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A ‘Remote’ Town in the Indian Himalaya*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 October 2014

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge, UK Email:


This article studies the impact of the creation of a new state in northern India through an analysis of space. The space under consideration is the town of Gopeshwar, which serves as the administrative headquarters of a district in the state of Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand was created as a distinct Himalayan state in 2000 after a prolonged period of mass agitation to this end. The movement for statehood had emphasized historical neglect coupled with exploitation of the mountains of Uttarakhand by the plains. Beginning with an analysis of the town plan, this article moves on to describe how this place is made into a space by everyday practices. In particular it concentrates on the narratives of agents of the state who express a longing to escape this ‘remote’ town. Through an interrogation of the trope of remoteness, this article argues that the creation of the new state has served, ironically enough, to accentuate the traditional characterization of the Himalaya as a backward, inferior space within India.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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Acknowledgements: This article began life as the first chapter of my PhD thesis and has, hence, not only gone through multiple iterations but has also been read and/or heard by numerous people. Thanks are due to Amita Baviskar, Franck Bille, James Laidlaw, Sian Lazar, Tapsi Mathur, Perveez Mody, Sara Shneiderman, and audiences at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. I am particularly grateful to David Sneath for his constant enthusiasm for this piece, and to Veena Das and the anonymous reviewers at Modern Asian Studies for pushing me to arrive at the point.


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21 Walton, H. G. (1910). A Gazetteer of the Garhwal Himalaya, Natraj Publishers, Dehradun, p. 68Google Scholar. Looking down on hill people is a generic feature of hills−plains political cultures, as the word ‘hillbilly’ indicates. It derives from the dominant view circulating from the plains and, as an anonymous reviewer of this article has pointed out, this is true not just for India and/or Uttarakhand. For instance, Li notes that hill people in Indonesia's upland Sulawesi frontier also judge each other by a set of standards derived from, and centred on, the coast. Much like the mountains of Uttarakhand, in Sulawesi too, the further away in the mountains people live, the more ‘backward’ they are generally considered to be. Li, T. M. (2001) Relational Histories and the Production of Difference on Sulawesi's Upland Frontier, The Journal of Asian Studies, 60:1, pp. 4166Google Scholar.

22 The differences were temporarily subsumed under the common category of the pahar during the movement for statehood; Jayal, Uttaranchal: same wine, same bottle, new label.

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34 Lal speculates that the employment of the term ‘hill station’ is linked to the space's associations with notions of retreat, pilgrimages, and prestige or the achievement of a certain ‘station’ in life. See:, [accessed 21 August 2014].

35 Ludden, Imperial Modernity, p. 584.

36 I lived in a single-room police barrack adjoining the ‘servant quarters’ in the back garden. As my research involved working with the local state officials, Kund was a perfect residential location for me.

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45 Anderson notes that the British representation of ‘caste’ and the ‘losing of caste’ through travel across the supposedly polluting waters was not fully shared by the convicts. After Independence in 1947, nationalist historiography, popular culture (Hindi films such as Kala Pani), and the post-colonial state's representations has had the paradoxical effect, she convincingly argues, of resurrecting the colonial state's discourse of the power of kala pani. Anderson, C. (2003). The Politics of Convict Space: Indian Penal Settlements and the Andaman Islands, in Strange and Bashford (eds) Isolation.

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47 Mofussil is a common word used in India to describe a place as provincial or out in the sticks. It originally meant regions that were outside the command of the East India Company's capitals of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, hence it carries connotations of being beyond the properly governed space and ‘wildness’.

48 Pathak has noted precisely this lack of belonging as a reason for the weak anti-Tehri Dam movement. He writes, ‘It must be also understood that outmigration for the last 100 years has made the people of Uttarakhand careless and insensitive about their roots. They can leave their mountain home, land, pasture, forest and culture for just a house in Tarai-Bhabhar and Dun areas or in the plains anywhere.’ Pathak, S. (2005). Submersion of a Town, Not of an Idea, Economic and Political Weekly, 40:33, pp. 36373639, p. 3639Google Scholar.

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55 Government of Uttar Pradesh, Chamoli-Gopeshwar Mahayojana Praroop (1995–2016).

57 Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, pp. 17–18.