ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Skulls, Savages and Friendly Headhunters: mimesis and wartime contingencies in the archive and memories of global war


Kakati Aditya Kiran - Leiden University, IIAS, Leiden, Netherlands


44 – New archival traces of the Second World War in the India-Myanmar-Bangladesh borderland


 Using new archival sources, I unpack the underlying politics of colonial knowledge in negotiating support of the “hill tribes” in the China, Burma and India borders during the Second World War (WWII). I use accounts of an American military-diplomatic delegation’s plane crash in jungle territories, assumed to be populated by “wild”, “unadministered” and “headhunting” Naga  tribes to re-visit representational politics. These accounts deploy civilization tropes and racial hierarchies, while posturing relations with natives in term of “friendship”, often common in colonial writing and the vocabulary of state-making. The exaggerated representational dynamics of American encounters with unadministered Nagas (whose status as British subjects and wartime allies was considered tenuous), replicated, and departed from standard representations. I argue that these tendencies uniquely revealed wartime exigencies of colonial power and greater agency of local people which were otherwise obscured by mimetic techniques of producing colonial knowledge and war memories. The article contributes to the growing literature that examines the inner workings of state-society relations during a global war, and complicates the memoryscapes and epistemes shaped by global war and colonialism. These epistemes have produced and sustained ideological genealogies that justified violence connected to Naga nationalism after Indian decolonization and its brutal suppression through counterinsurgency.