Landscape, Culture, And Belonging: Writing The History Of Northeast India- A Review

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

Landscape, Culture and Belonging: Writing the History of Northeast India is a collection of essays by prominent academics. Published by Cambridge University Press, this book of importance is edited by Neeladri Bhattacharya and Joy L.K Pachuau. Bhattacharya and Pachuau are academics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The objective of the book is the outlining and overview the main themes which arise in the study of the region. It is divided into five parts.

-Concepts of borders, surveys and explorations


-History and the politics of representation

-Law, state and practices of governance

-Cultural dialogues.

The Northeast of India is a contact zone for people and cultures of South, Southeast and East Asia. This fluid spatiality was initially interrupted by the British colonial authorities and later by the consolidation of the nation state of India.


David Ludden, a Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, in his chapter, focuses on the region of the Meghna-Brahmaputra River basin where spatial history has to navigate between boundaries of state on one hand, and the alternative spatiality with lived human connections that cross state boundaries on the other hand.

A senior lecturer from the University of Cape Town, Bodhisattva Kar, in his contribution to the volume, traces the historical formation of the ryot and establishes how the colonial authorities sought to change the lifestyle of the traditional jhum cultivators and tie them to sedentary agricultural practices in order to assert their rule more effectively. The tribe has always been the centre of any studies on the Northeast.

Professor of Urban Sociology Duncan McDuie Ra from the University of Newcastle, Australia, explores the difficulty scholars fail while dealing with the category and suggests reimagining the region as a borderland in order to explore the other connections that exist amongst the people inhabiting the region.

Mapping, writing and exploring are important when it comes to objectifying a region and trying to fix its boundaries.

The First Anglo-Burmese war showed the colonial authorities how little they knew of their Northeast frontier which sparked a series of explorations and surveys in order to study the geography of the region and map its landscape.

David Zou, a historian, makes a comparative study between colonial maps of the region and local maps and shows how the Northeast was cartographically produced as a geo-body. The other contribution to this section on surveys and explorations made by Arupjyoti Saikia, a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology focuses on the work of Peter Wade, a British anthropologist at the University of Manchester and shows how his publications aided in shaping the early colonial imagination of Assam.

Identity formation is a socially and historically fashioned process. In the Northeast, as elsewhere in India, the colonial authorities created and consolidated identities on the basis of the reports and surveys of ethnographers and anthropologists. These identities have had long standing political, social and economic implications.

Alban von Stockhausen and Arkotong Longkumer both focus on the formation of the ‘Naga’ identity and its implications. Stockhausen is a museum curator and Longkumer is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.

Illustration by Allen B Thangkhiew

Frontiers have historically been perceived as spaces where normal state laws cannot be applied, and the policy of exception is practiced. While Dr. Jilangamba Yengkhom, an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences establishes that state violence was normal in the frontiers during the colonial period, Anandaroop Sen, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town explores the relationship between law making and punitive violence in the Lushai and Chin Hills. A majority of the tribes in the region were hostile to state control which resulted in a flourishing arms and ammunition trade across the borders which is the subject of Lipokmar Dzuvichu’s chapter. Dzuvichu is an assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Cultural transformation in the region was greatly facilitated by the work of missionaries. Lanusangla Tzudir and Joy L.K Pachuau explore these cultural encounters and the dialogues surrounding them and their implications amongst the Aos in Nagaland and the Mizos, respectively. Lanusangla Tzudir is the founder of Heritage Publishing House, Nagaland’s only mainstream book publisher.

It has become imperative for each one of us to educate ourselves on the history and culture of the Northeast. Even those of us from the region often fail to realise the complexity of the society we live in.

This book makes us think of issues that we have taken for granted as always existing. It is a very informative and interesting read for anyone who is interested in learning more about the Northeast.

Author: Meghna Rodborne

Meghna Rodborne has a BA in History from Madras Christian College, India and an MA in Global History from the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research focuses on the history of Northeast India- the colonial period, frontier and borderland studies, immigration, migration and identity politics in the region.

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