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Raile Rocky Ziipao


Raile Rocky Ziipao is the 2017-2018 Arvind Raghunathan and Sribala Subramanian South Asia Visiting Fellow at SAI. His research interest includes frontier’s highways, the political economy of Indigenous/Tribal/Adivasi peoples development, critical infrastructure studies, philosophy of Indigenous methodology (perspective from within), and an alternative path to modernity.

In an interview with SAI, Raile Rocky Ziipao discusses the importance of his research and initiatives regarding infrastructure in Tribal-dominated areas.

Ziipao will give a seminar on his research titled “The Question of Tribes in Northeast India,” Thursday, March 29, 2018.


How did you first become interested in infrastructure development?

My research project began in my home village of Purul. During monsoons, the roads are not drivable and electricity is so irregular that in some places, there are electric poles with no wires. People have to climb to the top of the mountain for cell service. To get to school, students have to walk for miles. When I go to other parts of the country, the infrastructure is much better. I began to wonder why roads and electricity are so bad in Tribal-dominated areas.

In the sensitive social and political context of India’s border and frontier region, it is crucial to research the impact of infrastructure development on ecosystems, communities, and livelihood. For this reason, I wrote my Ph.D. thesis on infrastructure development and social dynamics in Manipur. My dissertation examines the dynamics of infrastructure development in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of how the state of India plans, executes and politicizes infrastructure. My analysis gives primacy to infrastructure within the development discourse in Northeast India and provides a basis to understand the issues of access, inclusion, equity, and social justice.


What is the importance of roads in your current research?

My current research explores how road development and territorialization take place in Northeast India. One track of my research examines British Colonialism from a historical perspective and asks why the British built roads during the Colonial period? How do roads and colonization take place together?  How did the Tribes form a resistance effort when the British were encroaching upon them?  

Roads are political paths; the development of roads is entwined with the extractions of natural resources and political control of Tribal Areas. My research examines both contemporary and historical road development projects in Tribal areas. I draw connections between the legacies of Colonialism to the Indian state’s development approach. Roads for territorial expansion and resource extraction were the core agenda of the colonial project. The post-colonial Indian state, on the other hand, built roads in the region for securing the borders, promoting regional integration, and linking external markets.

Road development in Northeast India focuses on national highways and transnational highways, ignoring feeder and village roads. Budgetary allocations for village roads are very small. One of my case studies was the so-called Frontiers Highway, which borders China; and the Trans-lateral Highway, which connects India, Myanmar, and Thailand. These highways, in a way, bypass the local economy and local people.

Another case study is of the People’s road, which the Manipur government has ignored for more than 30 years. However, the community used social media to recruit help. With active community participation, they built 100km of the road without any government support, successfully connecting three states in India: Manipur, Nagaland, and Assam.


What are some of the challenges that Tribal Societies in India face today?

Tribes are at the bottom of any social development indicators in India. Tribal people make up 8.6 percent of the total Indian population (104.3 million people). My research utilizes epistemology to examine how India’s dominant framework centers on Caste Societies and theorizes Tribal Societies as the periphery. The dominant framework does not explain the social reality of Tribes. From 1951 to 1990, development projects such as wildlife sanctuaries and dams have displaced 21 million people in Tribal areas. The caste society decides everything for the non-caste society, which explains why they are at the bottom of all social indicators — such as literacy and infant mortality.

Tribes in India have a social structure, which is different from that of so-called mainstream society. Tribes are the non-caste society in India: A category opposed to that of caste, which is a pervasive feature of the larger Indian society. However, Tribes are not a homogenous category. The 2011 census categorizes 705 individual ethnic groups as Scheduled Tribes in India, some with populations as big as 1 million and some with less than 1,000. Tribes are also diverse in terms of culture, traditions, and value systems. While formulating development policy, the challenge on the part of the Indian state is to provide space for synchronizing Tribal peoples’ lived experience, their traditional institutions, and value systems along with the modern values of equality, justice, freedom, fraternity, mutual respect, emancipation, and non-discrimination. Development policy conceptualized and based on the premise of population size and dominant culture has further escalated the tension and development disparity between dominant societies and those living at the margin of history, economy, and crisis of identity.

While theorizing development, it is essential to problematize the Indian state’s assumption that Tribal destruction and displacement are necessary for national economic growth. This does not mean that Tribes do not want to be part of development. Rather, outside forces should not superimpose development but should align with the ethos of the Tribe.


What is the origin of the Tribal Intellectual collective India?

I belong to the Poumai Naga Tribes, which is located in Northeast India in the state of Manipur. I am part of the Tribal Intellectual Collective India (TICI), which Bodhi SR (national co-convener) initiated a few years ago. The collective has approximately 150 members who come from Tribes across the country from Ladak (border of China), Northeastern States, Andaman and Nicobar Island, Central India; from both small and large tribes; and a balance between male and female members. 

We draw inspiration from Professor Virginius Xaxa’s theoretical contribution to tribal studies in India. Tribes in India face two waves of Colonialism, what Professor Xaxa calls “double colonialism” — one from the British and one from the non-Tribal Indian population. Hence, the problem of trying to unravel Tribal social reality from the post-colonial framework of South Asian Studies. Tribes still have yet to experience a post-colonial reality. For Tribes, post-colonial reality and framework is just an idea. This is why it makes sense for us to look at the binary of caste and non-caste society, and from the waves of colonialism.

Xaxa argues that “a tribe is a whole society like any other society, with their own language, territory, culture, customs, and so on. Hence, as societies, tribes must be compared with other societies and not with caste, as has been the case in sociological and anthropological writing.”

The TICI’s theoretical framework includes:

  • The need to posit epistemological premises that challenge gender and class stratification within Tribe/Adivasi societies.
  • The need to produce knowledge that does not affirm the further oppression of “Dalit/Mulnivasi” societies.
  • Does not render invisible, silence, or immobilize small tribes/Adivasi societies.
  • While theorizing “development,” do not perpetuate the State’s current “development paradigm,” which frames Tribe/Adivasi displacement and destruction as necessary for national economic growth.

Furthermore, TICI aims to bring Tribal perspectives into focus by creating the theory, “perspective from within.” This theoretical approach acknowledges that everyone has their own way of looking at the world and that everyone has a right to look at and understand their own social reality. This theory is in contrast to dominant societies, who think of their theories as truth and position other perspectives as an expression of their emotions or a political statement. We see that as problematic because we all have perspectives, no one can stake claim to the truth. We acknowledge that we have a perspective, and we try to acknowledge that others have their own perspective.

The collective has a national seminar, this year’s seminar “Tribal Towns, Small Towns, Border Town and New Towns: Governance, Development and Change” will take place in August. We have also published two books, with two forthcoming, and have been successfully running our online publications, known as TICI Journals, for the past five years.


What has it been like for you to be at Harvard?

Harvard’s incredible resources — the classes, professors, academic environment — are very different from what I have experienced. Harvard gives me a space to reflect, take a step backward, and look deeply at the social reality of my home. Harvard also supplies me with academic tools to analyze and compare these different social realities.

When I am in my village, there is no concept of hierarchy. When we have a dialogue, we sit together — when there is a discussion, a decision can take two or three days. There is no stage, and there is no shouting. Because of this, I am non-hierarchical in nature. During my first talk at Harvard, I felt uncomfortable being on the center stage, since it was my first time in such a situation.

I am grateful for the opportunity that SAI has given to me — rarely do Tribals get access to this kind of opportunity. For instance, I am the first generation in my family to have access to higher education. For me, making it to a top-class university like Harvard is significant, and at first, I could not comprehend how I would face it. However, the staff at SAI have been supportive and friendly.

The best part of being at Harvard has been my academic growth and being part of the knowledge production.  TICI argues that epistemology is the key to Tribes’ emancipation. For our movement to be more than reactionary, we need to produce knowledge. For too long, dominant societies have put us within their framework. I contribute towards the collective by publishing in my area of expertise — Tribes and infrastructure development in conflict areas.


You recently gave a talk with the Boston Study Group. What sort of partnerships and collaborations emerged from that talk?

The talk gave me a space to reach out and collaborate with people from other marginalized groups. The Indigenous people from Australia and Central America who came to my talk were shocked that there are 104.3 million Indigenous people in India. The talk gave us a space to learn about each other’s issues. It makes sense to have a global collaboration across groups, for example, The Boston Study group is active with Dalit rights and issues and connects them with Black Lives Matter and Roma people. Historically these are different locations, but there were similar processes of marginalization. In the future, we hope to learn how to widen our horizons of collaboration, regardless of national boundaries.



This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

-Amy Johnson