A Field Note on Writing the History of Disasters, by Yogesh Raj

The 2015 Nepal Earthquake was certainly followed by increasingly complex public discussions. There was diversity in the background and location of the discussants and participants, and in the kinds of action and policy research that followed the immediate rescue and relief operations. ‘Resilience’, ‘relief and reconstruction’, ‘build-back-better’ and ‘community-led processes’ became buzzwords. ‘Disaster’ was a new password for doing serious business in both the aid and development sectors. All sorts of professionals morphed into expert consultants overnight.


Given this vibrant environment, one would have also expected that a number of scholars would be keen to reflect on their experience in this region in a more critical and historically informed manner. As some of these experts were located in international and national institutes, university departments, non-governmental organisations, and relief and charity associations, one might have hoped to see a large number of structured thoughts appearing in history-related academic journals, conference papers and the like. A few could even have undertaken fresh investigations in the archives and public memories to seek answers to their questions.  And why not, since these questions cohered around the forms in which the state and the market appeared to provide choices for the affected population, and the failure by the relief and reconstruction agencies to deliver quick remedial and preventive solutions after the disastrous earthquake?


Those engaged in relief and rebuilding activities might respond by arguing that their immediate concern is for reconstruction, not reflection. But emergencies have often been pretexts for perpetuating the use of legal violence against the weak, and for the powerful to exploit political and economic resources unopposed (Hussain 2003). It is precisely when panic and chaos rules that we academic researchers should do our utmost to recover equipoise and the courage to act. One way to restore such a sense of principled courage was by drawing lessons from humanity’s long experience of natural and man-made disasters. I thought that chronicling this long experience would help write the history of disasters.


Developing historical insights into the frequency and management of post-disaster processes is a key task. This is not to say that other approaches to disasters have been a-historical. Influential disaster-related works in anthropology, sociology, economics and political science are often imbued with case studies and/or snippets from past disasters. But the purpose there is to use history to justify a specific policy outlook or prescription, and not to engage with the detail. Such studies tend not to seek reasons for the changing character of the effects of disasters or of policy recommendations. While disasters have been occurring since time immemorial in and around Nepal, the treatment of history is ornamental, not substantial. For instance, nearly six decades of disaster management literature in Nepal inevitably refers to the 1934 earthquake, but hardly goes beyond citing a single state-sponsored monograph (Rana 1991 v.s.) Most authors of disaster literature in Nepal were missionaries, Peace Corps volunteers, ex-pats and short term consultants, often on short term assignments in Nepal. With their all-knowing attitude, it was sufficient for them to sprinkle their answers with bites from the 1934 event. They felt no need to explore the archives for a fuller account of the episode, let alone recommend ways to encourage more historical research on the earthquakes, or fund such research. When I published a selection of fresh documents from the Kumari Chok collections in the National Archives (Raj 2015), I received a great deal of enthusiasm and a sense of awe from the same community, as if I had dug out unexpected treasure!


Such a poverty of historical imagination is symptomatic not only of Nepal studies, but also of more sophisticated disaster literature. Pointing to the need to learn systematically from past disasters, to cite one example, a study has explored the general political meaning of disasters by referring to several specific cases (Pelling and Dill 2010). Since state institutions often fail in providing speedy solutions to the basic concerns of lives and livelihood in the aftermath of disasters, it is natural that non-delivery is taken as a state’s inability to protect its vulnerable citizens. Pelling and Dill’s study suggests that while exploring ways to enhance human security, many will begin calling for a renegotiation of the social contract between the state and themselves. Thus, a tipping point is reached and a new social contract is drawn through political settlement. The work argues that this theoretical framework of political change fits well onto the 1999 Marmara earthquake in Turkey, and also onto several other natural disasters.


Clearly, there are alternative historical ways to comprehend the immediate conundrum and the restoration of a new normalcy in a post-disaster scene, such as the rupture and repair framework (Bergman 2008, Reilly 2009, Encampo and Jackson 2013, Raj 2013, Raj and Gautam 2015). But more worrying is the ideology with which Pelling and Dill’s study lays out its historical conclusions. While disasters occur everywhere, the authors pass over several recent disasters in OECD countries (such as the Katrina hurricane in Louisiana in 2005 and the earthquake-Tsunami-nuclear disaster in Fukushima in 2011) in silence. If their tipping point theory cannot be verified against the OECD stories, (and our intuition is it cannot,) it should not be taken seriously. The conspicuous absence of such fair treatment leads one to wonder whether the authors assume that the social contract between the state and citizens in these countries is time-tested and does not open up for renegotiation as elsewhere.  Or maybe they think that the reformulation of social relations happens at the sub-state level, or that the state agencies, being strong or the most efficient, do not fail to deliver quick relief and effective reconstruction in the first place. Whatever their standpoint may be, these authors seem to assume that disasters are likely to trigger political change in those countries where social relations have not yet evolved into forms as robust as those in Europe, North America or Japan. In other words, the prototypical state or social contract only exists in countries they view as having institutionalised democracy. This is a teleological view of the history of state-society relations. I feel that such views can be held only by those who are unprepared to dig and make sense of the available rich historical data on disasters and/or by avoiding the theoretically challenging task of true cross-country and cross-regional comparisons.


Historical approaches to disasters need not follow a common concern for, say, unravelling dynamic relations between structural change in the political field and shifts in memorialization practices in affected societies. Although such an enquiry will throw up many insights into governance and cultural resistance and is valuable, there could be many ways to deal with the available details. One area of historical research may be to look into the narrative strategies used to comprehend momentous events, and to analyse the ‘making’ of the disasters. Another area is to explore disaster-society relations, and particularly the ways in which social inequalities accelerate the frequency of disasters, and vice versa. A tougher topic still is to search for the solutions different societies have found to resolve the collective trauma following such shattering events, and whether these answers are related to the specific distribution of economic and symbolic resources among different orders in those societies. The questions are unlimited and the answers are yet unknown. But we will have taken a small step forward if we remain committed to witnessing their unfolding dispassionately, and to comparing the post-disaster emergence of new properties (as conveyed by the labelling of such phenomena as ‘emergencies’) elsewhere and in other times.


Photograph: Recovering relief loans from the state employees. Letter dated 2 May
1938. [Reproduced with permission from The Editors, Studies in Nepali
History and Society. Citation: SINHAS 20(2): 410]




Bergman, Jonathan. 2008. Disaster: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis. History Compass 6(3): 934-946.  

Encampo, Alinor and Jeffry H. Jackson. 2013. Introduction. French Historical Studies 36(2): 165-174.

Hussain, Nasser. 2003. The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Pelling, Mark and Kathleen Dill. 2010. Disaster Politics: Tipping Points for Change in the Adaptation of Sociopolitical Regimes. Progress in Human Geography 34(1): 21-37.

Raj, Yogesh and BhaskarGautam. 2015. Courage in Chaos: Early Rescue and Relief after the April Earthquake. Kathmandu: Martin Chautari.

Raj, Yogesh, ed. 2013.Ruptures and Repairs in South Asia: Historical Perspectives. Kathmandu: Martin Chautari.

Raj, Yogesh. 2015. Management of the Relief and Reconstruction after the Great Earthquake of 1934. Studies in Nepali History and Society 20(2): 375-422.

Rana, Brahma Shumshere Jung Bahadur. 1991 v.s. NepalkoMahābhūkampa (1990 sāl).Kathamandu: The Author.

Reilly, Benjamin. 2009. Disaster and Human History: Case Studies in Nature, Society and Catastrophe. Jefferson: McFarland & Co.