Boycott the Association of Asian Studies (AAS-in-Asia) Delhi Conference

If you want to sign the boycott call click here

In the last week, media reports have confirmed the fact that the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India has, in a letter dated February 19, 2018, refused “political clearance” for Pakistani academics to attend the Association of Asian Studies (AAS-in-Asia) conference, to be held at Ashoka University between July 5 and 8, 2018. In response to this publicity, the AAS and Ashoka University, the organizers of the conference, have issued an anodyne statement that

“The fact that the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India has decided to deny visas to Pakistani scholars (including scholars of Pakistani origin who are citizens of other countries) to attend the AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi is not in tune with the open exchange of ideas and knowledge that is the very purpose of the conference. However, neither the Association for Asian Studies nor Ashoka University has the authority to tell the Government of India, a sovereign nation, to whom it may and may not grant visas, and nor have we been able to influence the Government of India to reverse its decision in this case.”

Rather than take a strong stand against this blatantly exclusionary, anti-intellectual government position, the organizers have confirmed the right of governments to use visa regimes to deny the principle of academic freedom. They go on to claim that there are pragmatic reasons why they cannot cancel or scale back this conference, and that they had, in March 2018, informed the academics affected by the government’s decision. This action, and the fact that they are attempting to use Skype to allow some academics to participate from a distance, in no way exculpates them from what was clearly a decision to keep these inconvenient facts from the other participants in the conference, and from the public at large.

As concerned academics, members and non-members of the AAS, we find this situation reprehensible and unacceptable. Given the intransigence of the Indian government, the only responsible path open for the AAS would have been to refuse to host this conference in India; it is all the more objectionable that the organizers were willing to go ahead when scholars from the very region the association is meant to study cannot attend.  There is much more at stake than the inconvenience of cancelled bookings and refunded conference fees; to go along with the partisan and punitive actions of governments who wish to blunt critical thought and scholarly exchange is to be complicit with policies that a great many of us have contested in our research and writing. There are many moments in which we are called upon to stand up for our ideas; this is a particularly important moment to do just that.

The complicity of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) with the Indian government’s violation of academic freedom compels us to boycott the conference. We do so in solidarity with our Pakistani colleagues and to express our commitment to the unfettered exchange of ideas. Today, this government has decided to ban Pakistani scholars. Tomorrow, another might decide to deny Indian or Chinese or British scholars, or issue conference visas on the basis of religious identification or sexual preference. Would we still allow pragmatic reasons to dictate our participation? Boycotting is an obligation we owe not only to our Pakistani colleagues, but also to the values of open and inclusive intellectual exchange that we cherish.

Signed (if you want to add your name to the boycott call click here)

Suvir Kaul, A M Rosenthal Professor, University of Pennsylvania, Boreth Ly, University of California, Santa Cruz, Yogesh Chandrani, Colorado College, Andrew Liu, Villanova University, Ajantha Subramanian, Harvard University, Nathaniel Roberts, CeMIS, University of Göttingen, Ania Loomba, University of Pennsylvania, Rebecca E Karl, Professor of History, New York University, Arvind Rajagopal, New York University, Rupa Viswanath, University of Göttingen, Dr Manali Desai, University of Cambridge, Ritty Lukose, New York University, Anjali Arondekar, Associate Professor, Comparative Literature, UCLA, John Harriss , Simon Fraser University, Canada, Modhumita Roy, Tufts University, Abha Sur, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, l msp burns, ucla, asian american studies department, Professor Geeta Patel, University of Virginia, Hephzibah Israel, University of Edinburgh, Maggie Morrison (PhD) The University of Edinburgh, Luisa Steur,  Anindya Raychaudhuri, University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK, Nahid Aslam, Hugo Gorringe, University of Edinburgh, Saadia Toor, City University of New York, Sayumi Takahashi Harb, Ralph Litzinger, Duke University, Andrea MendozaAngela Zito, NYU, Gavin Walker, Associate Professor, McGill University, Tom O’KeefeTani Barlow, Rice University, Jyoti Puri, Professor, Simmons College, Jacob Copeman, University of Edinburgh, UK, Laurie Sears, University of Washington, Brian Bergstrom, McGill University, Wenqing Kang, Cleveland State University, Fabio Lanza, University of Arizona, Patricio N. Abinales, University of Hawaii-Manoa, Banu Subramaniam, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Tariq Thachil, Vanderbilt University, Megan Moodie, University of California, Santa Cruz, Nauman Naqvi, Habib University, Karachi, Nicolas Jaoul, IRIS/EHESS, Amulya Mandava, Harvard University, Harlan Chambers, Ph.D. student, Columbia University, Meena Dhanda, University of Wolverhampton, Dwaipayan Sen, Amherst College, Rashmi Varma, University of Warwick, Anand Vaidya, Reed College, Maggie Clinton, Middlebury College, Indrani Chatterjee, History, University of Texas at Austin, Amit R. Baishya, University of Oklahoma

Boycott of AAS meeting in Delhi: FAQs

1)  The Modi government is not going to swayed by foreign academics.

While it would be nice to think the Modi government (or for that matter, any prior Indian government) is susceptible to moral suasion, this is indeed unrealistic. But the Government of India is not the target of the boycott. The boycott is of the AAS. Our purpose is to make clear that the academic community will not accept as legitimate an arrangement in which a section of our colleagues are categorically excluded. The goal is to establish a precedent so that other professional associations will also refuse to accept such terms, and to send a clear message that this violates the basic condition of the scholarly enterprise, free interchange.

2) Why now? The policies of excluding Pakistanis were not designed by Modi but by Congress. The only difference is that what was previously an unstated policy has now been articulated as such, in writing. Pakistani academics DON’T get visas to India, and vice versa, and every research institution that deals with Indian studies, including AIIS, recognizes this fact and does not award fellowships to Pakistani passport holders to do research in India.

This is all very true. But to us what is so significant about the present case, and what makes it so imperative, is that the GOI actually put the policy into writing. So long as it was being done on an unofficial and unacknowledged basis, we were in a grey area. True, we knew that people were being discriminated against, but it is one thing to cooperate with a government that does shady things on the sly and another thing entirely to hold a professional association meeting when one section of our colleagues have been explicitly excluded.  By openly stating that Pakistanis cannot participate in our association’s meeting Modi has thrown down the gauntlet. We do not accept the legitimacy of this exclusion, and we call upon our peers to refuse to go along with it.

3) But there’s already a letter being circulated that strongly condemns the Indian government and AAS for dragging its feet and not sufficiently informing members. Isn’t that enough?

Most of the drafters of our boycott letter have signed the previous letter of complaint. But that letter neither calls for the meeting to be cancelled, nor advocates non-participation in this evil. It furthermore seems to suggest that it is too late for a boycott call:

“the delay in sharing this critical information with participants served to limit our options for protest and has shifted the financial implications of any protest onto individual scholars (for many participants it is no longer financially viable to boycott the conference at this late stage).”

This makes little sense to us. Unfortunately, the world we live in was not set up to make life easy for people to protest injustice. We certainly cannot avoid taking a stand because the entity we are taking a stand against does not make protesting it easy. Our position is that each person needs to decide for themselves whether they can in good conscience participate in this event or not. Those who have no real objection to it, or whose objections to it are not strong enough that they’d be willing to make this personal sacrifice, obviously should not participate in any boycott. Of course AAS should be pressured to return everyone’s registration fees, if the event is cancelled or if a participant has decided to not participate due to the AAS’s organizational failure to inform them of what they were signing up for. But for our protest to mean anything we must be committed to it whether or not AAS plays nice.

4) Objecting to India’s exclusion of Pakistanis is arbitrary, because the US also engages in “targeted exclusion” of academics. This has always been the case, and Trump’s travel ban has greatly increased the countries whose passport holders cannot get visas to the US. So how can you object to the meeting in India, but not to each and every professional association meeting that happens in the US?

There are two basic responses to this. First, with respect to the travel ban in the US, we would definitely support any organization that decides to hold its meetings in Canada or Mexico or somewhere else, so long as the US travel ban is in effect. This may be especially urgent in the case of MESA (Middle East Studies Association), given that the ban specifically targets countries within MESA’s subject area. In an ideal world, perhaps, all professional associations would shift their meetings out of the US until the travel ban is repealed. In the event that international scholars choose to boycott meetings held in the US, we would fully support their decision to do so.

The second response is more general: our collective failure to take a stand in previous instances of wrongdoing cannot be accepted as an argument for not taking one in this one. To accept such an argument would be to disqualify ourselves from ever taking any moral stand that we haven’t taken previously.

5) But doesn’t BDS also target people by nationality? If we object to this, shouldn’t we also object to BDS?

BDS does not target people by nationality. It is a boycott of institutions, not individuals; Israeli nationals are not banned from participation in any professional meeting. Also, BDS is a policy which certain professional organizations have chosen for themselves, internally, by democratic means. That is totally different from the AAS leadership’s unilateral decision to proceed with a meeting under conditions of targeted exclusion imposed on it by the Government of India.

6) Of course I would never participate in a meeting that said “no homosexuals” or “no Jews.” But excluding scholars based on their nationality is not comparable to banning them based on their race, religion, or sexual orientation. Banning people by religions, race or sexuality is never acceptable; banning nationalities sometimes is.

We suspect the emotional force of this argument derives from the fact that most of us are more deeply invested in religious freedom, sexual freedom, and racial equality than in the rights of our fellow human beings who lost the birthright lottery. Most of us fail to notice that citizenship arguably determines one’s mobility and life chances as much or more than these other bases of discrimination, because the current global nation-state is so hegemonic that we accept it as natural. But the argument for rejecting the Government of India’s imposition does not depend, ultimately, on questions of comparative victimhood. It is based on the principle of academic freedom, and on the idea that we should not be holding professional meetings in places where some of our colleagues cannot participate because they are the subject of targeted exclusion.

7) Yes I oppose the Government of India’s policy but will not boycott the AAS because it was not responsible for imposing the restriction on Pakistani scholars.

We are boycotting the AAS conference because we take as a starting point for change our own professional location as academics. The fact that the AAS has its home base in the United States, where similar visa restrictions apply is a separate issue: the organization has no choice but to operate in its domestic environment; it has plenty of choices about how to operate elsewhere, including refusing to cooperate with governments who censor in a priori fashion. The AAS does not control visas. It does control how it operates in the world. The defense of sovereignty merely indicates how far the AAS has abdicated responsibility for its own choices in this matter.

8) What could the AAS do but continue with the conference? To do otherwise would have been enormously costly.

There are other examples of professional associations making a principled choice and either cancelling or shifting venues. The American Historical Association pulled out of a planned 1995 meeting in Cincinnati when it became clear that the setting would be inhospitable to LGBTQ participants. This was done at huge financial cost, but it was the right thing to do. The Business History Conference, the largest professional organization of business historians in the United States, cancelled plans to hold its 2018 annual meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina in response to the adoption of the HB2 bill by the state government, and the recent rejection of a repeal of the measure by the North Carolina legislature.

There are plenty of precedents for doing the right thing. We call upon the AAS to join them: to publicly condemn the Government of India’s prohibition against scholars of Pakistani nationality or descent; to cancel the conference; and to pledge to deal transparently with future endeavors, where such fraught issues might very well impinge upon the circulatory and intellectual freedoms we wish our professional organizations to embody and protect.


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