By David Gilmartin

This guest post is published in advance of the American Society for Environmental History conference in Washington, DC. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s conference them, Turning Protest into Policy. Come back for new posts every weekday until March 19th.

David Gilmartin

The history of the Indus river basin in the last 150 years provides one of the modern world’s great stories of regional environmental transformation. This arid region, now split between India and Pakistan, was transformed under British colonial rule into the largest integrated irrigation system in the world. Some have called the result a “hydraulic society,” tying livelihoods and control over nature to a massive, state-controlled engineering bureaucracy delivering water to tens of thousands of canal outlets. Yet the story of irrigator resistance and accommodation to the operation of this huge system suggests a more complex story relating to how protest and policy have shaped the Indus basin’s modern history.

Resistance and protest—and the policy shifts that have followed in their wake—have played an important role in shaping the evolution of this system. Irrigator protests were most successful when they played on the fissures within the state’s own legitimizing ideologies to press their demands. Widespread protests against intrusive colonial water regulations seriously shook the system in 1907, and sporadic local protests continued long after. Policy responses to these protests reflected longstanding internal debates within the state itself, marked by appeals to the state’s own, often contradictory, legitimizing principles. The British had mobilized engineering science and expertise to justify new forms of control over both nature and over the irrigators, but they had also long claimed to protect “custom” as a key legitimizer of their position as an overarching colonial state. Playing on these contradictions, protesters were able to deploy the language of “custom,” and the claims to natural “rights” that this language carried, to effectively force the state toward policies that would protect its legitimizing claims.

If questions of “environmental values and governance” in their contemporary usages only occasionally entered such debates, the story of the Indus basin should not let us forget that the relationship between structures of policy and protest—defined by contradictory appeals to nature as a touchstone for legitimacy—were mobilized by protesters and the state alike in a long, intertwined history.


David Gilmartin is Distinguished Professor of History at North Carolina State University, and author of the forthcoming Blood and Water (June 2015, UC Press).