Accepted paper:

Hosts, guests and "blood brothers" on an Indian frontier: ecotourism as a mode of political and cultural encompassment in the nation-state


Suchismita Das (University of Chicago)

Paper short abstract:

Tourism on national frontiers bring mainland guests in contact with indigenous hosts. The state may thereby try to hegmonically encompass outliers in a national imaginary. How do guides frame and mediate this contact? Thus, do they thwart, forward or modify the quest for spatializing nation-states?

Paper long abstract:

State/quasi-state institutions are now promoting ecotourism along India's north-eastern frontier. 'Pristine' mountainous terrains inhabited by indigenous communities, whose cultural-political histories differ from the mainland, make for a volatile hegemony of the nation-state here. Ostensibly ecotourism brings conservation and development. However it has potential to fulfill the state's imperative of territorial encompassment of frontiers, if the moment of contact with mainland tourists can be framed as fulfilling India's nation-building motto of 'unity in diversity'. How do the everyday practices of a tour-guide in negotiating this contact thwart, forward or modify this quest for routinizing the state imaginary in geography and public consciousness? Tashi Lepcha, a guide from an indigenous community which till 1975 was a semi-autonomous kingdom under India's protection, was conducting tourists from the Indian plains on a birding trip. On a difficult terrain, a visitor slipped off a cliff and Tashi pulled him back from imminent death. This forged a special bond - both parties using fictive kinship terms to express the intensity of the encounter. I inquire into the specific idiom of "blood brotherhood" in which Tashi frames this encounter. Tracing its genealogy to the origin myth of the pre-colonial state, I unpack the value of fictive kinship terms in idealizing subject's relations to each other and the state. What value did this idiom have in legitimizing the pre-colonial state formed by the banding of diverse mountain communities and how (and how effectively) is this value transmuted in present state-making moments, through the mediating role of tourism and tour-guides?

panel P088
The technologies and techniques of guiding: tour guides as cultural mediators