Behind the Books 

The front cover of Saiba Varma's book, "The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir"

LAST week, on 14 September, a major controversy erupted in South Asian academia after an anonymous twitter account Settler_Scholarship (@Settler_Scholar) criticised and raised questions on Indian anthropologist Saiba Varma’s research ethics with relation to her book on Kashmir. Dr Varma is an Associate Professor and medical and cultural anthropologist at University of California, San Diego (USA), and she recently published her first book The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir (Duke University Press, 2020). In Occupied Clinic, Varma explores how medicine and militarism is deeply imbricated in the context of the Kashmir conflict where state has appropriated and weaponised health care to project an image of itself as a healing force”.

The anonymous group, identifying itself as ‘a group of Kashmiri activists students & researchers’, accused Varma of violating standard research ethics and protocol by not being transparent about her family background and particularly withholding the fact that her father, S.V. Krishan Varma, was an officer with Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency. Krishna Varma was Director of Aviation Research Centre (a technical wing of RAW) and had been posted in Kashmir during the 1990s.

The issue has generated a split opinion, with one set of people saying that Saiba Varma’s father’s former position as a RAW officer should not be used against her, and she must be judged solely based on her research not her family background. On the other hand, a group of Kashmir scholars have issued a statement, published in Medium on 21 September, wherein they have argued that “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.” The collective of scholars views this episode as a “difficult and complex moment” because there are twofold concerns: one, there is “the possible breach of ethics towards the vulnerable communities in which Varma has conducted her research, amidst Kashmiri patients seeking psychiatric care.” Second, the forces inimical to new critical studies may potentially leverage this moment to destabilise the Kashmir scholarship.

Varma’s Indian publisher, Arpita Das of Yoda Press, also expressed her displeasure on the matter. In her Tweet (16 September), Das wrote “this is…why scholars MUST locate themselves clearly and transparently in their research writing -- full disclosure or nothing! At the same time, I feel we should have dug deeper. I am mortified, feeling utterly defeated today.’’

In her response, Dr Varma took to Twitter (on 18 September) and said, “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.”

It is not clear yet who were the Kashmiri scholars and journalists who knew about her father’s background, but the Kashmir scholars who released the statement above have written that “we can confirm that this information was not disclosed to us despite our professional relationships with her over the years.” Also, while Varma says that her father didn’t have direct bearing on her research, she acknowledges his help in her PhD dissertation (The Medical Net: Patients, Psychiatrists, and Paper Trials in the Kashmir Valley”, Cornell University, 2013) by saying that “I thank my father for opening up both Kashmir and the world of documents to me, with his own care” (p.7).

Overall, the whole episode has put spotlight on the issue of ethics in research, particularly a research involving subject-informants from conflict zones who are vulnerable for sharing their stories and intimate selves to researchers. The field of anthropology has gone through similar controversies in the past. Scholars like Kathleen Gough (1968), Talal Asad (1973) and Diane Lewis (1973) have exposed the links between anthropology and colonialism, but the field has developed since and innovated and addressed the ethical concerns by designing research protocols institutionalised through ethics review board or institutional review board. Nevertheless, as Anthropologist Maya Mikdashi argues in her Tweet on 20 September: “positioning yourself in research/ethnography is supposed to be conflicting. It is an exercise in humility & power. Exposing aspects of yourself in print that are uncomfortable is necessary, because that is literally what we do as a method when it is about messiness of other peoples lives the exercise could and sometimes should lead to the decision to not do the work at all.”

Views expressed in the article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Muhammad Tahir

The author is an independent researcher

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