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