29
May

New Insights into Colonial Encounters in the Himalaya

Amanda Taylor, Claire Blaser, and Martin Brooks

Drawing on recent fieldwork undertaken in the remote Kra Daadi district of central Arunachal Pradesh – one of the least studied areas of the eastern Himalaya – this paper reconsiders the history of the Miri Mission, a ‘friendly’ military expedition launched by British colonial Presenterities in 1911-12 which resulted in failure and fatalities. Our research challenges traditional historiography by examining unstudied primary sources as well as narratives passed down by a local community through oral history practices. What do these sources tell us about the mutual interactions between British officials on the one hand and, on the other, indigenous populations, the mission’s Gurkha soldiers and porters drawn from Lushai, Naga and Nepali communities? Is it possible to examine the perceptions of these various actors? If so, what new insights can be drawn on the subject of the complex relationships between communities on the imperial margins and agents of colonialism?

We attempt to produce a multiple and critical history of an event that took place during the Miri Mission, based on previously unstudied material held at the State Archives in Itanagar, an unpublished personal tour diary of Captain A.M. Graham of the 5th Gurkha Rifles who commanded the military escort, and the collective and individual memories recalled by the people of the village of Tali, which was the site of an attack on the Mission. In March 2018, we visited the region to conduct interviews and collect local narratives about the events of 1912.

Using a comparative approach that is micro-historical while retaining the broader perspective of a connected Himalayan history, we intend to put multiple, conflicting, but equally understudied and subjective perspectives into dialogue with each other to propose a departure from ‘methodological nationalism’ and dominant discourses about colonial histories – not just in this particular ‘margin’, but also beyond, in the transnational spaces of South Asian borderlands. Thus, this research highlights the value of recording oral traditions and setting these alongside official records and other archival material.

As the area and Tali itself lie on the cusp of major change with a new bridge and road finally ending its geographic isolation, these new insights into the past can help complicate official history and are valuable as the local community considers how to represent both themselves and their history to outsiders.

This research received a generous grant from the Frederick Williamson Memorial Fund and an individual donor.

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