PhD defended at:
The mountainous borderlands of India’s northeast are often seen as historically isolated, inert and inaccessible. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness that such areas were much more open, lively and connected than hitherto assumed. This dissertation tracks dynamic historical change in one such region: the Lushai Hills District, or what is today the state of Mizoram, from the 1890s to the 1920s. The study has two objectives. First, it asks how the people of this eastern Himalayan region transformed themselves from an oral society of disaggregated clans following customary practices, to an overwhelmingly Christian and overarchingly Mizo society. This central question is approached empirically and unconventionally, by foregrounding processes of linkage and disjuncture rather than assuming ‘remoteness’; by operating from an upland geographical, agentive and conceptual centre rather than treating the region, its inhabitants and their cultural logics as peripheral; and by exploring the underappreciated ways in which wrenching transitions to modern forms of governance, a cash economy, state borders and remade ecologies entangled with and informed the regional history of Christianity at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The dissertation’s second objective is methodological. It seeks to forge a series of perspectival and conceptual tools to decenter state and empire in the region. This includes exploring reorientations of space and scale, the utility of animal-centred perspectives, and the analytical use of upland concepts and cultural logics to destabilize established historical narratives. As an intervention in historical method, this study seeks to shatter the inherited binaries that organize the region’s conventional history writing (savage/civilized, traditional/modern, reason/superstition, Christian/animist, connected/isolated) and to contribute to a growing literature that challenges stereotypes about remoteness, tribal primitivism and historical stasis in India’s northeast. It advances debates in transregional history, mission studies, indigenous history, borderlands studies, sensory history and the history of religion.