive expeditions” during the same time. We also note that the majority of archival works that are cited in relation to the historical case of the Yimchunger are not actually about them. What opens, as a result, is a gap between the Yimchunger case, which the author sets out to study, and the more general overview on jhum ­cultivation in the hills we are now ­presented with.

On the whole, archival evidence does not move beyond the occasional quoting of colonial tour diaries. When evidence is not there, Das expects his readers to be convinced by him stating: “local ­administrators in the Naga Hills were describing and making pronouncements on jhum practices in their tour reports” (p 96) or “this contrast [between settled and swidden cultivation] is repeated through the colonial area” (p 99), but so without substantial proof or references. We just have to believe that this is the case. A few pages later, Das, however, confesses that “there is little evidence of any systematic policy leading to the transformation of jhum landscape in the Naga Hills” (p 105). This confession is startling, given that, at the very beginning of the book, Das asserts that “imp­roving [jhum] farming practices was bound up with indirect rule as a distinct process of governance involving forms of knowledge and intervention” (p 2). Now, which one is it?

Then there are the sweeping statements and unfinished arguments. The author asserts that “colonial state intervention” (p 57) can be recounted in four distinct phases: (i) punitive expeditions from the mid-19th century onwards, (ii) anti-slavery expeditions into the unadministered area from the 1920s, (iii) massive militarisation of the Indo–­Burma borderland after 1947 (can this period really be classified as colonial? Or does the author argue that arrival of the independent Indian state in the Naga highlands was a colonial act? He does not say), and (iv) Not specified. (This phase is not specified, although Das seems to allude that this pertains to the current moment of the ceasefire, but which, again, would not obviously qualify as “colonial state intervention”.)

Such unfinished arguments are many. Das argues that British punitive expeditions worked to de-historicise practices of slave-trading and head-taking that “was central to the local economy” (p 56). (No explanation is given why and how this was central to the Naga eco­nomy.) He also asserts that “anthropo­logists were now [post-independence] collaborating in the making of the postcolonial nation state” (p 63). (Is this ­really true? Are there no counter-­currents? If indeed so, why, then, were anthropologists, both Indian and foreign nationals, for many decades, refused ­entry into the Naga highlands?) Another empty, unfinished statement is that local electoral politics is “messy” and that those who resisted “party protocols laid down by political intermediaries faced execution and threats from village henchman” (p 80). (“Henchman” should be written in the plural, as “henchmen,” but that aside, this statement certainly would need some evidence and justifi­cation. Concluding that something is “messy” and leaving it at that is not what we would wish to read a scholarly treatise for.) Equally sweeping is Das’s argument that “Naga nationalism has metamorphosed into ethno-nationalism” (p 201). (What is the difference? How did it metamorphose? This the author appa­rently just wants us to guess.)

Another problem, and a major one at that, is the author’s refusal to engage with the existing scholarship on the ­Nagas. According to Das, the Naga highlands is “a region that rarely figures in Indian studies” (p 4). A more correct way of putting this is that literature on the Nagas rarely figures in this book. If anything, the past two decades witne­ssed a surge in Naga studies and the publication of a large number of books and journal articles by a range of scho­lars that include Arkotong Longkumer, Dolly Kikon, John Thomas, Vibha Joshi, Michael Heneise, Lipokmar Dzüvichü, Andreas Küchle, and Lanusangla Tzüdir, as well as by the “two German anthropologists” who had spent some time in Das’s research village, before his own ­arrival, and who he (without naming them) accuses of being unethical in their research (p 40). Das refused to engage with any of this scholarship, even when it closely resonates with his own focus and arguments.

Equally, if not more, concerning is that this book carries only a handful of references to locally-based Naga scho­lars, writers, and intellectuals, many who have written about themes similar to the work under review here. Their work may not have been published by fancy university presses or appeared in acclaimed international journals, but it is nevertheless widely available, carefully researched, informative and genuine. This refusal to engage with local scho­lars is all the more striking, given Das’s many pages of critical evaluation of ­research ethics and the need to provide emic perspectives and to write Naga agency back into the historical contemporary moment.

The author also greatly struggles with local terms and names. Nagaland’s state capital, for instance, is not “Khomia” (p 8) but “Kohima;” the community living in Phek district is the “Chakhesang,” not the “Chekhesang” (p 8); the local term for village or clan elder/leader is not “gaon burha” (p 13) or “gauh burha” (p 130) but “gaon bura;” “KalyoKengyo” should be “KalyoKengyu” (p 47); the first name of Major Khathing is variously spelled as “Ralengnao” (p 15) and “Ral­engnan” (p 59); “nation worker” (pp 53, 59, 61, 63) should be “national worker;” “Tabu” (p 59) is actually “Tobu;” “Khemyungen” (p 68) should be “Khiamniungan;” “Tynemia” (p 99, 208) should be either “Tenyimia” (in reference to the Angami tribe, and closely related tribes) or “Tenyidie” (in reference to a closely related cluster of languages); “Sangtham” (pp 107, 110) should be “Sangtam;” “Saging Division” (p 109) in Myanmar should be “Sagaing Division,” and the list goes on. Of course, we all make the occasional typo, but the number of spelling inaccuracies in this book is such that they distract greatly.

A particularly telling error is Das chan­ging the subtitle of James Scott’s book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia to “An Anarchist History of Highland South East Asia” (p 11). While this changing of “uplands” to “highlands” may seem innocuous, especially in comparison to the many other shortcomings of this book, it nevertheless appears as blatant, given that James Scott himself praised Das’s book in a blurb on the back cover, making one wonder whether Scott actually had sufficient time to read it cover to cover (in which case he would have surely noticed the mistake). It is a mistake that is emblematic of the sense of scholarly carelessness that runs through the pages of this book.


Scott, James (2009): The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, London: Yale University Press.


Updated On : 28th May, 2020


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