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

Saturday, February 25, 2017

From 'On Uncertain Ground' to Research Across South Asia

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University 
The forum offered by the launch of my colleague, Ankur Datta’s book, On Uncertain Ground: A Study of Displaced Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu and Kashmir (Oxford University Press, 2016) on 24th February 2017 and sponsored by the Department of Sociology, South Asian University, Society and Culture in South Asia, India International Centre and Oxford University Press saw the exchange of crucial ideas which were addressed in the book. These are perhaps the first formal commentaries on the book as it enters the world of intellectual circulation. Personally, it was good to see a book written by one of my own colleagues getting into the public discourse. It was not simply a matter of personal credit for himself alone but also a matter of further establishing our intellectual presence in the city as a department in a very new university.

For those with an interest in research in South Asia,the following are some of the brief comments I made in the evening of 24th February 2017:

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University
--- Though I will say nothing about Ankur’s book today, as I read it over the last two weeks, I also re-read Prof TN Madan’s classic ethnography, Family and Kinship: a Study of the Pandits of Rural Kashmir. I could not help but feel that both books indicate the two ends of a very sad story, which has unravelled over fifty years or so. That story would make additional sense if one were to read Agha Shahid Ali poems such as his collection, The Country Without a Post Office rather than regular sociology on the region. In fact, this is what I did.

But I must confess I am a reluctant chair as I am exterior to both Kashmir and the sociology of India as well as to India, the nation state and Delhi itself. But Ankur did not seem to see it that way. I guess his point was if one comes from a place wracked by violence and has worked on violence and its consequences in one messy place in our region, that should be good enough to handle a discussion on yet another place currently consumed by violence and displacement.

Photo: Joyashree Sarma, Department of Sociology, South Asian University 
In this specific context, I want to make one final comment, not about Ankur’s book, but about what these kinds of texts suggest for scholarship in our part of the world. Ankur, Prof Roma Chatterji and other colleagues have produced serious scholarship on violence and its consequences in India. All of us are familiar with this textual tradition. 

Others have done the same for other places ranging from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh and Pakistan. That is, in our own 

comfort zones demarcated by the borders of nation states, we have narrated quite well the stories of our collective unhappiness. And I think the study of violence and its consequences is one of the most obvious contributions to global scholarship, particularly in anthropology from South Asia. And there are many other similar themes.

But almost none of us, including myself, have moved beyond the comfort zone of the nation to see how thematics such as violence, migration, displacement, nationalism, being anti-national and so on might seem and mean across these borders. Intriguingly, even those amongst us very critical of the nation state as a specific formation due to its own limitations, have opted not to go beyond its borders in their work. By itself, this is not a problem. But for me, it is a missed opportunity. I hope Ankur’s generation might be more adventurous in the possibilities of this scheme of research, of the possibilities of coming up with a theoretical and methodological framework for research across South Asia than my generation has been ---

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