Matters of the State: Conference Report

We thank Professor Nayanika Mathur, keynote respondent at “Matters of State: Bureaucracy, Procedure and Power in South Asia,” held at Princeton in April, 2019 for this conference report.

Nayanika Mathur is Associate Professor in the Anthropology of South Asia at School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography at Oxford University. Her first monograph Paper Tiger: Law Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India was winner of the Sharon Stephens Prize awarded by American Ethnological Society for a first book.

During my doctoral research and as an early career academic in the UK, I faced an almost-constant resistance to the centring of bureaucracy, paper, procedure, and banality in my work. These were not considered to be appropriate sites and objects of anthropological investigation into India. I was made to rewrite (read: failed) the methods section of my PhD prospectus as the proposal to do a thick description of government offices in India was considered unsound by the committee. Halfway through my fieldwork over 2006-08, I met a doyen of Social Anthropology in the UK who firmly told me that I could never “get India” through just sitting in government offices and I should go find a more traditional site such as a village or a caste/tribe group to observe in the Himalaya. Even my very supportive and otherwise non-Orientalizing doctoral supervisor confessed his relief that I had so much on tigers in my PhD thesis on the everyday life of the state, for “at least there is something Indian about this work.”

Happily, when I now relate these anecdotes to my students and colleagues, it is met with some incredulity. Largely, this is a consequence of an efflorescence of writings including several books on bureaucracy in the past few years and the coming together of something we can broadly discuss as a social sciences study of bureaucracy. The Princeton South Asia conference on ‘Matters of State’, held over 19-20 April, captured much of the intellectual dynamism and analytical purchase that the study of bureaucracy, matter, procedure, and power affords us in the study of South Asia.

Conceptualised and organised by Tara Suri and Amna Qayyum, both graduate students in the History department at Princeton, the programme was fantastically varied with panels centred on space and development; lineages of the state; violence and welfare; labour; authority; and the archive with its afterlives.

In his opening remarks, Jonathan Gold noted that, statistically speaking, it was easier to get into Princeton as an undergraduate than it was to make it to this conference! There were over 320 submissions for this event from around the world. The abstracts nicely summarise what the individual papers were about. The discussants–Hafsa Kanjwal, Sadaf Jaffer, Zahid Chaudhary, Philippe Messier, Wasim Shiliwala, and Kalyani Ramnath–did a splendid job of putting the panel-papers into conversation. Additionally, I am drawing out some of the themes that I personally found striking.

Interdisciplinarity. There was a genuine interdisciplinarity at play in this conference. The question of what it means to do interdisciplinary research or the obverse–isn’t all research always already interdisciplinary?–often comes up. At the ‘Matters of State’ conference, the citational sweep was broad, cutting across traditional disciplinary silos. For instance, it was evident that the work on everyday bureaucracy or extraordinary violence has moved from anthropology to history; that readings of archives, their afterlives, and distinctive historical sources are being seriously positioned in ethnographies. Law was put into conversation with a range of disciplines, with legal history making a particularly strong showing. Cynthia Farid followed the life of Surendranath Bannerjea, especially the contempt case of 1883 against him, to ask wider questions about the locus of state power in bureaucracies as well as the antecedents of notions of judicial independence. Hardeep Dhillon traced the links between law and colonial violence through an excavation of redress and compensation mechanisms in the wake of the “Punjab Disturbances” and considered the question of how these processes got represented in historical scholarship. Neelum Sohail combined law with policing “to shed light on the daily making and re-making of the colonial state.” Beyond law and history, there were conversations that enveloped psychoanalysis, crime fiction, political science, and anthropology. Uponita Mukherjee played with the very idea of how genres of investigation travel, by situating the detective stories written by Priyanath Mukhopadhyay in the context of his role as a colonial police officer and the forms of writing and documentation that colonial policing demanded. Akshi Singh juxtaposed Freud’s discourse and writings alongside colonial diaries, the work of colonial anthropologists, and the trial of a revolutionary terrorist. Noaman Ali critiqued a particular strand of political anthropology including its somewhat ahistorical approach, through the lens of political science.

Forms of Evidence. Another way through which one can talk about interdisciplinarity is by considering the various forms of evidence that were presented. The visual was combined with the more staidly bureaucratic with Joppan George showing footage of bombs being dropped after polite paper notices warning of imminent action were dispersed along the North-Western Frontier Province after the first World War. Silpa Mukherjee alerted us to the “sensory ecology of disco” by playing clippings in different languages of the same disco songs in 1980s Bombay and working through one private photographic archive to “curate a lost decade of heightened sensuality and contraband.” Sowparnika Balaswaminathan traced the forms of evidence that the Vishwakarma community are using to construct their own record of their caste history and ethnography including “diverse narratives that take the form of myths, rhetoric, and affective testimonies.” Shahwar Kibria compared the history of Qawwali in India and Pakistan, using oral, historical, and sociological sources to trace the divergent roles of the two states in maintaining (or not) this musical form. Chandana Anusha re-presented the history of port development in Kutch through a focus on more-than-human forces and by centring the interconnections of the riverine, marine, and terrestrial.

Technology. Technologies of various forms – from cable wires to biometrics to CCTVS–were centred as matters of state and deftly utilised to get at contemporary state power and performances. Ayesha Omer foregrounded the fiber optic cables in Gilgit-Baltistan that are being placed as part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Included in this work were notions of dust/dhua, digital freedoms and futures, as well as a complex transnational network of state and non-state actors that coalesce in producing certain effects in Gilgit-Baltistan. Thalia Gigerenzer described the side effects of the recent entry of CCTV cameras in a low-income Muslim neighbourhood in Delhi and its linkages to talk of a bad moral atmosphere. Zehra Hashmi’s study of The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in Pakistan showed how “older” technologies of the state such as registers from other identification systems are folded into this hyper-modern system of biometrics, databases, algorithms and network technology as well as the salience of kinship and relatedness to its everyday functioning. Iris Yellum asked the question of how regional agricultural heritage comes to be constituted through a focus on seeds and the diverse institutions that do the work of conserving them.

State (un)making. How are states made/unmade/attempted to be made? How are they affective and gendered? And how do we understand state limits and failures?
Varsha Patel looked at how cows and bulls come to be inscribed into place by studying the bovine practices of the modernizing Princely State of Mysore between 1900 and 1947. Maira Hayat centered the narratives of female bureaucrats in Pakistan in order to both expand how we come to understand corruption and also to demonstrate how profoundly the state is a gendered entity. Kyle Chan critiqued Weberian notions of bureaucracy through his interviews with railway bureaucrats in India to show the role occupied by affect and what he describes as “bureaucratic egos”. Tiraana Bains described the desire of the East India Company in the 18th century to construct a “well concerted union” of its multiple Presidencies; a union that was never quite realized due to intra-Imperial relations and rivalries amongst the competing Presidencies. Dana Kornberg showed the limits of the state through a study of the failure of a Public Private Partnership (PPP) on waste disposal in Delhi. Divya Subramanian analysed a new Master Plan of Delhi that was drawn up by the Ford Foundation and U.S. planners in the 1950s not to talk of its success or failure, but rather to think about how it was imagined and contested.

Gyan Prakash made two observations on the conference. The first was the rich and diverse work on Pakistan. All too often South Asia comes to stand in for India with token papers on other states from the region tagged on. At this conference, not only was research from Pakistan very present, but was also woven into the wider discussions on South Asia in an organic way. Secondly, Prakash noted how there were so many more women than men in the conference room that when a man came up to speak or asked a question, we were almost a bit surprised by their presence.

The question of what kind of knowledge is produced about South Asia – what sorts of categories we allow into the frame or sites that we deem appropriate for researching – is, of course, intrinsically bound up with who gets to produce it. The intellectual openness and innovativeness of the ‘Matters of the State’ conference was inextricably linked not just to the consolidation of research on bureaucracy and the state, but perhaps more importantly to the utterly refreshing fact that the conversation was dominated by women, including many of South Asian origin. As we all discuss the dire need to decolonise the academy and reconsider practices of knowledge-production it is, as ever, graduate students and early career researchers who are leading the way through events such as the Princeton South Asia conference, 2019.

XQs XVII – A Conversation with Amy Bhatt

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Praveena Lakshmanan for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI]

Amy Bhatt is Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, Affiliate Associate Professor in the Language, Literacy and Culture Program and the Asian Studies Program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).  She received her PhD in Feminist Studies from the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Her most recent book is High-Tech Housewives: Indian IT Workers, Gendered Labor, and Transmigration (University of Washington Press, 2018). She is the co-author of Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest  (University of Washington Press, 2013). She is also the co-curator of the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, WA and the co-chair of the South Asian American Digital Archive’s Academic Council. Her current project focuses on precarious South Asian migrants, such as the children of H-1B visa holders who are “ageing out” of family reunification visas and South Asian DACA recipients.

Q. In High-Tech Housewives, you use personal narratives of Indian H-1B and H-4 visa holders to highlight complexities across a range of issues – visa regimes, marital experiences of dependent spouses, gender relations and gendered labor. What drew you to this project?

I began this project as part of my dissertation in the University of Washington’s Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. At the time that I was doing my course work, I was also volunteering with a South Asian anti-violence organization in the Seattle area. I began working on a project aimed at reaching out to the spouses of temporary H-1B visa holders from India who were living in the U.S. on the H-4 family reunification visa.

The H-1B visa program brings in foreign skilled workers in specialty occupations on a temporary basis. Employers must sponsor an H-1B worker and they cannot switch jobs unless a new employer agrees to take on their visa application. Nearly 75% of H-1B visas go to Indian nationals who come to work in the nation’s technology, finance, education, and healthcare industries. But those workers do not travel alone; they often bring their spouses and children with them on H-4 family reunification visas. As “dependents,” these family members cannot work, get their own Social Security number, or even in some states, apply for a driver’s license or library card. At the same time, H-4 visa holders act as an anchoring force for temporary workers, as they are much less likely to seek new employment opportunities if they have families to support in the United States.

Some of the spouses of these workers came to the attention of the nonprofit’s staff because they faced isolation and, sometimes violence, in their home lives. This work ultimately brought me into contact with some of the participants of this study. While the issue of H-4 vulnerability was still my foremost concern, I grew interested in a larger question: what role does the family play in sustaining and promoting transnational migration and how do women fare as a result of that movement?

Amy Bhatt, High-Tech Housewives

Q. In your book, you coin and theorize the term “transnational housewife” and “circulating citizenship.” Can you describe how and why you use these terms?

I use the term “transnational housewife” to highlight the roles that spouses and family members play in supporting migration. While migration is usually linked to economic push and pull factors, I wanted to highlight how the household is a key domain through which transnational migration operates and is lived. But the household is not a neutral category; it is a highly stratified space that relies on gendered labor practices. Considering that 93% of H-4 visas go to women, I wanted to underscore how dependency is enforced through temporary worker programs. While many H-4 spouses are well-educated and were working before migrating, they are structurally relegated to being housewives after coming to the US.

As for the idea of “circulating citizenship,” I want to show how transmigration is closely tied to migrants’ ability to navigate complex immigration processes. My study starts with the important role that borders, visas, immigration policies, and temporary and permanent residency programs play in the ability for some to become transmigrants in the first place. The H-1B program is an example of one such bureaucratic mechanism – it creates “temporary” workers, but allows them to apply for a change in immigration status. They are both supposed to be temporary, and yet they are allowed to apply for permanent residency and even citizenship. Because of this malleability, many use the H-1B to pursue pathways to permanent residency and/or citizenship. At the same time, through marriage and reproductive strategies, they seek to claim belonging in the US. Residency or citizenship is therefore used to ensure a foothold in their host nation, even if they decide to repatriate or continue to circulate between India and the US. Continue reading “XQs XVII – A Conversation with Amy Bhatt”

Ethnographic Poetry and Kashmir: A conversation with Ather Zia

[This interview with Professor Ather Zia was conducted on March 31, 2018, at the University of Michigan (UM), where she delivered a keynote at Migrant Stories, a Women of Color poetry event organized by UM graduate students. The interview was conducted by  Salman A Hussain (SH), Swarnim Khare (SK), and Mary Pena (MP). The interview was edited by Dr. Tapsi Mathur, and revised by Professor Zia in February 2019. A shorter version of this interview was published by Allegra Lab.]

Ather Zia, Ph.D., is a political anthropologist, poet, and short fiction writer. She teaches at the University of Northern Colorado Greeley. Ather is the author of Resisting Disappearances: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir (June 2019) and co-editor of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir (Upenn 2018) and A Desolation called Peace (Harper Collins, May 2019). She has published a poetry collection “The Frame” (1999) and another collection is forthcoming. Ather’s ethnographic poetry on Kashmir has won an award from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology. She is the founder-editor of Kashmir Lit and is the co-founder of Critical Kashmir Studies Collective, an interdisciplinary network of scholars working on the Kashmir region.


MP: Let’s start with talking about your work in both ethnography and poetry, and how you merged the two genres, and how the devices from the two can speak to each other. Processually speaking, how do you use poetic devices in your ethnographic work or how your ethnographic research and sensibility inform your poetry?

AZ: I came to anthropology from a journalism and media studies background, and quickly became focused on anthropological theory to the extent that I feared losing my other modes of expression. To not lose these other avenues, I forced myself to make time. I founded KashmirLit in 2007-08 to provide me with one such avenue. The idea behind KashmirLit was to channel the prodigious Kashmiri poetic output out there. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that every other Kashmiri writes poetry, particularly about repression and life under occupation by India. Still, I felt that I was becoming apologetic about my poetry, and guilty that I should be doing Anthropology. Then when I went to Kashmir for fieldwork I noticed that I was writing more poetry than I was fieldnotes. It was when I became affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Anthropology that I saw people who were doing both: theoretical work as well as unapologetically pursing other literary modes of expression. People such as Renato Rosaldo, whose writing I admire a lot, gave me hope.

I don’t buy into the dichotomy between creative writing and social science research. The latter, too, is creative. Yet, there is also the question of ethnographic surfeit, the subject of my forthcoming paper:  What do you do with all that doesn’t neatly fit into fieldnotes, all that excess, of emotions, perceptions, and experiences? I channel this excess through poetry. The problem is of creating a space for it in academic representational forms and fora. While I intersperse my ethnography with poetic pieces, that alone does not quite cut it. To task the ethnographic reader with absorbing all that excess, the surfeit of emotions is to ask too much from the reader, but one had to still do it. Poetry helps the researcher as well, at least it did me, in that it is cathartic and helped me process my work. What my ethnographic research partners were telling me about Kashmir, about the trauma of occupation, was also, in a way, poetry. So, poetry has many uses, but we, as academics, worry that nonstandard creative modes of expression may hinder our careers and job prospects. I feel that we need to tell anthropologists who want to work in in other forms of expression and representations, in creative writing, and in creative ethnography that there is a place and space for them, too.

Continue reading “Ethnographic Poetry and Kashmir: A conversation with Ather Zia”

CM Exclusive: The Promise of Bhagat Singh

[CM is delighted to present an extract from Chris Moffat’s India’s Revolutionary Inheritance: Politics and the Promise of Bhagat Singhwith the author’s introduction to the extract.]

Chris Moffat is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of History, Queen Mary University of London, where he is completing a new project on architecture and politics in Pakistan. In 2019 he is Visiting Faculty in the Department of History, Government College University, Lahore.

Introduction to Extract 

India’s Revolutionary Inheritance is a book about the continuing political potential of a young man hanged by the British colonial state almost ninety years ago. Executed at twenty-three for ‘conspiring to wage war against the King-Emperor’, Bhagat Singh remains an iconic figure in contemporary India. Recalled as shaheed-e-azam (‘the great martyr’), the story of his life and death draws adherents from across the political spectrum, and as this book argues, compels a peculiar sense of responsibility among the living. Bhagat Singh is not, I argue, a pliant figure susceptible to easy appropriation in the present, but rather manifests as a disruptive, spectral presence, calling the living to account and guiding them toward a certain understanding of what might constitute effective political action. What does it mean, then, to take the dead revolutionary seriously as an active interlocutor and instigator in twenty-first century South Asian politics?

The attached extract sets out the stakes for such an argument, exploring how the book works against an existing historiography that simply laments the ‘misuse’ and ‘abuse’ of Bhagat Singh’s name while setting out to uncover the ‘real’ figure and what he ‘really’ fought and died for. I argue instead that Bhagat Singh’s potentiality was always phantasmal in form. The revolutionary needs to be understood for the promise he represents, rather than for any particular programme he may or may not have elaborated in 1920s colonial India. In focusing on those aspects of Bhagat Singh’s story and struggle that appear portable and reiterable across time and space, we can begin to think seriously about the long-term legacies of revolutionary politics and the reverberations of anti-colonial martyrdom in post-colonial India. We can open a discussion about why this young man from a small village outside Lyallpur, Punjab, remains instructive for thinking about the form and contours of a militant life in the present.

The book is thus interested to ask how historians and other scholars might take seriously the question of ‘afterlives’ and the operation of ghosts and spectres on the shifting terrains where they work and study. But it is also concerned with the more directly political question of why anti-colonial histories remain so compelling and challenging in our global, post-colonial present. What can be learned if we address those revenant figures from struggles past, not as sentimental remnants or heroic precedents but as comrades in a fight that continues? As signals of ‘unfinished business’ and exhortations toward a freedom that has not yet been secured? Having followed closely the gaze and guidance of a spectral Bhagat Singh, India’s Revolutionary Inheritance represents one attempt to grapple with this vital problem-space within contemporary political thought.