I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Gender Conflict & Security: Ethics of Writing

Madam President, colleagues and friends, good morning.

A very warm welcome to the Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences and the South Asian University.

It is good to see the sheer hard work my colleague Shweta Singh has put in, and perhaps the many sleepless nights she might have endured, have borne fruit. I have always tried to convince my colleagues that intellectual outreach programs initiated by the Faculty of Social Sciences, such as this conference, must not necessarily be only about intellectual curiosity or policy implications per se, but also about the sophistication in conceptualization, a sense of style in delivery and above all, being sensitive in self-consciously achieving some semblance of collective South Asian reality, if one claims a certain program is about perspectives from this region. And this conference makes that claim. Sometimes we achieve these goals. At other times, despite the rhetoric of regionalism, we don’t move too far beyond the long shadows of the nation states of India and Pakistan. And then, South Asia becomes a reductionist non-entity. This conference, it seems to me has achieved these ideals by putting together a series of practices as a matter of conscious policy. I must thank Dr Singh and her colleagues in the IR Department, UN women and the Swiss embassy for ensuring this outcome.

In terms of ritual, I have been asked to do something called “setting the context”. I don’t have the foggiest idea what this really means despite the seeming clarity of these two words. It seems to me that the context must have been set at the time the conference was conceived and fine-tuned over time. In that sense, it is preconceived, but linked to anticipations and hopes of what is expected to be achieved. On the other hand, discursive practices that emerge from dynamic events like conferences have the ability to transgress beyond set plans to become something truly path-breaking or fall well below anticipations. Only the future would tell us what truly transpired. As such, I would leave it up to your deliberations to either work within your anticipated context or better, move beyond it. But surely, I cannot be the author for setting this context.

Instead, let me say a few things that came to my mind when I read the concept note, went through the topics and some of the abstracts of the papers that would be presented as well as the structure of the conference itself. I hope my thoughts would be at least minimally coherent. 

I have been convinced for a considerable time that International Relations as a discipline globally, needs to move out of its straight jacket which typifies its practice in most parts of the world, and transgress into other areas of academic practice which I am sure would enrich the discipline. One can be hopeful this is what the discipline at South Asian University might be doing. In this context, I was immediately struck by Dr Singh’s and her fellow organizing committee members’ interest in initiating a series of cross disciplinary conversations involving sociology, anthropology, political science and economics while not losing site of the general location of the conference in International Politics and Peace Studies. This anticipation and ideological premise seem to have been significantly realized already going by the kinds of disciplinary domains different people at this conference come from.

Let me now briefly dwell on some ethical issues that one has to ideally come to terms with, when dealing with issues squarely located in the realms of violence, conflict and security. After all, most of you will be discussing issues of gender in the contexts of conflict, war and post war, in the context of which ethics of writing is a central issue. Though this seems commonsensical at one level, it also seems like an unresolved enigma at yet another level, particularly as we read anthropological literature that deals with violence in our part of the world and beyond. More specifically, we need to be concerned about attempting to communicate pain and narratives of survival over violence that so closely and intimately touch the lives of many amongst us. Writing way back in 1990, Veena Das made the following observations which have occupied my conscience ever since as a fellow scribe of violence: 
A crucial issue here is whether the form evolved in writing about survivor experience is simply used to titillate. Does it tear the facts of violence out of context? Does the author stand in relationship of a voyeur to the narratives of suffering? Most of the work on survivors done in this context would suggest that the distinction between the author and his/her subjects dissolves in the study of violence. To be the scribe of human experience of suffering creates a special responsibility towards those who suffer. While there cannot be a single answer to the nature of this responsibility, one cannot simply hide behind the axiological neutrality of Max Weber. We shall have to ask: did we take this responsibility seriously?
So have we taken this responsibility seriously? Do we take this responsibility seriously? And have you taken this responsibility seriously? Personally, I could never find a fool-proof way to address this issue. May be some of you in your own writings such as what you would present today and tomorrow might have worked out ways to do this. Let me end my thoughts with reference to a related incident that came from the world of visual culture and not scholarship. As part of a very complex and thought-provoking installation, when Sri Lankan painter Jagath Weerasinghe painted the shadowy image of a woman going from one site of illegal detention to another in search of her missing son in the context of that country’s entrenched political violence in the 1980s and claimed that he was speaking to the world on her behalf, he was essentially making two claims: One, was the claim that the woman was the eternal victim and bearer of grief in situations of conflict; and two, his unilateral decision to appropriate her voice, supposedly on her behalf. I brought this example into my thoughts for two reasons: 

One is to ask the simple question, how different is this appropriation of voice in this case from our own appropriation of other voices in the name of scholarship? Or, is it not different at all? Research is all about appropriating voices and making them our own. That is what conferences often do, though there are perhaps ways to mitigate these circumstances. My intention here is not to discomfort you, but to bring to focus an issue that many of us have found convenient to ignore in recent times.

The second is a plea for methodological innovation in the study of issues such as violence, conflict and gender. I wondered how International Relations scholarship, or for that matter the practice of sociology and anthropology might look like, if we explored these issues through visual culture, creative writing, music and so on which might have an imprint of temporality and the politics of those times embedded in them, including conflict. Would we see the world differently but come to similar conclusions as scholars not using such subjective and seemingly unscientific approaches? But given the constructed-ness of science itself, I am personally not too concerned about these anxieties. But it would be interesting if my colleagues at some future point can think on similar lines without disrupting the core tenets of our respective ‘disciplines.’ Who knows, it might be worth the effort.

Let me not take too much of your time. I hope I would be fortunate enough to listen to at least some of your presentations. It does not help Madam President, when a scholar is made into an academic bureaucrat simply because he has a few more grey hairs than some others. But then, when dreams are at stake and when a vision still remains to be realized which are quotidian considerations in our university, personal idiosyncrasies and fantasies necessarily have to be retired, at least in the short term.

I wish you all the best and an intellectually stimulating two days at South Asian University.

Thanks for your time.

(Opening Remarks made at the international conference on ‘Gender Conflict & Security: Perspectives from South Asia,’ April 23, 2015, Faculty of Social Sciences, South Asian University, New Delhi)

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