Salma Siddique: "Signs of Solidarity"
Mar 10, 2016
Any doubts that sceptics hold regarding the efficacy of signature campaigns should have been mitigated by the recent action of the Turkish government. In mid-January, more than twenty academics were detained for denouncing the government’s military offensive against the Kurdish minority. Not only were these academic signatories threatened with disciplinary action by their universities but since then they have also been the targets of ‘nationalist students’. Three weeks later in Egypt, the tortured body of graduate student Giulio Regini was found on a desert highway between Cairo and Alexandra. Regini was last seen alive on January 25th, the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, reportedly on way to meet a friend who is a political science lecturer in Cairo. The Italian student’s case remains confounding and explanations range from his sensitive research on Egyptian labour unions to links with pro-democracy activists in the country. Meanwhile the right-wing government of India performed a ‘crackdown’ on a premier university campus in Delhi, arresting student union leaders on charges of sedition. As the staff and students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University have come out in full support for Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, these non-violent demonstrations, protest lectures and online campaigns are also being conducted in the memory of an Indian Dalit research scholar Rohit Vemula. In mid-January Vemula committed suicide after being expelled from his university and hostel for ‘anti-national, casteist’ activities. That the order for his expulsion came from the top echelons of the current political establishment in India reveals both the power and vulnerability of the Vemulas of this world.
Research contexts can be dangerous in various ways. As an Indian researcher who has worked on and in Pakistan, I am familiar with the eggshells one walks on working between two hostile nations. However, the risks that conflict areas and diplomatically tense zones pose are very different from what we have seen in the last two months in these three countries. The anti-intellectual, xenophobic and jingoistic stances of the reactionary political establishments are a concerted assault on academic freedom and persons. What has emerged in these scenarios is a reductive equation of the state with nation and dissent with sedition. This also has implications for our work where the relationship we seek to establish with nations could take multiple forms. Some abdicate the nation as an organising device, while others cast an anthropological gaze on a foreign nation, yet many are embedded in nations multiply constituted. This is to say that even if one were not keen on political activism, our complex discursive and physical locations remain vulnerable to being branded either nationalistic or treacherous, the two choices currently at hand.
As affiliates of an international research school who not only come from and travel to these areas of war and peace but in engaging over a long period of time, many of us also form an affective relationship with these environments. While this relationship can exceed the strict disciplinary purview of our work, it is often the most rewarding part of an otherwise lonely and doubt-ridden endeavour. After all, when and to whom do our ideas matter? In what is unfolding in India, Turkey and Egypt, the answer is resoundingly clear. To these reverberating voices, we have added ours; standing in solidarity with all our colleagues who have faced an authoritarian backlash and condemn their persecution for speaking truth to power. This we do while remaining cognisant of our privileged context in Berlin where academic freedom is better respected. Through our signatures, we sign up and sign off as the resolute gadfly or the mind that rocks the saddle.
Some of these petitions can be accessed on the media blog Kafila, which has emerged as a robust online space for civil society solidarity and reflective critique in India.