In Living with Oil and Coal, Dolly Kikon presents the ethnography of the entangled lives of multiple actors—of villagers, state officials, geologists, insurgents, traders and landowners—in the militarized carbon landscape of the foothills of Assam and Nagaland in North East India. Although the extractive economy of carbon—oil, coal (and tea)—in these places and beyond is often presented as techno-developmental interventions by geologists and Indian state officials to secure development and serve the national interest, Kikon convincingly shows the unmistakable and myriad ways in which the carbon landscape is produced as a ‘space of extraction… and how social components and relationships come together in complex and distinctive ways’ (p. 8). Drawing from Henri Lefebvre, the French philosopher, who impels us to think of ‘space’ beyond the conventional understanding of a ‘visible…appearance of separation’ of lines but as something which ‘embodies social relationships’, Kikon avers that people in this landscape ‘seldom dwell on geological maps’ but enact rich and textured stories of ‘extraction, resources, belonging, violence and friendship’ (pp. 7-8). As a corollary, she avoids ‘flattening the foothills solely as a geological and political space’ and instead analytically focuses on ‘how people’s relationships with their neighbors, families, and friends—including state and non-state actors—are produced’ (pp. 7-8). These complex and multi-layered relationships are examined in seven tightly organized chapters in the book and provide what the author claims, the ‘first multi-perspective resource ethnography of an oil and coal-producing region in India’ (p. 7).
The Assam-Arakan basin—the geological name for the foothills of Assam and Nagaland—is known not only for being one of the world’s oldest geological basins but also because it is one of the most militarized and violent zones where extensive extractive economic activities thrive today. Not surprisingly, these foothills from Gelakey in Assam and Anaki Yimsen, Naginimora, and Champang in Nagaland are dotted with multiple security checkpoints and barricades where state and non-state actors zealously guard and watch extractive activities under the cover of exceptional laws like the Assam Disturbed Area Act, 1955, and Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958.
It is in this securitized zone that the ‘triadic States’ of India, Assam and Nagaland intersect in ways, which produce complex state-society and social relationships. Kikon contends that the triadic States are distinctively marked out respectively as ‘military state’, ‘economic state’ and ‘cultural state’ (pp. 67-76). The immunity and extraordinary powers that Indian security personnel—Central Industrial Security Force, Assam Police, and Nagaland Armed Police—enjoy make lives precarious in these places, marked as they are by violence, surveillance, and overlapping claims of land and carbon ownership. Although Assam is projected as an economic powerhouse ever since oil exploration and tea trade as a global commodity began in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Indian state is criticized for reducing Assam to an ‘enclave economy’. The establishment of the Noonmati Oil Refinery in Assam in 1962 (p. 12) to redress the Assamese’s grievance of being reduced to India’s ‘internal colony’ fails to arrest the growth of armed groups like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). ULFA has been demanding ‘swadhin (sovereign) Asom’ since its establishment in 1979.
Unlike Assam where the state has legitimate control over carbon resources and land ownership, carbon resources and land ownership in Nagaland are kept outside the ambit of pan-Indian laws as the Nagaland Assembly has the exclusive legislative power on, inter alia, ‘land and resources’ and customary laws under Article 371A of India’s Constitution. Because carbon resources and land ownership in Nagaland are largely governed by customary laws, attempts by the state to regulate coal and oil trade and ownership since 2006 have generated spirited resistance from tribal communities which makes state-society relations precarious.
Even as ‘hydrocarbon exploration and extraction’ in Assam and Nagaland continues to be ‘tied to the right to self-determination’ (p. 11), Kikon pertinently points out the unsettled question of representation in this zone as it is not clear whether the state or non-state actors like ULFA, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (IM or K factions) or other entities legitimately represent the Assamese or Naga people. What stems from this is the tacit understanding between the NSCN-IM and NSCN-K factions within NSCN to rotate control of coal trade and activities respectively for three months each during the peak season (November to April).
Kikon also points out how overlapping claims and control of land and carbon resources in the foothills of Assam and Nagaland, thanks to the blurring of State boundaries, intermittently led to violent clashes between the security personnel of the two States which in turn sparked off societal conflicts between the Assamese and the Nagas. The perpetual presence of the military in these foothills also has far-reaching consequences for what Kikon calls the ‘carbon citizenship’ regime (pp. 135-50). Marking out Marwaris and Biharis as bhal manu (good citizen), the Naga and Assamese are considered disloyal citizens who are permanently put under state surveillance, and suspicion is the staple practice of citizenship regime. Kikon cites pertinent examples of this from her personal experience in her fieldwork: how she had to pass multiple security checkpoints to enter the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) barricaded office in one of these foothills to obtain requisite information about its exploratory projects and activities. She narrates how ONGC officials’ initial openness to respond to any query soon led to shielding of information on the contention that it is ‘sensitive’ (pp. 140-41).
The foothills are replete with everyday experiences of gender inequality; torture and violence committed by the state and armed groups. Despite their claim of being an ‘egalitarian’ society, Kikon notes how Naga customary laws perpetuate gender inequality as women continue to be denied land ownership rights. Militarized carbon landscape is also described as an unfavourable sexualized space where women labourers are seen as ‘objects’ of men’s erotic desire and love—unlike morom, defined loosely as an all encompassing love—and as ‘cooks’ whose paramount duty is to feed their tired husbands in the evening.
Kikon presents graphic details of torture meted out by the state security to Ranjan Gogoi, a physician whose call of duty to attend injured armed Nagas deep in the jungles invited the ire and inhuman torture of the security forces (pp. 144-48). Even ‘suspected’ youths are not spared: ‘smashed shins’ and ‘broken’ feet are common encounters.
Notwithstanding the fact that the foothills are considered ‘dangerous’ they continue to attract diverse group of workers and traders like Adivasis, Ahoms, Nepalis and Marwaris. Driven by what Kikon calls ‘carbon desire’ and ‘fantasies’ of getting the ‘desired future’ of wealth and prosperity, these groups interact and exchange extractive relationships with state/non-state officials and local landowners (pp. 120-34). The competing interests of these groups produce complex and contentious state-society and social relationships, which are marked by friendship and love under the shadow of military violence noted above. Kikon shows how economic exchanges in weekly haats (markets) generate durable friendships and morom between individuals and communities inasmuch as they expose social prejudices and stereotypes. They also promote mutual suspicion and hate (pp. 6-101). Kikon’s account of how the bad smell of Ali’s Naga host, who hardly washes his shawls, is soon erased by the latter’s hospitality and morom. The delectable Naga curry of mustard boiled with yam, cooked in a meticulously washed utensil is in stark juxtaposition and dispels Ali’s initial impression about the Nagas. Naga village traders would perpetually complain of their hate of being outwitted by Assamese or Marwari traders while bargaining the price of their red chillies. The evocation of legends and stories to establish ethnic solidarity and bonding between the Assamese and the Nagas can become precarious in such instances.
Kikon’s absorbing account on a militarized carbon landscape would stand out because of the novel ways in which violence, friendship and love are examined in their multiple, complex and textured manifestations. This illuminating account however fails to render, in more elaborate detail, competing claims—of the state (India and Nagaland), armed groups and disparate tribes—over land and resources including coal and oil ownership especially in a situation where tribal customary laws are not always compatible. The recent oil spills in Champang village that have had adverse ecological impacts on adjacent villages and tribes have complicated individual and tribes’ exclusive claim over land and resources, especially given that oil is a free floating entity and fixing culpability is very difficult. Digging out archival colonial sources and understanding how competing claims over land and resource ownership were resolved during colonial times would have further strengthened Kikon’s analytical power. This obvious limitation apart, Kikon must be commended for her authoritative and innovative ways of understanding the ‘militarized carbon landscape’ not only as a violent space, but also as ‘a thriving space of symbols, meanings, and people’s accounts and connections with the land’ (p. 14).
Kham Khan Suan Hausing, Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad, was formerly Fullbright-Nehru Postdoctoral Research Fellow, UPenn (2012-13).
 . I have examined the complex legal and political issues thrown up by this elsewhere. See Kham Khan Suan Hausing, ‘Asymmetric federalism and the question of democratic justice in Northeast India,’ India Review, Vol.13, no.2, 2014, pp. 87-111.