Book Excerpt: Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil by Andrea Wright

Editor’s Note: For an overview of this book and a conversation with the author, click here.

Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil by Andrea Wright, published by Stanford University Press, ©2021 by Andrea Wright. All Rights Reserved.


In 2010, I made my first of what would become regular visits to a site in Musaffah, UAE, where an offshore, semi-submergible oil rig was being built. I was invited to visit the rig by Alex, a project manager working at Connex, an energy contracting firm. I had first met Alex a year earlier in Mumbai, when he was hiring workers for this project and others.

As I drove through the industrial area of Musaffah, I had trouble finding the street names that were on the map he had emailed me prior to my visit. When I finally realized I was hopelessly lost, I called Alex for directions. Explaining that he had never driven himself to the construction site, Alex handed the phone to one of the company’s drivers, Kewat, and asked Kewat to give me directions. Kewat asked me where I was. As I tried to describe the area in which I had parked to make my call, I could find no distinct landmarks.

With this little information, he encouraged me to continue driving forward and told me, “Mandir ke lie dekho!” (Look for the temple!). When I heard this, I was worried that I had misunderstood Kewat, and I asked for clarification.  Kewat replied that I understood correctly—I should drive straight and look for the mandir, or Hindu temple. “It is so large,” he added, “you cannot miss it.” I was confused as to how a Hindu temple could be in Musaffah near this construction project. In 2010, there were no Hindu temples in Abu Dhabi, and the only Hindu temple in the UAE was located in an old department store in Dubai.

Lost, as I often was during my research, I continued driving and began looking for a mandir. Eventually an oil rig’s derrick appeared to my left, peeking over the buildings lining the road. I turned and, as I drove toward the construction site, I saw how the features of the oil rig (Figure 3) mirrored the architecture of a Hindu mandir (Figure 4). The derrick was reminiscent of a vimaana, or tower, and the crown, which is at the top of the derrick, resembles a shikhara, a peak or domelike cap that sits on the vimaana.

Figure 3. Offshore Oil Rig. Source: Mustang Joe
Figure 4. Vimaana at Tajore Temple, Tamil Nadu. Source: Pixabay

Meeting me at a security checkpoint, Kewat waited as I gave my passport to the guards, and the guards called a manager at Connex to check the legitimacy of my visit. After this process, Kewat ushered me to a group of trailers where Connex managers worked. As we walked past the partially constructed rig, Kewat gestured to it and asked, “Ye mandir jaisa dekhata hai, hai na?” (It looks just like a temple, don’t you agree?). Pointing to the Indian men working throughout the structure, he added, that because of hundreds of Indians moving around the area, Kewat believed it looked like a temple on a festival day.

Kewat was not the only person who referred to the rig as a temple. During the time I spent conducting research at this site, many men working in unskilled or semiskilled positions would refer their worksite as hamaara mandir (our temple). As Kewat’s directions indicate, describing the rig as a temple served to locate and differentiate this worksite in the industrial area of Musaffah.

Musaffah is a large area, and there are always multiple construction projects underway, but during this first visit, none of the other construction projects in the area had the tall, imposing outlines of a semi-submergible, offshore oil rig. Describing the rig as their mandir not only referenced the rig’s place in Musaffah but also the importance workers gave their migration and labor. This poetic reference to the rig as mandir highlights the aesthetic features of both the rig and the mandir. The description also reflects the pride workers experienced by working on such a large infrastructure project, particularly one that was related to oil.

As I spent time with men working at the site, they regularly described oil, as well as oil infrastructure, as symbols of modernity, development, and the future. This chapter explores the importance of describing a rig as a temple through considering how workers also use the poetics of rigs and mandirs to define modernity, make claims for their inclusion in the Indian nation, and envision the future.

Mohammed, a Muslim from northern India, worked at this project for Connex. As he described the importance of his work building oil infrastructure, he told me it helped him be a good son by allowing him to send money to his father. But the meaning he gave his work at this project extended past fulfilling his familial obligations to also reflecting a way he contributed to the future of India. Explicitly, Mohammed connected his work to the process of “making India modern” and described his migration as a way to help both his country and his community progress economically and ideologically.

Mohammed was not the only person who situated work on Gulf oil projects as part of India’s modernization. Both prospective migrants and current migrants tell me, with sincerity and excitement, that they work, or want to work, in the Gulf to “make India modern.” When men like Mohammed tell me this, I usually inquire as to what “modern” means, as the word seems, to me, to be amorphous and fleeting.

In their answers, Indian migrants describe modernity and development as improvements to infrastructure, which includes airplanes, electricity, and clean running water. They also describe it as the increased consumption of commodities. In addition, workers from groups that face structural inequalities, such as Muslims, Adivasis (indigenous Indians), and Dalits, tell me their work in the Gulf contributes to modernity because it helps their community “stop being backward” or improves their community’s socioeconomic status.

However, “making India modern” is not limited to material consumption and infrastructure; it implies more difficult-to-articulate dreams, including freedom; living in the city; doing what you want; and love matches as opposed to arranged marriages. Discussions around modernity, participation in the Indian nation, and what the future will look like were of particular importance for many of the Indian men Connex employed at this rig construction site. Indian migrant laborers to the Gulf are often members of minority communities, and they face discrimination and exclusion in India.

While the Indian government does not collect data on the religion of migrants, I have found in my research that a disproportionately high percentage of laborers migrating to the Gulf are Muslims. Roughly 13 percent of India’s population is Muslim. Yet over 40 percent of my interviews with Indians abroad have been with Muslims, even though I make no selection for religion. In particular, at Connex’s rig construction site, over 50 percent of the workers from India were Muslims.

For many young Indian men facing limited opportunities in their home villages, migration to the Gulf offers opportunities to fulfill their dreams and “move forward” or “move up” in what they saw as a graduated hierarchy of modernity. As I spoke with workers, and particularly those who are members of minority communities, many said they had more opportunities available to them while working in the Gulf than in India. This is because, they told me, multinational corporations did not discriminate against individuals due to their religion or caste, a practice they felt was common in India.

In exploring the poetics of the oil rig and the mandir, I draw attention to the work that migrants are doing in the space between the state, or the sovereign government of an area, and the nation, or the “imagined community” inhabiting the territory of the state. Through such poetics as the rig and the mandir, migrants draw attention to and reframe the meanings of state and nation. In particular, they position themselves as part of India’s development, and they critically insert themselves as part of the national body. Migrants also use poetics to engage with the inequalities inherent in the state and capitalism. By taking seriously the poetics of rig as mandir, we see how differing narratives of modernity and progress are developed and implemented.

The association migrants made between their work and modernity is reinforced by the ideological significance that oil and oil infrastructure play in Indian development plans. In the mid-twentieth century, oil facilitated dreams of expansive capitalist frontiers, and the state governed via reference to the future. Today oil is often overshadowed by the specter of disaster. As migrants drew parallels between oil rigs and temples, they articulated their role in India’s future. In this case, at the construction site in Abu Dhabi, the architectural style allowed for reference to Hindu temples, and the representation had meaning in the context of the Indian state and engagements with development.


Migrants are not unique in associating oil and infrastructure with development and modernity. After independence, Indian engineers and politicians, including India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the author of India’s constitution, B. R. Ambedkar, argued that electrification and other state infrastructure projects were vital and necessary components for India’s development.

Infrastructure projects, along with research laboratories and factories, were so central to the state’s development that Nehru, at the inauguration of a large dam, described the dam and similar infrastructure projects as “the temples of modern India.” With such projects, politicians argued, Indian farmers would be lifted out of poverty. This perspective merged infrastructure and the economy, and as a result, the state economy and its future become sites where politics and development programs converge.Anthropological studies of infrastructure highlight the importance of considering how infrastructure is embedded in social contexts, drawn into social relations, and made symbolic of state development.

Fernando Coronil’s ethnography of the Venezuelan state describes how oil and modernization projects are used to legitimate state power. Untangling the multiple meanings of the state, Coronil describes how the state itself was produced as an ensemble of practices, institutions, and ideologies of rule as contestations arose over the state’s regulation of oil production and its control over oil-derived money.

Through this process, the state becomes “magical” as it is “constituted as a unifying force by producing fantasies of collective integration into centralized political institutions.” This collective integration occurs around development projects that by engendering “collective fantasies of progress, it casts its spell over audience and performers alike.” Through these development projects, the state situates itself “as a magnanimous sorcerer,” meaning the state seizes its subjects by inducing a condition of being receptive to its illusions. This is what Coronil refers to as the “magical state.”

Oil is a particularly strong signifier of state power and modernity. The interplay of politics and oil affects state policies and oil companies. Rigs, seen from a poetics of oil infrastructure, may be viewed as avenues to energy production that are often tied to nationalist projects.In contemporary Indian politics, energy is seen as a way the state can build infrastructure and thereby lift citizens’ living conditions. Political parties mobilize these developmentalist claims as a way to legitimate their projects. Emphasis on modernity and development within a Hindu nationalist framework is common in Indian politics, both historically and in the present.

As I got to know Kewat, I learned that he was a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). I was surprised because the BJP often emphasizes upper-caste practices, and Kewat is a member of what the Indian government labels a “scheduled caste.” I mentioned my surprise, and he laughed and explained that it should be obvious he supports the BJP because it “is bringing development [to India].”The BJP is the political arm of the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella term that refers to a group of affiliated Hindu nationalist organizations. While Congress, not the BJP, was the majority in government in 2010, when I first met Kewat and his colleagues, the BJP was the main opposition party in Indian Parliament at that time. In 2014, the BJP became India’s ruling party in Parliament, despite receiving only 31 percent of the popular vote. In 2019, the party won reelection.

A popular slogan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the head of the BJP, is acche din anewalle hain (good days are coming). A shortened version of this slogan, #acchedin (good days), became, and continues to be, a popular hashtag on social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter. The hashtag is closely associated with Modi, who has become a brand unto himself, referred to popularly as vikas purush (development man). “Brand Modi” is developed as Modi is represented as the physical ideal of masculine development, as well as a leader who will improve the life of the common man through capitalist policies.

As #acchedin continues to be used on social media, it is a site for the celebration of Modi’s and the BJP’s accomplishments, as well as critiques of their implementation of policies.Acche din, according to Modi and the BJP, will arrive through the modernization of India, and pro-business policies are key to this modernization. In the BJP’s vision of India’s future, capitalism is the vehicle of development, and access to energy is one pathway for this capitalist development to occur.

Interest in energy, often conflated with the production of electricity, has led to the BJP’s active development of both large solar projects as well as expanded oil and gas exploration in India. In 2016, the Cabinet Committee on Energy Affairs, chaired by Prime Minister Modi, approved thirty-one contract areas in India for oil and gas exploration and production. This approval was part of the Discovered Small Field plan, which aims to maximize oil and gas production through the exploration of large and small oil fields. In 2019, the BJP’s interest in securing oil intensified, and Modi traveled to the United States and Russia in order to secure oil and gas partnerships. Modi’s BJP government has also spent billions backing Indian exploratory drilling in eastern Russia.

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