President’s Column: Annual Conference Preview

We live in a world of Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, WeChat, Twitter, Facebook, and LINE, not to mention landlines, cell phones, email, online courses, and other technologies introduced in a previous century. These numerous means of communication enable us to cross the sometimes vast distances that separate us from our colleagues, our mentors, our students, and the people and places we study, write, and teach about. In such a world, resorting to airplanes in order to be in the same place at the same time with some of those people may seem a ridiculous or even wasteful luxury. And yet, it is a luxury that several thousand scholars of Asia are about to indulge in. In one month, the 70th annual conference of the AAS will begin, in Denver.

As those of us lucky enough to attend the conference—those whose proposals were accepted by the program committee; those who have U.S. passports or can obtain visas; those with the time, the good health, and the financial means to make the trip and find a place to stay—as we lucky ones prepare our papers and sort through our wardrobes, as we fill out our schedules with panels we want to attend, receptions we want to check out, and lunch and coffee-break appointments with old friends and future collaborators, we may suddenly stop and reflect: Why? Is face-to-face communication still worth it? Is it worth it to be in the same room, in person, with authors whose books we have read, whose articles we have pored over, whose ideas we have wrestled with? Is it worth it to present our own work—albeit in what is always to the speaker a painfully small amount of time—in person, to colleagues who are in a position to understand what we are saying and to offer us knowledgeable and constructive critiques?

My answer is a resounding “Yes!”

The Mahānubhāvs are a religious group from India whose 13th-century literature in the Old Marathi language I have studied off and on throughout my career. Mahānubhāv religious thought places a great deal of emphasis on something called sannidhān. The term means “nearness,” “propinquity,” or “presence.” Mahānubhāvs use this word to talk about the profoundly valuable experience of being with a divine incarnation. It is also extremely valuable, it seems to me, for scholars to have sannidhān with one another. We have much to gain by spending time with people who share our intellectual interests, who literally speak the language(s) we do, and who share our familiarity with some particular part of the world. We can learn as much—or even more—by encountering people who have interests analogous to ours with respect to a different part of Asia or who can tell us fascinating stories and present mind-boggling statistics about how different parts of Asia are, or have been, connected with one another and with other parts of the world.

If you are reading this, you may well be planning to attend the Denver conference. If you are still unsure of your plans, I urge you to make your hotel and travel reservations soon. Many of you have undoubtedly taken a glance at the online program and might have already begun to plot out a conference schedule. Before your calendar gets completely full, I’d like to highlight a few new events and exhibitions that I hope will be of particular interest to many of those who attend:

  • If, like me, you are not quite sure what “digital humanities” means, but you have a project that involves a great deal of “data” (words, images, locations, or other kinds of things that can be put into computerized form) that you would like to be able to organize, analyze, and/or present in a different medium than a traditional academic book or article, you should plan to spend some time at the Digital Technologies Expo. The exposition will feature a series of presentations running throughout the day on the Friday and Saturday of the conference. It will culminate with an open planning session starting at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday to discuss possible future steps for incorporating digital technologies into the annual conference.
  • A major theme of this conference will be censorship. The President’s Panel this year will focus on lending historical depth to the relationships between scholars and governments in East and South Asia. In recent months, the AAS has experienced the harsh side of this relationship directly: first, the Chinese government censorship that has affected the distribution of the Journal of Asian Studies in China for the past 20 months, and, second, the Indian government’s blanket refusal to grant visas to Pakistani scholars whose papers had been accepted for the July 2018 AAS-in-Asia conference in Delhi. The panel attempts to explore the wide variety of government stances toward scholars over time. In addition, there will be a panel on contemporary forms of censorship (#160, “It Can Happen Here: Censorship, Press Freedom, and Media Development in Southeast Asia”) that will continue a discussion begun at an #AsiaNow panel during the 2018 AAS conference.
  • Not unrelated to the topic of censorship, but extending beyond it as well, the Denver program will feature a Town Hall meeting (quite likely for the first time ever at an AAS conference) focusing on the question of whether and how to continue the AAS-in-Asia initiative. So far there have been five AAS-in-Asia conferences, one each year from 2014 through 2018; the sixth is scheduled to take place in July 2019 in Bangkok. For many of their participants, these conferences provide a rare or even unique opportunity to interact with colleagues from across the globe. On the other hand, they cost the AAS a good deal in terms of financial and staff resources, and they almost inevitably involve political problems of one kind or another. Should the series of AAS-in-Asia conferences continue? Where can they be held, and which places should be avoided?
  • Besides political problems that directly affect our organization, the conference features three special events that will focus on other harsh contemporary political realities:
    • Thursday: Opening keynote address by Thant Myint-U, “Myanmar, An Unfinished Nation: A Story of Race, Capitalism and Democracy in the 21st Century” (sponsored by the Harvard-Yenching Institute);
    • Friday: #AsiaNow panel on “Arts under Military Occupation,” featuring artists from Kashmir, Tibet, Timor Leste, and Cambodia (sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council); and
    • Saturday: another #AsiaNow panel, this one on “The Future of Ethnic Autonomy in Xinjiang” (sponsored by the Ford Foundation).
  • The conference program contains many other panels and presentations. They cover a dizzying array of topics: past and present, political and not, ranging geographically from Afghanistan to North Korea and topically from lyric poetry to military campaigns. Besides going to sessions that relate closely to your own special area of research, it is a good idea to attend a panel on a topic or a part of the world that you know nothing at all about. You might learn something that enables you to look in a new way at your own subject or approach; or, if not revealing and fruitful, it might at least be simply restful.
  • On a more practical level, please take a look at the AAS’s newly approved anti-harassment policy and the information (and financial support) provided for parents looking for childcare options during the conference.

If, despite your strong wishes, you’re not able to attend the Denver conference in person this year, you can keep up with a great deal of it by reading #AsiaNow and following the AAS on Twitter and Facebook. Use the AAS member directory, available online to members upon logging in at our website, to get contact information for presenters you would have liked to talk with had you been able to attend. For those who are eagerly anticipating meeting new people, reuniting with old friends and long-time colleagues, hearing new ideas, and testing out your own latest work—I look forward to being in your sannidhān.

President’s Column, September 2018: Conference Report on AAS-in-Asia in New Delhi

“Circular firing squad.” Professor Engseng Ho of Duke University used this phrase to describe the situation of Asian Studies scholars in the run-up to the 5th AAS-in-Asia conference, which was held at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi this past July. Professor Ho was speaking on a special panel chaired by AAS Past President Katherine Bowie; the panel had been added to the conference program in response to a decision by the Government of India that we had learned about four months earlier. The Indian government had decided not to grant visas for the conference to any citizens of Pakistan, nor to citizens of any other country whose ancestors had come from Pakistan. Frustration and anger over this discriminatory decision spilled over into attacks by scholars of Asia on one another.

As recounted earlier in this space, the AAS officers and Secretariat staff deplored India’s decision, as did our co-organizers at Ashoka University. The absence of the excluded scholars was a great loss to our conference, as well as to the scholars themselves. The Indian government’s letter appeared on the conference website, we provided a skype alternative to the affected scholars, and we expressed our concern to India’s Ministry of External Affairs. The AAS did not, however, cancel the conference, nor did we make a public protest. We were criticized on both these counts (for the criticisms and some of our responses to them, see my June 21 President’s Column). The criticism culminated with a public protest meeting at the India Habitat Centre in the hours just before the conference started. At the protest meeting, the participants discussed and voted on four statements. The statements and the votes on them can be found here.

And then the conference began. As I stood on the stage to make my opening remarks, I looked out at a crowd of faces and outfits from all over Asia and beyond. I asked those who were in India for the first time to raise their hands, and then those who were at an international conference for the first time. At each request, a sizeable number of scholars raised their hands. I did not ask people to identify themselves by age, but (to me at least) the majority of the faces looked very young, and I drew from them a sense of enthusiasm and hope.

According to the local organizers, the more than 850 academics who attended the conference came from over 420 institutions in 43 countries across five continents. Of these, 513 participants represented 24 countries in Asia, including India (which sent 290 delegates from 76 different institutions), China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Cambodia, Nepal, and Bangladesh. I attended a session where one person skyped in from Namibia and another from Pakistan; in another panel I went to, the organizers said that a Pakistani citizen who had been expected to skype in from London was unable to do so for personal reasons.

AAS President Anne Feldhaus, AAS-in-Asia keynote speaker James Scott, and Ashoka University Vice Chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta at the conference opening ceremony.

At the opening session, each speaker lamented the absence of Pakistani scholars and scholars of Pakistani origin. The keynote speaker, Professor James Scott, began his on-stage conversation with the Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, by delivering a statement that he had also read out at the protest meeting before the conference. At all the other sessions that I attended, I remember the absence of Pakistani colleagues being noted with regret.

In all, the conference featured 164 panel sessions with scholars from 28 different disciplines. 39% of the panels were on South Asia, 34% on Inter-area/border crossing, 10% on China and Inner Asia, 10% on Northeast Asia, and 7% on Southeast Asia. The panels covered a wide range of topics: “Islamic Revivalism in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century China,” “Change of Mobility in the Mongolian Society and its Surrounding Pastoralist Societies,” “Waste and Government Policy: Experiences and Evidence from the Ground,” “The Making of ‘Japanese Culture’ in Indonesia,” “Queering Science, Sex, and Bodies: Histories of Subaltern Sexualities from Transnational Asia,” and much more.

There was an army of helpful students from Ashoka University in the hallways and lobbies of the Habitat Centre, and at least one student in each meeting room. The staff of the Habitat Centre provided tea and coffee and “biscuits” at each session, and at 1:40 p.m. on the Friday and the Saturday, a sumptuous lunch buffet appeared in the hallways and the larger conference rooms.

AAS-in-Asia conference panel

Besides the absence of Pakistani colleagues (including those who are Pakistani in the way that I am German), the other principal problem I am aware of is that many participants could not access Wi-Fi on their laptops and hand-held devices. It turns out that Wi-Fi, which is increasingly regarded as a necessity rather than an optional convenience at conferences, was something that the otherwise generous Habitat Centre provided only to those participants who were staying there as registered guests. (The AAS leadership has taken note of this and will strive to ensure that access to Wi-Fi is covered by the registration fee at all future conference venues.)

After the conference, the AAS Secretariat sent out a questionnaire to the participants. More than 200 people responded (anonymously). Several of them made comments that can perhaps best be represented by this one: “The costs of the conference were also extremely exclusionary. At a conference supposed[ly] espousing democratic values in the digital age, the choice of costs made it affordable only to ivory tower academics with reasonable resources. Personally, I do not think I would come back as, although I met several academics whose work I enjoyed, I think the conference itself is structured so as to be elitist and cater primarily to Western-centric/neocolonial ideas of Asian needs.”

On the other hand, more than 89% of the respondents gave a positive answer to the question, “Did you meet and have a chance to interact with scholars whose interests are similar or complementary to your own, who were previously outside your usual academic networks?” When asked if they “expect to develop further contacts with” those they had met at the conference, almost 68% of those respondents replied “yes” and 30% replied “maybe.”

Post-conference excursion in India

Other responses I have heard about include that of an Associate Professor from mainland China, who wrote, “It was a wonderful trip to [the] AAS conference in Delhi this July. I met several colleagues who showed their interest in my ongoing studies. The venue was excellent. They helped us settle a Skype presentation in [a] few minutes. Thanks for the impressive organization. This trip is so fruitful for me, including meeting friends, communicating shared interests, historical heritage trips, and so on. I regretted that . . . I . . . missed some of the events in the conference. However, [I] myself benefit[ted] a lot from this trip.”

And then, at the end of July, The Wire published this reflective and nuanced analysis by Professor Nonica Datta. Professor Datta holds an academic position at Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. She begins her essay by deploring the Indian government’s exclusion of Pakistanis from the conference, and ends by declaring that she does not want to make “a case for AAS or . . . Ashoka University.” However, addressing Indian academics primarily, she finds much about the conference worth emulating, especially the way it brought into serious academic exchanges Indian scholars from less prestigious institutions, far away from the capital, with scholars from elite institutions in India and beyond. Datta also expresses delight in the “panels brimming with ideas and new frameworks waiting to be explored and researched,” and in the world of international scholarship that the conference brought to her doorstep: “As part of a roundtable on ‘Forgotten Genealogies’ organised by the US-based journal, History and Theory, I found myself sitting next to a Chinese historian (my first encounter with a Chinese historian), a historian working on Vietnam, a South Asianist and a historian of medieval England! This was like being transported to a virtual island of a new possibility of transgressing borders, boundaries, chronologies and meandering through Asia and the rest of the world via a conversation between microhistories and global histories.” 

With the Delhi conference two months behind us, we are already well into preparations for the next AAS-in-Asia conference. It will take place in early July 2019, in Bangkok. There the problems will be different. Pakistani scholars will be most welcome, and plans are in the works to facilitate their participation. However, even though our Thai collaborators are confident that holding an AAS-in-Asia conference in their country will support their efforts to create an atmosphere conducive to free and healthy academic exchange there, Thailand is not presently a democracy, and there are topics that are considered politically sensitive.

Thinking further ahead, what if, in a future year, AAS-in-Asia were held in a country whose censorship is so harsh that even the Journal of Asian Studies is affected? Should we stop doing this? Should we put the AAS-in-Asia on hold? Should we also stop convening AAS annual meetings in the United States, as long as the U.S. government’s blanket travel ban is in effect?

Perhaps a good way to think about AAS-in-Asia is to use another image that Engseng Ho introduced at the roundtable in Delhi: musical chairs. We could think of AAS-in-Asia conferences as a sort of generous version of musical chairs. Instead of being permanently “out,” for example, the Pakistani scholars excluded from participating in the Delhi conference will be warmly welcomed at next year’s AAS-in-Asia, and topics that must remain off the program in one place one year can be discussed loudly and openly elsewhere the following year.

What do you think? I’ll be happy to hear from you. Please email me with your comments and suggestions at

President’s Column, June 2018: On AAS-in-Asia

Dear Colleagues,

We live in turbulent times. For the past year and a half or so, I have spent many hours mesmerized by my television set, watching as my country (the USA) lurches from one “unprecedented” event to the next. I fume and steam and sometimes shout out loud, then go to bed. I wake up to 13th-century Maharashtra, to remote temple towns and lovely but dwindling groves in the Western Ghats of India, to my teaching duties and the local politics of my home institution. By evening I am ready for another bout of outrage.

Now the AAS too finds itself in turbulent times, caught up in geo-politics and subjected to cascades of criticism from within and without. The fifth AAS-in-Asia conference is due to be held in Delhi next month. The Government of India, while granting political clearance to the conference (a requirement under Indian law), has refused to issue conference visas to citizens of Pakistan or even to persons of Pakistani origin. The officers of the AAS (that means, currently, Katherine Bowie, Past President; Laurel Kendall, Past Past President; Prasenjit Duara, Vice President; and me, President) and all the members of the AAS Board of Directors abhor the exclusion of Pakistani scholars from the conference. We are nonetheless going ahead with the conference, including Pakistani participants to the greatest degree possible by Skype.

We are grateful for the many expressions of support and understanding that we have received for our decision. There are also, however, many scholars of Asia, both within and outside the Association for Asian Studies, who disagree with our choice. Some of them have signed a number of statements, letters, and petitions: a “Letter to the Leadership of the AAS,” a statement by Concerned Scholars, an AAS-in-Asia boycott declaration, and a petition organized by the journal positions. However, we believe our course of action is the right one under the circumstances, despite the heated objections that it has generated. I will try to explain.

The first four AAS-in-Asia conferences were held in Singapore (2014), Taiwan (2015), Japan (2016), and South Korea (2017). As the decision was made to hold a fifth conference, and to hold it in South Asia, Ashoka University quickly rose to the top among our potential collaborators for hosting the conference. Ashoka is an excellent private university located outside Delhi, India. The AAS and Ashoka have been planning the conference since 2014, as full and equal partners. In terms of finances, the objective of the conference is to “break even” by having conference-generated revenue and outside funding contributions offset conference expenses. The AAS and Ashoka University have agreed to cover all expenses and split any net revenue (after expenses) or deficit on an equal basis.

The program committee, which met in Delhi in January 2018, included scholars from the Ashoka side and also from AAS. The committee reviewed 240 proposals for panels to be presented at the conference and selected approximately 170 of them. The criteria for selection were the quality of the proposals, the variety of institutions and countries of the panelists, the breadth of academic fields represented, and the need to have an adequate number of panels about each of the four areas of Asia on which the AAS focuses: South Asia, Southeast Asia, China and Inner Asia, and Northeast Asia. Among the scholars selected to present papers at the conference, four were from Pakistan and 784 from more than 40 other countries. Of those from other countries, four had Pakistani ancestors.

In order to hold an academic conference in India, approvals from the Ministry of External Affairs and from the Home Ministry are required. These approvals must be applied for approximately six months in advance. It is impossible to get prior guarantees from the Government of India (or probably from any government) that visas will be granted to all potential participants, or that panelists will not be refused visas based on their nationality or national origin. During the 20th century, India fought three wars with Pakistan (beginning with their bloody Partition in 1947) and one with China; India’s relationships with these two countries fluctuate, with the relationship between India and Pakistan currently at a very low level. India’s sensitivity about people of Pakistani origin dates back about ten years, to the actions of an American named David Headley.

Some members of the AAS have argued that, knowing this history, we should not have attempted to hold a conference in India; others believe that we should have canceled the conference when we learned of the Ministry of External Affairs letter in early March; yet others wonder why we did not raise a public protest against the Ministry’s decision as soon as we learned of it. Our choice to hold the conference in India was based on a desire to bring South Asian scholars of Asia more fully into the community that AAS-in-Asia seeks to foster, and we made this choice in the hope (and, at the time, not unreasonable expectation) that Pakistani (and Chinese) scholars would receive visas to participate in the conference.

Applying for the Indian ministries’ permission for the conference was and remains Ashoka University’s task. As representatives of an institution based in India, they applied for the permission as required under Indian law. When permission for the conference was granted but with the requirement that Pakistanis be excluded, Ashoka worked very hard to get the exclusion reversed. Our Ashoka colleagues did not, however, mobilize a public protest at that point, in the hope that engagement might yield results. Although the AAS officers also found the Ministry of External Affairs’ decision repugnant, we chose (after some discussion) to accede to the judgment of our Ashoka colleagues about the best strategy for dealing with the Indian government, and hence not to raise an outcry then. Even now, as I write, Ashoka is making yet another attempt to get the exclusion of Pakistani participants reversed. The officers of the AAS are supporting our Indian colleagues in that attempt, as is the American Anthropological Association, a sister organization of the AAS. The document from the Ministry of External Affairs has been available on the conference website since early March.

On a more theoretical level, the statements of concern, the letters of protest, and the calls to boycott the AAS-in-Asia conference raises fundamental questions about the nation-state system. This issue became most acute for me when I read the “Frequently Asked Questions” document linked to the AAS-in-Asia boycott declaration cited earlier. In answer to question 7, the authors of that document state:

We are boycotting the AAS conference because we take [this] as a starting point for change [in] our own professional location as academics. The fact that the AAS has its home base in the United States, where similar visa restrictions apply[,] is a separate issue: the organization has no choice but to operate in its domestic environment; it has plenty of choices about how to operate elsewhere, including refusing to cooperate with governments who censor in [an] a priori fashion. The AAS does not control visas. It does control how it operates in the world. The defense of sovereignty merely indicates how far the AAS has abdicated responsibility for its own choices in this matter.

The system of nation-states with borders and the power to grant or withhold visas is, indeed, an artificial human creation, and a relatively recent one at that. I join the colleagues who wrote this answer in hoping that the nation-state system will be replaced by one that is more open and free and fair. I doubt, however, that such a replacement will be found in my lifetime.

Meanwhile, I differ on one very important point with the colleagues who wrote this answer. Speaking now only for myself, I believe that my options are much less limited in my “domestic environment” than with respect to other countries. I feel completely free to protest my own government’s actions (I’m aware that I am lucky—indeed, privileged—to have a sense of freedom that not all American citizens feel). However, when I am operating in a country where I am not a citizen, I feel constrained by the conditions under which that country grants me a visa. True, I have the right not to go to there, but what if the whole point is to be engaged with people of that country and to learn from and about them? This is the dilemma of the international scholar.

In the short term, our responses to the Indian government’s refusal to grant conference visas to Pakistani scholars will include:

  • continued attempts, working through the proper channels in partnership with Ashoka University, to get the decision reversed;
  • assuring that there is a good set-up at the conference site for those scholars who have agreed to present their papers by Skype;
  • a roundtable at the Delhi conference, moderated by AAS Past President Katherine Bowie and featuring comments by scholars Engseng Ho, Emma Teng, Anusorn Unno, Amita Baviskar, and Dilip Menon, to discuss questions of academic freedom and access;
  • a “protest booth” with a place for attendees to sign a petition to the Ministry of External Affairs;
  • and a special session on the issue at the 2019 annual AAS conference in Denver.

In retrospect, I look with wonder at how unproblematically so many of us attended the AAS annual meeting in Washington, D.C. last March, given that a blanket visa ban barred scholars from not just one but seven different countries. Just as the turbulence of our times is bringing many people to take an active role in politics for the first time, so I hope that the current debate within the AAS membership will give us a chance to think more deeply about the relationships of scholars with the governments of the countries they visit, work in, lecture and teach in, and try to learn about. Such enhanced engagement cannot but be healthy for the field of Asian Studies, and for the AAS as an institution.

Respectfully submitted,

Anne Feldhaus

AAS President

Meet the New AAS Vice President

Anne Feldhaus is Distinguished Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and will become AAS vice president after the 2017 conference in Toronto.

In the summer after my first year of college, I had the chance to live in Paris for some months. I returned elated and wiser, and confident that I had already used up my allotted time to spend outside the US. I was wrong.

Just two years later, a professor at my college invited me to accompany her to India for the summer. I jumped at the chance. After some delicate negotiations with my parents and the college, I set off across the world—and into the rest of my life. I fell in love with India that first time, a complicated love that has grown even more complex over the years. I have spent much of my adult life figuring out how to get back to India again and again, how to live there for long periods of time, and how to deepen my friendships with and understanding of ever more kinds of people there.

Graduate school was at first for me a way to get back to India. I chose my university because it offered courses in Marathi, the language spoken now by about 80 million people in Maharashtra, the western-Indian state I first went to as a college student. As my skill in the Marathi language has developed, I have delighted in the world I have found in its 13th-century literature, in the things that contemporary speakers of the language have explained to me, and in what I have learned from modern Marathi scholarly writings about the religious history of the region.

My own scholarly work began with the Old Marathi literature of the Mahānubhāvs, a thirteenth-century religious group including ascetics and lay people that is still active today. After translating and analyzing three early Mahānubhāv texts, the most enjoyable of them being The Deeds of God in Ṛddhipur (1984), I spent a year reading Mahānubhāv religious-geographical texts and visiting Mahānubhāv holy places throughout Maharashtra. That year provided me a springboard to move out of the relatively sectarian confines of the Mahānubhāv tradition and into the somewhat wider world (or, rather, the many other small worlds) of popular religiosity in Maharashtra. Using a combination of fieldwork and textual studies, I have written two books about Maharashtrian religious geography: Water and Womanhood (1995) and Connected Places (2003).

At the end of the twentieth century I spent a decade and a half helping my Old-Marathi teacher prepare a dictionary of the earliest period of the language (up to about 1350 C.E.), and I am currently helping another scholar prepare a series of catalogs of Marathi manuscripts. With the early death of Günther Sontheimer of the University of Heidelberg, I inherited some of his students, two of his research assistants, and his rich archive of oral literature related to pastoralists’ gods. A sampler of this literature came out in Marathi in 2006 and in English in 2014 (Say to the Sun, “Don’t Rise” and to the Moon, “Don’t Set”). I am currently collaborating with a natural-resource social scientist on a study of four mountain places visited by pilgrims, trekkers, and other kinds of tourists.

As the fashion for area studies has waxed and waned, a series of international conferences on Maharashtra has provided me since the early 1980s a way to listen to and collaborate with historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other scholars of literature and religious studies in what my university would call “transdisciplinary” research. As an incoming AAS officer, I look forward to new conversations and collaborations with scholars from many places, in many disciplines, working on many different parts of Asia.