I first heard about the “outsider” (baharwale) monkeys within a few days of starting my fieldwork in 2010. I was in a shared taxi, returning from the town of Haldwani to Pokhri, when the driver casually mentioned that at least a hundred monkeys had been dropped off a couple of weeks earlier in the village of Harkoli, a hamlet of about fifty or so houses perched precariously on a hillside right below a highway.

A little after midnight, those closest to the road heard a truck pull to a stop in the little patch of oak and pine forest that adjoined the village. And then commenced a halla (hullabaloo). The noises that drowned out the gentle drone of the familiar creatures of the night were so terrifying that no one stepped out of their homes to investigate what was going on. The next morning, the monkeys were everywhere. They were too many to be chased off. Even the dogs who bounded out of their homes, tails stiff with joy at the sight of these new adversaries to be harried, returned in a trice, some with injuries from the encounter.

Within the week the monkeys had destroyed the entire plum harvest, causing thousands of rupees worth of damage.

The other occupants of the car clucked in sympathy at the plight of the Harkoliwallahs. One woman said with some bitterness that her village had been dealing with these “outsider” monkeys for the last few months, and she knew how destructive they could be; they had eaten everything in sight – cucumbers, squash, beans, apricots, peaches, pears, and plums. There was no getting rid of them.

Soon the others in the car began to name villages that were similarly under siege by monkeys from elsewhere; the list seemed endless. In many places, I was told, people had given up cultivation altogether because the monkeys would eat everything and their labor would come to naught. Pahari monkeys raided crops too, I was told, but the scale and intensity of the depredation by these new monkeys was a tipping point. A man in the car recounted to us how his family had hired the son of a Nepali labourer to spend the day patrolling their orchards with a slingshot; however, the boy had been so badly bitten by the monkeys that his father refused to send him to work anymore even if it meant losing the money that had extended the family income.

The outsider monkeys caused particular damage to the fruit crop.
The outsider monkeys caused particular damage to the fruit crop.

Those who talked about the monkeys always echoed a few common themes. “They have come from elsewhere” was a common refrain, as was “they were not here earlier”. When I asked how and why the monkeys had come there, “there” being a particular village or the pahar in general, the response was always “unko yahan chhod diya gaya hai” (they have been left here) or “truck me bhar-bhar ke aate hain” (they came by the truckload).

When I asked where the monkeys were from originally, some responded that they had come all the way from Delhi, Vrindavan, and Mathura. Others declared that the monkeys were exiles from the cities of Haldwani, Nainital, and Almora, banished from these urban spaces at the will of their influential human residents and dumped on powerless villagers out in the middle of nowhere. There were also a few dark mutterings that the monkeys had come from Dehradun, a political ploy to ensure that Garhwal would prosper while Kumaon would be ravaged by monkeys.

Their exact provenance was a matter of some mystery. But on this, at least, everyone was agreed – the monkeys had come from elsewhere. And their numbers were only growing, din ke din, raat ke raat (day by day, night by night).

In 2007, the Congress Party’s manifesto promised to tackle the “monkey menace” if voted back into power in the state. The president of the Uttarakhand Congress Committee, Harish Rawat, explained that the issue had made its way into the manifesto because farmers in every village they visited had begged them to do something about the growing depredation of wild creatures.

However, it was not simply the pillage of their crops and houses by monkeys that so enraged villagers in Kumaon. Predation by monkeys, after all, is a timeworn element of rural life, and conflict is only one dimension of a complex human-macaque relationship. As one older woman put it, it was in the nature of monkeys to pilfer – they were inveterate chor (thieves), just like humans. Unlike the “thieving sparrows” of the Cumbum Valley, their acts of robbery were believed to be driven more by a base desire for entertainment than by real need. Monkeys would not be monkeys if they did not steal, one man told me; it was a characteristic of their kind (unki jaat hi aise hoti hai).

People were thus accustomed to the pilfering tendencies of monkeys, born supposedly from their innate love of mischief. The image of monkeys as mostly good-natured rogues was reinforced in local stories, myths, and proverbs that drew from a broad Hindu religious imaginary; it was these narratives that people conjured up to excuse and historicise monkeys’ proclivity for theft and mischief. There was, of course, the frequent invocation of Hanuman, Rama’s monkey follower, companion, and protector. But there were also a host of other metaphors and analogies.

One woman told me that monkeys were as mischievous as young Kanha (Krishna), a loveable thief who could not resist stealing butter. An older man who was famous for his mastery over the Ramayana compared monkeys to the figure of Sugriva, the deposed king of monkeys, who lived a life of debauchery until his rescue by Rama. “For centuries,” the old man told me on one sunny afternoon after having declared his intention to redress my deplorable lack of familiarity with the intricacies of the Ramayana, “monkeys have been ayaash (voluptuary) creatures. Only bhagwan Rama can reform them. That’s why you have to forgive whatever they do; it’s in their blood.”

If such plunder of agrarian and household produce was a familiar and forgivable offence, why then did human conflict with monkeys become such an incendiary issue in the years following the creation of Uttarakhand as a separate state?

Coding these encounters between humans and monkeys as yet another instance of human-wildlife conflict – that is, as tussles over space and food that affect lives and livelihoods – obfuscates the fact that people were relatively tolerant of the infractions of certain monkeys and not of others. It was thefts committed by pahari monkeys that could be endured, sometimes with affection but more often with barely restrained wrath. However, the trespasses of outsider monkeys were deemed by many to be intolerable, especially because they were so aggressive.“There is a limit,” one woman complained.

Our monkeys are ours, after all, but why should we have to endure the terror of these monkeys who have come from outside? So many people have been bitten that it is hard to step out on the streets without a stick. Even our dogs are terrorised. My dog doesn’t go into the garden anymore after his face was bitten by a monkey. He relieves himself near the house. The monkeys who would come occasionally to our fields would never attack dogs like this. But these monkeys can kill a dog.

She was only one of many who shared the sentiment that it was one thing for humans (and dogs) to suffer the depredations of pahari monkeys but entirely another to have one’s homes and fields plundered by monkeys from elsewhere who responded to people in unexpected and dangerous ways. Some people complained that pahari rhesus monkeys would be unable to leave the forest as long as these outsiders occupied villages. “There used to be an akela bandar (single male monkey) who would come to our fields occasionally and eat the crops,” one woman told me. “But now that these ruffians are here, he doesn’t come anymore. Our situation is the same as his,” she said bitterly. “Even we will soon have to stay in the forest.This happens to all paharis, we are always exploited.” In effect, she was claiming that pahari monkeys and humans were related by this common history of displacement and exploitation, a sentiment that was echoed by many others who expressed their sympathy for the local monkeys who had been pushed out by these outsiders.

People’s resentment was thus reserved for the newcomers; it was they who were denounced as unwelcome interlopers.

In other words, I am suggesting that people’s bitterness and anger was provoked not by simian crop raiding in general but by which monkeys in particular were thieving from fields and homes and attacking people. They framed this conflict as a particular battle between paharis – both human and macaque – and outsiders, not just between humans and monkeys as distinct species.

As such, the moral panic bore striking similarity to tropes about invasive or nonnative species elsewhere in the world, whether foreign flora in South Africa or turtles and frogs imported for food to the United States. What these different cases share in common is, to borrow from Jean and John Comaro, the deployment of the nonnative species as “alibi, as a fertile allegory for rendering some people and objects strange, thereby to authenticate the limits of the (‘natural’) order of things”.

In Kumaon, too, the discourse around outsider monkeys imagined and enacted a politics of differentiation and exclusion. The very term bahar ke bandar (outsider monkeys) reflected a widespread rhetoric that was employed to demand and authorise action against outsiders. This was a strident and exclusionary politics that sought to harden lines of difference between insider and outsider, native and trespasser.

The intrusions of pahari forest macaques were met with greater tolerance.
The intrusions of pahari forest macaques were met with greater tolerance.

Yet what also distinguished the use of nativist tropes in this context from moral panics in places such as South Africa and the United States was the fact that it was through this politics of belonging that Kumaoni villagers exposed and critiqued their ongoing history of exclusion. The preoccupation with outsider monkeys reveals how they became powerful material metaphors for anxieties about the displacement and expropriation of paharis by people from the lowlands. Highlighting the unexpected presence of monkey outsiders in this landscape opened up a space for paharis to debate not only who belongs in the mountains but also, and perhaps more importantly, to whom the mountains belong. By representing these monkeys from elsewhere as rapacious freeloaders who did not play by the rules of the pahar, villagers produced a critical commentary on the growing presence and power of human outsiders.

At the heart of the matter of the monkeys, then, was the difficult question of who should have material and moral access to scarce resources in a state that was created to address a widespread sense of inequality and neglect among paharis in the first place.

Having said that, victimhood is a complicated terrain upon which to base political action. As Laura Jeffery and Matei Candea note, victimhood often enacts a politics that is ambiguous. Discourses of pahari victimhood as they emerged around the issue of the monkey menace naturalised pahari claims to belonging that were dependent on the exclusion and othering of human and animal others. And yet it was through this morally complicated “politics of victimhood” that people felt empowered and justified to make claims on a state that was widely perceived to have abandoned the pursuit of welfare for its mountain citizens.

Excerpted with permission from Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas, Radhika Govindarajan, Penguin Random House.