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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.
Updated: 6 hours 21 min ago

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.

Mid-Internship Update!

Wed, 09/22/2021 - 08:45

Hello again from Simran Rajpal! I’m currently interning for Safe Water Network, a nonprofit delivering reliable, affordable, and safe water to more than 500 communities throughout Ghana and India. Last blog, I discussed why water availability and sanitation are so vital to public and community health – specifically through the lens of women’s health and empowerment.

In this blog, I’d like to focus on the inner workings of broad-scale safe water collection and distribution efforts in a state of India – Karnataka. In the past month and a half, I’ve been transcribing and categorizing a series of interviews done this summer about the importance of Safe Water Network’s efforts on local communities in a series of villages in the state. One of my favorite interviews was with Santosh, a self-proclaimed water “bike warrior.” As a community outreach specialist, he works to ensure safe water access to thousands of families in the district. Because of his efforts, the water station in his district has become the central pillar of the families he reaches. What was amazing about him, though, was not just how he had expanded the reach of Safe Water Network’s efforts – but rather, that he accomplished all of it during COVID.

Safe Water Network has a comprehensive, multi-year agreement with the Government of Karnataka to help upgrade the reliability and performance of water purification plants across thirty districts. COVID only exacerbated the need that Safe Water Network was already addressing: on top of so many water-stressed parts of India, the state of Karnataka also has source water contamination, as well as the challenge of safe water access for underserved communities.

In response, the state built one of the largest systems of water purification plants in the country, serving over 40 million people. Safe Water Network is now deploying its technical and management expertise to help improve the performance, reliability and affordability of these systems. But these systems aren’t possible without people like Santosh making sure these wide networks work on the ground – it’s such a good reminder of how vital local personnel are to the webs of public health systems that hold our societies up.

Over the past 18 months, we’ve all seen how critical public health is to our daily lives – the minute public health guidance, policies, or infrastructure fails, our entire way of life is affected. In working with analyzing and categorizing these interviews, I’ve reached a much more improved understanding of how vital local-level partnerships and the actual people involved within these systems are so important to protecting our ways of life.

Because of people like Santosh, 40 million people gained access to reliable safe water through the state government’s decentralized water purification system. And, the work has only just begun – with greater accountability, and infrastructure implementation and improvements by Safe Water Network, more and more people will be helped and empowered to utilize safe water resources.

Final Update from Akhil

Fri, 09/10/2021 - 21:54
Madhubhala and Guru Dutt in Mr. and Mrs. ’55

Hello! This is my third and final blog update on the summer research I am conducting with Professor Ramya Sreenivasan. I am excited to conclude the work we have been doing together, as well as continue to support the research in the fall semester.

Over the course of this summer, I have watched and developed summaries and analyses of fifteen different Hindi films: Andaz (1949), Barsaat (1949), Awara (1951), Daag (1952), Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Adhikar (1954), Mr. and Mrs. ’55 (1955), C.I.D. (1956), Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), Naya Daur (1957), Pyaasa (1957), Mother India (1957), Navrang (1959), Dharmputra (1961), and Grahasti (1963). I also compiled a database with box office information for Hindi cinema from the 1940s to the 1970s based on data provided by Box Office India. Finally, I put together another spreadsheet that outlined the cast and crew of the films I watched, allowing us to observe patterns in networks of association in the Hindi film industry.

Considering the limited time period we had, I think that we accomplished our goals of developing preliminary research for a larger project on the growth of mass culture in India. There is still so much material and history to sift through in regards to this project, but I believe that this summer research has guided the direction of the analyses and themes we want to highlight. Through this research, I strengthened my communication and writing skills, while also gaining a deeper understanding of how databases and spreadsheets can be helpful in this type of research setting. I would also say that my enjoyment of this research has really made me consider an academic career more seriously, but it has also definitely bolstered my writing aspirations as well.

The next steps for this research will involve moving further into the Hindi cinema of the 1960s and observing how these films and production networks evolve during this decade. I hope to stay involved in some capacity during this next phase of research and will do my best to support the work of Professor Sreenivasan in any way that would be helpful.

As I conclude this blog update, I would like to thank Professor Sreenivasan for her endless support and gracious mentorship this summer. It has been such a pleasure working with and learning from her during this project, and I am happy to have supported her work. I would also like to thank the Center for the Advanced Study of India for offering this summer research assistantship to me and supporting the research of countless other important projects. I hope everyone has a great fall!

Re-listening to my interviews

Mon, 09/06/2021 - 19:28

Over the past few months, I have been knee-deep in interview data that I am using for two dissertation chapters. My data primarily takes the form of transcripts from interviews conducted in 2018 and 2019 which I analyze using the ATLAS.ti software. Each of these long transcripts was read multiple times during the initial process of coding passages and themes in the data. Even now, I continue to revisit these documents as I am writing, seeking to remember details of the context in which a quote was made or to re-read especially interesting passages as I think through an idea.

However, lately I have also been revisiting my audio data, the original material from which the transcripts were made through the painstaking effort of my Research Assistant. I often go back to these audio recordings of the interviews to check on a quotation that was unclear in the transcript or to re-listened to a passage that is important for a section of the paper. Re-listening to even a small snippet of audio immediately takes me back to the moment of the interview. The background noise, such as the roar of the crowds in the mall food court or the clink and whoosh of the espresso machine in the coffee shop, transports me to that exact place and time. I notice a smile coming across my face as I recognize the respondent’s voice – their unique cadence, accent, and manner of speech. I may even catch myself chuckling as I remember details of the interview including funny or surprising things that happened or were said. Re-listening to the interviews, I notice small things I had forgotten from the conversation – a strange way of phrasing something, defensiveness or agitation in their voice, a long pause, an authoritative tone.

When I begin to feel fatigued by the long slow process of research, I often return to these audio files to be re-energized and find new inspiration for the project. More importantly, re-listening renews my gratitude to the individuals who took the time to share a piece of their story with me.

Women’s political engagement by ethnic composition: Analysis of IHDS Round 2

Sat, 09/04/2021 - 15:54

At the start of the summer, I wanted to explore women’s political engagement in different nationally representative surveys in India and the India Human Development Survey seemed like a good starting place. While they have few questions on political participation, it’s generally difficult to find nationally representative surveys on public opinion and political participation in South Asia. I started working with IHDS Round 2, collected between 2011 and 2012. Over 42,000 households were interviewed in total and a special subset of questions were asked of over 39,000 eligible women.

Among other questions, the eligible women were asked if they were a member of a political party, if they attended local gram sabha meetings and how often they discussed politics with their husbands. I loosely categorized these as engagement in politics at the national level (political parties), local level (gram sabha) and intra-household level (discussing with husband). I say “loosely” because this categorization assumes that women see political parties as national even though the actual activities members carry out likely pertain to local party politics. Unsurprisingly, only 0.8% of respondents said that they were a member of a political party. The costs of joining a political party are likely high and the benefits low for the average woman citizen and political parties have historically not made significant efforts to mobilize women citizens’ votes. This is changing over time in urban contexts (see Tanushree Goyal’s work on women’s political mobilization), but the broader trend across rural India continues to hold. Moving to local politics, 8.5% of respondents said that they attended gram sabha meetings. The costs of participating in local level politics are lower than being a member of a political party and the benefits potentially much higher, so it makes sense to see women participate more. Within their homes, women are surprisingly politically engaged. 48.6% of women said that they sometimes discussed politics and 22.4% said that they often discussed politics with their husbands. Taken together, it implies that slightly over 70% of women interviewed demonstrated basic interest and engagement in political discussions. This is higher than I had previously assumed. Domestic work, limited mobility and lack of political skills may be preventing women from engaging in local politics, but at the basic level of household level discussions about politics, women do express a willingness to engage.

What do these figures look like for different types of women? Specifically, how does a woman’s ethnic identity (measured in terms of caste, religion and tribal affiliation) affect her engagement with politics at the local level and within the household?

In terms of attending gram sabha meetings, there isn’t much of a substantive difference across women of different groups. Women across the board are unlikely to attend gram sabha meetings, although Adivasi women are most likely to attend and Muslim women are least likely to attend. My prior was that Brahmin and Savarna women would be the most likely to attend gram sabha meetings because of their access to social and political capital, but this turned out not to be the case.

The differences are slightly more substantive for discussing politics with their husbands. Women belonging to the “Other” category, comprising of Christians, Sikhs and Jains are the most likely to say that they often discuss politics with their husbands (29.9%), while Muslim women are the least likely (16.7%). OBC women are the most likely to say that they discuss politics with their husbands sometimes (50%) while Adivasi women are the least likely (44.5%). Muslim women are the most likely to say that they never discuss politics with their husbands (33.3%) while women of other religions are the least likely (24%).

These graphs paint a fairly grim picture of women’s political engagement overall. But they also raise interesting questions related to the limiting factors for women’s political participation. Women do engage in conversations within the household about politics, but other factors constrain them from engaging in politics in the public sphere, which I conceptualize as twofold: a) the distinct gender norms operating in each ethnic group and b) the lack of incentives of political parties to mobilize women. I am interested to explore the first of these– the restrictive gender norms across groups in my research agenda going forward, and these descriptive statistics gave me a lot to think about!

Bringing This Summer of Writing To A Close!

Wed, 09/01/2021 - 09:56

In my first blog post at the start of the summer, I wrote about my aim to draft a chapter of my dissertation based on fieldwork conducted during the pandemic. As I started to outline this writing, I also noticed that several methodological questions were coming up for me again, particularly with regard to the ways in which the pandemic had shaped – and continues to shape – my fieldwork. In my second blog post, I raised some of these methodological questions about how, as graduate students, we are often trained to think of fieldwork in a linear manner. This, however, is a practice that has been made almost impossible by the disruptions, both professional and personal, that have come about as a result of the pandemic. In this final post, I want to spend a little time sharing some other methodological questions that have come up for me about doing fieldwork during this pandemic and writing it up.

One thing specifically that has come up is the ways in which fieldwork and the work of care are intertwined, sometimes very explicitly, and sometimes less so. As I think about the ways in which the ‘field’ in fieldwork is not a given – and that the researcher is always shaping and defining what they think is of interest as a part of this field – it is also clear that doing fieldwork during a pandemic shifts the boundaries of what counts as fieldwork. In my experiences the question of what counts as a part of the researcher’s field of interest is also a question of the ways temporality intersects with spatiality, particularly when defining what counts as the field vs. what does not.

Doing ethnographic work that has consisted of ‘following the field’ and seeing what it leads to has felt very different than I thought it would during the pandemic, particularly with regard to questions of how this following looks when there is no specifically physical field. These larger methodological questions, even as they have no clear or easy answers, have been as interesting to think about as the data in the chapter I am writing itself, and I hope to be able to continue conversations about method here and elsewhere.

Expert Knowledge on Homosexuality in Post-Colonial India and its Relationship with Queer Activism in Contemporary India.

Wed, 09/01/2021 - 02:12

This summer I had set out to expand on my previous research on the history of sexual science in post-colonial and contemporary India. I decided to focus on two broad areas in order to do so. I concentrated on the role of the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) in my previous blog post and argued that the FPAI was not only an organization which was at forefront of the contraception and family planning program in post-colonial India but was one of the earliest organizations pursuing sexuality related research as well providing sexual counselling especially in the 1970s and 80s. The present blog concentrates on the second theme on my research agenda which was to explore knowledge generated on homosexuality during this period.

One of my earliest findings was that extensive research on homosexuality in India was relatively rare before the onset of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Even the FPAI archives hardly make any mention of homosexuality up until they start producing pamphlets on disseminating information on HIV AIDS prevention and even then, the predominant audience of such messaging was the heterosexual couple. In order to further expand my sources, I looked at the archives of a few medical and psychological journals published in post-colonial India.

Before the Supreme Court of India struck down Section 377, a clause of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that criminalized all non-heteronormative sexual acts in September 2018, the Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) put out a statement in the month of July that year stating that it was time to stop looking at homosexuality as a mental illness and also stating there was no scientific evidence for any treatment that could “cure” homosexuality. I looked into the archives of the Indian Journal of Psychiatry (IJP), which is the official journal of the IPS and up until the mid-1980s, there were numerous research articles published in the journal outlining “case-studies” of homosexuals (mostly male) in an attempt to understand the cause of their homosexual identity. There were also articles that suggested “behavior-modification” techniques induced by “classical electrical aversion” and “positive conditioning” methods in order to change the sexual orientation of these patients. Most of the “patients” as mentioned in the articles were those who were distressed by their homosexual inclinations and had sought treatment. It is important however to contextualize this information against the backdrop of situations (even in present day India) where parents/family/kin compel LGBTQIA individuals to seek psychiatric treatment to cure their homosexuality. One particular study which seemed bizarre even against the standards of psychiatrists suggesting electro-convulsive therapy to “cure” homosexuals, was called “Draw a Person Test in Two Male Homosexuals” published in 1973. It was based on a diagnostic model that gauged the personality of patients by reading their drawings of figures. In the case of this study, the authors, K.P. Sreedhar and A.V.Rao (both possessing illustrious post graduate degrees in psychiatry with Rao being a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatry, UK) concluded that the patient through their drawings had swapped features of the male and female figures and  had drawn the male figure with “full lips” which indicated “oral sexual character” of the patient (see figures below).

The Article outlining the “Draw a Person Test in Two Male Homosexuals” The figures drawn by the patient and mentioned in the article.

Despite such prejudicial ideals about homosexuality and the eventual clarification of the IPS about its position on homosexuality, there has been no serious attempt to understand how expert knowledge on sexuality went into perpetuating sexual stigma on sexual minorities and women. This in sharp contrast to several studies done on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) historical classification of homosexuality which was removed as a mental illness by the APA in 1973. Research has shown how queer activism in the US influenced the decision of the APA to drop homosexuality from the diagnostic manual of mental illness. It has also been shown that knowledge sharing and policy formulation during the initial HIV AIDs pandemics was shaped as much by medical and scientific experts as gay activists. The earliest instance of a sex-positive study of homosexuality in India, which featured not only male but also female and trans experiences was the “Less than Gay” report published by the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodi Andolan (ABVA) in 1991. The ABVA was founded in 1988 as an organization to prevent the discrimination of HIV AIDS patients who at this point were mostly prostitutes and MSM (men who had sex with men). Both marginalized groups experienced police violence and extortion as well bullying and wider stigmatization. ABVA’s 1991 report was one of the earliest research studies assessing the medical, legal and popular attitudes to homosexuality in India, highlighted gay rights as human rights and also suggesting the possibility of coalescing a wider gay rights movement in India. It filed the earliest legal case against Section 377 of the IPC. The ABVA and the Less than Gay report in particular is reckoned by several contemporary India queer activists as providing an initiation for them in the realm of queer activism in India.

“Less than Gay” Report published by the ABVA (1991)

Lost in Translation

Wed, 09/01/2021 - 00:46

Forward and backward translation of scales and questionnaires is the gold standard for implementing bilingual survey methods. Oftentimes, researchers and translates alike are left confused over navigating translations of questions and themes from English to other global languages. For example, the Goldberg-18 Depression and Anxiety Test features a question “in the previous 30 days, have you felt slowed down” to measure a latent construct for depression. However, that doesn’t quite translate effectively into Hindi and fails to capture the latent structure of depression symptoms.

The Mumbai Nudges program that has previously been featured on the CASI blog had an added layer of complication: participants required translations into a particular Hindi dialect spoken in the Malvani community. This was a requirement that extended to the voice messages that were sent to those in the treatment group, and required the PIs who were developing the program to work with translators in composing and recording the messages.

Sourcing qualified translators and learning the dialect so as to accurately pronounce complicated words in the audio nudges was a real-world challenge. Despite remote programming due to the pandemic, this gave us the hint of being on ground zero and conducting in-person fieldwork (sort of), and provided a very real glimpse into Malvani.

Beyond linguistic barriers, there were also cultural barriers that could not really be surpassed despite local translation. Concepts such as consent and signing consent forms, COVID-19 safety protocols, and confidentiality, required extra rounds of explanation, adding to participant irritability and confusion. Without the support of committed and experienced facilitators, it would have likely been impossible to pull off these phone interviews and nudges programs on schedule in the manner which we did! This just goes to highlight the key role of strong local partnership in implementing developmental research, and how we as researchers benefit from the established community leadership of Project Balika.

Mumbai Parent Nudges Program: Conducting Phone Surveys

Tue, 08/31/2021 - 23:35

With the safety of conducting in-person interviews being jeopardized by the world-wide bug, we lost the opportunity of engaging with the Malvani community in their school and home environments. The RCT we are conducting in collaboration with Project Balika had to be remote in every way, so as to reflect the nature of remote access to information during COVID-19 disruptions.

This lead us to implement phone surveys for the baseline and endline data collection rounds as a way to navigate travel and social distancing restrictions. The challenges of implementing detailed surveys with socio-demographic and psychometric items were many, with one of the biggest challenges being attaining and sustaining participant involvement throughout the course of the phone survey.

Project Balika conducting an Instructional Zoom Webinar as Adjunctive Support for the Nudges Program

Reaching families was another challenge, as parents were commuting to their villages, or had sporadic network access. Many were reluctant to give their time, despite monetary compensation. Participants also lost interest midway through the survey, and facilitators would have to coordinate call-backs. The challenges of endline interviews were in reconnecting with the participants after a span of 6 months.

Delivering a phone-based behavioral intervention was another aspect of the program that presented challenges, but we assessed the pathways adopted for an ongoing Ghana intervention led by RIPPLE lab PI, Dr. Sharon Wolf. More on assessing impacts later!

Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico—Update on Summer Research

Mon, 08/30/2021 - 15:34

Hello, everyone:  

In my previous post for the CASI Student Blog, I described the ambit of my dissertation, Land and Revolution: Literatures in India and Latin America. I also outlined a summer research agenda to research and draft a chapter titled “Wayward Internationalisms Across India and Mexico.” This chapter examines the lives, travels, and writings of three historical figures: Octavio Paz, M.N. Roy, Pandurang Khankhoje. I discuss how their autobiographical writings provide a critical view into the political, economic, and literary connections that developed between these two nations from the post-revolutionary period in Mexico to the years immediately following India’s independence.  

Over the course of the summer, I have extensively reviewed the secondary literature on Paz, Roy, and Khankhoje, which has helped me refine and adapt my research goals. Below, I offer a reworked outline for my chapter in the light of my recent discoveries, which I have organized in chapter subsections dedicated to each figure I study. A précis accompanies each subsection; in them, I explain the aim and scope for each subsection and the ways I advanced my initial research objectives over the summer.    

Transpacific Racial Imaginations, Mexican Orientalism, and India in Octavio Paz 

This section begins by establishing that state-sponsored post-revolutionary Mexican nationalisms hinged on mestizo elites’ spiritual, historical, and cultural claims to an idea of Asia. Many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century lettered intellectuals, like José Juan Tablada, Francisco Maduro, and Alfonso Reyes, among others, contemplated the history of Mexico’s transpacific connections with Asia and its role in shaping Mexican national identity. Some cleaved to anthropological theories of the ‘Asiatic origins’ of Mexico’s indigenous peoples via mass migration across a prehistoric land bridge that once connected the two continents, and others presumed self-evident forms of anticolonial geopolitical kinship between Mexico and Asian nations against Anglo American and British imperialisms. These imaginary connections held great import for ideologues in Mexico, as well as for those in parts of Asia. Yet the consensus in contemporary scholarship maintains that historical connections between the two continents were first forged, and sustained, in the crucible of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century Iberian empire, which stretched across the globe. Spanish and Portuguese colonialism brought many parts of Asia and the Americas into contact with one another, especially through the transoceanic commercial trade in silver and the Manila-Acapulco slave market. According to historian Tatiana Seijas in Asian Slaves in Colonial Mexico, the Spanish and Portuguese monopolized the slave market at this time and transported countless enslaved peoples from India, the Philippines, China, and other regions in Asia to colonial Mexico via the Manila Galleon. Upon arriving to colonial Mexico from these various parts of Asia, these diverse communities were collectively termed “chinos” in legal, cultural, and political discourse. (The transpacific Iberian slave trade was consolidated alongside its transatlantic counterpart, which forcibly transported millions of enslaved Africans. The historian Herman Bennett expertly explores the latter dynamic in his book Africans in Colonial Mexico, though, as both Bennett and Seijas note, the ideas of bondage and freedom that circumscribed the lives of chinos and enslaved Africans in colonial Mexico took different trajectories in ecclesiastical courts of law). Although the Spanish slave trade was formally abolished in 1642, the dynamic interchanges it had generated between India and Mexico, as well as between other coastal and island nations in the Pacific Rim, like China and Japan, continued to enliven the Mexican cultural imagination well into the twentieth century, especially in poetry, novels, philosophical treatises, visual arts, and other forms. 

Through a critical review of the literary and historiographic scholarship on the practice of Orientalism in Mexico, especially Laura Torres-Rodríguez’s Orientaciones transpacíficas: La modernidad mexicana y el espectro de Asia (Transpacific Orientations: Mexican Modernity and the Specter of Asia) and essays in Orientalism and Identity in Latin America, edited by Erik Camayd-Freixas, I establish that we cannot fully understand the pro-mestizo character of post-revolutionary Mexican nationalism without attention to the repeated invocation of “the Orient,” specifically India, in many of the political, literary, and philosophical tracts produced in this period. Many of these texts rehearse classic Oriental tropes that populate the 18th and 19th century Anglo and French textual tradition but fuse them with representations of the Iberian transpacific slave trade; the ‘classic’ tropes I refer to are rooted in a European imaginative geography of the East marked by sensuous decadence, riches beyond compare, and mysterious spiritual potency, etc. Torres-Rodríguez, among other scholars, argue that Edward Said’s now-classic study of Orientalism is useful for understanding the European heritage of post-revolutionary Mexican Orientalism. However, there are some key differences between Said’s Ur-version of Orientalism based on British and French textual discourses and the Latin American paradigm:  

First, early modern-colonial Spain generated their own imaginative geographies of the Orient, in which the racialized specters of Islam and Judaism, inseparable from the religious anxieties that motivated the Spanish Inquisition as well as the Conquest into the New World, commingled with representations of the spaces and peoples across Asia. Crónicas penned by Spanish conquistadores constructed an imperial imaginative and racial geography of the New World and Asia in this way; later texts, like the 1821 picaresque novel El periquillo sarniento (The Mangy Parrot) by José Joaquín Fernandez de Lizardi, also rehearses a racialized transpacific geography, especially in its depiction of Manila-Acapulco trade dynamics. Mexican criollos and mestizos in the twentieth-century thus did not exclusively draw upon British and French Orientalism, but also revived distinctively transpacific Orientalist and racial vocabularies from the Spanish tradition—Said’s (admittedly, already exhaustive!) study privileged the post-Enlightenment period and did not concentrate on the earlier period of early modern & colonial Spain.  

Secondly, it is reductive to claim that Mexican elites simply recycled or imitated already existing Orientalist tropes abundant in European culture. Rather, it is more accurate to say that they actively adapted such tropes, or even created new visions of the Orient, in the context of the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and, more specifically, in the light of the post-revolutionary state’s interest in forging a new national identity.  

Lastly, Mexico, unlike France, Britain, or Spain, was not a global maritime imperial power. Said wrote that the set of institutions that sustained European conquest—political, sociological, militaristic, scientific, academic—were necessary historical and geopolitical conditions for the production of European visions of the Orient. Mexico, in contrast, was a long-time formal colony until the nineteenth century, and then a postcolonial nation-state subordinated to U.S. economic imperialism, whose institutions have different origins and trajectories. The efflorescence of what Zoila Clark has called “peripheral Orientalisms,” thus, does not indicate that colonial or postcolonial Latin America shared the exact same economic and political infrastructure of 18th and 19th-century imperialist European nation-states. Instead, as Laura Torres-Rodríguez has convincingly argued, the peripheral Orientalism of Mexico had different consequences: it played a key role in fueling an elite racial imagination and in contributing to the ideological foundations of post-revolutionary mestizo nationalism.  

The racial philosophy of mestizaje was a state-sponsored ideology in the years following the Mexican Revolution that valorized the intermixture between peoples of Spanish and Indigenous descent. Mestizo intellectuals touted the liberal and multicultural virtues of mestizaje as a template for Mexican national belonging and racial citizenship. It was often contrasted with the colonial-era sistema de castas (system of castas, or castes), which tightly categorized and hierarchized peoples based on religious notions of limpieza de sangre (or, purity of blood) and racialized structures of endogamy, exogamy, and lineage. Ultimately, however, mestizaje is an assimilationist racial ideology and program. It operates through the idea that pre-colonial and contemporary indigenous communities will eventually and willingly disappear into a single race of mestizos; further, it allows mestizos to maintain essentialist claims to indigenous identity without ceding economic or political power to living indigenous peoples. As a racial ideal, mestizaje subtly adjudicates long histories of dispossession enacted against indigenous peoples in the Americas, not only by the Spanish Empire, but also by the nineteenth-century pre-revolutionary state under Porfirio Díaz via liberal programs of capitalist land modernization. At bottom, this assimilationist racial philosophy nominally and selectively valorized certain cultural dimensions of pre-Columbian indigeneity; however, in effect, it shored up the hierarchies between Creoles, mestizos, and indigenous peoples. More importantly, for my own research purposes, I learned that the ideological and racial foundations for post-revolutionary mestizo nationalism can be traced back to the Mexican intelligentsia’s deep engagement with philosophies, religions, and textual traditions in India.  

José Vasconcelos was, arguably, the architect of state-sponsored and an official post-revolutionary mestizaje. Vasconcelos was a major political figure in the years following the Mexican Revolution and served as the Secretary of Education for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Revolutionary Institutional Party), a political party that remained in power for nearly the remainder of the century.  He is best known for his 1925 philosophical treatise, La raza cósmica (The Cosmic Race), which promoted a melioristic visions of racial mixture and mestizaje in spiritualized and cosmological idiom. Laura Torres-Rodríguez’s has shown Vasconcelos drew upon an Orientalist archive in order to philosophize La raza cósmica. She turns Vasconcelos’ overlooked and previously published 1920 essay, Estudios indostánicos (Hindustan Studies). She claims that “Vasconcelos perceives a close connection between his vision of India and the intellectual debates of postrevolutionary Mexico,” and that he “postulates India—a country whose social organization is based on a prohibition of mixing by an ancient caste system—as an example that demonstrates the positive qualities of mestizaje” and that “Vasconcelos sees in India racial model more in keeping with his plan of a ‘brown’ utopia for Latin America. His ‘proto-mestizo India’ is thus defined as the civilization that inspired his 1925 essay. ‘The Orient’ becomes the textual origin of the ‘raza cósmica’” (Torres-Rodríguez “Orientalizing Mexico” 81-85). Further, Torres-Rodríguez claims that “Indian intellectuals’ religious discourse—especially that of the nationalist monk Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902)–had a decisive influence on La raza cósmica: they allowed Vasconcelos to articulate a racial discourse with the idea of the spirit” (ibid, 85). She builds this argument upon Srinivas Aravamudan’s observations in Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language; namely, that many Bengali reformers sought to promote Hinduism as a modern, cosmopolitan, and universal religion through ideas like Brahmo Samaj, which were circulated through the founding of theosophical institutions. These religious and nationalist idioms in India were deliberately made available for a global audience, and they traveled to Mexico, where Vasconcelos ultimately crafted philosophical writings that merged universalist religious cosmopolitanism, racial essentialism, and spiritualized syncretism as the foundation for his theory of mestizaje.  

This (admittedly, rather long!) critical review provides the context and rationale for my turn to Octavio Paz’s writing, political career, and life. Paz’s autobiographical writing and poetry continually evokes comparisons between Mexican and Indian histories, cultures, and racial formations. I close read selections from Paz’s body of work for the remainder of the section, including the following texts: In Light of India (his 1995 collection of autobiographical essays that reminisce his time as a Mexican diplomat and ambassador to India in 1962-68), The Monkey Grammarian (a 1974 experimental travelogue about his travels in India that combines prose, poetry, and philosophical reflections), and selected poems, including “On the Roads of Mysore,” “Sunday on the Island of Elephanta,” and “A Tale of Two Gardens.” My argument is that Paz’s peripheral Orientalism updates nationalist myths of mestizaje and la raza cósmica by tapping into a transpacific racial imagination that conjoins India and Mexico. He accomplishes this ideological renovation of mestizaje through extended connected references to Sanskrit epic poetry, Hindu and Buddhist tantric philosophies of sexuality and gender, cosmological understandings of caste in India, and histories of colonization, anti-colonial revolt, and Partition.  

The Question of Mexican and Indian Cultural Nationalisms in M.N. Roy’s Memoirs 

After I analyze the peripheral Orientalism in Paz’s writings and situate them in relation to his political role as a diplomat, I pivot to a discussion of M.N. Roy’s Memoirs. Although Roy’s autobiographical reflects on the entirety of his life, the bulk of his reminiscences concentrate on the two years he lived in Mexico City at the end of the Mexican Revolution. I make the pivot from Paz to Roy in two ways: 

First, Paz discusses the trajectory of Roy’s life from radical nationalist, to internationalist communist, to his eventual abandonment of communism and turn ‘radical humanism,’ and he also touches on his time living in postrevolutionary Mexico and his role in founding the Communist Party in Mexico in 1919. However, he describes his philosophy of “radical humanism” and turn away from socialism as “inadequate,” and somberly declares that “the life and work of Roy are an example of the fate of the revolutionary intellectual in the twentieth century” (Paz In Light of India 119-120). Despite Paz’s elegiac view of Roy’s career as a revolutionary, he praises his Memoirs and considers the “description and life in those years are vivid and exact” (ibid). Paz’s familiarity with Roy prompted me to give to a closer look at the Memoirs.  

Then, I turn to Roy’s Memoirs and discuss his encounters with a mestizo-led Theosophical Society in Mexico, which has absorbed and promoted globally syndicated versions of Indian spiritual mysticism. This is precisely the kind that Torres-Rodríguez and Aravamudan discuss in relation to José Vasconcelos, a discourse I see manifest across Paz’s oeuvre. Roy challenges what he sees as the theosophists’ fantastical views of India—or, in other words, their peripheral Orientalism—through a public presentation of his work on a Marxist history of India’s economic development, titled India’s Past, Present, and Future. Roy’s quibbles with the Theosophical Society, what he calls their “cultural nationalism,” contributed to the development of his secular and Marxist political consciousness. I connect such scenes with his continual musings and preoccupations throughout the Memoirs about the forms of cultural nationalism that currently taking shape in India and Mexico, and his fear of the cross-pollination of these nationalisms between the two. I turn to Roy’s Memoirs not simply to reassess Paz’s disappointment with the loss of his revolutionary zeal. Rather, this is my attempt to expand the scholarly discussion on peripheral Orientalism and its entwinement with racial nationalisms in both Mexico and India in the early twentieth-century. The scholarship so far has remained focused on the production, circulation, and maintenance of peripheral Orientalism as a discourse. But, I argue, we must also enlarge our field of vision so that we are equally attentive to the instances when such transpacific racial discourses are contested. Roy’s Memoirs offers a particularly compelling example because he challenges the legitimacy of peripheral Orientalism in the institutional context it was being produced and as the nominal “object” of the racial discourse. 

Pandurang Khankhoje and the Green Revolution from post-Revolutionary Mexico to Postcolonial India 

Lastly, I pivot from Paz and Roy to discuss biographical writings, periodicals, and letters of Pandurang Khankhoje. To my knowledge, neither Paz or Roy knew of Khankhoje. Khankhoje has only recently begun to receive scholarly attention from historians of Mexican agriculture and historians of South Asian internationalisms in the interwar period. This scholarship returns to Khankhoje’s life in order to highlight the forgotten socialist origins of the Green Revolution in Khankhoje’s collaborations with the National School of Agriculture in Mexico during the interwar period; he was a former member of the Ghadar movement, trained as an agronomist in California in the United States, then fled to Mexico as an exile to avoid extradition by the British Empire, and lived in Mexico for nearly forty years until India’s Independence. After India’s independence, Khankhoje returned and partnered with Nehru to develop capitalistic rural development initiatives, particularly in the trade of high-yielding variety seeds like that Khankhoje pioneered. These seeds were used in regions in Mexico and India (as well as in other parts of South Asia).    

Truth be told, I am finding it slightly difficult for me to connect this section with the previous two, as it steps away from questions of peripheral Orientalism as a discourse and moves towards identifying the socialist origins of the Green Revolution in the interchanges between India and Mexico and its aftermath as a capitalist project appropriated by Norman Borlaug and postwar global financial institutions. As I finish up the draft for my project, I will need to revisit some of the primary materials to see if, in Khankhoje’s life, there is an organic connection to the question of racial nationalism that I introduced in the previous two sections.   

As I tried to make sense of Khankhoje’s life in my research process alongside seemingly unrelated questions of peripheral Orientalism, I received incredibly helpful assistance from Penn Libraries. At the start of the summer, I had to accept that I will not be able to directly access various archives in India and Mexico, which contains many primary materials related to Khankhoje and his life. Thankfully, I virtually met with Jef Pierce, the South Asian Studies Librarian at the University of Pennsylvania, who expertly answered my questions and helpfully introduced me to various databases and collections that contain materials relevant to my research. For example, he introduced me to the Godha Ram Channon Papers in the Kislak Special Collections at Van Pelt. Like Khankhoje, Channon was as Ghadar revolutionary implicated in what was nicknamed the “Hindu-German Conspiracy,” and lived in the United States as an exile. Sam Allingham, a Processing Archivist for Kislak, wrote a blog post explaining the materials held in this collection. Interestingly, very little has been written about Godha Ram Channon, and in Maia Ramnath’s impressive book about the Ghadar movement, Haj to Utopia, Channon remains only a footnote. I am sensing the possibility of another project that brings together understudied Ghadar revolutionaries like Khankhoje and Channon and evaluates their return to India after Independence and Partition. But, for now, I am focused on figuring out the best way to integrate the question of peripheral Orientalism and racial nationalism in Paz and Roy’s writings to the work on Khankhoje.  

My plan for the remainder of my time on the summer grant is to complete a full draft of this chapter. I have the following goals in mind as I write:  

I hope to synthesize my evidence into a unified, coherent argument about what these three historical figures’ writings illuminate about transpacific racial formations when they are studied alongside each other. These figures have never been studied together and are usually siloed off into rigid disciplinary frames; my hope is to convincingly challenge that tendency. Further, I wish to make more explicit the methodologies I use to think Indian and Mexican cultural and geopolitical histories together through non-fictional texts. As a literary critic, I am invested in spelling out the formal patterns I observe across these autobiographical texts. Yet, I want to balance those observations about form and language with larger historical claims about the racialized character of South-South political internationalisms from the interwar period to the postwar period. My final post for the CASI Student Blog will provide a more in-depth view into the intersections of these themes.  

How does male absence due to migration change women’s lives?

Mon, 08/30/2021 - 10:33

This summer I have been working on tying up some loose ends on one of the empirical chapters from my dissertation. In this chapter I use a national level dataset and original qualitative interviews to establish how the effect of prolonged male absence due to migration on women’s political lives. Last summer I conducted over 20 interviews with residents and elites in Araria, Bihar. These interviews were conducted over the phone. I also used the Indian Human Development Study survey (2005-06 and 2011-12) to provide broad level trends on how women’s lives change when their husbands migrate in one wave and not the other.

Most broadly I find that male migration improves women’s substantive political empowerment. Women experience and increase in political participation in the absence of their migrant husbands. It is accompanied by rising mobility which improves their access to information and networks. The magnitude of the exposure effect is almost 50 times the increase due to other drivers like education. Contrary to existing theories, I also find evidence that women partake equally in decisions made within the household int he absence of their primary male gatekeeper. The effect is 9.5 times the size of the increase due to an additional year of education.

The effects remain stable even after controlling for her relative status that includes whether or not she is part of a joint family. These results show that male migration signicantly improves women’s substantive empowerment within and outside the household. Probing further into how the temporary nature of migration affects women’s empowerment I find that these gains are short-term and mirror the circular nature of their husband’s migration. In fact, the duration of exposure to migration has no effect on their empowerment levels once their husbands return.

With the qualitative interviews I expand on our understanding of women’s political participation by providing a descriptive account of the range of participation repertoires they engage in. I find that in the absence of their husbands, wives of male migrants see an increase in their visits to local institutions in lieu of having to access services which also increases their contact with local state actors. This is accompanied by an improvement in their knowledge of services which results in greater claim-making incidence. Finally, having to traverse local boundaries, women are more aware of development projects around the village over and above having more information on local politics. This enables them to partake more equally in political discussion with their husbands.

I rely on the qualitative to also describe the mechanisms driving women’s substantive political empowerment. I argue that mobility increases women’s interactions with the state and gives them access to heterogeneous networks. These interactions give them exposure to information which is crucial to their political participation. While men continue to have a greater say in political matters within the household, women are able to contribute with valuable inputs on local knowledge and candidate performance. Networks within and outside the household facilitate women’s political participation – interactions with the state and political knowledge. The relationship between local elected officials and women in migrant households is furthered because of the role they play in the electoral landscape in terms of bringing their husbands home to cast their ballot. In the absence of their husbands women must take on multiple responsibilities which also drives women’s empowerment through a host of internal and external forces.


Fri, 08/27/2021 - 16:14

Hi everyone! I am a rising fifth year in the PhD program in the Department of Political Science at Penn. I am excited to be joining the CASI summer program once again this year. My dissertation project looks at the implications of male migration on women in sending communities. Specifically, I am interested in understanding the ways in which their political behavior changes in terms of the kind of interactions with the state in their husband’s absence. I am currently working on two things concurrently. In the last year I used secondary data from the IHDS to establish national level trends on how women’s lives change across different facets of their life. I am currently adding finishing touches to this paper. I am also simultaneously working on designing my survey. I will be conducting an original survey in Araria, Bihar this year and I am also drafting the questions that will go into the survey. I aim to do some qualitative work in the Fall before piloting and fielding the survey. Thank you!

Wrapping Up Summer Research

Tue, 08/24/2021 - 14:42

My research under the Unstable Archives project aims to build a born-digital archive of a rare family collection containing the personal artifacts of Elizabeth Sharaf un-Nisa, a native Indian woman who married a European man and moved with him to Britain. More broadly, it seeks to study the lives of women like Sharaf un-Nisa who cohabited with European men during the colonial period.

For the first part of my research, I studied academic literature concerning native women in colonial India. The first book I read was Sex and the Family in Colonial India by Durba Ghosh. Here, Ghosh compiles her archival research about the dynamics of relationships between European men and Indian women. She argues that, despite a different definition of race in the 18th century, European concerns about racial and cultural mixing persisted, later forming the basis for scientific racism and other interracial dynamics (Ghosh 2006, 15). Interracial relationships were common in early colonial India, in part due to the lack of European women (Ghosh 2006, 36). However, even the most cosmopolitan European men expressed insecurities about their relationships with Indian women, including fears for the future of mixed-race children born from such affairs (Ghosh 2006, 11). Adjacently, the East India Company and other colonial officials viewed these relationships as corrosive to the moral and societal order; as such, they suppressed mentions of native women in archival records and public life (Ghosh 2006, 93). The anxieties surrounding interracial relationships with Indian women were thus integral in shaping the administrative policies of the East India Company and, later, British colonial rule in India itself.

The second book I read was Gender, Slavery and Law in Colonial India by Indrani Chatterjee. While Ghosh’s book focuses on the nuances of interracial relationships, Chatterjee explores the definition of slavery in colonial India, particularly for children and female domestic slaves. Chatterjee defines different forms of slave labor, including the labor of sexual reproduction; thus, she argues that slavery in colonial India must be considered with slave-concubines and other women in mind (1999, 239). However, as does Ghosh, Chatterjee acknowledges and investigates colonial officials’ attempts to suppress mentions of domestic slavery or to reframe them in a manner conforming to their ideals of marriage (1999, 226). She examines the laws and legal justifications used by colonial administrators to claim that, through suppression by colonial officials and the biased interpretations of prior historians, the existence of domestic slavery was concealed, though it remained alive in practice (Chatterjee 1999, 232). Like Ghosh, Chatterjee discusses conjugal relationships between native Indian women and their colonizers. However, while Ghosh summarizes multiple different cases of interracial relationships in which women held small but varying amounts of agency, Chatterjee focuses on the interpretations of domestic slavery where the women held very little power at all.

In the latter half of my research, I digitized artefacts from Sharaf un-Nisa’s collection, such as by transcribing her notebooks and letters and encoding them in Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)-compliant XML format. I found this task fascinating, as such personal items humanize historical figures in ways that no amount of reading could. I also assisted with editing photographs, compiling metadata using Wax, and designing the website on which our research findings are hosted.

Although my assistantship has ended, the Unstable Archives project plans to continue uncovering the lives of Indian women who cohabitation with their colonizers. I really enjoyed taking part in this project to digitally preserve the evidence of Sharaf un-Nisa’s life as she lived it — a rarity when records of the native Indian companions to European men are few and far between. Working with Unstable Archives contributed to my educational experience by guiding me through the intricacies of conducting archival research. It helped me realize an entire new potential field of study by showing me exactly what digital humanities entails.

For further reading:

Chatterjee, Indrani. Gender, Slavery and Law in Colonial India. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

Ghosh, Durba. Sex and the Family in Colonial India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Closing Considerations on Cultural Heritage

Mon, 08/23/2021 - 16:47

As this summer comes to an end, so too does my work on Indian cultural heritage NGOs. Although the underlying basis of the project has been consistent over the past three months, my own conceptions of cultural heritage have certainly shifted. As I move forward into the academic year, it is these new understandings which will inform my research and, likely, my MA thesis.

As I have previously shared, the central focus of my summer work has been compiling a database of the built heritage NGOs operating in India. Through this work, we can see the multiplicity, redundancy, and relationships of organizations with one another and their engagement with governments and private businesses. This provides a clearer picture of what the modern heritage sector looks like and how it functions. Having spent a summer making this database, I am convinced that this kind of work will never be truly done. There are tens of thousands of cultural NGOs in India, and that number continues to rise every day. Currently, there is no realistic way to capture all of these organizations both efficiently and accurately. The Indian government keeps a record of “arts and culture” organizations, but this list contains many organizations which either do limited or no conservation work or no longer exist. As such, manual web-searching, albeit slow, has produced the best results thus far.

Outside of this specific project, it is nearly impossible ignore the many heritage issues facing the world. With Afghanistan once again falling to the Taliban, already-vulnerable sites have been put at even higher risk. Once again, the global eye has turned to heritage. These monuments are not just beloved tourist destinations; rather, they serve as important thermometers of power, symbols of coexistence or domination, and sites of past and active memory. These heavy realities make me do my internet searches with a little more urgency and a lot more gravitas.

This last point has made me think a lot about approaching the database project in a newer, faster way. I was inspired by the methodology I had been employing in a conference paper, a side-project that I had been working on at the same time as my CASI work. In it, I worked with some Twitter scraping tools to collect data. The programs allowed me to search the platform for tweets which contained certain hashtags, key phrases, Twitter handles, and other features. Although I don’t think this tool would best equip me to find and catalog Indian heritage NGOs, it would certainly allow me to find and catalog discourse about Indian heritage NGOs and the sites themselves. I think that this approach would be quite timely. Besides news coverage of heritage destruction in the Middle East fueling new documentation efforts, COVID lockdown orders have made digital heritage management into a provocative, upcoming area of importance. This potential intrigues me and is slowly forming the foundations of my thesis project.

In the new academic year, I will continue this database work. Informed by my insights and experiences from CASI, I hope to keep cataloging Indian heritage to help us better comprehend and conserve it for many years to come.

Mid-Research Update

Mon, 08/23/2021 - 12:32

Hello again from Juliana Lu! This is my second update regarding my research under the Unstable Archives project. Led by Professor Megan Robb, this project seeks to digitize a rare family collection containing the personal artifacts of Elizabeth Sharaf un-Nisa, a native Indian woman who married a European man and moved with him to Britain. More broadly, it seeks to study the lives of women like Sharaf un-Nisa who cohabited with European men during the colonial period. Studying these relationships is essential to understand colonialism in India — interracial relationships provide important examples of cultural mixing, while Western anxieties surrounding racial hybridity and the policies that arose to regulate it greatly influenced the development of colonial India itself.

For the first part of my research, I studied academic literature concerning native women in colonial India. The first book I read was Sex and the Family in Colonial India by Durba Ghosh. Here, Ghosh compiles her archival research about the dynamics of relationships between European men and Indian women. The second book I read was Gender, Slavery and Law in Colonial India by Indrani Chatterjee. While Ghosh’s book focuses on the nuances of interracial relationships, Chatterjee explores the definition of slavery in colonial India, particularly for children and female domestic slaves. Like Ghosh, Chatterjee discusses conjugal relationships between native Indian women and their colonizers. However, while Ghosh summarizes multiple different cases of interracial relationships in which women held small but varying amounts of agency, Chatterjee focuses on the interpretations of domestic slavery where the women held very little power at all.

The next part of my research included digitally transcribing artefacts from Sharaf un-Nisa’s collection, including the penmanship notebook she used to practice writing in English. I found this task fascinating, as such a personal item, with its spelling errors and messy handwriting, humanized a historical figure in a way that no amount of reading could. I was also interested in learning the nuances of the transcription process, which we encoded in Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)-compliant XML format. Overall, I enjoyed working on this project so far, as my interest lies in the intersection between programming and the humanities. With “Unstable Archives,” I can use digitization to preserve the evidence of Sharaf un-Nisa’s life as she lived it — a rarity when records of the native Indian companions to European men are few and far between.

Hello from Juliana!

Fri, 08/20/2021 - 12:28

Hello! My name is Juliana Lu, and I’m a rising sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences from Dallas, Texas. My research under the “Unstable Archives” project, led by Assistant Professor Megan Robb, aims to build a born-digital archive of a rare family collection containing the personal artefacts of Elizabeth Sharaf un-Nisa, a native Indian woman who married a European man and moved with him to Britain.

This project considers the question, why is it important to research the lives of native women who cohabited with European men during the colonial period?” Studying these relationships is essential to understand colonialism in India in its fullest context, including the lives and statuses of its most silenced inhabitants — native women. Not only do interracial relationships provide examples of cultural mixing, in which native women engaged in both European practices and Indian traditions, but Western anxieties surrounding racial hybridity and the policies that arose to regulate it greatly influenced the development of colonial India itself.

Over the summer, I hope to help uncover the intricacies of such relationships while gaining insight into the digital humanities field. Challenges I may encounter include finding sufficient information about the Indian women in contact with European men, as these women are often excluded from historical accounts and official documents. However, my long-term goal is to shine more light on the lives of such women, starting with digitizing Elizabeth Sharaf un-Nisa’s fascinating collection.

Update Two from Akhil!

Thu, 08/19/2021 - 17:23
Andaz (1949)

Hello again! This is my second blog update on the summer research I am conducting with Professor Ramya Sreenivasan on early Hindi cinema and the emergence of mass culture in India. So far, it has been an amazing experience!

I started with films from the late 1940s and am slowly making my way through the films of the 1950s. Some of my favorites so far include Andaz (1949), Do Bigha Zamin (1953), Mr. and Mrs. ’55 (1955), and C.I.D (1956). I also completed compiling published box office data for each decade from the 1940s to the 1970s which has guided my film assignments for each week. Finally, I have started working on a database that lists the personnel and production crew for each film I watch, allowing us to notice patterns and connections among the networks of film industry workers.

It has been an absolute pleasure conducting this research for the past several weeks. I have been surprised and delighted by the writing, themes, and technical prowess of the films I have watched so far. While these movies are certainly not perfect and are dated in many ways, it is refreshing and rewarding to invest myself in this media. I look forward to gathering my thoughts and developing my opinions on every movie I watch, as well as being able to share them with Professor Sreenivasan. Moreover, I really enjoy discussing our varying thoughts on these films when I meet with her, especially considering our vastly different experiences with these films.

For the rest of my time doing research this summer, I hope to finish my work in the 1950s decade and continue updating the database. I look forward to uploading my final post in the coming weeks!

Wrapping Up Summer Research

Thu, 08/19/2021 - 11:47

Hello! I am writing one last time to debrief my experience conducting research through CASI under the supervision of Dr. Robert DeRubeis and Akash Wasil.

My experience over the past months has been overwhelmingly positive and has taught me many important skills necessary for a career in psychology.

This summer I assisted with analysis and data cleaning related to project investigating the efficacy of a single-session mental health intervention meant to increase mental well-being among Indian students. Through this experience, I gained valuable knowledge of RStudio and, more broadly, strong data management and analysis practices. Additionally, I was involved in a project seeking to compare the rates of stigmatized beliefs endorsed by Indian adolescents versus American adolescents. Notably, through this work, I got hands-on experience in manuscript editing. Overall, I feel very satisfied knowing that I contributed to the important knowledge base of mental health in India.

Looking forward, I am now even more certain that I want to pursue a career in clinical psychology, and I plan to apply to graduate schools in the fall. Additionally, I will stay involved in the DeRubeis Lab to finish existing projects and start new ones!

I would like to sincerely thank CASI and the DeRubeis Lab for their support this summer and for making my research experience so amazing!