Tag Archives: South Asia

Anthropology does IPR, Part 2

A curious development in the struggle to protect traditional knowledge (TK) from unwanted exploitation by outsiders is a strategy called “defensive publishing.” This largely applies to the realm of the patent, not copyright or trademark, because patents are supposed to be granted only for processes, substances, or devices that are truly novel. (There are other criteria as well, but they needn’t concern us here).

If you can prove that something isn’t novel, that it has been known and used for a long time, then it can’t be patented.

To defend traditional knowledge from exploitative patenting, then, there are two basic and fundamentally opposed choices under existing law: define it as a trade secret or protect it in plain view. The goal of the latter is to establish that patent applicants who make use of this information fail to meet the novelty standard.

Although the trade-secrets approach sounds promising, and some legal scholars argue that it’s the way to go for the protection of traditional IPR, it has certain problems. For one thing, a lot of TK isn’t especially secret. It is, almost by definition, in wide circulation within a society. Trade-secrets laws typically say that anyone who can duplicate trade secrets independently–say, through reverse engineering–is free to use them. Still, one can argue that the Aboriginal “keeping-places” emerging in Australia, repositories for TK that have strict rules of access, follow something like a trade-secrets approach. To a more limited extent, protocols for the use of Native American TK in American archives are moving in a similar direction.

The plain-view approach has been adopted in a few important cases–notably, that of Ayurveda, which is documented by the Indian government in the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library. (Site is publicly accessible but requires a simple registration.) The idea is to establish “prior art” and therefore refute claims of novelty.

Yet as the sociologist Sita Reddy has argued in a provocative essay, “Making Heritage Legible,” just published in the International Journal of Cultural Property, the conversion of Ayurvedic tradition into a database generates all manner of contradictions and conflicts.
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Book Review: The Politics of the Governed, Part 2

[This is part 2 of a two part review of Partha Chatterjee’s The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. You can read the first part here.]

Chatterjee’s book is divided into two parts. The first part consists of three lectures delivered at Columbia University in 2001. This is the tightest part of the book, in which he develops the arguments I mentioned in the first part of my review and which I will continue to focus upon below. The second half consists of a series of other lectures on a variety of issues, including globalization, the war on terror, and India’s urban development. Because of the fragmentary nature of this book, we really only get a hint as to the nature of “political society” and its utility as a concept. There is certainly more depth to the discussion that the brief account I’ve laid out so far, but it is frustrating that many of the most difficult questions are avoided. The first, would be the applicability of the concept to the developed world; but the second is even more pressing: Chatterjee shies away from tackling the history of communal violence in India and the alliances which marginalized political societies often make with the most reactionary political groups. I understand why, he does this. He is intent on showing the democratic potential of political society and wishes to challenge India’s left-leaning middle classes to actively work with political societies rather than shunning them. In this sense the history of communal violence forms the context in which such a book is written. Nonetheless, if we we want to really demonstrate the analytical usefulness of the category it can’t just be presented as a progressive phenomena.

Another question I like to ask whenever I see an author introduce a new analytic term is whether or not the concepts can’t already be handled by existing terms, specifically Gramsci’s term “civil society.” Chatterjee’s main criticism is that civil society is elitist:
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Book Review: The Politics of the Governed, Part 1

Columbia University Press recently approached Savage Minds, asking if we would like to review new books from their catalog. Not ones to turn down free books, we jumped at the opportunity, and you can expect to see several CUP books reviewed here in the near future, as well as those from any other publishers who might wish to do the same (hint, hint). In discussing how to approach these reviews we decided two things: one, we would make it clear when a review has been solicited by the publisher, and two, we would keep the reviews “bloggy” (i.e. informal and focused on whatever interests us about the book rather than doing all those things one is expected to do in a standard book review.)

I chose to review Partha Chatterjee’s The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on popular politics in most of the world. As someone interested in subaltern studies and Gramsci I’ve long been interested in Chatterjee’s work, Chatterjee was a discussant on my first AAA panel in 1996 (Jason Greenberg and myself were co-organizers). At the same time, I’ve always had reservations about Chatterjee’s work. In my thesis I criticized Chatterjee’s book on nationalism for falling into the standard trap of equating hegemony with elite discourse (the main source of data used in the book) and over-generalizing from the Indian case (a fault he himself acknowledges).

The Politics of the Governed still takes India to stand for “most of the world,” but it makes important strides in rectifying the focus on elite discourses. In fact, it does much more than that. It radically challenges our understanding of the term “civil society” by highlighting how the politics of civil society marginalizes the politics of poor people and offers up an alternative term, “political society” as a framework for understanding the popular politics of marginalized groups. In doing so he draws heavily upon the Foucauldian tradition of governmentality studies to argue that there is a gap “between the lofty political imaginary of popular sovereignty and the mundane administrative reality of governmentality” (36).
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Anthropometry: Alive and Kicking

One of the most remarkable documents we encountered during the past two weeks immersed in the British colonial archives was the 1988 All India Anthropometric Survey, North Zone : Basic Anthropometric Data. Why, in 1988, did the late K. S. Singh oversee the publication of an anthropometric survey, full of tables listing the skull sizes and other features of the various “peoples” of India? Anthropometry has a long history in India, especially with regards to the “Criminal Tribes” we were investigating; but why was India still producing such documents in 1988?

One answer is that this was simply the last gasp of a colonial legacy. The anthropometric data was collected in the 1960s. No new data was collected for this survey. In an article explaining the survey, Singh explains that the survey was set up during the last days of British rule:

The Anthropological Survey of India was set up in December 1945, barely 20 months before the transfer of power. The reason for this has to be sought in the intensive lobbying by administrator-anthropologists – including J.P. Mills, J.H. Hutton, W.V. Grigson, W.G. Archer with anthropologists like Verrier Elwin and C. von Furer-Haimendorf – over 15 years to create a special dispensation for the tribes under the Government of India Act of 1935 and through various suggestions and proposals including those for the creation of a Crown Colony in the North East and a protectorate for the tribals.

Their special interest in the tribes derived from a romantic tradition that presented the tribes in pleasant contrast to castes, the ‘unravished’ hills and plateau where they lived which reminded the colonial rulers of their homeland, and from their appreciation of the strategic location of the tribes and the enormous resources that their lands contained. However, these proposals were shot down by the home office which felt that the British regime would be much too impoverished after the Second World War to commit its meagre resources to such ventures.

But I’m not sure Singh can get off the hook so easily. In the last chapter of her excellent book Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia Clare Anderson points out several ways in which the survey relied upon unreliable colonial ethnography in its analysis. Indeed, Singh’s more recent Peoples of India from 1995 seems to rely almost entirely upon highly questionable colonial sources for its chapters on the various Denotified Tribes (former “Criminal Tribes”).

There is a significant literature on the tremendous confusion (and corresponding need to maintain the illusion of certitude) that pervades colonial ethnography in India. In later posts I will write more about this (as I begin to read through this literature myself), suffice to say that much of what we read in these documents seemed more akin to cheap detective fiction than to ethnography. One document would say that a particular group ate jackal and that their women tended to be faithful to their husbands, whereas another would say the opposite about the same group (even when seemingly relying on the former document). We never learn on what basis this information is gleaned. But more than simply inaccurate, I would not even consider a listing of ethnic “traits” as ethnography in the first place.

So why was the Indian government still giving credence to such materials as late as the 1990s? Is it simply colonial ethnography on auto-pilot, or might it be that such forms of knowledge production are still seen as a useful means of legitimating certain kinds of state interventions amongst indigenous populations, many of which remain “troublesome“?

The Digital Himalaya project

I’ve been busy lately preparing for a two-week research trip to England. We hope to find some kind of archival footage we can use for our film. In the process I stumbled upon this excellent web site.

The Digital Himalaya project was conceived of by Professor Alan Macfarlane and Mark Turin as a strategy for archiving and making available valuable ethnographic materials from the Himalayan region. Based jointly at the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University and the Anthropology Department at Cornell University, the project began in December 2000.

Of particular interest to Savage Minders is the Fürer-Haimendorf Film Collection:

Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf lived and worked as an anthropologist throughout the Himalayas from the 1930s through the 1980s. Fürer-Haimendorf’s specific interests included the Naga ethnic groups of the North Eastern Frontier Area of India and the Sherpa ethnic group of north-eastern Nepal. However, he travelled far and wide throughout the entire region, taking over 100 hours of film throughout his career. Extraordinary in both its breadth and its depth, the Fürer-Haimendorf collection is one of the finest extant ethnographic film collections that document Himalayan cultures. The collection includes both archival footage from Fürer-Haimendorf’s lengthy research career in the Himalayas, as well as interviews with the Professor himself recorded on video. Samples of both appear below. The Fürer-Haimendorf film collection is currently located in the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University. DART (Digital Anthropology Resources for Teaching) has compiled a selected set of Haimendorf’s fieldwork notes on the Sherpas of Nepal which will appeal to scholars interested in his ethnographic field techniques.

The DART web site has this short biography of Haimendorf:

Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf was born on June 22, 1909, in Vienna, Austria. He studied anthropology in Vienna under the tutelage of scholars of the Kulturkreis school. He was a prolific fieldworker, amassing an impressive archive of material on South Asian groups, with a particular focus on Nepal and northeastern India.

While conducting postdoctoral research at the London School of Economics, Fürer-Haimendorf became well acquainted with many of the leading lights of British anthropology, including Bronislaw Malinowski, Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, and Audrey Richards. World War II broke out while he was on his second field trip in India, and like Malinowski before him, Fürer-Haimendorf was arrested as an enemy alien. Confined to Hyderabad State for the duration of the war, he undertook extensive fieldwork among the inhabitants of that region. Upon returning to Europe in 1949, he began his fruitful tenure at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where he served as chair of a growing anthropology department between 1950 and 1975. After a long and influential career, Fürer-Haimendorf died on June 11, 1995.

The Other Superhero Movie

I am crazy busy this week as I pack for a rather last-minute move, conveniently timed to coincide with the first week of my 4-week summer session (2 classes, each meeting 2 1/2 hours, 4 days a week, one in the morning, one in the evening). But I wanted to mention Henry Jenkins’ thorough and thoughtful discussion of Krrish, a Bollywood production being billed as India’s first superhero movie. ALthough the formula will sound familiar to Western movie-goers, Jenkins notes that Krrish is a distinctly Indian twist on the superhero pattern:

Much like the western Superman who has been read as an embodiment of national myths and ideals, there is much which speaks to the specifically Indian origins of this particular story.

For one thing, the early signs that young Krishna may have superpowers come when he turns out to be a protégé at sketching and then confounds the teachers at his local school with a spectacular performance on his I.Q. exam. The American counterpart would have led off with his strength, his speed, or maybe even his X-ray vision but having a superior intellect has rarely been a prerequisite for becoming a superpower in the western sense of the term. Throughout the film, in fact, the other characters consistently cite his “talents” but rarely his “powers” as if he were destined to become an extremely gifted knowledge worker (and indeed, it turns out that the ethics of knowledge work for hire are at the center of this epic saga.)

Westerners are going to be tempted to read the film as a symptom of cultural imperialism — taking a strongly western genre and trying to sell it back to the American market. But that’s too simple — especially given all of the ways I’ve identified above that the superhero genre gets reworked to speak to specifically Asian values and concerns and the ways it gets mixed with other genre elements which are more closely associated with the Bollywood tradition.

Krrish isn’t playing anywhere even close to Las Vegas (despite a growing Indian population here, I might add) so I’ll have to take Jenkins at his word, but it sounds like a Superman Returns/Krrish double-feature would be a great way to spend an afternoon. [Via BoingBoing]

Kumar Suresh Singh Dies

Kumar Suresh Singh (K. S. Singh), Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India, compiler of the massive survey, People of India, and the person credited with renewing interest in the life of Adivasi hero Birsa Munda, died recently. Unfortunately, one would hardly know. The only news story about it online (he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page …) requires a subscription to access. However, there are some excerpts from the obituary quoted over at Amitava Kumar’s blog.

I’m just beginning to explore the Indian anthropological literature. I’ve ordered volume three of People of India for my school’s library, but haven’t yet read it. Still, I’m surprised at the relative lack of attention the passing of such an important anthropologist has received. If any of our readers can point out additional links it would be much appreciated.

UPDATE: Here is a link to K.S. Singh’s book on Birsa Munda.

Traditional Knowledge Digital Library

India’s anti bio-piracy initiative has garnered a lot of press recently. Here is the BBC:

In a quiet government office in the Indian capital, Delhi, some 100 doctors are hunched over computers poring over ancient medical texts and keying in information.

… The ambitious $2m project, christened Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, will roll out an encyclopaedia of the country’s traditional medicine in five languages – English, French, German, Japanese and Spanish – in an effort to stop people from claiming them as their own and patenting them.

You can access a demo of the TKDL here, but I think you need to work at a patent office to register. The concept of bio-piracy is explained in detail on this page, along with several examples. Here is the BBC’s summary:
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Elwin’s Legacy

A recent story from the BBC ends with the words: “the romance between a teenage tribal girl and a British scholar was clearly doomed.” The British scholar in question was Verrier Elwin, one of the first anthropologists to work closely with India’s Adivasis. At the age of 37 he married a 13 year old Gond girl against the wishes of her parents. He divorced her ten years later. She is now old and destitute. Certainly not one of the high points in the history of Anthropology …

Despite his obvious ethical failings, as Shashwati says, “Verrier Elwin was one of the first anthropologists to write with great sympathy and understanding about India’s tribal communities.” For that reason one of my goals for this summer was to read his autobiography, as well as a more recent biography, and then maybe even have a go at writing the as-yet-nonexistant Wikipedia entry on him. I have to say, however, that the whole project suddenly seems somewhat less enticing.

Community Consent

Yesterday, William Hipwell gave a talk at my department about “Research Ethics and Aboriginal Peoples.” I won’t go into the details, but the emphasis was on the importance of informed consent. I was reminded of our recent discussion on SM about “anthropology and the IRB” and, indeed, some of those issues came up in discussion. The point I raised, however, was slightly different and came from my recent work in India. The issue there is that while we have the full consent of those we are working directly with in the film, the concept of “community” and who has the power to provide consent on behalf of the community (as opposed to individuals) is one of the things at stake.

The group we are working with are reformers who are challenging the old system of community governance. One of the processes we filmed was the establishment of a new form of self-government that aims to more democratically represent the needs of the community. However, there are still several competing traditional councils, or panchayats, that have significant power in the community. The group we worked with was reluctant to go to those groups for permission because their activities were challenging the authority of the panchayat and some panchayat members were actively seeking to hinder those activities.

At the same time, discussions within the group of reformers revealed that there was some concern that failure to secure community-wide consent could result in blow-back. Already two members of the group have been arrested for violent crimes on the basis of false testimony provided by their opponents within the community, and everyone was nervous.
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The Invention of the World: Islam in the West

While it is indeed possible (and at least fun to think) that trained otters in the service of Chinese explorers were the first to discover the Americas from the East, an article on Al-Jazeera’s website details the influence of Muslim scientists on the discovery of the New World from the West — and asserts the possibility that Andalusia Muslims may have gotten here well before Columbus. Whether the latter claim is true or not, certainly the importance of Muslim scholarship to Columbus’ voyage cannot be overestimated; Muslim navigation was the state-of-the-art in the 15th century and for centuries before, providing most of the navigation tools, such as the astrolabe, that Columbus and his crew relied on. By the 9th century, Muslims had proven that the Earth was a sphere, and had worked out its circumference to within 200 km (Columbus apparently knew about this work, but substituted lower figures to help make his case that the voyage he had proposed was at all feasible).

The impact of Muslim science and culture, and especially of the Al-Andalusian culture that dominated the Iberian peninsula between the 8th and 12th centuries, on the development of Western culture is little known and even less talked about. The treatment of Muslim Spain in Western Civ books tends to consist solely of the Song of Roland and, centuries later, the defeat of Granada and subsequent expulsion of Muslims (and Jews) from Spain. In between, a mighty civilization emerged, flourished, and ultimately declined — one that I am beginning to think contributed more to “Western culture” than the Romans ever did. Besides creating a stewpot of cultural and scholastic achievement in its own right, Muslim Spain served as a conduit for the teachings of the Muslim world at a time when Muslim learning was at its peak. For instance, the Catholic Church was utterly transformed by the study of Aristotle in Arabic translation; likewise, the introduction of double-entry bookkeeping by Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli relied on the introduction of negative numbers by Muslims (who themselves had learned from Hindu mathematicians centuries earlier) and the al-jabr (“algebra”) of Al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we also get the word “algorithm”). The work of Ibn Rashid (Averroës) — who also gave us Aristotle — and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) form the foundation of Western medical knowledge; the poetry and dialogues of and about Muslim philosophers and warriors (and non-Muslims deeply embedded in Andalusian culture, such as El Cid, from the Arabic el Sayyid, “leader” or “chief”) laid the groundwork for the birth of the novel (in Spain, of course!); and the pointed arch essential to Gothic monumental architecture was adopted from Muslim architects.
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Fingerprinting, Thievery, and Bob Marley

One of the most difficult issues we have had to confront in making a film about the Chharas is that of thievery. It is a fact that a sizable minority of the community still make their living from petty theft. Understandably, they are reluctant to talk about this on camera. It is important, however, in talking about the theater (the subject of our film), because the Chharas themselves see a link between their skill at acting and their skill at thieving. It is also historically important, since the Chharas (or, more precisely, the Sansis who speak the same language) were the first group to be labeled as “Criminal Tribes” after the passing of the Criminal Tribes Act in 1871.

It was in the course of searching for some more information about the topic that I came across Vinay Lal’s review of Rai Bahadur M. Pauparao Naidu’s 1915 book: The History of Railway Thieves, with Illustrations and Hints on Detection. Lal’s article discusses the role of colonial anthropology in creating the category of “criminal tribes”, but since I am already well aware of this story, my attention was caught by his tangential account of the origins of fingerprinting in colonial India:

Naidu’s matter-of-fact references to fingerprinting scarcely reveal the manner in which fingerprinting came to be developed and the extraordinary role of the Indian police in enabling its use as the most reliable method for the detection of criminals the world over. It is just shortly after the Rebellion of 1857-58 that William Herschel, Magistrate at Jungipoor on the upper reaches of the Hooghly, realized its uses as a method of identification. … Herschel then left for England, but in India fingerprinting had another proponent, Edward Henry, who in 1891 was appointed Inspector-General of Police for the Lower Provinces, Bengal. Henry first experimented with the anthropometric system, but was not satisfied with the accuracy of the measurements. In a report submitted to the Government of Bengal in 1896, Henry detailed the experiments he had conducted with fingerprints, which he observed were not only inexpensive to obtain, but also a surer means of detecting and confirming the identity of any given person. Henry is then said, with the aid of a team of Indian assistants, to have developed a system of classification under which 1,024 primary positions were identified, which when considered along with secondary and tertiary subdivisions, made fingerprinting a fool-proof form of fixing identity.

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Roxy Gagdekar, Bridge Blogging Chharanagar

While we are working on the film, we have been having our meals at Roxy Gagdekar’s house in Chharanagar, and we have had many long talks. He is a tremendous source of information about the Chhara community, denotified tribes, and the politics of Gujarat. A reporter at one of Gujarat’s leading newspapers, Roxy is also an excellent writer. So I am very happy that he has decided to start his own blog. He plans to use it to write about Chharangar, the activities of the Budhan Theatre, and even some short fiction he has written.

In one of my first posts on Savage Minds, I argued that there would be a resurgence of “armchair anthropology” as a result of the internet. Central to this argument are what Hossein Derakhshan calls “bridge bloggers.” Such bloggers are able to bridge the same linguistic and cultural barriers that anthropologists seek to overcome. In some cases they may even do it better. I believe that Roxy Gagdekar is one such person.

How to spot a Chhara

Last night, sitting in Roxy Gagdekar’s house in Chharanagar, I asked him a question that I have been asked at nearly every screening of Acting Like a Thief: namely, how are people able to identify Chharas?

Beyond the historic injustices Denotified Tribes (DNTs) faced during the British Colonial period, Chharas (and other DNTs) continue to suffer from ethnic discrimination. Stigmatized as thieves, it is difficult for them to get legitimate jobs in mainstream society. As a last resort, they turn to criminal activity. It is a vicious circle from which only a few are able to escape.

But how do people know they are Chhara? They don’t look noticeably different from the rest of the population, and even if they did, they could easily be from a neighboring state. They speak their own language (Bhantu), but they can speak Gujarati as well as anyone else.
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Acting Like a Thief

Since I became involved with India’s Denotified Tribes, or DNTs, I’ve been trying to encourage anthropologists to study them. There is have been some good writings about DNTs, but the literature is still relatively sparse. Almost all of it is historical, with very little in the way of contemporary ethnography.

So I’m proud to announce the release of Acting Like a Thief! A short documentary film I shot and co-produced with Shashwati, who did an amazing job editing it.

Acting Like a Thief
We are releasing the film as a free BitTorrent download for all those tech-savvy people (the less tech-savvy can get a DVD for a $50 donation to our next project). I hope that this short piece will help raise awareness about DNTs and maybe even encourage some grad students who are still thinking about what they might like to research for their dissertation. If you think you might like to do such research, please contact me and I can help arrange some introductions.