Hunting for power

How hunting practices were a reflection of colonialism in British India

The ecologically diverse Kashmir valley, inhabited by exotic species like the snow leopard, markhor, ibex, blue sheep and musk deer, became a sporting ground for big game hunters in British India.

Organized hunting or ‘shikar’, consisting of one British officer and a group of Indians– a skilled hunter, a cook and porters, regularly set off from Srinagar. Shikar had also existed among indigenous rulers of colonial India; tiger and lion hunting were considered a symbol of kingship. In the context of the British Raj, shikar assumed a different configuration of power – the domination of western cultures over ‘natives’, a way for English gentlemen to establish their masculinity and societal status, and at a different level, the victory of Euro-pean culture over nature.

As hunting as a sport became more popular, there was rampant hunting of ungulates all over the Kashmir valley, almost wiping out the markhor. This triggered the formation of the Kashmir Game Preservation Department to formulate laws for fair hunting practices. The author Shafaqat Hussain views the hunting laws as a reflection of liberal political ideas of the enlightenment era equality, justice and fairness – in all aspects of British social life. Firstly, sportsmen were only allowed to take the biggest head, since the biggest markhor were seen to occupy the difficult to access higher reaches. Experiencing hardship and risk in order to obtain the trophy was seen to be fair play. Secondly, driving the game was prohibited, because they did not give the prey a fair chance to escape. Thirdly, there was a restriction on the number of animals that could be shot.

The Forest Act that came in to regulate hunting proved effective and the game population did recover. But the protected species were no longer accessible to the indigenous populations due to steep licensing; also, the British criticized indigenous hunting practices, blaming them for wiping out the ungulates, without considering that the practice was mainly for subsistence, especially during the harsh winter. Thus colonial hunters’ insistence on adherence to fair hunting codes and practices had a wider, unfair, impact on local society. Like other colonial cultural projects, hunting was fraught with internal inconsistencies and contradictions that could only be resolved through perpetuating and creating unfair, and hence unjust, social relations in the wider society.

This article is from issue


2010 Sep