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Candide in Kutch

…in 2004, a mass grave was uncovered beneath the courtyard of the former Franciscan Convento de Nossa Senhora de Jesus in Lisbon… It contained the bodies and body parts of at least 3,000 people. They had been buried without any ceremony… Skulls had been crushed, others had exploded due (to) extreme heat. Many had been subjected to violent trauma. Skulls had been pierced by lead shot, and a huge number of bones had cut marks. The numerous shallow cuts on the skull of a child suggest that before dying it was used to extort something from a parent. The knife marks on a thigh bone imply cannibalism. It is thought that these bodies date from the time of the Lisbon earthquake.

So Simpson paraphrases[1], in the book here reviewed, Edward Paice’s report on this gruesome discovery in his history of the 1755 Lisbon disaster.[2] The hanging of Pangloss as a heretic and the flogging of Candide for heeding his teachings in Voltaire’s novel[3] are probably as much as most of us know of the pogrom that followed it. That mass grave might stand, however, as a terrible portent of the chilling barbarity that occurred in the year following the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, of which Simpson writes. The communal violence in the eastern part of the state that erupted, with the widely alleged complicity of the state government headed by India’s current Prime Minister, might be seen as ‘a splendid auto-da-fé of sorts’. Mass murder, mass rape, children burned alive, the foetus ripped from the belly of an expectant mother, looting and pillaging on an enormous scale, the death toll possibly exceeded 2,000 with many more injured. Most of the victims were Muslims.

Click to enlargeIllustration by Ed Linfoot

Illustration by Ed Linfoot

The earthquake struck on 26th January, Republic Day. It measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and had its epicentre in the region of Kutch in western Gujarat, where most of the damage was done. Of the approximately 14,000 fatalities, Kutch accounted for over 12,000. 178 villages were completely flattened, another 168 sustained more than 70 per cent damage, and several towns – including the old royal city of Bhuj – suffered major destruction. By comparison with other large-scale ‘natural’ disasters that have afflicted South Asia over the past century or so, the mortality was only middle range, though this one attracted more international media attention and donor aid than most. That was largely on account of the sizeable and relatively well-heeled diaspora with roots in the region. In fact, that diaspora was itself the product of earthquake. Kutch had previously been hit by a massive quake in 1819, as well as one of lesser magnitude in 1956. The former had coincided with the arrival of the British and – like the 2001 earthquake – had also presaged a major reorientation in not only the politics but also the economy of the region. It had thrown up a natural dam, the ‘Allah Bund’, which had diverted the waters of the Indus that had formerly fertilised its soil. Its productivity destroyed, the population had turned to trade and international migration.

Simpson has brought to this research his previous fieldwork experience in one of Kutch’s port towns. The present book is based on data collected during intermittent visits of variable duration between the second half of 2001 and 2012. Its title and sub-title are apt: the emphasis is on the politics of reconstruction; on the material and ‘moral’ aftermath (‘the aftermath of the mind’[4]), and on the amnesia required to cope with the horrors that the survivors had witnessed.

Some of the anthropological literature on disasters has stressed how in their wake people fall back on old certainties. Thus Hoffman and Oliver-Smith say that they reveal ‘the deeper social grammar’, as against the ‘mutable surface detail.’ ‘Disasters take people back to fundamentals ……..  (and) expose essential rules of actions’.[5] One reported instance is the reinstatement of traditional gender norms.[6] What Simpson, by contrast, stresses is that ‘earthquakes shake certainties as well as foundations’; that ‘the aftermath became a providential mandate for redesigning all that had been’, and that ‘earthquakes make people think’, in often new ways. Lisbon had prompted Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant and many others to re-examine their fundamental assumptions about God’s design and human culpability. Of course, the cognitive problems that confronted the Hindus of Kutch were not quite the same. They weren’t saddled with a single omnipotent, omniscient and unequivocally benevolent deity – attributes that give a distinctive character to the problem of evil in Christianity. But that notwithstanding, if Candide had pitched up in Bhuj in 2001, he would have immediately recognised the questions the locals were asking and the answers they were offering. Was the disaster divine punishment? If so, for what? Why were some killed, not others? Overwhelmingly their explanations had to do with human delinquency, with moral and ritual infractions. Though sometimes Hindus held Muslims responsible, more commonly blame was cast inwards on co-religionists.  Reformist Muslims had died in greater numbers, the ‘traditionalists’ claimed, because they had rejected the protection of the saints. But Jains and Daudi Bohras (a Shi’ite merchant community) had also suffered disproportionately. That was probably because their houses were in the older parts of the worst affected towns, though it was said to be a consequence of a decline in their business ethics. The key point, however, is that old assumptions were shaken and different ways of thinking became possible. And there were plenty of people from outside Kutch who wanted to impose a new mindset on its inhabitants. They did not, of course, have a completely free hand. The values they wished to instil could not run too much against the grain of the old culture. But nevertheless what Simpson, for the most part convincingly, concludes is that they were able

to push particular kinds of future, politics and ways of being. Earthquakes can also bring about industrial revolutions, create proletariats, encourage religious fundamentalism and allow for other forms of culture to emerge ……. History can be reoriented, heroes promoted and demoted, old orders flattened, and new names and gods imposed.[7]

One of the most significant things that the earthquake allowed these outsiders to foist on the region was neo-liberal reform. Taking a cue from John Stuart Mill, and from Naomi Klein,[8] Simpson sees disasters as ‘moments of hyper-consumption’ that, as the result of accelerated entropy, may create the economic stimulus for the development of a ‘hyperbolic capitalism’. Applications for World Bank funding for reconstruction provided a golden opportunity to introduce market reforms, streamlined institutions and new systems of urban land management. The state government offered tax concessions and cheap land for industry, and the assurance of its complacent insouciance about the enforcement of its own environmental and labour laws. It was the start of ‘the Gujarat model’, often lauded as Narendra Modi’s great gift to the nation. He was then Chief Minister of Gujarat and is now Prime Minister of India. Little of this investment was local, however, and Kutch was turned into ‘a large and cut-price industrial estate’ for outsiders. The latter were largely from the eastern part of the state, the population of which is in many ways socially, culturally and religiously distinct. Their former dominance was greatly enhanced. Not only capital but labour flooded in from elsewhere. The locals wound up at the bottom of the labour hierarchy; the influx of outsiders was associated with new urban ills in the form of crime and prostitution, and the social and physical environment was seriously degraded.

As to the rebuilding of devastated communities, the story is equally dismal. Villages were reconstructed through public-private partnerships with the state providing half the investment. The private parties involved included diaspora temple congregations, religious sects and social campaign movements; individual manufacturers, construction contractors and prominent political figures; political parties and Hindu nationalist ‘cultural’ organisations, and other foreign and domestic NGOs. From Simpson’s account, almost all of this philanthropy comes out dreadfully, though – perhaps to cover his back – he concedes that some of it was ‘sincere and sensitive.’ Of the success stories, however, we learn next to nothing. Apparently, they are ‘mostly harder to see’ – though it is not obvious why. The tone is rather set from the start by the story of a British paedophile, who without any real links to the area, arrives in Kutch to set up a school for boys orphaned by the earthquake. Though in fact the pupils he enrolled were not from affected families, he had managed to raise substantial support from charitable Muslims back in the UK before abruptly decamping – next to be heard of facing charges of child abuse before a British court for offences relating to an earlier period.

Huge funds were on tap and donors competed with each other to ‘adopt’ a village for reconstruction that would enhance their profile. Canny villagers played them off against each other, resulting in a kind of ‘philanthropic gazumping’. In one of the most vivid and compelling parts of the book, Simpson provides a series of short case histories of these projects. We learn, for example, about various villages on the border with Pakistan that were rebuilt – and sometimes subsequently run – by Hindu nationalist organisations as bastions of their brand of militant, muscular Hinduism. We learn about the village of Jiyapur that was rebuilt, in a new location and with a new name, by an affiliate of the Swaminarayan devotional movement that has a mass following in the Gujarati diaspora. It was one of nine villages it had adopted, though it had not been badly affected by the earthquake, and nor had any of the villagers been adherents of the sect. They were nevertheless cajoled into the new village, which had a Swaminarayan temple at its centre, and which appears to have been zoned by caste. Getting a new house, they were told, was conditional on attending the temple; but if they didn’t shift they wouldn’t be eligible for government compensation for earthquake damage. Some went and some stayed, further fracturing the village along caste lines. Again, Keshavnagar – constructed by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a militant Hindu nationalist organisation) with large subventions from Gujarati temples in the United States – replaced an old village that had had a significant population of Harijans and Muslims. Only caste Hindus were given houses in the new settlement. Indraprastha was run on behalf of a prominent Hindu nationalist politician by a retired and irascible colonel. His nickname, ‘the camp commandant’, gives a flavour of the regime he tried to run.

Perhaps predictably, there was plenty of corruption and many of the new houses were so shoddy that they weren’t habitable. The most arresting point that comes across from these case histories, however, is that class, caste and – above all – religious divisions were strongly reinforced by the reconstruction process. What is also sobering is that the worst results of all were in cases in which there were efforts to involve the villagers themselves in the planning decisions. Village factionalism was unleashed. Where scions of the village were settled in Bombay or abroad, their interests were generally not those of their co-villagers who had stayed behind.

In the towns the situation was only slightly different. Simpson says most about Bhuj, which as the capital of the erstwhile princely state had an iconic status. It attracted the biggest emotional and financial investment, though it wasn’t the worst affected. By contrast with the way in which castes tended to be more residentially segregated in the new rural settlements than in the old, in Bhuj they were increasingly jumbled as its centre of gravity shifted way from the old royal fort to the newly built suburbs. This was the source of some tension between the professional town planners who had been parachuted in (and for whom caste was an embarrassing cobweb of the past) and the citizens (for whom it was not). But if in that respect the city was now more spatially de-segregated, in others it was not. Muslims who had moved out of the suburbs often moved back to the old town because there was safety in numbers. Old patterns of neighbourhood sociality proved hard to resurrect – mainly on account of endless chicanery, secrecy, jealousy and competition over compensation rates. Mistrust was generalised, communities atomised and collective protests against high-handed officialdom became increasingly difficult to organise. Taking a cue from work on Hiroshima survivors, Simpson speaks of a ‘contagion anxiety’. Since the survivors of nuclear disasters seem to be stigmatised mainly on account of the invisible radiation to which they have been exposed and which is held to result in birth defects,[9] the implied parallel seems somewhat inapposite. More plausible, though, is his report that people were reluctant to go out for fear of running into some acquaintance from whom they would learn of yet another death. That meant that for ‘long after the disaster the dead continued to die’.

The crucial context for the whole story is the communal violence that had exploded in the eastern part of the state in 2002. In the October of the previous year, the old Chief Minister was deposed (partly on account of his handling of earthquake relief), and replaced by the unelected Narendra Modi. The communal temperature immediately rose and reached combustion point some months later when fire broke out on a train outside Godhra station. 59 died, many of them Vishwa Hindu Parishad activists returning from their campaign to construct a temple to Lord Ram on the site of the famous Ayodhya  mosque in far off Uttar Pradesh. Many held it was arson for which the Muslims should be ‘taught a lesson’. By the violence that ensued, the latter were terrorised, while the Hindu militants were emboldened and – with not a little help from the state – their virulent propaganda was ‘normalised’. That was the atmosphere in which Kutch was reconstructed. It was the atmosphere in which it was possible to re-name the streets of Bhuj, efface memories of the old princely state and introduce new nationalist icons. The ashes of Shyamji Kishnavarma – a formerly obscure ‘hero’ of the Independence movement and a bitter critic of Gandhi’s non-violence – were repatriated from Geneva to his hometown in Kutch, and his faded memory turned into a veritable cult through state government sponsorship. Kutch was being ideologically bludgeoned by those who had their hands on the levers of power in the eastern part of the state, and the world of Simpson’s informants was being progressively fractured and polarised.


The political biography of an earthquake is an important and interesting book that nobody – regardless of discipline – with a serious interest in the political economy of South Asia, in the social impact of disasters (wherever in the world they occur) or in the politics of aid can afford to ignore. Its breadth of vision is impressive, a number of its arguments are novel and unexpected, and its narrative is for the most part gripping. What it is not is an uplifting story. It’s more of a jeremiad. Nor probably is it the last word on the Gujarat earthquake. As an anthropological account there are some surprising silences; various analytical hares are raised but never run down, and there is some elusiveness about one of its core arguments.

The silences first. The ethnography on the immediate aftermath – that is, on the first few months following the earthquake – is disappointingly thin. We learn that Hindu nationalist organisations were first on the scene, distributing aid, organising relief camps and disposing of the dead, and that the army sealed off parts of Bhuj to prevent looting and contagion. The resettlement camps consisted of one-roomed huts of plastic and corrugated iron; but for how long people remained in them, and of the lived experience of winding up in one, we get little idea. How did people cope with the enforced proximity between unrelated men and women, and between caste Hindus, ‘Untouchables’ and perhaps even Muslims? Was there enough water; was personal hygiene an issue, and were ‘the dark menacing communal bathrooms’ menacing because of a fear of sexual harassment? We aren’t told.

Nor are we told anything much about that old anthropological chestnut, the problem of reciprocity. True, brief reference is made to the concept of seva – the spirit of selfless ‘service’ that supposedly motivated those who provided the aid. What we don’t hear about, however, is how the recipients regarded their largesse or how they described and thought about it. When disaster relief is provided by the state, it is easily (and we would say properly) thought of as a ‘right’ or ‘entitlement’. But when it comes from some private party, the terms of the transaction are more ambiguous.[10] In the Hindi-speaking belt, it might be rahat (‘relief’, to which the moral norm of reciprocity is, I think, simply irrelevant); for Hindus it might be dan (a ‘religious’ gift that ideologically precludes reciprocity[11]), or it might conceivably be subsumed under one of several other words for a ‘gift’ that must be reciprocated. At least in other parts of the world, much hangs on how it is regarded, as David Slater demonstrates in his discussion of the way in which the issue presented itself after the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of 2011.[12] The volunteer relief workers operated with an ideology of the ‘free gift’, the purity of which would have been seriously compromised by the expectation of a return, while the villagers knew that gifts require one, but had nothing to give. As a result, they either avoided help or suffered humiliation. From Simpson’s silence on the matter, we might perhaps infer that this was not an issue that exercised his informants. But if that is the case, we need to ask why. For the Hindus amongst them, was it because what they got was dan? Or was it perhaps because, regardless of religion, the recipients regarded the donors as so transparently self-serving that what they were given was not really a ‘gift’, and they did not therefore need to worry about reciprocity?

As to the hares that disappear into the long grass, take the issue of amnesia. Though memorials to the earthquake and its victims have been erected, they are largely neglected. They are not places at which people gather and events to mark the anniversary of the disaster are poorly supported. There is remarkably little collective memory of previous earthquakes and they hardly figure in myth and legend. Part of the town of Anjar that was particularly badly hit by the earthquake of 1819, and that was again flattened in 1956, was being rebuilt on exactly the same site after its third destruction in 2001. It’s a kind of wilful, if unconscious, forgetfulness. Such horrors are too terrible to remember. Amnesia makes it possible to carry on. It sounds like a general proposition about human psychology – until the comparative example of Chile is invoked. There ‘the threat of earthquakes has been drawn into popular culture and daily routines of the nation…  In Chile, to forget an earthquake is seen as risking death; in provincial India, not to forget an earthquake is seen as risking life.’ Simpson leaves it there, but surely the obvious question of anthropological interest is how we might understand that difference?

On the elusiveness, I confess that I struggled to firmly pin down the central argument about the relationship between the 2001 earthquake and the communal violence that followed it. What is clear is that it cannot be plausibly claimed that the earthquake was the cause of the 2002 carnage, and that is not Simpson’s case. The earthquake damage was largely confined to Kutch, the communal violence to the eastern part of the state. Moreover, Gujarat has a history of communal riots that goes back to the eighteenth century,[13] and in every decade since Independence they have resulted in a tragic loss of life, with particularly sharp spikes in the cycle of terror in 1969, 1985-6 and 1992-3.[14] Nor were the massacres of 2002 new in promoting the ghettoisation of Muslims or in arousing the suspicion that the state government had fanned the flames. Simpson makes no reference to this pre-history, and on his account it is almost as if the bloodletting of 2002 was unprecedented. It was not, and none of that earlier violence had any connection with a natural disaster. A weaker version of the causal argument – the earthquake helped to create the conditions that made the violence possible – might work, but does not seem particularly illuminating. The warrant for it would be that in some significant measure the disaster pushed Modi into power; and Modi in power pushed for a more aggressive Hindu nationalist agenda. But how far does that take us since any number of other circumstances might have produced the same result?

As I have understood it, however, Simpson’s main proposition is something quite different. The earthquake provided those who held the reins of power with both the opportunity and the catalyst for a massive piece of social engineering in the western part of the state. It allowed them to attempt a radical reorientation of the economy of the region along neo-liberal lines, and of its social order on the basis of an assertive ideology of Hindu supremacy. And that, I judge, is what Simpson does indeed successfully show. It is a significant and arresting finding. It is, however, one that invites other important questions that he does not address.

Given that an ideological reorientation of this kind had already occurred in eastern Gujarat without that powerful catalyst, one of those questions would be why Kutch could only be shaken from its slumbers by a massive natural disaster. What exactly was it that made it less fertile ground for communalism than the east? Was not the polarization of Kutchi society that Simpson describes taking place anyway, even if at a slower pace? Apart from minor communal disturbances in Anjar and in two other towns,[15] which Simpson does not mention, the region remained tranquil throughout the riots of 2002; and from his account one might easily come away with the impression that it had long been an island of communal harmony. From other sources, however, it would seem that that was not the case. In 1969, for example, there had been major disturbances, and in some villages mosques and shrines had been demolished, shops looted and Muslim property burned.[16] So was Kutch really so much less susceptible to communal hatred? Perhaps the Hindu nationalists were merely pushing at an open door? And perhaps peace was only maintained in 2002 because the population was too traumatised and exhausted to riot? But if alternatively Simpson is right, and Kutch really was more resistant to Hindu nationalism, what is surely required is a much more rigorous attempt to explain sociologically why it was that people in the two regions were so differentially amenable to the communal message.

A second important question that Simpson’s analysis invites is: ‘did it work?’ To what extent did the Hindu nationalist agenda actually succeed in polarising society? We know from what he writes that earthquake reconstruction resulted in the greater residential segregation of castes and religious communities, but not what effect that has had on the texture of everyday interactions between ordinary folk. Does it follow that schools were also more segregated? Did it mean that Harijans and Muslims had a tougher time finding jobs? Were Hindus and Muslims in search of supernatural aid now less inclined to look for it at the shrines of the other community? We can easily establish from a rapid trawl of the internet that in the two most recent elections to the state assembly, the BJP (the front party of Hindu nationalist organisations) won in five of the six Kutch constituencies, while in 2002 it had taken only two; that some observers have reported a rise in communal incidents,[17] and that there was police firing in one recent riot in Bhuj.[18]  In the absence of firsthand knowledge of the region, however, such information is hard to evaluate, and in that this book is not of much help. It is one of its weaknesses that it makes little attempt to tell us what has actually happened in the aftermath to the quality of day-to-day relations between people of different caste and religion, that it has little to say about the nitty-gritty sociology of post-earthquake society. The state-promoted discourse is carefully and revealingly explored, but its on the ground consequences are not. Discourse is certainly important, but some anthropological dinosaurs might think that our discipline misses out on half of its mission when it fails to adequately explore its real world effects.

But of course there is more to be said. There always is; and though I have alleged that there are lacunae, I intend my attempt to identify them as a measure of the serious engagement with which Simpson deserves to be read. Lacunae or not, what a rounded assessment of The political biography of an earthquake ought to stress is that it represents an original and considerable achievement that deals with really important issues, and that makes a major contribution to the social science literature that is of relevance well beyond anthropology.

  1. [1]Simpson 2013: 209.
  2. [2]Paice, E. 2008. Wrath of god: The great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. London: Quercus.
  3. [3]Voltaire. 1947 [1759]. Candide. Harmondsworth. Penguin Books.
  4. [4]The phrase is borrowed from Kant’s writings on the sublime, which Simpson – to my mind not entirely helpfully – invokes at several points in his text.
  5. [5]Hoffman, S. and A. Oliver-Smith (eds), 2002, Catastrophe and culture: The anthropology of disaster, Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, p. 10-11; A. Oliver-Smith and S. Hoffman (eds), 1999, The angry earth: Disaster in an anthropological perspective, Routledge, New York, p. 11.
  6. [6]S. Hoffman, 1999, ‘The regeneration of traditional gender patterns in the wake of disaster,’ in Oliver-Smith and Hoffman, op cit, pp 173-191. See also, B. Steger, ‘Solidarity and distinction through practices of cleanliness in tsunami evacuation shelters in Yamada, Iwate Prefecture,’ in T. Gill, B. Steger and D. Slater (eds), 2013, Japan copes with calamity: Ethnographies of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters of March 2011, Peter Lang: Oxford, pp. 53-75.
  7. [7]Simpson 2013: 268.
  8. [8]J.S. Mill, 1848, The principles of political economy; N. Klein, 2007, The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism, New York: Metropolitan Books.
  9. [9]See, for example, the chapters by Yoko Ikeda and Tom Gill in T. Gill, B. Steger and D. Slater (eds), Japan copes with calamity: Ethnographies of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters of March 2011, Peter Lang: Oxford.
  10. [10]D. Slater, 2013. ‘Moralities of volunteer aid: The permutations of gifts and their reciprocals’, in T. Gill, B. Steger and D. Slater (eds), Japan copes with calamity: Ethnographies of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters of March 2011,’ pp. 267-91. Peter Lang: Oxford.
  11. [11]See, for example, Parry, J, 1986, ‘The Gift, the Indian Gift and the “Indian Gift”, Man, Vol.21, No.3: 453-73.
  12. [12]Slater, op. cit.
  13. [13]Mehta, Uday. 2003. ‘The Gujarat genocide: A sociological appraisal.’ In Asghar Ali Engineer (ed), The Gujarat carnage. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
  14. [14]See, for example, Ashutosh Varshney, 2002, Ethnic conflict and civic life: Hindus and Muslims in India, New Haven: Yale University Press; Asghar Ali Engineer (ed), 1991, Communal riots in post-Independence India, Hyderabad: Sangam Books; and Ornit Shani, 2007, Communalism, Caste and Hindu nationalism: The violence in Gujarat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  15. [15]See; also
  16. [16]Mehta, 2003, op. cit.; Ghanshyam Shah, ‘The 1969 communal riots in Ahmedabad: A case study,’ in Engineer (ed), op. cit., pp. 175-208.
  17. [17]See, for example,
  18. [18]‘Mob clashes with police in Bhuj, 13 injured in firing’, The Indian Express, 28 July, 2014.

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