Event Report “INDePth Conference 2017: Worlding South Asia Beyond Borders”

INDePth Conference 2017 "Worlding South Asia Beyond Borders" on March 10, 2017 | Photo by Nolan Terrell

The 2017 Interrogating Notions of Development and Progress Conference, also known as INDePth, was held on March 10 at the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility, where delegates were welcomed into the space by the INDePth Conference Executive Team. The conference was sponsored by the Richard Charles Lee Directorship Program, in addition to the Asian Institute, the Department of Political Science, Hart House’s Good Ideas Fund, Woodsworth College Students Association and CASSU. The morning session was led by two masters of ceremony, Kana Shishikura and Andrew Wiseman. During his opening speech, Atif, one of the two co-chairs of the conference, said that the theme for this year’s conference was “Worlding South Asia Beyond Borders,” and the use of the words “beyond borders” is deliberate because of the diversity and complexity of the region. He writes that “worlding” can be “understood as projects and practices that challenge the relations of power between so-called “developing third world” spaces in relation to the “first”, allowing a re-imagination in the global context” (INDePth Program Booklet 2017, page 5). He says that while the colonial legacy of the region was the categorization of people according to specific characteristics, the conference aims to problematize these categories. He ended his opening speech with a quote referring to South Asia from Arundhati Roy who says, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing”.

Following the opening speech, the keynote speech was delivered by Professor Chandrima Chakraborty, a South Asia specialist at McMaster University’s Department of English and Cultural Studies. Professor Chakraborty spoke on the topic of South Asian Worlds and “a Canadian tragedy,” where she referenced the Air India Flight 182 of June 23, 1985 as the largest murder in Canadian history. Since the 329 passengers and crew on board the aircraft were primarily of Indian descent, the Canadian government initially dismissed the incident as a foreign tragedy; Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to express his condolences. Many Indians were dissatisfied with how Ottawa handled the incident. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a public inquiry into the incident was headed by retired Supreme Court Justice John C. Major in 2006, who declared that the incident was “a Canadian tragedy” in 2010. He acknowledged that since CSIS and the RCMP were at odds with each other in 1985, they not only refused to share information with one another, but also did not provide respite in the form of grief counselling to the families affected. An article by Maclean’s magazine wrote that the Air India bombing was Canada’s 9/11, and it was the “single worst act of terrorism in Canadian history”.

Through her narration of the incident and its aftermath, Professor Chakraborty showed that the incident was an example of Canada’s strategic memorialization of incidents. It was in the context of 9/11 that a public inquiry was launched into a matter that had happened 25 years ago. It was also in such a context where Canada emerges as a victim of foreign political violence brought on by racialized immigrants, which obscures the central role that systemic racism played in the Air India bombing. She describes the Canadian government’s response as slow and apathetic and the Canadian public as indifferent towards the incident. She quotes, “Canadian people do not recall June 23, 1985 for we were not shaken or transformed or moved, for a tragedy that we say has little to do with us”. The aftermath of 9/11, however, caused the incident to be reframed from a non-issue to a tragedy.

Professor Chakraborty then examined creative remembrances of South Asian Worlds and the Air India bombing, making note of several works including Anita Rau Badami’s 2006 novel “Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”, Padma Viswanathan’s 2014 book, “The Ever After of Ashwin Rao,” and a 2013 poetry collection by Renee Sarojini Saklikar called, “Children of Air India”. Each of these creative works help turn dead bodies into real lives that existed, according to Professor Chakraborty, as creative remembrances are a way to tie the dead into ways of living. Specifically, since these works deal with memory, the memories recalled functions to present the past and offer us this present, this “gift” of a “difficult inheritance”. These works also help make what was initially thought of as a foreign tragedy, as Mulroney said it was, into a rational, Canadian tragedy that affects us all. Professor Chakraborty notes that by becoming a national story, the Air India bombing allows us to see the incident as not a single event, but rather a longer and cultural process, that can be traced back to themes such as post- colonial sovereignty and racial minorities, the role of the state in distributing power and organizing peoples’ lives. She concluded her keynote address by saying that it is precisely in light of this incident that the South Asian world transcends first world imaginaries, and worlding South Asia beyond borders calls for an engagement with conditions of global relationality.

Following Professor Chakraborty’s speech, INDePth moved into their first panel, “Remapping boundaries”. The first topic was on “The Innovation of South Asian Capital,” presented by Kate Fedorova. She discussed the production and capital accumulation through innovation and urban transformation in South Asia, where global cities not only represent international hubs of innovation and economic activity, but also a social milieu and site of social production. Keeping in mind that India will become the world’s youngest country by 2020, the urban youth are the “products and promoters of globalization,” yet there is a shortage of jobs in the information technology (IT) sector. Currently, the Indian IT sector hires less than one per cent of the population, indicating the wide disparity between aspirations and reality. Since most people also remain in the informal sector, the growth of the IT sector, and by extension, the formal sector, is a challenge.

Globalization has also caused urban poverty to develop as a modern phenomenon, according to Fedorova. She says that these global cities are drowning in the surplus of low skilled labour with half of the population of New Delhi and Mumbai living in slums and eight million people living below the poverty line in these cities. This has resulted in “slumization” as a mode of urbanization, for urban slums are seen as both a place for opportunity and place of entrepreneurship for the dispossessing of the rural poor. One of the striking images she had on her presentation was the presence of an urban slum in Mumbai next to a high- rise condominium, where each unit costed around one and a half million dollars and had a small private pool.

Professor Francis Cody from the Department of Anthropology pointed out as moderator of Fedorova’s presentation that there are several points that is rather obscure in the discourse of world class city. Firstly, the rural poor often move away from the countryside because of the total collapse of agriculture as a viable way of living. Farmers with small plots of land are often unable to compete with corporate agriculture. As such, these people are forced to move to cities or migrate towards the gulf, or even towards Southeast Asia. Professor Cody notes that half of these villagers live in Malaysia or Singapore for two years, then come back to their villages, bringing back the knowledge they learnt while working abroad. Secondly, cities are available to a small amount of people. There is such a thing as the subaltern digital lives, where rural people are as connected to the internet as the middle class. In particular, there are more access to cellphones than toilets in India, thus it is important to keep in mind that people lead subaltern digital lifestyles in South Asia. Thirdly, there is subaltern worlding at play, as cities such as Delhi and Bombay are similar to Beijing in the sense that there is a way of subaltern cosmopolitanism, where many Sri Lankans are stateless in Delhi and Bombay, but are an important facet in everyday life in those cities. In Chennai, there are people from Nepal who do work that Indians used to do, such as construction work. In Delhi, African students provide various stuff for the city as well, even though they face discrimination against them.

The second topic of the first panel was presented by Melika Gonelailai and Angela Hou on the topic of “biopolitics of Poverty: Organ Trafficking and the questions of Rights”. They began their presentation by asking everyone, “Who has sold an organ?” After seeing nobody raise their hands, they proceeded to discuss the motivation of their topic, which was to bring awareness to the invisible people who have had to or chose to sell their organs, in particular their livers or kidneys. The speakers pointed out that South Asia was the “organ bazaar of the world” and that organ trafficking is the commodification of vulnerable bodies. Their research on how and why people sell organs was situated in Foucault’s theory of biopolitics, and this theoretical framework informed their talk as they argued that market pressure force individuals to sell spare parts of their bodies to survive.

Since organ trafficking is in the informal sector of South Asian economies, it is difficult for states to regulate this industry. It is worth noting that some people are coerced into participating in the trade, while some do it for the money, and some are even tricked into it. On this latter point, the speakers quotes an individual who was told that “the organ will grow back”. On those who choose to sell their organs, they do it to support themselves or their families. These organ sellers and donors are nameless and faceless, with their organs known by a code recognizable to doctors only. The practice of organ trafficking is an intersectional issue, for it is an issue of class, poverty, access to health, state capacity among many other things.

Evidently, Gonelailai and Hou has shown that one removes the human element out of the sale of one’s organ when the organs are treated like any other commodity. The self is separated from the body. They point to the kidney world order where typical donor countries are the Philippines, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and typical recipient countries are Malaysia, Japan, Israel, Australia, Canada and the United States. In this world order, low prices are paid to these donors in third world countries whereas there is a higher price tag on organs from the first world. For example, a kidney from Pakistan costs $10 000, whereas a kidney from Turkey costs $145 000. A stronger case is with livers, however, where a liver from Pakistan costs $25 000, whereas a liver from Taiwan costs as much as $290 000. Such examples indicate the movement of organs from poor to rich people, and from brown, third world bodies to white, first world bodies. In conclusion, they point to how the South Asian body is commodified and objectified in the realm of organ trafficking.

As the moderator of the second topic, Professor Antonela Arhin from the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies pointed out that the presenters successfully executed the delivery of an informative presentation on a difficult topic. Professor Arhin says that there are three levels of analysis regarding organ trafficking, or more broadly, human trafficking. The first is about the normative framework, where questions about what is right and wrong, whether something is normal or morally sound emerges. The second level asks the questions of the black letter law; what is legal about the practice? The third level is what Gonelailai and Hou addresses, which is the paradigm shifting analysis, specifically the question of “what has happened to the body when they gain visibility?” There is an inherent unbalance in power for this issue. She pointed out that organ donation is a big regulatory problem, because it is in a moral, ethic, and political grey zone. Professor Arhin discussed that the after effects of the surgery is often not explained to the patient, for the patient is racialized and determined to be not worthy enough of knowing such information. Professor Arhin says that besides organ pains, there are psychological consequences that affect organ donors such as suicidal thoughts and regret. In particular, donors regret it if they do it for money, to repair their broken roof, for example. Professor Arhin concluded her thoughts by saying that it is because of external pressures from globalization and neoliberalism, and internal pressures of poverty, that cause the system to emerge in the first place.

The first panel was concluded with the third topic, presented by Arnold Yung, one of the two co-chairs, on “Breaking the Boundaries of Citizenship”. In his presentation, Yung problematizes popular understanding of citizenship with nationality, specifically how one’s citizenship is determined by one’s parents’ citizenship and by where one is born, by drawing on two known scholars, Hae Yeon Choo and Benedict Anderson. In particular, Choo notes that citizenship which implies a “duality” of inclusion and exclusion problematizes the positivist message that citizenship is a project to produce full equality while Benedict Anderson observes that nation states produced citizens by constructing commonalities among its members as “imagined communities”. Taking a decentered approach, Yung says that his presentation was inspired by the South Asian friends he made while he was a teenager who identified as citizens of Hong Kong. As such, he traced the history of the South Asian community in Hong Kong from the colonial period (1841 to 1939) through the industrialization period (1950s to 1980s) up to the globalization period, which is the present day. During the initial period, South Asians arrived in Hong Kong for they were persuaded by the business opportunities present in Hong Kong and by the fact that Hong Kong was another British colony, which meant the same judicial system. This caused intermarriages between local Chinese women and foreign men, producing “local boys and girls”. The South Asian community at this juncture was not unified, and was often divided among regional, linguistic, and religious lines. Post- WWII, the wave of decolonization and of newly independent states, most notably the partition in India, led to the influx of South Asian migrants to Hong Kong. There were popular perceptions of Pakistanis as strong and capable, which led many of them to be recruited into the security industry within Hong Kong.

Since the 1980s, there are South Asians living in Hong Kong, but due to the rise in labour costs in Hong Kong and a comparatively cheaper labour costs in China, some of them have become unemployed. According to the Hong Kong government’s 2011 population census, 1-2% of Hong Kong’s population identifies as South Asian, in which 28.6 thousand identify as Indian, 18 thousand identify as Pakistani, and 16 thousand identify as Nepalese. Interestingly, they speak Cantonese more widely than English, which marks a sharp contrast from the colonial period. Yung cites research conducted by Law Professor Puja Kapai of the University of Hong Kong which states that since language plays an important role in social capital, in the context of Hong Kong, linguistic competence is important for education and employment. Professor Kapai highlights that although South Asians who do not speak Cantonese have difficulty finding security jobs, there are some South Asian youth who believe that the inability to speak Cantonese is beneficial. These youth believe that English should be more widely spoken, that English should be used as a tool of empowerment, and above all, that if English was taken more seriously, that they would not be left out in Hong Kong.

At the same time, there are environmental influences at play in Hong Kong’s South Asian youth’s perception of the language they intend to use. Yung quotes an interview conducted with a youth in Hong Kong who believes that since religion was always first in his life, should he not know Punjabi, the language of his religion, how is he to know who he is? Thus, there are instances no doubt that the mother tongue and the manner in which people are brought up shape the identities of people.

Yung returns to Professor Kapai’s work, where she notes that in Hong Kong, South Asian youth have fluid identities for they use affiliation to language to build on a stronger sense of ethnic pride. Considering the recent Umbrella Revolution, 63% South Asian youth in Hong Kong consider themselves a Hong Konger. While it is not immediately certain if these people consider themselves a Hong Konger because of their nationalistic pride towards Hong Kong or if it is because they are aware of the higher status associated with Hong Kong, for it is a place of high economic development, compared to a country in South Asia, Yung’s presentation highlights important issues to bear in mind when one problematizes popular understanding of citizenship.

Professor Rachel Silvey, interim Director of the Asian Institute, who moderated Yung’s presentation thanked Yung for his presentation before announcing that INDePth had won the UTSU Event of the Year Award for 2017. Following that, Professor Silvey pointed out that questions of citizenship is connected to questions of violence, for it is lived and in our everyday lives. Professor Silvey asked the audience to consider three questions. Firstly, who has access to which food, and who gets to define what the national cuisine is? Secondly, how does one factor in the question of domesticity, patriarchal fashion in the context of sexuality and gender? Thirdly, what do you expect to see when you look at maps of inequality and think about inequality in different timeframes?

The conference then broke out into three workshops, each led by members of the INDePth executive. Participants went to the rooms to discuss the question posed by Professor Silvey and further questions prepared in advance by the organizing team. Following that, there was a short coffee break where donuts were served.

The afternoon session of the conference begun with a music and dance performance, specifically a South Asian classical performance. The first of the two performances was a dance inspired by Hinduism, while the second performance was called Kathak. The second panel was entitled “Worlding beyond borders,” where Shiao Shaio Chen presented on the “world re-appropriated: states and individuals” and Eden Lee and Atif Khan presented on “Beyond South Asia: How can “worlding” travel beyond borders?” Yung took the stage again to say some closing remarks, after which the participants engaged in a reception and networking session to mark the end of the INDePth Conference 2017.

Stanley Chia is a 2nd year student studying International Relations and History. He currently serves as event reporter and copy editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, Southeast Asia section.

About Stanley Chia 5 Articles
Stanley Chia is a 2nd year student studying International Relations and History. He currently serves as event reporter and copy editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, Southeast Asia section.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.