Nandini Sundar

Delhi University anthropologist and indigenous rights advocate


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features Delhi University anthropologist Nandini Sundar.  She talks about her the lure of anthropology, involvement in litigation on the behalf of indigenous communities, becoming a public figure, the state of anthropology in India, and perceptions of the discipline, among other topics.

Nandini’s written answers are copied below:

(1)  What are you most passionate about?  And how long has this been a passion?

For the last five years I have been engaged in a campaign for justice for the indigenous communities with whom I first did fieldwork in central India in the face of counterinsurgency and strategic hamletting, to finish a Maoist guerilla movement. Of this, in the last three years, I have been engaged in litigating on their behalf. This had to be an obsession because without that it would have been difficult to take on the state. But the passion has begun to fade because it no longer requires my involvement at the same level – other people have got into the act, and I also have much less time to spare. However, I have to hold on to the work because it has to be seen through.

(2) What drives you?

See above.

(3) What makes you mad?

Double standards and lack of logic, regardless of whether its by academics or public officials or activists.

(4) Have you ever thought of running for public office?


(5) Have you ever contemplated a different career?  Which?

For a long time I was torn between being a full time activist with local communities because intellectual work alone seemed sterile, but now I am certain that I really am an anthropologist, and that’s what I like doing best. I think this is a dilemma that anthropologists are familiar with.

(6) What is something that only your closest friends know about you but that you are now willing to share with others?

Don’t know.

(7) What makes you smile (perhaps especially amid all the frustrations and chores at work or in life)?

Students writing silly things; politicians making sillier statements.

And for you:
(1)  Your own work focuses on violence and ways to call attention to it and ameliorate it.  If this is not a good description, or not a good enough one, could you fix it?

It has not always done so – its only been an obsession in the recent past. But I am equally interested in questions of inequality and discrimination, the politics of memory and representation, and directions in intellectual history. I actually long to move away from this current focus and revert to other issues, but before that I need to work the current project out of my system in a book form. I don’t know whether that will ever happen though, because now I’ve been landed with being head and dean and am overwhelmed with admin work. I feel as if my research life has come to an end, and three years down the line, the subject will be passé.

(2) Are there certain types of violence you prefer to address and others that just seem too entrenched to do much about?

One huge area which I have never engaged in is questions of discrimination due to disability, illness etc.. The kind of violence I am interested in is violence in which the state is involved or in which it has some role to play – e.g when it could stop domestic or religious/caste violence but does not.

(3) I know you were partly educated in India and partly in the U.S.  Were you also in Canada or the U.K.?  How did you end up choosing to come to graduate school in the U.S.?  Did you ever consider other countries?  Did the U.S. seem appealing to you in a particular way?

I graduated from Oxford University (BA hon in Philosophy, Politics and Economics). I think in terms of an undergraduate education it was far superior to anything else I have seen, but graduate work in the US is more exciting than in the UK – there is much more interdisciplinarity and experimentation.

(4)  I know that you have been co-editing the prestigious journal, CONTRIBUTIONS TO INDIAN SOCIOLOGY.  As a fellow (and now past) editor, I would love to hear you talk about some of the surprises you encountered when becoming coeditor?  Some of the delights?  Any real pleasures?

The real pleasure is seeing an article by a young scholar or someone from the academic boondocks which starts off as a good idea but is badly written or under-referenced or something – transform into a good article. (I know you do a lot of this kind of affirmative action Virginia, so I know you will understand).

(5)  Could the journal nowadays be renamed CONTRIBUTIONS TO INDIAN SOCIOLOGY AND ANTHROPOLOGY, or is “anthropology” still too suspect a term in the Indian academic or governmental world?  I ask because I know that there are official professional associations of anthropologists in India, two of them now members of the World Council of Anthropological Associations.   And yet I recall South Asianists telling me while I was in graduate school in the 1970s and early in my professorial life in the 1980s that it was better to be a sociologist in India than to label oneself an “anthropologist.”

Actually most of our articles are more anthropological than sociological, but in part the idea is to protest against the artificial geographical division into which subjects of anthropology and sociology have been divided.

But our more immediate concern is not to change the disciplinary nomenclature but how to become a journal of South Asia without changing the name. We already encourage contributions from other countries in the region but the name remains a limiting factor. On the other hand, the journal is fifty years old, so it would require a lot to change the name.

(6)  What is your greatest frustration about India these days?  About the U.S.?  About anthropology?

My greatest frustration about India is the bureaucracy in the university system, and the lack of good research and training in the regional universities. And in the US, it was the valorization of theory at the expense of good empirical research, though I dislike UK style empiricism as well. I dislike theorizing on the basis of thin ethnography and the kind of scholarship on India that finds purchase in the US is often that. But I think this may be changing, and I do not want to generalize.

(7)  What brings a true smile to your face when you think of India today?  And the U.S.?  And anthropology?

I like controversy – both intellectual and political – and am happy whenever there is more of it, though I am often too lazy or busy to engage in it myself. And both India and the US have plenty of it.

As for anthropology I love reading a good book and feeling as if a whole new world has opened up.

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