Concrete and Culture in Northeast India

This essay is about concrete and culture in Northeast India.


Dimapur, 2017

Well, first, Northeast India is littered with concrete. From winding flyovers to towering churches on village hillsides to surveillance towers housing paramilitary forces, concrete is integral to the region’s urban and rural landscapes and everything in between. What can all this concrete tell us? What stories does it open up? What can questions about politics, power, development, and culture can concrete raise? Second, and in contrast, most of us—researchers, writers—are trained to ignore all this concrete. There are different reasons for this, but most simply concrete is the antithesis of the images and imaginations produced in and of the region and projected externally: nature, tradition, heritage, and hyper-relativist accounts of cultures and identities being lost or galvanised into (and out of) political movements. Third, ignoring concrete means missing the opportunity to tell stories of the region in different ways. I am don’t suggest that people go and start researching concrete necessarily—I think what it can tell us is significant but limited—rather I hope to encourage and embolden researchers to consider modern ‘things’—objects, materials, buildings—that have escaped our analysis but are, arguably, as instructive as the established ways of narrating the past, present and future in the Northeast. Things that are mundane, unspectacular but also deeply embedded, interwoven, into the fabric of the region, its past, its geography, its development, its contradictions…and—perhaps controversially—the production of identities.

Finally, and more personally my interest in concrete is not new, and it has lurked in the background of work I have done in the Northeast since the early 2000s. I’ve been thinking about it as a way of connecting themes from my previous work on civil society and the environment in Meghalaya many years back, my book Northeast Migrants in Delhi (2012)—esp. perceptions of migrants about their home places vis-à-vis the built environment of Delhi, Debating Race in Contemporary India (2015)—esp. the persistence and salience of ‘backwardness’ as a category of differentiation and integration, Borderland City in New India (2016)—the transformation of frontiers to corridors for new flows of goods and people and the way this has shaped Imphal, and in recent collaborative work with Dolly Kikon discussing ad-hoc infrastructure and everyday technology in mining areas (Kikon and McDuie-Ra, 2017) and with Mona Chettri on model urban developments and the idea of remoteness in Sikkim (forthcoming). Concrete lurks under all these projects. And throughout my years researching in the Northeast, concrete has conspicuous in my notes, photos, and the places I have visited from cement factories in Khatarshnong to collapsed bridges in Dimapur.

Despite this fascination, I never took it up because I was looking for the difference, for uniqueness, not similarity. It wasn’t until later years sharing stories of working in call centres—a job I did myself in my 20s—with Northeast migrants working in Delhi’s BPOs that I really began to embrace the familiar. And concrete is very familiar. I grew up in a settler colony: a young one. It is not the old world. It has none (or few) of the grand buildings of the old world and is often described as ‘culture-less’—especially by other people from the quote/unquote ‘west’. What settler (i.e. non-indigenous) Australia lacks in ‘culture’—in the European sense—and maybe because of it—it makes up for in concrete.

My youth—and to some extent my adulthood—was marked by a long preoccupation with concrete as part of my cultural and social worlds centred on graffiti and skateboarding. Skateboarding, in particular, involves reading the built environment—the urban/ suburban landscape in a particular way—captured so well in the work of Ian Borden (2001), a way that seeks out surfaces; smooth, angled, pitched, curved—and especially abandoned. As well as calculations of scaling fences, escape routes from security guards, and objects to use as a broom or scoop for debris. Concrete and other materials become the dominant optic for reading a landscape; an optic that orchestrates how I see space. Later, during my explorations of urban space in Imphal and other towns, I kept having a strange sensation of familiarity, 1970s concrete forms derivative of things from elsewhere crumbling and chipped in the weirdest of places as the city has changed shape around them…just like home.

Imphal, 2013

This article brings some of this backstory to the foreground, maybe just this once, maybe for longer; it’s hard to know for sure. Think of this as someone hurling wet cement and seeing how much will stick.

The paper has four parts. The first part gives some conceptual background on concrete and culture, then I look at three themes: concrete and aspiration, concrete failure, and concrete and control. I have a fourth, concrete economy—about the political economy and networks of concrete production and proliferation—but that is still missing some more content—the concrete trail in the Northeast is surprisingly complex and a somewhat opaque. So, for now, it will have to churn on to the side.

Situating concrete

Research on concrete and cement in the humanities/social sciences is burgeoning. There are many fragments to this burgeoning, including a decade plus of conceptual development in ‘non-representational’ approaches to the socio-technical systems underpinning contemporary life (Amin & Thirft, 2017) favouring practices and events over representation and interpretation, attendant interest in so-called ‘geographies of architecture’ i.e using buildings as a lens to theorize on spatial knowledge and the construction of place (Lees and Baxter, 2011; Jacobs, 2006; Jacobs and Merriman, 2011), the interdisciplinary appeal of assemblage (more below), the growing fascination with ethnographies of infrastructure—especially in anthropology (Larkin, 2013), and the rise of new materialist thinking that seeks the agency of the non-human (Bennett, 2013). The latter can be controversial, especially when the agency of the non-living is considered. In his ethnography of concrete in Palestine, Abourrahme captures the position of materials vis-à-vis agency:

The idea is not to simply shift the locus of agency from human subject to nonhuman object or to affirm some kind of subjectivity or personhood of objects or materials themselves (and replace one conceit with another)––this too often has been the rather limited (and limiting) uptake of the ‘material turn’. Rather, the task is to uncover not only how what has been considered banal and inconsequential is, in fact, central to the mediation of what, for lack of a better word, is called agency but also how this mediation tends to happen not as part of intentional and directed causal chains but through excesses or spillovers. (2015: 204)

Such a focus seeks the ‘human and non-human allies’ that create different landscapes; what Jacobs calls the ‘varied fortunes of sustained materialisation and dematerialisation’ (2006: 22).

A trip through these fragments might test your patience—and my own capacity for coherence—and so I have honed in on works by two authors to set up the article: Adrian Forty—whose book Concrete and Culture is incorporated into the title of this paper, and Nasser Abourahme’s work on concrete and assemblage—recognising that this neglects the useful work of Deville et al. on ‘concrete governmentality’ and Harkness and Simonetti on concrete’s unstable state—especially its tendency for rapid ruin, but Forty and Abourahme—coming from very different disciplinary and epistemological backgrounds—give us most of what we need to start thinking about concrete and culture in the Northeast.

If you have ever had a thought about concrete: modern, practical, cheap, malleable, unskilled, brutal, ugly, and even decorative or elegant, and of course powerful, you can be pretty sure Forty has considered it too. Concrete and Culture is a social and political history of concrete that spans its geopolitics, labour relations, and aesthetics.

The overarching point Forty makes in Concrete and Culture is simple: ‘Concrete is modern…it is one of the agents through which our experience of modernity is mediated’ (2012: 14). For me, this is why its presence, its rapidly growing presence, in the Northeast is worth our attention. In a region that is routinely denied modernity and its communities denied modern subjectivity—by external and internal agents ranging from bureaucrats to marketing departments to travel writers to scholars—and to be clear, emphasising non-modernity or a tormented modernity is necessary to access opportunities (esp. provided those by the state) and is a component of sincerely felt anxieties about cultural change and eradication…. in this region concrete and the modernity it materialises is an alternative script, or fragments of a script.

And it is everywhere. I mean everywhere. Aside from the material itself, note the proliferation of billboards and hoardings on kiosks and bazaars throughout the region; Dalmia, Black Tiger, Star, names both familiar and far easier to find that the name of the actual locality or village where their branding appears. Concrete is the mediator of modernity in the region; nothing else comes close.

Of the nine or so major arguments Forty makes in the book there are three that are especially relevant here that I will address quickly:

  1. Concrete is a crucial ‘technology of poverty’; which he argues is part of the distaste many feel for it (2012: 40-41).
  2. Concrete is mundane and numinous; secular and sacral. Its low-tech pragmatism appeals to secular ideologies, especially of the left, seeking radical and ethical modernization esp. in the 20th century from the Soviet Union to Brazil. Along with mass housing, it has proved an essential material for fortifications, bomb shelters, walls, bunkers, and military installations. At the same time concrete figures in both places of worship—especially 20th-century churches and mosques—and in memorials (a contrast to the idea of concrete as soulless).
  3. Concrete disempowers the architect and the expert. Concrete has a reputation for requiring little skill—both its gift (empowers people) and its defect (considered cheap and lacking prestige) (2012: 225). A very different division of labour than say, crafting houses from timber or bamboo—concrete uses lots of unskilled and semi-skilled labour. Separating what he calls the ‘mental’ and the ‘manual’ aspects of construction. The ‘cheapness’ of concrete is mostly realised in the unskilled labour costs, which in the Northeast is often migrant labour from outside the region. More concrete, more work for migrants.
concrete Lai, Imphal 2012
Mizoram Leh Hnam Tana Nanna Chânte Thlanmual (Martyrs’ Cemetery), Aizawl, 2014

While Forty aims for historical breadth, Nasser Abourahme analyses concrete (actually cement) in the material assemblage of the Deheishe Refugee Camp on the West Bank. He analyses it along with other ‘disparate elements’—bodies, political discourse, graffiti, sewage, pipes, national slogans—arguing that cement constantly slips between the ‘material lived’ and the ‘symbolic political’ (2014: 204).

Deheishe has urbanised at ‘breakneck speed’ since being built in 1949, growing vertically and then sprawling out into Bethlehem. Abourahme notes,

With cement, the camp became structurally dense, outstripped its support capacities and demanded constant maintenance, innovation and reworking. It has been assembled and reassembled through cement. Cement not only holds it together but also gives it the capacity to expand and ‘spill out beyond its boundaries’ (2014: 211).

For Abourahme this is not a crude anti-representation position or even a counter-representation; but about ‘representation’s remainders’ and what they can tell us; about what happens when cement is the principal ethnographic subject allowed to tell its own story as the most ubiquitous single element in camp life, marking the particular possibilities and paradoxes, associations and conflicts it helped shape’ (2014: 203).

In keeping with this, the images and things mentioned in this article are not all 100% concrete; in fact, a hallmark of the built environment in the North East is the hybridity of materials. Concrete is mixed with bamboo and timber; bricks are common—often rendered in concrete—steel and fibreglass, corrugated iron and the sheets of Rhino brand asbestos fibre mixed with cement. Concrete (or cement)— bonds these elements, and its entanglement with modernity gives it salience that these other materials can’t produce on their own. It traverses high order planning and everyday experiences of place.

Hybrid materials, Dimapur 2017

Considering concrete does not replace all the other things we know and care about; it does not replace or even ease conflict, or erase identity crises, racism, traditional knowledge, the supernatural/ extra natural, vernacular architecture, weaving, bamboo thatch, or folk dancing. It does not solve environmental crisis and resource exploitation. However, I would argue that the preponderance of concrete in the region shapes and is being shaped by all of these things, the things we all care about. It is part of the gathering of things from within and things from the outside, the assemblage—that constitutes places and spaces in the region.

For the remainder of this article, I am going to propose three themes that appear in this alternative script. And please note; it is an alternative script. It is experimental, unfinished, exploratory—it is one of many, many possible ways to ‘move things along’. This is not about crafting a complete understanding of the region or a particular place or community within it—not seeking a definitive master theory or approach to the Northeast, but rather—as Odgen (2011) shows in her work on the Florida everglades—to revel in the indeterminacy and imprecision of place. This is important as so many researchers and writers seem so sure about the place in the Northeast—what produces it, what it means, what threatens it, and what people do about it and why. I think indeterminacy might be beneficial, at least to try out.

Theme 1: Concrete Aspirations

Concrete materialises aspirations of being modern as communities, societies and for individuals. The malleability of concrete—mostly reinforced concrete—can be seen in all manner of structures. These, I argue, give insight into politics, power and change in different sites; mostly urban but the preponderance of concrete also pushes where we locate the urban in the Northeast too—if not in density at least in form. I am going to give a few different examples—but there are many, many more.

First, churches are perhaps the most spectacular showpiece architecture in (much of) the Northeast. Concrete is essential to the scale, style, and creativity of church construction. Churches mark an established (and emergent) presence in place—whether village, town or city. They also mark power; the power of particular communities (tribes), denominations, and the networks and circuits (incoming and outgoing flows) that contribute to building and maintaining churches. Some of these circuits are close-by; other districts, villages or towns, others are farther away; in south India, the USA, Italy.

Dimapur, 2017

One of the largest churches in Asia (who measures this?), the Sumi Baptist Church at Zunheboto—staggers in scale, size and position: a hyper-modern statement of faith and power and a jarring contrast to the idea of a backward frontier. An immense source of pride, it complicates where and how we locate tradition and indigeneity, and also development—for the notion of being undeveloped or coming from an undeveloped place is so central to stories of leaving the region or resenting the dysfunction and corruption of various governments. As secular authorities fail to pave roads, churches tower into the sky; ornate, fantastic: who is backward in this scenario?

In the cities churches crowd the landscape; concrete has bolstered hillsides making platforms to build new churches in space-poor neighbourhoods or on the top of levelled hills in cities like Aizawl, Shillong, Kohima, Lunglei, and on and on and in small towns and villages. In the plains and valley cities—like Imphal or Dimapur, churches are crucial claims to urban space and reflect patterns of settlement, longevity, and connections to home. Modest churches suggest a comparatively marginal claim, a marginal presence.

For instance, the small Kuki church in Half Nagarjan (Dimapur) was established in 1983, one of many Kuki churches in the city. In a small brick, timber, and cement building behind a brick wall hugging the roadway, the church is dwarfed by the enormous churches within a hundred metres, including the six-story pyramid-style Yimchunger Baptist Church, a simpler three storey Thangkhul Baptist church on sprawling grounds, the Ao Baptist Arogo in a multi-storey velodrome-like structure, and the Ao Christian Revival Church featuring an elegant three storey spire connected to a sloping triangular block. Walking this strip of churches suggests communities of different sizes, resources, histories, and presence in the locality—the city.

Dimapur, 2017

Second, concrete can imitate traditional building forms in more resolute material and helps produce ‘modern’ versions of village and locality gates, hoho buildings, morung, vernacular roofs etc.

Unlike the hypermodernity of much of the spectacular church architecture that [mostly] seeks a break with the past, neo-traditional forms seek continuity with the past; affirming the strength of traditions in times of change, or simpler, mundane explanations—more money, better skills, contracts to award, favours to recoup, patronage to enliven.

Third, public works, especially infrastructure and public buildings—many/most of which are built using concrete, also reflect attempts to produce modern landscapes and polities. Many are flawed to be sure, but some reflect the optimism and aspiration of newfound autonomy, statehood, and sometimes—in contrast to the themes above—belonging to the nation-state, to India.

I found Imphal, in particular, to be full of these kinds of structures—the sites built for the 1999 national games, the relocated (and controversial) Tribal Market building at New Checkon —clean and modern but low on customers and vendors, or the now almost completely dilapidated Regional Institute of Medical Sciences—RIMS—which was intended as a regional health hub and education facility—putting the city at the centre of modern medicine in the region and now usurped by the city’s 20+ private hospitals and clinics.

Tribal Market, New Checkon 2012

These can be seen as ‘representation’s remainders’, to return to Abourahme, they are remnants of visions about modern life in the region, order, autonomy, development, quality of life, being ‘on the map’; visions crumbling from neglect or being slowly abandoned by their intended beneficiaries.

Finally on this theme is the ways concrete—rendered and reinforced—materialises the aspirations of wealth, status, and a ‘better life’ (however conceived) in private property. From the walls built around dwellings to the extensions and imitation Doric columns on their facades, utilising concrete to improve private property is a phenomenon in the Northeast.

What drives this construction? Success? Corruption? Success at corruption? Loans? Remittances? What drives the desire for bigger houses, more floors, and flourishes in design? Are people in positions of power compelled to enlarge their houses? How do these houses make others feel—those who work in them, pass by them, live next to them, visit from ancestral villages for a week or years?

Do these dwellings empower?—especially as persons of influence often receive people in their own homes; as public and private are so blurred?

Aizawl, 2014

Yes, these are ‘just’ houses and flats, but they are packed with dreams, desires, and statements. And these animate an alternative script about development and change in the region: wealth, money, profiteering, licit and illicit work, mobility within the region and out of it…and power in gradients of relativity.  They reveal what Colin MacFarlane the ‘gathering process’ which is ‘particularly useful for grasping the spatially processual, relational and generative nature of the city’ (2011: 650); or in the case of the Northeast, the town, the colony, the settlement.

They materialise complex stories of murky and often opaque networks, a single dwelling with multiple extra floors, balconies, and wedding cake panache is subject to myth and legend about the family, the clan, the money, the rise—and in some cases the fall—of those living in it. There are mundane stories too, a family expands, a marriage happens, children are born, relatives come from the village, someone gets a new job—concrete is added.

They are also expressions of municipal ineptitude to enforce—and complicity to ignore—planning laws and/or their absence. Here fascinating everyday examples of the multiple and often contradictory rules governing land come into play—especially in growing urban areas under tribal and customary land systems where there are attempts to create or enforce municipal acts, or at their boundaries. Take Langol on the outskirts of Imphal for example, where the boundaries between tribal (Senapti district) and municipal land (Imphal West district) is difficult to find on any map or government record but is manifest in rows of concrete houses and their boundary walls that skirt and thus create the line. Concrete is thrown up quickly—while disputes take time to resolve.

It is not just the large extravagant houses that are worth our attention. Small improvements to modest dwellings are also significant. Incremental change as money comes in from a contract, or a family member with a new job, or revenue from a plot of land far away—mixed up into concrete. Towns and cities in the Northeast exhibit one of the universal signs of incremental savings, the cluster of steel rods protruding up or out from parts of a completed dwelling; a sign of hope, aspiration, optimism. As we obsess about tradition and identity we seem to be ignoring the ways individuals and families are expressing themselves in the dwellings they build.

Stairway to heaven, Kohima, 2009

Interesting too is the vertical growth of towns and cities not just for residences, but for rental properties. Vertical growth causes concern for existing residents about vertical slums, enclaves of out-of-towners, and eroding local cultural sensibilities through physical, sonic, visual, and olfactory affect …but there is more to the anxiety—often the story centres on the local land owner and/or builder who made it happen, where they got their money (coal!, insurgency, ministerial relations), who they know in the non-local capitalist world (their ‘Marwari connections’ and the famed nexus between endogenous and ‘outsider’ capital), and how they now live far away in idyllic circumstances having made it as a landlord.

Such stories don’t have the same timbre everywhere, but similar rumours and marvels at the figure/s who made these buildings happen can reveal so much about the assemblages; the ‘inside and outside things’ that gather in one place—in these buildings and the areas where they cluster. And the contemporary heroes, villains, and myths that operate locally, perhaps the folklore that future researchers will come from far away to study?

It is not just urban areas and fast-growing towns where palaces of concrete tell a story, highlight an assemblage—consider the mansions scattered around the Jaintia Hills, most commonly explained as having been built with coal money, or the vertical growth and showpiece development projects of earthquake-prone Namchi in Sikkim- awarded Smart City status despite a population of only 12,000 people, a defunct outdoor aquarium, and 100-foot gods stationed on opposing hilltops as homage to the gods of tourism built from…yes, concrete.

There is much more that private property can tell us about dreams and design, the concrete expertise and predominantly ‘outsider’ labour force, and the relationships forged through construction—relationships that cross ethnic and tribal/ non-tribal lines in the midst of accelerated anti-outsider politics in much of the region. Indeed, during recent research in Namchi it appears that talent in concrete construction extended tolerance and even a tacit welcome to Islampuri and Bihari labourers despite the Sikkim for Sikkimese rhetoric cranking up in civil society.

Concrete materialises many of the most intimate spaces for communities in the region; houses, churches, and gravestones and memorials—something I have not had the room to go into detail about. They also materialise the relationships that shape and have shaped different pockets of the region. I stress concrete is a component, a part of the assemblage, a way to start an alternative reading, the stuff of the region’s aspirations, its particular modernity. But it also materialises the failure of modernity in the region, the focus of Theme 2.

Theme 2: Concrete Failure

Above I discussed the optimism materialised in some of the public and civic concrete scattered throughout the region—though in many instances concrete or its lack—its partial completion and non-maintenance—are signs of failure. Demands for development in the region are a staple of political life. With limited prospects for raising revenue, especially in the smaller states, districts and municipalities depend on the state government, itself heavily dependent on the central government—a circumstance well known to us all. Grants and finance also travel directly to customary authorities, districts and development blocks through various schemes, others go directly to particular ministries or even institutions—such as hospitals. The concrete ruins and near-ruins that scatter the landscape of the Northeast tell local stories about development and rule, or misrule.

From hydropower projects with their steep cement walls and multiple subcontracts to multistorey car-parks to ubiquitous market sheds and flyovers, the failures of development, the unmet expectations, the contrasts and juxtapositions between the functional and dysfunctional—often metres from one another—reflects and shapes community views on governance, patronage, corruption, and the possibilities and impossibilities of a future in the region—especially for young people. Perhaps more crucially, the failures of development seem to resonate across generational and class distinctions to tap into a general malaise about corruption, utilised in a similar generalist critique of power—usually the relevant state government and demands for cleansing polities of the rot – a key discourse in elections; even at the municipal level. As physical testimony to this corruption, an exhibit to behold is usually not too far away: a poorly planned-poorly built development project that fails to do what was promised.

These matter not only because they materialise the corruption that frustrates and angers people, but because if these objects were functional, were built ‘properly’, they would reflect the aspirations discussed above. Yes, this happens all over India and all over the world, but that is little comfort to people’s everyday lives worn down by development failure amidst visible individual wealth. Either way, they are repurposed for all kinds of things. Take flyovers for example, they may get built to narrow dimensions that actually hurt traffic flow –as with the Bir Tikendrajit flyover in Imphal—but they are also places to take dates (maybe not Tikendrajit because your date might fall off), take selfies, use as a shelter to sleep under or to set up as a mobile street vendor away from the rain.

The concrete and thatch stalls in Dimapur’s ‘urban haat’ spend most of their time keeping inventory for local merchants dry. Car-parks, multipurpose venues for concerts and other things might be crappy places to actually park your car or put on a performance, but they can be great places to practice breakdancing or hide out from your parents and abuse pharmaceuticals.
Onion storage in urban haat, Dimpaur, 2017

It is instructive to link these objects to the politics of ethnonationalism and the drive for autonomy; movements that gather/gathered support by highlighting neglect by India or larger states—Assam, Manipur, even Meghalaya—and their inability to meet the needs and aspirations of particular communities. The ‘homelands discourse’ to use Sanjib Baruah’s term (2003)—seeks polities that would advance and protect the lives of the community in question. And one of the more compelling reasons to have an autonomous district or state is to do development better.

The optimism and the failure of the modern concrete that litters the landscape materialises these aspirations and their dissolve in small and big ways. As we grapple with the turns being taken in collective movements in the region—tribal movements, indigenous movements, ethnonationalist/ethnoreligious movements—and the shifting [or possibly broadening] targets of these movements—it’s useful to locate concrete failures in this milieu, as exhibits for dysfunctional governance or as catalysts for different demands, new demands, civic demands—or new movements to carry them forward.

Imphal 2011

The objects and sites covered in themes 1 and 2 are just part of the story, just slices of landscape interrupted by concrete walls, barracks, and watchtowers—the manifestations of concrete and control.

Theme 3: Concrete and Control

The militarization of the Northeast is materialised in concrete. Not only concrete to be sure, yet a common feature from small villages and towns to the barracks and camps woven into the urban fabric of the region are high concrete walls, watchtowers, and bunkers. Civilian buildings are given extra elements in militarised areas—bunkers out the front of the bank, watchtowers on the gate of an MLA’s house, guard posts at the entry to hotels. These ‘encampments’ to use Pieris’ phrase in reference to military barracks in Colombo and Jaffna, serve to both normalize military presence as part of the fabric of the city and act as a ‘concealer’ of violence (2014: 395).

Throughout the Northeast, public buildings guarded by the CISF, CRPF, commercial areas and visible presence of the communities that dominate them, houses, migrant and refugee settlements, parks strewn with drug paraphernalia, ceasefire camps, barracks and memorials tell stories of past and present relationships of power, violence and trauma.

Concrete is essential to spatial violence; interrupting flows of goods and people while facilitating others, shielding violence and abuse from public view, and also creating a parallel built environment, parallel infrastructure. Military infrastructure—‘developed’, technologically advanced, gated—is juxtaposed to civilian infrastructure—broken, uneven, impractical—and to community infrastructure—improvised, pragmatic, and sometimes exclusive.

On a recent visit to Kaching Gardens in Manipur, concrete as control was at the forefront of the landscape. On the short stretch of road (the Sugnu-Imphal road I think) between Asian Highway 1 and Kakching town is an enormous Assam Rifles barracks complete with school, airstrip and hospital behind gigantic concrete walls.

Between Kakching and the highway long tracts of land are used for military housing built in rows of multi-storey concrete pre-fab apartments surrounded by rice fields. And on the hilltops surrounding this narrow stretch are yet more barracks and bases for various paramilitary forces monitoring all movement in and out of the settlements. Some of the ATM machines in the area are inside barracks forcing customers to enter to access cash.

At the top of Uyok Ching—a hilltop without an army installation—are Kakching Gardens. Along the hilltop are beautifully manicured gardens of flowers, trees, mandops (pavilions), satras, laishang, and other sacred objects and sites—incidentally many are made of concrete. Kakching Gardens draws crowds of women, men and children daily to take in the scenery, enjoy tea and snacks in the Uyok Hotel, and pose for a staggering number of photographs taken on mobile phones, with ‘selfie-sticks’, and by the professional photographers that ply the hilltop.

The recent upgrade of the gardens (opened in 2011) was aligned with other projects attempting to re-order Kakching as modern and clean, including a beautification drive led by emigrants living abroad. The beautification drive sought ‘a positive attitude on the mindset of Manipuris disturbed by conflicts, stress and killings’ (Sangai Express July 23, 2013). As the President of European Manipuri Association Okram Bishorjit noted at the hanging of flowerpots in the town, ‘We, the sons of this soil living in European countries, have experienced the comforts of developed countries. However, we can’t spend our life comfortably there while our people in Manipur are living amidst dust’. Lamenting a lack of development, the presence of dust (a sign of insufficient concrete), and the fractured modernity of Manipuri life is a common pastime. Military infrastructure, housing, technology, surveillance, and weaponry provides a stark contrast to the condition of many towns and cities.

In Kakching the built environment, its contrasts and juxtapositions, and the ways these shape the ways people experience space capture this with provocation, merging concrete as control with concrete aspirations—aspirations for a modern and less dusty town and concrete failure—the inability or incapacity of the state to provide a ‘model town’.

Control is, however, never complete and is frequently unstable. Walls get graffitied and checkpoints ambushed, and people carry on their everyday lives in spite of constant surveillance and control—something that also asks us to locate agency in specular and mundane acts, like dressing up and taking selfies in the gardens in full view of military watchtowers.

Though acts of defiance may be over-determined, wishful. One afternoon in 2016 I sitting in a car with friends driving between Kakching and Pallel, I saw someone walking through the wasteland between the wall of the Assam Rifles base and the road. The figure stopped by the wall of the base…and started urinating. I pointed him out, hoping the other passengers would also be interested. However, my hopes of seeing a rebellious resident lashing out against the armed forces with targeted urination were dashed when the car sped up. I stuck my head out im time to see the figure amble across the road and into the BSNL compound. I tried to get a snap with my camera—all I got was shot of the gate. I guess the lesson here is that not every act is defiant. Some are just urgent.

New frontiers in frontier research

Xonzoi Barbora’s (2017) recent work on the plight of the rhino in Assam ask us to consider the ways the non-human—the alive, dead, and mythologised Rhino—ensnares villagers, politicians, the media, and the military. It is an invitation to consider ways of reading the region by placing neglected non-human things—in this case, Rhinos—at the centre of analysis and working ‘out’ from them, as it were, without losing sight of human agency and social relationships—in fact, we can understand them better by the article’s conclusion.

Following this lead, considering modern things—objects, materials buildings—help produce alternative scripts, alternative maps, alternative readings, alternative experiences of life in the Northeast, past and present, and perhaps even future. They need not be alternative, but they probably need to start that way. Perhaps it is better to call these adjacent rather than alternative, they don’t have to replace what we already know and do, what we are already comfortable with, what we have already canonised. They can sit alongside, broadening the tools we have to understand and relate how the Northeast as a region—or how various parts—are lived, inhabited in practice as well as represented and symbolised and given meaning; with the body as well as the head, the voice.

Concrete is a useful experiment in this kind of approach. It warrants attention because it is there—shaping and shaped by the aspirations, failures, and attempts at control that undergird modernity in the region; an assemblage of the past and present manifest and materialised in forms as diverse as faux Italian villas to misshapen flyovers.

Concrete is seemingly universal, to return to Forty, it is ‘is one of the agents through which our experience of modernity is mediated’. This mediation happens in place—concrete becomes a bit Northeastern… and vice versa.

Eros Line, Dimpaur, 2017

I want to close by posing two sets of questions about the [slightly] bigger picture. First, in a region that is routinely and historically denied modernity and its communities denied modern subjectivity, does the proliferation of concrete alter (even slightly) how we think about the Northeast ‘on the ground’? Does it change where we look for culture? How do we talk about backwardness? Or governance? Where we look for evidence of identity and/or community, or even politics? How we understand the multiple legacies of violence?

Second, can focus on concrete change the way we think about the Northeast within India/ as a borderland?

Is concrete creating new frontiers? Is it pushing the frontier—undeveloped, uncivilised, ungoverned space further and further away? Though if it is there is not a neat line, there is not a concrete Inner-Line, it is in pockets. Does concrete produce or reflect a markedly vernacular modernity? Or does it just cover over unique pasts, endangering them, making them look like anywhere? Does concrete demonstrate and or create frontiers within or between communities? Deepening distinctions between urban and rural, modern and backward, wealthy and poor, connected and isolated….or is it just something to piss against.

All images by the author.

Adapted from a keynote speech at Locating Northeast India: Human Mobility, Resource Flows and Spatial Linkages, Department of Sociology Tezpur University, 11 January 2018. Thank you to Professor Chandan Kumar Sharma, Dr Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh and the rest of the academic advisory committee, Professor Bengt Karlsson for reading an early draft, Professor Sanjib Baruah for chairing and for such a generous introduction, and the audience for their feedback and good humour.


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Works by the author mentioned in the paper

Kikon, D., & McDuie-Ra, D. (2017). English-Language Documents and Old Trucks: Creating Infrastructure in Nagaland’s Coal Mining Villages. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 40(4): 772-791.

Chettri, M. & McDuie-Ra, D. (forthcoming). Delinquent Borderland: disorder and exception in the eastern Himalaya.

McDuie-Ra, D & Chettri, M. (forthcoming). Himalayan Piranhas and 100 ft. Gods: becoming urban in Namchi, Sikkim.

McDuie-Ra, D. (2012). Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, refuge and retail (p. 225). Amsterdam University Press. Open access available:

McDuie-Ra, D. (2015). Debating Race in Contemporary India. Springer/Palgrave.

McDuie-Ra, D. (2016). Borderland City in New India: frontier to gateway. Amsterdam University Press. Open access available:



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Duncan McDuie-Ra Written by:

Duncan McDuie-Ra is Professor of Development Studies at UNSW, Sydney.

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