The white ant's burden: Insects, empire and entomo-politics in South Asia

By focussing on the history of white ants in colonial South Asia, this talk argues that co-constitutive encounters between the worlds of insects and politics have been an intrinsic feature of British colonialism and its legacies in South Asia. British rule in India was vulnerable to white ants because these insects consumed paper and wood, the key material foundations of the colonial state. The white ant problem also made the colonial state more resilient and intrusive. The sphere of strict governmental intervention was extended to include both animate and inanimate nonhumans, while these insects were invoked as symbols to characterise colonised landscapes, peoples and cultures. Nonetheless, encounters with white ants were not entirely within the control of the colonial state. Despite effective state intervention, white ants didn’t vanish altogether, and remained objects of everyday control till the final decade of colonial rule and after. Meanwhile, colonised and post-colonial South Asians used white ants to articulate their own distinct political agendas. Over time, white ants featured variously as metaphors for Islamic decadence, British colonial exploitation, communism, democratic socialism and more recently, the Indian National Congress.