In 1780, a landowner in the littorals on the eastern Indian Ocean petitioned the East India Company, the newly minted revenue farmer in Calcutta, that he was unable to pay revenue for six months since he owned a vast body of water (which was land only intermittently). Soon thereafter a land surveyor abandoned his survey upon discovering sheets of water in the mangrove forests of the Sundarban, for such work went beyond the spirit of the order of his land survey. As bureaucratic procedures and legality were repeatedly dissolved by the bogs of the Bengal delta, the lawmakers of the East India Company resorted to unique forms of legal arguments through the nineteenth century. Indeed, they began to draw and sketch the many ways a river moves. These sketches, substantially different from contemporary cartographic practices, instantiated the multiple ways one can own fictitious land and muddy waters. These anticipatory, phantasmatical sketches created a property-imaginary that conjured land in swamps, ponds, streams, spill-channels and tidal flats. This talk will explore the attempts at producing empirical generality in amphibious terrain through these two questions: First, how did the moving alluvium of the turbid Ganga-Brahmaputra delta-system intersect with colonial legal practices through the nineteenth century? Second, by focusing on the interpreters of these images, I want to probe the epistemic value created by these drawings of imagined landscapes in sheets of water.
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This event is part of the Lecture Series: “Imagining the Environment: Climate Change, Rivers and Political Ecology in India”, see more here