Call for Papers International Conference on River Islands Redefining the Anthropocene October 16-17, 2023 Ashoka University, Haryana, India


26th June 2023
By Conference Organizers Mitul Baruah and Jenia Mukherjee

Call for Papers

International Conference on

River Islands Redefining the Anthropocene

October 16-17, 2023

Ashoka University, Haryana, India

 

Recent years have seen a repositioning in the focus of river research towards a deeper

understanding the diverse, humanised, dynamic and muddy worlds of river islands existing

within the rivers. Social science disciplines such as geography, anthropology and history have

been instrumental in initiating the shift presenting these islands as integral part of what is

broadly described as “social nature” (Castree and Braun 2001). This conference, perhaps the

first of its kind, is an attempt to bring together river islands scholars and practitioners from

around the world to discuss various important issues concerning these riverine ecologies and

explore pathways for future research.

 

River islands are relatively small, often transient pieces of land that exist between the banks

of rivers. They are found in most large river systems in the world, and abound in the

Himalayan Rivers in South Asia where they are known variously as char, chapori, baet, and

diara among others. They present “hybrid [geographies] … neither fully land nor entirely

water … [representing] the fluid and complex worlds that lie within the rivers” (Lahiri-Dutt

and Samanta 2013: x). Put differently, these are “fluidscapes” (Mukherjee and Ghosh 2020),

or “liminal spaces” (Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta 2013: 14), “constantly adapting to the changing

courses and configurations (Baruah 2022: 149). Although generally they are the products of

both fluvial dynamics and human interventions, some river islands also refer to catastrophic

tectonic events in their ancestry. These are the quintessential hybrid water/lands that defy,

and blur, conventional notions of borders and territorialities (Sur 2021).

 

Although river islands are home to millions of people everywhere, in South Asia the chardwellers,

or choruas (or chouras), are people who are both economically and socially on the

margins. A sizable section of this population also consists of migrants and refugees, people

who are constantly on the move “like the drifting grains of sand” (Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta

2007) or sedentarised at the risk of illegitimacy (Chakraborty 2009) despite the significant

numbers living in these islands.

 

The conference is founded on the growing evidence that the unique hydrotopias of river

islands are on the brink of fundamental changes in the Anthropocene. Although people in

river islands have always lived with – and adjusted to – environmental changes and disasters,

today they are encountering the unknown and unpredictable changes that the Anthropocene

poses. Small Pacific island nations, despite their small population sizes, are under the

microscope of the global Climate Change research community, yet river islands with millions

depending on them continue to experience an invisibility as the “slow disasters” (Baruah

2022) continue to devastate them, rendering choruas homeless and landless, and uprooting

them from their traditional livelihoods.

Yet char-dwellers are not mere victims of environmental disasters. Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta’s

(2013) phrase “dancing with the river” perhaps is an apt description of life on chars, except

that sometimes this dance gets arrhythmic due to the crises discussed above. Khan (2022: 9)

talks about a “chaura mode of existence” to highlight the dynamic relations that the

 

chauras/choruas develop with moving lands, and an environment that is constantly shifting.

Baruah (2022: 149) calls for a “deep reflection on the natural history of these islandscapes

and envisioning life in these places accordingly.” The task is, following Stratford et al. (2023:

1268), to reconsider the Anthropocene in a way that refuses to “(re)produce modes of relating

with islanders that seem and are colonizing,” thereby reiterating the fact that islands are “not

mere objects and islanders are not powerless victims” (ibid: 1258). This conference will

articulate a new “epochal epistemology of islands” (ibid: 1268) that fully enables the

restitution of their historical and local specificities in terms that are provided by islanders first

and foremost.

 

The proposed two-day conference is organized by the departments of Sociology and

Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Ashoka University, in collaboration with the

Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, and The Australian National University. It is

aimed at assembling the river island narratives, discussing and critically interrogating

concepts and empirics, and enabling a meaningful conversation between early career

researchers and senior, established scholars in the domain. The immediate output will be a

special issue/section on river islands in an international, peer-reviewed journal that will

include six to eight selected conference papers, with co-authorship being encouraged between

junior and senior scholars (also adhering to gender inclusion and geographical representation

principles).

 

The long-term goal however is to initiate a larger, more systematic conversation on river

islands, across the global North and South, and promote interdisciplinary scholarly and action

research on these hybrid ecologies through global partnership, facilitating cross-sectoral

dialogues and collaborations.

Session Themes:

1. Islands, Anthropocene and decoloniality

2. Islands, place-making, and the everyday

3. Infrastructure, “development,” and sustainability of river islands

4. Islands as spaces of disaster and vulnerability

5. Island (id)entities along shifting times

6. Islands in relations: rethinking “islandness” in a globalized world

Please submit your abstract (between 350-500 words) by July 20, and the full paper by Sep

30. You can submit your abstract as well as write to us for any further query at:

riverislandsconference@ashoka.edu.in

The venue for the conference is Ashoka University campus, Sonipat, Haryana

(https://www.ashoka.edu.in/contact-us/). 

Participants are expected to arrive on Sunday, Oct 15, and leave by late-afternoon, Oct 17. A conference dinner will be hosted in Delhi on

Oct 15, details of which will be communicated in due course. Due to limited funding, Ashoka

will not be able to pay for your airfare (except in special cases). However, we will take care

of your local transportations, accommodations, and all meals, including the conference

dinner.

Works cited:

Baruah, M. (2022). Slow Disaster: Political Ecology of Hazards and Everyday Life in the

Brahmaputra Valley, Assam. Taylor & Francis.

Braun, B., & Castree, N. (2001). Social nature: Theory, practice, politics. Blackwell

Publishers.

Chakraborty, G. (2009). Assam's hinterland: Society and economy in the Char areas.

Akansha Publishing House.

Khan, N. (2022). River Life and the Upspring of Nature. Duke University Press.

Lahiri-Dutt, K., & Samanta, G. (2007). ‘Like the drifting grains of sand’: Vulnerability,

security and adjustment by communities in the charlands of the Damodar delta. South

Asia, Journal of the South Asian Studies Association, 32(2), 320–357.

Lahiri-Dutt, K., & Samanta, G. (2013). Dancing with the river: People and life on the chars

of South Asia. Yale University Press.

Mukherjee, J., & Ghosh, P. (2020). Fluid epistemologies: the social saga of sediments in

Bengal. Ecology, Economy and Society–The INSEE Journal, 3(2), 135-148.

Stratford, E., Farbotko, C., Watson, P., Kitara, T., Berthelsen, J., Hnaraki, M. C. A. M., ... &

Hardenberg, J. E. (2023). Islands, the Anthropocene, and Decolonisation. Antipode,

55(4), 1255-1274.

Sur, M. (2021). Jungle passports: Fences, mobility, and citizenship at the Northeast India-

Bangladesh border. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Conference Organizers

Mitul Baruah
Assistant Professor, Sociology & Anthropology and Environmental Studies
Ashoka University

Jenia Mukherjee
Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur

Contact email: riverislandsconference@ashoka.edu.in

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