ADI Academic Profiles – Atreyee Sen

By Mads Vesterager Nielsen

ADI - Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities, and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Atreyee Sen

Atreyee Sen, associate professor with a PhD in social anthropology, has recently taken up a position at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen (UCPH). In this the 8th section of the ADI – Academic Profiles format, Atreyee joins us for a talk about her academic career and journey from her fieldwork in the slums of Mumbai, Hyderabad and Calcutta, to her research, PhD and Postdoctoral fellowship in Europe. Through her research she has, among other topics, been looking at the dynamics of urban female Hindu Nationalist groups and the different narratives of political imprisonment and torture on anti-state guerrillas in India.

She has published extensively on these subjects, but initially the path of a researcher was not at all set in stone for her. As a newly graduated MA in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in 1996, Atreyee felt ambivalent about pursuing a career in academia.

“After I completed my masters I realized that I didn’t want to just roll on and do a PhD. I knew that I was interested in anthropology and sociology, but I didn’t think that there was one particular aspect of this that I was really, really interested in. So I became a reporter, and through my job at a newspaper, I came across these groups of criminalized women in the slums of Mumbai that had affiliated themselves with a right-wing Hindu nationalist political party. I became very curious about that. These are the women I ended up writing my PhD about.”

So Atreyee returned to academia to write her PhD, “Countering victimologies: Violence, communalism and Shiv Sena women in a Bombay slum” at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), for which she was subsequently awarded The Sutasoma Award for Outstanding Research for PhDs by The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI).

“I became very interested in slum women who are part of the illegal economy in these marginalized urban areas, and why and how they identified themselves with Hindu Nationalism. So I went down to interview a few of these women and I realized that some of them didn’t even know the meaning of the phrase Hindu Nationalism. Then I became intrigued, because I realized that affiliation with politics wasn’t actually about Hindu Nationalist ideologies for these women. But what was it about? A search for an answer to this question made me do fieldwork in Mumbai and follow the lives of poor women.”

This unusual alliance, turned out to be a highly useful case for Atreyee to develop one of the main aspects of her PhD: The methodological problems faced by anthropologists when conducting fieldwork in volatile ethnographic settings. The fundamentalist women, who had organised themselves into a militant, semi-religious task force, also played a vital role in orchestrating urban riots in Mumbai. Atreyee found herself a bystander to various forms of factional clashes, and was faced with the question of her responsibility to act and prevent this overt use of violence and threats. After 15 years of continuous research, Atreyee is still working with the Hindu Nationalist groups, but her focus has changed to include other facets of life in the slums of Mumbai. Now, she has turned to the study of the everyday lives of middle aged women, with her focus being on sexual harassment and sexual assaults, especially after the India’s Rape Crisis, as dubbed by the media.

“Safety in the city is of paramount interest to these right wing women. So in response to the rape crisis, these women have come up with a number of different strategies to crudely empower women workers and to ensure them a relatively stable life. My focus right now is on one of these strategies, which involves a campaign for distributing knives to lower class and slum women as a means of self-protection against sexual assault. These retractable 3 inch blades carry the stamp of an infamous male Hindu Nationalist leader, which is meant to serve as a guarantee: if a woman slashes someone in self-defence, she will not end up in jail for it.”

The Hindu Nationalist women have received 100.000 Anti-Harassment blades, and Atreyee will be examining how such excessive circulation of weaponry affects the cultures of violence that already exists in the slums.

“In addition, I am interested in the male response to middle aged women workers becoming knife carriers. Are these women for example allowed to use these blades in the case of domestic violence? Or is this only about protecting women in public spaces and ensuring their mobility, which is separate from private forms of violence?”

Apart from her in depth research on the culture of Hindu Nationalist women, Atreyee is developing another project through which she is exploring the different narratives of political imprisonment and torture.

“I try to look at what kind of emotional, political and cultural resources local political prisoners fall back on to deal with their experiences in incarceration. And if this is related to the basic ethics of humanity, for example, what is the vernacular language that people use to carry out, survive or describe torture? Does the global understanding of human rights percolate down to impact practices of torture and political imprisonment on an everyday level? If it doesn’t, how do political prisoners who are not well versed in the language of human rights represent, resist and seek justice against state-sponsored brutalities?”

For this study, Atreyee chose her hometown of Calcutta as the centrepiece for her research.

In the 1970s, there was a surge of Maoism in Calcutta and a Maoist guerrilla movement remained very active for about ten years. During this period thousands of people were captured, tortured and executed without a trial for their affiliation with the anti-state struggle.

“The rivers of Calcutta were called the rivers of blood. After people had been tortured, their bodies would just be tossed in the river. And at that time in the seventies and eighties there were few active human rights organizations in that region, local people had no idea that a thing like this could ever happen in a ‘free’ state.”

Almost 40 years have passed since the state-led anti-Maoist campaigns, and members of the movement who survived their imprisonment have all been released. But the experiences of imprisonment have influenced them profoundly, and Atreyee became interested in how they managed to recreate their lives after their ordeal. Some prisoners had formed relations and alliances in detention, that echoed back to their experiences in the present.

“There were people who became best friends in prison, but because of prison rules, they were not allowed to speak to each other. They were forced to communicate through sign language. Today, when they encounter each other, they still gesticulate, talking through a sign language they used in prison, because they never developed any other kind of communicative relationship.”

The project has been dubbed “Morgue tags and body bags,” referring to the grim fates that befell many of the young men and women that joined the Maoist guerrillas.

“When people were tortured, all they wanted was a respectable death, because they knew that they were going to die. If you were lucky, they put a morgue tag on your toe, without your name, but with a number instead, and then they sent a letter to your family telling them to collect their son’s body. This way a proper arrangement for burial could be made to ensure a respectable death. I met a woman who kept calling her son by his tag number 6211. She explained that every time she called him by his morgue tag, people would know ‘what the state did to my child’. She knew nothing about human rights, but her strong resistance to normative grieving was keeping alive a critique of her son’s illegal death.”

In order to take the project beyond Calcutta, Atreyee is in the process of forming research collaborations with other scholars, whose work relates to her own research. So far, she is working together with scholars from the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) and Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY).

ADI would like to welcome Atreyee to Denmark and to the ADI network and conclude this profile article with the answer she presented to the question of why she chose Copenhagen as her new base.

“I felt that I needed a new adventure and a new experience, and the anthropology department at the UCPH kicks ass! It’s really good. And they have a group of people that work on violence and conflict who can really relate to my research.”

By Mads Vesterager Nielsen, November 2015, University of Copenhagen