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Reordering a Border Space: Relief, rehabilitation, and nation-building in northeastern India after the 1950 Assam earthquake

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jats:titleAbstract</jats:title>jats:pOn 15 August 1950, just as India was celebrating its third independence anniversary, an earthquake of 8.6 magnitude struck the remote northeastern state of Assam and its surrounding borderlands. Rivers burst their banks and landslides blocked Himalayan valleys, destroying towns, villages, roads, fields, and tea gardens in their wake. Beyond the disaster's shattering impact on the physical geography of the region, this article explores how it participated in another reconfiguration—that of Assam's place within India's political geography and national imaginary. The Indian public had hitherto known very little about India's remote ‘northeast frontier’; the cataclysm and subsequent relief measures served to carve out a space for it on Indian mental maps. Simultaneously, by forcing a large-scale encounter between Indian authorities and the people of the scarcely controlled eastern Himalayas, post-earthquake relief and rehabilitation led to unprecedented state expansion in this newly strategic borderland. Yet in the same breath, the aftermath of the disaster fuelled stereotypes about Assam and its hinterland that would eventually further their marginality within India and undermine their continued unity. The crystallization of Assam's image as a place irreducibly subject to the whims of nature and, more importantly, incapable of taking care of itself (and hence, of its highland dependencies), would poison centre–state relations for decades to come. Imperfect and contradictory, the reordering of this border space from a colonial frontier to a component of independent India's national space did not end marginality, but instead reinforced it.</jats:p>



4406 Human Geography, 44 Human Society

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Modern Asian Studies

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Cambridge University Press (CUP)