Placing the Khasi Jaintiah Hills: Sovereignty, Custom and Narratives of Continuity
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The north eastern region in India represents a legacy of uneven imperial state formation inherited by the Indian nation state. My doctoral dissertation examines British imperialism in the nineteenth century, as it operated in “non-British” spaces of the north east frontier of colonial India. I focus on the historical production and cooption of the Khasi and Jaintiah hills, into a frontier space of the British Empire. I analyse the interconnections between physical transformations, colonial structures of law, and colonial knowledge that produced inhabitants of the autonomous polities, north east of Bengal into “hill tribals”. Law provided a foundational framework through which colonial commercial and military advancement into non-British territories such as the Khasi hills was achieved. The most profound implication of colonial processes was on ruler-subject relations, which accompanied the reconstitution of space and inhabitants’ conceptions of self. The dissertation traces both spatial and imaginative transformations that stripped the groups occupying the Khasi and Jaintiah hills of a political identity. The Khasi tribal subject’s relationship to the governing structures was navigated, and negotiated using a reconstituted notion of custom. This project is more than a history of tribal minorities in India. It addresses the crisis of colonial sovereignty in colonial frontiers, and the nature of imperialism in non-British territories. The dissertation also addresses how the hills and its peoples have long resisted incorporation and integration into totalizing histories of colonial modernity, capitalism and nationalism. Social identities of the diverse communities in the north east of India are articulated through, what I have called narratives of continuity that are both constitutive of and framed against colonial knowledge systems. Critical of the “naturalisation of the association between history and western modernity” and the consequent binaries of past and present, this dissertation analyses indigenous narratives, and the articulation of distinct pasts often inhered in the present.