It all began on September 14, 2021, when ‘@Settler Scholar’ launched a 22 Tweets thread, titled ‘Settler Scholarship,’ describing itself in the final Tweet as ‘a group of Kashmiri activists, students & researchers who are concerned about these issues. We are angry & also scared. The only way we could raise these issues publicly is by being anonymous.’ The target of the tweets was the young anthropologist, Saiba Varma, who is presently an Associate Professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the reason was her book, The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, published by the Duke University Press. Published in 2020, the book had been a dozen years in the making, being Varma’s PhD dissertation at Cornell (2013).
The twenty-one Tweets do not comment on the contents of Varma’s book except once, in Tweet #16, claiming that Varma ‘forc[ed] people to seek medical treatment in a language that isn’t their own.’ They probably mean the one occasion mentioned at the beginning of the book where a Kashmiri doctor asks his Kashmiri patient to continue in Urdu their conversation, done in Kashmiri until that moment, for Varma’s benefit. Clearly, that was the doctor’s decision not Varma’s, and the doctor would not have done so had he felt that would be a hardship for the patient. Kashmir is the only state in the Indian Union where Urdu has an official status and a tradition of regular instruction.
The other twenty Tweets basically repeat one charge, claiming that Saiba Varma did not disclose to everyone she interacted with in Kashmir during her research work—the Kashmiri doctors/psychiatrists and their Kashmiri patients, male and female—the fact that she was the daughter of one Krishan Varma, who had been a senior officer in India’s Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), and who in that capacity had spent some years in Kashmir in the 1990s. The long series of angry assertions ends with the following: ‘Given her compromised family connections, why should SV continue researching/writing/speaking on Kashmir?’ Indeed, why shouldn’t we, instead, punish the daughter for the father’s presumed sins, and disregard what the daughter strove for and accomplished on her own?
I placed ‘presumed’ before ‘sins,’ not because I possess some special knowledge of the late Mr. Varma’s official work but because I read the following in The Hindustan Times of September 17, 2021.
Krishan Varma retired from R&AW eight years ago, and according to two retired officers that HT spoke to, was not completely identified with his work in Kashmir. He retired as special secretary and used to head the Aviation Research Centre or ARC in the agency. ‘He is a China expert and was also staff officer to two chiefs, Vikram Sood and CD Sahay,’ said one of the officers, who didn’t wish to be quoted….(Emphasis added.)
Former R&AW secretary AS Dulat [said of the accusation], ‘It’s a lot of bunkum. Krishan is a good friend… He was there ages ago and she has done her thesis there. Krishan doesn’t know half of what his daughter knows about Kashmir.’
While some may never put any faith in what a former Secretary of R&AW says, I am willing to accept Dulat’s assessment of Krishan Varma, who passed away recently, for it is confirmed by what others have said about the contents of book.
The same day, Saiba Varma put out some Tweets that I have not seen but which apparently sought to explain to the group, ‘@Settler Scholar,’ her acts of commission and omission. Her Tweets brought forth, two days later, on September 19, a short but cogent note from a group of ‘Kashmir scholars’ that was the more compelling with its sober tone.
For all anthropologists, the primary ethical responsibility is to be honest and transparent with the people who they study. We are disturbed by the ethical choices Varma has made in her research, especially regarding lack of disclosure of her father’s career in the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s premiere intelligence agency with a long history of operations in Kashmir. While the question of whether she revealed her background to her research subjects remains to be clarified by Varma, we can confirm that this information was not disclosed to us despite our professional relationships with her over the years through various forms of scholarly interaction and professional engagement, including scholarly networks, advocacy forums, fieldwork, conferences, and joint publications.
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. It is a clear breach of ethical responsibility for the researcher to not disclose, or to misrepresent, intimate family links with the colonial state. We are concerned that trust and accountability across the wider community of Kashmir scholars have been violated. Most importantly, we are concerned about the possible breach of ethics towards the vulnerable communities in which Varma has conducted her research, amidst Kashmiri patients seeking psychiatric care.
This urgent note demanded a proper response, and perhaps one was made by Varma privately and individually. Nevertheless, on September 28, 2021, a very different group launched on the internet an ‘open letter’ to the Duke University Press. Crafted and signed by six professors at different institutions, it laid out why they were against any further dissemination of the book, and asked their readers to add their names to the demand.
Roughly speaking, the document consists of three parts. The first lays out their case against Varma, the second makes an appeal to the publishers, and the third is a preemptive response to any charge of ‘cancel culture.’ The opening section is solidly and almost exclusively based on the Tweets launched by @Settler Scholar, and repeatedly accuses Varma of not disclosing to his interlocutors the name and professional identity of her father.
Like the Tweets, the open letter contains no evaluation of the book’s contents, not a single sentence challenging her analysis and conclusions. Only a constant claim is made that Varma deliberately and insidiously hid the fact of her being the daughter of a former R&AW official. Astonishingly, they also draw such baldly stated conclusions as that her work ‘was enabled by her connections to the Indian state,’ or that her actions should be characterized as ‘decades (sic) of hiding facts.’ In their fervor of certitude, they tell us, without even a ‘perhaps,’ what they believe motivated her: ‘What seems clear then is that she chose to hide her personal history of proximity to and complicity in colonial occupation in order to facilitate access and complete her research.’ The slide from ‘proximity’ to ‘complicity’, while pleasantly alliterative, is nothing but slanderous.
The professors’ own contribution to what they call ‘the threads’ work’ amounts only to a quotation from Varma’s dissertation—not from the published book, mind you—as an evidence against her.
In her dissertation, Dr. Varma thanked her father ‘for opening up both Kashmir and the world of documents to me’ (p. vii). Despite this veiled admission of how he enabled her access to Kashmir, she does not explicitly note or account for what it means to access Kashmir and “the world of documents” on Kashmiris through a member of the Indian intelligence, even though RAW is a primary force of counter-insurgency in the region.
But what if these words only expressed the gratefulness of a daughter for the childhood years she spent in Kashmir when her father was posted there in the ‘90s, and ‘opening … the world of documents’ does not mean handing over a drawerful of secret documents on Kashmir but merely refers to a father’s success in inculcating in his young daughter a lasting interest in non-fiction documentary texts that later led to her growth into a research scholar? Here is how Varma thanks her parents in the published book: ‘My parents, Manju and Krishan, have showered me with boundless love. Thank you for teaching me how to love fiercely and openly, giving me plenty of space to flourish, for nurturing a love of reading and writing, and for showing me how to struggle with grace.’ I see no reason to doubt her word when she claims she was given ‘plenty of space to flourish’ on her own, for it is evident even in the little I have read in her book.
Intriguingly, the Indian signatories of the letter made a point of describing themselves as ‘dominant caste Indian scholars;’ additionally, they called Varma an ‘upper caste Indian anthropologist.’ Why they did so is hard to fathom. Surely, caste and parentage are not chosen by the progeny? Is it then some kind of academic one-upmanship, an idle attempt to underscore their own careful observance of professional ethics? It can’t be. Varma began her research work in 2009; the book came out in 2020. That would make a total of 12 years at most, but the six scholars wrote in high dudgeon: ‘While everyone can mistakes, Dr. Varma’s actions need to be characterized as decades of hiding facts about her father’s position in the Indian state…’ (Emphasis added.) Another equally fierce accusation goes like this: ‘[The] upper caste Indian anthropologist who conducted research in Kashmiri clinics, demanded they speak in Urdu/Hindi (colonizers’ languages) for their trauma to be translated in ways she could understand and then cultivated their stories of trauma from occupation for her book.’ Demanded? They could have given an example from the book but they did not, for they were only repeating what they had read in the Tweets.
In all the noise and fury of the Tweeter thread and the ‘open letter’ one thing stands out: neither makes any mention of the book’s contents. Not one word of critique concerning Varma’s descriptions, analyses, and conclusions can be found in the two documents. Not a single line is quoted from the book itself. The latter was particularly bothersome in the ‘open letter’ of the six scholars, who were not restricted to 143 characters. Are the contents of Varma’s book really so trivial that they need not be taken into account at all? Or do the professors believe that a person whose father worked for R&AW must never be believed, even if she distinctly stands in opposition to the aims and methods of that agency?
I have not read the book, nor do I plan to read it. My knowledge of English language is basic, and words like ‘positionality’, ‘processuality’, ‘futurity’ leave me gasping for breath. But when a kind friend sent me some pages, I took the time to read them. Here is a brief excerpt; it made clear to me the politics of Varma’s book. Writing about the day the Modi government abolished Kashmir’s statehood, Varma writes (in the form of a letter to a friend, who is named ‘No-thing’:
“On television, we watched the government’s PR machine churn. The decisions were sold to the Indian public as necessary for Kashmir’s greater integration with India, to end terrorism, facilitate economic development, and invigorate the tourism industry. Though the decision was articulated in the language of care and development, those most affected by it were not consulted. The 8 million residents of the state were put under a total, indefinite communication blackout and curfew. To prevent any untoward incident, an amphibious bureaucrat croaked on tv. In the days that followed, the tv, now our only connection to the outside world, became a funhouse mirror. We watched as distorted images of the reality on the ground were fed back to us….
“After the first month, which people only survived thanks to their premonition, careful planning, and execution, the catastrophes cascaded. As the blackout stretched on, I was haunted by your words. Back in the summer of 2014, after the Hindu supremacist BJP government led by Narendra Modi had first swept to national victory, you had said, ‘Modi has come to finish us. He has come to destroy Kashmir.’ I had dismissed your words as hyperbolic. But now I understood. You did not mean genocide in a spectacular sense, although, as you know, Modi has that, too, in hisstory. Rather, the game now was slow violence in the form of demographic changes and settlements, the influx of financial capital, from whose spoils Kashmiris will be excluded, changes to land ownership laws, the detention and criminalization of young people, the prohibition of expression and dissent, weaponizing all aspects of civilian life.” (p. xvi)
This has grown longer than I wished, but a few more things need to said, even if briefly. Firstly, Saiba Varma did respond in some detail to the comments of the @Settler Scholar and the members of the ‘Research Ethics in Kashmir’ collective. Dated October 1, 2021, it runs to 8 or 9 pages. People should give it some thought before they make up their minds about its writer.
Secondly, the issue—the right of a scholar to make an attempt to rise above and beyond any conditions forced upon him or her by familial ties, caste or creed—is not trivial. In fact, one brave and convincing exploration of the issue was made right after the furor began. The writer, Samhita Arni, is herself a daughter of a former R&AW officer, and has actually read Varma’s book, which she found to be ‘a brilliant, well-researched analysis of the care that is afforded to the mentally ill in Kashmir.’ She then adds, ‘In her work, Varma notes that the ‘clinic has become part of the battlefield’, that the very medical tools, locations of clinics, and understanding of care, can also create violence ‘through medicine’, and that these serve to advance the aims of the Indian security establishment in Kashmir.’ This is how she concludes the piece:
Intimacy and empathy are created by what we disclose, but also what we choose to conceal. I have been in situations where I know that if I had revealed that my father worked in the Indian security establishment, the other person may have not engaged with me in the same manner. While I might want relatedness and see myself as an ally, the other would not. I do understand that there may be those who feel betrayed by such a lack of disclosure, and this can create a sense of rupture, a loss of relatedness and trust.
These feelings are real and must be engaged with in a way that moves us forward, not back. There is a great opportunity in this. It is of value to hear from Varma herself, and from those she observed, patients and medical practitioners both. To ask them to speak for themselves and their own experiences — rather than us deciding for them how they must feel or what serves their interests best. Lived experience is much more complex, and ambiguous than the categories and binaries we see from afar, from our perch atop ivory towers. Varma’s experience testifies to this, as do the accounts of the doctors and patients she writes about, and the dilemmas they face.
These are wise words. Lived experience is indeed much more complex and ambiguous. Judgements should be made with some self-doubt and humility. Varma’s book should first be judged by that primary rule: what did it set out to do and did the effort succeed? That simple but obligatory effort, made without prejudice, will also provide answer to the question: does the book serve the cause of the victims or does it seek to enhance the legitimacy and control of the victimizer? So far, those who bothered to make the effort have all said: the book stands by the victims.