‘Not All State Institutions Are Seen As Equally Violent’

The daughter of an intelligence officer posted in Srinagar during the nineties studied abroad and did a book on Kashmir’s strife and psychological health. Currently an Associate Professor of anthropology at the University of California San Diego, the book landed her in a controversy over ethics and scholarship. Saiba Varma talked to Kahlid Bashir Gura. Here are excerpts from a detailed interview

Saiba Varma, Author

KASHMIR Life (KL)An anonymous group on social media accused you of major research ethical breaches. Who were they and what is your response?

SAIBA VARMA (SV): The anonymous Twitter account raised questions about research ethics and methods, particularly in militarized places. Many of the allegations made were based on the fact that my father formerly worked in the Indian external intelligence service, RAW [some on Twitter wrongly identified my father as KC Verma]. The anonymous Twitter account questioned if I had benefited from my father’s position in RAW – either financially or through using his connections to gain access to my field sites – or if I had shared data or endangered my fieldwork participants in any way.

I am empathetic to many of these questions because there is a history of Indian researchers going to Kashmir, misusing data, and exploiting research participants. There is also a long history of anthropologists collaborating with governments and militaries [such as Iraq and Afghanistan].

Yet, the controversy assumed that I had also engaged in these ethical missteps and did so without evidence – that is the nature of social media, as we know. My father was posted in Kashmir in the early 1990s when I was 10 years old. I came to Kashmir for my PhD fieldwork in 2009 as an independent researcher, developing my own conclusions and understanding of the region. My research has always been professional, honest, and in solidarity with people in Kashmir. I encourage people to read my work to decide for themselves. I have also described my research ethics and methods in a written public response. While some are using the controversy to delegitimize my scholarship, I hope a more productive and nuanced conversation can take place –  about who has to right to speak and write about Kashmir, about the intricacies of a researcher’s “positionality,” etc. How can we make space for a researcher’s complex personhood, as well as those of our research subjects? How can we create space for a politics of solidarity in a time when that space seems to be shrinking?

Sabia Varma’s book on psychiatry and strife became controversial because the scholar’s father had served a major security agency in Kashmir when she was a minor.

KLWhy do you think people in Kashmir cloak psychiatric illness with physical symptoms?

SB: I would not describe this as “cloaking.” What is at stake is a very different conception and lived experience of the body. The division between the body and the mind that you describe is an integral part of Western biomedicine/allopathic medicine. Yet even allopathic medicine is now recognizing how physical and psychological health is interconnected; for example, we are now learning about how our digestive systems are integral to psychological health. I think people in Kashmir, like many non-Western communities, have long known that physical and psychological health is related. People in Kashmir experience and express psychological distress in their whole bodies, not just in their brains.

KLHow did the boundaries between medicine and militarism dissolve in Kashmir?

SB: One of the key themes of The Occupied Clinic is how militarization penetrates even supposedly apolitical or neutral spaces of society and everyday life, including medicine. This can happen in very explicit ways, such as disruptions of supplies of medicines or lack of access to the hospital because of curfews. But it also happens in more subtle ways, such as how people in Kashmir lose trust in generic medicines from India because they mistrust the state.

For medical professionals working in Kashmir, the constant uncertainties produce very difficult conditions – something they have to negotiate every single day.

KLWhy do you think that subjects who claim they were torn by state violence find themselves turning to the same institutions for redress?

SB: I think there are two reasons. One, people do not have any alternatives. State institutions continue to dominate social and economic life, to make sure the state is the only game in town. It is the same reason why families who have experienced human rights violations might seek justice within the judicial system…For many, it is the only chance at some kind of redressal.

Second, people in Kashmir still have trust in some state institutions, such as public hospitals, which remain (compared to private hospitals) relatively affordable and familiar to them. Some Kashmiri patients, however, told me that those who can afford good treatment will rather go to Delhi or Mumbai and not stay in Kashmir. But during my fieldwork, I felt that these are spaces where people can be treated by Kashmiri doctors, who speak their language.

Not all state institutions are seen as equally violent – or not violent in the same way by ordinary people. Many of the harms that happen in medical institutions in Kashmir do so because of circumstances beyond the control of medical providers, i.e., circumstances that are produced by the situation.

KLHow do you say aid is used to produce psyche, social and political-economic dependence on the state?

SB: In the book, I describe how the state justifies its actions in Kashmir as humanitarian, benevolent, and generous. For example, after the 2014 floods, when the army began its rescue and relief operations, there was a demand from the Indian media that people in Kashmir should be grateful for the aid they received and there were debates about whether or not they were grateful enough. Yet such demands for gratitude were not made of people in Uttarakhand or other places that have experienced natural disasters.

In 2013, when Dr Margoob retired from his service, the run down, staff deficient IMHANS was managed by 25 qualified psychiatrists. This group is now managing most of the psychiatric facilities across Kashmir.

KLHow has the situation shaped the collective personality of Kashmiris?

SB: In the first chapter of The Occupied Clinic, I argue it has produced a chronic condition that many people in Kashmir refer to as kamzoori (or kamzori in Urdu). Of course, kamzori means something physical, like a physical weakening of the body, but it is also much more than that. Kamzori describes physical, spiritual, gendered, social, and political vulnerability, all at once. There is no separation between them. There is no good translation for it in English because a term like kamzori is so rich.

While kamzori is present elsewhere in South Asia as well, I found its presence particularly interesting in Kashmir. It was present almost in every clinical encounter that I observed. And yet people often talked about it in relation to the social, moral, or political weaknesses that they were feeling. I also found instances of kamzori documented by British medical missionaries in response to the brutal Dogra period. So in the book, I theorize kamzori as sedimentation of the violence in the body.

Kamzori also helps us see not just what is missing, but how people in Kashmir understand the meaning of health itself. Health does not just mean physical health, but it includes all those other dimensions as well—social, moral, spiritual, and political wellbeing. Western models of health and mental healthcare rarely treat or even discuss all these dimensions of wellbeing.

KL: What were some of the ways you found women coping with mental illnesses?

SB: There are definitely gendered dimensions to how people are diagnosed and treated for mental illnesses – who is responsible and who is blamed. Women in Kashmir have to cope with multiple layers of traumatic events – both extraordinary events, such as seeing a loved one being killed, harassed, or detained, or experiencing physical or sexual violence, as well as life crises that are more every day. These can also often overlap, of course.

For example, I found it disturbing that sometimes young women – particularly those newly married – were blamed for their psychiatric conditions and told to “adjust” to their in-laws’ homes. To me, these comments seemed patriarchal, lacking an understanding of how traumatic the process of leaving the natal home can be for many newly married women. I hope that, with more women psychiatrists entering the profession, these kinds of gendered biases will change.

Even women psychiatrists and psychiatric residents I spoke to said they still experience some stigma for working with people with mental illnesses. While many young women patients also worried about their marriage propositions, I also found that it was more acceptable for women to talk about their problems and express themselves emotionally, whereas for men sometimes that was more difficult.

KLA population, which is high on the index of trauma, do you find psychological care is at the centre of the public health agenda?

SB: Not at all. Mental healthcare remains woefully underfunded and under-resourced, nationally and globally as well. This is despite the fact that people freely use the language of care, the “healing touch,” or “healing trauma,” etc. Yet in actuality, there is little in terms of healing happening on the ground. Instead, people are still living through trauma.

It sounds very dire, and it is, but what I find hopeful is that when crises come, people in Kashmir find ways of supporting each other and using their social networks in imaginative ways. I describe these forms of care and hospitality in my book as well.

KL: How do you see NGO’s playing their role in Kashmir?

SB: I think many have played a crucial role, particularly in the mental health space. They have made psychological counselling and therapy much more mainstream, familiar, and accessible to people. For example, Kashmir LifeLine started the first anonymous telephone helpline for those experiencing mental distress, which was an incredible way for people to access psychological care without feeling stigmatized.

I think the organizations who have been the most successful are those that recognize that people’s mental health is deeply dependent on their social and cultural context and who do not try to impose solutions from the outside but are attentive to how there are already practices and languages of coping that people have here.

KL: Being an outsider, what was and is your perception about Kashmir before and after fieldwork?

SB: Like many outsiders, before my fieldwork, I was carrying many misperceptions about Kashmir. There was so much that I was ignorant about because of what I had been taught about Kashmir in Indian history textbooks and by the media. It has been an honour and privilege to build relationships with people here over the past 12 years. As a researcher or scholar, I think one of the most important lessons is that you have to be willing to unlearn what you think you know. Over time, I have learned and unlearned so much of what I had been taught. I have grown so much as a human being through my connection to this place and the people I have met.

I think ‘good’ research, has to begin with compassion, particularly with compassionate listening, rather than the sense that the researcher is on a higher plane of knowledge than their research subjects. Encountering someone who is willing to share their story with you is an incredible gift. It is extremely humbling and inspiring. In turn, I hope that I have done justice to their stories and that people find this work useful.

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