Nidhi Mahajan

I received my PhD in Anthropology from Cornell University in 2015. I am currently a Visiting Fellow at ASC-IIAS.

My research focuses on the intersection between transnational Indian Ocean trade networks and the dynamics of state formation in East Africa. My book project entitled Moorings: Indian Ocean Trade and the State in East Africa is an historical ethnography that examines interactions between participants of mobile trade networks and multiple regulatory regimes in coastal Kenya. Ever since 9/11, the Kenyan coast has become a flashpoint for international security. Governments assume that the predominantly Muslim merchants and sailors of the coast, with longstanding commercial and social ties across the Indian Ocean are entwined with militant groups. Simultaneously, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a political organization, has been arguing for secession of the coast on the basis that the area has been shaped by its historical connections to the Indian Ocean rather than the Kenyan state. Rather than taking a presentist view, I argue that these conflicts are a result of a deep-rooted anxiety over the coast’s long history of trade and social relations in the Indian Ocean. 

From 19th century encounters between dhow sailors and anti-slavery British naval patrols, to ivory smuggling in the 1970s; from contemporary Kenyan state regulation of the dhow trade at Mombasa’s Old Port, to everyday life on board an Indian dhow that has been pushed into the shadow economy in Somalia, I examine how mobile participants in Indian Ocean trade networks have responded to state control – whether imperial, colonial, or national – by operating in the shadow economy. My research not only traces the everyday workings of these transnational trade networks in the interstices of the legal/illegal, and the quotidian practices of statecraft, but also demonstrates how notions of legitimacy, jurisdiction, sovereignty, and even subjecthood, citizenship, and belonging are negotiated “on the ground” through these encounters.