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Islam, Gender Relations, and Women’s Agency Workshop – India contributions needed November 19, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : India , comments closed

Islam, Gender Relations, and Women’s Agency

A two-day international workshop exploring Islam, gender relations and women’s agency in terms of India–Indonesia connections and comparisons

17–18th December, 2015 (9am-5pm)

Room 1.04, HC Coombs Extension (Building 9), Australian National University

This workshop will investigate connections, comparisons and contrasts between Muslim cultures in India and Indonesia, with a particular focus on gender relations, family and personal law.  Keynote speakers will be Professor Emerita Pnina Werbner (Keele University, UK), Flavia Agnes (MAJLIS, India), and Nursyahbani Katjasungkana (LBH-APIK, Indonesia).

Papers will explore themes such as:


This is a renewed call for papers, seeking papers from scholars whose focus is on India, or cross-regional connections.

Please send abstracts to Prof. Kathryn Robinson (ANU) and Dr Zazie Bowen (ANU) as soon as possible and no later than 4th December, 2015. Contact details available from Registration page.

There is no registration fee for this workshop, but we would like you to register for catering numbers.  For further information and to register, please click here

The politics of Indian census data September 24, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Kumar, Vikas , comments closed

Vikas Kumar

Indian governments spend enormous resources to collect data — including 12 billion and 22 billion rupees on decennial censuses in 2001 and 2011, respectively. Yet they appear reluctant to release it. The latest decennial census data on religion, for example, which were released on 25 August 2015, were collected almost half a decade ago in 2011.


During the past 15 years, governments of both national parties have on more than one occasion deferred to political expediency on the question of releasing demographic data disaggregated by communities. In the process governments have contributed to the politicisation of statistics. The troubled past of the census data on religion reveals systemic problems insofar as the statistical wing of the government is insufficiently insulated from politics.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that conducted the 2001 census did not release the religion data. The data were released after the 2004 elections by the United Progressive Alliance I (UPA-I).

The NDA’s reluctance can perhaps be explained by the BJP’s Hindu nationalist commitments. Given the relatively higher growth rate of the Muslim population, the increase in the population share of Muslims was inevitable. So, if the NDA had released the data it would have seemingly validated the Hindu right’s concerns about the Islamic demographic ‘threat’ and the BJP-led coalition government would have come under enormous pressure to suggest steps to address the ‘problem’. Later, when the UPA-I released the data, the BJP promptly published a collection of articles to expose the hypocrisy of secular parties that overlook the threat posed by the higher growth rate of Muslims.

More recently, weeks before the 2014 elections, the BJP attacked ‘anti-national’ UPA-II for ‘suppressing census figures [on religion]’ because it was ‘ashamed to admit its failure to take the Muslims out of deep poverty’. Yet the present BJP government failed to release the data until recently. The party seemed unsure about how it will be affected by the release of the data on religion ahead of elections in five major states with above national average Muslim population shares.

After the release of the data right wing ideologues have revived the debate about alleged ‘population jihad’ that is disturbing inter-community demographic balance. They have suggested that access to government welfare schemes should be made conditional upon family size and violation of two-child norm should be criminalised. Unsurprisingly, the media has unanimously questioned the release of data weeks ahead of assembly elections in the state of Bihar.

But it is not clear why the UPA-II did not release the 2011 census data on religion. The explanatory note to question eight of the 2011 Census Household Schedule clearly links the identification of scheduled castes to their religious affiliation. The latter is canvassed in question seven. This means that the caste and religion data have to be sorted simultaneously. Information about caste (and even tribe) from 2011 was available as early as 30 April 2013, a year ahead of the May 2014 parliamentary elections. Even the religion data were leaked selectively to the media in January 2015.

Since only stripped down excel tables on major religions were released in August 2015, the government cannot justify the delay by arguing that it needed additional time after April 2013 or January 2015 to prepare a detailed report on religion or sort data about non-major religions. The delay in releasing religion data is particularly inexplicable because the time required to publish the data should decrease with the increasing use of information technology in census operations. Incidentally, the religion data from the March 1971 census were released in October 1972.

The delay reflects two deeper problems: growing political interference in the government’s statistical machinery and, possibly, a deepening communal crisis. This interference is reflected in the politically-motivated timing of the release of various datasets and reports as well as the disregard of expert advice on the design of data collection exercises, such as in the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census.

Countries such as Lebanon, Pakistan and Nigeria have failed to conduct censuses regularly due to ethnic conflict and political instability. The hesitation to release data on religion may indicate a similar communal crisis is emerging in India. In some Indian states — such as Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and, until the 1980s, Punjab — the intensity of power struggles between communities has already affected the quality of government statistics.

The Hindu–Muslim statistical conflict in India began with the politicisation of religion and census during the colonial period. Muslims have feared the Hindu majority since the late 19th century; the Hindu fear of the fecund Muslim goes back to the first decade of the 20th century. The introduction of communal electorates in 1909 and the communal partition of Bengal in 1905 accentuated the political significance of demographic statistics. A number of influential pamphlets were published in the early-1900s, which continue to inspire propaganda in independent India. Interestingly, the same colonial census data that convinced Muslims that they were at the mercy of an unassailable Hindu majority, also convinced Hindus that they were a dwindling community soon to be eclipsed by Muslims.

In 1941, before the communal partition of British India, all communities inflated their headcounts in the undivided provinces of Punjab and Bengal. Eastern India also witnessed a struggle over the religious identity of tribes, who were seen as a swing community. After independence, Indian Punjab witnessed a protracted Hindu–Sikh power struggle disguised as a Punjabi–Hindi language conflict. The Kashmir Valley continues to be unprepared to accept any headcount that affects the Muslim majority status of Jammu and Kashmir or weakens the electoral dominance of Kashmiri Muslims in the state legislative assembly. Assamese (Hindus) have similar concerns regarding (Muslim) Bengalis. The ongoing debate on extending affirmative action — a quota system for public jobs, public university placings and elected assemblies — to scheduled caste Christians and Muslims is likely to further politicise the census.

Unfortunately, information technology and advanced statistical tools cannot resolve problems that have roots in a divisive political culture. Strengthening the autonomy of government’s statistical wing, though essential, is insufficient to address the problem. Other government bodies that contribute to transparency in the public sector, such as the Information Commission, need to be strengthened. The participation of non-governmental stakeholders needs to be encouraged both during data collection and dissemination. Unless these steps are taken community level data in India will continue to be amenable to politicisation, which ultimately cuts to the credibility of the government data in general.

Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

First published on East Asia Forum, 18 September 2015.


Tigers and Goats A quick report on the World Sanskrit Conference, Bangkok 2015 August 3, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : Taylor, McComas , comments closed

Western Marxist Orientalist scholars are chewing up Sanskrit as a tiger would devour a goat, digesting what is needed and excreting the remains. So said well-known Indian fire-brand Rajiv Malhotra at the opening of the 16th World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok on 28 June 2015. Many of the 600 or so attendees were also surprised to learn that international scholarship on Sanskrit is fundamentally perverted by the ideas of Giambattista Vico (1688–1744). The world is neatly divided into secular leftist ‘outsiders’ (Westerners and many Indians who have been coopted by the system) who regard Sanskrit as dead, oppressive and political, and ‘insiders’ for whom Sanskrit as alive, liberating and sacred.

The conference, which received a very substantial subsidy from the Indian government, was officially opened by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirishorn, herself a student of Sanskrit. Held in the glitzy Renaissance Hotel over for five days, papers began at 8am and ran until 6pm, but there were plenty of good meals and cultural entertainment to leaven the scholarly dough.

My colleague Prof Elizabeth Rohlman from the University of Calgary and I co-convened the first ever independent panel on puranas (foundational texts of Hindu mythology), which produced excellent results. There is a growing awareness that the puranas represent a gold-mine of understudied texts (note the exploitative ‘outsider’ turn of phrase here).

As is usual with these mega-events, there was a full spectrum of papers and conversations. The presentations ranged from paradigm-changing to time-wasting. I jotted down eight Really Good Ideas in the front of my notebook, which constitutes an overall success.

Among the many high points were the formal disputation in Sanskrit by tradition scholars on the significance of shabda – ‘word’ or ‘sound’, and a very lively Sanskrit poetry reading session, including poems in Haiku format and a humorous take on mobile phones. Spoken Sanskrit was everywhere–it is always a pleasure to it used as a lingua franca among scholars who have no other language in common, as has been the case for the last two or three millennia.

The recurrent problem with many papers is that scholars consistently fail to place their work in the broader theoretical or academic context. Papers either consist of data with no theory, theory with no data and those with neither (i.e. story-telling). Sometimes it seemed as if no one read anyone else’s work. Of course we all love to chase down our own rabbit-holes, but if we can’t explain why our work is important or interesting, or how it contributes to the big picture, one wonders why it is presented at all.

It was sad to see a changing of the guard–many of the grand old scholars of Sanskrit studies are too old or unwell to travel, but on the plus side, a pleasing number of young scholars are coming up the ranks.

There was general excitement and widespread approval when at the final session it was announced that after the 17th conference in Vancouver in 2018, the 18th World Sanskrit Conference will be held in Canberra in 2021.

Had he attended the rest of the conference, Mr Malhotra would have been highly displeased: there is a great deal of excellent scholarship going on around the world. He would also have been surprised to learn that many of us are vegetarians and that we don’t eat goats of any description.


Teaching Pakistan Studies: a relook July 28, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, Pakistan , comments closed

Maqsudul Hasan Nuri

Pakistan Studies is taught as a compulsory subject in schools, colleges and universities in Pakistan. However, teaching of the subject leaves much to be desired. It needs to transcend its present narrow unimaginative and stodgy content and to go beyond the narration of mere facts and events within a repetitive ideological framework. This is especially so if the aim is to build socially conscious, progressive and robust-minded Pakistani youth who are abreast with regional/global developments and needs.

Pakistan Studies, as a subject, cannot be studied in isolation. Pakistan’s recent and past history is inextricably linked with Britain, India, West Asia and Central Asia. Every nation has its own version of history, narratives and heroes to eulogize and romanticize. Although our perspectives and heroes may not be the same as perceived by our neighbours, understanding the counter-narratives offered by others would make us more empathetic to them.


Democracy still taking root in Bhutan July 24, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : Bhutan, Guest authors , comments closed

Mark Turner

Bhutan was a latecomer to democracy. The small Himalayan kingdom joined the ranks of democratic nations only in 2008 when the first national elections were held and its constitution approved. But since then, how is democracy developing in the country?

Elections are the most visible symbols of democratic rule. There have been two national elections — in 2008 and 2013 — to choose the members of the partisan National Assembly and the non-partisan National Council. The system seems to be working well. The 2013 election saw greater political competition with two new parties running alongside the two original parties for the National Assembly. And there were more candidates for positions in the National Council. This non-partisan body acts as the house of review in the Bhutanese parliament.


Realising India’s economic potential July 19, 2015

Posted by nishankmotwani in : Guest authors, India , comments closed

Peter Drysdale

India is a very large labour-abundant economy with a rapidly growing workforce and its manufacturing sector might be expected to be the primary driver of its economic growth. In fact, the manufacturing sector has contributed little to income growth and its share in total merchandise exports has been declining, as recent OECD analysis points out. Manufacturing has not brought much new employment, and most of the recent rise in manufacturing employment has been in the informal sector.

EAS India labour


Public Seminar: Tobacco and Heart Disease: Countering the Global Threat July 10, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, News, South Asia Masala Recommends , comments closed

Presenter: Professor K. Srinath Reddy, President, World Heart Federation and the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI)
When: Wednesday 22 July 5.30pm to 6.30pm
Where: Legislative Assembly Reception Room, London Circuit, Canberra City (Opposite the Canberra Museum and Gallery)

Having trained in cardiology and epidemiology, Professor Reddy has been involved in several major international and national research studies including the INTERSALT global study of blood pressure and electrolytes, INTERHEART global study on risk factors of myocardial infarction, national collaborative studies on epidemiology of coronary heart disease and community control of rheumatic heart disease. Widely regarded as a leader of preventive cardiology at national and international levels, Professor Reddy has been a researcher, teacher, policy enabler, advocate and activist who has worked to promote cardiovascular health, tobacco control, chronic disease prevention and healthy living across the lifespan. He edited the National Medical Journal of India for 10 years and is on editorial board of several international and national journals. He has more than 400 scientific publications in international and Indian peer reviewed-journals.
Tel: 02 6269 2628

Public welcome

Does Pakistan need soft power? Challenges and prospects (Part 2) July 3, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, Pakistan , comments closed

Maqsudul Hasan Nuri

Pakistan lies at confluences of east, west and Central Asia. Although it has good relations with the Arab world it is intrinsically South Asian. Ties with India have to normalize as it is dragging both countries down. Since the 1990s, India has made a shift from hard power to soft power. Pakistan is a culturally diverse and rich country. It has Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and British influences. Exhibitions, road shows, student exchanges, art, sports and cultural visits of delegations can help build the soft power of a country. Propaganda can be part of soft power, but must be based on facts to be credible. Moreover, soft power employment is less competitive and involves lesser financial and material resources. It is the power of ideas, of attraction and persuasion, that are important. But if soft power becomes too condescending the real message could be easily lost.


Does Pakistan need soft power? Challenges and prospects (Part I) July 2, 2015

Posted by southasiamasala in : Guest authors, Pakistan , comments closed

Maqsudul Hasan Nuri

Non-traditional security has become more salient since the end of Cold War. Multiple issues, such as stagnating economies, adverse effects of climate change, energy crisis, repressive governments, cronyism and corruption, poor governance, cross-border interventions, refugees and internally displaced people, drug and criminal mafias – all necessitate revising the traditional security paradigm. Pakistan has also faced domestic turbulence in the last decade due to its proximity to war-wracked Afghanistan.

The term ‘soft power,’ coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr., gained currency in the 1990s and is now widely used in international affairs by scholars and statesmen. ‘Soft power’ is the ability to seduce, persuade and convince through values that mankind holds dear: democracy, art, culture, human rights, welfare, good governance and societal harmony. Nye differentiates between two types of power: ‘Hard power’ is ‘the ability to get others to act in ways that are contrary to their initial preferences and strategies’ On the contrary, ‘soft power’ is the ability to get ‘others to want the outcomes that you want’ and more particularly, ‘the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion’. Finally, Nye introduces ‘smart power’ fusing hard and soft power. Nye does not reject the realist paradigm, which focuses on military power, but thinks that a discreet combination will make a country vibrant and internationally credible.


Keep foreign hands off Afghanistan June 22, 2015

Posted by nishankmotwani in : Afghanistan, Guest authors , comments closed

Gabriela Marin Thornton and Arwin Rahi

For much of its history, Afghanistan has been a battlefield for conflicts over regional influence in what has been called the Great Game. Now a weak state with deep ethnic divisions, located in a challenging security environment, Afghanistan is a key front in the pushback against terrorism.

Once again, the country has turned into a battleground for great powers, mainly in the form of proxy wars.

But if the goal is to build lasting peace in the region, the rules of the game must change. As the US withdraws its forces, regional powers such as India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and (a more recent aspirant) China should stay out of Afghanistan politics.

The Afghan government, for its part, needs to reclaim its sovereignty and oppose foreign interference in its internal politics.

An Afghan girl looks out of a damaged window of a shrine. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail