Sunil Amrith on Yale, chairing the South Asian Studies Council, and the politics of area studies

Sunil Amrith and Ram Vishwanathan
September 24, 2020

The South Asian Studies Council has a new face at its helm: Sunil Amrith, the new Renu and Anand Dhawan Professor of History at Yale. Amrith, who joined Yale from Harvard before the start of this semester, has taken over dual responsibilities as the Chair of the South Asian Studies Council. Amrith is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow, and a recipient of the 2016 Infosys Prize in Humanities. His research explores the relationship between environmental processes and human migration between South and Southeast Asia.

In this interview, our South Asia Fellow, Ram Vishwanathan, caught up with Professor Amrith to ask him about his vision for the Council, the role he imagines himself occupying as both an academic and SASC Chair, and his experiences researching and teaching.

RV: First off, what inspired you to come to Yale, and what are your goals for the Council?

SA: I think Yale has, over the last several years, really emerged as perhaps the best place in the US for the study of South Asia. In terms of faculty strength, I think Yale is right up there. And for me, that was the great attraction — a critical mass of colleagues and students that I would have the opportunity to work with here.

Another attraction for me is that Yale has always been strong in the study of Southeast Asia, and my work really straddles those two regions. I’m very interested in developing further the combined study of South and Southeast Asia, and so the Inter-Asia program here, run by Professors Siu and Sivaramakrishnan, was very important to me.

The other great area of strength in our History department, but also more broadly, is the Environmental Humanities program here at Yale. That’s very close to my heart, it’s an area I’ve been working in for 10 years or more. So for me, the attraction of the move to Yale was a sort of combined critical mass of colleagues and students working in areas that are very close to my own interests, in areas that I care about.

In terms of my goals for the council — I admired the council long before I moved here. I’d come to give seminars a couple of times, once in the South Asia Council and once for the Inter-Asia group. And I was always really struck by the collegiality and the energy of the conversations that were going on here.

I certainly had worked with and encountered quite a few Yale graduate students in conferences, and who’d come to Harvard for various reasons. In a way, I felt like I knew the Council a little bit already before I got here. And my goals are really to harness all the strengths that we have got here. Yale has a South Asianist in almost every major department across the social sciences and humanities. That is not true of most places. And I would really love the Council to be a place that facilitates conversations among them, but also conversations that bring our work to a wider audience.

I’m delighted that there are Student Fellows at the council — I would definitely like to see us do more to really involve both undergraduate and graduate students in our work as much as possible. My main goal is really to make the council a welcoming place, a place that can be a stage for the kinds of conversations which sometimes might not happen within specific disciplines, but which cross over some of those boundaries.

RV: To follow up — having articulated these goals, how will you measure success?

SA: The first thing to say, of course, is that this year is so unusual that I think our measure of what it is to achieve success is quite different from what the answer to that question would usually be.

Some of this pertains to the question of how well we can do to sustain a sense of community online — both an intellectual community, but also the broader community that the council has always sought to be. How wide an audience can we reach with our online programming? I think one of the advantages of being on Zoom for all of our seminars is that people can join us from all over the world.

So, might this be an opportunity to really bring the conversations happening on our campus to an audience that wouldn’t normally be able to be part of it, or wouldn’t normally be able to join us? How creative can we be in this moment when there are so many constraints on us?

I think of this not just in terms of imagining programming this year as in some sense a substitute for what we would normally do, but rather to think of new things. Can we come up with new forms? Can we come up with new ways of doing this? And the success of those attempts will be measured in due course.

Otherwise, I think a lot of the measures of success for this kind of role that the Council plays are intangible. Is there a buzz about the place? Do we all feel a sense of intellectual energy and collective purpose?

I think that there may well be times when that then also translates to very measurable success in the sense of a great conference that might come about, or being able to give research grants to graduate students who go on to do outstanding work. I think all of those milestones are very important, and they remain important, but some of them, I think, are also intangible. And in this year in particular, I think I will be glad if we can have done whatever we can this year to keep people together, despite all of this isolation that we all experience.

RV: I want to pivot to the idea of Area Studies more generally. What do you see as its role, and what do you hope to bring to the field? You have mentioned your interest in Southeast Asia as well — how does that perhaps inform how you see the area, or how you like to define it?

SA: I think there’s been a real rethinking of Area Studies over the last decade or so. That’s been happening on this campus, it’s been happening all over the world. I approach these debates with a real belief in the value of Area Studies — I have a belief in the value of a reinvigorated and perhaps re-imagined Area Studies, but a belief in Area Studies nevertheless. In many places, Area Studies have increasingly been pushed to the margins by the rise of global studies of various kinds, for example.

I believe that the real strengths of Area Studies that come from a kind of deep immersion in language and in particular political cultures. I think those strengths are more important than ever. They are not incompatible with taking a global perspective on the challenges and problems that we face in the world; if anything, I think that a grounding in Area Studies can enrich our understanding of the world and our contributions to scholarship. Let’s take, for example, the challenge of climate change. I don’t know that we can really understand climate change if we don’t understand climate change in particular places in ways that I think Area Studies allows us to do. What was a constraint in the way Area Studies was developed was that these boundaries tended to become too hard — between say, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia.

And I think that in an earlier generation that led scholars perhaps to overlook the deep connectedness of these regions. That’s the way that Area Studies has reimagined its boundaries, by emphasizing connections across these areas, rather than seeing them as something that’s self-contained. There’s been a lot of self-questioning — about whether there’s something arbitrary about the boundaries of the region, and if there is, then how can we work beyond that, how can we study the borderlands, the intersections? I think the Inter-Asia project here at Yale, which is also connected with a broader project hosted by the SSRC, has done a lot of interesting work along those lines.

I think there is this general dialectic between Area Studies and taking an increasingly global, even planetary, perspective on the world that we’re all living in. And I think those two projects can be very nicely aligned with one another.

RV: To take that forward, I want to ask you to link that to the political role of academia in 2020. I’m thinking, for example, of how, say, amongst Indian Americans or South Asian Americans, the terms South Asian American versus Indian-American versus Hindu-American all carry different political meanings — something that’s also true in the sub-continent itself. And it’s symptomatic of a broader concept of the role academia plays. I want to ask that specifically in relation to 2020 — things like the elections in November in the US, or climate change, or events back in South Asia. What role do you see academia playing in this regard?

SA: I think the question of how we define the areas of our study is inherently political. By defining ourselves the South Asian Studies council, rather than an Indian studies or Sri Lankan studies or Pakistan or Bangladesh Studies council, we are saying something about our belief in the value of connecting and comparing experiences across the region. But we must also be clear that “South Asia” is itself an artificial construction.

I think we are trying not to replicate the kinds of nationalism that we’ve seen on the rise everywhere. We’re living in a time of profound division, ideological division. The polarization in this country and across South Asia has never been greater. And I do think that it is our role to foster research whether or not it is politically uncomfortable and at odds with the current state of things. I think it is our role to ask difficult questions. I think it is our role certainly not to replicate some of the cruder and coarser elements of current political discourse and in fact, to sort of interrogate those terms. That’s not always an easy position to be in, and nor do I believe that all scholars on this campus or any other campus are of the same view when it comes to these challenges or the major political questions about time; we’re so much the richer for this diversity of views within Yale and across different university campuses as we work together.

I do think that in these times of division, it’s more important than ever for a collaboration between universities, especially among universities that are across borders. I’m very committed in my time with the Council to develop our partnerships with institutions in South Asia. It’s something Yale has always done very well, but it is something that I would like to redouble our efforts to do, because I think that these conversations are richer, especially in this moment, if they are happening across borders.

In relation to the election in this country, the very first program we have on our seminar program this week is a conversation on racial justice in America from a South Asian perspective. And I think that’s very important — that Areas studies are not detached from the very urgent political questions of this country which we all live in, and that we don’t see those as sort of somehow separate from studying South Asia in South Asia. I think that there’s plenty to be said for articulating different experiences of state violence and racial injustice, and connecting racial injustice with caste injustice in South Asia. And there are all sorts of directions that conversation can go in, and I’m very glad that the council is going to having those conversations, starting with this wonderful panel that Sarah Khan has organized for this week.

RV: On that note — do you see the exact role that you have outlined for academia as having been too isolated, or even not isolated enough? A lot of academics are increasingly willing to see their work as some form of resistance. Would you agree with that? When you mentioned a panel on racial justice, for example, there are certain values you are embodying. What terms would you use to describe those that work?

SA: I would hesitate to speak for others in that. I think it’s actually really important that every scholar, whether as an undergraduate or as a faculty member, find their own comfort level with how activist their scholarship is. There are many reasons to embark on studying a particular topic. One powerful motivator may be as a form of resistance to injustice; but there is equal value, in my view, in illuminating subjects that may seem a little bit more distant from our time, the very act of careful scholarship is in itself a form of resistance to the media circus and information saturation we all live with. And one of the things I worry about is a feeling—I’ve seen this among some students—that if one is not working on a recognizably urgent political topic that somehow the work is not worthwhile. I don’t believe that’s true, because I believe that it’s important to have many different kinds of work coming out of universities.

Having said that, and speaking for myself, I think we live in a time when I certainly see it as my responsibility as a scholar to resist the ugliness and the hate and the intolerance that I see in both American and Indian politics to take just two examples. And I do believe that it is the role of scholarship to be deeply critical of the kinds of hyper-nationalist ideologies that seem to be on the rise and rise.

A lot of my work is about the environment. It is about climate change. I do see that I have a responsibility to highlight the urgency of those questions, and to for example highlight how important it is to think about inequality in relation to climate change, and acknowledge the fact that climate change is absolutely not going to affect everybody equally, that combating it is a project of social and economic justice as well as an environmental one.

RV: I want to switch slightly to your role as a historian specifically. I was wondering if you could perhaps tell readers about what your research work, what your trajectory has been, and what you are studying at the moment.

SA: As I mentioned earlier, a lot of my work has looked at the connections between South and Southeast Asia. Two main areas of research for me are the history of migration and environmental history, and indeed the connections between those two things. I wrote a book called Crossing the Bay of Bengal about seven or eight years ago which was about migration of people from India to Southeast Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries. That book examined not only the process of migration, but the movement of ideas, culture, and politics that came with definitions of citizenship and how they divided people in the post-colonial world. That book started to acquire an environmental dimension as I realized how important the relationship was between mass migration in an imperial context — often very unfree migration, a coerced migration that took place in conditions of great brutality — and how closely connected that was with environmental harm and environmental destruction, and in this case the transformation of Southeast Asia into a plantation landscape, particularly in the case of Malaysia.

Since then, my work has gone more fully down the path of environmental history. My most recent book, which came out about a year and a half ago, is called Unruly Waters. It really uses climate and particularly the monsoon as a way of understanding modern South Asia, thinking about how significant the monsoon has been both to the economic trajectory of different parts of South Asia, but also as a subject of cultural history. It was my attempt as a historian to provide something of a historical context for climate change, and to argue that this is not just something that comes out of the blue in the late 20th century, but that, first of all, there are deeper roots to climate change which lie in histories of empire and capitalism. And, second, that there are deep ways of dealing with climate and climatic variability that we see in particular societies and cultures that too are well worth understanding.

RV: Can you speak more about your teaching? How has your experience been so far?

SA: For me, one of the attractions of coming to Yale was the fact that the History department attracts so many majors. And that’s really not true in various of the other places I have taught. So that is exciting. The idea of having a large audience of history majors, but also of course many others who aren’t history majors as well, makes Yale exciting for me.

In my teaching, I tend to move between my role as a South Asianist or a Southeast Asianist with thinking more globally and comparatively about particular themes. I’m doing all of my undergraduate teaching next semester, but this semester, for example, I’m teaching two graduate seminars. With my wonderful colleague Rohit De, I’m teaching an advanced graduate seminar in South Asian history, but I’m also teaching the introductory seminar for the first year PhD students in history, which is not region specific, but about approaches to history, approaches to historiography. With my undergraduate teaching, I’m going to be doing a lecture course on the history of the Indian ocean world in the spring, which I’m excited about, and which thinks about South Asia in relation to that much wider Oceanic space with which it’s deeply connected.

And then I’ll also be teaching an advanced undergraduate seminar on the environmental history of South and Southeast Asia, and so that seminar, probably more than any of the others, is the one that’s closest to my own current work.