Let there be an anthropology and sociology of South Asia to understand cultural politics of the region

(දකුණු ආසියාවේ සමාජ විද්‍යාව හා මානව විද්‍යාව පිළිබඳ සිදු කරන ලද මේ සම්මුඛ සාකච්ඡාව මුල් වරට පළවුයේ 2018 ඔක්තෝබර් 18 වනදා බංගලිදේශයේ ඩඛා නුවර පළකරන ‘ඩේලි ස්ටාර්’ පුවත් පතේය. ආචාර්ය දේව් නාත් පාඨක් නව දිල්ලියේ දකුණු ආසියානු විශ්වවිද්‍යාලයේ සමාජ විද්‍යාව පිළිබඳ සහාය මහාචර්යවරයෙකි. අසිෆ් බින් අලි එම විශ්වවිද්‍යාලයේ සමාජ විද්‍යාව පිළිබඳ එම්.ඒ. උපාධිදාරියෙකු වන අතර, බංගලිදේශීය මාධ්‍යවේදියෙකුද වේ. මෙහි සිංහල පරිවර්තනය ඉදිරියේදී මේ අවකාශයේ පළකිරීමට නියමිතය)

Asif Bin Ali: Do you think that there could be an anthropology and sociology of South Asia to understand the cultural politics of the region? How would you like define cultural politics in South Asia and how it is different from the political politics?

Dev Nath Pathak: For a long time, in post-colonial South Asia, social science in general operated with various comfort zones. The comfort was ensured by restricting scholarly attentions to everything predefined, such as territories, nationality, thematic issues of enquiry, and methodology. We can safely say that sociology and social anthropology have been, like many other cognates, too much nationalist. The scholars, who had greater intellectual responsibility, indeed did nothing to develop the grounds on which intellectual risk could be undertaken. Everyone played it safe, and stayed within the defined areas, be it national or disciplinary, or over all intellectual. Perhaps, this was also beneficial for them, in terms of maintaining validity, getting financial supports from state and other agencies with vested interests. This can be seen in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, and of course India where the ‘games of academic politics’ unfolds with too much of word-mincing. In the same breath, it must be said that anthropologists operated with a monolithic idea of culture, something ornamental (folklore, heritage, museum, exotic etc.). Culture, just like a curio for an upper middle class drawing room, is a second filled in the scholarship. Some others tried to see culture only in terms of fixed formations, such as caste, ethnicity, and engendered relations. This led to a perpetual obscurity about the integral relation of culture with politics, and the various performances of this interrelated entity which can be captured in, say, conventional way of dealing with the caste-sociability. Social scientists have done exactly what most of the journalists in newspapers or television do, put culture as a soft (and subsidiary-secondary) area, and politics as the real domain of actions. Neither journalists nor social scientists were able to see the twin characters, culture and politics. It is like many of the scholars, alike journalists, will go to watch a theatre performance, thinking of a ‘purely’ cultural event, without knowing that this is a bourgeoisie tendency to separate roots and routes, tradition and modernity, cultural and political. Such performances are reviewed in newspapers or documented by the ethnographers or performance study scholars or anthropologists. Seldom does one get a sense from such reporting that each bit of performance is an act of politics. Not only due to the content of political nature, but also the relation of a performance with the history and politics of a society.

Take for example, almost everyone laments in Bangladesh about the decline of audience for modern theatre. To make sense of such decline, or conversely incline in interest for the violently vivacious Bengali television soaps produced in India and religiously consumed in Bangladesh, one has to see the conjoined twins at work, culture and politics entangled. We know about the love for soft porn in some of the Bangladeshi films (famously known as cut-piece cinema), or an uncanny popularity of Hero Alom, the YouTube sensation amongst the lover middle class consumers in Bangladesh. And many such instances from Bangladesh help you see similar trends in other parts of South Asia. A travelling theatre group in Nepal, or a series of young contemporary artists in Sri Lanka, and so on forth, deliver to us a panorama of cultural politics in South Asia. We tried to put together a book along this line titled Culture and Politics in South Asia: Performative communication published by Routledge of Taylor and Francis group. We emphasised that South Asia is a region of perpetual dramatics, loaded with emotive contents. We deemed the region as a theatre of performative politics whereby culture and power are inseparable.

If this fundamental realisation makes sense, one has to think of anthropology and sociology of South Asia that could do justice to the inseparable culture and politics. Such an endeavour has to be against the divisive academic politics, which has plagued intellectual growth in Bangladesh as well as in India, or elsewhere in South Asia. We are aware of the selfish and unjustifiable divide between sociology and anthropology in Bangladesh. Strangely enough, this is common across the region, and even more paradoxical that within sociology there is a lobby that argues for ‘applied’ business. So does anthropology. Of course, this is under the influence of the development sector; NGOs of national and international nature determine the way the scholars shall conduct themselves. The market determines the idea of research and intellectual development. Much of South Asian societies, polity and academia suffer from the disease. This is reflective of ‘a slave morality’ (following Nietzsche), or a Captive mind (following Syed Husain Alatas). When I along with my colleagues, Sasanka Perera and Ravi Kumar, started thinking of sociology and social anthropology in South Asian framework at South Asian University we were aware of these issues; and we sought to develop a nuanced disciplinary framework which can allow us to engage with not only a national-territorial context, but the region at large; not only the conventional and familiar issues of enquiry but also opening new frontiers by pushing the disciplinary boundaries; not only reading the western canons but also seeking to fathom theoretical values of the local canons (diverse bodies of thoughts across the region of South Asia). Orient Blackswan, a reputed publisher, decided to bring out one of the results of our endeavour, a book titled Sociology and Social Anthropology in South Asia: Histories and Practices. This book has advanced our endeavour in creating a framework for South Asia in which one effortlessly could engage with contexts beyond one’s home turf, without being anti-national, so to say. This is what we envisaged in the book Another South Asia, which was almost like a manifesto of our effort to build up sociology and social anthropology of South Asia. You can say that our academic politics through these publications is in the context of cultural politics that we witness in South Asia today.

Asif Bin Ali: How would you like to define South Asia within this approach?

Dev Nath Pathak: Allow me to speak of South Asia through a metaphor since we have spent over half of a decade passionately thinking about it. It is a cracked mirror with various shards of glasses yet together since an invisible frame is still intact. If you can imagine, such a mirror is not hard to find in our everyday life. We don’t like to see our face in such broken mirrors, it shows us ugly and real images unlike the official camera obscura; and if one is courageous in staring at the image reflected in such a mirror, one gets to see the aesthetics of it mixed with ideologies and utopias, reality and fantasy, history and mythology, poetics and politics. The official-bureaucratic effort has been over decades to whitewash the cracked mirror and hide it away from us. SAARC gives us such a whitewashed illusion, so does the member nation states, which would look at the whitewashed mirror and ensure that there is no sense of region for the citizens in various nation states. All the bilateral, multilateral, treaties and agreements, visa regime (with orchestration of occasional friendly flexibility as well as aggressive military guarding) is dramatic acts to disable us from seeing into the cracked mirror. Citizens in nation states in South Asia are made prisoners of whitewashed frames of the cracked mirror. This is a herculean task of sociologists-anthropologists of the region to wash the whitewashed cracked mirror clean and show it to everyone- we are still connected and in flow despite the crookedness (due to the cracks) at various levels. This is South Asia, beyond definitions and yet within comprehension. A linear definition of South Asia will only serve states, not the people thereof.

Asif Bin Ali: What possibilities would this approach could bring?

Dev Nath Pathak: That we would begin to see that every Bengali Indian and Bangladeshi, Hindu or Muslim, proudly shows a kinship chart which defies the heavily guarded national borders. That we would not consider it residual that every Punjabi Indian tends to relish a kinship network involving kith and kin across the borders even though it may smack of ‘anti-national’ tendencies. That we would note that it is not only in popular cinema that love and hatred bring folks from across the region in a relation. That the literary, performative and other traditions of thoughts and philosophy bring about a sense of region essentially connected despite nation states going on literal or figurative wars with each other. All this is, at one level, merely rhetorical. But all this is, at another level, gold mine of ideas for anthropologists and sociologists to rethink family marriage and kinship, caste and ethnicity, religions and spirituality, development and underdevelopment, globalization and locality, and so on so forth.

Asif Bin Ali: What could be the themes of focus and areas of enquiries in this approach? Where can such endeavour lead?

Dev Nath Pathak: Everything that was systematically ignored and ridiculed till now assume instant importance; as well as everything that has been done to death without being aware of the regional implications of the themes of enquiries resurface as areas of enquiries. Say for example, almost all of sociology and social anthropology in India has been about understanding caste and a little later, its intersectionality with various other indices. Weirdly, and funnily enough, not a single sociologist and social anthropologist in India seem to attend to the idea of caste among Muslims in and beyond India, or the treatises on caste in Nepal and Sri Lanka, enabling us to see the interrelation of the caste hierarchy across borders. Indian scholars have been too comfortable with a borrowed scheme of purity and pollution, and could not see caste as a performed entity. This ignorance was due to a particular kind of politics of knowledge production and circulation, which largely canonized the canons or lustfully as well as helplessly sucked up in the wake of Eurocentric, India-centric, or global south Asia centric ways of seeing. We tend to revisit all of them with due irreverence to the canons and gatekeepers of the scholarship, be they in India or elsewhere. And simultaneously, we break free from the intellectual incest due to which a sociologist read only what was labelled as ‘sociological’, or an anthropologist read only what was classified as ‘anthropological’. Ridiculously, most of them still rivalled with economists. We defy this incest taboo and read from diverse sources to comprehend the sociological-meanings emerging from them. We consciously perform a sort of intellectual promiscuity and sincerely flirt with issues pertaining to art, visuals, photographs, cinemas, mediated cultural texts and contexts, taste, smell, touch, eating and shitting, and whole gamut of emotions and what not. Everything that was a nonissue in intellectual orthodoxy becomes an issue of sociological-anthropological enquiry for us. It leads us to a more liberated framework of doing sociology and social anthropology, to say the least. One can heave a sigh that one is not going to die as a prisoner of intellectual nationalism, and yet one is not anti-national.

Asif Bin Ali: Do you think that Indian hegemony over the socio-anthropological knowledge production will allow a level playing field for non-Indian South Asians to contribute in this approach? What could be the politics of this approach?

Dev Nath Pathak: You are raising a pertinent issue about Indian hegemony in scholarship as in many other fields. We shall be concerned with many levels of hegemony in the production and circulation of academic knowledge. Eurocentrism is not yet dead, and it has become more complex with other additions, making it Euro-American hegemony rivalled by the hegemony of global South Asian scholarship. The global south Asian scholars are content with a kind of view of South Asian societies and polity from the waiting lounges of airport, and they celebrate their identity defined by the number of visas they have accumulated on their passport. Furthermore, we often hear a meaningful joke that global South Asian scholarship is by and large global Indian scholarship, which can be furthermore narrowed to Indian-Bengali scholarship with participation of some Marathi and Guajarati scholars too. Indian hegemony itself is a kneejerk reaction to Euro-American and global South Asian hegemony. And then Indian hegemony tries to look like a master of its own destiny in local South Asia, often a butt of ridicule in larger analysis of epistemological decolonization. As such, Indian scholarship does not provide with much headway when it comes to scholarship in South Asia. It is indeed various levels of slavishness, ‘captive mind’, at work. Within that Indian hegemony pretends to be a master, though it is only “his-master’s voice”, unwittingly. And the approach of my academic politics in this regard starts with an idea that the hegemon is too weak to interfere. Indian hegemony is a monster without fangs, at best; it is a docile quantum of flesh without bones; it is at a body in decay ever since its inception. An approach to render sociology and anthropology, South Asian, one shall be keen to perform an intellectual cannibalism; eat the meat of the monster and spit it out. Make it loud and clear that the Oedipus has no interest in the tyrant; academic politics of South Asian scholarship needs to declare that it can grow without beating the known hegemons. For, the hegemon has no impact whatsoever.

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