Phulbari & Democratic Politics in Bangladesh

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A review of Energy Emergency: Phulbari and Democratic Politics in Bangladesh, by Nusrat Chowdhury.

Tracing popular protest culture in Phulbari in Bangladesh, this dissertation is an ethnographic account of one of the most successful grassroots movements against foreign capital to emerge in recent years. Phulbari burst onto the Bangladeshi political scene in 2006 when there was a mass uprising in this town in northwest Bangladesh in response to plans by the British company Asia Energy to develop an open pit coal mine on agricultural land. The grassroots mobilization, which did not originate in party politics, ground to a halt the Phulbari Coal Project and was one of the largest mass movements since the nationalist movement that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Nusrat Chowdhury writes that Phulbari has since become “a metaphor for anti-imperialist politics and anti-patriotic conspiracy alike” (p. 2) and her research will be of interest to both scholars and activists.

This “Energy Emergency” that Chowdhury describes is anchored by two events that marked the tumultuous period in which she undertook her fieldwork. First, on 26 August 2006, the protests at Phulbari reached a violent climax in a clash between the military and a gathering of 50,000-60,000 anti-mining protestors where many people were injured and three people killed. Second, in 2007 the Bangladeshi state declared a national emergency, cordoning off Phulbari from the rest of the country until 2008. Beginning her fieldwork in 2007 and confronting the perennial issue of load shedding on her very first day in Phulbari, Chowdhury embarks on her analysis by setting up a twin focus on energy and politics. Both events at Phulbari unfolded against the background of an escalating power crisis in Bangladesh and the tripartite demands that the anti-mining activists continue to make today consist of “a moratorium on foreign companies, the method of open-cast mining, and the export of coal (bideshi na, unmukto na, raptani na)” (p. 23). In her analysis Chowdhury departs from Michel Foucault’s framework of “biopolitics” as an umbrella term to describe the configuration of power relations that emerges with the modern nation-state. Instead, drawing upon the work of Dominic Boyer and Timothy Mitchell she explores “Energopolitics” and “Carbon Democracy” as more apt frameworks to describe a particular conception of the political which requires energy and politics to be understood together (Dominic Boyer, “Energopolitics and the Anthropology of Energy,” Anthropology News 52, 2011, pp. 5-7; Timothy Mitchell, “Carbon Democracy,” Economy and Society 38, 2009, pp. 399-432.)

In the first chapter Chowdhury reads three public texts whose circulation during the national emergency, when read together, describe an epochal moment in democratic politics in Bangladesh. Using a series of letters to the nation from Muhammad Yunus, Nobel laureate and Bangladeshi economist, Chowdhury examines Yunus’s attempt to produce a body-politic that sidesteps the ancestral lineages that have held power over nation-states right across South Asia. Examining the humor surrounding the electronic circulation of an ID card of a hapless citizen, amidst attempts to roll out a national ID card in Bangladesh, Chowdhury draws attention to the limits of the non-ancestral mode of political power that Yunus was trying to appeal to in his letters. Her analysis of a photograph of a man kicking an official in military uniform during the national emergency period suggests that the crowd, present and absent in both of the previous texts, forms the silent, always-menacing backdrop against which a spectrum of individual/collective identities of the “citizen” are articulated.

The second chapter about the representation of resources offers an account of how such texts were resources themselves in mobilizing protestors at Phulbari. Reading the multiple meanings of Bengali slogans and sayings in use at Phulbari, Chowdhury describes how the slippages between mine and sign, materiality and textuality are deployed for political ends by activist leaders. Her analysis is often driven forward by anecdotes shared by the activists she meets. These sketches offer lucid insight into how potent political messages circulated at Phulbari, embedded in short, often metaphor-rich stories acting as parables for the behavior of mining companies, nation-states, and the various other players in the energy emergency. This chapter introduces the theme of visuality and power that runs throughout Chowdhury’s analysis of an culture that arose in part in response to the “violence of invisibility of power that shaped the […] everyday reality” of the activists she interviews (p. 104).

The third chapter examines the symbolic value of money in Phulbari popular political culture and sketches an account of a community that views money, in particular foreign money that remains out of local circulation, with due suspicion. Chowdhury examines four incidents where Phulbari activists deploy representations of money in their actions to resist foreign capital. In a context where the power structures that shape peoples’ lives remain invisible, making the presence of money visible, representing this representation of value, emerges as a recurring discursive element of the resistance strategies devised by anti-mining activists.

Energy Emergency circles around the visibility and invisibility of power in the representational economy of the Phulbari protests and Chowdhury’s fourth chapter examines the figure of the dalal, the local go-between who is the mediator of hidden exchanges and the target of episodic violence by activists. Drawing compelling parallels with the haunting figure of the collaborator in the national zeitgeist in the aftermath of Bangladeshi independence in 1971, Chowdhury uses Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the “intriguer” to make sense of this twin spectral character of the collaborator-dalal (Chowdhury, pp. 157-60; Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne. London: Verso, 2009). Recounting a short story about the “Sufi and the Thief” that one activist shares with her, Chowdhury, following the storyteller, illustrates the dangerous slippages between us versus them, local versus foreign, and pious versus criminal which haunt the political environment at Phulbari.

Chowdhury begins her fifth chapter with the observation that the very events of violence that anchor her dissertation are spoken of by Phulbari locals as arising from accidents. Offering a disclaimer that it is not her aim to describe the anti-mining movement, the actions of the military, or the state as “accidental,” Chowdhury concludes her analysis by examining the temporal coherence of these incidents as “events” given that the activists she spoke to frequently use a framework she calls “accidental politics” to describe the events.

The fruit of original research conducted amidst one of the most successful grassroots anti-imperialist movements unfolding in the world today, Chowdhury’s dissertation sparkles with rich insight into the ordinary people, the leaders, and the cultural ephemera produced in the mass mobilizations at Phulbari. Particularly through her deft use of the stories that circulate amongst activist circles at Phulbari, Chowdhury renders visible aspects of a political community that came into being during what she calls the Energy Emergency. Offering an intriguing snapshot of the activist-intellectual interface spanning Bangladesh-USA today, Chowdhury’s research will be of interest to scholars and activists alike working in the overlapping fields of environmental studies, anti-imperial movements, energy crises, Bangladeshi politics and political theory, South Asian studies and globalization studies.

Samia Khatun
Department of History
University of Sydney
samia.khatun@gmail.com

Primary Sources

Conducting her fieldwork in the town of Phulbari in Bangladesh, the author uses interviews, recollections, anecdotes, and snippets of conversations recorded with activists and other locals. In addition to these field notes Chowdhury examines a range of ephemera and cultural productions–slogans, posters, artworks, cartoons, etc.—in circulation through the various communities at Phulbari and the Bangladeshi nation at large during the Energy Emergency.

Dissertation Information

University of Chicago. 2012. 275 pp. Primary Advisors: Dipesh Chakrabarty and William Mazzarella.

 

Image: Bangladesh’s National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, and Power and Ports called a strike in Phulbari in the north-west of the country to oppose opencast coal mining in the area by London-listed GCM Resources (formerly Asia Energy). November 2012. London Mining Network.

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