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Disaster and the dynamics of memory

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posted on 26.02.2014, 09:51 authored by Pawas Bisht
Calls for examining the interrelations between individual and collective processes of remembering have been repeatedly made within the field of memory studies. With the tendency being to focus on either the individual or the collective level, there have been few studies that have undertaken this task in an empirically informed manner. This thesis seeks to engage in such an examination by undertaking a multi-level study of the remembrance of the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984. The gas leak in Bhopal (India) was one of the world s worst industrial disasters and has seen a long-running political contestation involving state institutions, social movement organisations (SMOs) and individual survivors. Employing an ethnographic methodology, incorporating interviews, participant observation and archival research, the study seeks to examine similarities and divergences in how these institutional, group-level and individual actors have remembered the disaster. It identifies the factors that modulated these remembrances and focuses on examining the nature of their interrelationship. The study conceptualises remembering as memory-work : an active process of meaning-making in relation to the past. The memory-work of state institutions was examined within the judicial and commemorative domains. The analysis demonstrates how state institutions engaged in a limiting of the meaning of the disaster removing from view the transnational causality of the event and the issue of corporate liability. It tracks how the survivors suffering was dehistoricised and contained within the framework of a localized claims bureaucracy. The examination of SMO memory-work focused on the activities of the two most prominent groups working in Bhopal. The analysis reveals how both organisations emphasise the continuing suffering of the survivors to challenge the state s settlement of the event. However, clear differences are outlined between the two groups in the wider frameworks of meaning employed by them to explain the suffering, assign responsibility and define justice. Memory-work at the individual level was accessed in the memory narratives of individual survivors generated through ethnographic interviews. The study examined how individual survivors have made sense of the lived experience of suffering caused by the disaster and its aftermath. The analysis revealed how the frameworks of meaning imposed by the state are deeply incommensurate with the survivors needs to express the multi-dimensionality of their suffering; it tracks how the state imposed identities are resisted but cannot be entirely overcome in individual remembrance. Engagement with the activities of the SMOs is demonstrated as enabling the development of an alternative activist remembrance for a limited group of survivors. Overall, the thesis seeks to provide a complex and empirically grounded account of the relations between the inner, individual level processes of memory linked to lived experience and the wider, historically inflected, collective and institutional registers of remembrance. The examination of the encounters between these diverse individual and collective remembrances in the context of an on-going political contestation allows the study to contribute to ongoing discussions within the field about memory politics in a global age and memory and justice.


Loughborough University



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


© Pawas Bisht

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.

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