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Abstract

This dissertation asks what happens to the politics of multiculturalism in postcolonial India, epitomized in the motto of “unity in diversity”, when “diversity” becomes not only a social, but also an ecological good, given the emphasis on biodiversity in the Anthropocene. The ethnography studies marketized conservation practices such as ecotourism, in the northeastern frontier state of Sikkim, as emergent sites of a politics of bio-cultural recognition, where recognition-seeking ethnic groups articulate their under-valued cultural diversity with the valued biodiversity of this Himalayan region. If recognition of diversity by the state is a mode of being subjected to its sovereignty and of being bound to it, what liberatory potential does being subjects of marketized conservation paradigms offer to marginalized communities? What are the limits of these alternative avenues of recognition? And what is the impact of this politics of ecological and neoliberal multiculturalism – negotiated between frontier citizens, conservationists and national tourists as financers of neoliberal conservation – on the liberal state, which ceases to be the sole adjudicator of recognition and redistribution, that is a significant source of its authority? The ethnography highlights the ability secured by Nepali and Sherpa ethnic groups to escape from the rigid bureaucratized criteria for state recognition, which fail to remedy the exclusion these border communities perceive. However, the validation of their biocultural diversity by conservationists and ecotourists (as neoliberal conservation-sponsors), engenders its own rigid and contradictory criteria. The biodiversity discourse’s emphasis on nativism of species, and the market/tourists’ search for exotic, aesthetic variety of nature-culture, precipitate new forms of symbolic violence. Further, the state while promoting neoliberal development, pushing communities towards the market, is anxious about losing its authority to the market, and reasserts its power accordingly. Communities are then caught in a bind between the state and the market. The politics of neoliberal and ecological multiculturalism, this dissertation shows, entails a diffusion of physical sites and governing gazes of recognition. In this diffusion, communities trade the postcolonial state’s binding ethnographic matrix of cultural categorizations in favor of an unbounded yet anxiety-inducing terrain of negotiations, that is equally unsettling for the state and for its multispecies citizens.

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