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Kachchh: More Sindh Than Gujarat?

Settlers, Saints and Sovereigns: An Ethnography of State Formation in Western India by Farhana Ibrahim (New Delhi: Routledge Taylor and Francis), 2009; pp 215, Rs 650.

BOOK REVIEW

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Kachchh: More Sindh Than Gujarat?

Aparna Kapadia

T
he Rann of Kachchh, its colourful people and sandy beaches make for one of the three advertisements recently launched to promote tourism in Gujarat. As the superstar Amitabh Bachchan walks down the moonlit desert, we move to an image we most expect to see of the place that is being sold to us: bandhaniclad women with multiple piercings working at their intricate embroideries; men in turbans and frock-like tunics herding their cattle; carefree children playing in quaint hamlets as their mothers, working at their traditional pestles and mortars, beatifically look on. The adversities of nature, the actor reminds us, have never deterred the people of Kachchh; they make up for its austerity through their brilliant colours, handicrafts and music. In the final scene, Bachchan, himself dressed as a typical pastoralist waiting to join the rest of his brethren, stops to invite us to this idyllic land, “breathe in a bit of Kachchh. Come, breathe in a bit of Gujarat”.

This advertisement reinforces the popular image of Kachchh as a land of pristine beauty, bucolic joy and exquisite handicrafts, where cattle-herding pastoralists move around the desert freely and live stress-free lives. It also reinforces its “natural” location within a unified modern state, ignoring the ambiguous relationship this frontier region has shared with Gujarat and camouflaging the close cultural connections that have existed between Kachchh and Sindh throughout history.

Farhana Ibrahim’s book, Settlers, Saints and Sovereigns: An Ethnography of State Formation in Western India, reminds us of

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
march 26, 2011

Settlers, Saints and Sovereigns: An Ethnography of State Formation in Western India by Farhana Ibrahim (New Delhi: Routledge Taylor and Francis), 2009; pp 215, Rs 650.

these very ambiguities and internal contradictions that have existed between Gujarat and Kachchh, and their implications for understanding the region today. The study is a rich ethnography based on nearly a decade of fieldwork among the pastoralist Jatts and Meghwal harijans of northern Kachchh, which constitutes the border between India and Pakistan. Using anthropological tools and archival sources, Ibrahim interrogates the idea of the impermeable boundaries between modernday nation states and decodes some of the realities that lie hidden behind the idealised position of Kachchh and its people within Gujarat.

On Kachchh as a ‘Border’

Kachchh’s location as a frontier zone and its access to the sea have rendered it open to a variety of mobile pastoralists, traders and military men for centuries. This feature made it a contested site for the imperial powers that controlled Gujarat from its historical capitals of Patan and Ahmedabad right from the 12th century onwards (Samira Sheikh 2010: Forging a Region – Sultans, Traders, and Pilgrims in Gujarat, 1200-1500, New Delhi: Oxford University Press). Its proximity to the kingdom of Sindh, close to the countries involved in the Great Game, also gave it considerable strategic significance in the minds of the colonial rulers. For the

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contemporary state of Gujarat, established only 50 years ago on 1 May 1960, Kachchh continues to remain an area of concern on account of its location along India’s border with Pakistan, which must be vigilantly guarded and kept watertight for security reasons.

Ibrahim’s research is an important step towards understanding how an otherwise monolithic and impermeable border can be perceived in multiple ways. The author is concerned with the manner in which people living within a political border “construct meaningful narratives of place; how they at once establish and transgress the boundaries within which they are able to act as meaningful agents” (p 5). She notes, for instance, that the dominant discourse on the history of Kachchh still tends to be based on colonial writings. Popularised by an important local newspaper, Kachchh Mitra (Friend of Kachchh), this discourse primarily focuses on the enmity between Kachchh and Sindh. In contrast, the DƗnetƗ Jatts, who have had a long history of trade and communication with Sindh before the Partition, remember it in more positive ways as a land of abundance and plenty. This nostalgia is also expressed in their poetry and legends, as well as in their relationship with ajrakh, a block-printed fabric, which are shared by both regions. On the other hand, the narratives of the Maru Meghwals, a harijan community that migrated from Sindh to Kachchh in 1971, involve a rejection of the former, particularly its link with “Muslim” culture, in order to find a legitimate place among the upper caste Hindus of their new homeland by adopting their forms of dress, embroidery and manner. In doing this they fit in with the avowedly Hindu nationalist state’s imagination as “legitimate” constituents of the region, albeit in accordance with their own social needs. In all three cases, the “border” holds different meanings for

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BOOK REVIEW

people residing within the same geographical unit.

Borders and boundaries are considered the sine qua non of modern-day nation states. This idea assumes that moving frontiers were a feature of pre-modern societies and, as so many contemporary ethnic conflicts show, ignores the complex relationships that still exist between the people who reside near artificially created borders. Over 60 years after the creation of India and Pakistan, very few studies probe the consequences of this delineation on groups that once existed on both sides of the border. Ibrahim’s book makes an important contribution to this academic literature; with its focus on the oral narratives of migration and cultural practices, it encourages the reader to reflect on the interplay between hermetically sealed borders and moving frontiers that continue to be experienced by the pastoralist communities of Kachchh even today.

On Kachchh as a ‘Region’

Today, 50 years after the formation of its modern avatar, Gujarat is being celebrated as a success story. Over the past decades, its asmitƗ or pride has become its dominant form of self-projection. This framework attempts to culturally and politically homogenise the region through its discourse on progress, economic development, and Hindutva, leaving out those who do not l egitimately fit in. How then does a culturally distinctive unit define itself within such a modern state? This question becomes particularly relevant for Kachchh with its historical position as a frontier zone.

Ibrahim is interested in asmitƗ “for an understanding of what might be the implications of this philosophy of roots and anchored homeland for a place like Kachchh that has defined itself primarily through mobility and cultural flows, especially across a border that is rendered firmly sealed under the gaze of the modern nation state” (p 32). Thus, her study presents a nuanced understanding of the manner in which Kachchh is imagined by those who reside within it and negotiate the forces of “Gujaratisation” through the asmitƗ project.

For instance, Ibrahim demonstrates that mobility, Islam and an intimate cultural

Economic & Political Weekly

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march 26, 2011

relationship with Sindh, are important elements in the pastoralists’ imagination of Kachchh as a region. However, these, as has been noted, are viewed with suspicion by the State, extremely concerned with matters of border security. Similarly, as “Hinduism” becomes gradually naturalised in Gujarat, ƖĞƗpurƗ, Kachchh’s local goddess has become a part of the wider pantheon of goddesses worshipped all over the state. Yet, the people of Kachchh continue to associate her with their land. Ibrahim, further narrates how MƗƯ, a f emale saint worshipped as a pƯr, and sharing some features with ƖĞƗpurƗ, remains central to the devotional practices of the GarƗsiyƗ Jatts, a group of sedentarised Muslim pastoralists, who have also moved from Sindh to Kachchh. In their association with MƗƯ, this group locates itself closely within the region and at the same time rejects the state’s attempts to categorise it as the Muslim “other”. This simultaneously allows the GarƗsiyƗ Jatts to “steer away from being co-opted into a transnational movement for Islamic r eform” (p 195), another homogenising force operational in Gujarat from the 1990s. This choice of resisting categorisation also implies that they are left out of the development schemes instituted by the state.

Islamic reform has been widely embraced by the mobile DƗnetƗ Jatts today. Having given up their older ritual practices of pƯr worship, the DƗnetƗs connect their intraregional migrations to the more universal significance of movement within Islam. Ibrahim suggests, in doing this, they also justify their choice of not moving inwards to the more lucrative, but ideologically and politically unsafe “Gujarat”. Gujarat then is viewed as the other in the imagination of these pastoralists who now primarily move around Kachchh.

Gujarat’s asmitƗ is negotiated somewhat differently by the Meghwals, who are relatively new inhabitants of Kachchh. This group, with a long history of residing in the ambiguous zone of Tharparkar on the border of Kachchh and Sindh, once shared their food and burial habits with Muslims. Yet, when they migrated to Kachchh, they chose to give up this association with Islam, attempting to

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gain a higher status within the local Hindu society. In this regard they have been drawn into the state’s asmitƗ project, making them active participants in creating the dichotomy between Kachchh and Sindh.

For the people of Kachchh, their associations with Sindh are complex, their fabrics and crafts, marketed to the outside world as exotic, are assertions of their community identities, their religious and sectarian choices allow them to negotiate their social positions within their local contexts; for them, all these elements and several others define the region. The strength of Ibrahim’s book lies in the complexity with which she articulates these different elements and locates them, throughout the narrative, within their real, remembered and imposed pasts. Ultimately, this is a study of the politics of memory and the continuously changing nature of human frontiers.

Conclusions

A book this complex in scope, however, is bound to leave the reader wishing for more. Ibrahim’s informants appear to shift easily between the use of Kachchhi, Sindhi, Gujarati and Urdu. It is noteworthy that the author does not highlight this or always mention the language being used. A reflection on how the politics of language, specifically the growing hegemony of G ujarati, is played out along the frontier would have enhanced our understanding of Kachchh’s relationship with Gujarat’s dominance. Further, the reader may miss the relevance of the interesting collection of maps and photographs included in the book, as the text itself does not specifically engage with them; integrating them into the body of the narrative may have contributed to the ethnographic analysis. Finally, the book would have also benefited considerably from a deeper theoretical analysis of the ideology of asmitƗ as it has developed from the 19th century in Gujarat, based on the existing original primary literature and on Ibrahim’s own ethnographic research. However, the ethnography itself displays a nuanced understanding of the concept and would certainly be of great use to anyone interested in producing a theory-based work on regional political ideologies in south Asia.

BOOK REVIEW

Perhaps, Ibrahim herself will pioneer such a work in the near future on Gujarat, which remains a neglected area of study.

Even as Amitabh Bachchan’s seductive invitation to Kachchh naturalises its location within Gujarat, the voices of Ibrahim’s informants point towards the

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contradictions that remain untamed despite the state’s powerful homogenising agenda. These voices underscore the m ultiple ways in which the region continues to be imagined. In this, her book questions the popular notion of a “state” or “region” as “objectively given” and defined by administrative boundaries, proposing, instead, that these categories be viewed in more ways than one.

Aparna Kapadia (aparna.kapadia@orinst. ox.ac.uk) is with the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford.

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