Debate: Institutional Location of Those Boycotting Recent AAS-In-Asia Conference Is Not the Issue

In calling for the boycott, we asked AAS to account for both its de facto and de jure agreement to the ban on Pakistani attendance at the AAS-in-Asia conference, and for the months of concealment of that agreement from its general membership.

As signatories to the call for a boycott of the AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi (July 4-8, 2018), we have been vocal critics of how the Association for Asian Studies – a membership-funded professional organisation based in the US for scholars of Asia around the world – has handled the government of India ban on Pakistani scholars (based on both nationality and descent). We now write because the debate that our call for action provoked raises important questions about location, ethics and nationalism when it comes to the right to protest. These questions are important in our age of escalating international exchange as well as national chauvinism.

Our critique has focused on the AAS, an organisation that was informed of the preemptive ban and which, in conjunction with Ashoka University, their private university partner in New Delhi, concealed it from the general membership – as well as the general public – for months. Although the organisation claims it did its part by putting the letter banning Pakistanis on its conference website, no one would find it unless they were looking for it. Knowledge of the ban only became public when The Wire broke the story on June 7, 2018.

We asked the AAS for answers to a series of pointed questions which have thus far received no response: Who signed which contracts? Which board members were responsible and to whom were they obligated in organisational and institutional terms? Doesn’t the fact that AAS is a membership-driven organisation mean that the membership should be informed of ethical and political problems immediately? When was the policy of deferring to host governments and institutions on explicit political problems begun, and what, if any, objections were there in the course of Board deliberations? What provisions, if any, were there for politically sensitive issues? For example, we know that in the run-up to the Singapore-based AAS-in-Asia conference, several members raised concerns about the Singapore government’s policy of jailing gay people; we also know that these objections to Singaporean government policy were ignored by the AAS, apparently deemed irrelevant. What is the threshold of category ban to which the AAS was prepared to accede? If veiled women had been excluded, or Dalits, or Chinese, or Jews: which group or grouping of groups would have tipped the scales, such that withdrawing was deemed to be the only ethical option? How much say does the local host have in these issues? What are the financial arrangements that tie the AAS to a local host; or, how much loss is sustained by AAS and how much by the host, should things break down? What contingency policies are in place to move venues or cancel the conference, if any?

In calling for the boycott, in short, we asked AAS to account for both its de facto and de jure agreement to the ban on Pakistani attendance at the AAS-in-Asia conference, and for the months of concealment of that agreement from its general membership. The former actions are the products of secret negotiations; the latter were deliberately deceptive.

An international scholarly meeting is a place where, among other things, citizens of adversarial nation-states can meet face to face, openly exchange views, debate and perhaps find common ground. In choosing to go ahead with this meeting, the AAS advances Modi’s agenda of censoring Pakistani viewpoints. In calling for a boycott of it, we intended to reject the legitimacy of that decision. Our decision to stand with our excluded Pakistani colleagues has caused considerable discomfort among AAS’s leadership, but this was expected. More surprising is the response by a small but extremely vocal group of elite Indian academics, who profess also to object to Modi’s ban, but not nearly so much as they object to our mode of activism against it, which they portray as an attack on India.  Most of the criticisms are encapsulated in Nandini Sundar’s recent piece in The Wire, so we use that as our point of reference.

First, Sundar notes that most signatories to our proposed boycott of the AAS-in-Asia conference are based in foreign universities. While this is true, it is important to point out that a number of brave India-based scholars also signed, though their names were hidden to shield them from reprisals. Other scholars based in India pulled out of the conference and made their stance very public. Still others commented on the implications of this situation for scholars in India.

But why should the institutional location of boycott supporters be at issue? The signatories to the boycott include large numbers of citizens of the US, Europe, India, Pakistan and many other Asian countries. By focusing on signatories based in the West, Sundar elides this fact in order to portray the boycott as exemplifying an “imperial double standard”, transforming an international outpouring of solidarity for Pakistanis into a neo-colonial attack on India. She even likens signers to supporters of US imperialism. A non-violent and entirely legal appeal by private citizens of many nations has, Sundar insists bizarrely, “pretty much the same logic” as state-sponsored military campaigns that involve the illegal bombing of innocent civilians. What explains her hyperbole?

Sundar’s position, and those who advance similar arguments, depend on an unreflective nationalism we find both disappointing and politically disabling. What, other than nationalism, explains Sundar’s perverse insistence that we are actually boycotting India despite our own clear and repeated objections that our target was and always has been the AAS, of which we are members? Where else but from a deep sense of national privilege does the moral authority to judge when and how scholars from the rest of the world should stage protests come? Surely at times of political crisis we should be allowing a thousand flowers to bloom, encouraging, rather than discouraging, multiple forms of protest across venues and spaces. Instead, national moral authority is invoked, not only to charge dissenters with being wrong, but to tar them with the brush of imperialism.  This is especially troubling in a context where the Narendra Modi government frequently uses the charge of “anti-nationalism” against domestic critics, while continuing prior governments’ policy of blocking scholarship viewed as inimical to national interests. While Sundar impugns our integrity, discerning a “disingenuousness” she links to our cozy position in the West, her own role as spokesperson of Indian interests is taken for granted. Sundar’s argument amounts to this: do not protest the exclusion of Pakistanis except as Indian nationals (or, rather, their self-appointed representatives) deem fit. The Modi government would be in perfect agreement.

Sundar’s article seeks rhetorically to cast doubt on the boycott supporters’ motives without actually making any coherent argument against boycott, which, we repeat, was aimed at the AAS and not at India or Indian scholars. She brings up, for instance, the fact that some of us are employed in US universities that have politically objectionable dealings with Indian politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and businessmen. Sundar is unaware that many of us have been deeply involved in ongoing campaigns against such links. But even if we hadn’t been, by what logic would this bar participation in the boycott of another institution to which we are affiliated? This is a red herring. Portraying the boycott as an instance of Western privilege, Sundar re-conceives Indian conference participants as the real victims, rather than the excluded Pakistanis.

More conceptual confusion underlies Sundar’s argument that we are not holding the AAS in the US to the same standards as we are holding the AAS-in-Asia. Drawing a distinction between the AAS’s domestic and foreign sites of operation, as we do, does not absolve the US of its exclusionary visa regime and global thuggery. Much less do we intend to give the AAS a free pass to function however it pleases within the US. Rather, in saying that associations such as the AAS have no choice but to operate in their domestic environments, we are merely stating a fact. It is for this reason that our call for a boycott of the AAS-in-Asia conference in New Delhi focused on the AAS’s entirely voluntary decision to go ahead with the exclusionary meeting; we did not focus our call on the meeting’s Indian host, Ashoka University. Scholarly associations and universities, like individual scholars themselves, are all based somewhere and cannot be treated as ipso facto complicit with governmental policies simply by virtue of incorporation, employment or residence. Associations and universities render themselves complicit when they accede to governmental policies by choice.

We expect and demand that the AAS as a US-based organisation, take explicit stances against the US government’s anti-democratic policies, especially ones like the “Muslim ban” that directly affect its international membership and attendance at US-based conferences. Indeed, in 2017, AAS did issue a statement that took strong and unambiguous exception to the proposed Donald Trump administration’s “Muslim ban”. But since the executive order that announced the ban became law (with the recent Supreme Court decision), the AAS, to our knowledge, has said nothing. This is a shame and as members, we advocate that it issue a statement of opposition and concern. By the same token, we have encouraged the association to explore alternatives, such as virtual conferences or relocation to Canada or Mexico, as a way to facilitate scholarly exchange without subjecting foreign scholars to the American visa regime.

Sundar further attempts to cast doubt on the boycott effort by accusing participants of a hypocritical silence on the US travel ban while condemning AAS’s complicity in the exclusion of Pakistani scholars. In asking why we have not first boycotted all conferences in the US, Sundar once again reproduces nationalist us-and-them logic. Apparently only scholars who have previously initiated a blanket boycott of all academic conferences on US soil are qualified to boycott AAS-in-Delhi. Sundar’s conflations direct attention away from the specific culpability of AAS and Ashoka University in trying to hide the fact of the ban on Pakistani scholars, the issue around which the boycott was organised. Unlike in this specific case, the US travel ban is not limited to any particular conference; protests are therefore best directed, in our view, at the US government rather than at individual conferences, and all of us are active in such actions. Moreover, if non-residents of the US wanted to protest academic events in the US, by boycott or otherwise, we would support them, not assume we had the authority to demand their political bona fides. Again, Sundar’s perception of a double standard derives from a nationalist worldview that misperceives the global boycott of AAS as a Western boycott of India.

Academic freedom in India is in as perilous a state as it is in Turkey, Palestine and, yes, the US. In today’s climate of interlinked authoritarianisms, the suggestion that each of us has only to battle our own dictators within our national silos is an argument for handicapping us all further. Ours was a call for a boycott as a form of international solidarity against an American-based organisation’s accession to a ban on Pakistani attendance at a global exchange of scholars it sponsored. By reflexively framing her argument in shop-worn terms – Western privilege and Indian victimhood – Sundar joins the government of India in erasing Pakistanis from the discussion.

This is neither the first nor will it be the last instance of governments setting the parameters of intellectual collaboration; nor will it be the last of academic associations and institutions opting for the path of least resistance. It is incumbent upon us as scholars to hold such associations, institutions, and governments accountable. That the Modi regime would perceive a strategic interest in preventing Pakistani viewpoints from being represented in such contexts is obvious. Less explicable is why some elite liberal Indian intellectuals – all outspoken opponents of the Modi regime – have not only gone out of their way to attack the boycott, but to do so in terms that validate the underlying nationalist logic on which Modi operates.

Ajantha Subramanian is a professor of anthropology and South Asian studies, Harvard University
Suvir Kaul is an Indian citizen (and a professor of English, University of Pennsylvania)
Rupa Viswanath is a professor, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen
Rebecca Karl teaches history at New York University
Ania Loomba is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania
Nate Roberts is a post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen


Nandini Sundar responds:

The point of my article was not the institutional location of the boycotters but the effectiveness of the strategy, insofar as the boycott was sparked by the denial of visas to Pakistanis.

As my article made clear, I have no issue with members of the AAS choosing to boycott their own organisation. However, since my main concern is with the impact of visa restrictions on academic freedom and peace I was pointing out that the real problem in this case is the Indian government. This hardly puts me on the same page as the ruling party.

The institutional location of scholars matters only to the extent that their own FAQs differentiated between US restrictions and Indian ones, and to the extent that the current government – ministers and bureaucrats – look to foreign universities for validation of what they are doing. This gives scholars located in such universities more effective leverage to challenge Indian government policies, and I look forward to hearing more about their interventions in this regard.

International solidarity is always welcome and I hope we can overcome differences over strategy to focus on the real problems that face us all as scholars.