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The Eating of Humans

This entry was posted in India on 28 June 2013 by

The other day, through a randomly speculative Google search, Hugo and I came across this blog entry on black babies serving as bait for alligators in the American South. The phrase ‘alligator bait’ that now operates as a racist slur refers to the purported stealing of black babies by whites in order to use them as bait to catch alligators. Visual depictions of this can be found in a variety of settings such as posters and postcards issued by the state of Florida and in advertisements for soaps that promise to remove all dirty (read black) stains. That flagrantly racist images can be strategically deployed by tourism boards or soap companies well into the 20th century is, to say the very least, shocking. Debates over the veracity of this practice predominate the online sources we read in horrified fascination. Some dismiss it as pure fabrications or the outcome of paranoid imaginations. Others look to uncover the historical records that could prove that this practice of using black babies as bait is rooted in a reality that attests to a conspiracy against the blacks by the whites. The really interesting aspect of this, for me at least, is what these images and oral myths related to the easy killing/stealing/utilisation of black babies say about the afterlife of slavery and the experience of racism. Babies, after all, are popularly the most innocent form of life and whatever the colour of their skin, the natural instinct is to protect them from harm as opposed to feeding them to evil reptiles. How can anyone conspire to steal them from their parents and dispense them so callously? And if we are to believe the naysayers and agree that this practice never really happened but arises from a sense of persecution then what does this tell us about the sorts of conspiracies that the black community in the US South believed the whites to be capable of? In other words, doesn’t this very imaginary serve as a powerful remnant of the trauma of slavery and racism.

Staying on the topic of humans being eaten by animals, let me turn to some of my own work in Himalayan India. During my doctoral fieldwork in the north-Indian state of Uttarakhand in a district located on India’s border with Tibet, I was stunned to discover frequent incidences of leopards and tigers that kill and eat humans. One of the questions that perplexed me was why do these big cats turn on humans, a species that they are believed to be scared of and are otherwise quite careful to avoid. I have written extensively about this phenomenon elsewhere but let me just briefly mention a very popular theory on the existence of man-eating big cats in this Himalayan region. According to this theory, the Indian state sends up big cats from the zoos in the plains to the Himalayas to die. Some locals firmly believed the big cats were sent up to “eat them,” it was a deliberate conspiracy to exterminate the mountain people. Others considered it an irresponsible act by the state which was, as ever, blind to the fact that these Himalayan tracts are inhabited by humans who could serve as easy prey for these big cats, completely out of practice with hunting animals as they are. This group thus refrained from describing it as an active conspiracy by the state against its own citizens and described the release of alien big cats in the mountains more as an act of wilful negligence. Despite my best efforts, I remain unable to establish unequivocally if this release of big cats into the Himalayas ever really happened or continues to occur on the sly. Again, my interest in this case too lies not in uncovering an indisputable truth of the practice but, rather, in thinking about what this widespread belief is telling us just by virtue of its popularity and circulation. Uttarakhand and particularly this ‘remote’ district of the Upper Himalaya remains an impoverished, marginal region of India. In the current post-liberalisation phase it continues to feel left out and, simultaneously, exploited for its rich natural resources of timber, water, minerals, and rare herbs. While glossy images of an increasingly affluent urban and metropolitan India are beamed in daily through satellite television and talk of rapid development in the plains proliferates, this region of the Himalaya remains woefully trapped in a vicious cycle of out-migration and crumbling infrastructure not to mention devastating disasters such as therecent floods. Within such a scenario of continual immiseration in poverty, it is not surprising that conspiracy theories such as big-cats-being-sent-to-eat-the-mountain-persons find wide acceptance.