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Seminar About the Politicisation of Natural Disasters in South Asia 

Marcussen and Chatterjee holding a seminar in Lund.

Last Wednesday, Niladri Chatterjee and Eleonor Marcussen, held a joint lecture in line with the SASNET Brown Bag Lunch Seminar, titled: “Shaken and Stirred: Politics of Disasters and Aid in South Asia”.

Ted Svensson, Director of SASNET, opened the seminar and introduced the two researchers: Eleonor Marcussen, a researcher in History in the Department of Cultural Sciences and member of Linnaeus University Centre for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies (LNUCC), and Niladri Chatterjee, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oslo.

Marcussen held the first presentation in which she drew on conclusions from her recently published book Act on Aid: Politics of Relief and Reconstruction in the 1934 Bihar–Nepal Earthquake (2023). She described the socio-political history in the aftermath of the earthquake in 1934 and how the work on aid, relief, and reconstruction mirrored political agendas and ideas that articulated both changes and continuities by the colonial state, civil society, and international organisations: 

- The Indian National Congress (INC) organised itself around the disaster. It became INC’s tool for nation-building where the colonial rule itself was questioned. Disaster can be seen as a way to reconstruct society, Marcussen notes.

Marcussen argued that, by studying the effects of the earthquake on communities directly affected and society, we can come closer to an understanding of the political and social role, as well as the cultural factors, held in shaping resilience to natural disasters.

The seminar was then continued by Niladri Chatterjee, who explored the impact that the 1970 Bhola cyclone in East Pakistan had on the nation’s general election the same year. The cyclone, which was one of the deadliest natural disasters of the 20th century, claimed half a million lives in the area. Sources indicate that the government in West Pakistan ignored warnings before the cyclone, which spurred national resentment towards the government:  

Niladri Chatterjee speaking at the seminar.

- This disaster was not because of the forces of nature, but by the forces of circumstances, Chatterjee says. 

Due to the government’s inability to care for its citizens in East Pakistan, Chatterjee found that aid and relief carried out were done under the banner of the East Pakistani political party Awami League. The party later won the general election, leading to a political breakdown between West and East Pakistan and the Bangladesh Liberation War. 

- The cyclone of 1970 was the tipping point in the political reconfiguration of a united Pakistan. It was an ‘ecological disaster’ that was turned into a ‘political disaster’, Chatterjee concludes. 

The seminar was finalised with a round of questions from the audience. To read more about Marcussen’s or Chatterjee’s research, see here: Eleonor Marcussen Niladri Chatterjee