Dolly Kikon: “How does it feel to be a problem?”

Pandemics, aging mothers, decolonization, menopause, and anthropology may seem disparate topics yet anthropologist, human rights lawyer, and activist Dolly Kikon deftly weaves these concerns into a tapestry of interconnectedness for UCLA’S Center for South Asia (CISA) speaker series. Pulling from W.E.B DuBois and bell hooks’ intellectual threads, Kikon foregrounds the bigger albeit ironic image of incomplete decolonization in the world’s largest democracy: India.

Kikon’s insistence that new theories emerge “when we are able to write about the complexity of connections, relations, and fractures” link neocolonialism to her childhood memory of Dimapur’s haunted sports complex stadium, her cousin’s death at the hands of a rival armed group, and her experiences of marginalization in the land of her birth. Evoking the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Kikon extends the poet’s lamentations in “Subh-e-Azadi” or “Dawn of Freedom” to mourn an incomplete decolonization while also searching for Faiz’s “promised dawn of independence.”

Despite over 70 years of Indian independence from British colonialism and an impressive charter of rights that is the Constitution, not all of India is free. Using Du Bois’ interrogation of “how does it feel to be a problem?” from The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Kikon explains that to be a “problem” means to have the government deem one’s home “disturbed areas,” as is the case with the majority of  North East India and the state of Jammu and Kashmir. To be a problem means to be an exception to the Constitutional promises of rights and freedoms, as evident for those living under the threat of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which offers legal impunity for the Indian army to commit Constitutional and human right violations. To be a problem, in Kikon’s terms, means to “kill” one’s soul for education, to remain an unconnected and marginalized story, yet the primary subject of the state’s discipline and punishment, to lack intelligence; inhabiting a worldview that requires constant “correction” because it is deemed “weak and childlike.” For Kikon, a racist education’s pedagogical violence is not too far off from anthropology’s assumptions of speaking and writing norms undergirded in access and privileged education which then leaves behind the first generation, tribal student like herself.

There is no margin when it comes to violence, it is a poison that creates monsters, monsters that travel from the margins all the way to the center. And for India, over the decades these marginal and disturbed areas were the fertile experimental sites for impunity. Colonization stuck to these places like a stubborn stain.

Dolly Kikon, ““Are you still studying?” Anthropology, Decolonization, and Practice” at UCLA CISA

Intertwining narrative threads of her childhood with that of her single mother’s life, experiences of neocolonial violence, and anthropology’s shortcomings as a discipline, Kikon points to decolonization, and especially the decolonization of language as a means of healing. Using bell hooks’ idea on the importance of language as a mode of expression, Kikon calls for dismantling language and knowledge systems used to oppress others. Like many postcolonial trauma scholars, Kikon firmly holds onto possibilities for healing, reconciliation, and co-existence wherein a renewed decolonial praxis means a return back to “land movement, spirit, and meaning.” The road to healing and decolonization is long but rewarding, and here, Kikon charmingly equates the effects of decolonial work with menopause. While both induce emotional surges in her body, decolonization sets her free from the “conditions of a shackled world.” The urgent question then, in Kikon’s words, remains, “What does it do to you?”