Between academic time and crisis time: A conversation with Mona Bhan and Celina Su

So much has happened since we met for the first time via Zoom in early May. On a hot summer afternoon in August, we met via Zoom again, spending two hours thinking through the interview questions presented by the AGITATE! Team. We took turns answering each question; each time, we excitedly pointed out joint commitments and overlaps in our responses. This did not feel forced at all. We then spent a few minutes jotting down our verbal notes in writing. Although we each came back to our written notes to proofread them for clarity, we decided against making any substantive revisions to our responses. We wanted to remain true to the rhythms and cadences of our flowing conversation, and to make sure that our answers were not overwrought. We were struck by the thoughtfulness of the questions, and the connections that emerged from this conversation. We thank the AGITATE! Editorial Collective for this opportunity.

AGITATE!: Celina and Mona, could you speak to the ways in which your intellectual and political commitments shape the roles and spaces you occupy in and beyond the academy? Particularly in relation to dominant academic practices where artificial compartmentalization among scholarly, artistic, and activist work is often expected, how do you undo or blur such imposed boundaries? 

Mona: For someone born in Kashmir which has been under an active military occupation for over seventy years, the questions that guide my research are shaped by my experiences of violence and political uncertainty, and their lasting implications on people’s individual and collective lives. I am deeply committed to foregrounding the voices of different communities in Kashmir and think collectively and collaboratively about what it means to struggle for longterm justice. In particular, my recent work with human rights organizations in Kashmir and elsewhere, as well as my colleagues from the Critical Kashmir Studies collective, has pushed me to assess the value of academic work in policy and advocacy networks. While it is easy to get cynical about the value of academic work, particularly when such work happens in silos, I think the importance of academic/intellectual labor cannot be overstated. I find my own intellectual labor as a critical part of my political praxis, one that offers clarity of thought and purpose but also contributes to an archive of people’s movements for justice, truth, and accountability. In recent years, apart from the communities I have worked with, many of whom live along the densely militarized de facto border between India and Pakistan, I have found it meaningful to align with advocacy groups in Kashmir and elsewhere to do the difficult yet significant work of translating my research into policy briefs and documents. At the same time, this solidarity building and collective work has fundamentally transformed my approach to writing and research. The value of collaborative thinking and writing, which is unfortunately still not valued in dominant academic spaces, is critical insofar as it allows us to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is a good place to think and act radically. 

Celina: I relate what you were just saying about how it’s so difficult to compartmentalize different areas of our work. It’s funny to me because first I had to learn all of these different artificial academic compartments, and then when I learned them, I realized that I had to then unlearn them all over again. For instance, regarding my academic research on political participation, I paid attention to my own ethical principles and what I had thought of as common sense, even, in treating super smart community organizers as fellow intellectual thinkers and interlocutors in my work. If I wanted rigor in my data collection, shouldn’t I pay attention to those who best knew the conditions of their campaigns and struggles? How could an artificially imposed theoretical framework be possibly superior? In retrospect, I realized that I didn’t separate ostensibly technical or theoretical knowledge from usable or local knowledge. These bodies of knowledge have always been mutually constitutive to me. Of course, I learned as much from working with collaborators on policy memos, op-eds, and grant proposals as I did from working on academic publications, for example. I didn’t quite realize until later how this went against the grain of dominant social science paradigms, and how this was considered a distinct epistemology, perhaps most closely aligned with critical participatory action research. 

Still, I also realize that I had internalized many artificial, academic compartments when I tried to articulate the connections between my poetry and my peer-reviewed journal articles related to different research projects, and I was at a loss at first. Throughout all of this, I think that my intellectual and political commitments to, simply put, doing my part in and sharing what resources I have with the larger communities and movements that have welcomed me, that I have become a part of, have shaped my roles and spaces I occupy beyond the academy– These sound so simple, and yet– These basic principles have become so enlarged and complicated, problematized my understanding of different situations, helped me to become much more attuned to social dynamics and material conditions in my immediate surroundings in fieldwork, and forced me to constantly negotiate my official roles, since so much of academic legitimation comes from explicit authorship and exclusion, rather than sharing.

Jointly: For both of us, our work is inherently collaborative, and many of our commitments (to organizations, to causes, to specific research agendas) stem from our embeddedness in specific communities. These commitments take us to places and connections far beyond the academy, i.e., working with specific advocacy groups, the United Nations, etc. But then these commitments also help us to think through what happens if we work with communities that are not those that we come from. What non-negotiables do we take from our embeddedness, that help us to think through essentials in newer situations as well? What principles do we take with us, and keep alive and active and contested, even if we can’t always adhere to them? 

AGITATE!: The temporal and spatial contexts, communities, and struggles that we write about are always in flux. In the context of the political struggles that you are immersed in, how do you navigate and engage with such dynamism? How does your writing converse with the political urgencies of particular moments?

Mona: The year 2019-2020 was unprecedented for Kashmir scholars. Although the longstanding military occupation of the region continued its violent war against Kashmiri civilians, a slew of constitutional changes to amend the status of Kashmir were implemented by India’s rightwing Hindu state headed by Narendra Modi. Kashmir’s semi autonomous status was abrogated and it was bifurcated into two Union Territories. At the same time, an unprecedented communication blackout with no internet, TV, newspapers, and phone services meant that Kashmir was silenced for months on end. Indeed, the government refuses to restore 4G internet to Kashmir, even a year after the abrogation. In any case, this meant that while Kashmir was in the headlines in international media, there was no way for Kashmiri journalists to do their usual reportage. I, along with several of my Kashmir scholars/colleagues, had to quickly get used to doing media interviews and briefs. The situation in Kashmir was so fluid and dynamic, but also scary and uncertain. And figuring out a different voice for media bytes was something many of us had to get used to very quickly. At the same time, we have also been engaged in the intellectual labor of trying to figure out what this moment means for communities in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and how might our research questions, frameworks, and commitments both speak to this urgent moment but also bring to it the much needed depth of history, rigor, and academic analysis. 

Celina: Wow, that’s a tremendously rich case to think through, in terms of academic research and political moments. For me, this question forces me to reflect on my academic work, current conditions and social movements and also mainstream public opinion, and on what the practical implications for my work rhythms might be. I research participatory democratic initiatives (at this moment, especially participatory budgeting) and protest, and these two areas don’t always meet– Who would have known that, since we last talked in early May, budget justice would become a national rallying cry on the streets? Because I haven’t had full-time childcare since my toddler was born 2 years ago, I haven’t had as much time as I did before, to seize this moment with the uprisings, and to immediately send out op-eds and attend meetings to help with press conferences as I might have before. But this has also prompted some hopefully helpful questions: I know that state-sanctioned violence, the need for defunding the police, and the need for budget justice aren’t going away. How can I think through the continuities as well as the ruptures of this historical moment, and draw upon my many years of research to contribute what I can to social justice movements not just now, but a few months from now, a few years from now? How do I better prepare different sorts of writing, for different audiences, so that I can take what is most important and be ready to help others amplify this message, the next time I know there’s a receptive audience?

Jointly: Our conversation yielded several overlaps relating to this question, especially regarding our respective struggles to speak to the moment and yet remain committed to rigor and critical analysis. We are not traditional journalists. We try to be ready to speak in media-friendly morsels but also remain committed to specific communities. By the latter, we are thinking of how, as academics, we feel that it remains essential to not make whatever is currently most in flux a distinct event, but instead just one step of a much longer process and struggle.

AGITATE!: How does the transnational inform your work in terms of your theoretical and political commitments, the audiences of your work, and the communities that enable and ground that work? We are interested in learning about the ways in which your epistemological practices refuse the borders between the Northern academy and what lies “outside” of it. Specifically, how does such refusal shape your collaborations and how does it call attention to context-specific struggles and injustices, tracing connections between and across contexts?

Mona: For me the framework of transnationalism operates both at a material and epistemological level. For Kashmiris fighting the Indian occupation, the national, strictly speaking, is not really a site of justice and redressal. They might go local and national courts but justice remains elusive. For instance, the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly failed to uphold people’s fundamental rights to life, liberty, and human rights. This year in particular after the abrogation of Articles 375 and 35A, and the imposition of many restrictions that make life almost impossible, it is clear that for Kashmiris their justice struggles are transnational in scope. Kashmir is not India’s internal matter, which makes the invocation of international in Kashmir’s context extremely crucial. So in my academic and advocacy work, the concept of international is critical insofar as it allows us to see striking parallels between sovereignty movements in Kashmir and elsewhere. At the same time, for us the borders between North and South seem completely moot when what we are dealing with is clearly a coalition of oppressors who engage in weapons trade, cross-border and inter state military training, exchange of border surveillance equipment, and counterinsurgency strategies. So it is also critical to think of critical solidarities in a transnational/international framework. For instance, movements such as BLM and Native American Indigenous struggles for land rights are inspiring insofar as they create potential spaces to forge solidarities between and across differently situated groups who share violent histories of genocides, land-grabs, and dispossessions. 

Celina: Dovetailing off your example of Kashmiris appealing to intergovernmental institutions like the United Nations, the question of jurisdiction comes up in a lot of my work as well. Even when I’m ostensibly working within a “domestic” context like the United States, the fact that I work with many immigrant and/ or refugee groups and historically marginalized communities often raises the question of whom they should be appealing their cases, making claims, upholding their rights to– local, regional, national (which country?), intergovernmental authorities? Certainly not the cops, with their mission to “protect and serve.” These constituents do not get to file grievances or make claims as full “citizens”; they highlight the ways in which citizenship is a fraught and problematic word and notion. Who upholds our “right to have rights,” using Hannah Arednt’s phrase? These questions immediately blur the artificial, institution-enforced borders between nation-states, the academy and not. At the same time, working transnationally also infuses a strong dose of humility into my work– having different points of reference has taught me a lot about issues of governmentality, about the limits of our popular imagination in different specific contexts, and about the assumptions and norms that I might have internalized and taken for granted otherwise. Working across contexts helps me to ask questions that I would not have thought of otherwise, to better appreciate how solidarities and shared commitments manifest across not just geographical spaces, but different modalities and ways of being. 

Jointly: One non-negotiable that’s striking to us about both of our responses is the need to keep multiple space-time scales in mind at any moment. We certainly cannot rely upon the Supreme Court of any nation-state, for instance, to uphold the rights of the communities we work with. Namely, the official is always political and fragmenting. It doesn’t reflect, and actually often attempts to repress, ongoing struggles for justice and rights. In this light, one imperative might be to remain committed to radical imaginations, and to imagined communities (rather than the official ones on maps)– even though these imagined communities are also, of course, sites of inequalities and active contestation. 

AGITATE!: How do the politics of translation figure in your work?  We are thinking here of the manner in which our intellectual and political labors can work to ensure that knowledges from “elsewheres” become epistemological grounds rather than exemplars. This is particularly relevant to how terms such as race, caste, Indigenous, Black, immigrant, and settler colonialism, etc. travel and gain political and intellectual currency. 

Mona: While such terms and frameworks have become vernacularized over time, I think it is important to root them in their context specific histories and politics. Otherwise the appropriation can end up serving dangerous ends too. For instance, here I am thinking about the Hindutva’s claims to Hindu indigeneity in India, which automatically excludes Muslims and Christians as outsiders, and denies them full and substantive citizenship. Indigeneity could therefore become a foil for the Hindu rightwing government to justify its fascism. And yet the category holds immense radical potential if it is rooted in local struggles for land and resource rights as well as sovereignty over space and territory, and speaks to questions of power, violence, and forced exclusions. Likewise, the framework of settler colonialism is very critical to understand the modalities of what the Indian state is doing in Kashmir. It reveals a lot about the logics of rule and governance, the way land and resources are treated by an occupying regime. And yet our job as translators is to also root these frameworks in their specific contexts, and piece together the ways in which communities struggling against disproportionate power experience violence without necessarily categorizing it as one kind or the other. My work among communities on the LoC, the de facto border between India and Pakistan, engages with people who have for decades experienced being forced out of their land under the pretext of national security; their land seized because it was deemed strategic, or a national security asset. So while settler colonialism might resonate more with the North American, Australian, or Palestinian context, for communities living in the midst of a military occupation in Kashmir, it offers a potent framework to name the violence that has dispossessed Kashmiris of their resources, and unleashed India’s war machine on Kashmiris leading to death and genocidal violence, particularly after 5 August  2019 when Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status that protected its land and property from being bought by outsiders was revoked. How do we as academic translators anchor these frameworks so they don’t seem like imports from elsewhere but capture the complexities of people’s everyday experiences with violent and occupying states? Maybe language is one one way to do — thinking multivocally and multilingually perhaps comes to mind. What other registers can we use to think across space, time, and locations? These are significant questions for folks who work on violence and occupation and want to capture how people experience violence viscerally and the ways it shapes their everyday lives in tangible and intangible ways. 

Celina: To me, the politics of translation are those that bring in constituents and communities that have been historically marginalized, and force those who hold power to take their views and bodies of knowledge seriously. For instance, we can think about the politics of translating so many governmental policies and plans for luxury developments, full of technical jargon, into new languages that communities can speak back to and rewrite. The translated version might not even be in writing, or in words– it could be a visual model that travels on bicycle from community to community, so that local residents lacking physical mobility can give their insights on what alternative visions might be best for their community. Translation thus inevitably involves attention to those who are most affected, relationship-building, and attention to power. Translation cannot simply consist of announcing what is to be, without any recourse, or proposals for organizing or action or response. And simply giving literal translations would uphold hegemonic discursive codes and, in my mind, uphold the mechanisms of empire. In past projects I have worked with, acts of translation and terms such as “race” and “decolonizing” can be helpful when they serve as analytical lenses, connecting existing social movements and campaigns to different ideas and struggles. There always remain questions regarding how the language is used, and who deploys it for what ends. (This might be why, in my poetry, I end up resisting clear sentences and syntax, and end up experimenting with language a lot more– In my academic work, I demand clarity through specificity because I am fearful of slippery terms. But at the same time, I also remain fearful of getting “pinned down” by language, and part of me wants to always remember that translation, especially, is never neat, discrete, complete. This is one reason I rebel against linear narratives in my poetry, and attempt to highlight subtexts alongside texts, polyvocality, and the limits and joys of any perspective or mode of inquiry in my writing. Sometimes, the vantage point is better from the margins.)

Jointly: To both of us, this exchange underlines how translation is never done in a neutral way. Rather, it works and travels for or against those who currently hold power, questioning: Who speaks? Who is heard? Who benefits? The act of translation is multi-scalar and contradictory; it can speak against and to power at the same time. We are struck by how this question prompted both of us to turn to questions of language rather than phenomenon, and to emphasize the ever-present risk of co-optation in engaging with, in collaboration.  

AGITATE!: How might a platform such as AGITATE! meaningfully engage with your work, the communities you work with, and the struggles you are a part of?

Jointly: AGITATE! creates a space to present our research in different modes and ways that reflect different bodies of knowledge, political commitments/ investments, and ways of knowing. That you brought us together for this conversation, when at first glance our research areas might seem so disparate, is a reflection of the journal’s ethos and your generous spirit. It builds solidarities that would not have been built otherwise, and through such opportunities, informs us of other sorts of political and intellectual solidarities in which we are interested. It is also a platform for scholars and activists across university boundaries to think through ethical dilemmas together, a space for peer mentorship. It allows us to play with different literal and figurative languages, and to engage in different modes of reflexivity, with which we practice new, creative ways to challenge the boundaries between academia and activism. This conversation has highlighted for us the gaps between academic time and crisis time, and how AGITATE! does not allow the former to take precedence or the latter to fully define our analysis. 

Mona Bhan is the Ford Maxwell Professor of South Asian Studies and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University. She is a political and environmental anthropologist with research specializations in militarization, wars, and border subjectivities; ecology and infrastructure; and resource sovereignty and resistance politics in Kashmir. Over the past two decades, her work with  diverse communities who live along the densely militarized Line-of-Control (LoC) in Gurez, Bandipora, Leh, and Kargil, has shaped her research questions and practice, as well as the ways she envisions anthropological commitments to public and engaged work. She is also deeply invested in building meaningful local and global solidarities and works closely with civil society activists in Kashmir to find synergies between academic and advocacy interventions.  Her current work examines the intersections between India’s water infrastructures on Kashmir’s disputed rivers, the politics of Hindu majoritarianism, and climate anxieties along the LoC between India and Pakistan. Bhan has authored Counterinsurgency, Development, and the Politics of Identity: From Warfare to Welfare? and co-authored with Andrew Bauer Climate without Nature: A Critical Anthropology of the Anthropocene. She is also co-editor of Resisting Occupation in Kashmir, and a founding member of the Critical Kashmir Studies collective. Bhan is co-editor of HIMALAYA, the flagship journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. Her writings and interviews have appeared in several media and print outlets such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, Scholars Circle, CGTN, Scholars’ Circle, Indus TV, TRT, Kindle, Open Democracy, and Outlook.
Celina Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies and a Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York. Her publications include Streetwise for Book Smarts: Grassroots Organizing and Education Reform in the Bronx (Cornell University Press), Landia (a book of poetry, Belladonna* Press), and pieces in the New York Times MagazineHarper’sn+1, and elsewhere. Her work focuses on everyday struggles for collective governance, centering economic democracy and racial justice. In questioning hierarchies of expertise when a state of emergency is no state of exception, when to become legible is to be tamed into a taxable animal, she wishes to offer these lines in solidarity, to reassert our rights to the spaces between shadow and light.

Suggested Citation:
Bhan, M. and C. Su. 5 October 2020. “Between academic time and crisis time: A Conversation with Mona Bhan and Celina Su.” AGITATE! Blog