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Book Review: A Fraught Tale of the Mishmi, Their Tigers and the World Beyond

Book Review: A Fraught Tale of the Mishmi, Their Tigers and the World Beyond

Photo: Global Tiger Forum/World Wildlife Fund/Sikkim Forest Department

  • In Tigers Are Our Brothers, Ambika Aiyadurai has weaved an ethnography of the local Mishmi community and its relationship with nature and wildlife.
  • Despite the book’s title, it goes beyond to describe a world encompassing people, spirits and wild lives; taboos and rituals; tradition, aspiration and modernity; and assertion and agency.
  • The book is also about the author and her life among the people of the Dibang valley, manifested as her reflexive writing and the acknowledgment of her positionality.

In the age of renewed interest in nature conservation, a book entitled Tigers Are Our Brothers is bound to attract public and media attention. Drawing on her year-long PhD fieldwork in the remote Dibang valley of Arunachal Pradesh, Ambika Aiyadurai has weaved an ethnography of the local Mishmi community and its relationship with nature and wildlife.

The central focus of the book is the anthropological ‘nature v. culture’ debate, but the book also draws from several other disciplines such as politics, geopolitics, security studies, tribal studies and history.

Aiyadurai has described her journey and various arguments through seven chapters. Even though the title suggests that the book is about the Mishmi and the tigers in their backyard, the ethnography goes beyond – and describes a more-than-human world encompassing people, spirits and wild lives; taboos and rituals; tradition, aspiration and modernity; and assertion and agency.

But in doing so, Aiyadurai does not slip into the familiar and easy trope of romanticising and sanitising tribal lifeworlds. She presents these worlds with their dynamism intact, fraught with conflict and collaboration. She also lucidly explores what nature, culture, development and conservation mean for the Mishmi, foregrounding the oral testimonies of people of the Dibang valley. The rural v. urban elite tensions within the community, in terms of who gets to create the ‘Mishmi identity’ per se, only add to the complexity.

A central tenet of this book is friction – between the worldviews of the Mishmi and wildlife researchers on one hand and conservationists, security agencies, NGOs, religious organisations and development agencies on the other. The book does an excellent job of describing the Mishmi’s need to navigate these frictions by situating their ‘loyalty’ to the spiritual world by following taboos; to global standards of conservation by restricting hunting; to the Mishmi way of life by upholding traditional rights; and to the state by emphasising that they are Indians in need of development.

Tigers Are Our Brothers
Ambika Aiyadurai
Oxford University Press, November 2021

Since the book is also about forests and tigers, the rules, rituals and techniques of hunting of the Mishmi have been described in detail. Within the debate of whether hunting is customary or illegal, the Mishmi maintain a balancing act: they don’t “hunt” tigers due to kinship, yet they have to “kill” one if it threatens human life or property. This ‘people within the ecosystem’ approach of the Mishmi is in direct opposition to the dominant philosophy of wildlife conservation in India. Aiyadurai elaborates this tension through fascinating tales of researcher-Mishmi interactions in the field.

One particular instance that should fascinate readers is an interaction between Mishmi elders and wildlife biologists from the Wildlife Institute of India. The researchers argued for the benefits of setting up a tiger reserve in the Dibang valley, to increase the tiger population. They claimed such a reserve would help officials better manage herbivores and that that in turn would prevent these animals from raiding the villagers’ crops.

But the Mishmi elders retorted that they had managed the herbivore population through history by hunting and thus didn’t need tigers or their reserves to replace the herbivores as their ecosystem managers. The Mishmi also said they didn’t kill tigers, given their spiritual kinship. These two statements caught the researchers by surprise.

In the fifth chapter in particular, Aiyadurai analyses the narratives behind the change of the logo of a prominent Mishmi civil society from mithun, a semi-domesticated bovine, to takin, a wild ungulate. Her cogent analysis takes the reader through a more-than-human politics in which Mishmi identity, ideology and aspirations intersect with the Mishmi construction of a “wild nature”. The Mishmi’s assertion to add the prefix ‘Mishmi’ before all the wild lives on their lands is particularly interesting to understand how identities are ‘ecologised’.

The final chapter showcases what it means to think about and undertake tiger conservation in such indigenous territories. This provides a learning ground for conservation researchers and practitioners. Through plenty of stories, Aiyadurai provides evidence that exclusionary conservation practices based on the existence of ‘protected areas’ may fail to generate social support in such landscapes.

According to Aiyadurai, the dominance of biologists in conservation science and their lack of grounding in social science philosophies and methods often hinder conservation itself. They forget that wildlife conservation is, ultimately, a people-centric enterprise, a social process. Parachute-research by wildlife biologists in the Dibang valley, devoid of an understanding of how culture mediates human-wildlife relations, could only worsen park-people conflict. This conclusion on Aiyadurai’s part is spot on and conservation agencies should take it seriously. The book also makes a compelling, evidence-based argument for conservation policymakers to draft policy bearing in mind the people’s voices at the centre.

Finally, the book is as much about the Mishmi and their tigers as it is about the author herself and her life among the people of the Dibang valley. Her reflexive writing and the acknowledgment of her positionality throughout the book allow her to place herself in the narrative.

Also read: The Sacred Groves of Meghalaya

In one instance, Aiyadurai describes her interaction with a Mishmi field-assistant and hunter, when she used to be a wildlife biologist. She had stopped the person from hunting a bird, as an ethical wildlife researcher is trained and expected to do. But the incident came to haunt her later when she began to question her authority over the Mishmi and her expectation of obedience. The incident was her gateway into the social aspects of human-animal relations.

Through many such stories, Aiyadurai explains the influence of her dual training as a wildlife biologist and a social scientist on navigating the ethical dilemmas that confront a field researcher. In the process, Aiyadurai engaged with the Mishmi to such an extent that her collaborators in the community later reviewed her PhD thesis as well as the book. Such stories can’t but enrich the reader’s experience of the book. As a bonus, Aiyadurai’s language is also devoid of jargon.

Overall, Tigers Are Our Brothers is an excellent addition to academic work that deals with wildlife conservation, even as its accessible prose should make it a treat for those outside academia who enjoy reading nonfictional ethnographic accounts.

Sayan Banerjee is a PhD scholar, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

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