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‘Breach’ in Kashmir work gets Indian anthropologist cut off from US univ’s gender programme

UC San Diego’s CGS programme says Saiba Varma’s book ‘repudiated’ as part of ‘struggle against Indian settler colonial rule’, as she hid that her father was ex-top RAW official.

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New Delhi: The critical gender studies (CGS) programme of the University of California San Diego (UCSD) has disaffiliated itself from US-based Indian anthropologist Saiba Varma over “ethical and political breach” in her scholarly work on Kashmir.

Varma will no longer be invited to teach courses for the programme, the CGS executive committee said in a statement.

Varma is an associate professor in the anthropology department of the California-based university and a former member of the CGS panel herself.

The row stems from a book Varma wrote on the Kashmir conflict, titled The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, in which she alleged that India has militarily occupied Kashmir. It was published by Duke University in the US and Yoda Press in India.

The book came into focus in September last year after some US-based researchers accused Varma in an open letter of hiding the fact that her father, S.V. Krishan Varma, was formerly a high-ranking official of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency.

Now, the CGS body move has come in response to the “calls by Kashmiri scholars and activists to repudiate Dr Varma’s research as part of a broader struggle against an intensifying Indian settler colonial rule in Kashmir since 2019”. It also described RAW as the “architect of torture, counter-insurgency, and counter-terrorism policies in Kashmir and elsewhere”.

“This may be a small act in the scheme of things, but we believe it is a necessary one as we work through our complicities and think seriously about who we must prioritize in our claims of accountability,” the CGS statement said.

In an emailed statement to ThePrint Tuesday, Varma highlighted that she remains a UCSD employee and also had previously responded to the charges against her.

“Critical Gender Studies is a program within UC San Diego, run by faculty not by the administration. I am still an employee of UC San Diego; my primary faculty position is within the Department of Anthropology, not in CGS. My courses are still on the curriculum,” she told ThePrint.

“I have responded to the allegations made against me in a public statement of my research methods and ethics,” she said.

Also read: Kashmir Press Club calls for immediate release of journalist Sajad Gul

What the allegations against Varma are

In its statement detailing the alleged breaches in Varma’s scholarly practices, the CGS body reiterated the accusation against her of hiding her family background from the subjects of the book.

“We… believe that Varma’s unrelentingly violent decision to work in this place, where the colonial Indian state intelligence apparatus had appointed her father… and his colleagues to draw up plans that included torture, sexual violence, and counter-insurgency as instruments of war and everyday occupation was dishonest and deliberately misleading,” the statement said.

“Furthermore, Varma worked without disclosing these familial ties to the patients in whose sessions she sat, or to the psychiatrists and other Kashmiris she is accountable to as an Indian anthropologist working on Kashmir, teaching courses on decolonial methodology, and claiming to harbor a commitment to decolonial, anti-racist, and feminist of color politics,” it added.

S.V. Krishan Varma was engaged in the Kashmir Valley in the 1990s. Later, he was also involved with bodies like the Global Counter Terrorism Council.

Reiterating the open letter, the CGS body said Varma’s work has “produced extraordinary harm to the subjects of her research and to the anti-occupation struggles of Kashmiris, something that compounds other ongoing violence and trauma caused by the Indian settler state”.

Also read: 2 militants killed in encounter in J&K’s Kulgam village

What Varma said in her defence

In her book, Varma had written about militarism and its impact on people, medical care and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder patients who have suffered at the hands of the Indian military and intelligence agencies.

“As an upper-caste and upper-class Indian citizen and subject, I have actively and passively internalized anti-Muslim racism my entire life. I am complicit in the colonization of Kashmir and other regions forcibly incorporated into the Indian nation-state,” she wrote.

“As Stuart Hall once powerfully stated, there is no such thing as an innocent discourse. To add: there is no such thing as an innocent Indian. In other words, there is no innocent way for any other scholar of Indian origin, including myself, to engage with Kashmir (or any of the other colonialisms underway in the subcontinent) without acknowledging our own embeddedness in histories of violence and harm,” she added.

After the controversy erupted over her familial ties with the conflict-ridden region, Varma’s Indian publisher Yoda Press distanced itself from the book. However, Varma had sought to defend herself, saying her “work disavows all counter insurgency, past and present, in Kashmir”.

“My father had no direct bearing on the research I’ve done. Recognizing 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,” she had said on her Twitter account, which is disabled now.

In a second statement in October 2021 to clarify her position, she said: “During fieldwork, I shared my identity in a processual, nuanced, and contextual way, to balance these multiple concerns and constraints.”

She said: “Interviewees recognized me as north Indian. Some were curious and others suspicious about the unusual presence of a lone, female researcher. In conversations, interlocutors commonly asked about my family background. I always said that my father worked with the central Indian government, which in Kashmir, signaled my intimate ties to the Indian state.”

She added: “While painful, this conversation has made me profoundly aware of the ways ethical action in the field can differ from our professional anthropological expectations, particularly around what it means to be transparent. My aspiration is to be accountable to both contexts.”

This report incorrectly mentioned that S.V. Krishan Varma was still alive. He passed away in 2021. The error is regretted.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

Also read: Migrant labourers provided cooked food by army in J-K’s Poonch


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