The central conflict is between Rikki and the snakes and takes place in and around the yard.
A conflict is a struggle between opposing forces. This story is actually deceptively complex. While on the one hand it is a story of a mongoose protecting people from snakes, it is also an allegory of British imperialism in India. Yes, the conflict is between Rikki and the snakes. Yet there is a larger conflict going on here. The snakes’ territory has been encroached on by the people, just as the Indians have been colonized by the British.
There are many types of conflicts in literature. The most common are character vs. character (Rikki vs. snakes), character vs. self (Rikki’s fear, and the snakes’ fear of that they will not be up to the task of confronting Rikki, and character vs. nature (Rikki being washed away into the garden). There is also character vs. society. That one is the one that caused this whole thing in the first place—it is the colonialism that causes the people to be in the garden, and gives Rikki justification to protect them.
Rikki is an ordinary mongoose who is washed into the garden one day. Like any other mongoose, he wants to be a “house mongoose” one day. That means he wants to live with a family. All mongooses have one thing in common—they kill snakes. The conflict between Rikki and the snakes was thus inevitable.
[Though] Rikki-tikki had never met a live cobra before, his mother had fed him on dead ones, and he knew that all a grown mongoose's business in life was to fight and eat snakes. Nag knew that too, and at the bottom of his cold heart he was afraid.
Nag asks Rikki an interesting question. It is only meant to be a diversion so that his mate Nagaina can distract Rikki, but it is worth considering.
``Let us talk,'' he said. ``You eat eggs. Why should not I eat birds?''
There are two issues going on here. First of all, we are predisposed as humans to root for the fluffy, cuddly mongoose as opposed to the creepy snakes, even though the mongoose is the aggressor here. Second, the snake and the mongoose both are just doing what their instincts tell them to do. There is no right and wrong here. There is just nature vs. nature. In fact, Rikki will later kill all of Nagaina's eggs, both to prevent the cobras from growing up, and to distract her. Where is the morality in that? Do we pity her, or the baby cobras?
The character vs. society conflict comes from the fact that this situation only arises from the colonial backdrop. These people are in this garden, trying to cohabitate with snakes, and in this country, because for some reason they feel that they belong there. They feel that they can take what they want. That is the nature of colonialism. It is what humans do to animals, and it is what the British are doing to the Indians. The garden is described as “only half cultivated” because the people cannot quite control their domain. They are strangers there.
On its surface, this is a children’s story of a snake versus a mongoose, the good and brave versus the evil. But there is no good and evil here. There is only nature. Rikki was not acting out of some kind of good will toward the people. He was acting on instinct. He was doing what he was born to do. So were the snakes. We as people only identify with one of those.