From being a first-generation Indian female tribal anthropologist to make it in the international academy to her new role as Deputy Associate Dean (India Strategy) at the University of Melbourne, Dolly Kikon has greatly increased her own visibility. Politically progressive—active in human rights movement—from a young age, and an intellectual in her own right, she is quick to correct that her achievement is not hers alone “but of the collective efforts of mentors, teachers, affirmative actions and programs for indigenous students, and the generosity of peers”.
Growing up in Nagaland, northeast India, Kikon believes the context of understanding her own childhood needs to be connected to the traumatic experiences of militarisation and the resilient spirit of the Naga people as a collective. In a sense, if you downplay these narratives, you don’t get her.
After Kikon finished her high school education in Nagaland, she went on to study at the University of Delhi where she graduated with a B.A (History Hons) from Miranda House, and received her Bachelor’s in Law (LLB) from the Faculty of Law in 2001. She then worked briefly at the Supreme Court of India as a junior lawyer.
“On the human rights side, my life as a young lawyer in Delhi was quite vibrant. I worked with my fellow rights activists on campaigns to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958) and followed up with meetings from the Journey of Hope, a Naga people’s reconciliation project started by our Naga elders in the civil and political rights movement after the Indo-Naga ceasefire in 1997,” she says.
Kikon attended rallies and meetings of different Indian civil society groups. The legal training has stayed with her and “this is the reason why I continue to engage with the constitution. Particularly, my writings on Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution and the anti-constitutional legislation (Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958) has meant I really take the Right to Equality (article 14 to 18) as fundamental rights that are inalienable to any citizenship conversations.”
She returned to Northeast India and continued with her human rights work. Focussing on documentation and fact finding reports, Kikon says her training on the ground forced her to grow up and look at the world through the prism of equality and rights.
Later, she received a fellowship from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology where she completed her Master’s of Philosophy (MPhil). In 2006, she accepted an offer from the doctoral program at the Department of Anthropology, Stanford University. “From there I held a post-doctoral position at Stockholm University. And now here I am at the University of Melbourne,” says Kikon.
Today, as Senior Lecturer at the Anthropology and Development Studies Program at the University of Melbourne, Kikon continues to engage with issues of resource extraction, militarisation, development, human rights, migration, gender, and political economy. Currently, she is working on food, agroecology, and sustainability. She has published five books drawing on her advocacy work and her research projects. In 2019, she also made a documentary titled “Seasons of Life” on women foragers, bamboo shoot, and fermenting cultures in Northeast India.
With her new role as the Deputy Associate Dean (India Strategy) and as Senior Research Advisor (SRA) at the Australia India Institute (AII), Kikon brings earnest conviction, insights and passion of someone who has spent her professional life committed to engage with core issues of research, engagement, and service to the larger community. It is also a role she values coming at a time when India and Australia are looking to strengthen their strategic ties including the higher education sector.
In conversation with Dolly Kikon.
I am the Deputy Associate Dean (India Strategy) and the Senior Research Advisor (Governance) at the Australia India Institute. This means I work along with the Dean, Associate Dean, the Head of School, including key leaders who are focused on the India Strategy visions and focus on research collaborations between the University of Melbourne and key educational institutions in India. Aimed at capacity building and establishing research and industry partnerships, my work is to work collaboratively across institutions here at the University of Melbourne and our partner institutions in India.
As a Senior Research Advisor (SRA) at the Australia India Institute ((AII), I work with the AII Director on topics and research projects with a governance focus. Besides that, I host the Melbourne India Researchers in Focus event at the AII where we get an opportunity to talk about exciting new works that has an India focus.
From Nagaland to Stanford and now all the way to Australia, this is an extraordinary journey. What does this journey mean for you?
It has been an incredible experience. When I left New Delhi and went back to Northeast India to work in the Guwahati High Court, some of my friends said that it was the end of my career. To make matters worse for my family who were eager to see me as a lawyer, I gave up my legal practice and became a full-time human rights activist to document gender violence and state violence. I also began to assist established scholars as a field informant and did some research assistant work. I was fortunate to get a fellowship to do my M.Phil at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. But I returned and worked for two years in Northeast after my MPhil before applying for my doctoral studies at Stanford University. After a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at Stockholm University. I joined the University of Melbourne in 2016.
“For me to express what it meant growing up as a child in Nagaland needs to be connected to the traumatic experiences and also the resilience of the Naga people as a collective”
Tell us a bit about your growing up in Nagaland and the initial years.
I grew up in Dimapur when it was what one would call “a one-horse town” in Nagaland. Over the decades, this place has grown into a sprawling frontier city, and is one of the most rapidly expanding urban centres in Northeast India. I belong to the Lotha Naga tribe in Nagaland, a tribal hill state in Northeast India. This means social lives revolve around the community and kin groups. All kinds of events became a family and a community affair.
Growing up in the eighties means growing up with the Indo-Naga armed conflict and the militarisation. For my generation, we also saw a rise in substance addiction and a rise in gender violence in Naga society. I can articulate these events and link it to my childhood as a seamless narrative, but for me to express what it meant growing up as a child in Nagaland needs to be connected to the traumatic experiences and also the resilience of the Naga people as a collective. Perhaps, it is only in that context that we can include complex and deep histories of citizenship, belonging, and mobility for difference mobile communities.
To trace back my growing up as a Naga child in Nagaland also means understanding and locating my story within an indigenous tribal context globally. Saying this is important for me as a Naga Indian academic working in Australia. The context of understanding my own childhood and the structural violence and poverty in Nagaland has been, among other things, shaped by what I see among indigenous communities here in settler colonial societies like Australia and North America.
What was your experiences as a lawyer and human rights activist in India?
After I completed my high school education in Nagaland, I studied law at the Campus Law Centre (faculty of Law) from the University of Delhi and worked briefly at the Supreme Court of India. I was a junior lawyer and was mainly assigned to conduct research work to look for cases in the All India Reporter (AIR) and follow up on the court hearings at the Supreme Court. Sometimes I was also sent to the Delhi High Court to follow up on the case list.
On the human rights side of my life as a young lawyer in Delhi was quite vibrant. I worked with my fellow activists from the human rights movements on campaigns to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958) and the followed up with meetings from the Journey of Hope, a Naga people’s reconciliation project started by our Naga elders in the civil and political rights movement after the Indo-Naga ceasefire in 1997. Besides that, I attended rallies and meetings of different Indian civil society groups, but as you can see I am a lapsed lawyer and a full scale academic and writer.
However, the legal training has stayed with me and this is the reason why I engage with the constitution passionately. Particularly, my writings on Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution and the anti-constitutional legislation (Armed Forces Special Powers Act 1958) has meant I really take the Right to Equality (article 14 to 18) as fundamental rights that are inalienable to any citizenship conversations.
Tell us about your academic journey.
My four continent life experience (Asia, North America, Europe, Australia) taught me that human experiences are similar—joys, pain, suffering, jealousy, generosity—and it is these human qualities that reminds me of our ability to either humanise or dehumanise others around us.
“My four continent life experience (Asia, North America, Europe, Australia) taught me that human experiences are similar—joys, pain, suffering, jealousy, generosity”
My achievement is not mine alone but speaks of the collective efforts of mentors, teachers, affirmative actions and programs for indigenous students, and the generosity of peers. Neither of my parents attended university, so I am a first-generation indigenous Naga scholar from India who is a beneficiary of a national affirmative education program called the Scheduled Tribe (ST) quota system. I say this out loud because tribal students are perceived as lazy and dumb. We are seen as people who avail all kinds of opportunities and remain dependent on a welfare system. Such perceptions are contrary to the reality on the ground. The state of Nagaland where I come from has the highest number primary school drop-outs in India, and the rate of substance addiction and unemployment is staggering. That is not to erase the spirit of resilience and care that many amazing thinkers, educators, and practitioners on the ground in Nagaland are carrying out. My focus of care and engagement today is not only limited to Nagaland and Northeast India, the region where I come from. These issues and topics are matters that deeply the research and engagement of my wonderful colleagues at the University of Melbourne and around the world too. As academics and writers issues of justice, rights and care are integral part of citizenship practices.
However, at the end of the day when I go to bed, I think of Nagaland, of the mountains I call home, and know that across the villages and towns there are children growing up dreaming of seeing the world just like I did. And this is something that renews my spirit and makes me wake up every morning with a purpose here in Melbourne.
This is the excitement I carry with me as a teacher every time I walk into a classroom in Melbourne or in Delhi or Guwahati. At the core of what drives me as a teacher and a thinker with a vision is to make a meaningful contribution to the field of education and tap into the child like curiosity in all of us—as humans committed to learning from one another—that is founded on a purity of the human mind and justice.
Connect with Indira Laisram on Twitter
From being a 1st-gen Indian female tribal anthropologist to make it in the int'l academy to her new role as Deputy Associate Dean (India Strategy) at the @unimelb, @DollyKikon has greatly increased her own visibility. #TheIndianSun @indira_laisramhttps://t.co/nvYxbkywLC
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) March 2, 2021