Relief and religious identity

Print edition : May 01, 2015

Houses built at Anjar in Kutch district. The author outlines how the project of participatory reconstruction of villages by private contractors consolidates caste boundaries further. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

Bill Clinton in front of the statue of Satyanarayana at the Akshardam temple in Ahmedabad on April 5, 2001. The U.S. President met relief officials in the quake-affected region of Gujarat. The author illustrates how neoliberal aid intervention does not function in a social void. Photo: REUTERS

The author portrays the conflicts between competing interests in post-disaster Gujarat and shows the tenuous links between neoliberalism as a political project and the emergence of the Hindu Right.

So I don't think we can simply accept the traditional Marxist analysis, which assumes that, labour being man's concrete essence, the capitalist system is what transforms that labour into profit, into hyperprofit or surplus value. The fact, is the capitalism penetrates much more deeply into our existence. That system, as it was established in the nineteenth century, was obliged to elaborate a set of political techniques, techniques of power, by which man was tied to something like labour--a set of techniques by which people's bodies and their time would become labour power and labour time so as to be effectively used and thereby transformed into hyperprofit.

--Michel Foucault, Lectures on "Truth and Juricial Forms" delivered at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio De Janeiro in May, 1973.

FOUCAULT’S incisive analysis of the creation of subjects by the appropriate discourse of neoliberalism is of immense value in understanding the machinations of capitalism in our times. The totalising influence of neoliberalism on society is marked out by a project of forging new subjects through the technologies of power. The criticism of aid-driven intervention by the West as an instrument of neoliberalism is commonplace in the literature on development. Joseph Stiglitz’s celebrated work Globalisation and its Discontents dwells at length on the adverse impact of economic “restructuring” led by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a number of developing countries.

Edward Simpson’s The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India delineates the intervention efforts following the disastrous earthquake of 2001 in Gujarat to show how aid-driven development moves beyond a mere effort to reconstruct a society and forges new subjectivities to consolidate relations of power. This detailed ethnography is based on years of extensive research amid the ruins of the earthquake-affected Kutch region. It animates the arena of political contestation, which emerges during the efforts of reconstruction. The literature on disasters and reconstruction in anthropology has amply highlighted the competitive politics of organisations that characterise reconstruction efforts in post-disaster situations. Jock Stirrat’s work on post-tsunami talks about the reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka after the 2004 disaster. In “Competitive Humanitarianism: Relief and the Tsunami in Sri Lanka”, Stirrat observes that international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) competed amongst themselves to “get rid of money” in a way which would fit into the Western donor’s vision of relief. As a result of this, some activities, such as distributing new fishing craft, rather than less visible forms of disaster relief such as rehabilitation of government offices, were privileged by them.

In an important essay in her book Critical Events: An Anthropological Perspective on Contemporary India (OUP, 1997), Veena Das, speaking about the Bhopal gas tragedy in India, underscores the importance of looking at social mechanisms by which the manufacture of pain on the one hand and the theologies of suffering on the other become the means of legitimating the social order rather than being threats to this order.

R.S. Khare, writing in 1990 on the Bhopal gas tragedy, observes how the issue of compensation of the voiceless victims and survivors of the tragedy became an arena of contestation between local and Central governments, Union Carbide and volunteer groups representing the victims.

Simpson’s work is an important contribution to the anthropology of disasters as well as development. Not only does the author portray the conflicts between competing interests in post-disaster Gujarat, but he unfolds the tenuous links between neoliberalism as a political project and the emergence of the Hindu Right. The proponents of neoliberalism as an economic project often celebrate it as a form of organisation of society where individual enterprise trumps traditional loyalties to caste and religion. The neoliberal regime is seen to usher in an era of capitalist modernity where religious affiliations fade. Simpson’s ethnographic analysis debunks these myths. His book shows how the site of reconstruction also becomes a laboratory for furthering the Hindutva project and considerably transforms local cultural practices and forms of social organisation. The transformation is also marked out in the geography of reconstructed towns and the iconic sites around which social life revolves.

For instance, the author outlines how the project of participatory reconstruction of villages by private contractors consolidates caste boundaries further. He notes: “Residential distinctions between castes and sects might have been vague before the earthquake, but the approach to participatory reconstruction in rural areas enlivened such distinctions and encouraged them in the planning of villages.”

He traces the reconstruction of villages where upper-caste Hindu elites were able to reinforce inequalities. During the rebuilding of Soniwad, a village in Bhuj, the rehabilitation committee which comprised prosperous upper-caste Hindus focussed largely on their interests and neglected the interests of the Muslim residents.

There was an attempt to reorganise the urban geography of the village. The reconstruction committee was aided by a Brahmin. The boundaries of the new map were marked by the meeting hall of Brahmins, and the Ashapura Mandir, a temple dedicated to the royal deity. The principles of organisation were derived from vastu shastra, an ancient science of structure. This project of reconstruction was funded by the United Nations Development Programme. The author thus illustrates how neoliberal aid intervention does not function in a social void. In fact, in this instance there is a seamless blending of neoliberal intervention and the ideas of purity and pollution.

The author shows how the project of reconstruction lays down the ground for the construction of an Indian identity in opposition to the Muslim identity, a cornerstone of the Hindu right-wing discourse of nationalism. Muslims of Kutch became a “precious resource for the Hindu nationalists at the Centre”.

In Khavda village in Kutch, where the reconstruction programme was carried out by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Swaminarayan Sanstha, the religious organisations had considerable power over determining the design and layout of villages. The new settlement in Khavda was built around a new temple. The walled settlement excluded those who did not align themselves with the temple movement.

The author challenges the assumption that humanitarian intervention by charitable organisations is merely an act of benevolence. This is borne out by the description of the Swaminarayan Sanstha’s aid intervention in the reconstruction of Jiyapar village. The author found out through extensive interviews that the organisation made the availability of new houses to the earthquake victims contingent on their visiting the new temple. The organisation also influenced local cultural norms. Earlier, the people of the village would greet each other by shouting the names of their gods. After they were allotted the new houses, they were advised to adopt a new form of greeting. They were told to press their palms in front of their chest and bow their heads as they greeted each other with the words “Jai Swaminarayan”.

The book successfully traces the impact of the earthquake on the collective consciousness of the survivors as it unsettles their known universe. The author refers to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime, the “pleasure produced by the mind as it reaches its own limits”, to analyse the impact of the earthquake on the psyche. The author notes, “However incomprehensible the event [the earthquake] may have been, and despite the fact that it was experienced first hand, terror and humiliation pass to indulgent self-contemplation.” The narrative of Shivang, an entrepreneur in his mid-20s, brings out the ways in which people try to come to terms with the catastrophe. As the earthquake wreaks havoc, Shivang thinks about a blue plastic pen holder in his office which had fallen to the floor and broken the day before. He hopes to repair it when he goes to office the next day. Shivang clings to the image of the broken pen holder which gives him a reason not to die. This iterative trope of a mundane object brings out the manner in which hope resides in the ordinary.

The book illustrates how ethnographic analysis can be a significant tool in unravelling the politics of development. The critique of neoliberalism in the literature on development is commonplace now. However, detailed ethnographic analysis of this kind helps us grasp the contours of development intervention shaping a living and transforming social reality.

This work establishes the importance of political anthropology and the anthropology of development in understanding rapidly transforming societies in neoliberal regimes.

Serious ethnographic analysis is enlivened by occasional touches of humour and acerbic wit, which make the book an engaging read. The book will be of interest to anthropologists, journalists and historians.

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