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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A book on Kashmir is in the eye of the storm with questions being raised on representation, accountability and ethics

US-based anthropologist Saiba Varma's book The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir explores how care operates in a culture of occupation.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti |
Updated: September 22, 2021 7:36:03 pm
On its website, Varma’s book is described by the Duke University Press as an exploration of the “psychological, ontological, and political entanglements between medicine and violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir — the world's most densely militarised place”. (Source: Amazon.in)

On September 14, a series of tweets by @Settler_Scholar, an anonymous Twitter account claiming to represent a group of Kashmir activists, students and researchers, levied an accusation against author and anthropologist Saiba Varma, an associate professor at the University of California, over her book, The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, published in October last year by Duke University in the US and by Delhi-based indie publisher Yoda Press in South Asia.

Pointing out that Varma was the daughter of Krishan Varma, a retired member of India’s foreign intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), who was posted in Kashmir in the turbulent 90s, the account raised questions on accountability, consent and transparency and the “ethical obligations of scholars with power and privilege who work in settings of occupation — in this case Indian scholars in Kashmir.”

On its website, Varma’s book is described by the Duke University Press as an exploration of the “psychological, ontological, and political entanglements between medicine and violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir — the world’s most densely militarised place”.

Explaining how care operates in a culture of militarism, Varma writes in the Introduction to her book, “Mainstream Indian publics struggle to understand why Kashmiris would seek independence from India. In the Indian nationalist imaginary, losing Kashmir would mean reliving the trauma of the Partition, which for many remains an unassimilated loss. Today, the litmus test of Indian patriotism is the question, ‘Do you believe Kashmir is an integral part of India?’ With the ascent of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, there is little space for debate; the answer must be, unequivocally, ‘yes.’ Unlike other ‘marginal’ places that struggle against abandonment or neglect, Kashmir is loved — too loved — by India and Pakistan.” The book won the 2021 Edie Turner First Book Prize, presented by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology section of the American Anthropological Association.

In the tweets, @Settler_Scholar wrote, “Did the trauma patients in Kashmir know who they were talking to? Would they still have felt comfortable talking to her if they knew who her father was? Did her father’s connections assist SV in any way during her research? Has she gained special access? Were Indian and local Kashmir intelligence agents & agencies aware that SV was present & conducting research in Kashmir? Did it make the surveillance worse for the trauma patients?”

On her Twitter page, Varma countered the allegations a few days later. “An anonymous account is attacking my research based on my father’s former position in the Indian state. My father did work for the security state. He was in Kashmir when I was 10 years old. My work disavows all counterinsurgency, past and present, in Kashmir. My father had no direct bearing on the research I’ve done.

Recognising the need to acknowledge this relationship, however, during my fieldwork I disclosed it to Kashmiri scholars and journalists I was close to. My ethical practices and scholarly arguments are accountable to them. My position will be abundantly clear to anyone who has read my book and scholarship. Yet it seems it is not enough for me to write what I have. That thread demands that I also personally name, shame, and drag my father through the mud… I do acknowledge my positionality: I am writing in solidarity, not to speak ‘for’ or appropriate the voices of people in Kashmir,” she wrote.

Following the allegations, in a statement, a group of academics, including Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Ather Zia, Nosheen Ali, among others, amplified the call for accountability and ethics and wrote, “We do not believe that ‘the daughter should be punished for the sins of the father.’ The revelations, however, raise key questions about the ethical obligations of all scholars who do ethnographic and archival research in Kashmir, with particular relevance for scholars who are committed to supporting the Kashmiri political struggle.”

In a statement put out yesterday, the book’s Indian publisher Yoda Press said that it was unaware of Varma’s antecedents and would stop printing the South Asia edition of the book till more details emerge. In its statement, Yoda Press wrote, “Over the last few days, we have been accused of not standing by our author, Saiba Varma, author of The Occupied Clinic: Militarism And Care In Kashmir, as questions have been raised about explicit positionality in her scholarship. We would like to reiterate that we have always stood by our authors, even when they have been targeted and hounded by the State.

However, the context in which we are speaking now is vastly different, and we believe it is vital for us to clarify our position on the ethical obligations of the scholars we publish… Publishers are known for keeping their eye on commercial considerations and staying quiet in times such as this when their books are called into serious question. Yoda Press has never been, and never will be, that publisher. We hold paramount the need for disclosure and ethical praxis in the academic works we publish and expect the same from our authors. It is our belief that accountability and positionality are crucial for authors and publishers alike if we are to contribute to the production of knowledge in service of a liberatory goal.”

The Indian Express has reached out to both Arpita Das, who heads Yoda Press, and to Varma. This story will be updated further to their response.

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