Call for Solidarity in Support of the JNU Protests

We are a group of students at the University of Michigan who wish to support students and faculty of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. Students at JNU have been unable to go to university and function normally, as the right-wing autocratic government of India continues to target their freedom and to transform the space of the university from one that supports dissent and critical thinking, to one that produces nationalists who will support a government that has and continues to colonize and perpetrate violence on its own people.

Students at JNU have recently gone on a total strike and lock-down in order to protest many things that have been happening inside the university as well as outside of it, including cases of sexual harassment that were mishandled by the JNU administration and the disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed. Teachers have gone on hunger strikes periodically but more so in the recent past, while the administration not only refuses to engage in any dialogue with either students or faculty, but also keeps sanctioning them through notices, fines, and ordinances. As we write this, we are flooded with news of dangerous organizational changes underway in institutions of higher education, and of protesting university students being beaten up by the police, arrested, attacked with water canons, and molested, while middle-class Indian citizens, the media, and the government, remain largely silent and wait for one of the last bastions of resistance in the country to die. 

We understand all of this as part of the Indian government’s larger project of privatizing universities so that higher education, which is now subsidized for students by the government, becomes even more unaffordable and inaccessible than it already is to the most marginalized among us. In addition to JNU, many universities and colleges such as Delhi University, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and Hyderabad Central University are protesting the move of privatization. Especially under attack here are students belonging to the lower castes, for whom university spaces continue to remain hostile at best and fatal at worst, when such spaces even become accessible to them at all. While their access to higher education was already precarious, the policies implemented by the current government and its army of bureaucrats has further aggravated this problem, as a result of which 96% of seats reserved for lower castes and tribes have been left vacant in the academic year 2017-2018 at JNU. 

 Those of us in universities all over the world who have been active in fighting against the clamping down of our freedom to think and speak critically, as well as the attacks that continue to make the space of universities unsafe for the very bodies of those of us who dare to question or be different, would do well to extend our solidarities to the struggle in India, where university students have been demonized by the media and have become the target for the whole machinery of the State, especially its police.

The Indian government, in collusion with both neo-liberal and right-wing forces, seems to have made up its mind to make the critical thinking student and every space that supports him/her/them disappear. Ultimately, it is the very possibility of being able to dissent and think independently that is at stake in this struggle.


South Asia Solidarity in Michigan (SASMi),

University of Michigan

April 2, 2018.

XQs XII – A Conversation with Harleen Singh

[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 Swarnim Khare for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII, IX, X, XI.]

Harleen Singh is Associate Professor of South Asian Literature and Women’s Studies at Brandeis University. She served as Chair of the South Asian Studies Program from 2007-2016. Her book The Rani of Jhansi: Gender, History, and Fable in India (Cambridge University Press, 2014) has been reviewed in The Telegraph, Economic and Political Weekly, The Book Review, BIBLIO, and South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. Her work includes texts in English, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi. She works on questions concerning history, politics, and identity in literature and film. Her current book projects include a critical translation of Amrita Pritam’s seminal partition novel Pinjar and a monograph titled Half an Independence: Women, Violence, and Modern Lives in India.  Her work has been recognized and supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Humanities Center, and the Mellon Foundation.


One could begin by saying that your work sits at the intersection of literature and history, but making this disciplinary distinction is futile as you prove in your book. In your analysis of the imperial literary culture and more specifically popular fiction, you have shown that in the production of ‘mutiny novels’ in Britain in the aftermath of 1857, the literary functioned as a reconfiguration of the historical when it came to representing the Rani of Jhansi. Can you elaborate on this?  

We may speak in terms of larger categories (literature, history, disciplinary distinctions, etc.), however, I tried to do something rather simple—to make sense of how we remember.  As a scholar, I learned to think through the many ways in which literature is contingent upon history and how the literary bleeds into the historical, but I also remain deeply invested in thinking about memory—the personal and the national.  As I mention in the book, I was reprimanded for getting into a fight with some boys in school and my teacher scolded me “Who do you think you are? The Rani of Jhansi?”  Perhaps that was the impetus to make sense of how the larger history of women became a collective landscape for women’s lives in India. I was struck by how everyone seemed to know about the Rani, and many people had written her biography, and yet no one had attempted to think through her various literary representations or tried, to put it simply, to make sense of the many stories of this singular queen.

What is the main argument you make in your book?

As any student of South Asian history will tell you, history is never a simple, linear story.  It is reimagined constantly and is therefore never static, never dead.  Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, was a singular person, but she has really become a constellation of stories, histories, imaginaries, and rationale through colonial and postcolonial literature.  My book is a feminist reading of colonial rebellion and postcolonial nationalism.  Even a celebrated persona like the Rani defies the neat categorizations of femininity, the nation, rebellion, religiosity, and history.  It has come to matter little who the Rani was or what she did—how she is represented and what she symbolizes are the overarching concerns of most public discourse (perhaps more trenchant now than ever in the wake of the Padmavati controversy and before a new film on the Rani is released in April, 2018).  And so I set out not to recover a lost voice, or reveal an occluded history, but rather to make sense of the noise—the large repository of historical and literary representations—that surround such an extraordinary figure.   Continue reading “XQs XII – A Conversation with Harleen Singh”

Asma Jahangir: Through the Years

Anish Gawande is the director of the Dara Shikoh Fellowship, which promotes collaborative creative dialogue around Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. He can be found on Twitter as @anishgawande.

Fierce, vocal, and incredibly eloquent, Asma Jahangir transformed the landscape of human rights legislation and activism in Pakistan over the course of her life. In the face of repressive regimes and public vitriol, she championed causes ranging from the protection of religious minorities to the pursuit of judicial reform. 

Here are 15 documents written across her lifetime that chronicle Jahangir’s greatest victories and most vulnerable defeats. They speak to her passions, her changing ideologies, and to her negotiation with larger frameworks of public opinion and resistance. They serve, then, as reminders of a life well lived – but a life that struggled tirelessly to achieve every outcome we celebrate today. 

  1. When her father was arrested by Yahya Khan in 1971 for speaking out against the Bangladesh war, an 18-year-old Asma Jahangir filed a petition in the Supreme Court to demand his release. She gave an interview later recounting those formative years and the process of filing that first petition.

  2. PLD 1972 SC 139 was one of the first judgements against excesses by military dictatorships in Pakistan. Ijaz Batalvi, who helped Jahangir file the petition, wrote an incisive piece (in Urdu) on Asma Jilani v Government of Punjab and its wider implications for Pakistani jurisprudence.  

  3. In the 1980s, Jahangir started the AGHS Legal Aid Cell and the Women’s Aid Forum to defend women and minorities in the face of Zia-Ul-Haq’s increasingly repressive policies. Her 1984 USAID paper on “Impact of Islamization Policies on Pakistani Women’s Lives” [pdf] details the fraught nature of activism in those years.

  4. As she stepped into the role of a lawyer-activist, Asma Jahangir spoke out against repressive legislation like the Hudood Ordinances that targeted women and minorities. Following the sentence of stoning to death awarded to Zafaran Bibi in 2002, Jahangir wrote a powerful piece for Dawn that traces the struggle to protect women from zina laws.

  5. In 1987, she founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1987. In contrast, neighboring India only got its own commission in 1993. The HRCP remains one of the most vociferous defenders of the rights of minorities. Here’s the HRCP report after the Chak Sikandar riots, one of the first to document Ahmadiyya persecution in the country.

  6. Her work stirred powerful reactions from the state and its religious apparatus. Zia’s newly created Majlis-e-Shoora was set to try her for blasphemy for a speech she had given in Islamabad. A friend and colleague, Tahira Abdullah, had luckily recorded the entire speech and was able to prevent any action from being taken against Jahangir. Here are snippets of media coverage from 1988 that cover the case.

  7. The protection of religious minorities, especially against regressive blasphemy laws, was the hallmark of Asma Jahangir’s career. Her defense of the 14-year-old Christian boy Salamat Masih, sentenced to death for allegedly drawing anti-Islamic graffiti on a mosque wall, led to a 1995 Amnesty International report [pdf] condemning death penalties for juveniles.

  8. Children of a Lesser God: Child Prisoner in Pakistan, Asma Jahangir’s book on juvenile detention, came out in 1993. Chronicling the staggering exploitation of children handed prison sentences by courts across the country, the book introduced – perhaps for a first time – a comprehensive index of all the child rights laws in Pakistan.

  9. The new millennium began with Asma Jahangir’s scathing “Whither Are We?” in Dawn on 2 October, 2000. She lashed out against Pakistani foreign policy for claiming the moral upper hand in Kashmir while ignoring internal human rights abuses. The article is strange: cited everywhere, it can be found nowhere. Except hidden here, on the SACW dispatch.
  10. “Teach the bitch a lesson. Strip her in public.” Asma Jahangir suffered all this and more for leading a 2005 mixed-gender marathon in Lahore to expose the hypocrisy of Pervez Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation.” Ali Dayan Hasan was at that marathon and described how Asma Jahangir was beaten in the full glare of the news media. 

  11. Jahangir was also – and this is rarely discussed – at the forefront of fighting for LGBT rights in Pakistan. She was one of the signatories of the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles, which laid down principles to ensure dignity for sexual orientation and gender minorities. 

  12. Asma Jahangir was the first woman to be elected President of the Supreme Court Bar Association in 2011. Irreverent, Asma was as comfortable smoking a beedi at the bar as she was trekking to Gilgit-Baltistan to investigate rights violations. Here’s a rare interview of Asma on her election campaign that describes what she thinks of bar-bench standoffs.

  13. Not one to shy away from controversy, Asma Jahangir went as far as meeting Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in 2008. In 2015, she agreed to defend Altaf Hussain’s right to free speech in court. Here is her BBC Urdu interview with Shafi Naqi Jamie explaining her opposition to a media blackout against the MQM leader. 

  14. Jahangir was at the forefront of demands to reform honor killing laws in Pakistan. Here is her 2016 Newsweek Pakistan piece tracing the fight to get amendments passed in Parliament that mandated life imprisonment for perpetrators of honor killings.  

  15. Her work took Jahangir beyond national boundaries. With the United Nations, she investigated rights violations in countries ranging from Sri Lanka to Israel. Most recently, as UN Special Rapporteur to Iran, she released a hard-hitting report [pdf] in August 2017 that remains more relevant than ever in the face of feminist uprisings in the nation.

The spirit of Asma Jahangir cannot be captured in mere platitudes or condemnations. She fought a lonely battle: carving an ideology for herself, she fiercely defended her work in the face of backlash from both liberals and conservatives. Her life must be read as a ceaseless struggle to ask the questions that few had the courage to ask. We must keep asking those questions.

— by Anish Gawande

XQs XI – A Conversation with Mitra Sharafi

[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 Tapsi Mathur for conducting this interview. Previously: IIIIIIIVVVIVII, VIII, IX, X.]

Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian of South Asia at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA. Her first book, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947 was awarded the Law and Society Association’s Hurst Prize in 2015. She is currently working on her second book project, “Fear of the False: Forensic Science in Colonial India,” along with articles on abortion during the Raj and the expulsion of Asian and African law students from the Inns of Court. Her research has been recognized by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. She hosts the South Asian Legal History Resources website and is a regular contributor to the Legal History Blog.

Mitra Sharafi, Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014; Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2017)

 What is the larger question that frames your work and can you tell us a little about what drew you to this project?

I was interested in how minority communities engage with law. There are plenty of examples historically and today of minority communities trying to avoid interaction with the state—particularly where there is a history of conflict and exploitation by the state. Equally, there are many examples of communities handling their intra-group disputes internally. But one day as I was leafing through the Bombay law reports, I noticed Parsi names everywhere and on both sides of many cases. Why would members of the same small, tight-knit community take each other to court, especially in a South Asian context where there were so many non-state options for dispute resolution? And why would they do so particularly in sensitive intra-group disputes over religion (temple disputes) and family (matrimonial and inheritance cases)? I was intrigued. Here was a minority community that took its inside disputes to court readily and often, in contrast to the more common patterns of avoidance (of the state) and containment (within the community). Continue reading “XQs XI – A Conversation with Mitra Sharafi”