We are a group of feminist anthropologists, sociologists, historians, geographers, and other scholars of South Asia who write in response to the anthropologist Saiba Varma’s research on “entanglements between medicine and violence in…the world’s most densely militarized place”.
Our goal in this brief statement is to clarify the stakes of Varma’s proximity to what she calls the “security state”. In particular, we are deeply concerned about Varma’s non-disclosure of this crucial information, and the ethical issues it raises within the context of ethnographic scholarship in South Asia and beyond.
We want to make clear that we are not trying to impede scholarship on Kashmir, or for that matter, critical scholarship in other parts of the world that engages with the excesses of state power, militarism, and occupation. Producing scholarly knowledge about state power and its mechanisms is necessary and important work. We are, rather, calling for more transparency, accountability, and oversight in the production of knowledge that involves extremely vulnerable populations. We believe that scholars who have access to and benefit from power (in this case, state power) have a particular responsibility to engage in responsible research practices that are guided by a commitment to not furthering harm to people who already bear the brunt of state violence
As an anthropologist trained in the United States, Saiba Varma is bound by the American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics, which clearly states that anthropologists should first strive to “do no harm” and “be open and honest” regarding their work. This is particularly important when it comes to obtaining “informed consent.” In Varma’s case, we believe that this should have included, at the very least, transparency with her research subjects about her intimate family connections to the security apparatus that is responsible for creating an atmosphere of terror, surveillance, and suspicion in Kashmir.
Her research subjects, particularly “psychiatric patients under occupation”, deserved the right to refuse participation or, at least, to share what they felt would be appropriate. This assumes paramount significance in the light of her proximity to state “intelligence” forces (specifically, the Research and Analysis Wing of the Indian state) in a context where information and knowledge acquired through concealment, deception, and surveillance literally kills people. Obtaining “ongoing consent” to research can only work in contexts where people know what they are consenting to. Varma’s evasion of these ethical guidelines raises serious questions for universities, professional associations and publishing houses about her research and published work.
These concerns echo and extend those raised in an important statement made by Kashmiri scholars and researchers who work in Kashmir regarding Varma’s work and its major ethical breaches. We also stand with Varma’s Indian publisher, Yoda Press, who has called public attention to the troubling nature of Varma’s nondisclosure in her research and writing: This should be a moment of deep introspection for publishers, university departments, and internal review boards alike.
Names (in alphabetical order):
Swethaa S. Ballakrishnen
Dia Da Costa
Mabel Denzin Gergan
Thomas Blom Hansen
Alf Gunvald Nielsen
Anand Vivek Taneja