Fixity of Water, Fluidity of Land: Everyday Life in the Chars of Chilmari, Bangladesh

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Quasem, Saad, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Mentore, George, Anthropology, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the concept of land and water in the chars (river islands) of Chilmari on the Kurigram district tributaries of the Brahmaputra River. Chars or sand-bars appear and disappear with the flow of the river. Seasonal floods and unpredictable erosion subjects Chardwellers to constantly move from char to char. Living in this watery condition, I argue, Chardwellers have developed an ontology consisting of a belief in the fixity of the flowing river and the fluidity of land. The everyday lives of Chardwellers testify to the materialization of such char-specific ontology. Chardwellers associate land as fluid not only because of its physical instability but also because of the institutional structures, regulations, and laws that make access to land difficult for Chardwellers. Contrary to the fluidity of land, Chardwellers perceive the river as having a permanence, a source of continuity, which outlives the temporality of chars and stands responsible for the material formation and disappearance of land. Chardwellers associate powerful aspects present in their lives, such as the regional hegemon of India, religious figures such as Khizr (Islamic), Shiva, and Brahma (Hindu), and fish as a plentiful source of sustenance representative of the omnipresent river, all while regarding the government of Bangladesh, land, and associated crops as fluid and just temporary. As part of this ontology, livelihood activities, land management, and religious rituals connote welcoming excess water (floods) and exercising patience during erosion. For Chardwellers, the symbolic and material practice of letting water flow emanates a form of continuity that is necessary to live given the conditions of the river, the history of colonialism, and the subjugation of the modern nation-state in a neoliberal world order. An examination of the history of Chilmari chars exposes the colonial exercise of separating chars from the river into the category of land. Prior to British ascension, chars were treated as ‘wasteland’ in the river and unfettered by the then rulers. However, using modern cartography and institutionalization typical of colonial projects, these liminal landmasses were commodified and categorized into the land. Today, state regimes, including scholarship, the development sector, and media, often frame Chardwellers as “vulnerable” people living in “fragile” landmasses. Countering such framing, I argue Chardwellers developed an ontology of living with the river, which rhizomatically represents and resists the history of their structural subjugation while also providing a glimpse into a resilience mechanism for living with uncertainties in a world facing a precarious climatic future.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Chars, Brahmaputra , Colonial land-making , Climate Change , Embodied knowledge, Riverine perception, Bangladesh, Chilmari
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