Sahana Ghosh completed her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale in 2018. She is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Dr. Ghosh was recently featured in a podcast titled “India at a Crossroads,” a testament to the increasing relevance of her work in South Asia today. Our South Asia Fellow Ram Vishwanathan caught up with Dr. Ghosh to find out more about her work and the insight it offers into our understanding of contemporary issues.
RV: Let’s start with your research – can you tell our readers a little more?
SG: Broadly, my research is on borders, on questions of mobility and the militarization of borders in South Asia. I examine how the control of borders and national territory relate to ideas of belonging and citizenship, and I have focused my research on the India-Bangladesh border.
RV: So clearly your work has become quite topical today!
SG: Academics often seek to be relevant, but often comes at a cost. Yes, the discourse of illegal immigration and the figure of the Bangladeshi have become ubiquitous in public discourse in India today. I wish my work was not relevant for these reasons, but it’s all the more important to historicize present developments through careful, rigorous analysis.
RV: How is your work informed by anthropological methods? I have seen legal scholarship on the topic, but what can ethnographies offer that go beyond legal methods and discourses?
SG: In my work, I physically go to the borderlands, to both sides of the borders, and study popular discourses. I seek to understand lived experiences, but also to achieve a degree of critical distance on both sides.
We need to recognize that these are densely populated borders, across which policing has varied since the late 1940s. I seek to center the experiences of the border in these borderlands, and to get us to understand the border in a new way. But I also hope to de-exceptionalize the border, and avoid fetishizing it. Ethnography tries to focus on why the border is significant, but also on other kinds of concerns: agrarian concerns, questions of livelihood, and questions of identity.
RV: A lot of the undergraduate and graduate students who visit this website are often curious to hear about what fieldwork involves. What kind of fieldwork do you do, and what does this look like?
SG: The India-Bangladesh border is increasingly militarized, with a large and visible police presence. I faced a lot of surveillance while conducting my fieldwork. My presence as an outsider attracted scrutiny in different ways. I stuck out as an Indian on the Bangladeshi side of the border, and as an urban middle class Bengali on the Indian border villages.
My day generally involved accompanying residents in border villages – which are often very close to each other, sometimes less than 10 km apart. I followed the movement of people and goods in these border areas, typically shadowing my interlocutor for the entire day. I followed the various ways in which the border and the security forces that policed them were significant in people’s everyday lives.
The discourse we hear is about Bangladeshis crossing to India, but there are more nuances. People also move in the order direction, and the border and its policing influences the mobility of all types of people, and not necessarily those trying to cross the international border themselves. It shaped the routes people chose to take, and even the markets for commodities like vegetables.
I also conducted a few interviews with security forces, particularly on the Indian side, who occupy the increasing number of checkpoints and controls in these areas. Often, their responses would bring up other questions. Experiences of duty would be described in relation to other borders, revealing a larger geography of national security. Combining the experiences of residents and soldiers allowed me to write a biography or a history of the border through individual, personal histories.
RV: Let’s zoom out a bit. How did you arrive at your research interests? What brought you to Yale, and what was your experience at Yale like? Tell us more about your intellectual and personal journey!
SG: I worked for a few years in anti-human trafficking organizations, related to migration and cases of extra-judicial torture. I came to Yale grounded in this work and in a feminist, human rights background, and was interested in designing a project that would ask questions that borderland residents would ask, rather than assuming certain statements to be axiomatic. I felt a rights-based language often failed to capture this.
I wanted to work on feminist ethnographic perspectives, and was drawn to the opportunity to work with Professors Inderpal Grewal and K. Shivaramakrishnan. My PhD was in Anthropology, but with a certificate in WGSS (Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies). A big draw was also the South Asian Studies Counil. It was benefitial in so many ways; it provided the resources to support individual research, but also offered a unique intellectual and social environment that encouraged interdisciplinary interactions.
RV: Finally, what are your plans for the future? Where is your research directed next? Are you teaching as well?
I am a post-doc at Brown now, and my main focus is finishing my first book based on my dissertation. It will be an ethnography of transnational life experienced in borderlands shared by India and Bangladesh, one that centers a story of transnational connections but also transnational inequality and its relationship to militarization.
I’m also teaching these topics at Brown in the form of an undergraduate seminar called “Borders and Bodies. It offers a feminist lens that examines inequalities produced by borders and that borders are a product of. It’s not a regionally specific course, but it is also cross listed with their South Asian Studies major. My teaching and research is linked, and the two are mutually supporting. Teaching helps me think of how I can make my own book more accessible, and allows me to sharpen the argument and my own intervention.