Review of Dolly Kikon’s ‘Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics & Militarization in Northeast India’

Review of Dolly Kikon’s ‘Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics & Militarization in Northeast India’

Review by Matt Wilkinson

Resource frontiers are marked by complex economic, political, and social entanglements. Valuable resources at frontiers render these sites as simultaneously dangerous and desirable. At frontiers, the promise of wealth and opportunity found in coal, oil, and other precious minerals is met with the perils of contestations for control, reckless extractive economies, and the incursions and expansions of militarized extractive regimes. Dolly Kikon’s ‘Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics & Militarization in Northeast India’ offers an ethnographic window into the nature of these complexities at the Nagaland/Assam border, a resource frontier in Northeast India where opportunities for extraction and resource-led aspirations coexist with conflict, militarization, and ethnic tension. Kikon provides in-depth insights into this little-known and understudied borderland.

The central tenet of Living with Coal and Oil is that land and resources frame relationships in complex ways in the Naga foothills.The presence of hydrocarbon resources links extractive operations, violence, and militarization, but also forms the background of complex social, economic, and political relationships. Life in the resource frontier is inextricably shaped by resources in ways that reappear in the politics of access, citizenship, land ownership, but also in personal relationships, kinship ties, love, histories, and aspirations.

In considering the wider implications of resources at the frontier, Kikonbuilds on earlier anthropological discussions of resources at the frontier by the likes ofNash (1980), Li (2007), and Taussig (2010)and stands alongside frontier ethnographies such as Tsing (1993)and Eilenberg (2012).Kikon’s work is made distinct by over a decade of engagement with communities at the Naga foothills and in Assam. Her position as a Naga, as a lawyer and an activist, and as a researcher, lends a unique perspective to the complex entanglements and engagements that exist and take place at the Naga foothills.

Living with Oil and Coal is presented in seven chapters weaving together discussions, observations, stories, and vignettes of life in the foothills. Kikon begins her ethnography with ‘Storytellers’, discussing the multifaceted relationships that communities forge with the land and with their neighbours in the foothills. Chapter 2, ‘Difficult Loves’, discusses the concept of morom, a form of love that encompasses a wide variety of relations, and its complexities and power dynamics in foothills society. Chapter 3, ‘State Loves’, focuses on the relationships between foothills communities and the various manifestations of the state, encompassing feelings of state abandonment and neglect. Chapter 4, “The Haats”, offers insights into foothill markets as important sites that reflect the complexities of social and economic life in the foothills. Chapter 5, “Extractive Relations”, considers the ways land ownership and extractive regimes forge different kinds of friendship and kinship ties in the foothills. Chapter 6, “Carbon Fantasies and Aspirations”, explores the ways aspirations for a better life are attached to the promise brought by oil in the foothills. Kikon’s final chapter, “Carbon Citizenship”, discusses the ways exploration and extraction for hydrocarbon resources in the foothills are shaped by the security prism and the ways securitized resource regimes influence everyday lives.

Living with Oil & Coal offers valuable insights into the fraught nature of life in the Nagaland-Assam foothills, and the complexities of relationships, love, governance, economies, ownership, aspirations, and citizenship in a resource frontier where multiple states, regimes, and modes of control are intertwined. These insights are important ways of seeing frontiers and other spaces of extraction, where ethnographies have typically focused on people’s interactions with states and forms of compliance and resistance, but less on the ways resources and contestation over resources shape interpersonal relationships and individual aspirations. Living with Oil and Coal also opens-up new questions about resource frontiers and the ways relationships form, grow, and break-down in places of extraction, violence, and militarization. Living with Oil and Coal opens space for new questions about relationships, community, and life in resource frontiers such as ‘what happens when people leave and then come back? How do they navigate re-entering an environment where tensions are high, relationships are fraught, and change is constant?’ What are the differences between the old and the young in these spaces? How does age shape the experience of resources and extraction at the frontier?’ Finally, and perhaps most urgently, ‘what happens to these relationships when the extractive rush has ended and the resources have run out?’


Eilenberg, M. (2012). At the Edges of States: Dynamics of State Formation in the Indonesian Borderlands. Leiden: Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies Press.

Li, T. M. (2007). The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Nash, J. (1980). We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependencty and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines. New York: Columbia University Press.

Taussig, M. T. (2010). The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (2nd ed.). Noth Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

Tsing. (1993). In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-way Place. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Matt Wilkinson is a PhD Candidate at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.