Book on Kashmir by anthropologist Saiba Varma stirs a debate

By Indira Laisram
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Representional image only. Houseboats on Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Photo by Raisa Nastukova on Unsplash

Anthropologist Saiba Varma’s book The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, published by Duke University in the US and Yoda Press in India last October, is stirring up a hornet’s nest.

The book explores the psychological, ontological, and political entanglements between medicine and violence in Indian-controlled Kashmir—the world’s most densely militarised place, states Duke University Press on its website.

The controversy has come to the fore with a twitter handle under the pseudonym @Settler_Scholar accusing Varma of writing a book on trauma in the Kashmir Valley while allegedly not disclosing that her father Krishan Varma “was an integral part of India’s intelligence & espionage establishment. He spent his career as an agent in RAW, India’s Research & Analysis Wing. He held sensitive assignments in Kashmir”.

In a series of tweets, @Settler_Scholar states that Varma is an upper caste Indian “with links to defense/intelligence institutions that are responsible for killing Kashmiri Muslims. And yet she has never talked about her role vis a vis Kashmir or disclosed her compromised family background in writings or interviews.

“The research & book raise problems re: positionality, methods, consent & especially honesty & transparency with vulnerable informants—mostly PTSD patients who have suffered at the hands of the Indian military & intelligence establishment,” the tweets read.

Some of the other questions that the anonymous twitter handler pose are: “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?”

The twitter handler also explains the reasons for its anonymity in a postscript. “We are a group of Kashmiri activists, students & researchers who are concerned about these issues. We are angry & also scared. The only way we could raise these issues publicly is by being anonymous.”

These revelations were met with shock from certain quarters including Varma’s Yoda Press publisher Arpita Das. Das in a tweet on September 16 posted: “Depressed. Just found out something about an author and a book we value deeply that puts all her work in question. These are terrible moments for a small independent publisher like ourselves.”

Book cover of The Occupied Clinic Militarism. Duke University Press

In her defence, Varma, an Associate Professor of the Psychological/Medical Anthropology subfield and the Vice Chair of Undergraduate Studies at the University of California San Diego, has put out a statement on Twitter stating, “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.”

Varma goes on to say, “Patients whose stories I described at length are ones with whom I had long-term relationships and to whom I was accountable. We discussed the narratives and I made whatever changes they suggested.”

Those in defence of Varma believe it is unfair to target a scholar based on his/her lineage.

Delhi-based journalist Maya Mirchandani tweeted that the distancing by a publisher is appalling based on who her father is. “If they felt book good enough to publish, then stand by it. By their logic, if everyone is guilty of their fathers sins, who will be left?”

Indian news digital platform ThePrint has cited two former RAW officials A.S. Dulat and Vikram Sood who have called the controversy as “unnecessary”.

“It is a very good book, very well researched. She has an identity of her own and knows much more about Kashmir than her father ever did. Moreover, her father was there over 30 years ago … what sense does it make to bring this up now?” ThePrint quoted Daulat as saying.

“For all anthropologists, the primary ethical responsibility is to be honest and transparent with the people who they study… While the question of whether she revealed her background to her research subjects remains to be clarified by Varma, we can confirm that this information was not disclosed to us despite our professional relationships with her over the years”

Sood, who is also an advisor to the Observer Research Foundation, an independent public policy think tank in New Delhi, told ThePrint, “This Twitter handle is anonymous. Do we know where it is based? Who is this person? This is important and will answer a lot of questions. Also, the person is not questioning the book, but merely concentrating on the author’s parentage, which is irrelevant here.

“The author’s father was posted in Kashmir in the early 90s. His daughter was a kid, must have been in school at that time. How does it concern the book at all. As I understand, the book is a scholastic work. It is not a political work. It is not selling anyone’s line and this controversy is unnecessary,” he said.

A statement from Research Ethics in Kashmir, which describes itself as “A space for scholarly discussions on questions of ethics, positionality, transparency and accountability pertaining to research in Kashmir” said on its website, “We are deeply concerned by the unfolding events around the research ethics of anthropologist Saiba Varma. Kashmir scholarship has been, and continues to be, under serious threat from the Indian state.”

The statement further notes, “For all anthropologists, the primary ethical responsibility is to be honest and transparent with the people who they study… While the question of whether she revealed her background to her research subjects remains to be clarified by Varma, we can confirm that this information was not disclosed to us despite our professional relationships with her over the years through various forms of scholarly interaction and professional engagement, including scholarly networks, advocacy forums, fieldwork, conferences, and joint publications.

“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. It is a clear breach of ethical responsibility for the researcher to not disclose, or to misrepresent, intimate family links with the colonial state.”

An email sent to Varma has not had any response at the time of writing the story.

While The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir has been awarded the Edie Turner First Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing by the American Anthropological Association, it also now seems to have inspired some unease among a few.


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