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South Asian History and Culture


Academic histories of hunting or shikar in India have almost entirely focused on the sports hunting of British colonists and Indian royalty. This article attempts to balance this elite bias by focusing on the meaning of shikar in the construction of the Gond ‘tribal’ identity in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century colonial central India. Coining the term ‘subaltern shikaris’ to refer to the class of poor, rural hunters, typically ignored in this historiography, the article explores how the British managed to use hunting as a means of state penetration into central India’s forest interior, where they came to regard their Gond forest-dwelling subjects as essentially and eternally primitive hunting tribes. Subaltern shikaris were employed by elite sportsmen and were also paid to hunt in the colonial regime’s vermin eradication programme, which targeted tigers, wolves, bears and other species identified by the state as ‘dangerous beasts’. When offered economic incentives, forest dwellers usually willingly participated in new modes of hunting, even as impact on wildlife rapidly accelerated and became unsustainable. Yet as non-indigenous approaches to nature became normative, there was sometimes also resistance from Gond communities. As overkill accelerated, this led to exclusion of local peoples from natural resources, to their increasing incorporation into dominant political and economic systems, and to the eventual collapse of hunting as a livelihood. All of this raises the question: To what extent were subaltern subjects, like wildlife, ‘the hunted’ in colonial India?