Labour

A Social Scientist Hacking Away at the Idea of National Identity

“I have been very lucky to have a very supportive environment wherever I went. If that would be the case for everybody, women would be able to do a lot of things much better.”

Anu Sabhlok. Credit: Aashima Dogra/TLoS

Anu Sabhlok. Credit: Aashima Dogra/TLoS

The Life of Science – At a hacker conference in the shadows of the snowy mountains, in Dharamshala, I met those who not only hack computers but also their own lives. One of them is Anu Sabhlok.

Sabhlok followed her son Umang to this conference; together they are hackers of the education system that has entrapped most people in the country. Both of her sons don’t go to school. They learn what they want and in the way that they choose, for example, whilst travelling to hacker spaces or at an alternative learning centre, named Coveda, that can’t be easily defined as a school.

As a social scientist, Sabhlok herself has been hacking away at the concept of a ‘national identity’. Her research challenges the way in which national identity is determined in our policy and media.

Two seasons of the year, she travels with migrant labourers who move to and fro from their homes in rural Jharkhand to the Spiti and Lahaul districts in Himachal Pradesh to build the Indo-Tibetan border road. On the way, she finds unused definitions of ‘nation’.

“We are making the nation”

“Main bhi toh Hindustan hoon, meri hifazat kon karega (But I am also India, who will protect me)?” one of the migrant labourers building border roads once told Anu.

Every summer, more than 10,000 migrants gather in Nagrota town in Jammu. The semi-military government agency Border Roads Organisation (BRO) performs minor health checks and army trucks transfer them to Spiti-Lahaul, 18,000 feet above sea level. Here, the labourers, mostly from rural Jharkhand, will stay for exactly 179 days and rebuild the Hindustan-Tibet Road, destroyed every year by the winter snow, and secure the border between India and China.

For the next six months, they will camp at freezing temperatures. Twenty to forty will share one tent. At this height and temperature, a bath is a luxury they can’t afford. “They live on the road, cook on the road and build the road,” Sabhlok asserts as we sip chai at a shop next to the hackerspace.

As ‘unskilled’ temporary contractors, these migrants don’t enjoy any perks, unlike their ex-defence employers. “Their contracts are only [for] 179 days because more than that would make them eligible for benefits, which the government does not want to give them.”

“They are building these roads for national defence and development. Physically, the road is not being constructed by the army or the government, it is done by these migrant labourers. And the labourers have a sense of their contributions,” Sabhlok says.

“They will tell you proudly: ‘Humne yeh road banayee, humne Hyderabad mein badi building banai hai, humne Goa mein hotel banaaye hai desh ke liye’ (We made this road for the country, we also made the big building in Hyderabad and we made the hotel in Goa).”

“However, their own lives are precarious. They are not cared for. If someone dies, another is called in. Ek gaya toh dusara aa jayega (if one goes another will come),  this is the kind of attitude of their employers.”

Sabhlok critiques national development and defence as being too exclusionary. For instance, the recent countrywide debate on ‘nationalism’ excludes the definitions and views on the literal nation-builders such as these labourers. Who defines the nation, her work asks.

“Every time history is written, it is written of the achievements of a king or governments. But this is the history of the labourer, a human history of the Indo-Tibetan border road, of the people who move to build that road.”

In one her recent papers published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Sabhlok draws connections between the labourers’ bodies and the steady development of India. “In the process of adding value to the nation, their bodies are deteriorating and losing their own value.”

Anu Sabhlok in the field. Source: Anu Sabhlok's blog

Anu Sabhlok in the field. Source: Anu Sabhlok’s blog

How to be an ethnographer

Some of the labourers who make these roads have been doing this for 20 years. Sabhlok joined them for the last six. On the field, she uses one of the main tools of ethnographic methodology, called participation observation. This involves camping alongside them, eating with them and breaking rocks with them. Just observation is not enough: it would be too distanced, she says. “You are observing but also you are participating in the activity. Many tourists pass by, they also observe, but there is a difference in the way ethnographers do it.”

“If it is a road construction site, you break rocks with them. If it is a relief camp, you work as a relief worker. You can’t participate fully, but to the extent possible you live as closely with them and you understand them. Unless you have broken a rock and seen, unless you travel on the same buses, how will you know what it is like to work there?”

Through these participation observations, she extracts social realities that challenge the inequality rooted in the balance of power relations, and demands social justice. As evidenced by the recorded journeys of migrant labourers, the discussions on ‘development of our nation’ are skewed.

“I look at this in all its complexity. I don’t reach any positive or negative conclusions about the lives of the labourers,” Sabhlok says. One of her goals is to portray the sense of pride that the labourers exude when they return home to Jharkhand after their time working in the high mountains. “At home, they have a completely different body language. By the time they are back, they are dusty, blackened, having worked with tar. They are all in tatters pretty much…”

“On the way back when the train stops, they’ll rent the best looking gaadi (vehicle), they will stop at a stream in Jharkhand, have a bath, wear new clothes, buy sweets and gifts for the family and arrive home like heroes,” she laughs.

“Everybody is scared. They are going to high altitudes; they know some will survive [and] some will not. So when they come back, they come back with a sense of pride. This sense of pride has not been captured in any history or documentation.”

Labourers, back home in Jharkhand. Source: Anu Sabhlok's blog

Labourers, back home in Jharkhand. Source: Anu Sabhlok’s blog

Performing your identity

While the rest of us take rigid stands when debating nationalism, gender, caste and class, social scientists shrug their shoulders and declare all of these are contrived, like a social mirage. Sabhlok elaborates: “A political scientist, Benedict Anderson, wrote in his book Imagined Communities [about the] definition of a nation. He says a nation is constructed through the census, through museums and through newspapers, and a few other things are on the list that play a role in constructing a nation.”

In her own context, Sabhlok adds nuance to his definition by asking how a nation is then constructed in a multilingual, semi-illiterate country like India, where most people don’t go to museums, the census happens once a decade and the newspapers are all in different languages. How do we have a sense of a nation in here?

Some of the answers she has found are packed into a recent paper published in Geoforum. “There are face-to-face interactions which also contribute toward a sense of an imagined community. So it is not just these larger abstract criteria that Anderson suggests.”

“It is important in India for people of different religions and regions to meet. This work I did in Gujarat – I looked at relief camps after the riots and the earthquake. Again I did an ethnographic study in these relief camps. There I saw how – especially in camps where Hindu and Muslim women were able to interact with another – how a shared sense of belonging emerges.”

Another aspect that contributes to the image of the nation is travelling. This has been demonstrated in the observations Sabhlok made on travels with the migrant labourers in Jharkhand. “We travel a lot these days to expand our horizons. These guys also travel. They travel for work and migrate. Every time we travel there are shifts in our thinking that happen, right? Similarly, every time they travel out of their rural areas there are shifts in their thinking that happen.

“Through that, they develop a consciousness that is wider than their sense of identity in a small village. They develop a larger, regional, national and maybe even a global identity or consciousness.”

“In Hind Swaraj Gandhi talks about the idea of people walking to pilgrimage sites which are in the four corners of the country. And through that process of going and travelling you develop national cohesiveness.” It is not only the imagined construct of ‘nation’ that develops through the places we visit and the spaces we inhabit. Sabhlok researches social scenarios where the spaces inhabited by a group of people influences other imagined identities, too – such as gender.

“Unlike biologists, who mostly say that sex and gender are [biological givens], social scientists usually argue that sex and gender both are constructed. They are given meaning through our practices. The philosopher Judith Butler says that gender is a performance. … There are ways of being masculine and there are ways of being feminine. So if that is true, then how is gender performed in a space? How, through repeated actions and stylisations, do we become a man or a woman? So I look at the relationship between identity and space.”

Sabhlok is in fact a trained architect. After her masters, she fine-tuned her focus while pursuing a double PhD in ‘feminist geography’, which looked at how gender is constructed through spatial relationships.

A childrearing scientist

Sabhlok trained to be a social scientist in the US, at Pennsylvania State University. “In 1995, when I decided to go to the US for masters and PhD a year after my wedding, relatives asked my in-laws in Punjabi, ‘Tusi bahu nu kallle hi bhej dego? (You will send you daughter-in-law alone?)’”

“My in-laws responded that they were not sending me but I was just going because I wanted to go. They wrote me very supportive letters. And Jitesh [her husband] never even thought that he had the right to question why I wanted to go. I had that support from the home front.” Jitesh followed her to Penn State for his own masters. “We had two children while I was doing my two PhDs.”

Sabhlok has many fond memories of her nursing time while at Penn State before they returned to India to bring the family together. “The university has an amazing childcare program on campus. There is a rule that every building on campus needs to have a nursing room where a mother can come and nurse the child. It has pumping stations where you can pump and freeze the milk there.”

“So I can go there, drop Aman [her younger son] at six weeks, go to work, come back every two hours to nurse him and go back to work. If this is available, then what can stop you from working? Sometimes my office was big enough to keep a crib there and nobody ever said why are you getting your baby in here. If we can let work and life mix, not segregate them, it will be very supportive for them.” She knows she is a lucky one to have managed work and child-rearing simultaneously. “If only institutes and universities would allow that, then women would be able to progress much faster.”

“I have seen many women who struggled but personally I have been very lucky to have a very supportive environment wherever I went. If that would be the case for everybody, women would be able to do a lot of things much better.”

(Check out her blog.)


Anu Sabhlok’s tips for Indian female scientists

Tip #1 Live on campus

“Scientific life and work life should not be segregated, according to Sabhlok. If institutes can house facilities that allow women to be mothers while they are also being scientists, more women would be around.”

Tip #2 Argue for changing the promotions and tenure processes

“You are expected to be most productive in writing and research in the early part of your career. That is also the time when women are most involved in child-rearing. “If you want to rise up in the ranks, you must have published a certain amount, this much of teaching, this much service to the institution, etc… It is a lot of work that you need to have done. But if you also want to be involved in the home-front, then it becomes tricky. Ways and mechanism need to evolve in government institutions especially.”

Tip #3 Slow down scholarship

Sabhlok believes that Indian science is going way too fast for its own good. Women who overcome this trend can do more meaningful work. “Why do you constantly have to keep publishing all the time? There is a random and irrelevant material sometimes. Can we bring it more towards the meaning and relevance of your work?

“We need to pause a little bit and rethink our questions. And relate them to our own lives and things that are important. Just because a research question is popular, doesn’t mean we should  just follow that up.”

“I see a lot of enthusiasm in my young colleagues at IISER. Interestingly, most of them are trained abroad and then they come back and start in a similar passion and enthusiasm. This is a great thing we learnt from the west to bring passion and enthusiasm into your work. And maybe now we can take it deeper and make it relevant to our own selves. Then it would be the right balance.”

This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are traveling across India to meet some fantastic women scientists.