Ishani Dasgupta (PhD Candidate, University of Pennsylvania) was awarded APLA’s 2019 Graduate Student Paper Prize for her paper, “The Burning Body and the Withering Body: Embodied Resistance Practices in the Tibetan Community.” Ishani recently spoke with Randi Irwin (Casual Lecturer, University of Newcastle, Australia) about her award-winning paper, writing, and fieldwork, more broadly.
Randi Irwin: Congratulations on receiving the APLA 2019 Graduate Student Paper Prize for your paper, “The Burning Body and the Withering Body: Embodied Resistance Practices in the Tibetan Community.” Can you tell us a bit about the paper?
Ishani Dasgupta: Sure. My paper considers how embodied protests, like self-immolations and hunger strikes unto death, connect stateless Tibetans through a shared history of loss, articulated through a rhetoric of pain. I show that these engender a repertoire of protest which does not end with the action of the protestor; instead, they are extended by the community through processes of mourning, mobilization and memorialization which are undertaken both in exile and in Tibet, although they manifest differently across the two geopolitical spaces. Through these practices and vocabularies of resistance a transnational citizenry reiterates their commitment to the deterritorialized Tibetan nation. In this paper, I draw out a genealogy that links self-immolations, mostly occurring in Tibet, to hunger strikes in exile, less through the similarity in their form, and more through the shared practices that develop around them and the grassroots mobilization that emerges in their wake. The two forms are linked through the protestor’s centrality in the repertoire, due to her volition to die for the cause.
Self-immolations are a tremendously hard topic to write about, because articulation through language, particularly scientific language, effaces the excruciating bodily pain, the tremendous strength of will required, and the affective experience of community that they engender. I tried to place my ethnography at the heart of the paper, focusing on what the protest means for the community of deterritorialized Tibetans, what sort of practices, perspectives, and sentiments it invokes, because that was something I was witnessing. During my fieldwork, self-immolations were a part of everyday nationalistic discourse; it existed in images, in memories, in statues and photos; in Tibetan news, in prayers and speeches, in processions; and in expressions of identity, art and poetry, and in debates, dinner table conversations and even through black humor. My work amidst the exile community exposed how expansive these protests were for the Tibetan community that has to battle political marginalization, statelessness, and precarity.
Thank you so much for sharing, Ishani. I’m always interested in thinking through these connections between experience, content, and the form of writing – I think you’ve really honed in on the significance of this. How do you continue to develop this in the larger dissertation project?
Ishani: My larger dissertation project considers how practices of nationalism and acts of resistance by the exiled Tibetans are emergent, in the way that they engage with and arise from conditions of statelessness and political precarity, and generative, in terms of collectively imagining, articulating, and creating alternate political realities. Two of my chapters consider grassroots mobilizations and resistance through the expansion of the concept of citizenry, as Tibetans navigate and even disrupt the discourse of what Liisa Malkki (1995) has called the “national order of things.” This paper is a part of one of those chapters. The other two consider how geopolitical alliances across nation-states transform and often exacerbate the conditions of stateless precarity. In the first of these chapters, I show how imperial alliances forged under the aegis of the “Global War on Terror” amplify the vulnerability and factionalism that exists in this deterritorialized Tibetan nation. The second deals with their attempt to circumvent, or at least mitigate, the threat of newly emerging power blocks by forging international alliances with humanitarian and environmental organizations, which can have the unintended consequence of diluting their demand for national sovereignty. Both these chapters consider the disenchantment and/or the tensions that surface within the exile community with these shifts in the course of their resistance movement.
Parts of what you’re discussing has some similarities with my own research with Saharawi refugees, exiled from Western Sahara, who are also building a state and a citizenry from exile; though Alice Wilson and Fiona McConnell (2015) have written a piece on this already so I don’t suppose we will embark on a similar writing project. However, I will certainly look forward to reading your dissertation!
Okay, returning to the matter at hand, can you tell us about your fieldwork?
Ishani: I spent a significant portion of my fieldwork in Dharamsala, India at the political headquarters of the Tibetan community in exile. To step away from this political center, I also did fieldwork in Bangalore and in the settlement of Bylakuppe. I spent a few months in New York, where there is a large community of Tibetans, and Washington, where the Central Tibetan Administration’s North American bureaucracy is located.
As most anthropologists would testify, fieldwork changes your life. The Tibetan communities I interacted with were incredibly warm and welcoming. I think they are so used to white researchers, but less so to a brown Indian woman researcher. While I am not a native scholar, and of course I have not experienced the precarity that many of them have to contend with on a daily basis, I feel that the South–South relationship situated me differently as a researcher. The fact that there was an overlap in cultural vocabulary—small things, such as similarities in the cultural codes of deference, to familiarity with the Indian film industry, to an overlap in certain familial and communitarian codes and ethics, to the differential experience of modernity that people of color have, allowed a common plane along which I connected with many of my friends and respondents. Of course, I was naïve and new to so many aspects of their society, culture, religion, and history, and that curiosity and naivety was met with kindness and enthusiasm. At Dharamsala, I completed a project for the Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest and most expansive grassroots political organization in exile. They have been instrumental in shaping the resistance narrative. Through my fortunate affiliation with them, I became more closely linked to the exile society. Most anthropologists will say that their fieldwork often is an outcome of fortunate circumstances, or rather unforeseeable circumstances. You just cannot predict your field experience. Mine was no different. I wouldn’t say that it was all smooth sailing and without any difficulties, but it was truly an adventure and I met some incredible people, who have had a profound impact on my life.
You described fieldwork as an adventure, how did your project change as you moved through the proposal, fieldwork, and writing phases? What would you share with other PhD students who are at the beginning of this process and now facing new uncertainties?
Ishani: I believe that many things change over the course of your PhD. Initially, when you finish your course work and go to the field, it bursts out at you, surprising you. As young anthropologists, I think we sway between the terror of representing the community we are working with, and lust to consume all the experiences we can, till finally the scale, complexity, and myriadness of the human society we are involved with humbles us into neither terror nor lust. My initial project was centered around the impact of self-immolations on the Tibetan resistance movement. However, during fieldwork, I was also confronted with the everyday sufferings and hardships that resulted from the precarity of statelessness. It led me to consider resistance itself in a different light. More than what James Scott has seen as “everyday resistance,” I saw Tibetans as forging new vocabularies of community, and new discourses of nationalism that push against and at times, even befuddle the structures that produce statelessness. However, what I found was not just the agency of those resisting, but a complicated and shifting dynamics, because power still continues to erode these alternate articulations and ways of being. That is where the tragedy is compounded.
To tell you the truth, I learnt so many things in the field that not only nuanced my own research, but also shaped my perspective towards this process of knowledge production that we are involved in. I can’t help but wonder if an anthropological text is always incomplete, because every time I go through my field notes, I find an additional perspective. This also happens when I encounter a particularly inspiring idea in another scholar’s work. It brings on new perspectives. So my project is always evolving. One of my most inspiring mentors, John Jackson, once told me, we are, after all, always writing the same book. I think the ideas we encounter during our initial project, are also those that continue to shape our future projects, opening up different perspectives, like a bricolage.
I really like the idea that our texts are always incomplete – it’s quite nice. It seems to acknowledge the possibility or, perhaps better said, the imperative to continue to work with our texts as they grow in new and unexpected ways. What have you found to be surprising in the process?
Ishani: I think I am always surprised with how much love I have for the subject despite the increasing precarity that so many of us young academics face. Now that I am in the writing phase, I can say that with even more surety, because there have been many highs and lows in my nascent career and while I don’t always feel fondly towards the system, the process itself is truly beautiful.
What does the writing process look like for you?
Ishani: I try to write first thing in the morning, because that gives me a sense of satisfaction. I also give myself a deadline for when I will stop work. I do get caught in loops of reading incessantly and skipping a few days of writing when I am absorbed in chasing a single strand of enquiry through secondary research and my field and archival notes— though I think that happens to everyone. I also write alone and write at home. The only person I can work around is my partner. Coffee shops and libraries are not as generative as the little space I have carved out for myself. I wish I was one of those people who could work in a group, because I think it is really wonderful to experience writing as a more communal process, and it is a mode of knowledge production I respect. But I think, this quirk is the only bit of asceticism I possess.
Thanks for sharing! I’m always interested in how people approach writing. Do you have any writing tips or pieces of advice that you would like to pass on to other graduate students who are beginning the writing process?
Ishani: I don’t know if I have any advice on writing. I think it is a creative process and everyone finds their unique mode and style to do it. Some are more erratic and others are more disciplined. Some work better holed up and others do great work in a group. I would say try it all and see which one fits. Also write, even when you are stuck write, even if you think it is senseless meanderings, because sometimes writing itself can free you from being stuck.
Yes, absolutely! Personally, I tried to break my writing blocks by changing where I did my daily writing, which was intermittently successful. So, what’s next for you?
Ishani: I am currently writing up my dissertation. When I sent out my paper for the APLA Graduate Student Paper Prize, I had just gotten back from the field. I have one more year before completion and I will be entering the job market this fall, with much anxiety and apprehension due to the new crises that we are all confronted with. I have recently been announced as the 2020-2021 Graduate Fellow of the Andrea Mitchell Center for Democracy, which I am thrilled about. I will be organizing graduate student workshops and will be involved with the work of the Center. I think it will give me an avenue to interact with some really important, politically situated research, and also expand the scope of my own work across disciplinary lines. Currently, I am working on a paper on affective citizenship which is keeping me spirited amidst the sea of tragedy that is all around us.
Congratulations, that’s great news! Before we close out our conversation, I want to turn this over to you. For many people, writing is an individual process, but one that derives support from many places – advisors, cohort members, family, and beyond. It’s not often that we get a space to recognize those communities and how they impact your writing in ways that are both expected and not. Is there anyone that you would like to acknowledge here?
Ishani: Well, I have been really quite lucky. I think if I start naming all the people who have impacted me and shaped my project, in so many different ways, the list will be quite expansive, but thank you for giving me this space, I will keep it short. Honestly, I have had some incredible mentors. They have inspired me, and supported my project, not discouraging me from chasing phantom strands if I thought they would yield some value. My advisor, Lisa Mitchell, has always encouraged me to have my own voice. The one thing she emphasized, particularly when I would come to her besotted with high theory, was that to be a successful anthropologist, one must be “close to the ground.” During my fieldwork, I realized that she was asking me to let my voice be shaped by my evidence and my interaction with that evidence. She was encouraging me to find it rather than have it be born off of some lofty theory, which I think as young intellectuals we can get intoxicated by. That is the type of anthropologist I hope to be.
Deborah Thomas and John Jackson, it was in their classes and through my conversations with them that I fell in love with ethnography, not just as a method of knowledge production, but as a creative and intellectual process of interacting with the world. Ramya Sreenivasan’s feminist perspective always pushes me to consider the voices that I was missing out, the ones I wasn’t seeing. Nikhil Anand’s keen insight and attentiveness have helped me harness erratic and unformed ideas, evolving them along more generative lines. My friends, who also happen to be my colleagues, who are truly incredible people. It really makes a difference to have a circle of intimates, because I remember coming to Philly, with no experience in western academia, and being so very daunted. But I was fortunate to find a coterie of friends who taught me the chops of how to manage being a young academic despite the pressure, and supported me emotionally and intellectually when I desperately needed it.
As anthropologists, we belong to the university (although this has changed over the years with new avenues opening up) and we belong to the field. Both can be wonderful, brutal, daunting and inspiring, institutions and lived realities. In terms of the field, the Tibetan community’s legendary generosity and compassion is not a myth. I found doors open to me that I had hesitated behind and had assumed would be incredibly difficult to get beyond. I found many heroes. There are moments that I remember from the field, interactions with people, my friends, my teachers, that have become little magical snapshots in my memory. I have learned so much and I continue to learn from them. And finally my family, my partner Partho, whose intelligence and kindness are gifts I have taken for granted, and despite it, he continues to surprise and inspire me. My mother whose wisdom and faith has always been such a guiding light, and Sid and Manavi, without whose unquestioning love, support, and enthusiasm this journey would have been quite impossible.
Ishani, congratulations again on your award and thank you for taking the time to speak to me – I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and look forward to reading more of your work in the future!
Applications for the 2020 Graduate Student Paper Prize are open!
Ishani Dasgupta is a Joint Degree PhD Candidate in the Departments of Anthropology and South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies the political practices and repertoires of resistance of the Tibetan exile community, which contribute to the creation of a deterritorialized Tibetan nation under conditions of statelessness. Her research has been supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy, amongst others.
Randi Irwin is a Casual Lecturer in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at The University of Newcastle. Her research is focused on the struggle for Western Sahara’s decolonization as it is led by the Saharawi refugees and the Saharawi state in-exile from refugee camps in Algeria. She has a particular interest in the role of natural resources in mediating knowledge production, territorial rights, formations of citizenship, and legality. Randi’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation.
Malkki, L. 1995. “Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things” in Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 495-523.
Scott, J. 1998. Seeing Like a State, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Wilson, A. & F. McConnell. 2015. “Constructing legitimacy without legality in long term exile: Comparing Western Sahara and Tibet” in Geoforum 66: 203-214.