Anthropologist and author Dr Dolly Kikon answered questions from East Wind on her latest work on migrant workers from Nagaland, and on broader issues related to freedom in times of neoliberalism. Excerpts from an interview.
What brought you to this study of migrant workers from Nagaland in the hospitality sector?
DK: I began to think about the issue of migration when I was finishing my first book “Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India” (2019 University of Washington Press, 2020 Yoda Press India). Across the villages and small towns in Nagaland, many young people were leaving the land and becoming migrants. Particularly I was curious why the majority of young people joined, or desired to join the hospitality sector. Was it convenient? Was it easy to find work? What drove them to this sector I wondered. In addition, it also helped that I received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Swedish government to embark on this topic. However, this project would have not been possible without the generous help and support of well-wishers and people who were willing to talk to us. In particular, The People Channel’s director Rozelle Mero trusted us with this topic and opened the doors of her agency to talk to us. Her insight and honesty were humbling.
Is there any estimate of the number of such workers working outside the Northeast?
DK: Currently, the migration pattern from Northeast India is being taken state wise. For example, the highest rate of out-migration is from the state of Assam followed by Manipur. In the same manner, there are focused studies that show the population of migrants from Northeast India in specific cities like Bengaluru or New Delhi. Our study was an anthropological ethnographic work where we focused on the lived experiences of migrants. We used the national census and literature including reports to gauge the number.
Why is such work attractive to those who seek careers in the field? What are the choices among which they choose this?
DK: This is a good question and I am glad you asked me because that is what the book contains. Each chapter of the book describes and analyses why the hospitality industry is attractive and the kinds of choices and challenges that migrants face. I would really encourage people to pick up the book and read it.
It would seem that aspirations have changed with time. Does freedom mean something else now… something different from what it did to previous generations of Nagas?
DK: Well, I am sure people change, times change, and societies change. Yet, I would like to be cautious to say that joining and working in a neoliberal economic set up where we are made to serve others is a form of freedom in any way. Instead, we might want to ask why are young people getting into such a workforce where they are extremely vulnerable. The majority of the young migrants’ are constantly seeking to move on, to go someplace else and not ‘get stuck’. Unlike the previous generation of Naga people, the younger generation does not want to work on the land. Their dream is not to become a subsistence cultivator, it is something else, perhaps like seeing the world and exploring places.
What remains of the pre-capitalist past in Naga society?
DK: It is in the past as you aptly put it. The only time it is revived is at events like the Hornbill Festival! Or at some carnival or cultural event where performers are enacting a bygone period of our people. For now, we are living in a period where the market forces and extractive regimes such as plantation economies and mining are extremely attractive options for the people.
Dolly Kikon is a Naga Anthropologist. She is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Social and Political Sciences and teaches Anthropology and Development Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.