“Some Reflections on the Webinar Explosion in South Asia in the Time of Covid”
Anustup Basu (English)
At this point we are well aware of the extent to which the ongoing pandemic has unsettled intellectual lives and disrupted academic relationships and rhythms. It has closed off spaces, isolated bodies, and scattered established institutional and collaborative arrangements. These latter have been and are being re-tooled and reconfigured, primarily by way of web-based technologies. As a person who grew up in a small North Bengal town, did not see a television set till he was ten years old, wrote his first essays with a fountain pen, typed his graduate applications on a Remington, and drafted the first email of his life at the ripe old age of 27, I appreciate the historical perspective that while we are not the first set of humans on earth to face a pandemic of this magnitude, the internet is one of the many existential advantages we have today that our ancestors did not. I say this with the necessary skepticism and critical detachment with which we should approach internet and social media cultures. For good reason, most of us expect some of the forced innovations of this time — like participating in a graduate seminar over Zoom or researching online instead of visiting a library — to be temporary. Some, including me, are also wary that the corporatized academy will try to preserve some emergency measures (like a drastically increased percentage of online education) as permanent cost-cutting fixtures for the future. Nevertheless, these reflections on the webinar form, based on recent experiences, are prompted by two considerations. First, it would be fair to say that so far, such platforms of engagement have not been accorded the professional prestige of traditional conferences and talks. The pandemic has given us pause to wonder whether we should perhaps alter or qualify our views on this matter. Secondly, whether, in some circumstances, the webinar can be conceived of as a mode of intellectual engagement with its own set of values, its political and moral economies, rather than as a virtual substitute for the real thing. For instance, can it be seen as a form that may be deployed, with needful caution and skepticism, to critically address the international division of academic labor and initiate a new culture of exchanges with the global south?
Over the summer and fall of 2020, I delivered seven invited webtalks for various institutions in India. I have given talks in India before, but I can say that had it been any other year, I would have ended up appearing only in a couple of premier institutions in the list: perhaps at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Ropar and the Center for Studies in Borders and Movements (CSBM). As for the rest, they are, from a metropolitan vantage point, obscure colleges and universities in the suburbs or rural quarters of West Bengal with modest to meager resources. Under normal circumstances, they would not have thought of asking either me or my various First World colleagues from Canada, UK, Germany or New Zealand who participated in these engagements. Conversely, in practical terms, we would perhaps not have been able to go, even if we wanted to. It would not just be a question of having funds to buy an air ticket. It would be the more elementary question of having an airport within a few hundred miles of the institution. In one case, I had to speak on a Sunday morning, when it was late evening in India, because the organizers had decided that this was the hour in the week when their local internet connection was at its most reliable.
It is necessary to consider the state of uneven development in the Indian context to understand why exactly, in various ways and in different degrees, this was a novel experience not just for me or my former college-mate, Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee, now a professor at Warwick, but also scholars of a different generation like Partha Chatterjee or Dipesh Chakrabarty, as well as relative outsiders to immediate South Asian experience like Bill Ashcroft. Within a spectral reality that is bookended by slumdogs and millionaires — between brave new silicon valleys on the one hand, and the world’s largest hungry population on the other — higher education in India presents a stark picture of gross inequality. It features a handful of elite state and private institutions concentrated in major cities, developed suburbs, or colonial hill stations on the one hand, and a vast hinterland comprising thousands of colleges and universities lacking funds, amenities, infrastructure, and basic resources on the other. The divide is deep, historical, and runs along the lines of caste, class, gender, and borders separating the metropolis from the countryside. It is therefore not exactly the Global South we are talking about; rather it is a global south inside the erstwhile geopolitical global south of decolonization, neo-imperialism, and the Cold War. This is what is called a vernacular ‘Bharat’ inside an ‘India’ identified by the Anglophone knowledge system.
In existentialist terms, my own position in this universe is a bit complicated, given my small-town origins. But after growing up in a small town, I went to an elite Indian university and then came to the United States for my doctoral education. Professional realities, family circumstances, and indeed, a lack of urgency and will have prevented me from returning to my hometown for more than two decades now, even though I visit metropolitan India almost every year. I now belong to a community of American-based intellectuals from South Asia. There is a game that I play from time to time, especially in big conferences like SALA or the annual affair in Madison, to reaffirm the essential homogeneity of this community. It pertains to whether one can place a complete stranger within three or four degrees of network separation, in terms of institutions, friends, colleagues, teachers, or students. So far it has worked out every single time; someone knows someone that I know, or someone is from somewhere that someone I know has been to. At the University of Illinois, we have had several PhD students from the subcontinent so far; most of them are not just from the same university, but from the same department that I went to. This whole phenomenon is frightening in a sense because ‘we’ – South Asians in the North American academy — in nominal terms represent a population of 1.4 billion people. It is not that ‘we’ in the first world academy do not have anything to do with that multifaceted universe in small town and rural India. We take a deep, even conscientious anthropological and ethnographic interest in it. It is our object of study. But it would be fair to say that we are rarely able to engage in equitable transactions of knowledge with it.
My seven engagements were a small droplet in a veritable flood of Indian webinars in the summer of 2020. I could gauge that through my social media feeds. This global network was itself established largely through Facebook. It was in that platform that I was initially approached by the organizers; a formal email arrived once I said a tentative yes. I understood quickly that the terms of engagement with the overall phenomenon were very simple: if you said yes to one, more requests would inevitably follow. I had quite a few more invitations that I had to turn down for one reason or the other. The talks were very well attended in each case, with hundreds of people from all over the subcontinent logging in, not just from all over India, but also Nepal, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka. It was a radically mixed population that ranged from premier colleges and universities to disenfranchised faculty and students in the academic hinterland. In terms of North American parallels, it encompassed a population that included Ivy League coastal elites as well as people from the hundreds of community colleges that dot the landscape of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegies. Sounds too good to be true? Indeed, there was another aspect to this phenomenon.
The excitement and the energy was palpable, but there is no reason to romanticize the webinar explosion itself. I was warned by reliable peers in India that the outbreak was, for a good part, being driven by a spirit of opportunistic academic entrepreneurship. Conference organizers were soliciting funds from India’s University Grants Commission (UGC), asking for unfair registration rates, and, in the process, either advancing their own professional interests, or fleecing government money. The audience too, to an extent, was a captive one in some cases, with junior faculty and part-time lecturers being compelled to register for a certain number of conferences in order to get promotion or salary increase points. I tried, and successfully managed to steer clear of anything that looked and sounded dubious. From the glut of announcements that arrived every day, I could see that a lot of the talks were what might be called ‘cliff note’ lectures on single classic texts or undergraduate-friendly surveys on periods and movements. Perhaps it would be unkind to generalize that sentiment; in some cases it came with a seriousness of purpose and an aspirational horizon which would be fulfilled if, one day, Gayatri Spivak agreed to discourse on Wild Sargasso Sea or Frederick Jameson on Dog Day Afternoon. There was another set on the pandemic itself, to which I contributed my bit on epidemics and governmentality, that is, on how Europe, in the age of high imperialism and maritime trade, instituted a new regime of power (involving mass health measures, hygiene, nutrition standards, public sanitation and waterworks etc.) to combat small pox and cholera. But this ‘bio-political’ regime of security against the disease also assumed a mass genocidal form in Hitler’s Nazi cult, when the gas chambers were set up to protect the health of the race and the body politic against Jewish infection. Then there were serious explorations of recent shifts in disciplines and new critical interfaces (Humanities and Science) solicited by an academic population who wanted to engage with such matters in earnest, but often suffered a ‘lag period’ when it came to accessing latest books and journals on such developments. Finally, there were occasions where scholars were asked to share their latest work, no matter on what subject that might be. Two of my talks were on Hindutva as Political Monotheism, my latest book from the Duke University Press, that came out in the fall of 2020. It was at this point that things got really interesting for me. On one occasion, an organizer cheerfully informed me via Facebook that a pirated pdf of my book was being widely circulated. He quite helpfully sent me a copy. I could see that the document had been carefully redacted before circulation. The title page and table of contents were missing. It began with the relatively bland and innocuous acknowledgements section and thus, if seized by the new overtly communalized police in North India, would not, in the first glance, come across as material as seditious as War and Peace for example.
My book, Hindutva deals with a particularly toxic brand of Hindu nationalism that has assumed the form of a classic fascist movement in India. The persecution and outright murder of intellectuals and journalists like M. M. Kalburgi or Gauri Lankesh, the imprisonment of octogenarian poet Varvara Rao or the scholar and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbe, on charges that are impossible for any rational mind to accept (for example, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, seized from a personal collection of books, was produced as evidence of surefire sedition in court) are examples of the political reality of violence, intimidation, and censorship now prevalent. So it is against this backdrop that one of the organizers called me a couple of days before one of my Hindutva talks. Ever since it was publicized on social media, they had been inundated by requests for the Zoom password from unidentifiable sources outside academic circles. There was thus a concern that we would be “Zoom-bombed” by zealots who have, in recent years, disrupted seminars, trashed exhibits, destroyed artworks, and beaten up students and faculty. I found out that mysterious unaffiliated profile visitors to my academia.edu page had increased the total count by 143% in 24 hours; it would climb to 2,664% eventually. I was open to the idea of changing the title of my talk in order to avoid a vitiated atmosphere, but the noted historian, Tanika Sarkar, who was chairing the event, did not agree. The event was shifted to Streamyard instead of Zoom with a fresh set of posters etc., and went off smoothly. I was well aware that being in the United States, I was not in immediate danger, but the organizers were. On another occasion, when I was asked to speak, I asked the coordinator whether I should pick a relatively non-controversial portion of my book. After all, he was located in a sensitive region of the country. What he told me in response will remain with me forever: “As it is, we will not live long. Please speak about the most controversial part of your book.”
My experience with this summer’s webinar explosion in India was sobering and rewarding. I say this with a keener awareness of a mantle of paternalistic authority and entitlement inevitably and historically bestowed upon me by the international division of labor. There was no magical coming together of worlds. During Q&A sessions it became clear on occasions that sections of my audience did not understand me fully, nor I them. Sections of the audience itself did not understand each other sometimes. But if there was a poverty of conceptual language in the middle, all of us shared it, albeit in different ways. It alerted me to the quest for a new political vernacular in the era of globalization crisis and climate change that all of us should participate in, to the best of our abilities. This is an overall impelling – many-armed, eclectic, confused, and, at times animated by monstrous energies and babel – that comes from a new cartography of the global south. That is, the different global souths in India, in the United States, and elsewhere.