ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Land, law, and capitalist subjecthood in colonial Naga Hills


Medhi Abhilash - Mount Holyoke College, History, South Hadley, United States


25 – Thinking with markets: Practices and codes of engagement in South Asian economic milieus


 Histories of colonial capitalism in South Asia run up against a curious limiting condition in the form of its indigenous borderlands. In the case of the region’s northeastern frontier, revisionist scholarship has often challenged colonial depictions of a purported incompatibility between indigenous social life and capitalist exchange, only to then read local responses to the colonial project in narratives of resistance or evasion. This paper outlines a different understanding of indigenous encounters with colonial capitalism in northeast India. It examines tour diaries and case records to trace an arc through contestations over and transactions in land in the colonial Naga Hills. It suggests that as tea fever peaked in the 1870s and European capital spilled beyond British jurisdictional limits in the Barak valley, communities in the adjoining Naga Hills contested their exclusion from the incipient capitalist sphere. They raided tea plantations in a bid to benefit from this economy while remaining autonomous from its broader workings. By the 1910s, members took to colonial courts to assert their claims on land and to defy restrictions on its transfer, buying, and selling. Meanwhile, colonial authorities established proprietary control over land in the area through a dubious reinvention of customary practices. These changes resulted in the commodification of land, the emergence of a land market circumscribed by custom, and the reorganization of sovereign power among the Nagas.