The 30th Annual BASAS Conference hosted by the Centre of South Asian Studies in their 50th anniversary year was held between the 6-8th April at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge. With generous funding from the Yusuf and Farida Hamied Foundation, the Thriplow Trust, and the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre, the event brought together an international group of academics and early career researchers to discuss the study of South Asia.
With 42 panels, a round table addressing academic freedom and keynote lecture by Professor William Gould, the event generated a spectrum of new discussions, conversations, and raised valuable questions. This forum for research also included the BASAS student prize giving, receptions hosted by Taylor and Francis and the Centre of South Asian Studies and the launch of Claire Anderson’s latest book, New Histories of the Andaman Islands: Landscape, Place and Identity in the Bay of Bengal, 1790-2012.
The opening panels considered the interwoven aspects of the region’s political, religious and secular dimensions. This included presentations on religious politics and conflict in Bangladesh and British diaspora communities and a session which scrutinized the role of ‘national experts’ in South Asia’s development industry.
In the Reddaway Room, Shinjini Das (University of Cambridge), Leigh Denault (University of Cambridge), Muhammed Niyas Ashraf (Freie Universität Berlin) and Mou Banerjee (Harvard University) presented ‘Translating Christianity: Print, Conversion and Religious Identity in Colonial India’.
Using popular Christian publications, evangelical tracts and newspaper reports Das and Denault highlighted the debate and ideological restructing of religion in mid-late nineteenth century India. Through the figure of St Paul, an idealized missionary of the time, Das focused on the dynamics of ‘vernacular Christianity’ within Bengal. Arguing that Paul was an important resource for Hindu reformism formed a counterpoint to Denault’s paper which positioned Christianity as a novel platform for ‘Hindi publicists’ such as Harischandra of Banaras.
Muhammed Niyas Ashraf moved the lens to South India and the interaction between Protestant missionaries and Islam practices. Picking apart the polemicist, Sayyid Sanaullah Makti Tangal, the paper suggested that his defensive Malayalam publications cemented Muslim solidarity in the colonial Kerala. Banerjee’s work similarly thought through polemic discourses realized in chap books in Musalmani-Bengali and dobashi Bengali.
Pivoting around the work of Munshi Meherullah, a Muslim apologist and itinerant tailor, Banerjee examined the Muslim atrap community’s response to Christian missionaries working across Bengal in the late colonial period. Speaking through his re-conversion practice the paper emphasized Meherullah’ determination, idiosyncratic methodologies and the affect this had on an aspirational pan-Islamicism.
The importance of munshi figures in colonial India could not be discounted in the second panel of the afternoon, ‘The East India Company and the College of Fort William: Art, Literature, Politics’. This circumspective view of the college was opened by Joshua Ehrlich (Harvard University) who discussed the external politics of the Calcuttan institution in relation to the college established at Haileybury. Noting the rhetoric and policies of Governor-General Wellesley and the Court of Directors, Ehrlich argued that the College was instrumental in configuring knowledge and education as an extension of state.
Cleo Roberts (University of Liverpool) picked up on this thread and argued that the College’s use of Roussean ideals to create students as ‘instruments of state’ was insufficiently executed. Examining the College from the perspective of the students, her paper showed that Wellesley’s policies and management of the college actively encouraged a class of apathetic, distracted and disobedient men to emerge.
The inability to manage this ‘cult of boyhood’ was perhaps in part due to the College’s professors and tutors who, as Diviya Pant’s (University of Kent) paper showed, were pursuing entrepreneurial and personal literary works. Detailing the ouvre of John Gilchrist, a pioneering linguistic affiliated with the College, Pant analysed how links were being forged between Hindustani and English. She argued that this analogy was drawn to give weight to Gilchrist’s formulation of Hindustani. Situating it as a modern language and playing a typically comparative game, she concluded crafted it into a desirable and commercial subject.
Discussions lead by David Washbrook were animated and drew an important parallel with the concurrent roundtable discussion ‘Academic Freedom in South Asia’. Chaired by Professor Chatterji (University of Cambridge) the discussion addressed the historic and contemporary correlates of the academic pressures currently at the fore in South Asia. The transnational character of this movement was detailed by Ed Anderson (University of Cambridge). Citing recent issues of censorship around Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History, he raised the point that activism external to South Asia is influential and impacts on debates.
Humeira Iqtidar (King’s College London) reiterated the multi-directional force of these campaigns and spoke on the incursions on academic freedom in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Insights offered by Mamun Rashid (University of Cambridge) placed further focus on incidents in Bangladesh whilst Priyamvada Gopal (University of Cambridge) urged the academic community to exercise their views stating, ‘Freedom of expression is like a muscle, use it or you lose it’.
The valuable historic insights provided by Laurence Gautier (University of Cambridge) and Partha Pratim Shil (University of Cambridge) helped shape the subsequent discussion. Delegates pointed out that understanding the global nature of academic censorship was important. Further points raised included recognising that Hindu nationalism lacked a stock of credible public intellectuals and intellectual culture.
The second day was a similarly varied and rich program. The morning sessions included discussions focused on criminality and personal law, monarchies and their global remit, labour migration and constitutionalism in Nepal and India.
Gender and Violence in India and the Diaspora chaired by Deborah Sutton (Lancaster University) was well attended and rigorously highlighted female experiences across the continent. Gemma Scott (Keele University) evinced the gender politics involved in the sterilisation campaign launched during the Emergency in India. Picking apart the male-dominated archive she excavated female perspectives and argued that a re-orientation of perspectives needs to acknowledge that the program exacerbated gender biases.
Subsequent papers presented by Mirna Guha (University of East Anglia) and Parul Bhandari (Centre de Sciences Humaines de New Delhi) noted bias in contemporary India. Guha examined the habitual violence experienced by female sex workers in Bengal. Her qualitative study showed that this violence was embedded in a complex web of social relationships rather than singularly bound in their sex work.
This overlapped with Bhandari’s work which mapped out the violence in pre-marital coupledom. Thinking through sociological, anthropological theories and gender studies, her work examined the normalization of gender asymmetry in these relationships. Arguing that these shaped the contours of subsequent marital relationships, her paper unpacked the rhetoric of agency and freedom attached to coupledom.
Nandini Sen (Goethe University) concluded the panel providing a historic perspective through the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore. Reading through the female protagonists, Sen noted that these novellas complicated models of kinship and challenged familial units. This segued into a lively question and answer session, which picked up on methodologies of onsite research particularly during sexual health campaigns and expanded on the impact of social media and technology on conceptions of liberal sexuality.
Visual and culinary cultures of South Asia found form in the following panels. Lotte Hoek (University of Edinburgh) and Sanjukta Sunderason (Leiden University) presented papers which analysed the manifestation of left wing politics of the 50s and 60s in print, poster campaigns and film. The ideological underpinnings and formulation of food practices were explored by Sreya Mallika Datta (University of Delhi), Saumya Gupta (University of Delhi) and Rachna Singh (Jawaharlal Nehru University) in a panel chaired by Elizabeth Leake (Royal Holloway University of London).
Using cuisine and food to reflect on identity formation, nationhood and recognizing it as an effective mechanism for colonial rule and punishment ensured an animated audience discussion. The dietary regimes of imperial jails detailed by Singh unraveled questions about the body politic and micro-technologies of power.
The panel ‘Digital media and new technologies in South Asia and its diaspora’discussed the implications that digital research and methods have for the study of South Asia. Tine Vekemans (Ghent University) investigated the usage of online religious platforms by Jain diasporas, showing that this can enhance perspectives and prove transformative.
A mixed media collaboration by Ravinder Barn (Royal Holloway, University of London), Balbir Barn (Middlesex University) and Utsa Mukherjee (Royal Holloway, University of London) deduced that the depiction of digital environments as inherently demographic needs to be reconfigured. Their analysis of 250,000 tweets collated following the India’s Daughter controversy pointed to the disparity in impact, recognizing that key institutions held weight in the Twitter sphere, and activity was overwhelmingly re-tweets from these larger accounts.
Shaping opinion through diverse media was a strand of Professor William Gould’s keynote which concluded the day. Introduced by by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, his public lecture ‘Hidden Citizens: Space, place and rights in India and Pakistan, 1947-1952’ drew on various visual technologies, publicity materials and products such as cement and bidi packaging to establish the perimeters of citizenship. The material presented a comprehensive view of partition politics and how they were defined through the built environment.
The conference concluded on Friday with a selection of panels including work on environmental history and borders, Sri Lanka’s problematic conceptualisation as a connected empire and a popular session considering imperial elephantology and anopheles mosquitoes in South Asian history. Both Jonathan Saha’s (University of Leeds) and Rohan Deb Roy’s (University of Reading) papers elegantly argued for animals to be understood as multi-faceted vectors of extended political, sanitary and social debates. Saha noted that this interspecies provided entry point into warped colonial knowledge systems and as Roy reaffirmed provided an effective prism for critical research. As noted by the chair Sujit Sivansundaram (University of Cambridge) this was a welcomed field which sat with the body of work building around the study of matter and ecology in South Asian.
Thanks must be expressed to the conference organisers; Bhaskar Vira, Elisabeth Leake, Edward Anderson, Barbara Roe and the team of post graduate volunteers who made the event so stimulating and successful.
Further information can be found on the BASAS website, where a series of Podcasts will be available shortly.