CASI Student Blog
Let me start off by wishing everyone a happy new year! 2020 was a sad and difficult year for many, and I hope that the new year will bring some semblance of normalcy.
As I shared in my first post, I am currently in my second and final year of coursework. Fall 2020 was also my first semester of being a Teaching Assistant. It suffices to say that active research took a bit of a backseat given the demands of both taking three classes and teaching one! In this post, I focus on what I learnt and worked on during the course of the semester. (I intend to write a separate post about my experience being a first-time TA in a remote learning world!)
Through my substantive courses (Evolving Perspectives in Comparative Politics and American Political Behavior), I was exposed to the intellectual history of comparative politics and political behavior more broadly. This has helped me a lot to situate my research interests in the larger literature. The one methods course I did this this semester (Applied Statistics III) introduced me to Bayesian inference in addition to being an excellent refresher on causal inference methods.
During the course of the semester, I pursued three research ideas which I briefly mention below.
First, employing the “text as data” approach I learnt this semester, I explored the issues that different political parties prioritize in legislative bodies. I used text data from the Question Hour in the Indian Parliament (1999-2019), and specifically analyzed questions Members of Parliament asked about Jammu and Kashmir for the period that this dataset covers. [A big shout-out to this fantastic resource made available for researchers: “TPCD-IPD: TCPD Indian Parliament Dataset (Question Hour) 1.0”. Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University]
Second, I designed a research project with my collaborators around networks and potential peer effects among local politicians in Bihar, India. As I write this, we are in the middle of enrolling participants in our study which will be launched in mid-January.
Third, I revisited an older project with an objective to understand how Muslim-majority villages (in Bihar) may be different from others in terms of public goods provision and private wealth, and worked on a research design to causally examine the role of political representation in explaining the patterns and trends that emerge from the data. Implementing the design will involve collating government data and perhaps even collecting new data.
While my primary agenda of building a framework for thinking about politician-bureaucrat-frontline worker relationships at the lowest levels of government in India is continuing into Spring 2021, I am currently in the process of building collaborations that will enable me to test some of my initial hypotheses using existing data collected by other researchers and sharpen my own specific data collection requirements.
In subsequent posts, I will expand on all of the above!
The 2020 American presidential election is one of the most historic and dramatic the country has seen. The end of voting on November 3 marked the culmination of three concurrent crises: a jobs crisis brought about by a collapsing economy, a healthcare crisis thrown into light by the pandemic, and the problem of racism and police brutality all over the country. As a non-citizen living in the United States, these crises were playing out in front of my eyes without me being able to undertake the most fundamental exercise to play my role to help combat them: voting.
But although I could not vote in the election, I realized I could play a small role in another way. Combining my interest in Indian an American politics with my expertise in survey methods, along with co-authors Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav I undertook a pre-election survey of 1500 Indian-American adults residing in the United States, aimed at understanding their political attitudes, foreign policy attitudes, voting behavior, polarization and ideology ahead of the American 2020 general election.
One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most consequential foreign policy innovations is his government’s sustained emphasis on the Indian diaspora. Since first coming to power in 2014, Modi has harnessed the diaspora like no Indian leader before him, seeking to leverage the size as well as political and financial clout of non-resident Indians in order to bolster India’s standing. This “diaspora diplomacy” has inspired a burgeoning debate on both the causes and consequences of this recent foreign policy shift.
In reaching out to diaspora communities, Modi has devoted disproportionate time to cultivating Indian-Americans through high-profile events such as the 2019 “Howdy, Modi!” rally in Houston and an earlier 2014 address to a packed Madison Square Garden crowd in New York City. There are several reasons for this outsize emphasis on Indian-Americans.
Indian-Americans are one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in the United States. At present, there are roughly 4.6 million people of Indian origin in the United States; this is a six-fold increase from the 450,000 Indian immigrants living in the United States in 1990 (Kapur, 2019). Over the last 15 years, more Indian immigrants have obtained permanent legal residency in the United States than over the entirety of the 20th century. Indian-Americans are among the most highly educated racial or ethnic groups in the country. The median annual household income of Indian-Americans is the largest of any Asian immigrant group and nearly twice that of the average American household (DeSilver, 2014). Indian-Americans are a major provider of remittances, foreign portfolio investment, and inward foreign direct investment to India. In recent years, the political clout of Indian-Americans has grown with the community’s representation expanding in the halls of the Congress, in leadership positions in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, and in state houses across the country.
And yet, Indian-Americans are a severely understudied immigrant population. To date, there not been a single, dedicated survey of Indian-American political and social attitudes. Nor has there been a systematic effort to analyze the attitudes of Indian-Americans vis-à-vis India. As a result, there are key gaps in our knowledge.
There is a small body of survey data on the domestic political attitudes of Indian-Americans. (for example, the National Asian American Survey). However, this data comes from broader surveys of Asian-Americans and so the sample size of Indian-Americans is invariably small, rendering analysis of variation within the Indian-American community impossible. Furthermore, none of these studies (to our knowledge) examined how Indian-Americans view developments in their homeland. For instance, Pew surveys regularly ask Americans about their views on India, but Indian-Americans constitute–at best–a tiny (and unmeasured) fraction of their sample of respondents.
Previous surveys of Asian-Americans (of which Indian-Americans constitute a small subset) suggest Indians are among the most loyal constituents of the Democratic Party (according to the 2016 National Asian American Survey, 77 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Hilary Clinton while just 16 percent backed Donald Trump). Yet, their socio-economic status suggests precisely the opposite should hold true. Indian-Americans are commonly described as fervent supporters of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s nationalist agenda in India, but this conventional wisdom is based largely on anecdotes and a small (but vocal) coterie of high-profile boosters.
The Indian-American community is a young one; each year, more than 150,000 of them become newly eligible to vote in U.S. elections. Yet, we did not have a survey dedicated to Indian Americans in the country. To remedy this, we launched the Indian American Attitudes Survey (IAAS), a nationally representative survey of 1,200 Indian Americans ahead of the 2020 US elections.
My next blog post will analyze the results from our survey data.
When the pandemic hit, many of us who planned qualitative research were preparing to travel to our field sites. What was initially a ‘wait and watch’ scenario, ended up being a situation where we had to consider a complete revamp of our methodologies; I know of colleagues who had to change their topics entirely because of the difficulty in conducting ‘remote’ fieldwork. I used the CASI Summer Research Fellowship this year to attempt remote connections to my field sites. Here are my initial reflections from that exercise.
First, these initial conversations with research participants were very personal. Contrary to my assumption that my research participants would refuse to speak to me until they were ready, I realised that they wanted to talk; but those conversations were personal. They discussed individual and family stresses, issues better discussed with therapists than researchers. I certainly am not trained for this. In the end, I allowed them to talk and just listened cognisant of the fact that I wouldn’t be able to use much of this material. What I did build up were relationships that would hold good in subsequent periods of research.
Second, I learned that people like to tell stories, and using different media to solicit their stories gave my respondents more control over the narrative, and felt less like a formal ‘interview’. During this period, while my participants’ verbal conversations with me were personal, I asked them to take photographs and videos of their everyday-life in relation to my research question. I found this more useful to my research process. What I now have is an audio-visual repository of photo-voice stories that speak to adaptations to living informally during a pandemic. I plan to structure questions around the audio-visual material I have received personal to each participant later this year for more systematic inquiry.
Finally, I learned that technology was both a hindrance and a tool of communication at this time for two reasons. First, the communities I research are urban, but can also be socio-economically disadvantaged. I faced a variety of issues from a complete lack of smart phones to poor internet connectivity in those particular settlements. In an observation on gender-based access to technology, I found that even in households where smartphones were in use, my research participants (all female), either did not have a phone at all, or only had basic phones. In the rare cases they did have smart phones, they were very basic models. Other family members (husbands, and male children) had the latest models of smart phones they could afford. Very rarely could my participants access these smartphones, and given the requirements to protect their privacy, I did not encourage them to use this strategy. The lack of (smart)phones made communication difficult; I could neither interview them (or get clear recordings of the voices when I did interview them), nor could they take clear photographs with their phones. In the end, they we decided to get each research participant a smart phone with an adequate data plan. This really opened up communication.
Second, and in a related vein, while regulations for Human Subject Research are well developed for in-person research, the guidance is sparse for remote fieldwork. What happens when you ask the same sets of questions from a distance? How can you successfully protect your human subjects, particularly their privacy, while conducting research? The first hurdle was technology. What would be the best program to use for these remote interviews? While Zoom is ubiquitous with many people, for my participants, Zoom was an extra program to learn during a difficult period of personal adjustment. Most of them prefer WhatApp instead. Luckily WhatsApp calls and chat are encrypted end-to-end, but it is unclear whether this level of encryption would pass muster with IRBs. Thus far, I use WhatsApp to solicit photo-voice material, and am slowly introducing them to Zoom calls; the University of Pennsylvania has a HIPAA compliant Zoom license. The second hurdle is the space where these conversations are conducted. Anyone who has ever conducted fieldwork, including interviews in informal settlements in the Global South, knows that ‘conversations’ are rarely private. Even if you begin with one person, other members of the household join in or even neighbours from the street and passersby will proffer their opinions during your ‘interview’. But even in this case in-person controls are possible. For example, once rapport is developed, I usually speak to women during their ‘alone time’, for example between 5 and 6 am when the household is asleep, but the women are awake preparing for the day. In this remote setting such variables are hard to control for. The time-difference means that I am unusually situated to talk to them at whatever time is convenient for them. Whether they will engage with a video interview that early in the morning is another question altogether.
Kerala was lauded for being both, the most responsive to the pandemic, as well as the most effective in its state response to the pandemic. Oftentimes, the state’s response was seen as more restrictive than the national response, especially in the early days of the pandemic. As we will see, subsequent state action was aligned to national directives. Although there was initial success, Kerala’s case numbers have steadily climbed. Recent case numbers show that Kerala has at times even overtaken Maharashtra in its case numbers. This blog traces the pandemic response of the state with the four ‘Lockdown’ phases and four ‘Unlock’ phases of the Government of India comparing responses and finally demonstrating the impact in numbers from the state’s own dashboard. From March to September 2020, the Government of India issued 61 orders and letters to states regarding the pandemic; in the same period, the State Government of Kerala issued 68 government orders and circulars. This blog reviews those orders, juxtaposing state action with national action for pandemic response.
Kerala started early, earlier than most national governments the world over. Within a week of the WHO notification of the novel Coronavirus on 14th January, a Primary Control Room was set up with comprehensive guidelines on screening, testing, and admission issued. All airports followed pandemic protocols, isolation wards were set up in hospitals near these airports, and education and entertainment centres were closed. The machinery established to respond to the Nipah virus was now mobilised in all 14 districts of the state. By early February, with large numbers of workers returning home from the Gulf states, testing in state laboratories was now functional. At the national level, in January, early travel advisories had been issued and only passengers from China and Hongkong were being screened at three international airports.
The Kerala’s response in the pandemic’s first three months was a combination of the rapid action described above, combined with concerted action from March 2020 onwards. The first order issued ensured centralised control under the office of the Chief Secretary; in short, all action was to be coordinated directly by the Chief Secretary’s office and unified communication was to be issued. The second pillar of response was the War Room. In its original avatar, the War Room was a 24/7 contact centre for complaints, transportation, and logistics. The War Room was restructured in August to include a focus on increasing testing (including by private labs), ensuring the availability of health professionals, medical equipment, PPE, and adequate treatment facilities, and monitor the flood situation int the state. Finally, movement and safety protocols were issued, controlling behaviour to prevent community spread.
From March to May 2020, invoking the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, the Government of India had four successive Lockdowns, preceded by a national travel ban. From the first to the fourth lockdown, the strategy moved from complete containment of movement of people to defining hotspots or containment zones where people’s movement would be completely curtailed. In these periods of lockdown, movement of people was restricted to essential trade and orders to protect migrants on the move. From June to September 2020, each month had a successive “Unlock” period where restrictions of people’s movement were gradually relaxed, except within the containment zones (red). With the fourth “Unlock” period, free travel of people across states was permitted, and states were permitted to specify geographies smaller than districts such as wards or blocks for containment. By early May, states were ordered not to dilute the centre’s guidelines, and in August, states were no longer permitted to restrict inter-state movement, or issue special permits for movement of goods and persons.
From April 2020 onwards, Kerala launched its “Break the Chain” campaign. A reading of government orders and circulars shows that there were five pillars of this campaign. First, the state government aligned its action with national government orders. Often within 24 hours of the Central government issuing an order (or clarification), the state government would issue its own order, appending the national order, and clarifying how those orders would play out at the district and local levels. Second, Kerala placed strong emphasis on border control. Within the state, this translated into guidelines for the movement of people into and out of containment (red) zones, and across district boundaries. Within districts and cities, various restrictions were in place: For May and June, Sundays were under strict lockdown; Even in September, a night curfew (9pm to 5am) was still in place; All banks were closed on weekends; and for an entire month, Thiruvananthapuram district was shut down. The state also issued detailed guidelines for the movement of people into and out of the state, including through international borders (air and sea ports). Here, the state’s Covid19Jagratha portal, initially developed to trace people coming in from international ports, developed over the months to a comprehensive information and contact tracing portal. The state even made special requests to the Indian Missions in the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to test returnees before they boarded the plane.
Third, the state adapted existing facilities for COVID19 use. Given the strong tourism and hospitality infrastructure in the state, in May, Kerala ordered that at least 10 hotels per district be offered to international returnees to quarantine in. Initially Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) hotels were assigned; district administrators would add to the list with private operators subsequently. In addition to hotels, Kerala ordered the setup of COVID Firstline Treatment Centres (CFLTCs) and Reverse Quarantine Facilities with at least 100 beds each to isolate the vulnerable from possible infection if quarantine facilities are not available to them at home. Fourth, these actions were accompanied by publicity campaigns and the establishment of helplines in each district.
Finally, the state issued two related ordinances. First, on 27th March, the Kerala Epidemic Disease Ordinance was published, followed by the Kerala Epidemic Disease Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) Additional Regulations, 2020 was issued on 2nd July. This specified eight main restrictions, including mandating facemarks in public and while traveling, maintaining a six feet distance, the maximum number of participants at weddings and funerals (50 and 20 people respectively), banning social gatherings larger than 10 people, banning spitting in public, mandating that all travels register on the Covid19Jagratha portal, and finally, suspending interstate carriage road transport.Graph 2: Kerala’s COVID19 Numbers from the state government dashboard (January – September 2020)
From the numbers above, it is obvious that for the first half of the year, when the state government was in complete control of the pandemic response, the numbers were under control. There appears to be a strong correlation between the rise in Kerala’s COVID19 numbers from July onwards and the Government of India’s Unlock phases. Given that so much of Kerala’s response was predicated on the control of people’s movement, having to surrender that strategy has resulted in the freer movement of people, and subsequently the spread of the virus.
This is my final report on my summer research project, previously described here and here.
A striking feature of the literature of the ‘Indo-Anglian’ period is the proliferation of memoirs and autobiographical narratives that engage in what we would today call auto-ethnography. In libraries of the better sort, these memoirs can take up entire bookcases, checked out once every ten years or so by graduate students ploughing their way through yet another dissertation on representations of “home” or “Indian identity” in Anglophone writing . Thanks to a research grant from CASI, I had the chance to become one of these graduate students myself this summer. This blog post is about one of the better-known stories in this genre, Rohinton Mistry’s “Lend Me Your Light”, first published in the Toronto South Asian Review and later collected in Tales from Firozsha Baag (Penguin, 1987).
A typical ‘Indio-Anglian’ auto-ethnographic narrative tracks the ambiguous transnational journeys of a deracinated young man, whose Anglophone education (and/or years abroad) has left him introspective to the point of being narcissistic, burning with literary and sexual ambitions that he is incapable of realizing. The novels of the diplomat and Milton scholar Balachandra Rajan and the M.I.T.-trained corporate executive Arun Joshi exemplify this genre, whose politics range from politically incorrect paeans to the British Empire (such as Nirad C. Chaudhari’s The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian), to more ponderous ruminations on the incompatibility of European and Indian civilizations (such as Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope). In the early post-Independence years, it was postwar England that was the default site for Anglophone Indian yearning; after the immigration reforms of the 1960s, north America became more prominent in the Indian imagination. While some of this exilic literature arose in response to racism and anticipated the postcolonial turn of the 1980s and ‘90s — I’m thinking , for instance, of Anita Desai’s Bye Bye Blackbird (1971) and Kamala Markandaya’s The Nowhere Man (1972) — this is not really a body of work known for its political radicalism or its attention to the metaphysics of race. No desi Frantz Fanon emerged from this churning, no poet who addressed his brown skin and declared “O my body, make of me a man who always questions”. The “double consciousness” of the Indo-Anglians, such as it was, was more likely to take the form of melancholia than rage.
Unlike many Indian languages, where post-Independence disillusionment often took the form of a return to the village— such as in Phanishwarnath Renu’s Maila Aanchal (Hindi, ‘The Soiled Border’, 1954), Srilal Shukla’s Raag Durbari (Hindi, ‘In a Courtly Mood’, 1968), or O.V. Vijayan’s Khassakinte Itahasam (Malayalam, ‘The Legends of Khasak’, 1969) — it was homelessness and exile that became dominant themes in English-language writing. A relatively late work in the genre, Rohinton Mistry’s “Lend Me Your Light” nonetheless contains many of the same melancholic, exilic motifs characteristic of the fictions of Balachandra Rajan and Arun Joshi: an adolescence spent in the shadow of an imagined West; a “failed” encounter with the village; and desultory international flights that bring no final answers or epiphanies, but instead render both the starting-point and destination into hazy, unreal places. Alongside other stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag, “Lend me Your Light” has been typically interpreted by critics as a work of immigrant art, reflecting a “double diasporic experience”: of Zoroastrians in India, and Indians in Canada. Yet, as my research on the literature of post-Nehruvian disillusionment suggests, a story like “Lend Me Your Light” can also be read in a multilingual and comparative framework: as a work of Indian modernism, belonging to its time and place in the same way as a Marathi poem by Namdeo Dhasal or a Bengali short-story by Mahasweta Devi.
“Lend Me Your Light” tracks the disintegrating friendship of three young men who try and escape the shabby hypocrisy of middle-class life in ‘80s Bombay— Jameshed (who emigrates to New York), the narrator (who emigrates to Toronto), and his brother Percy (who moves to a small village in Maharashtra, to take up the cause of destitute farmers against the local moneylenders). Even as they drift away from the Bombay of their childhood, the three men remain bound to each other, unable to come to terms with how differently each of their lives turned out. The idea of emigration is a cliché for Mistry’s characters, one their entire upbringing has prepared them for, everything else was expectation and waiting: “Absolutely no future in this stupid place… Bloody corruption everywhere And you can’t buy any of the things you want, don’t even get to see a decent English movie”. Mistry’s prose reflects this expectation as a form of gnostic spiritual anguish. The material world, with its squalor and indifference, becomes a frightening and alien place for English-speaking Indians, forcing them to retreat into clichés. More than two decades after Independence, the three protagonists of the story are brought up on a “version of reality” inherited from colonial times, that consigned ghatis (Anglophone slang for Marathi-speakers) to “the mute roles of coolies and menials, forever unredeemable”. The India that exists outside of their convent school barely registers in their minds, their childhood is mostly spent within gated compounds or indoors, fiddling with imported LPs and model airplanes.
What makes “Lend Me Your Light” one of the better allegories of the Indo-Anglian condition is the story’s refusal to yield any kind of redemptive meaning. Just as the narrator is about to leave Bombay, his vision is afflicted by conjunctivitis, and his last glances of the city are filtered through dark glasses — transforming familiar places into something dimmed and unreal. After two years claustrophobic years abroad, when he returns to India, the narrator is determined to break the spell, to see his country of birth with new eyes. But as his flight approaches Santa Cruz airport, Mistry’s prose falls back into the same weary clichés: the land is still “parched, brown, weary, and unhappy”, the airport still ugly and under-construction, and naked children still greet international travelers with requests for money. There is only one, brief moment of grace in “Lend me Your Light”, as the narrator watches kerosene lamps being lit by street side vendors hawking cheap goods by Bombay’s Flora Fountain, and feels a momentary sense of kinship with the ghati crowd. But this Tagore-ian moment of spiritual transcendence is fleeting (the title of the story refers to a poem from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali), and the narrator returns to Toronto, a place just as desolate as the story’s version of Bombay, neither described nor understood nor properly inhabited. Mistry’s story begins with Tagore and concludes with Eliot, quoting lines from “The Fire Sermon”: “I, Tiresias, [though blind], throbbing between two lives…”. For the Indo-Anglian modernist, the whole world had a tendency to become a wasteland.
Unlike the Britain-bound postcolonial elites of an earlier generation, best represented in Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Dariya [‘The River of Fire’, 1959], Mistry’s characters do not feel any kind of guilt at opting out of the collective project of ‘nation-building’. By the ‘70s, that discourse had run dry, and been replaced by a sense of morbid anticipation. While the rupture from the past created by emigration is certainly at the heart of Tales from Firozsha Baag (as in Naipaul’s Miguel Street, an obvious model), there is no precise moment in which the story becomes a fiction about migration and the South Asian diaspora. Even those who stay back and commit themselves to local struggles, like Percy, are not immune to the “soul-sapping” desire to escape the demands of history by speaking of India as a foreign country. This Trishanku-like in-between-ness is a key characteristic of some of the best English writing about India from pre-liberalization times: before the growth of major South Asian diasporas in the UK, US, Australia, and Canada; before prosperity and the relaxation of foreign exchange regulations made Europe and north America the backdrop of every other Bollywood movie; before the boom in Anglophone schooling and higher education made English the chosen vehicle of upward mobility for the large and amorphous Indian middle-class. It is not only the emigrants who are waiting for “the light”, in Mistry’s story, but all Anglophone Indians, wherever they are.
English! Six-armed God,
Key to a job, to power,
Snobbery, the good life,
This separateness, this fear
— from “Diwali”, by Vikram Seth
In my previous post for the CASI Student Programs blog, I provided a brief outline of my research plan for the summer of 2020. Thanks to generous support from CASI, I’m happy to report that I’ve finished a draft of my chapter, titled “The Indo-Anglians in Search of the World”.
Broadly speaking, I had three objectives in mind when I began the summer project: i), to analyze themes of disillusionment and disappointment in Indian literature from the 1960s and ‘70s, using a multilingual framework; ii), to explore the impact of the Cold War on representations of India in world literature; and iii), to re-animate the linguistic debates of Nehruvian India, through a comparative analysis of the English and Hindi public spheres in the post-Independence period.
My original plan for the chapter pivoted around the 1970s as a moment of crisis in Indian modernism, across languages. But COVID-19 made it impossible to for me to travel to India or access archives in other parts of the US, leading to a change in emphasis. Instead of the ’70s, I ended up spending much of the summer thinking about the messy process of transition between the late-colonial and post-colonial periods, as I read novels by the likes of Flora Annie Steel, Rumer Godden, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Santha Rama Rau. Instead of discovering forgotten nuggets of Cold War history, I gravitated towards thinking about the more insidious ways in which the Cold War impacted India during the 1960s and 70s, beyond the proxy battles between intellectuals and artists sympathetic to the Soviet or Western blocs. Over the course of the summer, I became increasingly fascinated by writers who refused to become wholly “Indian” and remained stubbornly “foreign”, serving as disenchanted witnesses to the years of political turmoil and economic stagnation that followed the euphoria of Independence.
I’m grateful for the support and wisdom of the CASI community, whose insightful questions and feedback opened up new lines of inquiry for me. In my next and final report for this blog, I’ll provide a brief window into the characteristic themes and styles of the “Indo-Anglian” literary world that I have been researching this summer.