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Nature and Space
The rehabilitation zone:
Living with lemons and
elephants in Assam
University of Melbourne, Australia
Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India
Lemon farming promoted as rehabilitation programs in western Assam has generated income for
villages that were deeply affected by ethnic conflict in the 1990s. Rehabilitation is tied to an eco-
nomic logic linked with the market and a profit-driven measure of development. In the absence of
an official reconciliation process on the ground, these economic initiatives have become an ambi-
tious and attractive model for the Indian state to rebuild societies that have witnessed violent ethnic
conflicts in Northeast India. Drawing from fieldwork carried out between 2016 and 2019 around
Manas National Park, an area within the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts in western
Assam, this article examines the experiences and impacts of lemon farming and focuses on practices
of rehabilitation on the ground. The process of restoration includes communities living in the
villages and the animals inside the park simultaneously. We show how communities are seeking
to create connections with the land and their surroundings to overcome trauma and rebuild their
lives. Specifically, we focus on lemon farming and the experiences of human–elephants relationships
in Manas to highlight how these accounts produce an integrative account of rehabilitation in post-
conflict societies. In the backdrop of militarization and structural violence, rehabilitating commu-
nities and animals is not a straightforward story. It entails proposing new theoretical frameworks to
understand how reconstructing lives and the land is also about transforming relationships between
humans and animals under circumstances that are often challenging. Ongoing lemon farming prac-
tices and living with elephants in Assam requires envisioning ways of belonging and living on the land
and at the same time recognizing the boundaries.
Economic development, governance, militarization, rehabilitation, conservation
Dolly Kikon, Room 465, John Medley Building, SSPS, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia.
EPE: Nature and Space
!The Author(s) 2020
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In Bodoland, an ethnic autonomous area in western Assam, non-governmental organiza-
tions, wildlife conservation agencies, and local government bodies have introduced com-
mercial farming programs that encourage farmers to grow lemons, strawberries, ginger, and
medicinal plants. These livelihood programs are aimed at tackling issues of large-scale
unemployment, economic deprivation, and social inequalities that have come up due to
the long decades of ethnic conﬂict in the area. Since 1993, ceaseﬁre agreements between
insurgent groups and the government of India in Northeast India have led to the laying out
of various rehabilitation programs. These are predominantly economic initiatives that focus
on restoring the livelihoods of individuals and communities that have witnessed long dec-
ades of armed conﬂict. As part of skill trainings and livelihood options, these initiatives train
former insurgents, unemployed youth, and households in post-conﬂict societies, to take up
commercial farming and market their produce. The situation in Bodoland resonates with
conditions in other parts of the world, where societies emerging from conﬂicts are forced to
live with difﬁcult memories, while making efforts to rebuild lives and livelihoods, especially
through agricultural initiatives (Kevers et al., 2016; Longley et al., 2016; Menz, 2018;
Thibbotuwawa, 2019). New forms of social relations and powers have emerged in
Bodoland, especially after the long-drawn conﬂicts that have involved the state and
ethnic groups who live there. Thus, economic rehabilitation programs like farming
lemons are transformative processes that draw villages and collectives who have experienced
violence and loss. For villages around Manas National Park, the experience of the conﬂict
also includes the disappearance and poaching of animals and birds inside the park. Manas’s
geography is important in the sustenance of various ecosystems that include elephant corri-
dors and grasslands. Our ﬁeld site is a region that has witnessed violent ethnic conﬂicts since
the 1980s and has been important for reimagining post-conﬂict futures in western
Assam. The violence also affected Manas, destroying animal habitats as the conﬂict esca-
lated. The initiative to re-open Manas National Park after the signing of a peace accord
between the government and armed rebels in 2003 required the support of the villages
surrounding the park and creating community conservation programs and initiatives.
In this article, we focus how villagers around Manas are involved in planting lemons to
earn livelihood, and building fences with lemon plants to keep away elephants and ﬁnd ways
Lemons invoke optimism, just as elephants appeal to human interest for their
proverbial sociability and intelligence (Rangarajan et al., 2010).
Lemons are emblematic of
enhancing livelihood, opportunities and protection for local farmers and villagers who live
here. Known as fence crops, lemons are planted as cash crops and demarcate the boundaries
between the villages and the park. The thorns from the lemon plants keep elephants from
entering the villages, while the fruits generate income for the households in the villages.
Yet, as infrastructure around Manas and villages expand into elephant corridors, elephants
ﬁnd new routes or passages. Often, elephants end up on village roads and highways.
serves a dual purpose of ﬁnding a viable economic solution and
addressing new ways of engaging with the human–animal relationship in post-conﬂict soci-
eties. As such, we highlight that rehabilitation (of animals) and restoring peace (among
communities) in post-conﬂict societies are inter-connected processes. Planting lemons in
western Assam is subsumed within a dominant development discourse on rebuilding com-
munities who have witnessed violence (Das et al., 2009). We aim to explore a different set of
experiences here that draw on the ability of authoritarian regimes to refashion relationships
between humans and nature for the cause of development and national interest (Ali, 2019).
We argue that looking at farming initiatives in militarized regions like Northeast India
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solely through a framework of economic rehabilitation obfuscates the distinctive experiences
and negotiations on the ground.
In villages around Manas, this economic model ties lemon
farming communities to the market directly and severs their relationship to the land and
animals like elephants who are constitutive of the social and ecological world. We attend to
the ways communities on the ground involved in farming lemons address their experiences
of cohabiting with elephants and thereby forging a shared future between communities and
animals. By foregrounding these everyday experiences in post-conﬂict societies, we seek to
develop a concept of integrative rehabilitation, a process grounded in the practices of com-
munities who believe that animals like elephants are entangled with their lives and, there-
fore, ﬁnd it necessary to think about ways to share the landscape with other beings. We take
integrative rehabilitation as a practice emerging from grounded animal–human interactions
where healing and restoration are considered as processes not solely focused on the self but
in relation to other beings.
The notion of restoration in this sense involves engaging with
intra-human politics that focus on political reconciliation, including psychosocial and eco-
nomic rehabilitation, and on elephants who seek corridors and pathways that are free from
violence and provide sustenance for herds.
The areas around Manas witnessed armed conﬂicts since the 1980s. The violence and
militarization displaced villages and animals inside the park as well.
During this period of
violence, people poached several species inside the park, while youth from villages joined the
insurgency to ﬁght for a separate Bodo state (Soud et al., 2013). Around Manas, commu-
nities remember the period of armed conﬂict as one that affected the villages around the
park, as well as the animals within it.
Rebuilding the infrastructure around the park and in
the neighboring villages began after Bodoland became an autonomous area in 2003.
then, programs to rehabilitate the wildlife population inside the park and development
initiatives have come up simultaneously. Local organizations like Aaranyak, as well as
established conservation and sustainable livelihood groups like Ashoka Trust for
Research in Ecology & the Environment (ATREE), have focused on both restoring the
habitat for both species.
Neither privileging a conservation-centric narrative that seeks to vilify human settlements
as forest encroachers and asserts that the depletion of wildlife and forest as a consequence of
“careless human actions” (Thapar, 1997: 24) nor seeking to theorize a notion of non-human
agency where a planetary ecological crisis has given rise to environmental risks (Human
Animal Research Network, 2015) we offer new ways of thinking about an inclusive reha-
bilitation in post-conﬂict societies, as has been outlined in the detailed report presented by
the Elephant Task Force that was set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests of the
Government of India in 2010.
Both animals and humans experience violence and trauma
in armed conﬂict situations. Therefore, we propose integrative rehabilitation as a heuristic
tool that allows us to understand the non-violent alliances between both species as commu-
nities seek to restore peace and maintain the boundaries between the villages and the
animals around Manas. Based on our ethnographic ﬁeldwork conducted in villages
around Manas between 2016 and 2019, we highlight accounts of community engagement
where rebuilding lives and livelihood embrace the reality of cohabiting with (and among)
animals. We speciﬁcally focus on the encounters between lemon farmers and elephants
because both are subjects of human intervention in that they are seen to respond to the
changes in the economic and geographical landscape in the region.
In the last decade, the elephants’ corridors have shrunk or disappeared due to the expan-
sion of farming and human habitation leading to an increased encounter between elephants
and humans. The lemon farmers in the area embody a constituency of subsistence agricul-
turalists on whose back policies of economic and behavioral rehabilitation are carried out.
Kikon and Barbora 3
These conversations open the potential of thinking about forms of governance in post-
conﬂict societies that breaks down the rigid demarcations of conservation (of animals)
and governance (of communities). By recognizing animals and humans as collective survi-
vors of the armed conﬂict in Assam, we join the conversation about human–elephant cohab-
itation in conﬂict and militarized sites beyond Assam and ways to situate relations between
animals and humans as a transformative and restorative process in post-conﬂict societies
(Bradshaw, 2009; Govindarajan, 2018; Lorimer, 2010). This article is structured in the
First, we theorize integrative rehabilitation. We do so by discussing how lemons as fence
crop not only keep away elephants from the villages but also provide economic livelihood to
the communities. We identify this as a grassroot effort to creatively draw boundaries
between the park and the villages. Second, we trace how the idiom of rehabilitation is set
in promoting eco-tourism and wildlife resorts. By privileging the language of rehabilitation,
we trace how mainstream models of economic rehabilitation, such as focusing on poverty
and unemployment, are entangled within a militarized framework of reinforcing power and
authority in a post-conﬂict society. Here, economic rehabilitation and eco-tourism projects
promote employment and economic prosperity for marginalized communities around
Manas. Yet, these activities reify economic inequalities and disrupt community ownership
of land by encouraging processes that enable a few to appropriate land and labor for cre-
ating resorts, leaving a vast majority to remain tied to subsistence agriculture. By tracing the
idiom of rehabilitation of entrepreneurs, we explore the relationship between the commu-
nities and the tourist resorts. Here, we draw on research that looks at how bodies of animals
become commodiﬁed products to aid the growth of wildlife tourism (Lorimer, 2010; Shukin,
2009). Finally, we present how integrative rehabilitation appears on the ground.
Underlining voices of communities in villages, we emphasize that integrative rehabilitation
is a community-led practice to restore relationship between humans and animals in
post-conﬂict societies. This is a political project that requires state agencies, conservation
programs, and local communities to classify animal and other biological species of economic
value. In the conclusion, we highlight the signiﬁcance of ethnographic research in militarized
societies and how these sites are integral for us to reﬂect on key questions relating to
restorative justice, citizenship, and the futures of integrative forms of governance for both
elephants and humans and add to similar research elsewhere (Barbora, 2017; Donaldson
and Kymlicka, 2011; Kymlicka, 2018).
Drawing from our ﬁeldwork on living with elephants and farming lemon in villages around
Manas, integrative rehabilitation highlights connections and belonging in post-conﬂict soci-
eties that are established between humans and animals through cohabiting the land in the
backdrop of new powers and authorities. Communities around Manas articulate and share
their everyday experiences of working on the land as a pathway of restoring land and social
relations with other beings within the park. Experience of lemon farming is a process of
integrative restoration in villages around Manas. It emerges from experiences that are
grounded in rebuilding lives and relations among communities and between humans and
animals in the backdrop of challenging political conditions. As Pinsky (1980) notes, com-
munities play an important role in mobilizing and working toward rehabilitating for a new
life. Scholars working on community initiatives around growing food to address race vio-
lence and incarceration (Sbicca, 2016), indigenous food movements (Corntassel and Bryce,
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2012), and politics of food sovereignty (Hoover, 2017) underline the signiﬁcance of attend-
ing to social experiences to engage with rehabilitative practices.
Broadly, rehabilitation programs in Northeast India are all geared toward economic
development and also draw in certain animals into the value chain, since they encourage
tourism or are part of a larger political economy of conservation efforts.
Given the violent
history of militarization and armed conﬂict, rehabilitation connotes a clash between the
Indian state that seeks to create a capitalist economic model on proﬁt. This is disconnected
from the ground reality of militarization and insurgency. Policy documents published by the
North East Council present the region as a remote area that is economically backward and
in need of state and market interventions for development.
Besides applying to natural
calamities and development-induced displacement, the term rehabilitation in Northeast
India is focused on creating entrepreneurs, business operations, and commercial agriculture
to transform traditional subsistence farming and practices of foraging (Fernandes and
Bharali, 2011). Furthermore, the trope of economic rehabilitation calls for a competitive
neoliberal logic where individual’s hard work and competitive spirit are rewarded by the
market, a fact that is particularly relevant to our ﬁeldwork area that has been predominantly
kin-based agricultural farms. Based on our ﬁeldwork around Manas, we see the community
approach toward lemon farming as a process to “build transformative spaces” and a con-
tribution toward “community economics” (Hosking and Palomino-Schalscha, 2016: 1250).
Northeast India is imagined as a peripheral area far from the Indian heartland where
military surveillance and insurgency operations take place. Kikon (2009) highlights how the
Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA, 1958) produces the region as a homogenous
zone that is “disturbed” to indicate danger and the absence of law and order. According to
AFSPA, the security forces, if they are “of the opinion that it is necessary so to do for the
maintenance of public order” can arrest, destroy, and “use force even to the causing of
death” in these “disturbed” areas. The Indian army’s counter-insurgency operations,
Operation Bluebird in Manipur (1987) and Operation Bajrang in Assam (1990–1991) cul-
minated in a series of human rights violations (Amnesty International, 1990).
The perception of the region as a disturbed area inﬂuences government programs and
policies. The reiteration of the region as isolated and away from mainland India relates to
hate crimes and racist attacks on migrants from the region,
all the way to food habits that
many mainland Indians ﬁnd repugnant.
Decades of counter-insurgency activities repro-
duced these perceptions while ignoring the structural violence and trauma due to the armed
conﬂict. Institutional support and rehabilitation to address trauma and consequences of a
long-drawn armed conﬂict remain absent.
After a series of ceaseﬁre agreements were signed with armed groups in 1997, the region
has become a hub for launching economic rehabilitation programs such as soft skill pro-
grams (Haksar, 2016; Kikon and Karlsson, 2019), medicinal plant factories (Bhatia and
Lasserter, 2017) and establishing new plantations like palm oil (Bose, 2018). State govern-
ments like Nagaland, Assam, and Meghalaya have prioritized on skill development and
entrepreneurship programs to rehabilitate unemployed youth.
Yet, the region continues to
be viewed as a sensitive geopolitical space where citizens cannot be trusted. These ongoing
activities reiterates David Harvey’s point about demonized geographies that creates differ-
ent kinds of ignorance about space and places (2000). Literature on the armed conﬂict
situation in Northeast India have highlighted the violence and militarization of the region
(Baruah, 1999; Hazarika, 1994; Kikon, 2009; Luithui and Haksar, 1984; Misra, 2014;
Tarapot, 2003). State violence (Mandal and Sarkar, 2016; Roy, 1996) and decades of impu-
nity have led to structural violence (Kikon, 2015) and post-traumatic stress disorder (Gill
et al., 2013; Mushtaq et al., 2016).
Kikon and Barbora 5
Currently, government projects ranging from micro-credit initiatives to high-level entre-
preneurship conclaves have centered on achieving economic progress. Central to these devel-
opment models are military and security tactics to combat insurgents and monitor the
movement of people and goods (Peer, 2014). The efforts to develop the region are built
on a capitalistic and militaristic understanding of communities and relations that reinforce
one another. This fails to capture the lived experiences of people and dismantles the
“historical-geographical processes of place and community construction” (Harvey, 2000:
542). In the next section, we turn to accounts of rehabilitation to illuminate how conserva-
tion in Manas was contingent on engaging with the communities and the boundaries
between the park and the villages, and how they became an integrative process of restoring
life and peace.
Rehabilitation around Manas National Park
A series of investigations inside Manas National Park during the 1990s highlighted the
devastating impact of the conﬂict on wildlife. In 2005, a UNESCO–IUCN report underlined
the need to involve villagers to manage and rebuild the park. The park was added to the List
of World Heritage in Danger in 1992 as the armed conﬂict escalated destroying infrastruc-
ture, lives, and property. Calling for a close coordination between the villagers and the park
authorities, the report noted, “ ... the long insurgency appears to have had signiﬁcant
impacts on the forests and the wildlife population in the park” (UNESCO and IUCN,
Over the years, rehabilitation and restoration programs around Manas have adopted
villagers including youth associations and women’s groups as guardians and partners in
rebuilding the wildlife and ecology of the park. In addition, the rehabilitation program team
members include former poachers, ex-insurgents, retired security forces, and students who
are involved in caring and restoring the wildlife inside the park. Yet, these social relations go
beyond the park. The social bonds among these divergent social and political groups have
become networks of support where they undertake activities to restore themselves and create
a community. The elephant plays a central role in bringing this disparate communities
together. Either as kunkis (working elephants), or as part of non-domesticated herds, con-
servation and monitoring elephants and other animals in Manas deﬁnes the jurisdictional
landscape of the park into distinct ranges, in this case Panbari, Bansbari, and Bhuyanpara,
where both species cohabit in an environment that is fraught with pressure on resources.
Within the park, there are 41 working elephants and the last unofﬁcial census put the wild
herd population at 1200. Each kunki has two mahouts allotted to them by the department.
As a unit, they are used for a range of work—monitoring, keeping wild elephants away, and
unwilling carriers in safaris—as employees. The wild herds use the west-east corridor that
traverses the range—Panbari, Bansbari, and Bhuyanpara—with signiﬁcant pockets of
human habitation (villages, military garrisons, tea plantations, and resorts) and infrastruc-
ture developments (bridges, train tracks, and roads).
During our ﬁeldwork in Manas, young conservationists working around the park under-
lined the signiﬁcance of working with communities to develop a sustainable rehabilitation
program. Brojo and Beauty, two young Bodo program coordinators who had MA degrees
in sustainable development and worked with different non-governmental organizations,
shared with us their accounts in aiding with rehabilitation programs around the park.
They focused on connecting and supporting the communities in the area. Their extra-
curricular activities outside their ofﬁcial duties of manning activities centered on wildlife
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ranged from helping women to set up small enterprise, working with teams of lemon farm-
ers, and screening documentaries on wildlife and capacity building to villagers.
Beauty, when not involved in overseeing the logistics of constructing watch towers along
the boundary of the park, participated in community projects in the villages. During our
2016 ﬁeldwork, she was staying as a paying guest in a village adjacent to the park and
worked in the vegetable gardens. Besides that, she was planning to set up a turmeric factory
for the women folk around the park. These activities helped her to gain a layered under-
standing of community life in the area. For Brojo, his interest in photographing butterﬂies
around the fringes of park led him to make friends with different nature clubs in the villages
and hang out with the youth. It allowed him to encourage young people to cultivate creative
pursuits that did not frequently appear in their school and college curricula. One of Brojo’s
additional duties at work (for his NGO) was to carry out lemon planting programs, where
he invited villagers to cultivate lemons and focus on the conservation and economic aspects
of setting up fence crops in Manas.
These initiatives by local conservationists like Beauty and Brojo became an essential lens
for us to focus on integrative rehabilitation—a restorative practice for communities who
have experienced trauma and conﬂict to foster relations that transforms lives. Grounded on
lived experiences, then, integrative rehabilitation means understanding the animals and
humans connections in post-conﬂict societies where community accounts recognize the
presence of animals in their lives. The community’s relationship with wildlife in Manas
reveals approaches to restorative practices. Particularly, rehabilitation programs of wildlife
and the initiatives to integrate communities to restore the park reﬂect a movement that
highlights, “ ...desires to heal from trauma ...and improve their economic position”
Villagers and park ofﬁcials believed that the damage to crops is not usually done by wild
herds who stay inside the park’s vast grasslands where there is enough for them to eat. It is
usually a few wild stray elephants aged between 20 and 25 years, who ﬁnd their way outside
the wired area that marks the southern border of the park and into the way of human
habitation. During our visit ﬁeld in 2019, the Forest Veterinary Ofﬁcer told us that there are,
“two elephant seasons: July to November is farm visit and December to March is house
visit”. These coincide with the months where rice is growing in the ﬁelds and the post-
harvest period when the produce is kept in granaries near individual homesteads. The
Forest Department, working with other departments of the government, and conservation
organizations have come up with a basic compensatory process for damage to houses and
the rare loss of human life. Villagers get INR 10,000–12,000 for the destruction of a house
(usually made of bamboo and mud). In the rare event of the death of a human by an
elephant, the department pays the victim’s next of kin a sum of INR 400,000. Human
casualties in elephant–human encounters have increased in Assam over the last few years,
but this was not the case in the area where we did our ﬁeldwork.
The Forest Department
and villagers have come up with an informal arrangement over the past seven years where
the former provide compensation for crop loss for one time, even though elephants might
have visited the village twice. For ofﬁcials and the villagers, this is a reasonable outcome of
several years of negotiation. “We need to convince the raiz (society) to be equanimous to
some loss – let the elephants also eat – it is their character” said the divisional forest ofﬁcer,
as he explained the contentious nature of compensation in Manas.
Livelihood practices in Manas are intertwined with the wildlife rehabilitation and pro-
tection programs. As such, practices of economically marginalized communities who grow
lemons as a livelihood crop exempliﬁes “agency of the poor” (Hosking and Palomino-
Schalscha, 2016: 1251). The lemon growing initiative was started by ATREE and taken
Kikon and Barbora 7
up by other organizations working in the area, who had worked closely with local commu-
nities during the 1980s and 1990s, the worst periods of counter-insurgency operations in
western Assam. As the violence abated in the early 2000s, many youths, who were politically
active in the struggles for autonomy, collaborated with conservation groups to ensure local
community support for such initiatives. For instance, nine men from different ethnic groups,
in consultation with the conservation NGOs, built an ecologically friendly, budget campsite
and resort beside the fringes of the park and the Beki river. The partners continued to do
much of the work around the resort themselves, lending a communitarian air to the space.
The resort continues to be a hub for tourists and conservationists alike. Similarly, conser-
vation groups like Aaranyak were instrumental in securing community support for their
pygmy hog conservation project that utilized the park as a release site for the endangered
animal since 1996.
Across Northeast India, economic rehabilitation programs like planting cash crops have
become a model of development, especially, after the region entered a period of ceaseﬁre
with numerous ethnic armed groups starting in 1997. In comparison, commercial lemon
farming in Bodoland is recent. Along with tourism activities like rafting, ﬁshing, and animal
safari, lemon farming is aimed to alleviate poverty and help low-income families. Tourism
occupied a visible position within the repertoire of post-conﬂict possibilities that allowed for
the convergence of economic activities and conservation strategies. Currently, there are
13 registered resorts in Basbari Range and approximately ﬁve homestays in Manas.
Barring the low-cost resort started by the local political activists, other resorts were owned
by people from outside the neighborhood. Local political leaders linked to the Bodo
Territorial Council (BTC) also had shares in the largest resort along the fringes of park.
A former Indian army colonel also had a similar resort two miles to the east of the main
gate. Here, he had tried to replant trees and shrubs that he felt had become extinct in the
region. Hence, Manas reﬂects a wider global phenomenon where tourism is seen as a way out
of poverty for societies emerging from conﬂicts driven by inequalities, where the outcomes are
understandably inconclusive (Barbora, 2017; Craven, 2016; Devine and Odeja, 2017). All
these developments assume greater signiﬁcance as humans and elephants share the landscape.
Across Manas, gun shots from forest guards scaring away elephants echo as night falls. As
villages settle down for the night, fears of elephants entering the villages and resort areas grow.
Foregrounding accounts of communities about everyday experiences with elephants, the fol-
lowing section focuses on an increasing community sense that cohabiting with elephants
constitutes communicating and recognizing that elephants also belong to the land.
Living with lemons and elephants
“There are no banana plantations in Barangabari village”, Prabhuanan Das chuckled.
The mere idea of planting bananas seemed absurd. Barangabari shares a boundary
with the park. Apart from rhinos, wild buffaloes, golden langurs, and pygmy hogs, the park
is a tiger and an elephant reserve as well. Among all the animals, the elephant most frequented
the villages in search of food. The villagers, in consultation with the Forest Department and the
NGOs, had come up with different kinds of boundaries and natural walls to keep animals from
entering the cultivable ﬁelds and homes. For a visitor, the most pronounced one is an electric
fence around the park. The fence gives off a light charge but is routinely rendered redundant by
power cuts. Then, there is a gravel road for tourists and villagers that reinforces a strong spatial
and ecological divide between the park and the villages.
Coming to elephants, residents described their relationship with the animal as special.
This response was rooted in the sociable qualities of elephants that even the Government of
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India’s Elephant Task Force refers to (Rangarajan et al., 2010). In this section, we move
away from a centralized conservation narrative that is often founded on a language of
conﬂict when it comes to elephant and human relations. Instead, we focus on the sentiments
of communities who cohabit with elephants and see their future as sharing the land with,
irrespective of the challenges they face. Under such circumstances, we came across house-
holds who moved away from vilifying the elephants that came around the village and
adopted a language of conviviality. Whenever accounts of elephants came up in our con-
versations, residents focused on the reasoning abilities and memory. Such narratives are
reﬂected in existing literature on elephant and human relations (Hathaway, 2013) and
elephants as ecological and cultural beings in human civilization (Sukumar, 2011).
Humans and elephants alike have experienced violence and displacement. In Assam,
communities acknowledge that they have displaced elephants from their habitats.
Therefore, when elephants enter the villages in search of food, residents say that animals
were forced to do so because of their “hungry stomachs” and underline feelings like hunger
and poverty as sufferings that humans and elephants alike experience (Jadhav and Barua,
2012: 1361). Piers Locke also invites us to pay attention to the, “ ...mutual entanglements of
their (human-elephants) social, historical, and ecological relations” (Locke, 2013: 79–80).
For Locke, the behavioral patterns of humans and elephants inﬂuence social relationship
and personalities as well. Similar to human beings, notes Locke, elephants are social beings
and have the ability to recognize emotions and grieve when they lose friends and relations
(Locke, 2013). This aspect is reiterated in the relationship between the mahouts and the
kunkis in Manas. Ofﬁcials in the park often complained about absenteeism of employees
when they went home for leave. Those who had asked for a day or two would invariably
stay home for longer periods. However, most mahouts returned before their leave time had
lapsed because they worried about the elephant under their care. Were they being fed
enough of the rationed menu of salt, paddy, lentils, and black salt? Did they receive their
liver extract mixed with wheat and the deworming tablets during the lean winter season?
Most mahouts in the Bansbari range said that such worries brought them back to their camp
much to the outrage of their families in the villages.
The notion of “shared social complexity” (Locke, 2013: 79) resonates with the relation-
ship between lemon farmers and elephants. During our ﬁeldwork, animals in the park like
the golden langurs, pygmy hogs, one-horned rhino, and the deer entered our conversation.
Yet, community encounters with the elephants brought out the landscape of the park,
village, and the boundary in detail. Agricultural seasons to types of crops and surveillance
mechanisms were all discussed keeping in mind the movement of elephants around the
villages and within the park. There were also elephant jokes about their inability to resist
rice beer, fondness for potato chips, as well their antics when drunk. Thus, the language of
sociality that is inclusive of elephants is an enduring one.
The belief among communities
that the elephants have feelings and memories of good events have produced gestures and
language thereby strengthening an afﬁnity between the villagers and the elephants.
Introduced as livelihood programs to address poverty, lemon planting and training work-
shops in Manas aim to promote sustainable community conservation practices.
integrative rehabilitation in post-conﬂict societies offers broader political frameworks to
understand everyday contestations and politics between various political actors on the
ground as we highlighted in the previous section.
Visitors to Manas cannot miss the lemon plants. Village bazaars like the Gobardhana
haat attract lemon traders from the neighboring towns. Traders go about ofﬁciously count-
ing the lemons, stufﬁng them in jute sacks, and stitching the load before hauling it onto the
truck. The Gobardhana haat is situated around 7 km from the main gate of Basbari range.
Kikon and Barbora 9
Lemon Rates, according to the farmers, range as follows:
100 individual pieces for 300 rupees.
90 individual pieces for 200 rupees
80 individual pieces for 120 rupees
In Guwahati—the region’s biggest city—three lemons sell for 20 rupees.
In Kahibari village, 50 out of 65 households were involved in farming lemons. In the
adjoining villages as well, increasing number of families had taken up lemon farming.
Miran Basumatary became a lemon farmer after he retired from his service in the Horn
of Africa, where he had served as part of a peace keeping force. He grew up in Kahibari, a
village adjoining the park, and served in the Indian Army. He was sent on a UN mission to
Somalia before retirement. Walking around his lemon orchard in Kahibari village, he rem-
inisced about events during his service in Somalia. He said:
I was there when the American Helicopter incident took place. When the Somalian people
brought down the helicopter, they made a Hollywood movie – Black Hawk Down – based on
that incident. We were part of a 31 country UN peace keeping team ...so the American
soldiers were there with us. We were working together. Pakistan and Bangladesh were
also there; England was also there ...but it is much better here. My entire family is in
this village. After I returned, I bought the saplings from the market and created my
For Miran, lemon farming was a retirement activity. He spoke about growing lemons as a
way of life in the village. Lemon was neither a cultural practice nor an integral part of their
diet. We did not ﬁnd any curry or pickle making culture that involved lemons in any sig-
niﬁcant ways. It was apparent that lemons were a fence crop that kept away elephants and
also a produce that generated income. Yet, planting lemons opened up a social space that
provided an avenue for restoring trust. For instance, growing lemons helped Miran to
connect with his friends who had stayed behind in the village and witnessed the armed
conﬂict. Moreover, he learnt about grafting lemon saplings from his neighbor Neren, a
former insurgent who actively participated in the armed conﬂict in the 1980s and 1990s.
During the Bodoland 50/50 movement, there were no lemons! After the conﬂict, we planted
lemons. We planted lemons consecutively for 2-3 years all over the village, and its boundaries
too. Any land we saw in the boundary (dividing the park and the village), we planted lemons.
During the conﬂict, the park was destroyed. All the elephants and rhinos were killed and wiped
out. There were tigers as well. Now, it is all well. There is no violence. It is peaceful. (personal
interview on 3 December 2016).
The lemons also functioned as a temporal marker on the landscape about the post-conﬂict
phase. Neighbors met regularly to discuss about growing lemons. Neren started planting
lemons around 20 years ago. Today, he grows lemons in his ﬁve bighas—approximately
1.6 acres of land—and keeps the bulk of his farmland to grow paddy. Even though the
ﬁrst batch of lemons failed, his efforts eventually paid off. He is part of the lemon farming
community in Kahibari village, where the network is facilitated by local conservationists.
Economic returns from the fruit and a way of sharing the landscape with elephants have
provided a process of healing. Describing lemon seasons Neren said, “By April, the lemon
10 EPE: Nature and Space 0(0)
ﬂowers bloom. But I constantly think about death. These plants will eventually die. But it
feels good. I take it to the market and there is a regular income”. There were limited
options for many households in Manas during the conﬂict. Particularly, given the poverty
and the resource conﬂicts that escalated the demand for an ethnic state during the 1990s,
I did not study; I was a farmer since I was a child. I experienced the conﬂict. There were two
parties in the Bodo community; this village was ABSU and the other village was PTC;
rendered in 1993. I never left the village. During the conﬂict here we broke the village bridge and
burnt up the village school to resist the army and stop them from coming to the village.
During that time, there was a boundary and the PTC would come and attack us, and we would
also go and try to attack them. During that time, we ﬁnished the animals in the park because
there was no other source of income. We would kill the animals and sell them to sustain our
families. Then, we realized that we had to work.
Local conservation team in the area have collaborated with community members like Neren.
The connection between livelihood and enforcing conservation initiatives like planting
lemons has generated sensitive responses from local communities. Today, experiences
about growing lemons and living with elephants overlap. Lemon farmers dwelt on the
characters of elephants. Questions of safety and danger occupied the lemon farmers for a
short while, but they began to focus on sensibilities that elephants developed as a result of
their frequent visits to the villages. Particularly, the evidence of elephants acquiring a taste
for speciﬁc kinds of food became part of local knowledge.
A visit to a lemon farm belonging to Sobam Wari and Badeb Wari generated conversa-
tions about communicating with elephants. Many residents acknowledged how elephants
destroy their crops, but also identiﬁed ways of cohabiting with them. This point was stressed
when a local conservationist said that villagers were kind and generous to animals including
wild elephants who passed by the village. They allowed them to eat from their ﬁelds and left
them alone. Yet, whenever researchers and conservation experts came and asked questions
about “human–elephant conﬂict”, this brought back unpleasant memories. The villagers
began to be upset and angry with the Forest Department and demanded that the state
authorities take responsibility for the elephants. Framing the experiences of humans with
elephants predominately as one of conﬂict obliterated the efforts of communities on the
ground who recognized and respected the elephant as belonging to the land irrespective of
the challenges. It appeared as through the phrase “man–elephant conﬂict” operated as a
trigger for trauma and anger against authorities (Jadhav and Barua, 2012).
What kinds of conversations took place when we recognized the elephant as member of
the Manas landscape? Sobam Wari and Badeb Wari, the lemon farmers taught us what it
meant to live with lemons and elephants. Badeb talked to the elephants who entered her
farm. “Ja baba ja!” (Go my dear go) she told them and said, “Which beings do not under-
stand one another?
They do not attack. They come out of the game (the wildlife park) and
enter the village to eat their favorite food.” And then she gave us a list of items that
elephants loved to eat and ignore:
Food elephants love: bamboo, jackfruit, pineapple, coconut, banana, pumpkin, rice, sugarcane
(only the juicy ones), outenga/elephant apples, sweet peas, maize (the whole plant), lentils (Mati
daal or Soido in Bodo).
Kikon and Barbora 11
Food elephants ignore: cordoi/starfruit, brinjal, tomato, watermelon, water gourd, tapioca,
sweet potato, bitter gourd, tea.
Some of the food items that elephants eat are cultivated. They are cultivated by communities
and, therefore, the list exempliﬁes how humans and elephants intimately traverse the Manas
landscape. Communities were able to identify the elephants entering the villages. Working
on the land as a farmer since the 1950s, for Prabhubond Das, an octogenarian farmer from
Kahibari village, elephants were like human beings. This similarity was most visible in terms
of the food items both species loved. He said:
They (elephants) love cooked rice and salt just like us. So, when they come to the village, they
will often break the kitchen and eat our food. They also love rice beer just like us. Whatever
human eats, they also eat that only. They are very attracted by the smell of the rice. The
elephants have broken our kitchen twice. They ate up the cooked rice in our kitchen meant
for our family.
During such visits, villagers lit torches or exploded crackers to scare them away. “They are
smart and can patiently avoid the lemon fence”, said Badeb by way of explaining why other
methods were necessary. Lemons as fence crops only worked to a limited extent, but this
initiative was described as an effective method of cohabiting with elephants. The risks
involved in living with elephants was real, yet there were seldom any household that prop-
agated severe measures such as culling the animals.
The admiration of the fence crop which regulated the entry of the elephants to the
villages, irrespective of the fact that elephants now used the roads to visit the villages,
conveyed how communities were integrating practices to cohabitation. Added to this was
the persistent advocacy that conservation NGOs had undertaken to ensure that farmers
received a just compensation for the paddy crop that was damaged by elephants. Although
it was an unequal relationship where humans had the power to take over vast tracks of
elephant corridors and build new resorts and plantations, communities on the ground nego-
tiated with the presence of elephants in their lives. Today, much of the work carried out by
local conservationists in Manas are focused on creating avenues such as compensation for
communities who lose their crops to elephants or develop projects like lemon planting
workshops and other kinds of micro-credit activities. This highlights how living with
lemons and elephants has brought different actors in Manas—local conservationists, retired
ofﬁcials, surrendered insurgents, and farmers—together on the ground to ﬁnd ways to
coexist in the Manas landscape.
Restoring lives and land in post-conﬂict societies requires an attempt to develop a theoret-
ical framework that offers reconstructing lives and healing as an integrative process.
Accounts of attachment to place and connecting with the land are practices not limited
to human societies alone. Living with elephants and lemons highlights how communities on
the ground—humans and animals alike—participate and experience place-making and
belonging. As instances of human–animal encounters lead to higher casualties for both
species, signiﬁcant changes in agricultural use and evolution of compensatory mechanisms
for loss of incomes have emerged.
For the state, however, rehabilitating communities subjected to decades of armed conﬂict
in Northeast India is through economic initiatives connected to the market alone. Thus, the
12 EPE: Nature and Space 0(0)
state’s portrayal of Northeast India as an underdeveloped region is also a contentiously
selective narrative that erases the experiences of armed conﬂict since India’s independence.
The visibility of surrendered insurgents as contractors, businessman, and entrepreneurs,
reiterates our assertions about economic development under militarized conditions.
Villagers around Manas plant lemons to demarcate the boundaries between the park and
the village and create a livable landscape. Rehabilitation on post-conﬂict societies from
South Asia is dominated by psychosocial approaches and rehabilitation of armed combat-
ants to re-enter communities. Lemon farming and living with elephants allow us to ground
collective experiences and the interdependence of human–animal relationship as integral to
rehabilitation. Moving away from a militaristic-centric approach where elephants in
Assam are framed through a prism of human–elephant conﬂict, integrative rehabilitation
allows us to challenge a counter-insurgency framework to understand communities and
animals relationships in post-conﬂict societies. Integrative rehabilitation as a theoretical
framework, we believe, allows to adopt the ethics and ethos of human–animal cohabitation
in Northeast India.
We are grateful to the residents of Manas for trusting us and sharing their stories. We thank the
mahouts, forest guards, veterinarians, and ofﬁcials from the Forest Department for their time and
support. Local conservationists like Brojo Basumatary and Beauty Narzary inspired us to see the
world through new lens, and we express our gratitude for this gift. We thank Jamie Lorimer, Yamini
Narayanan, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. We acknowledge the elephants
and all other animals in Manas we encountered during our ﬁeldwork in Manas. We recognize their
presence in this article.
Declaration of conflicting interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. Maneesha Deckha’s work on thinking about alternative discourse is relevant for us here. Our aim
in this essay is to showcase how both animals and humans in post-conﬂict marginalized societies
are vulnerable to violence and development initiatives. We extend her conversation about adopt-
ing a rehabilitative approach to focus on experiences of cohabitation between communities and
elephants in Manas (Deckha, 2010).
2. Villagers around Manas National Park plant lemons to demarcate the boundaries between the
park and the village land and to create a livable landscape. Here, elephants are neither treated as
entertainment animals and abused (Romig, 2013) nor seen as trespassers and killed (Saikia, 2019).
Kikon and Barbora 13
3. During our ﬁeldwork, we learnt that lemons are relatively recent in the Bodo diet. They do not
make pickles nor are there recipes associated with lemons. Many lemons farmers said that they
learnt to graft lemon trees and manage lemon farms through the conservation team around
Manas. Some of them attended lemon planting workshops while others learnt from their neigh-
bors who had attended similar workshops. The biggest attraction was the possibility of earning
livelihood while keeping away the elephants. In terms of the lemon plant, the northeast region of
India which includes the eastern Himalayan foothills showcases a rich diversity of citrus fruits
including lemons (Malik et al., 2006). Grown in the wild and in some parts cultivated as well, the
lemon plant, according to T.K. Hazarika (2012), did not attract farmers until recent times when
the crop became viable as an economic source of income.
4. The link between economic rehabilitation and development activities highlights the deliberate
connections that are created between militarized societies and the market. Designed to efﬁciently
uplift communities across the region that struggle to have access to basic health, schooling, and
infrastructure amenities, the market is projected as the solution to erase militarization. Today, the
structural violence, trauma, and militarization is subsumed by an economic development rhetoric
that describes the political history of the region. This position is the central aim of the North
Eastern Council (NEC), the government of India’s apex nodal agency created in 1971 to oversee
the economic and social development in the region. Refer to http://necouncil.gov.in/
5. We aim to contribute toward an ongoing interdisciplinary theoretical framework on integrative
rehabilitation. Focusing on inclusive political ecologies also means making the militarization and
the violence visible in post-conﬂict societies. Scholars have highlighted an urgency to attend to
issues of mental health in cases of man–animal encounters (Jadhav and Barua, 2012), multispecies
ethnography (Kirksey and Helmreich , 2010), transnational animals (Hathaway, 2013), and comb-
ing social and natural methodologies (Locke, 2013). Drawing from our ﬁeldwork in Manas, we
illustrate the local experiences of restoring and fostering relations beyond the human communities.
6. Rosaleen Duffy’s work on the militarization of conservation draws our attention to the increase in
poaching, yet she cautions us to reﬂect on the justiﬁcation of highly militarized practices that anti-
poaching programs adopt. Such militaristic strategies have led to an increase in violence (Duffy,
2017). In this essay, we draw on state violence although we recognize that the lines are often
blurred as the same state agencies previously involved in counter-insurgency operations are spear-
heading conservation initiatives (Barbora, 2017).
7. Gay Bradshaw’s work on elephant trauma and rehabilitation highlights how experiences of
trauma are not solely felt by the “victims”. She describes how “social brained” animals share
complex landscapes, structures, and emotions. We draw from her work to examine how rehabil-
itation initiatives brought communities and animals together to experience a sense of shared
structure in post-conﬂict societies.
8. Most villages in Bodoland are located in the submontane region that lies north of the
Brahmaputra River and south of the Himalayan region of Bhutan. Manas itself is located
in both countries, where in Bhutan it is known as the Royal Manas National Park. The ethnic
Bodo community has been mobilizing for autonomy and a separate state since the 1980s
(Barbora, 2005; Vandekerckhove, 2009). These demands evolved from older movements for
social justice and autonomy in post-colonial Assam and had assumed proportions after failed
mediation in 1985. Since then, there have been various splits within the armed movement,
leading to suspension of operations between the government and ethnic militia. The BTC
governs the districts of the state of Assam that make the Bodo Territorial Areas Districts.
The Bodo People’s Front (BPF) currently controls it. The BPF is the political front of the
now-disarmed Bodoland Liberation Tiger Force militia, who entered into a ceaseﬁre with the
government in 2003.
9. ATREE’s work on conservation in Manas National Park has recognized the complexities of
carrying out rehabilitation initiatives in armed conﬂict areas. Their study on recovery of wildlife
in conﬂict areas undertaken in 2011 highlighted the importance of local participation in conser-
vation efforts. For more details, see: http://atree.org/sites/default/ﬁles/ja_2011_34_0.pdf.
14 EPE: Nature and Space 0(0)
10. The report of the Elephant Task Force offers a detailed account of the landscape that sustains
elephant corridors, habitats, and challenges that such landscapes face in India. Existing research
draws our attention to ways in which human and wildlife can coexist with emphasis on villages
around wildlife parks. This approach is framed within the language of “managing conﬂict” and
focus on the actions of human beings to get rid of animals from areas of human habitation.
Focused on a rhetoric of threat and danger, the human–animal conﬂict management has focused
on prevention and mitigation (Makindi, 2018).
11. Certain animals like the rhino draw in tourists, while others like the tiger have well-established
chain of stakeholders that create a political economy of conservation around the animal. It high-
lights Nicola Shukin’s point how authoritarian states engage in the instrumentalization of animals
and attribute affect to them only under certain militarized conditions (Shukin, 2013).
12. Discussions about economic development and increasing the productivity of the land is not limited
to western Assam. The NEC as the nodal agency that oversees the economic and the social
development of the region envisions to usher a process of economic development. For details
refer to http://necouncil.gov.in/welcome-page.
16. In Assam, data from the ground compiled by the World Wildlife Fund India suggest that
201 elephants and 507 humans were killed following animal–human encounters, between 2013
17. This is in marked contrast to relationships with other animals like leopards or tigers. Recent media
reports suggest attacks on cattle grazing within the precincts of the park are on the rise. This upsets
the otherwise balanced narrative of coexistence that exists at present. For details see: http://www.
assamtribune.com/scripts/mdetails.asp?id=oct0419/at062 (last accessed 9 November 2019).
18. The lemon was one of the various plant species that was introduced as an income generator. About
a decade ago, the owner of a match factory near Bansbari encouraged the forest department to
plant Bombax cieba (cotton tree) around the grasslands. The plan was a failure as the new species
damaged the grassland. They are a reminder of how plants become active agents of transformation
(Kull and Rangan, 2008).
19. ABSU is the abbreviation for All Bodo Students Union, while PTC(A) is the Plains Tribal Council
of Assam. The demand for a homeland for indigenous communities in the plains was initiated by
PTCA in 1966. Thereafter, the movement was split along ethnic lines, with ABSU emerging as a
radical voice demanding autonomy for the Bodo community in the area (Barbora, 2016).
20. Gay Bradshaw draws our attention to the evolved nature and awareness of elephants (2009) and
Charles Siebert’s essay of orphan elephants in Kenya highlights how baby elephants go through
grief of losing their mothers (2011).
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elephant-friendly tea in Northeast India. The Bodosa tea plantation in Assam is the world’s only
“elephant-friendly tea farm”. Refer to http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20191003-indias-eleph
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