Living with Oil and Coal

Photo: Dolly Kikon


Living with Oil and Coal

Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India

The nineteenth-century discovery of oil in the eastern Himalayan foothills, together with the establishment of tea plantations and other extractive industries, continues to have a profound impact on life in the region. In the Indian states of Assam and Nagaland, everyday militarization, violence, and the scramble for natural resources regulate the lives of Naga, Ahom, and Adivasi people, as well as migrants from elsewhere in the region, as they struggle to find peace and work.

Dolly Kikon uses in-depth ethnographic accounts to address the complexity of Northeast India, a region between Southeast Asia and China where boundaries and borders are made, disputed, and maintained. Bringing a fresh and exciting direction to borderland studies, she explores the social bonds established through practices of resource extraction and the tensions these relations generate, focusing on peoples’ love for the landscape and for the state, as well as for family, friends, and neighbours. Living with Oil and Coal illuminates questions of citizenship, social justice, and environmental politics that are shared by communities worldwide.

Living with Oil and Coal

Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India

Published 2019, University of Washington Press, Seattle, US

Book Discussion


  • Anthropologist Kikon’s groundbreaking work offers a nuanced exploration of Northeast India’s political ecology, drawing upon a rich tapestry of ethnographic testimonies, historical narratives, and theoretical frameworks to unravel the complexities of life in this dynamic and contested terrain. Kikon’s analysis transcends simplistic binaries, eschewing conventional categorizations to offer fresh insights into the multifaceted realities of resource extraction, identity formation, and state-society relations in the region…. Through meticulous ethnographic research and nuanced analysis, Kikon provides a nuanced understanding of the complexities of resource extraction, identity formation, and state-society relations in Northeast India. Her work serves as a testament to the resilience of communities in the face of adversity, offering valuable insights into the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in this ever-evolving landscape. – Donald Takhell
  • [The book] is a richly textured ethnography of how individuals and communities make their lives in the shadows of a region transformed by extraction…. There is a way in which the conjunction “Living with” invites us to see oil and coal as perhaps more ephemeral to local ways of being and meaning-making that center around affective labors, reciprocal socialities, gendered expectations, relations of trading and trust, and long histories of ethnic marginalization…. Interdisciplinary scholarship on the environment has much to gain from Kikon’s book. It elevates the particular experiences of India’s northeast into comparative discussions on extractive regimes, petro-violence, and resource frontiers across the world. It is an especially welcome contribution in a moment in which scholarship on energy has become infused with vitalist and onto-theological language about “life” in the age of our carbon-fueled climate crisis. The power of Kikon’s ethnography lies in its subtle, and unromanticized, insistence on the creativity and fortitude of those communities living amidst such extractive debris. Kikon’s careful mapping of friendships, enmities, grieving, laughing, dying, working, loving, healing, teaching, struggling, and building helps us to see all of the fragile things that hold life together, and what we will still have to tend to once the oil is gone. – Matthew Shutzer, University of California, Berkeley
  • [The book] tells a story of intimacy. This is an empathetic window into the lives of the inhabitants of the foothills of Assam and Nagaland under extractive regimes that permeate their desires, anxieties, and fears with coal and oil. The book demonstrates how oil and coal dictate the contours of the interspersed frontiers strewn across these foothills in the form of the federal governments of Assam and Nagaland, the Indian state, and the financial and political aspirations, gender norms, ethnicities, and memories of the inhabitants. In many ways, this book is a borderland study about the borders within…. Dolly Kikon’s book, undoubtedly a fascinating work of ethnography, compels us to problematize seemingly unitary categories of hills and other land and waterscapes and also to think of the impact of extractive regimes not only on the environment but also on how environment then comes to exist for the human societies who experience them. – Nabajyoti Ghosh, Ashoka University
  • Kikon’s work contributes to North East India scholarship that assume to be the first multi-perspective resource ethnography where oil and coal relationships overlapped with social, spatial and political accounts. With mundane stories of negotiations between the citizens and the state, this rich ethnography brings the oil and coal fields to the reader. – Pratisha Borborah, Cotton University
  • Kikon has crafted the book skilfully with her narrative writing style. This book also brings into the forefront what kind of challenges a researcher face while doing fieldwork in a highly militarised zone in a democratic country. The author skilfully teases out the contradictions of the Indian state and its authoritative control over its citizen in the Northeast, which has been influenced by ruthless extractive capitalism. This book is an essential reading for those who want to understand the complex state-society dynamics in Northeast India. – Souvik Lal Chakraborty, Monash University
  • Kikon is a gifted storyteller. She has an eye for poignant details. Kikon is also a deeply committed scholar who as a lawyer and human rights activist is used to listening to people and share their distress and dreams. Such engagements build trust and people trust her with the stories of their lives. This is a fantastic read, a book that speaks to scholars as well as general public. Kikon combines grounded ethnography with theoretical elaboration, setting a new standard of excellence for the anthropology of the North East. – Bengt G. Karlsson, Stockholm University
  • The strength of Kikon’s work is… in the creativity and skill of its synthesis of existing theoretical work, applied to a new context and matched with local knowledge. The book prods scholars of anthropology and resource extraction to consider the role of militarisation and the politics of space and presents ethnography as a viable way to examine these phenomena. Scholars of other regions, especially Latin America, will recognise many of the ideas presented in Kikon’s work, while scholars of South Asia will have the opportunity to see these ideas applied in their region. – Abram Johannes Frederick Lutes, Carleton University
  • Rooted in the classic themes of political anthropology such as citizenship, sovereignty and borders, it is the first “multi-perspective resource ethnography” of the militarized extractive regime in the region, a place where lives and livelihoods traverse and transgress multiple borders: between hills and valleys, between the two Indian states of Assam and Nagaland, and between a number of ethnic groups and armed insurgencies… Kikon’s writing evocatively captures the intricacies and intimacies of daily life on this militarized resource frontier, drawing from stories, oral histories, and local myths, in spaces ranging from coal mines to oil rigs, rice fields to weekly markets and military checkpoints. Throughout, the book remains focused on the fragile and contested intimacies forged through trade, labor sharing, and love affairs across boundaries that are at once social, political, and ecological… Kikon is interested in mapping… the messy connections and entanglements that make extraction possible… break new ground for resource ethnography through their detailed ethnographic attention to specific social worlds of extraction. Probing distinct social and ecological landscapes, they vividly demonstrate the often violent collisions and entanglements between extractive operations and the social lives of local residents – despite industry attempts at detachment and disentanglement… Kikon offers a textured account of the intimate life-worlds of extraction. – Tanya Matthan, University of California
  • Kikon’s book gives fresh impetus to the understanding of how people negotiate with state representatives, armed insurgency groups, the Indian army and each other in the fluid boundaries of the foothill region. The book offers a new perspective on the study of “borderland” people and their expectations from non-renewable resources, as well as their struggles to get access to them. – Nabanita Sharma, Delhi University
  • Living with Oil and Coal is a beautiful and gripping account of the intimate layers of life, violence and sovereignty pattered throughout the militarised carbon landscape of the foothills of Assam and Nagaland in North East India. In a vibrant and rich ethnographic study of this resource frontier in the Eastern Himalayan foothills, Dolly Kikon explores the social, political and legal bounds that are forged through and in the wake of practices of resource extraction… As an excellent example of how spaces of resource extraction are produced, this book reminds us that it is with minute attention to details and the irreducibility of life that we may best understand the worlds we walk. Maybe the most significant contribution offered by this book is thus a critical re-description of the resource frontier of Northeast India as a densely heterogenous space… It opens new political horizons along attentiveness and care to place in Northeast India and other extractive frontiers alike, holding on to rather than collapsing the layers of violence embedded in the everyday life of the foothills… As an account that par excellence avoids reduction, Living with Oil and Coal may be grouped with a tradition of rich postcolonial scholarship that re-defines the possibilities of the world by telling it through its details. – Tim Lindgren, University of Melbourne
  • Kikon beautifully utilises stories as a heuristic device to enable an understanding of a carbon-affected region… A major theme of this ethnography is its exploration of state-society relations… Kikon’s ethnography is rich, diverse, and makes an engaging read. – Swargajyoti Gohain, Ashoka University
  • Living with Oil & Coal is a wonderful book that adds much-needed depth and detail to our understanding of how people create place and belonging while navigating the expansion of the global market to extract oil and coal from their land. This is a versatile book that would be accessible for undergraduate audiences, yet contains complexity that would be of great interest for graduate audiences and scholars as well. Highly recommended. – CJ Appleton, Portland State University
  • Kikon’s absorbing account on a militarized carbon landscape would stand out because of the novel ways in which violence, friendship and love are examined in their multiple, complex and textured manifestations…. Kikon must be commended for her authoritative and innovative ways of understanding the militarized carbon landscape not only as a violent space, but also as a thriving space of symbols, meanings, and people’s accounts and connections with the land. – Kham Khan Suan Hausing, Professor, University of Hyderabad
  • In Living with Oil and Coal: Resource Politics and Militarization in Northeast India, anthropologist Dolly Kikon offers a rich account of life in the midst of a landscape defined by multiple overlapping extractive industries and plantation economies, and of the social relations through which a resource frontier comes into being. – New Books in Anthropology podcast


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