Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Politics of Scale in a High Mountain Border Region: Being Mobile among the Bhotiyas of the Kumaon Himalaya, India

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Politics of Scale in a High Mountain Border Region: Being Mobile among the Bhotiyas of the Kumaon Himalaya, India

Article excerpt


Pastoral mobility in mountain environments always implicates indigenous forms of agency vis-a-vis the surrounding states with which people are interlinked, for instance through trade relations, contested border demarcations or natural resource regulations. In this paper, we analyse such interactions in terms of an ongoing 'politics of scale', that is to say a politics of the spatial dimensions structuring social life. Our case study focuses on the Bhotiyas, former trans-Himalayan traders who practise a sort of combined mountain agriculture in the high valleys of the Kumaon Himalaya, bordering China. The interdisciplinary approach foregrounds several registers of mobility, from agro-pastoral to ritual techniques and from property rights to ethnic identities.

Keywords: Bhotiyas, pastoral mobility, politics of scale, interdisciplinary research, Kumaon


Mobility is a prominent theme in high mountain research, especially in analyses of pastoral practices. Without doubt, the rhythms of movement in the Himalaya ate broadly driven by seasonal variations, such as the duration of snow cover of the onset of the vegetation periods in different altitudinal belts. However, classic accounts overemphasized cross-regional similarities in vertical land use and specified mobility patterns as adaptations that reduce the risk of crop and livestock production under the harsh environmental conditions of mountain regions (Rhoades and Thompson 1975). This conventional view was backed by assumptions of ecological uniformity in different environmental zones, with carrying capacity as the controlling parameter. Within such quantitatively defined and predictable systems, pastoralists predominantly figured as 'politically passive migrants' because their mobility was seen as incompatible with mainstream social and political life (Agrawal and Saberwal 2004: 38).

Rather negative perceptions of pastoral mobility gained a strong currency in the Theory of Himalayan Environment Degradation, the dominant narrative for that region during the 1970s and 1980s (Metz 2010). It postulated a direct relation between overpopulation, grazing pressure and deforestation, resulting in severe soil erosion in the hills and devastating flooding in the Indo-Gangetic plains (Eckholm 1976). While these prognostic scenarios and explanations still inform policy makers in India and China today, they have meanwhile been challenged by a number of studies revealing the value of indigenous knowledge and a more complex picture of environmental change (cf. Blaikie and Muldavin 2004). Stimulated by scholars working in the semi-arid rangelands of Africa (Scoones 1995; Niamir-Fuller 1999), a new scientific agenda for the assessment of mobile land use in the Himalaya gradually prevailed in which the proactive character of pastoral strategies was foregrounded (Nusser 1998; Saberwal 1999).

Seasonal movements across different altitudinal belts facilitate extensive livestock keeping, and enable people to efficiently manage good fodder and nutritional supplies for their animals. Actual mobility patterns are thereby shaped through negotiation processes in which the diverging interests of local actors as well as external influences and interventions are relevant (Bauer 2004; Kreutzmann 2006). These negotiations are often fuelled by government programmes of affirmative action, which are designed to give the 'weaker sections' of society, often non-Hindu, a competitive edge. Many pastoral groups seek to achieve recognition from the state by strategically displaying a distinct ethnic identity (Kapila 2008; Shneiderman 2010).


These recent trends of scholarly research inform our case study of the so-called Bhotiyas of Kumaon. In their previous trans-Himalayan trade activities, they kept large flocks of sheep and goats for transporting commodities across high passes into Tibet. Although (geo-)political dynamics had overshadowed the region for a long time, the closure of the Indo-Tibetan border due to war between India and China in 1962 had a particularly dramatic effect on the Bhotiyas' livelihood situation. …

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