Capsule: Transport Labour, Modes of Circulation and Mobile Subjects in South Asia
By Tarini Bedi, Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois at Chicago
This post is adapted from Dr. Bedi’s work, which appeared in Mobility in History’s eighth volume. The print publication’s archive is available online with Berghahn Journals; Dr. Bedi’s article can be accessed by clicking this link.
Attention to the historiography of mobility, circulation, and transport in South Asia, a region that covers modern nation-states of Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Maldives, Bhutan, and Tibet has the capacity to illuminate broader theoretical and empirical concerns for scholars of mobility in other parts of the world.
Until quite recently, the dominant area of focus in South Asian transport history was on the railways and on the British colonial period (Davidson 1868; Kerr 1995; 2001). This focus on the history of Indian railways is vital to understanding the technological and economic ramifications of large transportation networks. It also illustrates how the building of transportation systems exemplified the material strategies of colonial governance and control.
The more recent work in South Asian transport history is excitingly multi-disciplinary and draws from cultural, economic and labour history, literary studies, ethno-history, global history, and anthropology. In doing so, it de-centers the privileged position of railways and the British colonial period as a watershed historical moment in South Asian transport history. It also provokes important discussions about the connections between pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial transport mobilities. Further, while in both transport and labour historiography of South Asia, transport workers conventionally received very little scholarly attention this more recent work illuminates the vital place that human agents, particularly transport labour played in shaping these mobilities (Behal and Linden 2006; Kerr 2006). It also explores how South Asian transport networks, labour migrations, and the recruitment of South Asian labour and capital were fundamentally tied to global transportation networks across the Indian Ocean and beyond (Bose 2006; Frietag 2011; Hoerder 2011).
Collectively this scholarship argues that transport labor and its connection to circulation of goods, commodities, and people are part of the processes of globalization, imperial expansion, and the emergence and expansion of global capitalism (Davies, et al. 2000; Gupta, et al. 2010; Linden 2012). My own ethno-historical work on hereditary taxi-drivers from the chillia community in the Indian city of Bombay/Mumbai locates itself within scholarship by illuminating the centrality of transport workers and their ethnic and religious ties in studies of transport history (Bedi 2015; 2016).These recent ethnographic and historiographical interventions read together, complicate the field of South Asian transportation history.
Railways in South Asian Transport History.
Undoubtedly, the preeminent place of “railway studies”(Kerr 2007) in South Asian transport history produced rich institutional histories of this particular mode of transport. Indian railways first opened in the 1850s and were a British colonial intervention. They were initially planned and promoted by the British East India Company as a mode of transport that would have military, economic and social advantages to the colonial administration (Hurd and Kerr 2012). Much of the institutional archive on which railway history relies came first from British colonial bureaucrats, engineers, and financiers, and in late colonial and early postcolonial India from the writings of Indian nationalists and Indian railway officials. An important feature of the writing on railway history is what Hurd and Kerr refer to as a “permeable” line between primary and secondary historical sources. Situating the comments of officials connected to construction of railways alongside accounts of Indian nationalists who saw the railways as symbols of Western domination presented some interesting scholarly challenges. The former celebrated the progress the systems represented while the latter viewed the railways more warily as both an opportunity and reminder of a colonial past. In the postcolonial period, Indian railway officials became important to writing of railway history. Like British officials before them, these often echoed a strong commitment to the view that railways were modernizing forces. However, Indian accounts also drew from earlier nationalist debates that saw railways as fundamental to nation building. This strand of institutional history by Indians has remained a rich part of the historiography(Bhandari 2005).
The recognition that a history of the railways in India be looked at as part of a deeper and situated history of other complementary forms of transport was a vital later twentieth- century shift in the historiography of transport in South Asia (Verghese 1976). This work, while concerned with the early planning and building period of the Indian railways from 1832-1884, broadens the analytical gambit to place railways in context alongside other modes of transport in India. However, even while this scholarship paid some attention to broader circulations, it remained focused on singular modes of transport(Bailey and McGuire 2007). Further, the invisibility of human agents remained glaring.
However, the last decade has brought very significant extensions to this historiography. Read together, these recent works provide rich insights by shifting the focus in South Asian transport historiography from singular, material, technological, and institutional histories of particular modes of transport to one where the role of human agents and social transactions in shaping of transport histories become visible. This work highlights connections between pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial forms of mobility, the interactions between transport workers, passengers, local transport brokers and colonial and postcolonial states, the social, cultural and affective differences produced through the work of transport, and transport workers’ experiences of domestic and “intimate” lives through their implication with transport institutions and bureaucracies.
An excellent example of this work is Laura Bear’s Lines of the Nation (2007). Bear writes an anthropological history that focusses on workers living in railway colonies. Bear illuminates relationships between public institutions of transport and domestic, residential and “intimate” spaces that emerge around them over time. Bear’s ongoing and more recent ethnographic work, Navigating Austerity (2015)focuses on contemporary boatmen, shipyard workers, hydrographers, port bureaucrats and river pilots on the River Hooghly in West Bengal. It is the most recent intervention in studies of transport labour, transport bureaucracies and mobile routes as they encounter the decline of public infrastructures and national policies of austerity.
If Bear focusses on the “intimate” and relational dimensions of the railways in colonial and postcolonial India, Nitin Sinha’s Communication and Colonialism in Eastern India (2012) focuses on the pre-railways period of South Asian transport. Sinha argues that the railways as “modern” technologies of transport were part of and built on other pre-colonial, extant and equally important networks of circulation such as roads and ferries. He also shows that early railways, rather than erasing existing networks, relied on, and were built on preceding patterns of mobility even though they often adapted and changed them. In illustrating intersecting and co-existing networks of circulation such as roads, railways, boats, steamships and ferries in the broader cultural history of transport, Sinha’s work also illuminates the important role that boatmen played in shaping these networks. While boatmen were important transport workers in the period between the 1760s and the 1850s, they have received surprisingly little scholarly attention. In his research on boatmen, Sinha brings together two types of material: one related to work (explored through the practices of the state, regulations, market, and contract) and the other to journeys (using travel accounts). Through this material, Sinha illustrates the formal ‘‘structure of work” (Sinha 2014:42) and the more intimate and minute details of the journey. This vividly describes the ‘‘world of work” (Sinha 2014:25) on mobile worksites among those who move and move people around. Therefore, Sinha’s earlier work and his ongoing research on boat transport and boatmen along the River Ganga(Sinha 2014) are both important interventions in both transport and labour historiography.
Labour historian Chitra Joshi’s work is also relevant here. Joshi writes a rich history of dak runners, couriers who played a crucial role in the early history of postal communications in the early nineteenth century. Joshi illustrates how the work of running became vital to a broader politics of spatialisation. This emerged from practices of tracking the runner’s speed and marking of points where runners and palanquin bearers were changed. These points known as dak chowkis became a way of charting territory and marking the boundaries of colonial rule(Joshi 2012). The term dak, is derived from the term ‘‘post’’ – the stages at which relays of couriers or other modes of communication were stationed. Here, runners and their knowledge were particularly important in connecting roads, paths and networks of mobility. This work illustrates the important intersections between mobile humans and the landscapes, routes, and roads that they shape through these interactions. These routes also became sites of colonial control and discipline and of local knowledge and resistance. Joshi illustrates this by arguing that thick forests and treacherous terrain created spaces that were difficult for the state to access. In many regions, the tracks of dauriyas or runners provided links, created territories of control and empire, and penetrated spaces seemingly beyond the reach of the state. In this sense, this work interestingly pre-empts the more recent ontological turn and political ecology approaches in the social sciences where human/natural/material interactions are both theoretically and empirically central(Bennett 2009; Kohn 2013; Latour 1993; 1996).
If Bear, Sinha and Joshi de-centre the dominant focus on railways and make transport labour more visible in South Asian transport history, another significant development in the historiography of transport and transport labour in South Asia is work by scholars of global history. These illuminate how South Asian transport systems and transport labourers were connected to global transportation networks across the Indian Ocean and beyond(Gupta, et al. 2010). They also challenge the land-based view of transport and mobility to argue that the history of seafaring technologies, mariners’ expertise, and sailors’ labour contributed to the emergence of “ocean history” as an important field of study (Hoerder 2011).
For example, Stanziani’s, Sailors, Slaves and Immigrants(2014) examines the relationship between seamen, slaves and immigrants in the Indian Ocean to challenge long-standing associations between freedom and seafaring. It also problematizes assumedly clear-cut distinctions between free seamen, and unfree slaves and indentured immigrants. Stanziani suggests instead that contrary to the “Atlantic View” of modernity and “free-labour” required of Western capitalism, labour relationships at sea in the Indian Ocean were characterized by bondage. Bose’s A Hundred Horizons(2006) is another contribution to rethinking the historiography of mobility in the Indian Ocean Rim by bringing together political, economic, and cultural history. Bose places a vast range of human agents at the centre of his inquiry; his central argument is that the making of modern history is profoundly tied to human mobilities. Indeed, while people carried commodities across the Indian Ocean during the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, they also transported social, cultural, and political ideas. In this sense, global labour histories of circulations across the Indian Ocean expand our understandings of mobile labour by illustrating how Indian transport labourers were connected to global transportation networks. It also shows that transnational mobility was fundamentally connected to labour practices, labour mobilizations, and Indian nationalism.
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