Do Buildings Have Agency?

This book review appeared in slightly edited form as “Do Buildings Have Agency?” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLVI No.30, 23 July 2011

Neera Adarkar, ed., The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (Gurgaon: imprintOne, 2011)

invest in the internet Can built forms have their own subjectivity? Architects, geographers and urban planners would surely answer this question in the affirmative. By contrast, most historians and social scientists have long viewed all non-human artefacts as “socially constructed”, and the structure and agency of the physical environment has remained weakly conceptualised, even in urban studies. Given the number of published works on the deindustrialisation of Mumbai and the decline of its textile industry – including an award-winning oral history of mill workersi co-authored by the editor of this new anthology on chawls – it is significant that the most ubiquitous form of working-class housing in the Mumbai had not yet been studied in any depth until nowii. Galleries of Life is a salutary exploration of the history, architecture, culture and politics of chawls which creatively examines the tension between historical nostalgia and contemporary urban change in Mumbai.

Buildings can nurture, constrain, limit and transform those who inhabit or pass through them. Generic typologies mass produced on an industrial scale – apartments, tenements, chawls, skyscrapers and slums – are generative of their peculiar milieus and practices. Like other forms of housing, Mumbai’s iconic chawls are basically physical containers which give shelter and provide shape to social reproduction. But urban housing and the built environment can “act back” on communities and society. Housing as social space can signify a bundle of rights and claims, a locus of legal and property relations, a stage for politics and performance, and a set of resources for survival and mobility.

The essays in Galleries of Life study how chawls “have been agents of, and have acted as protagonists in, the city’s social reform [and] national movements, class struggles, and… social networks and institutions over the years” (17). For most of Mumbai’s modern history, the chawl or chaali was the flexible building typology around which most urban housing in the colonial and postcolonial city was constructed. Chawls were built by landlords and merchants in the colonial period to house members of their own caste and village communities; by textile mill owners to house their workers as Bombay’s industrialisation gathered pace; and by private builders and landlords, state improvement and housing boards to house the influx of migrant workers, salaried clerks, and government employees from the early to late twentieth century.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , , , — Shekhar @ 2 August 2011 11.00 pm

Skyscrapers and Sweatshops (Review)

A shorter version of this essay was published in Mint Lounge on 28 May 2011.

Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier (New York: Penguin Press, 2011)

online investments The past two decades have seen large cities in North America and Europe decisively rebound from a painful postwar history of technological change and spatial restructuring. Since the 1980s, urban centres throughout the developed world have been built new business districts and gentrified into consumer zones, as educated workers and families returned to cities hollowed out by decades of de-industrialisation, suburban flight, and social upheaval. Urban manufacturing hubs and ports whose fabric was shaped by the production and shipment of goods and commodities were left behind by finance, information and business services in a new global economy centered in cities such as New York, Chicago, London and Paris.

This post-industrial city has since become the archetype for mega-cities across the world, and Edward Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City is a tribute to the endurance of the age-old metropolis and the capacities of its citizens to rebuild spaces and reinvent economies. Weaving historical comparisons with policy discussions and the passion of a committed urbanist, the book is a foray by a respected academic economist into mass market non-fiction. Like Thomas Friedman’s writings on globalisation or Samuel Huntington’s on the clash between the West and Islam, Glaeser’s styles his theories into simple universals. Globalisation works hand-in-hand with urbanisation, therefore the world is “paved, not flat”. Civilisations don’t simply clash, but also exchange goods and transfer ideas through via cities which are “gateways between markets and cultures”.

The first chapter, “What Do They Make in Bangalore?”, essays themes explored throughout The Triumph of the City – of how cities grow, decline and reinvent themselves, and the human and policy dimensions of the fast pace of urbanisation. Bangalore and Silicon Valley are the “success stories” which show that despite the “death of distance” prompted by new information and communication networks, physical proximity of people remains central to productivity and innovation. This paradox – that enhanced telecommunications has increased, not decreased, the value of face-to-face contacts – means cities both command flows of people, ideas and capital around the world, and are the most central hubs in this new economy. As with the lift elevator – which made possible vertical growth in skyscrapers – and the automobile – which encouraged horizontal expansion into the countryside – new technologies have contradictory effects on urban life, even as cities continue to grow.

An ardent modernist and proponent of free markets, Glaeser has no love lost for heritage conservationists who seek to limit building in historic neighbourhoods – since this drives up the prices of scarce land and housing – or for the pastoralism of suburbanites who own large homes and commute by car to the city – since living in the city and using public transport are less energy-intensive and support “proximity, denseness and closeness”. Glaeser’s hope is that high-rise urban density will prevail over low-rise suburban sprawl – as the ecological costs and externalities of U.S.-style suburban living, if adopted in India and China, spell global ecological disaster. Glaeser’s critique of the car suburb and single-family home is belied by his apology for his own lifestyle – as a Harvard professor living in a Boston suburb from which he drives everyday. While his personal choices and policy preferences seem to diverge, Glaeser is genuinely eager for India and China to “leapfrog” this unsustainable model to limit global emissions and safeguard the planet.

invest online in Hong Kong Glaeser reaches for a global readership in The Triumph of the City, and ranges freely across time and space to draw comparisons between cities – from classical Athens to colonial Singapore to Reformation-era France to industrial Milan. However his core arguments and research are almost entirely drawn from policy debates in the U.S., and his anecdotes and facts on other cities are often ahistorical or superficial. Glaeser connects his chapters through the key concept of “human capital” – the accumulated skills, education and experience of city dwellers. He uses the term flexibly, to mean everything from sail-making in Boston before the coming of steamships, to homebrew hackers in Silicon Valley who pioneered the personal computer, to state subsidies for education and industry in Lee’s Singapore. “Successful” cities are those whose policies aim at nurturing talent, attracting expertise from around the world, and exploiting this capital for maximum competitive advantage.

Public policy in India has only begun to treat urbanisation with the attention it deserves. Glaeser’s prescriptions are useful to a post-liberalisation generation which has outgrown the Gandhian dictum that India lives in its villages, but who are doing more to “catch up” than “leapfrog” when it comes to urban policy and planning. The Triumph of the City makes many forceful pleas: that “cities are people, not structures” – urban renewal is driven by investing in human capital and not showcase constructions; that overcrowded slums are a sign of urban vitality – a calculated bet by the poor to improve their lives; or that road-building can never decongest a city – only congestion pricing and carbon taxes can limit traffic. While Glaeser’s advocacy of high-density, low-carbon, mega-urban growth is eloquent and instructive, urban policy in India (or other developing cities) cannot be solely based on the virtual economy of “skills” and “ideas”. His celebration of “human capital” has a decidedly white collar bias, claiming that “less-skilled manufacturing cities have faltered while more-skilled idea-producing cities have thrived” throughout history.

In spite of ambitious urban projects to go global – some, like the Delhi Metro, truly qualify as leapfrogging – Indian cities thrive both on the casual labour of the poor in slums, as well as the “skilled” work of human capitalists living in skyscrapers. Glaeser’s description of Bangalore as boom town or Mumbai as the next Manhattan may appeal to American readers anxious about outsourcing – or who have seen Slumdog Millionaire – but their relevance in India is questionable. Since half of Mumbai’s population is priced out of the formal property market, his advice to uncap limits on vertical construction has not made housing more affordable for the poor or middle-class. Though he considers Bangalore a “success story”, its IT sector has arguably done more to routinise and re-export innovations than to create new breakthrough technologies. Our slums support higher densities than our skyscrapers, and our IT parks often resemble sweatshops as much as university campuses. Globalisation has certainly created winners in India, and they mostly live in cities, but The Triumph of the City in India is still far from assured.

Filed under: main — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 28 May 2011 12.00 pm

A Rule of Property for Mumbai (Review)

This book review appeared in slightly edited form as “Micro-History of Mumbai” in Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol XLV No.36 September 04, 2010.

Mariam Dossal, Theatre of Conflict, City of Hope: Mumbai, 1660 to Present Times (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010)

Historian Mariam Dossal’s new book on Bombay/Mumbai is a major contribution to a flourishing genre of new urban histories in South Asia, and a scholarly cross-over into a large-format, illustrated urban heritage books. This is Dossal’s second major monograph on Bombay, following her Imperial Designs and Indian Realities (1991) on the infrastructure and planning of the colonial city from 1845-1875. Her new book focuses on “the ways in which the politics of land use have impacted on the lives and living conditions of Bombay’s inhabitants” (xxiii) with “contested space as its central concern”. The book seeks to explain historically how “expensive private property dominates almost every aspect of life” (xix) to the detriment of the environment, health and happiness of Mumbai’s citizens. Dossal’s work breaks new ground in its use of new sources to shine a light on a central thread of colonial and urban history in Bombay. Land is one of the enduring themes of South Asian agrarian and colonial historiography. But the survey, settlement, and mapping of lands in cities – and the formation of a market for private property in urban land – remains under-investigated by historians.

Marxist social history, premised on the opposition of industrial capitalists and wage labourers, relegated landlords and landed property to an ambigious “third space” in the historical geography of urban development. The best works of urban history, both in India and elsewhere, spatialize the classic opposition between capital and labour in the geography of the modern capitalist city. In Bombay, Raj Chandavarkar has shown how trade union politics and industrial protest were shaped as much in the workplace and factory as in the organization of working-class neighbourhoods. Jim Masselos has narrated how control over urban space was central to public politics and nationalist mobilization in colonial Bombay. In capitalist cities, space and the built environment are both the outcome of ongoing struggles, as well as an arena for new practices of politics and social life. The state, in turn, ensures the reproduction of the dominant spatial practices – private ownership, profitable land uses, and stable property values – through technologies such as cadastral mapping, revenue surveys, and urban planning.

It is within this “theatre of conflict” over land and property relations that Dossal’s spatial history of the colonial and postcolonial city unfolds. Divided into two sections – on agrarian Bombay until 1860 and industrial Bombay until the present, respectively – the book seeks to situate Bombay’s urban history in the historical transition from “feudalism to capitalism”. The large format, coffee-table book ambitiously claims to chronicle from “1660 to Present Times” in nine chapters. However the real heart of the study is from around 1790 to 1940, or about 150 years (Chapters 4 to 8) which span the rise of Bombay from an archipelago of agricultural-fishing islands to one of Asia’s largest industrial metropolises. The first three chapters chronicle the British acquisition of Bombay from the Portugese, and early efforts by British governors to protect and fortify their settlement, and extend their legal sovereignty over the city and its inhabitants. In the new courts instituted by the British in the 18th century, a modern form of legal hegemony over land transactions was sought through instituting a “rule of property” by which the colonial state would supersede earlier Indian and Portugese tenures, neutralize the power of landlords and tenants, and establish Government as the ultimate “lords of the land”.


Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 11 September 2010 6.03 pm

Open Historical Maps

Open Historical Maps: Crowdsourcing, Open Source GIS, and the Research Web

ABCD GIS Group, Harvard Center for Geographic Analysis
Wednesday 15 April 2009 from 12.00-14.00
CGIS North Building, Room S050, 1737 Cambridge Street

Download Presentation PDF

Our presentation will show how open source GIS and curated “crowdsourcing” can create an infinite archive of places for digital historians and ethnographers. While the importance of space and place to their research has long been acknowledged by social scientists, there remains a wide gap between their theoretical concerns and the data-driven empiricism of GIS. For those without technical or database skills, maps and geodata are mostly commonly to illustrate rather than advance an argument. However the web can render the tacit knowledge of geography implicit in most historical and ethographic narratives available to the scholars in entirely new forms. We will showcase our ongoing work with the Maps Division of the New York Public Library on a web-based Map Rectifier and Digitizer, a platform for scholars and entusiasts to georeference scanned historical maps and digitize historical features of cities and the environment.

SHEKHAR KRISHNAN is a researcher and activist pursuing his doctorate in History and Anthropology of Science Technology & Society (STS) at MIT, where his research on the history of technology and the urban environment in colonial Bombay and western India. He has been a project fellow with Zotero at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. With Schuyler Erle, he manages geo-spatial web projects for the New York Public Library and the Network in Canadian History of the Environment (NiCHE). 

SCHUYLER ERLE has been a free and open source software developer, project leader, and evangelist for over a decade. He is a co-author of Mapping Hacks and Google Maps Hacks, both published by O’Reilly Media. He currently lives in New York City, where he leads EntropyFree, a technology consultancy focused on geographic information systems (GIS), natural language processing, academic computing and humanitarian aid.

Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 13 April 2009 7.17 am

Taking the Dogs out of the Slum

Slumdog Millionaire has been running since September at the cinema across the street from my apartment in Cambridge. I enjoyed the film when I finally saw it in December, despite the cliched invocation of Bollywood in the concluding song and Danny Boyle’s populism — the last scene of Trainspotting, where Renton “chooses life” by robbing his heroin addict mates from Glasgow, was more my style. But melodrama has its uses. Watching Jamal and Latika dance on the platforms of Victoria Terminus in the film’s finale reminded me of the protective grandeur of India’s greatest railway station, in which a few weeks before 56 people had been shot by gunmen in the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

While its cast was mostly local, Slumdog Millionaire only opened in India in late January, many months after it had become a sleeper hit in the U.S. It is a measure of the globalisation of urban India that even before the film was released, there were already protests over the apparently disparaging name of the film, and its popularity prompted Amitabh Bacchan to complain of the Western fetish for cinematic realism, while more recently, Salman Rushdie has claimed the film is not realistic or magical plausible enough.

This weekend, on the eve of the Oscars for which Slumdog Millionaire won eight awards, I was delighted to see an op-ed in the New York Times called Taking the Slum Out of Slumdog, written by an old friend and mentor. Rahul Srivastava* is a freelance novelist and ethnographer in Goa who co-wrote the piece with his collaborator, digital urbanist Matias Echanove (the original version, Taking the Slum out of Dharavi, is on their blog Airoots).

In Mumbai it is a commonplace that more than 60% of the urban population live in so-called “slums”. While the term itself is apocryphal, it has been traced to the old Irish “s lom” for a “bare bleak room”, an “impoverished place” or “barren life”. Historically, the term “slum” has always referred to both to the concrete dwellings in which the urban poor live, as well as a less tangible, but no less real, moral panic about this built environment. Until the development of germ theory and public health policies, Victorian sanitary reformers believed that overcrowding, lack of sinks, sewers, and taps corrupted both the morals and health of the urban poor.

Shocked at the growth of large squatter settlements in the first shock cities of the industrial revolution, early urban journalists and reformers such as Friedrich Engels and Jacob Riis brought the slang of the predominantly Irish immigrant slum dwellers into the popular imagination. Fear of the unwashed urban masses was inscribed into the descriptions of their housing, and this imaginative displacement was suddenly applicable everywhere that slums proliferated. Perceived as a disease on the body politic, the great reformers flipped the terms of contagion in the public mind and press for political change. From blaming the victims — the slum dwellers themselves — they identified the disease agents in the invisible hand of corrupt municipal bosses and builders who dispensed patronage to the slumlords and extorted rent from the poor.

This discourse of reform travelled throughout the British Empire in the wake of industrialisation in the colonies, first as moral reform and then as material improvement. Slums were breeding grounds for the social unrest and epidemic diseases spawned by the early factory system. Danny Boyle is a product of these connections, as a working-class Irish Catholic from Manchester, the factory city whose mills were fed by the cotton from colonial India. It was from Glasgow — the scene of Boyle’s Trainspotting — that colonial sanitary reformers modelled the Bombay Improvement Trust, established in the wake of the plague epidemic in 1896 and charged with the task of demolishing slums and building sanitary housing for the slumdogs of colonial Bombay. The moral lessons of the sanitarians gave way to material improvements by reformers who sought better housing, clean water, flushing toilets and open spaces for the urban masses.

Behind the moral language, the actual physical environment of urban slums represent a very wide spectrum of building practices and housing typologies, as my colleagues in CRIT have shown in this study of Housing Typologies in Mumbai published in 2007. The slum as place defies the slum as category. The hiatus between this abstract slum of morality and ideology, and the real diversity of housing practices in the real built environment, is the cognitive gap that many critics, designers and ethnographers have recently sought to address.

In their article where they seek to take the slum out of Slumdog, Rahul and Matias acknowledge that the generic term “slum” masks a much more complex economic and ecological reality, and focus on the centuries-old settlement of Dharavi in Mumbai. Popularly known as “Asia’s largest slum”, it has been the subject of some of Mumbai’s best journalism in works such as Jeremy Seabrook’s Life and Labour in an Indian Slum and Kalpana Sharma’s Rediscovering Dharavi. Slumdog Millionaire was extensively shot in Dharavi, to reference the archetypical slum environment of crowded and unpaved lanes, jerry-built shacks and tenements, and water containers, hoses and taps next to every home.

While Rahul and  to “take the slum out” of films like Slumdog and places like Dharavi, they seem to feel it is enough to switch the moral registers while leaving the material artefact untouched. They claim, incredibly, that “Dharavi’s extreme population density doesn’t translate into oppressiveness. The crowd is efficiently absorbed by the thousands of tiny streets branching off bustling commercial arteries”. The problem with critique is that it aestheticises slum conditions to serve up a cultural critique of urban planning and technology.

The statement that “No master plan, urban design, zoning ordinance, construction law or expert knowledge can claim any stake in the prosperity of Dharavi” is absurd when you consider that the economy of the place is entirely based around its proximity to major transport arteries and municipal boundaries. Dharavi is a triangular settlement with hard boundaries fixed by the western and central railway lines on either side, and the Mithi River and Mahim Bay on top. From here, two causeways and railway bridges lead out of the island city of Mumbai into its immediate suburbs. Dharavi’s identity is tied directly to this infrastructure and geography of transportation, which produced its central position in the urban economy.

While there is much to agree with in Rahul and Mathias’s op-ed, the argument about the resourcefulness of the poor and the marginality of the state in Dharavi is a very serviceable critique. While both are committed activists, the logic of their argument is too easily seized upon by less committed anthropologists and development practitioners as a culturalist rationale for non-intervention in the urban environment.

The role of the state in providing urban services, or its capacity to effect any positive change in the life of the poor is another matter entirely. But the idea that it has no role in Dharavi denies the poor a stake in their own political agency. Nor is this a constructive critique of the predatory ecology of urban land on which the construction industry and urban power hangs in Mumbai. Taking the state out of the slums renders invisible the entire urban regime which works to maintain the centrality of the industries and services of Dharavi, but push its people and their needs and aspirations to the peripheries. While serving as a sweatshop for multinational industries and a transport hub for Greater Mumbai, the residents of Dharavi literally live on the “other side of the tracks” of both Central and Western Railways and sleep next to the great sink for suburban effluvia and waste, the Mahim Creek.

Is it any cause for celebration that “in Dharavi… people have learned to respond in creative ways to the indifference of the state – including the setting up of a highly functional waste recycling industry that serves the whole city”? Were the citizens of Dharavi any less resourceful, they would sink in garbage, or be eaten by dogs.

* For the record, Rahul and I gave Freida Pinto one of her first breaks in show business, as she once worked with us in the organisation which we directed together in Mumbai, PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research).

Filed under: main — Tags: , , — Shekhar @ 26 February 2009 8.43 am

Ethnohistories of the Global City


Filed under: main — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 31 January 2009 12.00 am

Swinging In or Swooping Down?

Many years ago, a fellow scholar and I embarked on a novel philological project, which began in the sweaty summer of 2000 with the simple but powerful insight that all text for all news in the English print media in India is essentially generated out of a limited number of words. We thus set out, with the help of friends, to document what we called at the time “the cliches, banalities and truisms” of the of the Indian English press. E-mailed to friends and colleagues amongst the Mumbai and Delhi literati, this amateur questionnaire grew into a veritable ethno-linguistic survey, which we called the Lexicon of Indian Journalese.

Our lexicon was compiled of terms and phrases commonly found in newspapers such as The Times of India. While seemingly neutral devices for describing events and actions common to the Indian scene, we suggest that these terms form a much deeper sub-strata of meaning in Indian public discourse. They are in fact linguistic structures shared by both veteran editor and cub reporter, by the governing elite and the citizen-subaltern, they are both description and truth. Read the ur-paragraph of Indian journalism and leap into the fray with your own contributions here.

Given my prior, amateur forays into this rich semantic field, I was pleased to see that our theory of the deep structures of Indian English journalism was recently confirmed by noted historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam in his scathing review of The White Tiger in LRB. More recently, a new variation on our lexicon surfaced (quietly and unbeknownst to foreign audiences) in yesterday’s CSM. Anuj Chopra in Pune writes of B. Ramalinga Raju that the Indian government, “in damage-control mode, swooped in to take control of Satyam, the beleaguered outsourcing company”.

While it did not merit an entry at the time of our compilation eight years ago, this journalist has rendered yeoman service to the lexicon, and deserves kudos for a new insight into financial regulation in India. “Swooping in” is a recognisable hybrid of “swinging into” and “swopping down” — the two entries in our lexicon before “nab”. Examples of this type of state behaviour are when the Government of India or one of its state or local arms “swings into action” after a crisis, and “swoops down upon” its unlawful subjects. Recent work on the anthropology of the state in India has also confirmed this swooping tendency. While without the vertical dynamics of “swooping down upon” or the proactive posture of “swinging into”, “swooping in” is a fascinating description of the government’s actions to protect shareholders, and may even denote a new posture by Indian regulators in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Filed under: main — Tags: , — Shekhar @ 13 January 2009 9.21 am

Mumbai Terror Dossier

The Hindu has scanned the entire dossier of evidence related to the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on 26-28 November. Their servers seem to be overwhelmed with requests, so I have cached the PDFs for downloading here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 and all parts archived.

Dr Singh’s genteel but firm diplomatic strategy is to present this evidence in the chanceries of the world’s great powers, who will compel Pakistan to act against Lashkar-i-Toiba and elements within its own intelligence establishment who mentored these irregulars to fight on the Kashmir and Afghan frontiers. So far both India and Pakistan have avoided war, but can there be a Third Way in the War on Terror?

This interview on All Things Considered with Siddharth Varadarajan is worth a listen, and this interview with Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, in Der Spiegel.

Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 7 January 2009 4.46 pm

The Story of Whose India?

I just finished watching the first episode of The Story of India on PBS. To see the Aryan invasion theory rehashed so completely is quite shocking on public television. Who is this so-called historian Michael Wood and hasn’t he read Romila Thapar? The show would be infuriating if he weren’t so culturally confused. Check the bit with him drinking the Aryan alpha brew of soma (actually mahua) in a Peshawar bazaar.

Filed under: main — Tags: — Shekhar @ 5 January 2009 8.24 pm

Who Sank my Mothership?

Experts, journalists, and film-makers are seeing motherships everywhere.

In an interview today on Here and Now with Bob Baer, former CIA analyst for the Middle East, he just let drop the terrifying scenario of a jihadi mothership docking in Baltimore Harbor and launching commando attacks from a swarm of dinghies, in imitation of the attacks in Mumbai two weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the film Syriana was adapted from Baer’s intelligence memoirs.

In the weeks before the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, a Saudi oil tanker was hijacked off the Horn of Africa. In a direct action against Somali pirates menacing the high seas, on 19 November the Indian Navy sunk what was called a “pirate mothership” in the Gulf of Aden, in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes off the Horn of Africa. This seemed to many Indians a swift and effective strike in the subcontinent’s own maritime near-abroad, the western Indian Ocean. Defence analysts and terrorism experts hailed the emergent regional hegemon taking the fight to the pirate brigands in aid the international community, with the INS Tabar swooping down on and sinking their mothership.

This proud assertion of regional sub-imperialism by India was interrupted when it later emerged that the alleged mothership sunk by the Indian Navy in the Gulf of Aden was actually a Thai fishing trawler occupied by Somali pirates. The Navy claimed it nonetheless had the pirate commanders in their sights and fired legitimately. Tell that to the Thai fishermen who lost their boat, or other coastal fishing communities such as in Kutch whose livelihood depends on the natural ecologies which cross maritime jurisdictions, and who are routinely harrased and imprisoned by the Indian and Pakistani coast guards and navies.

The Laskar-e-Toiba commandos who attacked Mumbai arrived by speed boats and dinghies on the city’s unregulated coastline in a hijacked fishing boat named Kuber, registered in the Gujarati port city of Porbander. The families and friends of the fishermen on the Kuber, when the boat failed to return home the night it was attacked by the commandos at sea, first assumed that it had been detained by the Pakistani authorities. However a body was found floating in a fishing channel, dumped overboard after the commandos changed from their boat which brought them to Gujarat from Pakistan’s main port city, Karachi.

For more than a hundred years, Western military experts have grappled with the murky geography of insurgent networks in the mountainous and rugged terrain of the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Much like the frontier and tribal agencies along the old Durand Line, the maritime frontier of the western Indian Ocean is simply impossible to police. The British Indian Empire had an overwhelming interest in regulating human and commercial traffic in the western Indian Ocean for most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Few remember that Aden was directly administered by the Government of Bombay as a protectorate for a hundred years, as it was strategically located at the mouth of the Red Sea, the gateway to the pilgrimage port of Mecca and the Suez Canal.

Throughout the western Indian Ocean coastline from its formal bases in Aden to Bombay, the British assumed various roles in the development and governance of the vast maritime frontier in the Indian Ocean. As regional naval hegemon and guarantor of the security of coastal sultans and emirates such as in Bushire, Basra, Kuwait and Musqat, its commercial agents and native informants commanded political power (in this view, the British have occupied Basra on and off for more than 300 years). As its military and naval interests controlled regional traffic, it enacted traditional duties of protector of pilgrims for thousands of Hajis arrriving Mecca by boat (and increasingly by British steamships) from India or Southeast Asia. The British were thus forced to act in novel scenarios as public health inspector, to control and quarantine the decades-long global plague outbreak which spread from China and India to Europe, Latin America and Europe.

Historians have compared the relations of “informal empire” between British India and these coastal states of the western Indian Ocean as similar to the indirect rule exercised in the colonial princely states. While Bombay and Aden were directly administered as colonial cities in British India, the network of coastal port cities in their vast hinterland from Gujarat to Yemen functioned as an informal sphere of influence for Indian, Arab and Persian merchants and traders who prospered by accepting British naval protection and commercial dominance in international trade in the Indian Ocean (which, in the memorable phrase, became a British pool).

These port cities harboured ships flying flags of convenience and carrying all kinds of local regional trade from the sultanates of Yemen and Muscat, across the mouth of the Persian Gulf to the Makran Coast and the Gulfs of Kutch and Cambay in India. Today little remains of what what colonial port authorities referred to as the “coasting trade”, except for fishing. However, fisherfolk are increasingly threatened by international trawlers which have fish on an industrial scale for export, destroying what remains of the livelihood base of coastal fishing communities.

Syriana (warning, spoiler!) culminates with a pair of young Pakistani boys driving a high-speed dinghy with a warhead strapped on it at high speed into a massive tanker, just as the ribbon is cut on a new coastal refinery built by a Western oil company in a fictionalized Gulf emirate. The boys, migrant workers in a labor camp, are easily recruited to the attack, in which they will also perish. The mothership here, an oil tanker, is not the source, but the target, of the suicide attack. Visions of motherships notwithstanding, most pirates and terrorists, it seems, prefer to travel in speed-boats and dinghies.

Filed under: main — Tags: , , , — Shekhar @ 9 December 2008 12.48 pm
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