A Social Theory Centre seminar with Mona Bhan, Ford-Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies, Syracuse University, USA. The seminar addressed infrastructure, and the ecological imaginary and futures of riverine communities in Kashmir
Seminar Title: A Valley of Dust and Water: Infrastructure, Anxieties, and Ecological Imaginaries on the India Pakistan border
In May 2018, the Indian government commissioned a 330 MW hydroelectric project on the Kishanganga River in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a transboundary tributary of River Jhelum, whose waters are claimed by both India and Pakistan amid ongoing political contestations over Kashmir. In his inaugural speech, India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, dedicated the dam to the nation, presenting it both as a gift to India and as a concrete representation of its strength and tenacity. In other words, Kishanganga dam was packaged as India's prestige project. For riverine communities in Kashmir, who were forced to give up their land, rivers, and forests, as well as provide cheap and dispensable labor for its construction, the dam was a sehlab, a flood, that had devoured their crops, trees, cattle, and mountains and left in its wake copious amount of dust and debris. The once lush green forested landscapes were now wrapped in thick layers of dust, while people complained about asthma, clogged lungs, and other respiratory disorders. In this paper, I analyze how riverine communities in Kashmir engage with dust, both as a metaphor for "ruin" and "catastrophe" --- part of their apocalyptic vision for a depopulated and deforested Kashmiri landscape --- and as an enduring trace of water infrastructures that asserts its material presence long after the promise of growth and modernity has waned. I ask: how might dust and its ubiquitous presence signal new futures of ecological fragility in the Himalayas as dust sits on forests, food, and glaciers, rendering them dirty or inedible? I also explore how dust allows us to trace the afterlife of water infrastructures while conjuring images of lifelessness, death, and dystopic futures? And, finally, how might the idiom turn to dust assume renewed meanings within the context of changed ecological conditions, anxieties about uncertain and unhealthy futures, and vanishing trees, forests, and fish?
with Duschinski, H 2020, 'Kashmiri Goats, Imaginaries of Freedom, and the Planetary Pandemic.' 2 Sept. Association for Political and Legal Anthropology.
2018. 'Jinn, Floods, and Resistant Ecological Imaginaries in Kashmir.' Economic and Political Weekly Vol 3, Iss 47.
Dr. Mona Bhan is Ford-Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies at Syracuse University, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs
She is a cultural anthropologist whose work explores the role of economic and infrastructural development in counterinsurgency operations and people's resistance movements to protracted war and conflict. Her areas of specialization include border wars and counterinsurgency, militarism and humanitarianism, race, gender, and religion, environmentalism and climate change, occupation and human rights, space and place, water and infrastructure in Indian occupied Kashmir.
Her book, Counterinsurgency, Development, and the Politics of Identity: From Warfare to Welfare? (Routledge, 2014), examines the relationship between everyday forms of militarization and social life in Kashmir, with a focus on how state-based economic development and environmental interventions normalize everyday forms of violence through registers of care, compassion, and humanitarianism.
In 2018, she co-authored Climate without Nature: A Critical Anthropology of the Anthropocene (Cambridge University Press), with an environmental archeologist to challenge the modernist binaries between nature and humanity, and offer a situated and place-based assessment on how human and nonhuman entanglements produce climatic assemblages across space and time.
With her colleagues from the Critical Kashmir Studies Collective that she helped co-found in 2013, she co-edited Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (University of Pennsylvania Press 2018). Envisioned as a critical feminist collaboration among scholars who do engaged and advocacy work in Kashmir, the book foregrounds voices of Kashmiri scholars, and explores the social and legal logic of India’s occupation of Kashmir.
Before coming to Syracuse, Mona taught at DePauw for twelve years where she was the Otto L. Sonder Jr. Chair of Anthropology. In 2013 she received DePauw's United Methodist Exemplary Teaching Award.
Mona is co-editor of the HIMALAYA, the flagship journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies, and on the editorial board of AGITATE, published through the University of Minnesota Libraries. Her writings and interviews have appeared in several media and print outlets such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, TRT, Kindle, Open Democracy, and Outlook.
Image: Engineers and workers work at the tunnels of Kishanganga power project in Gurez, north of Srinagar in this file photo. Reuters