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Bengt G Karlsson

About me

Bengt G. Karlsson is Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. He is mainly working on issues relating indigenous peoples and the society-environment interface, with particular focus on the politics of ethnicity and nature in India. Karlsson has published on topics like indigeneity, forests, conservation, mining, subaltern movements, ethnicity, development and political ecology. He is presently working on a project on food sovereignty in Eastern Himalayas. Karlsson is the author of Contested Belonging: An Indigenous People’s Struggle for Forest and Identity in Sub-Himalayan Bengal (Routledge, 2000), Unruly Hills: A Political Ecology of India’s Northeast (Berghahn Book, 2011), Leaving the Land: Indigenous Migration and Affective Labour in India (Cambridge University Press, 2019, co-authored with Dolly Kikon), and the edited volumes Indigeneity in India (Kegan Paul 2006, with Tanka B. Subba), Geographies of Difference: Explorations in Northeast Indian Studies (Routledge, 2017, with M. Vandenhelsken and M. Barkataki-Ruscheweyh) and Seedways: The Circulation, Care and Control of Plants in a Warming World (Vitterhetsakademien, 2021, with Annika Rabo).


A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • The Imperial Weight of Tea

    2021. Bengt G. Karlsson. Geoforum, 1-10


    The cultivation of tea has had major impact on societies and environments across the world. It has been the cause of imperial wars, colonial appropriations of territories and capitalist exploitation of people and ecologies. In this article, I am particularly concerned with the British empire of tea, what preceded it and its afterlife in the former colonies. Research on tea within the social sciences and humanities have mainly concentrated on the precarious situation of plantation laborers. Informed by recent scholarship in multispecies- and critical plant studies, I seek to trace the intimate relations between people and plants. Taking a cue from James C. Scott’s “grain hypothesis,” I suggest an “imperial crop hypothesis” asking if there are any particular attributes of the tea plant that lend itself to imperial ambitions. In this I straddle between a political ecology concerned with power, resources and infrastructures that enabled the British to establish its empire of tea, and a multispecies approach that foregrounds the entangled ecologies of plant life. I concentrate on four particular moments of this history: the British “discovery” of tea grown by indigenous peoples in the hills of the newly annexed Ahom kingdom in the early 19th century; the establishment of the Assam plantations during second half of the 19th century; the travel of tea across the Indian Ocean and the making of Kenyan tea industry during the 20th century; and, finally, the development of purple tea, a new variety of tea projected as the tea plant for the 21st century.

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  • Light Skin and Soft Skills

    2020. Dolly Kikon, Bengt G. Karlsson. Ethnos 85 (2), 258-275


    In a recruitment centre in Dimapur, Nagaland, indigenous youth are trained for employment as service personnel in luxury hotels, restaurants and airlines. Most of them are unemployed, seeking new future prospects outside the region and the harsh existence of subsistence agriculture. English language skills, a general cosmopolitan outlook and their fair complexion have proven key assets in securing work within the new hospitality industry. In this article, we deal with the activities at the recruitment centre itself, looking at the skill sets - the 'soft skills' - and habitus that the instructors try to instill in the participants to make them employable. We apply the notion of 'affective labour'. Such labour is all about care, or more precisely in this context, caring for customers. But care also has a wider resonance in the lives of the young migrants, that is, to care for the family, community and ancestral lands back home.

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  • Life and Death in the Plantation

    2021. Bengt G. Karlsson. Seedways, 121-144


    In this essay I seek to retrace the movement of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) from the forest to the plantation, and from Assam across the Indian Ocean to East Africa and the Kenyan highlands. As the plant has moved it has been altered to suit demands for higher productivity, as well as to suit soil and climatic conditions in new locations. One of the more significant results of such plant breeding efforts in Kenya is the release of the tea clone TRFK 306/1, popularly known as “purple tea”. Purple tea is a new variety of the plant that Singphos and other indigenous communi- ties cultivated in the Assam forest and adjoining areas of highland Burma and Yunnan, China. My aim here is to explore the interaction of people and plants, and to think about what happens when plants travel. Such movements are usually in the form of travelling seed. How do plants thrive when they land up in a foreign setting, and what is gained and lost in the migration?

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  • Destroying one's own home

    2022. Bengt G. Karlsson. Contemporary South Asia 30 (2), 298-300


    This article is part of a Book Forum review of Sanjib Baruah's book In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast (2020). The Book Forum consists of individual commentaries on this text by five interested scholars, followed by a response by the author. The article may be read individually or alongside the other contributions to the Forum, which together constitute a comprehensive discussion of the themes and arguments in the book.

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  • Leaving the land

    2019. Dolly Kikon, Bengt G. Karlsson.


    During the last decade, indigenous youth from Northeast India have migrated in large numbers to the main cities of metropolitan India to find work and study. This migration is facilitated by new work opportunities in the hospitality sector, mainly as service personnel in luxury hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and airlines. Prolonged armed conflicts, militarization, a stagnant economy, corrupt and ineffective governance structures, and the harsh conditions of subsistence agriculture in their home villages or small towns impel the youth to seek future prospects outside their home region. English language skills, a general cosmopolitan outlook as well as a non-Indian physical appearance have proven to be key assets in securing work within the new hospitality industry. Leaving the Land traces the migratory journeys of these youths and engage with their new lives in cities like Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram.

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  • The Body of the Land:

    2022. Bengt G. Karlsson, Maranatha G. T. Wahlang. Vernacular Politics in Northeast India, 289-310


    The Khasi people in Northeast India follow matrilineal decent and land and other assets are passed on through the female line with the youngest daughter as main inheritor and guardian of ancestral property. For some time material inheritance has been questioned by various Khasi organizations dominated by the male political elite arguing that the survival of a small indigenous tribe is at stake claiming that outsiders target Khasi women to get access to land and hence by-pass regulations debarring non-tribals from holding land in the state of Meghalaya. Most recently, this took a most ugly turn with the male dominated district council proposing a law through which women who would marry non-Khasis would lose their status as Scheduled Tribes and hence the privileges that comes with the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status and furthermore that the children of such a marriage would be considered non-Khasis. The proposed bill has created a major uproar, condemned by leading women’s organization and others. In this paper we will discuss the Bill and how in the name of indigenous survival, the key institution of the Khasi society, i.e. matriliny, is being severely undermined. Control of land is here turned into control of women’s bodies and sexuality. As we will discuss further, a major impetus to the scramble over land and the exclusion of women are the extractive economy dominated by the very same indigenous elite. That an increasing number of Khasi people no longer have access to land is another critical aspect that is being silenced by the dominant lobby groups who focus on the threat posed by outsiders. To analyse these developments we introduce the notion of vernacular politics, suggesting that this is a domain of the political that is intertwined with transnational indigenous politics, yet with a difference. As we further suggests, the critique against the Bill brings forth what we, along with Ghassan Hage, term “alter-politics”.       

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