Nagaland’s hills are home to two vibrant and competing cultures
Nagaland is a hill state in Northeast India. It attracts a multitude of tourists and visitors to the annual Hornbill Festival, the most important state festival, and the mountains comes alive with its vibrant colours, textiles, dances and cuisines. So crucial is the display of Naga culture that the state Department of Tourism has officially declared Nagaland the ‘Land of Festivals’.
However, this cultural representation hides another vibrant reality in the state—an economy based on coal mining and hydrocarbon speculation that dominates Naga politics and highlights the ongoing economic transformation occurring on the frontiers of Northeast India.
While the state sponsors and organises ethnic festivals like the Hornbill Festival, it is the network of rich landowners, armed groups and tribal entrepreneurs that runs the profit-driven extractive economy and controls the coal trade.
This extractive economic activity in Nagaland is founded on a provision of India’s constitution, Article 371(A), which guarantees special rights and protection for Naga people living in Nagaland in relation to the ownership of land and its resources.
From 2006 till 2011, while doing fieldwork in the coal-producing villages of Nagaland’s foothills, I noticed how the beginning of the annual coal mining season—from November onwards, when villagers are allowed to mine coal from their own lands under Nagaland’s own coal policy—ushers in a spirit of excitement and festivity, similar to the celebration of Naga culture in the ethnic festivals across the state. Both locations—the dance and culture amphitheatre at the Hornbill Festival, the biggest stage for Naga culture, and the coal mines in the Naga villages—underline the powerful ways in which authority, power and everyday life in the frontiers of Northeast India unfolds.
These cultural and economic activities take place against the backdrop of one of the longest insurgency movements in South Asia. Since the signing of a ceasefire agreement between some of the armed Naga groups and the Indian government in 1997, there has been a significant rise in extractive activities in Nagaland—and in contestation over who represents the Naga people.
Politics of representation
Three Naga groups feature significantly in this politics of representation—the armed groups who claim Nagaland for a sovereign homeland, the state government, and the landowners who control the coal mines and land.
At the heart of the debate over representation lies a unique story of the aspirations of tribal and indigenous peoples and their fantasies about hydrocarbon, and the scramble for land.
The struggle between Naga groups—some armed (various factions of the Naga insurgents), others elected (representatives of the Naga tribal councils, student bodies, cultural associations and the state legislative assembly)—for the right to represent the Naga past and their future is most intensely articulated in the scramble to control resources in the coalmining villages, where plans to explore for oil and natural gas are being mapped out.
The scale of coal mining has rapidly swallowed cultivable lands, choked natural springs and killed aquatic life around the coal mining villages
The story of coal cultures and resource aspirations is important, because it informs us about the creation of a tribal elite group which directly profits from the coal trade, has the capital to amass large tracts of prospective sites for oil exploration, and disregards environmental and community rights. The struggle over resource extraction in frontier regions like Northeast India and elsewhere highlights the complexities and fissures within tribal communities, including the power nexus between various state and non-state actors. It also raises questions about collective justice and equity.
Among all the natural resources in the foothills, oil and coal are perceived by the Naga villages as the symbols of power that could radically transform their lives. These carbon aspirations and fantasies are starkly visible in areas explored for oil by the state-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) between 1973 and 1993. It was apparent from my fieldwork that the conversations among Naga villages about a carbon future—particularly in oil and coal—originated from the hydrocarbon activities in the foothills bordering Assam and Nagaland.
The desire of the villages to participate in this carbon future continues, fuelled by the ongoing ceasefire negotiations between armed Naga groups and the Indian government, and the preservation of constitutional safeguards for Naga land and resources. Taking advantage of these autonomous rights, Naga tribal elites continue to buy vast plots of lands across coal mining sites and in villages with oil wells abandoned by ONGC after Naga cultural and political associations banned exploration in 1993.
Although it remains unclear how the Nagaland government and the villages will eventually resolve the contentious issue of who rightfully owns the land, the fantasies and desire for oil and coal indicate an important development: the scale of coal mining has rapidly swallowed cultivable lands, choked natural springs and killed aquatic life around the coal mining villages.
The passion, nightmares and fantasies about Nagaland’s coal mines raise questions about the everyday experiences and dreams of people living in violent places—and about the extraction of and access to resources, and profit.
What is evident is that coal mining and the prospects for a carbon future in Nagaland are rapidly transforming social relations among neighbours, kin and the state.
Coal mining activity in a Naga village. Photo by the author.