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Tag: humanities

Creating a better India

Harvard US India Initiative“We want a better India,” reads the slogan for the Harvard US-India Initiative’s (HUII) Annual Conference in New Delhi on January 9 and 10, 2015.

HUII is an undergraduate student-run organization at Harvard that aims to create dialogue between Indian and American youth to address some of India’s most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues today.

The conference, which is cosponsored by SAI, is set to take place at the Shangri La Hotel, and is the largest yet for the organization. It boasts an impressive lineup of speakers and panel topics, including ‘Liberal Arts and Conservative Societies,’ ‘Politicians and the People,’ ‘More Artists or More Dentists,’ ‘Human Rights in India,’ ‘The Economics of Rural India,’ and ‘Science and Society.’

Keynote speakers include Piyush Goyal, Hon’ble Minister of State with Independent Charge for Power, Coal and New & Renewable Energy in the Government of India, Mirai Chatterjee, Director of Social Security, SEWA, and Shri Jairam Ramesh, MP Rajya Sabha, former Cabinet Minister.

SAI recently talked to Namrata Narain, Harvard College ’15, one of the organizers of the event, to learn more about how HUII is working to increase discussions on important issues by connecting young academic communities in India and the US.

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Ayesha Jalal: The Struggle for Pakistan

By Mehjabeen ZameerEd.M Candidate, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education; SAI Student Coordinator

Jalal, right, with Ali Asani

Jalal, right, with Ali Asani

On Wednesday, December 3, renowned Pakistani historian Professor Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University, spoke about her new book The Struggle for Pakistan at a SAI Book Talk. Jalal highlighted the need for a comprehensive historical interpretation of Pakistan’s narrative and encouraged members of the audience to view the history of the country through a geopolitical lens rather than a religious one.

The event was moderated by Professor Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Atiya Khan, South Asia Institute Aman Fellow, also participated as a discussant.

Professor Jalal started off her talk by briefly touching upon the creation of Pakistan and argued that the theory of it being created was fallacious. The young state faced many problems, including the passing away of its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and shortly after the assassination of its premier, Liaquat Ali Khan, which made the situation worse. In 1951, due to the Cold War and the regional dispute with India over Kashmir gaining eminence, the Pakistani military started coming to power.

After this brief overview of the circumstances leading to the creation of Pakistan and leading to the rise of a powerful military, Professor Jalal then went on to interpret the 1971 separation of East Pakistan. She made the case that the context in 1971 was a mirror image of that in 1947, as it was all about power sharing.

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Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War

By Abhishek Rahman, MDiv Candidate, Harvard Divinity School

Beginning in the 1980s, Sri Lanka’s civil war tore communities apart. In 2009, the Sri Lankan army defeated the separatist guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a fierce battle that involved about 300,000 civilians and killed more than 40,000. More than a million had been already been displaced by the long conflict, and the resilient among them still dared to hope for a better future in a postwar Sri Lanka. The next five years, following the end of the war, changed everything.

The story of people living in postwar Sri Lanka was the topic of a SAI Book Talk with author Rohini Mohan on November 4, 2014. Mohan spoke about her new book, The Seasons of Trouble: Life Amid the Ruins of Sri Lanka’s Civil War, in which she uses “creative nonfiction” as a literary style to tell a different kind of war story. Rather than focusing on political leaders and army generals, the book chronicles every day people, especially women and children.

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Princes of the Mughal Empire

By Mehjabeen Zameer, Ed.M Candidate, International Education Policy, Harvard Graduate School of Education; SAI Student Coordinator

On Tuesday, September 23, Munis Faruqui, Associate Professor, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of California Berkeley, shared his research on princes of the Mughal Empire at a SAI Muslim Societies in South Asia Seminar, moderated by Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Director, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program.

Furuqui posited that, contrary to the popular belief that court intrigues, political backbiting, rebellions and wars of succession caused the downfall of the Mughal Empire, they actually helped spread, deepen and mobilize Mughal power.

Professor Faruqui started his talk by presenting a brief background on the Mughal Empire. He stated that the Mughals were a Muslim, ethnically Turkish, Persian speaking dynasty that established itself in the Indian subcontinent and became one of the largest and most dynamic empires in the early-modern period ruling supreme in northern India for almost 200 years.

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Romila Thapar discusses historical traditions of North India

Romila Thapar

On Monday, May 5, SAI hosted a book talk with prominent Indian historian Romila Thapar about Thapar’s most recent book, The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, which is a panoramic survey of the historical traditions of North India. In the book, Thapar reveals a deep and sophisticated consciousness of history embedded in the diverse body of classical Indian literature.

After summarizing the main arguments of her book, Thapar engaged with the audience in a Q&A session.

Below is a sample of questions asked by the audience:

Audience member: I’m struck by how pivotal kingship seems to be to so many of these different kinds of engagements with the past, whether it’s refracted through monastic traditions or dealing with dynastic issues and biographies. I wondered how far you see kingship as such? Or is that a misunderstanding that kingship is very pivotal to many of these traditions? And does kingship matter?

Romila Thapar: What I was trying to emphasize, actually, certainly was that kingship was very pivotal and has a bearing on politics and governance and so forth, and is therefore important to record. But I was also trying to suggest that there is a transition from earlier forms of kingship that I have called ‘clan-based’ society, but they’re not kingships as such. What interested me very much in looking at the text is that one can see a kind of evolution from a pre-kingship form to a kingship form. And what interests me also is that the change doesn’t necessarily bring about the three independent genres I was talking about.

It’s when kingship develops in a very major way, and, as it were, replicates and moves into areas that are pre-kingship and replicates that process. In that kind of system, I think there is a kind of replication of earlier transitions to kingship, seen much more clearly now because the society has experienced it once before. Therefore, it takes on the character of an independent, external, historical form.  There aren’t the same hesitations as there were earlier in the epic tradition. But, yes, kingship is certainly very pivotal. And kingship in the sense of political authority. It’s possible that when we change our definition of history and move away from political authority being important, we will start looking at other things as well. But at the moment, it’s the way it is.

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Ramachandra Guha discusses Gandhi Before India

Ramachandra Guha, left, with Pratap Bhanu Mehta

On April 29, SAI hosted a book talk with Ramachandra Guha, who discussed his new book Gandhi Before India. The event, which took place at the Harvard Book Store with a packed audience, was moderated by Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Centre for Policy Research, Associate Professor of Government and of Social Studies, Harvard University, who began by commenting on the wide range of Gandhi scholarship in fields including philosophy, political science, law, and history, that is now beginning to emerge. He noted that Gandhi is finally being treated as a thinker in his own right.

Guha’s book, Mehta said, was a critical component of this new literature and was a monumental biographical account of Gandhi in South Africa. Guha began his talk by explaining his interest in Gandhi and why we chose to write this book, as well as the ways in which it helps us refine our understanding of Gandhi and his life.

In each of his previous books, Guha noted, he had to reckon with Gandhi in some way, so this book was always waiting to be written. While Gandhi’s associates in India, friends, enemies, and colleagues are well-known, the similar circle he inhabited in South Africa is far less familiar.

This book, Guha suggested, is an attempt to explain that period of Gandhi’s life, and to place him in context to show how his life in South Africa converted him from a lawyer to a Mahatma. After the speech, there was a vibrant question and answer session, from participants engaging both with Gandhi’s thinking and with the approaches that Guha had adopted in writing the book.

At the end of the event, audience members enjoyed a cake in honor of Guha’s birthday.

-By Madhav Khosla, PhD. Candidate, Political Theory, Harvard University


Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral City

Updates from the Radcliffe University Workshop on August 29 and 30, 2013

By Lisa Chase, Research Associate, Harvard Business School & Harvard Graduate School of Design

The spirit of collaboration and community that made this year’s Kumbh Mela festival so successful was on vivid display at the Kumbh Mela: Mapping the Ephemeral City workshop August 29 and 30 at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. This gathering of government officials from the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh responsible for planning and managing the Kumbh Mela, faculty and students from FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard Divinity School (HDS), Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) and School of Public Health (HSPH) ; Harvard Business School (HBS); the Harvard South Asia Institute (SAI) and Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), epitomized the spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration and academic curiosity that inspired the HGHI and SAI  to sponsor the workshop.  Representatives from Uttar Pradesh included Higher Education Secretary Devesh Chaturvedi, Professor and Head of the Department of Community Education Shraddha Dwivedi, Mani Prasad Mishra, District Magistrate and Mela Chief Officer, and Deputy Inspector General of Police Rajesh Rathore. Mela Inspector General, Alok Sharma, joined the team from India via Skype.

From Left: Shraddha Dwivedi, Devesh Chaturvedi, Rajesh Rathore. and Mani Prasad Mishra

The Kumbh Mela workshop commenced with a discussion, led by Professor Diana Eck, HDS, FAS, on the governance and religious aspects of the festival, including the inclusive nature of the event, which included ethnic and religious groups from across India, Asia, Europe and beyond. Professor Eck invited the administrators responsible for planning and executing the Kumbh Mela to contribute their insights into the intricate process of accommodating more than 32 Hindu sects, “tourists” of various faiths drawn to the festival, and the political considerations of allocating space for and catering to the unique needs of influential religious groups, including the Akharas. The workshop progressed to the practicalities of acquiring almost two thousand hectares of land from the Indian military, farmers and the railway department  to accommodate the approximately 80-100 million pilgrims over the course of the 55 day festival. GSD Professor Rahul Mehrotra and Uttar Pradesh officials explored the considerations of apportioning parcels for the diverse array of Kumbh Mela pilgrims, including fielding and screening applications to determine the credibility of their spiritual – as opposed to speculative real estate –  interests, assigning parcels with an eye to their proximity to the primary bathing areas, while encouraging connections between geographic regions, ethnic and religious groups.

Following lunch, HBS Senior Lecturer John Macomber led a discussion on the infrastructure implications, including the environmental impacts, of the Kumbh Mela.  Macomber queried the administrators about the process of laying out the roadways, electrical, sewage and water infrastructure over the grid of the Kumbh Mela landscape. The exchange revealed the complexities of designing and  constructing a temporary settlement that draws on a legacy of British urban planning and accommodates the variable environment imposed by shifting water levels and dry land, with the Central and State governments taking responsibility for the macro level infrastructure and leaving the details “inside the tent” to private sector and civil society organizations. A discussion of organizational structure and economy was led by Director of SAI and HBS Professor Tarun Khanna and Assistant Professor J.P. Onnela of the HSPH, focused on their cell phone data study of mobile phone text and voice messages from the Kumbh Mela, and the relationship of these communications to human social behavior. The applications of the data, and what it reveals about human communication patterns and networks, are myriad, including enabling epidemiologists to study disease vectors in new ways, planners to design transportation improvements, and environmentalists to examine human impacts. HSPH Professor Jennifer Leaning and Research Fellow Satchit Balsari closed out the day’s panel discussions with an examination of the numerous public health considerations, including  ensuring access to safe drinking water and toilet facilities, providing healthcare and hospital services, planning crowd control and security, and protecting against the spread of infectious diseases. Professor Leaning highlighted the success of the health clinics and public health infrastructure in caring for the Kumbh Mela pilgrims, and the lessons the administrators and government officials may apply to healthcare delivery for the general population outside of the festival.

The workshop’s second day focused on spatializing and mapping both the planning and construction processes of the Kumbh Mela and the deconstruction and “disposal” phases of the event. Under the Kumbh Mela administrators’ direction and led by Felipe Vera from the GSD, faculty and students laid out every facet of the infrastructure planning, design and construction, along with management and governance functions, on physical site plans and drawings constructed by the GSD students. Mapping included documenting the sequence of architecting the land’s grid layout, planning roadways and transportation, engineering electrical delivery and water access, and framing the chain of governance and oversight. The mapping exercise underscored the administrators’ deliberate and detailed approach to framing every facet of the Kumbh Mela, guided by the primary goal of ensuring a safe and satisfactory spiritual experience for every pilgrim, regardless of religion or ethnicity. Following the mapping activity, Namita Dharia, a Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s Department of Anthropology, framed a discussion about the almost monumental task of deconstructing the Kumbh Mela’s temporary city, including reclaiming and reusing construction materials, taking down electrical and lighting systems, removing sanitation systems and toilets, and dismantling temporary bridges and girders.  The deconstruction process was rendered more complex because of the various agencies and officials responsible for respective infrastructure components, including private contractors and a diverse range of employees and volunteer labor.

During the workshop’s concluding discussions, Harvard faculty invited the Kumbh Mela administrators to share anecdotes and “lessons learned” from the festival’s planning, execution and deconstruction. Perhaps one of the most striking takeaways was the success of the central and state governments’ public service campaign urging pilgrims to follow safe hygiene, sanitation and security practices, including environmental conservation and protection. The effectiveness of the public relations scheme was evidenced by the absence of any major communicable or water-borne illnesses at the Kumbh Mela, while environmental damage from plastic trash and water pollution was significantly reduced from previous festivals. At the workshop’s close, Harvard faculty and Uttar Pradesh administrators discussed the potential for a continuing collaboration between Harvard faculty and Kumbh Mela administrators. The partnership would enable Harvard faculty and researchers to continue studying and learning from Uttar Pradesh officials and their festival management, while potentially advising administrators on how to refine aspects of the Kumbh Mela and associated religious celebrations and extrapolate their infrastructure planning to the wider Indian population. As Diana Eck described it, the Kumbh Mela process is never finished, but continues as an iconic story of spirituality and community, of which Harvard University hopes to be an ongoing participant.

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