By Prasenjit Duara
With this first blog of my Presidential tenure, I would like to express my gratitude for your support and confidence in electing me to this position. Coming into the Presidency of the Association in these deeply troubled geo-political times has been very challenging, and I will need your support and participation more than ever. What seemed relatively remote in the personal lives of scholars has touched us more directly in this last year. I refer not only to the controversy raised by the Indian government’s denial of visas to Pakistani citizens and people of Pakistani descent prior to our 2018 conference in Delhi, but also the upcoming AAS-in-Asia conferences in Bangkok (2019) and Hong Kong (2020), places where concerns about academic freedom are regular topics of conversation. To gauge the sentiment of the AAS membership in regard to these conferences, the officers of the association decided to hold a first town hall meeting at the 2019 annual conference in Denver, and then follow it up with a survey sent to the entire membership. My personal views regarding the future of AAS-in-Asia reflect some of the opinions expressed at the town hall meeting, as well as on the survey.
You can read a summary of the survey results in this #AsiaNow post.
My enthusiasm for AAS-in-Asia precedes my election to the Vice Presidency and Presidency of AAS by a number of years. It began when I was Director of the Asia Research Institute (ARI) in Singapore and attended the 2011 AAS conference in Hawaii, held jointly with the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS). I noted the large numbers of scholars from Asia at the conference and realized that AAS was becoming increasingly global in its membership. There appeared to be an unrecognized reservoir of interest in the AAS meetings, and I wondered if they could be made more regularly available to scholars based outside North America. I approached the AAS officers during the Presidency of Gail Hershatter (2011-2012) and suggested having periodic AAS meetings in Asia. After much deliberation by the board of directors, the first AAS-in-Asia conference was rolled out in Singapore in 2014. This was followed by meetings co-hosted by universities in Taipei, Kyoto, Seoul, Delhi, and now Bangkok in 2019. Attendance at these conferences, especially by scholars in Asia, has increased significantly, confirming the demand for such meetings in Asia.
What the Denver town hall and the subsequent survey revealed was that there is strong support among the AAS membership for AAS-in-Asia. Even in response to the question, “Recognizing that political problems such as visa denials and censorship will likely remain, do you want AAS-in-Asia to continue beyond the Bangkok and Hong Kong conferences in 2019 and 2020, respectively?” the majority (81%) of the 517 survey respondents answered affirmatively. In written comments, some also expressed the view that there were double standards being applied to conference participation norms in Asia and the U.S./Canada, where visas are frequently denied, often based on nationality.
At the same time, many members disagreed with how the AAS Board handled the Delhi controversy and called on the association to be more transparent and prompt in informing members about denial of visas or other infringements of free academic expression. On this last matter, the officers have determined that, if such a situation were to arise, we would announce the matter to the membership so they can take a responsible decision about their participation. Additionally, AAS will also post information about the climate of academic freedom in the pertinent Asian societies on the website so members can remain informed.
For me, the most heartening part of the survey was the thoughtfulness with which members responded. While a majority felt that AAS-in-Asia should not be held every year but every two or three years, they also had suggestions about the conditions and procedures by which the venue of the conference be selected. One point of view held that it be co-hosted only in places where freedom of academic expression could be expected to be more securely upheld, such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. Others believed that in this climate of growing nationalism, such academic freedoms can no longer be assured anywhere.
Yet others agreed that AAS take a kind of “round-robin” approach, through which scholars denied access in one country be encouraged to express their views in another. Indeed, AAS-in-Asia will bring the eight visa-denied Pakistan scholars to Bangkok this summer to present their papers and views. A few survey respondents suggested that Pakistan should become a future venue for AAS-in-Asia. One scholar expressed their rationale for such a view: “It might give partner institutions leverage to say to their governments that if you deny this small number of people a voice now, then the entire conference will be in that location in a few years.” However one feels about this rationale, such views demonstrate to me that the controversy has strengthened our organization and encouraged a forum for open debate and discussion that needs to be continued.