Migration, Labour and Violence in Northeast India: An interview with Dr. Dolly Kikon

Saumya Pandey (SP): Shall we start with your research journey? How did you come to write about the lives of migrant workers from Northeast India?

Dolly Kikon (DK): My work that we are speaking about relates to the second book I wrote with Bengt G. Karlsson, Leaving the Land: Indigenous Migration and Affective Labour in India. If I have to contextualise this book, the idea started during the time of my PhD, which became my first monograph, Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India. In many ways the work that we do, the books and articles we write are always connected. That comes with the training as researchers, thinkers, and as people who are engaged with a very diverse and complex country like India. During my PhD research I found out that many young people did not want to get into cultivation and mining. They aspired to leave their home and become migrants. The topic of land and displacement kept coming up. In the extractive landscapes (coal and oil), the story of land is central for the indigenous/Adivasi people in India. After I finished my thesis, I wanted to work on indigenous migration and migration. I am not a migration scholar in the sense that this is not something that had set out to do. I was looking at the political economy of resource extraction and land, that was the source of my research puzzle. Also, I graduated with a law degree and then worked as an activist associated with the civil rights movements including the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights in Northeast India. This meant that I had a very different set of political frames to adopt. It was a learning experience.

When I started doing fieldwork for the second book, I followed migrants from Northeast India to locations across the country. For instance, I was in Kerala, and engaging with newspaper reports and stories from Chennai, Delhi, and Mumbai. During my field visits I was often confused as a worker at the hospitality sector because I am also from the northeast. These were reflective moments for me. As a young adult I became a tribal migrant in Delhi in the mid 1990s but I never saw myself using words like ‘migrants” to describe myself. I was still grappling with terms like citizenship, ‘chinky,’ and tribal people. So many memories from my Delhi days came back to me during my fieldwork. Writing the second book was almost autobiographical in some way. Not in a sense of looking at my own experiences or grounding it, but autobiographical in a sense of a collective autobiography, and what we go through as indigenous migrants in India. That became very central. The issues about racism, violence, discrimination, and militarization, comes up in the book.

I could have, as an anthropologist with the skills of articulation, having read ‘theory’ and done fieldwork, written in a particular way. Maybe either pity them or patronize them? The world of hospitality is quite exploitative as I saw it through the eyes of indigenous migrants. But everyone I spoke to – from the server, housekeeping staff, to the employee at the beauty salon – had aspirations and dreams; to be upwardly mobile; to have a salary; to have a better income; to be able to send more money home; and to have a good life. Yet there was always a block, a ceiling determining the nature of the work they could take up. They were struggling. And one of the things many young migrants that I spoke to would do was that if they found a place that was horrible, they would leave the job and go somewhere else in the hope that the new experience would be better. Sometimes it was worse. They landed up in more difficult situations. This kind of aspiration was founded on precarity. As we have seen during the pandemic (in 2020), the first industry that was hit in India and around the globe was the hospitality sector. The hotels closed down, and the first batch of migrants from mainland India who returned to Northeast India taught us new lessons. Whether it was Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, or Assam, the return of migrants not only brought the fear of the virus with them, but also the anxiety of an uncertain future with them.

The state governments across Northeast India have played a very important role in promoting entrepreneurship and skills. However, the focus on soft skills have been detrimental given the precarity in the hospitality industry. Soft skills were something that grooming agencies and government bodies were providing young people. In my book I urge both the reader and the government bodies to reflect on training prospective migrants with skills to make them employable. Especially, for vulnerable groups  like indigenous/Adivasi communities, we need to realize that one of the things about soft skills is the gendered aspect, and the exotic and sexual element of it. In my book I examine how it was easier for indigenous women in the hospitality sector to find employment.  Men either work as security guards or gatekeepers. If they are cute or smart, they find work as servers.

I am often questioned what is different about migrants from Northeast India. Everyone migrates! That is the general feeling. I always say that what is exceptional as migrants from Northeast India is the history of militarization and armed conflict. Migration from the region escalated after 1997 – when the Naga armed groups signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of India – leading to a series of similar ceasefire deals with other armed groups in the region. Very quickly young migrants from the region – from towns and villages that had witnessed extreme violence – were being asked to look pretty and presentable and serve drinks, sell designer shoes, or provide massage across metropolitan Indian cities.

The psycho-social trauma and inter-generational trauma were not addressed. Imagine the kind of violence that children from armed conflict villages experience as they grow up. And consider how they move to cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata, and serve ice-creams or provide pedicure with a smile on their faces. Indigenous migrants from Northeast India carry experiences and memories of militarization and violence with them; many of them suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the structural violence they encounter though racism and discrimination across metropolitan India makes it brutal for them. So, yes. Definitely, these realities need to be considered when we study and write about migration from Northeast India and similar militarized regions in the subcontinent and beyond.

This is a cycle of violence needs to be acknowledged. Across South Asia — especially Sri Lanka and Nepal with a history of armed conflict — the respective governments have worked on social rehabilitation of the communities that have been affected by the violence. I know there is much left to be done, but at least there is an acknowledgment. In India, the story is different. Government refuses to acknowledge the scale of conflict and violence on its own citizens. For instance, the Indo-Naga conflict is one of the world’s longest armed conflict, but there is a refusal to accept how communities have been affected across generations by militarization and violence. We have to connect this bit of the story to the surge in outmigration from Northeast India. The consumer world in neoliberal India consists of as global fashion beauty and food. As consumers crave and desire for a world class lifestyle, the story of the labour force that drives this economy, the experiences of the most vulnerable of citizens are erased. And along with that, the histories of the region and their homelands are erased. An important story of migration from Northeast India is also this. It is not just the racism and violence, but the rejection and erasure of an entire history that takes place in the moment of exchange services and material goods. There is a pretension that it is all normal. This is how we in turn normalize violence and militarization while consuming that service.

Writing this book was challenging because I wanted to write respecting the lives of migrants and in solidarity with the young people who are migrants, at the same time make it clear about the exploitative nature of soft skills and the hospitality sector.

SP: Leaving home or one’s place of belonging is deeply linked with questions of state reclamation of resources and indigenous lands. What are some of the historical and political disturbances within which indigenous migrations occur?

DK: The migration experiences I trace in my book is a post-1997 development as I noted before. I am not saying that there was no migration before that, but my co-author and I were making a specific point about indigenous migration in the hospitality sector and affective labour. We were writing about the scale that we are witnessing now. 1997 is important because on the one hand, we see political negotiations starting after 1997, and on the other hand a rhetoric of remoteness and development that the state agencies and the development agencies adopt. When you see an Assam rifles camp in Manipur and see a board which says, ‘Assam Rifles Friends of the Hill People,’ that is a post-1997 campaign. Here, civility, development, and militarization are all normalized in a single moment. When you hear the governments across the northeast region say that ‘we need development, and for development we need peace,’ it captures a moment where a regime of extractive projects are being envisioned on the foundations of violence, but without acknowledge the trauma and the need for reconciliation. These are all post-1997 stories from Northeast India.

For instance, in my 2015 article, Making Pickles during Ceasefire: Livelihood, Sustainability, and Development in Nagaland, I wrote about the development programs that were emerging during the time of ceasefire in Naga society. I was asking: how is it that the villagers who were in the interrogation rooms pre 1997 shifted to livelihood workshop rooms post 1997? What did it mean to teach them livelihood skills  like making pickles, without addressing the political and psycho social rehabilitation? For the Naga people, the long decades of armed conflict meant experiencing militarization across all social and cultural spaces. Especially, the experiences of violence within us — fratricidal killings between rival groups, among warring clans, along tribal lines – these were tragic and heartbreaking violent histories we have inherited as part of Naga history today. However, what Naga people have gone through is  nothing extraordinary because we share this experiences with many militarized communities across the Indian subcontinent and beyond. As a human rights activist and an engaged anthropologist I see that members from traumatized and violent societies begin to devour one another by inflecting violence on one another. Often, in many instances, the only way members are able to relate to any violent situation is through violence.

If you look at Mahmood Mamdani’swork, or ethnographic research on militarized societies, it shows that at the height of militarization and violence in human societies, we also start taking it out on each other. Post-1997 as development initiatives were rolled out, as armed forces adopted the language of ‘peace and development,’ there was a whole section of population — mostly young people — who were trying to escape the militarized environment. That is when they started leaving the land. It was also the time when the rhetoric of development began to romanticize agriculture and encouraged young people to that go back to the land and work. The larger question in India and across the Global South is about how do indigenous people/Adivasis connect with the land? What is the emerging story? Being connected to the land does not mean working on the land. If land is the custodian of indigenous identity and history, how do we make sense of this respect and connection that emerging indigenous youths and communities establish with the land the younger generations like indigenous migrants are giving up working on the land? Many migrants said that they did not want to become farmers and preferred to educate their children and make them peruse professional jobs. During interviews I found out that no subsistence cultivator, no Adivasi who was living off the land would tell their children to work on lands, because they saw that being subsistence cultivators was often humiliating and equated with a life of poverty. The story of being displaced as a result of various development programs also emerged.

This is linked with other developments across the Himalayan region. There is constant conversation about how we need to create jobs in the mountains, or how we create jobs for indigenous communities, etc. But all these sounds strange for me.  It is not like the mountain communities don’t have jobs, Many households work on the land, they work in the field or tend cattle. It takes enormous labour force and time in the mountains to farm and eat from the land. It takes up their entire day. Think about the life of a farmer or a cattle-rearer in the hills in Uttarakhand, Sikkim, or in Arunachal Pradesh. Or Across the hills of Manipur and Nagaland. People work continuously. The idea is not about creating jobs but about reflecting what exactly what we are telling these communities and the future generation to do. On the one hand, there is talk about the creation of jobs but on the other hand their traditional knowledge and work remains unrecognized, or their connection with the land is erased and disrespected. Their practices and connections with the forests, rivers, and their idea of medicinal plants is considered ‘savage’ and ‘primitive.’

Instead, the younger generations are given soft skills to become servers, shop assistants, sweepers, maids, and janitors. Some of them are also in the construction sector. Connecting and working on the land is not a job, it is unemployment. Connecting and living off the forest continues to categorize many indigenous/Adivasi communities as thieves and encroachers in India. therefore, this conversation about soft skills and migration takes us back to issues of land, dispossession, and humiliation that is taking place. This is something that really moved me. It deeply disturbed me. In 2018, I was invited to Azim Premji University in Bengaluru to talk about my work on indigenous migration and the hospitality sector in India. When I arrived at the hotel, the security guard who carried my bag from the cab to the reception was Boro, the receptionist was a Khasi, the janitor was from the Hajong community — all were tribal migrants from Northeast India. I learnt that the janitor who came to clear the bathroom was an intern. If he succeeded at his task, he would be made a full-time employee. It was a 6 month internship and his job was to clean toilets. On his hand and knees picking hair from the shower cubicle, he told me he was paid Rs 5000 a month for his internship. It made me think about how the hospitality sector was framing the language of service in a caste and class ridden country like India. How was it that indigenous migrants were being made to enter a highly exploitative world that reproduced caste and class privileges in neoliberal India? When I share these stories people often say ‘what’s the big deal about it? That’s how things function.’ My point as an anthropologist is that that’s not how it’s supposed to be. That you take the most vulnerable indigenous people and give the tag of ‘employment’ by exploiting them. 

SP: You have drawn attention towards the way in which workers from Nagaland are thought of as loyal, hardworking and ‘exotic’ in an ‘un-Indian’ way — racial attribute which is used to mark them as ‘different’ yet desirable for the booming hospitality sector. This is in sharp contrast to the earlier image forged by the colonial and post-colonial state that used labels such as barbarous, unruly, and savage to define indigenous communities (although both the references build upon this idea of ‘otherness’). When and how did this image transition take place?

DK: That is an excellent question. Let me put it this way. It is the dictionary of imperial disposition that the postcolonial Indian state inherited without interrogating it That is what happened to the resource extraction regime like tea and oil in Northeast India. There was a mere transfer of power from white colonization to colored neo-colonization. That is what happened to other privileges as well. Royal families still enjoy their royalty across India. As citizens, we continue to be enamored with titles like rajas, nawabs, and the erstwhile princely classes.  India is a strange country. In scholarly writings, we talk about postcolonialism as a moment of citizenship. During this period of democracy in India that many are calling it a crisis of governance and the surge of the right wing in the country, citizens and commentators are referring to the Indian Constitution as a revolutionary text. But the Constitution and the everyday lived reality of ordinary people remains deeply fractured. The entitlements of the postcolonial Indian state went to a handful upper caste privileged collectives. For many tribal communities from Northeast India, Dalits, and Adivasi communities from central and Eastern India, the fact that the privileged intellectuals and well-meaning liberals from the heart of the country are scrambling towards the Constitution speaks volumes about their good intentions to make the country accountable and keep it together. But at the same time, the level of violence and the brutality is nothing new for many of us. Throughout the 1990s across India, and even before that, or in case of Naga people since 1947, the unspeakable brutality and violence was often cast aside as a “marginal” thing. Well, the Frankenstein democracy we are witnessing now was designed in the so called geographical “margins” like Kashmir, Northeast India, Chhattisgarh, and Punjab. This monster was created in the houses of poor Dalits and vulnerable Muslims since India’s independence.

Returning to the dictionary of imperial disposition in relation to indigenous migrants, it is extremely colonial. The Naga migrants are both suspicious and hard working. They can switch between the “lazy native” and the “loyal employee” seamlessly. It is quite common in India to see how employees are accepted as family members, and therefore we often come across stories that ‘loyal servants’ are didis (elder sisters) and just like family. But the moment there is a disagreement, these employees/family members become ungrateful and wretched people. The definition of loyalty/unloyalty is dictated by the exploiter and the oppressor. Thus, tribal migrants are hardworking, lazy people, simple people, and also buddhu (dumb). We are all of that. This mentality is reflected in the captions that follow pictures of indigenous people across Northeast India. For instance, some of the twitter feeds and Ingram texts of indigenous people selling produce on highways selling from the region have captions like, ‘such innocent people, they should stay that way.’ But the reality is that life is very hard. They are selling the produce to feed the family and not because they are innocent. It is hardship and poverty. Of course, it is another story how many consumers demonstrate their hypocrisy by bargaining for the produce. It is right there, in that encounter, that the practice of labelling indigenous people and migrants as loyal/savages/unruly takes place. This is what I refer to as the dictionary of imperial disposition in postcolonial India. The power to use and abuse labels and terms in a way to benefit the entitled and privileged. 

SP: This also brings me to your conceptualization of affective labour, and how that can sometimes be more exploitative than physical labour as it runs the risk of alienating the labourer from their own feelings. What are some of the ways of understanding the notion of ‘affective labour’?

DK: Raymond William, Purnima Mankekar, and Sarah Ahmed are scholars who had laid the ground for affective labour. Our work was in conversation with them both conceptually and theoretically to extend it. In our work, the notion of affective labour was something that was everywhere. For instance, once you enter a restaurant the waiter or waitress will come up to you a dozen times asking about the service. As a consumer one is overwhelmed. Or the salesperson seem too eager to please you. One wonders why they are doing that. This is part of soft skills and the manner of speaking and offering “good service” is taken as always being at the service of the customer. This is why they try so hard to please you. During my fieldwork I found out that many employees in the hospitality sector are trained with a target to please customers. Their mood, feelings, including the body language, are directed towards offering ‘good’ service. This kind of training stays on. Some of them start having nightmares too; bad dreams that affect their mood and create anxieties. The kind of labour/service they perform begins to seep into their system and shape their personality. Even if the employees are exhausted, when a customer comes to them, they have to smile. In big hotels, there are secrets in frontline desks: some senior employees from the hospitality sector told me how it is rare to find a woman who is above 35 at the reception desk. Front desk employees have to be pretty and presentable. So many of these subtle practices became clear. References to “shelf life” which means the age of front desk employees etc became clear to me.

Airlines are a very good example. Female flight attendants of Air India, the national airline company of India, fought in the Supreme of Court of India to retain their jobs after marriage in a landmark case in 1981, but the practice of agism, gender discrimination and inequality remains entrenched in the hospitality sector. As feminist anthropologist and scholars we should be going back to those cases in the to look at what is affective labour, and thinking about interrogating the arbitrariness of how ‘good’ service and customer ‘satisfaction’ are assessed. Imagine how we have made it normal to think that airline customers expect beautiful faces, straight teeth, perfect skin in an altitude that can make one nauseous, fart, burp, and throw up. How did we get to that level of sexualizing labour?  Another example is the expectation that the person who is serving food should bow, smile, and make direct eye contact but in a non-threatening way. What are we consuming? Is it the food or that effectiveness of servitude? Instead of normalizing it we need to ask what is it in the name of service that we make each other? Why do such services make customers feel good?

In the book on indigenous migration, my co-author and I traced the world of indigenous migrants and affective labour. In a sense, we extended and developed the idea of affective labour to include the indigenous experiences as well. It may be connected to moods, and to feelings but for many indigenous migrants, the history of violence, land, and dispossession was central to it. Thus, affective labour in our book became a lens to examine structural violence, capitalist violence, and gender violence besides aspiration and exploitative labour. Affective labour in India is so heightened because of the caste, communal, and class foundations. In the book we write about indigenous servers from Northeast India in high diners and their experiences with rude Indian customers who are suspicious about the service. For instance, when certain customers enquire about vegetarian/organic/halal food, they demand  ‘real Indian’ servers to explain the menu and refuse to let indigenous migrants who look “non-Indian” to serve them food. Caste violence is so embedded in the hospitality sector in India.

SP: The migrant ‘crisis’ in India is often narrated in mainstream media and policy discourse as an interstate mobility issue. It creates an impression that development is the key issue that compels people to migrate from ‘backward’ regions to urban landscapes for better opportunities. While what gets sidetracked in the process, a point which you drive home through your remarkable work, is the problem of corporate exploitation in urban markets, unequal capital-labour relations, and the economic hardships and racial vulnerabilities that it creates for the indigenous migrants. How do we move out of this impasse?

DK: People have always migrated. Our ancestors migrated. The point is not about keeping people in certain places. But how do we understand this deadlock?

We hardly recognize migrant workers as employees. I am referring to the server from Manipur making your juice in a beach town like Varkala, or that migrant from Nagaland who is a masseur in Goa. They should be given holidays, medical benefits, provision for families. There are also other problems. Do they have a bank account? And what about pension? Where do they register their grievances? It is a country that makes it almost impossible for migrant workers in new cities to get a connection of LPG cylinder without heaps of paper work. Even as the state is obsessed with paperwork and documents to provide a basic gas connection, majority of the hospitality sector work on sub-contracting and erasing traces of paper works to continue with highly exploitative practices. These systems make migrants – indigenous and those from marginalized communities – extremely vulnerable under the present circumstances.

As long as we let capitalism and free markets define the terms of labour, service, and customer satisfaction, it will not work. Instead, encouraging laws and policies to safeguard employment, call out harassment, and all kinds of discrimination is key. Adding the experiences of indigenous migrants in India forces us to engage with land and loss of land not solely as an economic matter, but as an issue of justice and citizenship right. So many indigenous migrants from Northeast India work without an employment contact, without being paid for months, being sexually and physically abused. As an anthropologist that is the reason why I feel that our work must connect with policy makers and advocacy works. The ability to move out of this impasse is to keep engaging – by this I mean write/speak/share/practice what you write and work on. The trouble with academics is the world of text we inhabit. Are lawyers, policy makers, activists, poets, writers, and journalists about to connect with our work?

SP: What are your suggestions for early career researchers who want to contribute to the study of labour, exploitation, capital and development?

DK: Don’t play it safe, be courageous. Know the power of your voice, but learn to listen and engage. And Don’t go to the field with a set of smart methodology and questions to prove yourself as an expert, but be ready to unlearn, to critically reflect on your entitlements and privileges. And find/create a community of mentors and peers who will nurture and reach out to you. As a first generation anthropologist, I cannot stress the nurturing and care I receive from my amazing friends. And as a result, I also am conscious to call, write, or reach out to early career researchers and encourage them and read their work, or connect.  

We come from a region like South Asia, a country like India, where labour, capital and development are so steeped in political movements, and in people’s struggles. The fact that thinkers, poets, and activists are often sent to prison because they support people’s movements, and are against corporations speaks volumes about the task at hand. Being an engaged scholar comes with a price. The academy is filled with entitled and ruthless scholars who mock and ridicule engaged scholarship. They will pay lip service but if you look at their lives, the boundary they create between the “field” and their “real” life is astounding. It is a fake world. Remember, scholarship – irrespective of how smart/neat/articulate it is – ultimately comes across as shallow and meaningless if it is all about analysis, argument, soulless theories, and reiterating star academics and trendy theories. Be bold to refer to poems, songs, find meaning in texts and authors who are relegated to and are from the “margins”. Practice solidarity and politics with humility.

The task of being an engaged scholar as early career academics is hard, but my request is to engage and learn to listen. Take your time. Don’t be in a rush to become a star because your greatest moments are those when your peers and readers witness your work. When the community you work with accepts and recognizes you as an alley. That takes time. It takes a long time.

Second, write in a language that is accessible. Let the story from people and the field you are writing about have a life. Ethically and morally if you write about difficult and complex subjects you must ask yourself why you are writing about it. Who are you writing it for? I increasingly find it difficult to engage with smart abstract conversations which are removed from ground reality. That’s who I am. If people you write about cannot relate to your work, what is the point. Do you have the courage to take back the work to the community you work with? The life that we live is greater than the research project. It is about how we connect our life and with all our engagements. We leave a piece of our soul in all that we engage with.

Be grounded. Be joyful. Don’t be afraid.

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