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Things we did while waiting for the fence

Things we did while waiting for the fence

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Published by mohaiemen
"While reading Hussain’s description of the “sense of immense betrayal”, I wondered if the pivotal opening scene in David Lean’s film adaptation of Dr Zhivago was instructive. As the Russian general is informed of the amazing progress at this Russian plant (template for many of the “leapfrog” modernisation projects of the Third World) you can see, even then, in his eyes and words, the knowledge that these projects will eventually collapse under their own contradictions, or from the pressure of external forces."
"While reading Hussain’s description of the “sense of immense betrayal”, I wondered if the pivotal opening scene in David Lean’s film adaptation of Dr Zhivago was instructive. As the Russian general is informed of the amazing progress at this Russian plant (template for many of the “leapfrog” modernisation projects of the Third World) you can see, even then, in his eyes and words, the knowledge that these projects will eventually collapse under their own contradictions, or from the pressure of external forces."

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Economic & Political
Weekly
 
EPW
NOVEMber 2, 2013 vol xlviii no 44
31
book reviews
Things We Did While Waitingfor the Fence
Naeem Mohaiemen
Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progresson the India-Bangladesh Border
by Delwar Hussain
(London: Hurst),
 
 2013; pp 187.
T
he anthropologist in the fieldsearches for a textured object of study; one that can allow theunravelling of a series of interlinkedconcerns, and the peeling of layer uponlayer of interpretation. From the concen-tric Balinese cockfight (Clifford Geertz)to South Africa’s black churches (JeanComaroff), many such moments are acombination of planning and serendipity.Both these elements are at play in thisDelwar Hussain’s first book. It is a work animated by the mapping out of insti-tutions, networks, and lives that arebuilt up, then hollowed out, and finally replaced over a half century of post-colonial development, industrialisation,deindustrialisation, and neo-liberalisation.Within the India-heavy focus of South Asian Studies, this book is part of a welcome new generation of scholarshipabout Bangladesh.When Hussain first arrives at the ZeroPoint of Boropani (dipping into theBangladesh district of Sylhet and theIndian state of Meghalaya), his objectof study is the security fence thatIndia is building along the border withBangladesh. The proposed fence, whencompleted, would encircle the entirecountry. This was characterised in theBangladeshi press as a hostile move fromthe Indian state, directed at the very country whose 1971 independence fromPakistan would have been impossible without the active support of the Indiangovernment of that time. Bangladeshi“illegal migration” is a hotly-debatedtopic inside India, especially at electiontime when the bogey of “Bangladeshi”can be folded into political scaremon-gering about changing demographics insome Indian states. Incidents of IndianBorder Security Force (
BSF
) shooting atBangladeshis trying to cross into thecountry has created mounting anti-Indiasentiments inside Bangladesh (
 pakhirmoto marche
 /“shooting them like birds” isa common, incorrect characterisation inDhaka political
addas
I have attended).The fence represents another step inattempting a permanent closure of theborder, against the potential porosity andfluidity of border lives.
Khonighat and Boropani
It is this disputed, larger-than-life fencethat was Hussain’s original research focus.However, when he arrived in Sylhet(from where his grandfather, migrated toEngland), he found the fence nowherein sight. What he found instead aretwo twinned villages, Khonighat insideBangladesh and Boropani on the border.The first encounter with these two sitesis mundane, and Khonighat registers inHussain’s consciousness only as a placeto live while doing research. He is initially arrested on suspicion of being a spy, andfinds his British citizenship a liability inthis border area. Later, one of his guidessorts the matter out with local authorities, with a smiling “Once a Sylheti, always aSylheti”. As things start getting more ten-uous with fieldwork (Hussain is upfrontabout the travails of his research year),Khonighat’s semi-abandoned limestonemining quarters emerge as a safe spaceto set up residence.Over the course of the book, thetwo villages of Boropani and Khonighatbecome central to his exploration of aparticular postcolonial modernity project,the new modes of work that thrive inthe aftermath of the collapse of thatproject, and the energetic, multiplemodernities that ultimately develop inthis border region.Hussain weaves in the histories of themultiple partitions of Bengal, and thisborder site is an appropriate space forconsidering the human separations andstructural inconsistencies set in motion by the 1947 partition, as well as the aftermathof two decolonisation/industrialisationperiods – East Pakistan from 1947 to1971, and Bangladesh thereafter. At thetime of the Radcliffe partition line, mostof East Bengal’s inclusion into Pakistanseemed preordained – based on, amongseveral factors, Muslim numeric majority,a will-to-separate among parts of thepolity on both sides of the proposed bor-der, and the lack of a sufficient “secularpolitical base that would argue againstdivision. However, two regions remainedmore of a question mark until 1947. Thefirst was the Chittagong Hill Tracts, anabsolute majority Buddhist (and non-Bengali) region at the time of Partition,but also a natural hilly border and forti-fying line against Burma. The second was Sylhet, which was formerly part of  Assam, and was only separated fromthat Indian landmass by a “pro-partition”referendum election (this is personally resonant – my mother was born in Assam, and at least one aunt has told meof actively participating in canvassing votes for Partition).The partition was supported by Muslimsin Sylhet, as well as Assamese Hindusand Muslims who wanted to remove adistrict that was both Muslim (from Hinduperspective) and Bengali (from the Assamese linguistic point of view). It isthis newly divided Assam that, after 1947,becomes a site for an experiment in large-scale industrialisation. This sets in motionthe new status of Khonighat, and itseventual decline in later decades as well.The 1947 partition’s impact is usually expressed in terms of cultural, social, andpolitical separations and the ensuingnarrower worlds and lives. Hussain’s intro-ductory chapters look at the economicimpact of the separation on this Sylhetborder area, specifically by breaking thesupply chain of industrial production. Atthe time of Partition, Chathak in Sylhet
 
BOOK REVIEW
NOVEMber 2, 2013 vol xlviii no 44
EPW
 
Economic & Political
Weekly
32
hosted a large-scale cement factory. After1947, the factory was severed from theraw materials, which were now in theland that belonged to India. The revivalof this cement industry became crucialto the national identity of the new stateof Pakistan because, as Hussain argues,the decolonisation narrative required notonly freedom from British colonial rule,but also from each other. In this newera, the Khonighat limestone factory  was set up to be one of the templates forPakistani industrialisation par excellence,and also to set up a master narrative of the new social order. Hussain leans onJames Ferguson’s critical description of the modernisation project, especially the theory that moving peasants fromthe field to the factory would propel“backward” people into “civilisation”. A reader familiar with Ferguson’s work onthe Zambian copper belt (or JamesScott’s
Seeing Like a State
, also citedhere) will know what is to come – theeventual collapse of this modernisationproject. But before that arrives, Kho-nighat does succeed in setting up whatthe book calls “instantiations of moder-nity”. creating a new social order, whichencompasses the ideal worker, family unit, and social behaviour.
Decline of Khonighat
Khonighat’s decline occurred in two waves. First, through the birth of thenew state of Bangladesh, which alleged-ly created a new regime of “each manfor himself” – Hussain presents this as-sertion directly, but a little probing of the impact of the 1972 transition to apro-Soviet axis on industrialisation poli-cy is needed here. The second changecomes through the post-1991 liberalisa-tion regime, which eventually leads toKhonighat’s closure. Here, too, an inter-esting lacuna could have been for Hus-sain to consider how the arrival of demo-cracy, after a decade of military rule,opened the doors wide for neo-liberalism’shigh moment. After Khonighat’s decline,its early years continue to be idealised inthe memory of its former workers. Stuck in a nostalgia loop (Hussain comparesformer workers with battle-scarred war veterans), they speak of a time when“The Project” aimed to deliver “progress,status and prestige”. According to JamesFerguson, at the root of this type of narrative is a myth, which should bere-examined in light of the many reversalsin the global south, such as Khonighat.However, we should ask if the Khonighatmanagers truly believed in the myth.While reading Hussain’s description of the “sense of immense betrayal”, I won-dered if the pivotal opening scene inDavid Lean’s film adaptation of 
 Dr Zhivago
  was instructive. As the Russian generalis informed of the amazing progress atthis Russian plant (template for many of the “leapfrog” modernisation projects of the Third World) you can see, even then,in his eyes and words, the knowledgethat these projects will eventually col-lapse under their own contradictions, orfrom the pressure of external forces.
Multiple Modernities
Hussain argues that there are “multiplemodernities” at play in these borderareas, and therefore the collapse of amodernity project does not equal a fullreversal (Ferguson’s concerns with con-flating cultural and economic moderni-ties are referenced in a footnote). In-stead, what we begin to see are the riseof new projects, which develop precisely in the new “local spaces of creativepotentialities and possibilities” – all thisis best exemplified through the rise of Boropani from the ashes of the Khonighatproject. Earlier in the book, Hussain callsBoropani village Khonighat’s “unsightly step-sibling” and compares its growth tothe colonial era phenomenon of a nativesettlement that would grow alongside a“white town”. Unsightly it may havebeen, but Boropani hosted an informaleconomy that was crucial to sustainKhonighat. Those workers who couldnot secure employment in the vauntedKhonighat, as well as those who did not want to submit to the constraints of state-sponsored employment, moved toBoropani and swelled its workforce andenergy. After the ignominious closure of the Khonighat project in 1993, it wasBoropani that became the economiccentre. Instead of fulfilling the needsof Khonighat, it now became the hubof the increasingly lucrative coal trade(especially as demand for coal-firedmachinery skyrocketed in the liberalisingBangladesh economy).Hussain engages in depth with those wanting to talk of the “old days”, andquite naturally this bring to the fore-ground the acute sense of change andloss of the post-Project era. Thus, onesignificant chapter talks about the man-ner in which a certain religious unity,even a curated form of secularism,prevailed in “The Project”, ensuringamity between Muslim and Hindu resi-dents and workers. Hussain draws fromJonathan Parry and Jan Breman’s work on Indian industrial labour to argue thatSylhet in the post-Khonighat era has aprivate sector with no interest in provid-ing social and economic stabilisers thatfoster harmony among heterogeneouspopulations. Readers may also look atthe south-west of Bangladesh in theChittagong Hill Tracts, where the arrivalof large agricultural, resource extractionand tourism private sector operators hasrapidly accelerated already existing trendsof ethnic displacement of the majority indigenous, Buddhist, Jumma peoples.However, a binary of state projects aid-ing secularism, and a private sector thatstrips it away, would be too limiting. Inthe Chittagong Hill Tracts, the privatesector entered to finish the task of dis-placement already half-completed by the Bangladesh state. Furthermore, asJeremy Seabrook’s
 Freedom Unfinished
depicts
 
(although that book is afflicted with an over-generous acceptance of parables set down by his interviewees),non-government organisations (
NGO
s
)such as Proshikha, when taking overfunctions left behind by the state,
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BOOK REVIEW
Economic & Political
Weekly
 
EPW
NOVEMber 2, 2013 vol xlviii no 44
33
have also, for a time, attempted to incul-cate secular life patterns among thoseit reaches.
Emergence of NGOs
Turning to
NGO
s
themselves, Hussainexplores the manner in which theseorganisations have come to take over thesocial service sector that was abandonedby Khonighat (and not of interest toBoropani’s businesses). He argues, tak-ing from Ferguson, that democracy waspushed forward as a project precisely atthe time when state power was reducedby many of their functions being trans-ferred over to the
NGO
. While it is truethat the
NGO
s
have emerged as a “thirdforce” inside Bangladesh, state power’sdecline is perhaps also a comfortingmyth. In the Bangladesh context, thestate, through a series of mechanisms,monitors, reprimands, and extracts rentfrom the
NGO
s
at every level.The ultimate fate of Proshikha (fea-tured in Seabrook’s book) and the ongo-ing battle over the future of GrameenBank, shows a state fully able to exercisepower, without responsibility. Hussaindoes ackno wledge that Aihwa Ong’stheory of “thinning of state power” atborder zones is insufficient to explainthe Sylhet situation. Rather, one canargue that the Bangladesh state engagesin a dance of convenience – withdrawingsocial services from regions, knowing very well that the
NGO
s
will step in andprevent a crisis that could have politicalconsequences. At the same time, as they have demonstrated in the Grameen Bank case, the state also retains the ability tostep in to take over operations when itis politically expedience, or financially beneficial. These calculations play outin macro power games, but in theborder region, inhabitants seem habitu-ated to the presence of 
NGO
s
and do notseem to be waiting for any service fromthe state. Intriguingly, the
NGO
s
areseen with far more suspicion than “TheProject” was – even though the behav-iour patterns that the limestone factory tried to regiment, especially those re-garding family, women, childbearing,etc, were certainly as “alien” to the re-gion in the 1960
s
as the
NGO
s
projectsmay be today.One recurring motif is that the
NGO
workers fear attacks by the samepopulation they serve, if some servicesare found lacking. The explanation they give is that the border population is by nature of a more “criminal” type and in-clined to violence. This is a familiarstereotype regarding what sort of sub- ject is constituted by the experience of living in the borderlands. However, I also wonder if another aspect could possibly be that the
NGO
workers themselveshave over time become enmeshed insome of the illegal activities themselves.Journalists have documented bordersecurity forces compromised by bribery.It is possible that the
NGO
s
may also besimilarly compromised over time.
‘Aristocracy of Nostalgia’
Hussain talks with visible affection forthe former workers of Khonighat, trappedin an “aristocracy of nostalgia”. Theirdays are spent communing with otherformer employees, and talking of theglory days of the Project era (Hussainpoignantly compares them to Laura Bear’sportrait of Anglo-Indians, who feel“slighted by history”). The book’s ren-dering of their plight reminded me of my fathers’ generation, who believed inthe promise of 
bhadralok
government jobs, and were then bewildered by aDhaka city where a rising business classrendered all else irrelevant. Just as that1960
s
generation of government emplo- yees could not adjust to the new Dhaka(when “Dacca” became “Dhaka”, as it were), the Khonighat middle-elite alsocould not fit in with the ascendance of Boropani. The mid-level managers of the limestone factory were not seniorenough to be transferred elsewhere, nor were they marginal enough to be willingto dive into the dirty business (figura-tively and literally) of coal trading. It was only the labourers in the limestonequarries who could move to the coalbusiness, some becoming fabulously  wealthy traders. Their numbers havebeen swelled by newer arrivals, whonever knew the government-mandatedsocial order of Khonighat. Thus, Hus-sain’s premise is that the nominally socially marginal, the rejected limestonelabourers, including women, transgender
hijras
, and religious communities, arenow in control of Boropani.
Third Space
One of Hussain’s contributions is toexcavate how Boropani thrives in a thirdspace of “(il)licit” – economic activitiesthat are legally banned but socially sanc-tioned. Some of these activities areembedded within the coal trade itself,and the rest are in a network of supportactivities. One example is the boomingtrade in mobile phone
SIM
cards. TheIndian state banned the use of mobilephones in many of these border areas,claiming it would aid “separatist insur-gents”. The Bangladesh state also claimed“insurgency” and maintained a similarban in Chittagong Hill Tracts until 2008.This ban generated a huge market forBangladeshi
SIM
cards at the Zero Point,purchased on one side of the border andused on the other. Hussain traces the fili-gree of economic relationships under-girding the transaction, and his descrip-tion of an Indian
BSF
guard’s wife payingan international rate to call her husbandgives a glimpse into the absurdities andopportunities of these spaces. Theseactivities straddle the space between what the states consider legitimate, and what the actual participants in trans-border networks consider legitimate. Inthe case of the Boropani, the network isbetween only two countries, both withformal governments in place – an exam-ple of a multi-valenced network can befound in
 
Janet Roitman’s book (
 Fiscal Disobedience
) on the Chad Basin.In this highly unregulated environ-ment of Boropani, those who thrive arethe actors for whom the formal statecitizenship project has little space.Hussain lays out his strongest chapter inpursuit of the “third sex” inhabitants, who form a large and crucial role in thisregion, fulfilling sexual roles reservedfor women elsewhere in the country, while also performing as part of the workforce. Although many 
hijras
arrivehere through the information dissemi-nated via
 guru-chela
(leader-follower)networks, Hussain argues that they are also sought out because they canfulfil sexual functions while also beingable to work in conditions of uneven

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