WHEN a friend, hailing from a small village between Bagh and Rawalakot in Azad Kashmir, called me some time back for my opinion on whether he should migrate to Baghdad for work, some years had already passed since the devastating 2005 earthquake. My friend — a carpenter by profession — and his wife had just rebuilt their house but so had most of the other families in the area. Work in the construction sector, which had peaked during the reconstruction phase and kept him busy for many months, had ebbed again.

Today, standing on Lasdanna Pass, opposite Haji Pir, and looking down on the valleys below, one can see corrugated iron roofs blinking in the sun. At night the mountain slopes turn into a light show when load-shedding leads to a whole mountain suddenly turning from light to dark and back again.

Rapid changes are also visible in the more urban areas. While many buildings in Bagh were still rubble, Telenor and Mobilink had opened shiny offices with glass doors in the main bazaar. With the opening of the telecommunication sector to private companies, cell phone coverage quickly spread in the area. And when local elections were held in June 2006, rumors about rigging probably spread a lot faster than they did during previous ballots.

The radical opening to the rest of the country also affected earlier marginalised groups. Running a vocational training centre for women in the eastern part of Bagh district, we could see over months how women managed, sometimes against their families’ will and sometimes with their full support, to become economically more independent. And people from the middle class worried that the poorest members of the community seemed to be relatively better off after receiving the same financial assistance from the government as their richer neighbours.

The earthquake and its ensuing impact on the area can provide a chance for a closer look at a region often in the spotlight because of a long-standing international conflict. What such a study could look like, Edward Simpson has shown with his new book, The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India. In the book on the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India, Simpson, professor for Social Anthropology at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London, explores how the reconstruction efforts were perceived in the area and used to farther political aims. It’s a timely publication considering the fact that the then chief minister of the state, Narendra Modi, who had a controversial role in the aftermath of the earthquake that included ethnic riots a year later, has just been elected the prime minister of the country.

Simpson knew the area from well before the earthquake and made use of this knowledge — starting from such basics as the language to personal contacts built before the earthquake struck.

Modi’s post-earthquake Gujarat has become an Indian success story of economic growth. Simpson’s book provides a careful critique of this narrative on different levels. He looks at a number of reconstruction efforts by national and international agencies in different parts of the affected area, many of which are just an extended arm of larger interest groups such as national parties (for example, the RSS and BJP) or religious outfits. “I now strongly feel that most of what is known about disasters is produced by those who have a stake in presenting the clear-up and reconstruction as rip-roaring successes. The reports […] are generally not about failure, any more than they are about the lives of ordinary people,” Simpson writes. He aims to “counter these routinised biases.”

Without decrying all humanitarian assistance he takes the humanitarians as what they indeed often are — “powerful strangers or trespassers” who do not always work with the intent to support those in need but to further their own interests. Whether that is making more conversions to a religious sect or simply being able to present oneself as a philanthropist, the misery of others can easily be exploited.

At the same time, Simpson uses equal space in the book to shed light on how individuals deal with the event of an earthquake that brings death and destruction. Now and again resorting to historical and philosophical literature without turning the book into an academic treatise, he traces ways of explaining the disaster as well as forgetting it.

In Kashmir after the earthquake, a prevalent explanation was self-critical. People said that it was a punishment from God for not being pious enough. Stories such as India having tested a nuclear missile underground with Israel’s help also existed, but were generally ascribed to people who had gone crazy with the psychological burden of the disaster. The use of psychopharmacological drugs among men I often sat chatting with at night was quite common. They would recount how they experienced the morning hours of the 8th of October again and again and admitted that it was still hard for them to grapple with the trauma.

Simpson provides similar accounts — blaming lack of piety and Pakistani jihadists was popular in Gujarat — and lets individuals speak about their personal experiences, saying that “those affected by the disaster were more aware of the cultural battles waged in the aftermath than those who came to intervene.”

He ends the book with a focus on the second part of the publication’s subtitle — amnesia. In Kashmir, people often said that it were the old women in the families who saved lives. When the earth shook they immediately knew what was happening, being aware of old stories of earthquakes or because of having experienced one themselves. Others had largely forgotten that the area was prone to earthquakes.

“The repeated collapse of Anjar [a town flattened, comparable to Balakot in Pakistan] might also suggest that earthquakes cannot be remembered because they are too big and too terrible to comprehend,” writes Simpson. “In this sense we might speculate that earthquakes are forgotten in their true form because they literally cannot be remembered.” But at the same time, while amnesia may be threatening, producing such a work makes a strong attempt to not forget. And indeed, readers familiar with other examples of natural disasters will find numerous parallels.

In the case of Gujarat, Simpson shows how forgetting can take place quickly. When the epicenter was wrongly declared to be Rann of Kutch, towards the Pakistan border, it was hardly possible to correct this mistake at a later point. People found the place in no-man’s land close to the ‘enemy’ much more convenient than the actual place within populated areas; they preferred to remember what fitted their beliefs.

The Political Biography of an Earthquake is not an explanation of how the consequences of an earthquake manifest themselves universally. Rather, Simpson narrates his experiences and encounters and is hesitant to make wider claims. This is exactly the kind of approach that is needed to try and understand the impact of such a calamity.

Kashmir has always been a political field that can be played by politicians in Islamabad and Delhi as long as the native population doesn’t have a voice and as long as outsiders have only a vague understanding of what really takes place there. The public perception of the 2005 earthquake is largely shaped by stories repeatedly told outside the affected areas than actual experiences of the people themselves.

The credo of ERRA, the reconstruction authority, was to ‘Build Back Better’. The destruction brought upon by the disaster was to be taken as a chance to provide better infrastructure than was available before. The management strategy developed to coordinate work between different agencies in the disaster zone, the so-called ‘cluster approach,’ has since become a common feature in the humanitarian aid sector. On the other hand, the swift action of aid organisations closely linked with radical outfits became a major concern that has since been voiced regularly.

However, how individuals fared with these changes is hardly known. While many men returned from the Gulf states just after the earthquake to be with their families during the difficult times and help in the reconstruction efforts, the push to leave has quickly picked up again, now that most of the work is done. Having experienced high quality health services just after the earthquake, friends of mine are now prepared to travel to Rawalpindi or Lahore at the advice of new doctors. The same is true for education — quality has probably improved but mostly due to the influx of private schools. All this comes at increased financial strain.

In Gujarat after the earthquake, Narendra Modi played the field successfully and it granted him a free hand there. It has since brought him far. Simpson’s book, however, does not only do justice to Gujarat after the calamity but provides a comprehensive idea of how a narrative of a disaster can be presented in a non-sensational and non-academic manner.

The fact that this work now exists for a natural disaster that is in many ways — temporally, geographically and politically — so closely related to the 2005 earthquake makes it all the more a necessity to have such a study on the impact of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Not only would it provide a closer understanding of the repercussions of a natural disaster but could also provide new ways of looking at an area that seems so little known for all its presence in the media.

The reviewer has lived and worked in Azad Kashmir (district Bagh)


The Political Biography of an Earthquake: Aftermath and Amnesia in Gujarat, India

(SOCIOLOGY)

By Edward Simpson

Hurst & Company, London

ISBN 9781849042871

288pp.