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Book review: The Political Biography of an Earthquake

The scope of the book is vast; while this provides a narrative of impressive scale, it sometimes detracts from in-depth analysis.

Updated: September 22, 2014 4:47:47 pm
In this photo taken five years after the 2001 quake, a young boy in Bhuj walks past a destroyed building. In this photo taken five years after the 2001 quake, a young boy in Bhuj walks past a destroyed building.

Book: The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat

Author: Edward Simpson

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 330  

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Farhana Ibrahim

From the rubble of the 2001 earthquake arose a new Bhuj, rebuilt with  bricks, mortar and the cement of Hindutva

Earthquakes are not uncommon in Gujarat’s Kutch district. Situated on a tectonic fault, the inhabitants of this arid region abutting the Arabian Sea and Rann of Kutch, have witnessed the earth’s convulsions one too many times. The most recent earthquake occurred on January 26, 2001, with other documented precedents in 1956 and 1819. Earthquakes are absorbed into folktale and mythology in Kutch, and are variously used as a metaphor to talk about unpopular kings, colonial rule or otherwise inexplicable calamity. This book is an attempt to understand the 2001 earthquake, not merely from the point of view of disaster management, but from an anthropological perspective on what natural disasters — and their aftermaths — tell us about society.

“Aftermath” here is not simply an assessment of the death toll or quantum of property damaged, nor indeed solely the degree of psychological impact the disaster had on survivors (the “aftermaths of the mind”) but, crucially, the nature of interventions that follow the earthquake, in the form of aid and reconstruction. Here, Simpson follows Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism) to suggest that it is during a vulnerable state following a disaster, that a society is exposed to new ways of thinking. Simpson clarifies, “My focus is more firmly on the gifting of ideas and ideology than it is on sewing machines or tents”, but as he demonstrates, houses and town planning do become concrete faces of emergent political and social ideologies.

In a nutshell, Simpson’s argument is that in the months and years following the earthquake, a number of interventions were made for relief and reconstruction. Various religious and charitable organisations “adopted” villages in order to rebuild them. Some of the villages thus “adopted” had not really been damaged enough in the earthquake to warrant re-building, but this is the point: the period following the earthquake allowed for society to be re-imagined along certain lines. Rebuilt villages typically operated with a hierarchy of deservingness: Muslims and lower castes were less deserving than upper-caste Hindus. This further entrenched social cleavages that had perhaps been only incipient until that time. In the process, Simpson argues, the state retreated from the task of reconstruction, handing over this role to private organisations, particularly in rural areas. In the urban centre of Bhuj, “Town Planning”, conceived of as a public-private partnership, unleashed a flurry of activity that entailed a classification of loss, competing claims on who had suffered more, in order to be eligible for compensation. A massive relocation project ensued, which led to “state-led suburbanisation” and for some at least, increased prosperity and “hyper-consumption”. Urban reconstruction allowed, in the long run, “for the emergence of an aquiescent and more homogenous citizenry” and new gods replaced old ones. The new ruling deity in Bhuj was Swaminarayan, with its immense network of temples and reconstructed (and re-named) villages bearing testimony to a potentially new devotee base that was “bribed and pulled away from their old deities towards those embedded in the sophisticated structures of trans-regional and global sects”.

The book is simultaneously an ethnography of reconstruction — and this is its strength — and an understanding of how an event, such as the earthquake, provides a window into the changing nature of state and society. Simpson provides a nuanced account of how various actors involved — the state, citizen groups, amateur historians, religious sects, and urbane “experts” from outside Kutch — used the disaster to re-imagine society on their own terms. The aftermath thus becomes a time for various interest groups to claim discursive authority: a waning movement of Kutchi regional patriotism acquires a new lease of life, urban planners attempt to write out what they see as vestiges of old associational forms such as caste from their modernist vision for the future, and at the grassroots, villagers have their own views on how they would like to live.

The scope of the book is vast; while this provides a narrative of impressive scale, it sometimes detracts from in-depth analysis. It unfolds over 34 chapters, the average length of which is five pages. This gives a bird’s eye view of a number of processes, but occasionally falls short of critical depth, while being repetitive at other times. The anecdotal nature of the evidence provided leaves the reader with more questions: for instance, how do individuals at the grassroots respond to planners’ visions for their future? The section on villages is a rich account of reconstruction discourse, but we get a less textured feel for the social profiles of the villages in question — their caste and religious composition and conflicts that might well pre-date the tumultuous post-earthquake period.

While he accurately and insightfully discusses the gradual saffronisation of Gujarat’s politics around the period of the earthquake — and indeed this is the larger ideological universe within which the sociological shifts documented in the book take place — Simpson is mystifyingly reticent about the implications of the events of 2002 in Gujarat for this ethnography. While he devotes one short chapter to the anti-Muslim violence of 2002, it is in the nature of providing political background to the context. Yet the two disasters — earthquake and genocide — cannot be separated conceptually from a narrative on the aftermath of the earthquake in Kutch; although they did not necessarily coincide geographically (the genocide took place further east), both events must be read together to understand the changing nature of the state in Gujarat. Again, by attributing reconstruction efforts at the grassroots to a “retreat of the state”, Simpson runs the risk of absolving the state in Gujarat from a moral accountability for the “aftermath”. Despite these shortcomings, this remains a richly-documented account of the after-life of a disaster. Written simply and engagingly, the book will be of interest to scholars and non-specialists alike.

The writer is associate professor  of sociology at IIT Delhi

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