The Work of Humanities

Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski
Departmental Chairs of SALC (L to R): Ulrike Stark, Gary Tubb, Wendy Doniger, Steve Collins, CM Naim, Sheldon Pollock, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Clint Seely. Center: Alicia Czaplewski

A few weeks ago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations celebrated its 50th anniversary, alongside 60 years for The Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and more generally a record of excellence in research on South Asia dating back to the foundation of University of Chicago in 1892.

These are good times for the study of India at the University of Chicago. Just two years ago, with much fanfare, the University opened a Center at Delhi (to go along with other global centers in Paris, Beijing etc.). A few years before that the Indian Cultural Ministry put in $1.5 million to install the Vivekananda Visiting Chair. Earlier this year, was another major gift– The Anupama and Guru Ramakrishnan Professorship in Sanskrit Studies– a Chair that will be held by Gary Tubb.

These are bad times for the University of Chicago. In Feb 2016, the S&Ps rating agency cut its credit rating to AA- citing “persistent and expected continued operation deficits, high debt burden and adequate financial resources for the rating with additional debt expected in fiscal 2017”.

This was all pre-dicted. In 2014, Bloomberg reported:

… inherited an ambitious program to improve campus life while bolstering highly regarded academic programs. The institution stuck to the plan even as it suffered a 21.5 percent loss on endowment investments in 2009. Its debt has grown in the past four years to $3.6 billion from $2.4 billion. “We well understand that borrowing for some of these investments entails risk,” Zimmer, whose $3.36 million compensation made him the highest-paid private college president in 2011, said in a statement in August after local reporters obtained a copy of the proposed financing plan. “We cannot, however, scale back our academic and programmatic ambitions in a way that risks our future excellence as a university.”

As a result in 2015, the University claimed to look towards re-couping their losses by focusing on non-academic staff:

… it is signaling a bureaucratic revamp covering some 8,000 nonteaching staff members whose compensation has been growing faster than faculty pay and university revenue. “This means a change in how we think about administrative costs, not just a temporary adjustment of expenses,” Provost Eric Isaacs warned in an April memo to faculty and staff. At a faculty meeting the next day, President Robert Zimmer said support functions that had grown in an ad hoc fashion could be organized more efficiently, according to an attendee who asks not to be identified. Another faculty member, who also requests anonymity, says Zimmer, when pressed, “clearly acknowledged that people were going to be losing their jobs.”

It came then as no surprise that two weeks ago, a number of departmental administrators in the Humanities Division were given a month’s notice for the termination of their jobs– with the stipulation that small departments would now share administrative staff as part of this re-structuring.

One of those given notice is Alicia Czaplewski– center stage in that photograph above, taken at that gala dinner celebrating SALC few weeks ago. In her 23 years of service to the University, she worked for nearly all of those departmental Chairs. In 2011, Alicia was celebrated by her students and awarded the Marlene F. Richman Award for Excellence and Dedication in Service to Students. Alongside Alicia, Tracy L. Davis, administrator for Slavic Languages & Civilizations, was also given notice.

The students, and faculty, have a petition in her support that I urge you to read, if only to see how big an impact Alicia has had over the last fifteen years.

I want to, however, tell what it means to be an “Alicia” in a top private University at the Southside of Chicago. I have little to add about the so-called ‘corporatization’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ of the University. Such paeans are deeply ahistorical and ignore the very foundation of such private enterprises.

From 1998 to 2008, I worked in the administrative offices of University of Chicago– first five years for the Social Sciences Division and the last five for the Humanities Division. I worked at least 40 hours even before I became a benefits-eligible full-time employee in 2005. As a graduate student, I was hired at an hourly rate to build the computing administrative structure for the Divisions– payroll, accruals, reimbursements, procurement, accounts payable. This work introduced me to the administrative structures which remain invisible to students or faculty as part of everyday academic life. The systems was organized and run by people like myself, departmental administrators, finance managers, grant managers, secretarial staff, and facilities staff. For ten years, I worked almost exclusively with women of color and working-class women from Chicago’s suburbs. The average service time for these tremendous workers was never below a decade– with services rendered in 20, 30 and even 40 year cycles.

I worked with these women as they gave support, catering to the demands, whims, desires, and complaints of faculty who were paid hundreds times more and without participating in either the prestige economy or the benefits economy of the University on equal terms. Alicia, and her daughters, would pick up Speakers and Visiting Professors coming from India, at the Airport to save the department costs of taxi services. They would house them, assist them in cultural and legal translations; work late into the night, and over the weekend to help critical departmental business go forward. All of this was labor unpaid, and required, for the mere functioning of the department. All of this labor was done by Alicia, and Tricia, and Anne and every other departmental administrator for the sake of their Chairs and their tenured faculty. I bear direct witness to this labor and I know that it was done without any ‘cost-sharing’ with the University.

That was not all. Any Ph.D. program is necessarily structured to debilitate one’s sense of self-hood and sanity. Whatever sadism is intended by this ‘rite of passage’ the fact is that mental health services were not a part of Graduate Student benefits during my time at Chicago. Life– marriage, birth, death, divorce, trauma– had to happen off-screen and far away; there was no institutional ways outside of the tried and failed “leave of absence”. That task of mental health wellness for Graduate students, and faculty, was also the task of the women sitting in the departmental offices. They were the confidants, the shoulders-to-cry-on, the help, the surety of purpose for the hundreds of students and faculty. This too was uncompensated labor. In the petition, Alicia is called “the Foster Mother” (the building in which SALC is housed is Foster Hall). She was not anyone’s mother that attended or worked in Foster Hall. That she was asked to play that role is itself a condemnation of the way in which Humanities operated at Chicago. Her love and grace saved many a dissertation, and that work clearly won her devotion from the hundreds of students. That love, however, was not what she was being paid to do.

In my ten years at University of Chicago, there were many, many like Alicia who belonged to the South Side community and who served the University. When the University made a decision on how to face financially uncertain times, it relied a priori on an understanding of waste within its operation– redundancies, expired utilities, inefficiencies. To clear that waste, the most disposable people were these lower administrative staff. The access of such denizens of the South Side to a lower-middle class life, via employment at the University, has now ended at the University and the stories of retirements, lay-offs are all too common.1 In my ten years, I also witnessed the hiring and setting up of countless new “Deputy Deans” and “Associate Deans” in the Humanities– all charged with managing what was deemed unmanageable without centralization. I can assume that no cost-sharing is happening at the Divisional level.

The faculty at University of Chicago have been abdicating their governance over such matters for a long while now– and I do not know if the rally to save the SALC position will be successful. I hope that it is– but what about the Slavic position? what about the other redundancies? The financial crisis remains as do the newly built very tall, all glass structures erected by the University to house art centers or alumni relations. The time for tightening the belt is only for small departments, and those who run it, not for the grand funding campaigns and the constructions of the new New. The University is a university only if it can keep growing, keep expanding.

All that said, for the faculty and the students of SALC, there is no greater articulation of their engagements with the University than Alicia Czaplewski. They have all rallied to save her and I hope we succeed. I predict, however, that in not too distant a future they will be asked to save that department itself. It is already too late. Until then, I wanted to document the immense contributions of Alicia to the intellectual, social, and legal life at Foster Hall. We all owe her.

———
  1. University of Chicago is no friend to the community in which it has lived. It’s ethos “life of the mind” cherishes the fact that the mind is not attached to a body, and that body is not colored. The horror stories of its “largest University Police Force” are countlessly documented but less documented, or understood, is its neo-colonial restructuring of urban landscape in Hyde Park. The Urban Planning and Sociology departments worked closely with foundations to make the University part of the national conversation. See LaDale Winling, “Students and the Second Ghetto: Federal Legislation, Urban Politics, and Campus Planning at the University of Chicago,” Journal of Planning History (2011) http://jph.sagepub.com/content/10/1/59.refs. The history of its refusal to allow a Trauma Center on the South Side is, in itself, a brutal history to behold. []

3+4=7

Here is a game we used to play in Berlin. The idea began with trying to combat the righteousness with which we each organize our thoughts on our intellectual projects. When asked to narrate this to someone else, and when someone else says, ‘have you thought about…?’, we either compartmentalize that feedback (‘I will look this up later’) or dismiss it for not being serious enough. How do we teach ourselves, and others, the art of empathetic listening?

So the game goes this way. We know that 7 is a magical number: the average time to completion of dissertation, the number of years on the tenure clock, the average number of chapters in a monograph. Among other things. So, 7 minutes.

We started with a pair AB. A would begin and speak for exactly 3 minutes– they can speak about the main questions animating their research or a particular chapter or whatever they wish. They are asked to speak at a normal pace (not rush) and speak to a peer audience. As the buzzer sounded, they stopped, and immediately B picks up. B picks up the narrative, and continue speaking about the project, adding questions, themes, concerns to As ideas but drawing upon B’s own expertise, ideas, concerns and delights. However, critically, B is asked to add, augment, grow, consider, elaborate and NOT deconstruct, destroy, deteriorate. B speaks for exactly 4 minutes. At the end, there is a 3 minute period when those listening (not A not B) indicate what they liked, and help elaborate and illuminate.

The exercise was built as an antidote to the generic workshop where a colleague’s paper etc is ‘critiqued’– that is, its gaps, elisions are pointed out for the scholar to address and what the listener feels is a lacunae is attended to. We wanted to have a place for anticipatory thinking where both as a speaker and as a listener, one tries to think alongside and in tandem to.

It was a fun game and some cool things happened and then we stopped. There was another game where we downloaded weird powerpoints (usually from .mil) and did karaoke with them.

Use as you will.

In Memoriam: Nasser Hussain

CM joins our colleagues in remembering Nasser Hussain, legal theorist and scholar at Amherst, who passed away on November 9, 2015. Today, Amherst College is holding a memorial in Johnson Chapel. These are heavy times– Shahab Ahmed, Nasser Hussain, Barney Bates, the Rudolphs– for students of South Asia. Yet, they have all forged a path forward for scholarship to follow, and for ideas to flourish. Hussain’s book (as mentioned below by Professor Datla) remains a critical intervention in South Asian studies. One trenchant example is Hussain’s reading of Counter-Insurgency manual. Hussain’s critical acuity and engagement with imperial politics in that piece is fully recognizable to the readers of his scholarship. Our hearts and thoughts are with the family and colleagues of Nasser Hussain. Please find below remembrances by Professor Datla, Baxi and Lokaneeta.


Kavita Saraswathi Datla
Associate Professor of History
Mount Holyoke College

Nasser Hussain’s PhD dissertation and his first book, The Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law (University of Michigan Press, 2003), begins with a description of Pakistan’s post-independence legal crises– more specifically, the 1955 Supreme Court case that considered the Governor General’s dissolution of the constituent assembly and rule by decree. In doing so, this work proclaimed the centrality of Pakistan’s historical experience to attempts to understand the conditions of modern law, and the relationship between the rule of law and state power. This was because of the importance of the British Empire to the legal history of large portions of the globe. But it was also the case because in the history of colonial India one could see, perhaps more starkly than other contexts, how and why emergency law came to be. This study analyzed the tension between sovereign emergency and the constraints of the rule of law in a colonial territory even as it traced the impact of that tension on the development of western legalities more broadly. In British India, this pioneering work showed us, a conquest state spoke the normative language of law in ways that are of continued significance. The postcolonial peoples and states were shaped by that specific history, as well, the various contexts in which ‘emergencies’ are managed by global powers.

No ordinary South Asianist and no ordinary scholar, Nasser Hussain will be deeply missed by his colleagues, students, and scholars across disciplines, institutions, and continents. Humble and generous, Nasser may have objected to us speaking too much about him as a person. But ferocious in his pursuit of ideas, he would have had a much harder time objecting to us making a first attempt to appreciate the influence of his contributions. In the months that follow, there will undoubtedly be more extended discussions and publications about the range of Nasser’s work and its continued relevance to discussions of history, law, the humanities, and politics in South Asia and beyond. Here we hope to offer an initial and diverse set of reflections on his profound contributions.


Upendra Baxi
Emeritus Professor of Law
University of Warwick and Delhi

The sad demise of Nasser Hussain, on November. 9, 2015, who taught in the Amherst Department of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought since 1996, signifies an immeasurable loss for the world of juristic learning. His outstanding work on the states of exception that stood for a ‘jurisprudence’ of constitutional emergency is still relevant to a deeply troubled world. So is his work (coedited with Austin Sarat) on forgiveness, mercy, and clemency. Close colleagues and students know him as a deeply committed teacher and as a pioneer in the field of law and colonialism.

I did not have the good fortune of knowing him personally but am deeply influenced by Nasser’s works. In the global context today, his analyses of colonial law, the linkages between martial law and massacre, and the aporia of the rule of law remain abiding and poignant. No ideologue, he has bequeathed us a legacy of critical legal thought under conditions of colonialism that also speak (beyond South Asia) to contemporary neoliberal authoritarianism and the necessity of taking social and human suffering seriously. Nasser Hussain speaks for all subaltern scholars when he depicts how basic human freedoms are obstinately, even obscenely, denied everywhere by the triumphant market and state fundamentalisms.


Jinee Lokaneeta
Associate Professor of Political Science
Drew University

Nasser Hussain’s death on November 9, 2015 has felt like a deeply personal loss but has actually left a void in a much wider intellectual and political community—regardless of whether one knew him personally or not. I met Nasser during my graduate student days and was fortunate enough to have him engage with my work and remain a supportive figure over the years. His insightful and brilliant comments, gently but firmly articulated-— often with a beautiful smile—- had a way of staying with me long after our conversations ended, and influenced my work perhaps much more than he (or I) realized. His comments and his work have been so fundamentally transformative, above all, because his work while being disciplinarily rigorous as a legal historian could not be contained by disciplinary boundaries in ways that was quite intentional, making his iconic book Jurisprudence of Emergency a shared legacy for all.

As a political theorist, what inspired me the most was his ability to utilize theoretical concepts (that may have emerged in very specific contexts and were therefore necessarily embroiled in debates on their utility elsewhere) and brilliantly apply them to extremely complex historical events in ways that do justice both to explaining the particular event and further developing the concept theoretically. An excellent example is found in the chapter from his book titled “Martial Law and Massacre: Violence and the Limit.” He uses Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence to analyze the relationship between law and violence in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre committed by the British in colonial India. Rather than understand martial law as a way to enforce law and order, Nasser argues that it actually represents a performative and foundational violence required to recreate the (colonial) state’s authority. The problem for the colonial state in dealing with the excessive force used in this massacre is that the event might reveal the foundational violence that lies at the heart of the rule of law; this the state attempts to conceal but struggles to contain. Martial law and massacre become reflective of the ambivalent relationship of law and state to violence.

Being a theorist and historian of the rule of law and emergency, it was not surprising therefore to see him play a prominent role as an educator, public intellectual and as a theorist to make sense of Guantanamo Bay prison, Cuba in the post-9/11 context. Nasser was a member of the group of legal historians that wrote an amicus brief on the right to habeas corpus for Guantanamo detainees in 2004 (in Rasul v. Bush); he was also a part of a related virtual teach-in that included more than 200 colleges and universities in 2006. It was his concept of hyperlegality (See “Beyond Norm and Exception”) that eloquently explained the ways that law could actually enable the existence of a space such as Guantanamo even as most theorists turned to Agamben and Schmitt to term it a State of Exception, and political critics resorted to defining it as a “lawless” space. The ability to recognize what “rule of law” could accommodate in the form of new laws, regulations, procedures (prompting a continued struggle with the tensions within the law) in both colonial and postcolonial times was what Nasser’s work and interventions taught us…Grateful for the support over the years; the conversations shall continue, dear Nasser.

Rickshaw Diary

by Annie Ali Khan

Karachiscapes by Zehra Nawab
Karachiscapes by Zehra Nawab

While returning home one night from a reporting trip, I found myself in a rickshaw that was going so fast that I had to hold on to the tinsel wrapped poles for dear life. M.A. Jinnah Road, the road that forms the main artery of the city, was a blur of headlights and honking cars as the rickshaws weaved in between trucks and motorbikes. Seeing my face in the mirror, a young woman, her face and head uncovered, clearly a new customer, the old man with the grizzled beard laughed. “Here you have to learn to walk while holding the finger of death.” This was my first lesson navigating in the city.

His name was Lauri Baba, a word that means someone who is loved by his people. Lauri Baba, was an old resident of Lyari, the heart of the city of Karachi. But what is your real name, I asked him. “Even my own parents do not remember my real name,” he said. But he knew the city like the back of his hand.

A fellow reporter, also a young woman, told me she had taken a rickshaw home well past midnight one night. The rickshaw wallah veered off the main road. She began to scream. “If you did not want to have sex, then why are you out so late?” he said. He dropped her home. But he looked angry. Once I wanted to get home well past midnight. After standing by the roadside on Shahrah-e-Faisal, across from the Naval museum, for half an hour all I saw were strange cars slowly driving past, full of men. A flower seller sitting, who had long closed shop and was chatting with a friend on the pavement asked me where I wanted to go then called his rickshaw driver friend, who dropped me home. A friend visiting Karachi asked me what I did when I was out late. I take a rickshaw, I told her. It is the safest ride. I can always jump out. Rickshaws are pronounced “ruck-shah” and it is the Hindi word for protection. I always repeat that to myself. If you grew up on Bollywood films of the 90s there was a lot of reference to that sort of thing in those movies featuring macho men.

In an empty lot in the neighborhood of Gulshan-e-Iqbal, in one of the biggest migrant settlement, an inner-city neighborhood, beside the apartment building where my grandmother lives, there are always five or six rickshaw wallahs waiting in a row for passengers. They wait there amidst garbage heaps, where a man in tattered shalwar and no kamiz leads a herd of bony cows to graze every morning on the weeds. The paan wallah leans out of the window of his stall and cracks a betel-stained smile.

The rickshaw wallahs pass the hours playing a game using pebbles set in concentric chalk squares drawn on the roadside. They always look up and stop playing when I come by and then nods will be exchanged as to who will give me a ride. A kick to the rickshaw motor and we are on our way.

The rickshaw wallah has a hole in his ear. It is a hole the size of a small pea in the center of the cartilage. In the early morning when the sunlight is dim I believe I can see a bit of the road through his ear. Most times, there is a bright spot of light shining through. His mother pierced it with a fat needle when he was a little boy. It was back when he lived in the mountains in the north and apparently it was the only known cure for chicken pox.

A woman in a purple burqa sits by the roadside in front of the mausoleum of the Quaid, where the founder of the country is buried. The mausoleum is halfway between the area of Gulshan where my naani lives and Empress Market. A white domed structure in the center of a park. I have never been. There have been reports in the news of girls getting nabbed there so my parents never took us there. I remember reading the report of a girl who went missing while visiting the mausoleum with her family on a holiday. She was abducted by unknown men and was later raped in the basement of the mazaar. A Baloch man told me his cousin visiting from interior Sindh stopped to pray while passing by the white stone structure. “But he is no pir,” the Baloch berated his cousin who replied. “He must be have mystical powers, he gave us Pakistan.” The woman in the deep purple shuttlecock burqa is completely concealed. Nothing shows, except for her hands reaching out from the heavy folds of the burqa, moving over something on the road. It is unsettling and I see the rickshaw wallah veers a bit away from her whenever we pass by. She is there every morning, the purple of her burqa vivid and yet silent in the early morning gray.

There is another older rickshaw wallah who constantly scratches his bald head and always rushes out from the line of parked rickshaws when I come outside. He is safe I think. But sometimes I notice him adjusting the mirror and I see my face in it, and I see his eyes locking with mine. I’d much rather he kept his stare fixed on the road.
Continue reading “Rickshaw Diary”

Lahore: Marks It Bears II

Yesterday’s suicide attack on lower-and middle class citizens of Lahore, celebrating Easter or enjoying Sunday festivities in a park, is devastating to behold. The victims, now numbered in 100s, were enjoying the few, free pleasures of Lahore’s public spaces at the Gulshan Iqbal Park. In targeting a public park, knowing full well that it is where families would be, the Ahrar are hitting spaces which are not secured and which provide religious cover for them– they have claimed this, and last year’s bombings at Youhanabad in Lahore. In both cases, the claimed targets are Christians.

In the aftermath of the horrific Peshawar school assault in December 2014 a new narrative emerged in Pakistan. One in which the military, with the face of General Raheel Sharif, was provided all public support for military operations in N. Waziristan– including “indigenous drones“. That war has continued un-abated while Raheel Sharif’s personhood has become the face of a “resilient” Pakistan.

Lahore. Lahore in 2016 is a new city of enclaves, suburbs, brand new cars, boutiques, parked money from Dubai and Karachi. Its moneyed homes are well-protected. Its elite do not congregate; and when they gather in movie halls or public spaces, they do so behind security columns and checkpoints. Lahore in 2016 is also a key migratory point for young men from southern Punjab and northern territories who are enrolled in schools, madrasas or employed in the many factories dotting its circumference. The state has poured millions of tons of concrete over Lahore to build new highways and train-lines. The cement houses of “old” Lahore are now crumbling. This “old” Lahore is the Lahore of Allama Iqbal Town, Model Town, Sadr, Walton, Gulshan-e Ravi. This is the Lahore whose denizens would head to the public park to celebrate Eid or Easter. These are the Lahoris who make for easy targets– the loss of whose lives is not going to prompt the State to re-think its relationship to terrorists.

A few days ago, the attack in Brussels hit close to home for me. I have been pre-occupied by safety of loved ones. Lahore remains the only city I can ever call home. I worry about my family, friends, colleagues who are scattered across Lahore’s surface. The vast majority of them outside of securitized compounds. Raheel Sharif is promising that the aggressors behind this attack, who are from Southern Punjab, will be militarily handled. I have done my research in southern Punjab and I know well what the State sees there. There is no security that I can imagine coming to Lahore from further militarization. Nor do I imagine lack of action to be fruitful. The fact is that we have vast swathes of everyday citizenry trapped in a singular militarized discourse for nearly thirty years now. The leaders of political or religious parties, the apparatchiks, the followers, the crowds, the missing majorities, all. The textbooks remain full of incitement to violence. The media gleefully cheers shredding the few who speak against. Those who survive the media are silenced by bullets.

The Pakistani civilian state has clearly articulated its preference for a technocratic solution to Pakistan. The military state remains agnostic– supporting Nawaz Sharif when it feels like, while building its new idol, Raheel Sharif. The recent execution of the murderer of Salman Taseer, and the subsequent ‘release‘ of his son are evidences of the first state. The capture of the RAW agent and the current “dharna” in Islamabad cases in point for the latter. This is not a dialectical struggle for the soul of Pakistan, however. This is not the classic “an army for the country vs a country for the army”, either. It is the contest of who will control the flow of Capital into Pakistan and who gets to park it in which parts. This young country with an near-infinite pool of cheap labor is the final prize in a contest between the many reigning idols of chaos and commerce.

To Barney

Bernard Bate (Barney to all) was a profoundly gifted scholar of Tamil language and an anthropologist. He was currently a Humanities Fellow at Stanford– while being the HoS of Anthropology at Yale-NUS in Singapore. His sudden passing has left all of us who knew him and admired him and loved him in profound shock. He was 52. This is a great loss. Just a few days ago, he gave a wonderful talk at Berkeley on Tamil oratory.

Barney visited CM often and he commented with glee and I know that he liked the spirit and style of our work. Here is a tweet that captures his spirit well.

We will miss him. Our hearts go out to his family and friends.

Why Sheldon Pollock

Plates from Sheldon Pollock, "Ramayana and Political Imagination in India" The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297
Plates from Sheldon Pollock, “Ramayana and Political Imagination in India” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297

The struggles at JNU are now reaching other institutions in India– the Lok Sabha, the courts, the media channels. Though, to be fair, the struggles at JNU were first troubles at University of Hyderabad, and before that at IIT Madras. Certainly, before that at Kashmir University. The world outside Delhi, Hyderabad, Madras, Srinagar has stood in solidarity with these struggles. Across South Asia, in UK, in America, hundreds of thousands have stood up, spoken, signed their names to be counted in the struggles. There are numerous vectors coinciding in this– anti-caste, pro-freedom of speech, pro-academy, anti-Modi and more. Sheldon Pollock, the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University is one such supporter– having signed a petition for JNU. Presumably for this support, Pollock is now the target of a petition against him– demanding that he be removed from his editorial role at a series he founded. You can read about the petition here and a rebuttal from Dominic Wujastyk here.

Given that this petition is a publicity effort aimed at harassing a scholar, I was tempted to ignore it. However, as the news of this petition has circulated, I realized that people are largely unaware of both Pollock’s scholarship, and the history of why scholarship– such as his or Wendy Doniger’s– is consistently under attack by the Hindu Right parties. Unaware of either, I see the danger of people jumping to conclusions about the validity of the slur against Pollock or why it matters that we speak up for him. It is important, I think, that we properly contextualize the intellectual work of Pollock’s career but also the claims behind his detractors. This attack on Pollock has a genealogy, more precise and more general, than what is readily evident– the Hindutva Right has long targeted historical production on Indian past that was anti-caste, anti-communal or feminist, and it has long targeted Sheldon Pollock for articulating how political imagination frames historical thinking.

This is a struggle for the right to narrate–connecting JNU and Pollock. Pollock, too, is charged as an “anti-national” because slogans were reportedly chanted for Kashmir or Pakistan at JNU. The text of the petition requires that we see the Indian nationalist state as strictly Hindu, strictly masculine, and strictly aggrieved. The Petition’s effort to ask for “native” (read Hindu) Indologist has consumed Indian politics for a while now.

Today there is a call to #removemughalsfrombooks— and it perfectly encapsulates my contention. Books, written texts, need to be cleaned out; British histories, and colonial readings of Mughals eliminated; a Hindu history written in.

That history– written history– erased Hindu pasts is a long-standing argument of the Hindu right. M. S. Golwalkar, whom the Wikipedia notes is one of the inspirations for Modi and who was a founding member of Rashtriya Swayanmsevak Sangh (RSS), condemned textbooks in his 1938 pamphlet, “We, or Our Nationhood Defined”. The very first footnote begins:

It is interesting to note the colossal ignorance of Historians of the West, about ancient History. Every child in Hindustan knows that Ramayan is the work of the father of Sanskrit poetry Valmiki and the first piece of literature in Sanskrit. … Unfortunately such misconceptions are stuffed into the brains of our young ones through text books appointed by various Universities in the country. It is high time that we studied, understood, and wrote our history ourselves and discarded such designed or un-designed distortions

The child that naturally knows better than any “Historian of the West” is the child whose mind is later filled with distortions– distortions introduced by the same Historians via textbooks; textbooks taught in schools and universities.

I merely hint at the presence of this reading of textbooks at the heart of seminal RSS texts. The nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of those decades notwithstanding, textbooks became a primary site to war over the right to narrate in South Asia.1 In India, textbooks (and schools and universities and History) was a battlefield during the Ayodhya movement to replace Babri Masjid. At the forefront of that struggle were historians– Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and many more– who published petitions, open letters, articles in defense of a better understanding of the past. Neeladri Bhattacharyya, who was himself involved with the NCERT, wrote a full account of this struggle in his “Teaching History in Schools: the Politics of Textbooks in India2:

The narratives of the Hindu right are constructed around two parallel, yet contradictory, claims: one, that Hindus have a pure Aryan descent, the other, that Hindus are the original inhabitants of India. Only through such claims could the Muslims be represented as outsiders, foreigners who came and imposed their oppressive rule in India. But such an argument could only be made through a series of other assertions. If Hindu descent was to be traced back to the Aryans, and if they were to be presented as the original inhabitants, then it was not possible to accept that Aryans came from outside, or that they were pastoralists, or that there were flourishing local cultures within India before the coming of the Aryans. Within this narrative, the Indus valley civilization (also termed Harappan civilization, from Harappa, the first of its cities to be excavated) could not be celebrated and seen as pre-Aryan at the same time. It had to be presented as contemporary with Vedic times (when the sacred Hindu texts were written), or, part of the Aryan culture.

As the Hindu right consolidated from the mid 1970s, the secular textbooks became a target of persistent attacks. The secular historians were condemned as anti-Hindu, keen on sanitizing Muslim wrongs, erasing their misdeeds. The newspaper columns of the Hindu right suggested that these secular historians should migrate to Pakistan, and settle in a Muslim country. Many of the authors regularly received anonymous letters and death threats. In 1977, after the emergency years, a coalition of parties came to power in New Delhi. Under pressure from the right within the coalition, one of the first measures of this government was to withdraw these NCERT school books from circulation – an act that led to widespread protests. In 1999, when the Hindu right came to power at the centre, the textbooks were once again the site of intense controversy. ‘Objectionable passages’ from the books (especially any that referred to beef-eating in Ancient India) were deleted as hurtful to Hindu sensibilities.7 Then the textbooks themselves were withdrawn and a new set of texts introduced – texts which for the first time actually contained many of the communal ideas that till now had only circulated in the popular press or been taught in communal schools.

Neeladri Bhattacharya, a Professor at JNU, has long been a member of this struggle and JNU a long-standing site where this struggle is enacted. In 2007, I remember Professor Bhattacharya’s visit to University of Chicago where he presented this paper. In attendance were Professor Muzaffar Alam, Wendy Doniger and others. The University of Chicago’s South Asian Languages and Civilizations department had also long been a site of struggle to write Indian pasts.

Sheldon Pollock was faculty at University of Chicago when he published, in 1993, his essay “Ramayana and the Political Imagination in India” (Journal of Asian Studies). Pollock’s essay was a direct response to BJP’s rathyātra in 1990 and the riots that followed. Led by Advani this journey through north India’s sacral sites had a distinct purpose of invoking a past to frame contemporary calls for the destruction of Babri Masjid. Pollock, a renowned philologist and Sanskritist, opened the essay with Advani to set forth his intellectual question3:

It is the symbology of these events that I want to examine in what follows. For whatever ideological cohesion the BJP secured, and the primary impetus for political mobilization– in the name of a Hindu theocratic politics and against the Muslim population– derived in large part from the invocation of specific set of symbols: the figure of the warrior-god Rāma, his birthplace temple in Ayodhyā, and the liberation of this sacred site. … There is a long history to the relationship between Rāmayaṇa and political symbology (p.262)

Pollock then provides precisely that history– of how the text and political imagination coalesce in the eleventh to fourteenth century around different imperial formations. The essay, truly a masterpiece in South Asian historiography, bears some attention here. I will skip Pollock’s recreation of how the past was remembered, and Rama interpellated, in those pasts, to concentrate on his last section where he brings us to why the struggle was on the domain of history itself. In that section– Historicist Intervention– he begins:

If the adoption of the Rāmāyaṇa to process the events of the eleventh to fourteenth centuries suggests a complex interplay of culture and political power, equally complex is the problem of the present with which I started, the reappropriation of this imaginary in contemporary India. And, indeed, all that I’ve recorded seems to have little directly to contribute to this question, to making sense of the display of cultural symbols in the pursuit of political objectives in contemporary India. There are at least two questions here, both difficult to answer: What possible relationships, if any, can be posited between the reemergence of Rāma– the Rāma of L.K. Advani of the BJP– and an earlier political semiotics of Rāma– the Rāma, say, of Pṛthvīrāja III? And what does it mean to seek to intervene in the present via an archeology such as I have presented; what is the role of history in the current contention? (p. 288)

The critique Pollock presents pivots on the foundations of objectivist history, Hegel’s “historical History”, which Pollock writes:

bears a substantial measure of responsibility for the reactionary politics and the romantic historicism driving them for the past century, in Europe as well as Asia. Ayodhyā would hardly have assumed the dimensions of the present problem were it not for the scientized historicity itself (objectified in such texts as the archaeological reports and colonial gazetteers constantly cited by the parties to the dispute) and the pursuit of origins it delusively inspires. (emphasis added, p. 292)

For Pollock to counter BJP’s utilization of sacral symbols, in 1993, was to present the construction and social function of history’s political imagination. Pollock followed up with influential texts, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India (2006), and set the agenda for a new historically situated world philology, “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World” (2009).4.

Since 1993, Pollock has remained a target for the Hindu Right in the US, especially for Rajiv Malhotra and his Infinity Foundation. Malhotra, and his various foundations, target Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock as being “Historians of the West” whose works introduce “distortions” into the minds of the “Hindu child”. Malhotra’s long effort to criminalize and ban Doniger for introducing “perversity” into Sanskrit is now moved into criticizing Pollock as a Swadeshi Orientalist.

Malhotra relies on a vast array of listserv-driven, twitter-fueled, IT-based Hindu diaspora community that writes petitions, emails, and denounces these scholars. In 2014, Malhotra began targeting Pollock over his efforts to strengthen the teaching of Sanskrit at Columbia.

On January 17, 2016, Malhotra published his call to arms, again, to target Pollock– on his blog, “Why Sheldon Pollock is a very important Indologist to engage“. Malhotra cites as a particular target, “the most prestigious feathers in his cap”, the Murty Classical Library. This attack is thus, by design and plan, and it is aimed to both boost Malhotra’s own books and rile the twitterati against a scholarly target. At his behest, and follow Malhotra’s twitter feed to see this in real action, the desh-bhakts take aim at Pollock’s position at the Murty Classical Library.

It bears stating, without too much exaggeration, that Harvard University Press’ Murty Classical Library is one of the most important and consequential projects for South Asian pasts. As Pollock was quoted in NYT’s cover on the launch last year, “The Murty will offer ‘something the world had never seen before, and something that India had never seen before: a series of reliable, accessible, accurate and beautiful books that really open up India’s precolonial past'”.

Pollock’s vision for the project is clear from that 1993 article itself. Why put new, scholarly secure, Indic texts in the hands of everyone who wishes for them? What effect does a direct access to critically edited and produced text, and its English translation have on contemporary reader? At its most basic, it reveals the space within which the political imagination operates. The MCL will, or does, have volumes from Buddhist, Sufi, Bhakti, Vedic, Courtly pasts from Tamil, Sindhi, Prakrit, Marathi, Apabhramsha, Sanskrit, Persian, Punjabi, Telegu, Pali, Old Hindi. These scripts, as they defuse through the social, will create a set of new readers who shall have the power to articulate their political as textually grounded not merely historicist. The valorization of Sanskrit as the language of Gods is precisely to remove it from our world– to envelop it in gloss.

The textbook is one particular gloss. A critical absence in education, visible to me from Pakistan and from United States, is the availability of primary Indic texts, available in English. For a student to understand the social function of a given text, it is incumbent that they articulate their way through that text– that they directly experience its structure, its texture, its illusions and its narrative. Pollock’s 1993 essay remains a classical example of such articulation. In my estimation, the greatest impact of Murty Classical Library will be felt precisely in the classroom.

I am a student of Sheldon Pollock and a graduate of University of Chicago. I am now a colleague of his at Columbia. While I was in Berlin, I worked, alongside other colleagues, to launch a project Zukunftsphilologie which built upon and situated Pollock’s work in German academy. I write today to support my teacher and colleague, and to acknowledge that his intellectual and institutional contributions have shaped the study of South Asia in this present century. No number of signatories to any petition can un-write that fact.

———
  1. In Pakistan, textbooks were sites of forgetting and erasures, whether of Hindus, Bengali, Baluchi or Sindhi. Some historians– mainly Mubarak Ali and K.K. Aziz– tried to combat such erasures but the state of Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s carried out a whole scale erasure of history programs– and historians– and that battle was quickly over. []
  2. Neeladri Bhattacharya, “Teaching History in Schools: the Politics of Textbooks in India” History Workshop Journal(2009) 67 (1): 99-110 []
  3. I should note that Pollock was joining a large number of Indian social scientists and historians who had been writing on the issue of Babri Masjid since the mid 1980s. For an overview, see Gyanendra Pandey, “Modes of History Writing: New Hindu History of Ayodhya” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 25 (Jun. 18, 1994), pp. 1523-1528 []
  4. The project to understand the “pursuit of origins” remained unfinished; though I am hoping Cynthia Talbot’s new book The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 and my forthcoming book re-starts that conversation []