Anxiety and Modernization in the Indus Borderlands of British India, 1880-1947

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 11:10 AM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
H. William Warner, University of Wisconsin-Madison
One of the psychological states associated with modernity is anxiety, typically associated with upheavals in social and cultural practices and traditions. In British India, one of the persistent sources of anxiety was the possibility of a Russian invasion and subsequent dissolution of British rule in South Asia. Following the second Anglo-Afghan War, officials in British India embarked upon a process of infrastructural development west of the Indus River designed to sure up their defensive capacity along the northwestern frontier. While this did not exactly calm the minds of British officials, it had significant downstream consequences for the people who lived near these projects. Beyond martialing huge amounts of capital, the various modernization projects up and down the Indus River and its tributaries in the Punjab —building roads and railways, constructing forts and advanced bases, digging irrigation canals—required enormous numbers of seasonally employed manual laborers. This paper explores how local populations engaged with these massive imperial construction projects that literally and figuratively reshaped their homelands. In particular, it highlights the ways in which modernization projects, which were welcomed by some, were anxiety-producing affairs for many as temporary, cash-remunerating labor brought new challenges to the existing socio-economic orders. Focusing on incidents of conflict around colonial modernization projects, I show how local people turned to their local history to argue for the right to control the manual labor on a given project. In this way, the coming of modernity in the form of infrastructural development projects was met not simply with resistance, but also with inter- and intracommunity arguments over who deserved to benefit from them.
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