The Demands of Recognition
State Anthropology and Ethnopolitics in Darjeeling
Townsend Middleton



Becoming Tribal in Darjeeling

An Introduction to the Ethno-Contemporary

Monsoon fog sweeps across the Darjeeling Hills. The ghostly serenity of the morning is cut only by the drone of diesel engines, as two government jeeps ply their way along a road dripping with the season’s rains. From the back of one of these jeeps, I watch the heads of the three passengers in front of me loll back and forth to the rhythms of the winding road. A head careens off a headrest; a chin digs into a slouching chest; an ear finds the unwelcoming shoulder of a colleague. Asleep, but without comfort, they are anthropologists of the Cultural Research Institute (CRI) of the Government of West Bengal. They have been sent from Kolkata to determine the tribal identities of ten communities seeking recognition as Scheduled Tribes of India, a designation that affords coveted affirmative action benefits—what in India are commonly referred to as “reservations.”

For more than a week now, these civil servants have been bombarded with astonishing displays of tribal identity. Overnight, communities have transformed their villages into elaborate ethnological spectacles. Shamans have shaken in trance, their eyes rolled back in their heads, to the sound of thunderous drums. Women bedecked in tribal attire have danced and sung their most traditional folk songs. Men have shown their primitive wares and performed signature rites of passage. There have been sacrifices and exorcism, bows and arrows, blood drinking, and packs of youth howling into the monsoon skies—all in the name of the “primitiveness,” “animism,” and “backwardness” necessary to attain tribal status. All the while, elite ethnic leaders dressed in suits and armed with cell phones have roamed the perimeter, orchestrating the encounters. These elites have ensured that the anthropologists were looking in the right direction at the right time and speaking with only the right people. They have coached the locals on what to say and how to act. And they have peered over the anthropologists’ shoulders to make sure the facts were properly recorded—all for the good of their community.

The anthropologists have set about their work in a manner befitting their bureaucratic duty. They have conducted the required number of interviews, filled out their surveys, and dutifully documented the details of culture, custom, and ritual. But amid the chaos, fulfilling their classificatory responsibilities has proven virtually impossible. “Nothing is raw. Everything has been cooked,” they have quipped. And yet day in and day out, these civil servant anthropologists have taken to the field, notebooks in hand, to meet the demands of recognition.

In the middle of this tussle for ethnographic truth have been the everyday residents of these villages. Hand-selected by the “big men” (hulo mānches) of the ethnic associations, they have been asked to sing, dance, and all the rest. But seldom have they been allowed to speak. Thrust under the ethnographic lens, they have been made to appear to be the consummate objects of tribal recognition, living embodiments of the tribe. Nevertheless, many have remained largely unaware of the stakes of the encounter. “We are tiny little bugs,” they would tell me later. “We wouldn’t know.” And yet they have been central to this classificatory moment.

For a week now, the anthropologists have been searching for proof of these communities’ tribal identity. Today is the final day of the Ethnographic Survey, and they are tired. And so, as their jeeps carry them to another remote corner of the Darjeeling Hills, these civil servants sneak some precious sleep.

But there is little rest for the weary. Within an hour, the diesel engines rattle to a stop, and the anthropologists awake from their slumber to find another community ready to convince them that they are a proper tribe. The anthropologists climb down from their jeeps with an air of authority. They are treated accordingly. Here, civil servants, ethnic leaders, and everyday citizens—all with their own agendas, understandings, and capacities—meet one another in an encounter shot through with power, promise, and paradox.

For the communities under investigation, the stakes are high. A successful demonstration of tribal identity will bring these groups much-needed affirmative action benefits. Their recognition as Scheduled Tribes will, in turn, give Darjeeling the tribal majority needed to bring the region autonomy as a constitutionally recognized tribal area. Eyeing these prospects, many have heralded the anthropologists’ arrival as the dawn of a new tribal era—not just for the groups under investigation but for Darjeeling writ large. And so, with rights, autonomy, and a new form of belonging hanging in the balance, a people long relegated to the margins steps into the ethnographic spotlight.


The Ethnographic Survey of 2006 was to be a defining moment. For generations, the people of Darjeeling have searched for, yet been perennially denied, their place in India. Historically, the majority of these Nepali-speaking (Gorkha) groups moved eastward across the Nepal Himalayas into the Darjeeling area—especially in the nineteenth century to sell their labor in the budding industries and tea plantations of the British. They have suffered anxieties over being-in and being-of India ever since. Despite being the region’s demographic majority and citizens of India, they continue to be called “outsiders” and “foreigners.” They remain subject to enduring forms of precarity and exclusion. Throughout the twentieth century, these Nepali-speaking groups came to collectively identify as “Gorkha,” eventually launching a violent agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the 1980s. Encompassing the Darjeeling Hills, a region that includes the subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong, and Kalimpong (Map F.1), and reaching into the plains below,1 Gorkhaland was to provide a homeland within India and redress for generations of marginalization. But the Gorkhaland Movement failed. In its wake, politics took a decidedly ethnological turn.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, movements for tribal recognition and autonomy swept through the hills, as communities sought new routes to rights and inclusion in the nation-state. By definition, these newfound tribal movements would work to rewrite the terms of ethnopolitics, sociality, and subjectivity. The promise of becoming tribal was twofold: first, Scheduled Tribe status would bring these groups increasingly competitive affirmative action advantages. Second, attaining a tribal majority would facilitate the Darjeeling Hills’ becoming an autonomous tribal area, the provisions of which are laid out by the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Where Gorkha politics failed to deliver recognition and autonomy, tribal politics would succeed. The Ethnographic Survey of 2006 was to be a pivotal moment in this calculus of tribal becoming.

For me, riding alongside the government anthropologists was an awkward but important experience. I did not come to Darjeeling to work with these agents of the state, but instead to live and work among the people of Darjeeling as they strove to attain tribal recognition and autonomy. By the summer of 2006, I was well into fieldwork with these communities. I spent those early months of research engaging the ethnic associations and political parties leading these tribal movements, attending protests, and trying to get a sense of what becoming tribal meant at the community level. Toward that end, I was living in a local tea estate village (which I call Bidhuwā Busti)—a steep hour-long walk from Darjeeling Town—where I was beginning to understand how these movements were affecting everyday life. Coincidentally, Bidhuwā Busti was situated just above one of the villages investigated by the government anthropologists during the Ethnographic Survey. So, between my work with Darjeeling’s ethnopolitical leaders and my village neighbors, I was familiar with many of the people who found themselves the objects of state ethnography during those pivotal days of 2006. It was with these communities—and in their vehicles—that I first arrived to this encounter with the Indian state.

The event quickly opened up new research opportunities. Since I am white, there was no hiding amidst the spectacle that ensued. The Indian government anthropologists quickly pegged me as one of their own. Over the cacophony of the encounter, I did my best to introduce myself. Soon the team was showing me the ropes of state ethnography. Recognizing the opportunity at hand, I did my best to keep pace with these civil servants as they went about their work. On the final day of the weeklong study, it was with them—and in their vehicles—that I made my way to the day’s field site. Crammed into the back of that government jeep winding through the hills, I found myself an “anthropologist among the anthropologists,” seeing tribal recognition from an entirely new angle.

My relationship with the government anthropologists deepened in the months that followed. Shadowing these civil servants in the field and in their offices in Kolkata, I gained new appreciations of the challenges the Indian government—and its anthropologists—face in managing the demands of its people. These engagements with the postcolonial state allowed me to explore recognition from the inside out—a complement to the outside in perspective I was gaining with Darjeeling’s aspiring tribes. Among my friends and neighbors in Darjeeling, the movements’ effects were puzzling. The prospect of becoming tribal was breeding hope, but also unexpected tensions. As I began moving across the interface of recognition, it became clear that what was happening in Darjeeling was inexorably tied to what was going on within the state. This involved as much the written policies of affirmative action as it did the unwritten prejudices and practices of the postcolonial state itself. Accordingly, studying these bureaucratic inner workings became vital to understanding the politics—and impacts—of tribal recognition in Darjeeling.

I subsequently began developing the multi-sited, multi-sided ethnographic approach that is this book’s backbone. Throughout fieldwork, I carried on with my work among the people of Darjeeling. But I added to these engagements a concurrent study of the civil servants deciding their fate. My jeep ride with the dozing anthropologists, in this regard, marked the start of a sustained effort to marry the critical attentions of the anthropology of indigeneity and recent ethnographic studies of the postcolonial state.2 This multi-sided, interface-based approach posed ethical and logistical challenges, which I address in the chapters that follow. It also generated unique insight into how recognition works and how its ethnologics transform communities in new and un/intended ways.

Examining these interfaces of communities and the state, this book seeks to raise a broader set of questions about how sociocultural difference is recognized, managed, or otherwise denied at our current conjuncture. This question of difference and its rightful recognition has emerged as a crux of what Elizabeth Povinelli aptly terms “late liberalism.”3 With her, I am specifically concerned with how postcolonial states manage those claims of collective difference that have emerged and gained steam since decolonization. While the trajectories of postcolonial democracy vary considerably from country to country, the quandaries of late liberalism are particularly pronounced in India. Like other anticolonial struggles, India’s independence movement forged new political possibilities for minorities. The struggle put into play new categories and new state-based mechanisms of social justice. Since 1947, however, the terms and forms of minority politics have mounted and morphed, putting immense pressure on a government that is at once bereft of resources and wedded to outdated systems of recognition. This book explores these quandaries of late liberalism through those people who arguably know them best—aspiring minorities and government workers. Government anthropologists necessarily figure in this analysis. My main concerns, however, remain with the people of Darjeeling. Through their struggles for rights, autonomy, and belonging (tribal and otherwise), I seek a deeper questioning of what forms of life and politics are possible amid these regimes of late liberal recognition.

This is a book about a people and the state that governs them. But it is also the story of a discipline and its gradual seep into the world it studies. Since the British colonial period, anthropology and its subfield ethnology have been central to the governance of diversity on the subcontinent. Today, the paradigms and practices of these human sciences extend from the policies of multicultural governance to the bleeding edge of minority politics. The scholarship of Bernard Cohn and others has demonstrated how these budding disciplines became modalities of colonial rule, informing a litany of devices (censuses, ethnological surveys, etc.) to “scientifically” know and rule India’s diverse masses.4 The story played out to varying degrees throughout the Euro-colonial world, as these sciences of Man were deployed to address the “native question” in contexts ranging from South Asia to Africa and the Americas.5 The imperial implications of anthropology, ethnology, and other academic disciplines are, consequently, undeniable. Postcolonial critique has accordingly set about the difficult work of bringing these skeletons in the disciplinary closet into the open—a project that continues to this day. Yet, as we confront these problematic pasts, we must not be lulled into thinking that these operations of ethnological knowledge-power are only a thing of the past. They are present, and not always in ways we are accustomed to recognizing.

Ethnology continues to be pressed into familiar services. The Ethnographic Survey of 2006 is a case in point. Here we see the sustained operation of ethnological categories (tribe) and practices (state ethnography) as a means to govern diversity. The survey extends a long history of ethnological governmentality in India. Yet this may be only half the story. Communities throughout the world are now turning liberalism’s ethno-logics back upon the state—and themselves—to redefine their community, their politics, and their worlds. For many, the ability to represent culture, identity, and custom in certain ways (and not others) has become a prerequisite to the achievement of rights and social justice. Indigenous peoples from Australia to Nicaragua and the United States are taking their struggles to court, and increasingly putting anthropological experts (native and academic) on the stand to testify on their behalf.6 Majorities and minorities in Indonesia have refashioned native tradition (adat) into a resurgent political force.7 First Nations in Canada and indigenous communities worldwide continue to invest in archeology and heritage (museums, etc.) to re-present themselves locally and to broader publics.8 And, as we saw earlier, minorities in India continue to confound the logics of state multiculturalism by performing categories like “tribal” to a T.

Ethnological self-concern has become integral to a new politics of difference—indigenous, tribal, and otherwise—at the global level. There is more at stake in these endeavors than an opportunistic appropriation of static categories. Communities are reworking ethnological paradigms in newly generative ways, posing fresh challenges to governments, the human sciences, and community members themselves. For the academic, it may seem strange (even uncanny, in a Freudian sense9) that populations—many of them ethnology’s erstwhile objects—are taking up and taking on disciplinary paradigms. But for the marginalized, repurposing disciplinary norms may be vital to the achievement of rights, prosperity, and survival itself.

These dynamics are part and parcel of a world deeply affected by ethnological thought—what I call the ethno-contemporary. We are hard-pressed to go anywhere without encountering claims of the ethnos. On the one hand, notions of tribes, natives, and indigeneity, each bearing their attendant forms of culture, identity, and difference, have become seemingly ubiquitous fixtures of public policy and the popular imagination. On the other hand, these concepts are under fresh—and urgent—renegotiation. Now in non-academic hands, ethnological knowledge has become central to efforts to redefine the ethnos for the twenty-first century. Deployed by governments, co-opted by the market, and put to increasingly inventive uses by communities themselves, ethnology, as such, continues to shape and reshape the contemporary in unforeseen ways.

This book sets out to explore these untold “lives” of ethnology. Through the people and processes of tribal recognition in India, it examines what happens when disciplinary knowledge travels from the domains of scholarship and governance to the lives and politics of everyday people seeking their rightful place in the modern world. I ask several questions: How are states and communities using ethnology to redefine themselves and their futures? What are the stakes of these ethnological (re)turns? And what might this all mean for difference and recognition in the future?

Ethnology, as the visionary poet William Butler Yeats might say, is now “loosed upon the world.” My project is to shed some light on this second coming.10 As I hope to make clear, classificatory moments like the Ethnographic Survey figure as defining moments for much more than just a people seeking rights and belonging. They are defining moments for a state struggling to meet the needs of its people. And perhaps, too, of the ethnologically marked times in which we live.


There are, at present, more than 700 Scheduled Tribes of India—a population that amounts to more than 8 percent of the country’s population, or roughly 100 million individuals (a figure exceeding the combined populations of Great Britain and Canada).11 ST status affords these groups a range of affirmative action advantages, including employment quotas in government posts, lower standards of admission to educational institutions, and eligibility for special tribal development packages. As India has embraced liberalization since the 1990s, the demands and need for this kind of affirmative action have escalated. Officials I interviewed estimated upwards of a thousand minority groups aspiring to tribal status. The demands are all the more telling considering the Indian government’s formal criteria for Scheduled Tribe recognition: (a) indication of primitive traits, (b) distinctive culture, (c) geographical isolation, (d) shyness of contact with the community at large, and (e) backwardness.12 Pejorative connotations and echoes of colonial anthropology aside, becoming tribal has nevertheless emerged as a twenty-first-century desire for millions—and a veritable problem for the postcolonial state.

The timing of all this matters. The increased demand for tribal status has coincided with a global proliferation of indigenous movements, the 1990s uprisings of Latin America being the most notable. These struggles have thrust indigeneity and its signature claims of culture, identity, and difference into the forefront of international concern. In response to this movement of movements, the United Nations declared 1995 to 2004 to be “A Decade for Indigenous People,” instituting its Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples in 2000 and adopting its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. These events punctuated the development of a global discourse of indigeneity that has become a vital resource for marginalized groups throughout the world.13 The Indian government, for its part, refuses to legally recognize indigeneity—preferring instead categories like “tribal” and adivasi.14 But this has not stopped India’s tribal movements from indexing and participating directly in this global arena of indigenous struggle.15 The last two decades have consequently seen indigeneity become a key trope of minority politics across South Asia.16


1. Here and throughout this book, I follow local usages in referring to the three subdivisions of Darjeeling, Kurseong, and Kalimpong collectively as the Darjeeling Hills.

2. Exemplary anthropologies of recognition and indigeneity include: Cadena and Starn 2007; Clifford 2013; French 2009; Ghosh 2006; Niezen 2003; Povinelli 2002, 2011; Shah 2010. For recent treatments of the postcolonial state in South Asia, see Gupta 2012; Gupta and Sivaramakrishnan 2012; Fuller and Bénéï 2000; Hansen and Stepputat 2001; Hull 2012.

3. On “late liberalism,” see Povinelli 2011:ix; also Povinelli 2002.

4. See Cohn 1987, 1996; Dirks 2001, 2004; Dudley-Jenkins 2003; Haller 1971; Pels and Salemink 2000; Pinney 1991; Uberoi, Sunar, and Deshpande 2008; Young 1995.

5. I do not mean to suggest a uniform development of anthropology and ethnology across colonial contexts. As Asad (1973), Binsbergen (1985), Sanjek (1993), and Schumaker (2001) have shown, anthropology’s development was variegated and regionally specific. On the native question, see Mamdani 1996: 16.

6. See, e.g., Clifford 1988; Hale 2006; Povinelli 2002.

7. Davidson and Henley 2007.

8. Cf. Clifford 2004, 2013; Eriksen 2002, 2004; Handler 1996; McAnany and Parks 2012; Phillips 2003.

9. On the haunting un/familiarity of the uncanny, see Freud (1919) 2003.

10. Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1920) 1994.

11. Population figures based on the 2011 censuses of India, the UK, and Canada. Because the government recognizes and administers STs on a state-by-state basis, I have followed suit to arrive at the 700+ tally. See The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950: c.o. 22 (as of 2014).

12. Available in The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes Handbook 2005 (Government of India, 2005).

13. Helpful overviews include Davidson and Henley 2007: 7–12 and Niezen 2003.

14. Adivasi is a term used widely throughout India, meaning, loosely, “autochthonous or original inhabitant.”

15. Indigenous leaders from India began participating in the UN Working Group of Indigenous Peoples in the mid-1980s. Participation has been steady ever since. See Ghosh 2006; Karlsson 2006: 52–59. See also Shneiderman’s (2015, ch. 6) cogent discussion of communities’ uneven access to this global arena.

16. See Ghosh 2006; Karlsson and Subba 2006; Shah 2010.