I was asked to do a commentary ‘discussant’ talk on the two papers in the Movement panel at Alpa and Ed’s South Asian Anthropologists Group workshop, held today and tomorrow at Goldsmiths. These are the rough notes I spoke from.
Conference details and programme at:
The articles I was asked to discuss were:
Business and Community Between India and the Gulf
Fillipo and Caroline Osello
Degrees of Separation
Katy Gardner, Zahir Ahmed
The structure of these kinds of meetings seems peculiar to anthropology – its only in anthro conferences that I’ve seen this format where paper givers do not read their papers but distribute them beforehand (I guess this could happen elsewhere) but its a wierd practice which involves silencing the paper presenters until after someone has maliciously misrepresented their writing in the interests of starting a debate for the workshop. So, with the usual apologies, I offer the following misconstruals under the alibi of having been asked to summarise, contextualise and critique.
Pleased to be asked, at first I looked in vain for the connection these two papers had to the workshop theme statement about “Revolutionary Movements” – ostensible topic of the event and reason I was keen to be there. I am always happy to hear stories of Maoists, Naxalbari, Telangana and Nepal, but these are not what I was expecting. Well, just get over it John, I tell myself. It is also crucially important to engage with the desultory effects of globalising capital, especially when it comes with culturalist inflections like this. I guess I can see why I was asked to comment, since I have worked on charity, some time ago. Also diaspora. Still, I do wish these papers had said something more on Keralan or Bengali Reds.
These two papers both ostensibly have to do with migration and good works, charity, or jakat (Zakat), but they are both actually more about power hierarchies as played out through land and education.
This first one is about religious obligation to community, in the form of investment in education.
Business and Community Between India and the Gulf
Fillipo and Caroline Osello
In kerala, the Osello’s lived in a middle-class neighbourhood, and sent their children to a ‘Muslim owned and managed English school’ – and I guess have made a virtue of this circumstance because this piece – a chapter in a forthcoming book – is largely a consideration of schools.
We start with a quick run through of the specific Muslim history of the area: Lahala uprising in 1921, British desire to get rid of Islam, deportations to – interestingly – the Andaman Islands (misspelled throughout as Adaman, but how interesting it would be if these were people Radcliffe-Brown got to talk to on his verandah – side point…1921 is probably far too late for anarchy Brown to meet anyone for a book he was revising as Durkheimian tract…)
Anyway, in the context of this uprising, the paper documents suspicion and disdain for British schools on Muslim side – counterpointed with the ‘ease’ that post-independence Hindus had in ‘modernizing’. So we have ‘marginalized’ Muslim communities (by their own doing, of course) and the Muslim League become the ‘sole’ representatives of the community, but can only advocate a cautious reformism. The paper will later go on to stress the importance on education as a marker of (internal) respectability and uplift. We need to register education as a marker of development/reform.
Just before the (summaries of) the interviews that make up the main body of this paper – with various business men – we have a characterisation of such businessmen (Muslim/Arab) in contrast to John Harris’s rendering of Hindu entrepreneurs in Chennai. Muslims are ‘utterly morally accountable to their community and business is utterly embedded in community responsibility’ Aside from these somewhat jarring iterations – utterly morally and utterly embedded, I will come back to them – there are issues here about the construction of good Muslim money making, the character of which is subsequently detailed, but not critiqued.
So what we have next are the interview summaries – and it’s a ‘modern Muslim’ story line – how these men struggle to be businessmen but maintain their morality, ‘making and using money in an Islamic way’. There are a couple of case studies of the ‘Gulf kings’ – wealthy businessmen who ‘maintain the Muslim community’. Typical ‘rags to riches turned philanthropist’ (‘upliftment’) stuff. In here we get some curious attitudinal titbits, such as the businessmen’s view of ‘education as a double edged sword’ – it is their educated attitude that holds back the Malayali and prevents them from real success. Also we hear the businessmen’s claims that theirs is a ‘culture of risk taking’ (leaving things in the hands of god) but tempered by a ‘community orientation’. There is a brief recognition of this being ‘traditionally’ gendered, but little made of it. More interesting perhaps the appearance of a Scottish University joint project on the scene in Kerala. Also, various choice asides – a great quote in here about the need to read the Gita and the Bible to understand others – but our businessman who suggests this hates atheists. As ever, the two main themes here are ‘get educated and build community’.
Then another figure, and we are into interviews with the local, Calicut businessmen – also focused on the role of education, in this case the establishment of SAFI, the Social Advancement Foundation of India, a body set up to raise money for a university to teach IT, biotech and other ‘new economy’ sort of subjects. Because of soliciting Arab investors, one of the two first programmes will be Islamic Studies, to counter atheism – the ‘best of western education with contemporary Islamic framework’. And donors will also received plots of land and secured places in the schools and University – a double sense of investment here (or a land grab). This project is seen as part of a global Islamic renaissance, and trades on the glamour of the Gulf.
My trouble with this is that I do not see any space for critique in the paper. And this I would land at the door of the research conception at the level of planning. I return to those words, repeated a couple of times – embedded and utterly. It might be bad etymology to pick up on this sense of the term, but its curious that the utterance, in the summary interviews, of the first Muslim businessman, directly confirms what had been presented as the potted history offered by our embedded anthropologists: Muslims suffered because of the British so hated everything the British brought, including schools, but now there is a renaissance and they do not boycott and are educated.
I wonder if we might have had a critique of the way education articulates with entrepreneurial modernizing if we went beyond the utterance of this informant and the brochures of the SAFI school plan? A questioning of these charitable entrepreneurial modes of ‘education’ (that would extend to the ways we construct our own educational involvements, including research projects and schemes like UKIERI that would set up UK-India research centres and teaching programmes under PM Bliar’s 18 Mill corporate PPP initiative).
I think it worthwhile – beyond the specifics of this paper – even to question whether education is ever a social good when it comes in the charitable form – ideological, patronising, and as some sort of life-work enclave colony (see the work of Paul James, and Castells and Hall on these integrated planned urban-education university-community developments and their dubious progeny – in particular the Multi Media Super Corridor project in Malaysia, as discussed by Tim Bunnell [and myself, in the Nettime reader]). I think there is reason to question the turn of education advocacy into charity stunt – smuggling is an interesting sub theme in this paper – almost like a rumour at its edges (its those Malayali again that do the smuggling in Kerala) – but this is not just a local slur, in a wider sense I think something more is smuggled in with philanthropic activity around education for business (IT, biotech, Islamism), as, I believe, charity always is a smugglers trick, as we see with Bill Gates, Mother Theresa or State Aid (Dfid). I wanted a more general and critical take on charty. The problem is that the pro-education project is not open to question in terms of its reinforcement of a certain social hierarchy, its use by self-aggrandising capitalists, of the way debates about education construct ideas of public good etc etc, because this paper presents the views of businessmen as document, not in a critical mode. Perhaps we could hear some further views on this?
Instead, the ‘conclusion’ looks once more at the lack of spaces for women-as-entrepreneurs, stresses the role of ‘contacts’ in the business world, talks about the perceived importance of english schools but the lack of ‘discipline’ of the families, and then an odd intriguing bit at the end: “This far-reaching moral critique of public and private life – which increasingly also targets the not-so-Islamic behaviour of many Arab Muslims (eg drinking, prostitution and excessive consumption, but also failure to stand up to the Americans during the last Iraq war and in the face of increased threats to Iran) – has led organisations such as Jama’at Islam to declare full support to the Left Democratic Front during the recent assembly elections. As we write it is yet unclear the extent to which Islamist might have influenced vote switching, but Muslim League candidates failed to get elected in what had been historically safe seats. Significantly, amongst those who were defeated we find many former ministers – eg industry and PWD – closely associated to the six entrepreneurs we discussed in this paper.”
Basically, the paper looks at ‘Muslim’ attempts to modernize through education, while trying to assert Islamic values – but neither of these are questioned systematically in the paper – our anthropologists get out of critiquing the former by presenting it as the view of the community, and avoid the latter by being reluctant to critique the construct of a good Muslim businessman, in a developed society, a public minded Mulsim, a Muslim public sphere as a rhetoric of Islamist capital – we can see the idea of a good Muslim is never a neutral figure in the current post Sept 11/War of Terror/demonisation of all Muslims type environment. It would be great to debate this.
On education as a social good, or rather as a social evil, reinforcing hierarchy – ‘breeding ignorance and feeding radiation’, there is one dramatic interview passage in the paper I think is revealing of a more complex situation than my demand for critique can address. This passage opens up the paper and is worth the read in itself. It makes me want to hear more about curriculum, institutional formation, and business model in far more systematic terms. I would stop and have us read that together before addressing the next paper:
“One lower-middle class woman, Haseena, told Caroline confidentially, “It is my dream that my daughter should become a doctor; I left school at 14 and was married at 16; I could have done something with my life, but look at me!” Yet when Haseena’s cousin took admission to a prestigious and academically demanding English medium school run by the NSS (Nair Service Society) for her son, Haseena was scathing: the child would be put under too much pressure; the fees were too high and they would also be forever asking for extra money for trips or equipment; the child had to travel in an auto, whereas it was better to have a local, convenient school. Finally, the school was English medium: better, argued Haseena, to know one’s own mother-tongue properly than be half-proficient in both mother tongue and English. Haseena’s daughter was not sent to nursery and began to attend the local Malayalam medium girls’ school near home at age five. When Haseena’s husband came home from the Gulf on leave, daughter was taken out of school for two months so that the whole family could enjoy being together. Yet still Haseena believes that her daughter has a chance of entering a profession. She genuinely has no idea that the mothers in the middle-class colony where we lived, for example, had been drilling their children since age two (sic) in the English alphabet and in the answers to the nursery class admissions tests set by Calicut’s best schools. She could not begin to imagine the discipline imposed upon these children of the established middle-class, much less to impose what would seem to her such horrible cruelty upon her own beloved daughter. “
I tend to agree, this sounds horrible – education of this sort is nowhere near a social good. What sort of education will be?
If the first paper was sort of about pseudo-religious obligation to community, in the form of investment in education, this paper is about kinship proximity and charity – the good old gift-as-family-tyranny.
Degrees of Separation
Katy Gardner, Zahir Ahmed
The paper gives detailed analysis of the various household arrangements of a Bangledesh village (‘Jalalgao’ … [challo=go?]) There are five groups of people discussed – Londoni (those who have been/ continue to be in England); those who are/have family ties to those in Dubai (not much discussed); locals; temporary/permanent labourers (usually from the surrounding area); and those who live in the colonies (rented accommodations, the people here are usually from other, poorer, starvation parts of Bangladesh). The main thesis (illustrated by lots of case studies) is that Londoni provide an important ‘informal social protection mechanism’, but because these are disguised as gift relationships (therefore non-negotiable) they take the form of patron-client relationships. The authors also want to stress that those from the area are more likely to receive patronage and better ‘job’ opportunities.
Families who have ties to Britain are the wealthiest – they own the most land and property, though they do not work it and often rely on family members, or increasingly, paid help to look after it. Wealth gets redistributed in a variety of ways – through certain rituals and festivals to everyone, through remittances to immediate family members, through gifts in times of need etc to extended family members (primarily the gusti, patrilineal line), through arranging marriages to British Bangledeshis, and then for the more distant family, through a sort of pseudo employment/ indenture, where ‘gifts’ are given for ‘help’- non-negotiated, of course.
Various other interesting comments – women are less likely to know their wage. It is common to have people look after homes of absent Londoni. Colony inhabitants tend to come from areas suffering disasters etc. They are attracted by the relative wealth of the village, due to its large amount of Londoni. Relationships of trust are crucial for temporary labourers to get hired back… etc. And the village is far more a site of transformation and flux than ‘the stable villages conjured up in classical South Asian ethnography’ (a footnote reference to Inden is probably not enough to explain that this idea of sleepy villages was always a myth – myself I would use ADF:
A mass of sleeping villages
That’s how they’re pitching it
At least that’s what they try to pretend
But check out our history
So rich and revolutionary
(Naxalite from the album Rafi’s Revenge, 1998. Asian Dub Foundation.
Lyrics, Das, Pandit, Zaman, Tailor, Savale)
So back to Gardiner and Ahmed’s paper and I want to make some critical comments, address some absences. Some are no big deal, others I think worthy of discussion – unlike the previous paper, education is never mentioned as a factor, whether this be in increasing ‘development’ or merely as a part of modernization, which itself is never mentioned.
Nor do our authors describe what the people themselves see as good for long term ‘development’ – short term survival strategies are all that are discussed. Actually, they describe a very precarious situation (and do point out that when patrons die, these forms of ‘insurance’ disappear) with little ‘hope’ in it except for maintaining the ties that secure remittances etc, or for people to get a chance, through marriage perhaps, to also migrate to England.
Its also barely mention why Londoni are better off beyond brief hints that its success in the restaurant trade (and I guess earlier industrial work – mills etc – since British pensions play a big role in local wealth). This will, I take it, be rectified as there is a phase two of the research. I hope in this phase we also here more of why it was difficult to get information about remittances, why these are ‘sensitive’ issues – we can guess, but why not discuss it?
Gardiner and Ahmed keep suggesting that place is crucial, but I am very interested in how they have to admit in the conclusion that safety net functioning is determined more because of kinship and relational ties. Thus they end with a worry ‘that these ties will dissolve in the face of transnationalism’ – a sort of romanticism – what is disturbing here is that there seems to be no force of critique deployed at all – even if its clear in tone that what is described is not good – it might have been worth saying that this mode of ‘aid’/safety net, with all its inequities, favours, precarious contingency, personally tied aid, is arguably an even worse sort of dependence than if the area did access Grameen Bank funds! Why not a more explicit critique of remittances, charity, pensions as just that sort of charity that does nothing to achieve adequate redistribution. That once again reassures in the way that all charity does – a little gift so as to feel ok about never addressing the major inequalities.
So I wonder why this expanded level of critique is not present in the paper? Again I think the questions not asked are a consequence of the research set up. The project is one investigating patron-client relationships to draw attention to the power relations involved. I would certainly like to hear more about power in this scene. And I will suggest two homologous structures that seem to be reflected in this transnational patronage. Where the authors point out that some family members of employees may lose benefits if relations turn sour or kin members die, thereby support is withdrawn as the second and third generation migrants in England get less and less interested in maintaining ties to the ’desh, I wonder if there is not a larger homology with colonial power as such. As Britain becomes more and more reluctant to maintain even the semblance of aid/development obligation it earned as the great beneficiary of wealth extraction under the Raj. This makes me worry about the ways research projects might turn towards uncritical celebration of non State modes of poverty relief (safety nets etc). This is not neutral.
There are of course now programmes by the state that try to re-establish relationships, such as the UKIERI funding project I mentioned previously. In this regard then there is a smaller homology too – I would then wonder about the future of the two researchers who carried out ‘much of the fieldwork’ for Gardiner and Ahmed. These were Rushida Rawnek Khan and Abdul Mannan. No doubt like other clients these were ‘honest, reliable and skilled’ but I would like to hear more about them. I mean in terms of the patron-client relation in research. What is their safety net, given they are not named as co-authors? Perhaps not all the details are here for this case, but in many similar ones I think we can be concerned that something like ‘patron-client fieldwork’ structures the scene here, as homologous in that its a farmed out, sharecropper fieldwork, an absentee landlord (occasional fly by night visits) sort of ethnography, one that leads to a neo-liberal anthropology, one we should best critique in terms of power. And so I am keen again to call for a revolutionary anthropology, and for redistribution of wealth that does more than charitificate out loud.