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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
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Cyclones and Covid: The dual impacts on the Bangladeshi Sundarbans

Mon, 11/15/2021 - 07:46

Hello again from Dhaka! I wanted to share a bit of my findings in my final post for the Summer (which ended up actually being Fall — sorry Laura!!)

I mentioned in my last post that there were two cyclones: Amphan and Yaas, that affected the Sundarbans during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many families have not been able to work due to the lockdowns and have faced food shortages. This exacerbated existing patterns where the increased extreme weather in the region was already having catastrophic effect on food security and livelihoods. This is well documented in the IPCC fifth assessment report, which states that climate change is adversely affect people’s propensity to produce, access and consume food.

NGOs, INGOs, research institutes, and the Bangladeshi government are working to address the massive food insecurity through policy. There has long been work on food security in Bangladesh and much of the development interventions have been through modern technologies — saline tolerant plants, flood resilient seeds, elevated and sac agriculture, aquaculture, floating gardens, and hydroponics.

The pandemic has led to a massive shift in traditional livelihood practices. Speifically there has been an exponential shift in cultivating shrimp and crab (these changes were already happening slowly but the pandemic has catalyzed them) instead of paddy, although many poor people are being forced to do seasonal migration due to this practice.

One of my interlocuters recounted that her husband became unemployed after the crab sale was stopped due to lockdown. She mentioned that her husband had borrowed a lot of money from various ngos, and now they are facing the uncertainty of repaying this borrowed money. She explained that they are afraid that if they are not able to pay the money back, they will have to leave their home in search of new livelihood and repay the debt.

Some women from her village who work at a local crab export company said that they became demoted from having salaries and fixed income to daily laborers because of the pandemic. This demotion also resulted in not having paid days off and making significantly less money for the same or sometimes more work than before.

The financial losses increased during the lockdown period when cyclone Amphan innundated the coastal area. Many people, who were barely making ends meet, lost their crops and fish, their homes were destroyed, houses were destroyed, and needed to do a lot of labor to make their villages inhabitable. This lead to any even larger increase in borrowing money and an even larger increase in the cultivation of crops, fish, shrimp and crabs again in the hope that they would repay the loan with that money by cultivating again. 

Just when they began to get their lives back in order, another cyclone, Yaas, badly affected local people and their lands. Following Yaas, the embankments of the region were overflooded with water two more times this year (four in total), so the current crops, shrimp, and crab projects have all faced tremendous damage and loss. As a result, there is a possibility of an even more massive food shortage as well as crippling debt in the Sundarbans.

Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico—Conclusion to Summer 2021 Research

Fri, 10/08/2021 - 18:51

In my previous update on my summer research project for CASI, I provided a critical review of scholarship on Latin American Orientalism and Mexican literary representations of the Orient, particularly India. I sketched out an updated outline of my chapter that attended to the question of Orientalism in Latin America and its roots in the early modern Iberian empire that linked Asia to Mexico via the Acapulco-Manila trade routes. A précis for each subsection of the chapter explained how the autobiographical writings on three historical figures—Octavio Paz, M.N. Roy, and Pandurang Khankhoje—shed light on different kinds of connections forged between India and Mexico. As a refresher: Octavio Paz—a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and Mexican ambassador to India from 1962-68, whose poetry and autobiographical writing on India updates nationalist ideologies of mestizaje through extended references to various Indian spiritual textual traditions; M.N. Roy—an Indian radical nationalist turned international communist who founded the Communist Party in Mexico in 1919, whose Memoirs detail his encounters with Theosophical Societies in Mexico led by mestizos who promoted the Orientalist image of a spiritualized Indian, which, in turn, causes him to meditate on the question of “cultural nationalism” produced in various exchanges between India and Mexico; and, lastly, Pandurang Khankhoje—a Ghadar internationalist revolutionary, trained as an agronomist in Berkeley, California, then fled to Mexico as an exile to avoid extradition by the British Empire after being implicated in the Hindu-German Conspiracy case, and then lived in Mexico for nearly forty years (also becoming a Mexican citizen in the process, astoundingly) until India’s independence. This chapter sought to bring together the travels, writings, and lives of these figures in order to illuminate the range of political, economic, and literary connections that developed between India and Mexico from the interwar period, to the years following India’s political independence and into the revolutionary era of the 1960s.

In my last post, I mentioned the difficulty of neatly synthesizing my research on Pandurang Khankhoje with my writing on Octavio Paz and M.N. Roy. I feared that my work on Khankhoje had started to drift too far away from questions of peripheral Orientalism, which were central to my analysis of Paz and Roy’s writings, and even considered excising it from this chapter for a separate project. I am glad I did not do that—upon rereading Savitri Sawhney’s biography of her father Pandurang Khankhoje, titled I Shall Never Ask For Pardon, I realized that I had mistakenly assumed that Khankhoje did not have any contact at all with M.N. Roy. This was entirely incorrect: it turns out that both Khankhoje and Roy had connections with V.I. Lenin through the Second Communist International, particularly in a set of debates related to Lenin’s famous Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions. Initially, it seems that Khankhoje and Roy had their differences, as Khankhoje quietly accuses Roy of acting as a kind of gatekeeper in the Comintern; speaking as part of the “Berlin Committee” composed of members of the Ghadar Party and other militant internationalists, which proposed that the Comintern’s agenda cannot abandon pursuing “world revolution” in a global scope, Khankhoje mused that: “We could not get an interview with Comrade Lenin. M.N. Roy’s view of us, as not being serious about communism, prevailed.” (I Shall Never Ask for Pardon, 214). Though, Khankhoje did end up developing a friendly relationship with Lenin over time, who was particularly interested in Khankhoje’s agricultural research and the possibilities of improving the caloric intake and diets of peasant laborers in Bolshevik Russia. However, Khankhoje takes time to explain in detail the ideological fractures that emerged among the Berlin Committee and Indian revolutionaries involved in the Comintern, particularly over the “colonial question,” and Khankhoje expressed the suspicion that Roy was somehow deepening unnecessary divides among a pan-Indian revolutionary collectivity. This episode in Khankhoje’s Memoirs constituted an organic pivot from my subsection on M.N. Roy to the one on Khankhoje.

Hot gossip about the interwar Comintern aside, I began to tell a very different story about India and Mexico in the twentieth century when I turned to Pandurang Khankhoje’s memoirs: one about the overlooked socialist origins of the Green Revolution in Khankhoje’s experimentations with cross-breeding high-yield variety seeds in Mexican Free Schools of Agriculture. Initially, these agrarian development programs were to be part of a popular socialist initiatives in Mexico to protect crop failure and to ensure food security for indigenous peasants. However, after Independence, Khankhoje returned to India and partnered with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as other national and multilateral agencies, to create institutions devoted to rural development, some of which were based on the research Khankhoje pioneered in Mexico. These seeds, as well as these newly formed national and international rural development programs, extended across India (especially Punjab, but also other regions) and Mexico. However, these institutions were ultimately appropriated by global financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund under the aegis of Norman Borlaug, with whom Khankhoje also collaborated alongside other technocrats. These collaborations ended up generating a top-down template of agricultural modernization designed to “develop” the Third World—this rehashed economic imperialism came to be known as ‘the Green Revolution.’ Borlaug, the World Bank, and the IMF worked in tandem with the kinds of institutions founded by Nehru and Khankhoje to expand ‘the Green Revolution’ into both India and Mexico. Both Akhil Gupta (Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India) and Arturo Escobar (Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World) persuasively detail the many ways in which the Green Revolution devastated rural India and Mexico (as well as other regions in the Third World), particularly by entrenching capital-intensive production of agricultural commodities for both national and international markets, which immiserated small peasant producers, aggravated various kinds of ecological & climate destruction, and continued to ‘’underdevelop” these nations. Furthermore, the nominal claim by Borlaug to end hunger and poverty in the Third World under the banner of the Green Revolution amounted to nothing more than an anti-communist effort to keep the “Red Revolution” brewing in the countryside at bay.

What we see in this long trajectory is a reversal of some of Khankhoje’s original egalitarian dreams to labor as part of the revolutionary intelligentsia in political, racial, and economic solidarity with indigenous peasants in Mexico. Khankhoje’s experimentations were transmogrified into capitalistic set of international agricultural modernization programs, not only by Norman Borlaug, but also by various heads of state of newly independent postcolonial nations. Although Khankhoje’s memoirs do not reflect upon these legacies (he passed away in 1967, before critical reflections on the Green Revolutionary were widely available), his narrative at this point in his life was indeed suffused with a kind of a melancholia, which were especially evident in the challenges he faced to reintegrate back into Indian society as a former political exile and in the aftermath of the major social and religious dislocations engendered by Partition.

As I completed the research and writing for this chapter, I found my myself refining the following overarching argument for my chapter: this unorthodox set of texts, when read alongside one another, challenges pieties that underpin dominant narratives of the formation of the “Third World,” usually termed the “Bandung Spirit.” The referent of “Bandung” refers to a specific historical event, the 1955 Bandung Conference convened in Indonesia, where several recently independent postcolonial nation-states met to devise institutional structures that would challenge existing forms of colonialism and neo-colonial practice. The “Bandung Spirit” thus encapsulates a kind of celebratory attitude toward of Third World as an anti-imperialist project, particularly one that rests on presumptive cross-racial solidarity among peoples in formerly colonized nations across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

And so, in my final post for the 2021 CASI Summer Research Grant, I wish to touch on the ways I substantiate this argument in my chapter’s concluding subsection, currently titled: “Beyond the Bandung Spirit.”  

To be clear, my chapter does not focus on the 1955 Bandung Conference as such, but this sense of the “Bandung Spirit” that distorts many popular and scholarly histories of South-South political internationalisms. And so, my chapter does not exclusively focus on Bandung, but also other intergovernmental fora and regional blocs that advocated on behalf of the economic interests of former colonies across Asia, Africa, and Latin America to the United Nations. This includes the Non-Aligned Movement, which emerged out of the 1955 Bandung Conference, as well as the G-77, a forum that played a role in legislating the 1974 New International Economic Order (NIEO), a set of proposals that sought to acknowledge “economic colonialism” and resolve ongoing inequalities related to trade, industrialization, and the transfer of technology. I also address some of the collaborations between Mexican and Indian nation-states through regional blocs, like the Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA) and the Afro-Asian Organization for Economic Cooperation, as well as their participation in the 1966 Tricontinental Conference held in Havana, Cuba, which itself generated a powerful Third World anti-colonial mythos not too different from the “Bandung Spirit.”

Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the New World details these institutional histories. He discusses the hopes and dreams of those from formerly colonized nations, who sought to coordinate truly global projects that attacked the brutality of European and American colonialism, imperialism, and imperial racism. These aims and objectives constituted the contours of the Third World; as Prashad pithily puts it: “The Third World was not a place. It was a project.” What I appreciate about Prashad’s study is his attention to Communist internationalism in the interwar period, and his cursory remarks about the ideological and institutional implications for the foundations of Bandung-era Third Worldism. In an essay titled “Imaginary Futures and Colonial Internationalisms,” the historian Manu Goswami has expressed that “the neglect of colonial internationalisms has impoverished our understanding of twentieth-century political modernism. It has also made it harder to grasp the affiliations of interwar movements with subsequent waves of internationalism that have oriented an advancing wave of interdisciplinary research” (Goswami “Imaginary,” 1485). A study like Prashad’s attends to this gap—and it is one that I have sought to tend to in the chapter, too.

Prashad, for the most part, does not slip into an uncritical hagiography of the Third World, a familiar genre in left-wing writing on political histories and individuals. Importantly, he addresses key pitfalls associated with the movement and dedicates an entire chapter to the failure of Julius Nyerere’s socialist village project of ujamaa in Tanzania. This national development project was conducted by state officials and not in any meaningful way alongside the peasantries, who were forcibly relocated in order to “develop” the nation-state. Prashad, interestingly, also specifies that the Indian and Mexican nation-states, in the later years of the Non-Aligned Movement, “played a crucial role in the derailment of the Third World agenda” (215). This is largely related to the states’ mismanagement of the debt crisis: “The experience of Mexico cast a long shadow on India’s growing debt. Mexico, an oil-rich country, defaulted on $80 billion in public-sector debt in 1982”; both India and Mexico responded by ramping up national security in order to crack down on organized labor (217) In other words, the Third World Agenda did not necessarily create a robust enough buffer against aspiring technocrats, who would blunt the more radical dimensions of the Third World project through bureaucratic means, nor did the agenda strive towards the revolutionary horizon of the “withering away” of the state apparatus.   

However, Prashad’s analysis loses its critical nuance as he continually strains to recuperate elements of Bandung-era anticolonial nationalism. He writes that “anticolonial movements were conscious of these dual (security and racial) roots for border construction. Many of them had great unease about the linkage between ‘national dignity’ and territorial integrity. Multinational states had little need for chauvinist sensibilities about where the state started or stopped. Within the country, the division of the landmass was often conducted on lines that did not privilege the fault lines of race or religion; in India, for instance, the internal states were divided along the lines of language (which can be learned and therefore is not ontologically derived)” (171). This is a strange argument to make about the postcolonial India’s success in ‘dividing the landmass’ after Independence, especially in the light of the histories like Kashmir, the Northeast, Manipur, as well as Adivasis in Central India, among many other restive regions that contest the legitimacy of the borders born out of Independence. Further, this move far too neatly separates language from the categories of race and religion, rather than studying their entanglements.

Further, Prashad attempts to periodize an earlier, unsullied practice of anti-colonial nationalism to a later, spoiled form of anti-colonial nationalism that regales in religious, racial, and patriarchal chauvinism: “The Third World agenda crafted so carefully, and with its major limitations, withered. The idea of nationalism began to change. Anticolonial nationalism disavowed a strict cultural or racial definition of the nation. Forged in opposition to imperialism, this nationalism created a program and agenda that united people on a platform of sovereignty of economic and cultural freedom…it allowed the new states to be patriotic without being chauvinistic. Patriotism in the Third World states was not to be a ‘zealous love of the country’ in an abstract, mystical way. National patriotism came in the defense of the principles of the republic” (217). In Prashad’s narrative, it is only during the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a significant political force in the 1980s-90s when anti-colonial nationalism fell into a “systemic crisis.” He writes that the “new nationalism ‘has entered its phase of racial, religious, and cultureal persecutions. The solidarity which transcended racial, religious, and cultural differences has weakened or totally collapsed in many Third World countries” (219). Prashad attaches this form of 90s “sectarian” and “parochially cruel nationalism” to “be the form that IMF-driven globalization has taken since the late 1970s” (219).   

 It is undeniably true that the era of neoliberal globalization has bolstered these cruel nationalisms in the Third World, and I also understand the Fanonian argument that declares the necessity of anti-colonial national liberation in the battle against European colonization. However, I find that Prashad’s manner of periodizing trajectories of anti-colonial nationalism in India is incongruent with the connected transpacific histories of Mexican and Indian racial formations, revolutionary movements, and anti-colonial nationalisms that I sketch out in my chapter. As the writings of Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje show, especially from the vantage point of the cultural, economic, and political connections developed between India and Mexico in the longue dureé, we do not get any sense of anti-colonial revolutionary nationalisms untainted by a racialized imagination. Closer attention to India and Mexico, the imbrication of anti-colonial nationalisms with transpacific racial imaginaries and formations, as well their role in the expansion of global capitalism through the Green Revolution, pose a challenge to what I understand as a lingering trace of Prashad’s own attachment to the ‘Bandung Spirit.’

Recently, literary critics and scholars of comparative literature have begun to interrogate the “Bandung Spirit” ways that have inspired my own approach. Shu-mih Shih, in an article titled “Race and Relation: The Global Sixties in the South of the South,” writes that “Bandung has long been considered the inaugural moment for racial brotherhood, but both the terms ‘racial’ and ‘brotherhood’ are haunted…by what happened following the conference…” (Shih “Race and Relation” 149). Further, she writes that “Rethinking our piety towards the global sixties has recently spurted critical reflections on the Bandung Conference, such as Antoinette Burton’s calls for a new history that would ‘refuse all of Bandung’s pieities and romances and break, finally, from its presumptive fraternal narratives, if not its epistemological grasp” (Shih “Race and Relation” 150).

Antoinette Burton, a historian of the British Empire, has elaborated upon the enduring power of the “Bandung Myth” in the contemporary imagination in her book, Africa in the Indian Imagination: Race and the Politics of Postcolonial Citation. She argues that the vocabulary of “Bandung” has in fact bolstered a “syntax of postcolonial nationalism” that shores up a racial hierarchy of ‘Brown’ Indians over ‘Black’ Africans. Through detailing specific examples on the literary, economic, and cultural encounters between India and the African continent, Burton extrapolates and makes the more general claim, which has consequences for thinking about South-South political internationalisms more broadly: “Bandung needs to be re-imagined less as an emancipatory lesson than as a cautionary tale about the racial logics embedded in postcolonial states from the moment of their inception: about the enduring power of ‘blood and nation,’ in other words” (6-7).  

It can be very easy to read the autobiographies of Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje as innocuous instantiations of Mexican-Indian ‘cultural exchange’ or within the terms of the romanticized ‘Bandung Spirit.’ But I have sought to puncture this narrative throughout this chapter by connecting colonial interwar internationalisms to postwar internationalisms via Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje. In Paz, we witness the Orientalist, ideological renovation of anti-colonial nationalist mestizaje his poetry and writing on India. In Roy, we see his concern over brewing forms of chauvinism taking shape as cultural nationalisms within the interchanges between Mexico and India. And in Khankhoje, we see the failure for socialist agrarian development to become fully-fledged globally and its cooptation by capitalist financial institutions and postcolonial heads of state. His own personal testimony and his difficulties to integrate back into India after Partition and the spawning religious chauvinisms there.  

My hope is that the study of wayward internationalisms that trouble romantic narratives of the ‘Bandung Spirit,” narratives like Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje’s, may lead us to other archives and literatures that can limn hitherto under-explored horizons of collective liberation.  

Thank you, CASI, for supporting my research and writing this summer!

Wrapping up the summer

Fri, 10/08/2021 - 03:05

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, I was tying up some loose ends to my current empirical chapter during the summer. In this time I also went back to listen to some of the interviews I did last year in order to theorize more about the mechanisms that drive women’s political empowerment in the absence of their migrant husbands. In fact, during this time I was also feeling a bit out of touch with the field since I have not been able to talk to people face to face in a long time. We spend a great deal of time crunching numbers and writing up analyses but after a point actual interactions with respondents and those whose lives we are studying bring us back on track and reinvigorate us. I a grateful to these interviews. I went back to listen and re-listen to them. I listened to them as I walked to work and sometimes even while I was grocery shopping.

During this period, I also began preparing for fieldwork as things in India began to slowly open up. This involved setting up connections with local researchers in order to get their help to enter these communities. I was glad to be connected to Kailash ji – a mid mannered and soft spoken man from Araria, Bihar. He has experience in conducting surveys on various themes in Bihar and other parts of Northern India. He has now moved on to be a supervisor and is on the look out to start out on his own. I was delighted to be connected to him as his knowledge of the local community helped me navigate villages in Araria. With his help I hired a surveyor who was to accompany me on the ground. It was also exciting for me since this was my OWN project and I had to manage all the logistics related to it. Preparing for fieldwork might not yield tangible outputs but it teaches you a lot of skills like time management, planning, supervising and managing a team and so on. These are skills that come of use later on in life even if they are not directly visible in the academic outputs we produce.

I am grateful to have spent a last part of last year and this suer working on understanding the broader patterns related to women’s political empowerment in migrant sending communities. All this knowledge prepared Mme to have a targeted approach to my upcoming fieldwork stint. Therefore I spent some time devising questions under each module or theme that I was interested in. While preparing I felt like I knew what I was looking for (even if it was not that clear). I briefed the field team on the project and we discussed the main themes to pursue. I was specifically interested in understanding women’s access and interaction with the state, the extent of their ability, the role of household structures in explaining empowerment and finally women’s networks. Thus, with I prepared questions along these lines before I went on the field.

All in all, this summer involved preparing for the next big data collection exercise for my dissertation based on all the prior analysis conducted on secondary data.

Intra household dynamics and women’s participation in NREGS

Wed, 10/06/2021 - 16:06

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or NREGS, was established in 2005 as India’s flagship rural employment guarantee program. Under the program, households must apply for job cards which entitle them to 100 days of work per year. Wages are determined by each state and increases in the wage rate over the years have been extremely low. 2021-22 saw the highest jump in wage rates and still NREGS workers are paid between $3.30-$4.00 an hour, depending on the state. Because of this and the work conditions, NREGS work is generally seen as paid work of last resort but has extremely wide coverage in rural India, providing employment to women, Dalits and Adivasis.

In this blog post, I explore how women engage with NREGS and how the household affects women’s decisions to participate in the program using IHDS Round 2 data from 2011-12. Women’s participation in the scheme declined more recently due to Covid, but generally hovers around the 50% mark nation-wide. Given the low and declining participation of women in the labour force overall, NREGS stands out as an important program to consider for the future of women’s paid employment.

IHDS collected data on how many days respondents reported worked for NREGS, conditional on access to NREGS work. For upto 29 days, more men tend to work for the program than women. However, this trend begins to even out and we see more women work 50 days and up than men. At the extensive margin (decision to work or not), NREGS is known to be an important program for women. However, it seems to be just as important at the intensive margin as well (how many days to work for).

This led to me to consider the next set of questions: what factors influence how many days women work for? First, there don’t appear to be major differences by caste within Brahmin/Savarna, OBC, Dalit and Adivasi groups. Muslim women however do tend to work fewer days under the program.

IHDS also asked women about their position within the household as well as who within the household influences their decision to work in general. Married women, both who are more senior in the household and those who are less so, tend to work for a higher number of days under the program. For both senior married women and junior married women, having a spouse who has migrated for work or absent for some other reason leads to more women working up to 30 days per year, but their participation in the program drops off in comparison to their married-only counterparts after 30 days. A higher percentage of divorced women tend to work upto 29 days in comparison to the married-only group, but then fewer divorced women work beyond 30 days.

Interestingly, the position within the household isn’t just an age story. I replicated the same graph above by age, and see no major differences across age groups. It’s not a woman’s age but rather her position in the household that is correlated with her participation in NREGS at the intensive margin.

Finally, I look at the effect of who the decision maker is in determining women’s participation in NREGS. Here the story seems to get a bit complicated. If women themselves or their husbands are making the decision about whether or not she should work, it results in about 33-34% of women entering the program. However, if the senior male or female in the household are making the decision, women only enter the program about 15-19% of the time.

However, once women enter the program, she works more days if senior males and senior females are the key decision makers. In this case, women are very likely to work upwards of 50 days. If women themselves or their husbands are the key decision makers, they work fewer days in comparison. It’s unclear how to interpret this without also understanding how households where women themselves are the key decision makers about their work are different from households where senior men are. It’s possible that senior men and women in the household are more encouraging of women’s participation in NREGS, or that they coerce women to work more than they would otherwise to increase family income.

Overall, it seems to that intra-household dynamics are important factors to study in trying to understand women’s workforce decisions in general, but also their participation in NREGS specifically. Demographic factors like caste and age do play a role, but might be overshadowed by factors related to restrictive gender norms, like women’s position in the household and who has the most say in her decision to work.