Elephant in the Room

Tracing culture as a strategic resource in food-politics, racism, and resistance in contemporary Naga social history

  • Aditya K. Kakati
Keywords: cultural nationalism, dog-meat, human-animal relations, indigeneity, citizenship


The Nagaland government’s July 2020 announcement of a ban on the sale of dog-meat stimulated a flood of articles on various aspects of the debate. The war of words pitted animal rights activists against the defenders of cultural rights. This article highlights the persistent circulation of ‘culture’ and unpacks its strategic potential for resistance due to its fluidity in the dog-meat debate and in other issues affecting present-Nagas and Northeast India. We trace and disambiguate the use of ‘culture’ in resistance narratives which have circulated through binary oppositions and racialized caricatures to re-animate discussions on race, cultural nationalism and citizenship politics. While anthropology has critiqued culture, we identify how the concept still circulates as a strategic resource and as a trope in contemporary Naga social history. We identify new itineraries of culture’s circulation that are otherwise muddled in recent public debates, which received an impetus after the reinvigoration of discussions on racism in mid-2020. This was sparked by the dog-meat ban and the release of a film in mid-2020, and the global anti-Asian racism triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic that year. We highlight the contestations in the domain of race, representation, and citizenship that have emerged in Northeast Indian Himalayan contexts in the last decades, due to twenty-five years of indefinite ceasefires with major armed groups. Tensions arise with the regional aspirations, engaging their position of belonging within India but also globally oriented agendas fuelled by new forms of capital and mobility. Such tensions are playing out in the domain of food-politics and human-animal relations that straddle different rights regimes. We underline this caution around culture’s essentialism and its circulation as a historical trope due to its divisive potential in scripting narratives of social history and minority citizenship, at a time when Indian nation-building projects in the region are changing.

How to Cite
Kakati, A. K. (2023). Elephant in the Room. HIMALAYA - The Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, 42(1), 78-97. https://doi.org/10.2218/himalaya.2023.8044
Research Articles