Politicized Research: A Conversation with Professor Aparna Vaidik
By Diya Isha, UG 22
Image Credits: ashoka.edu.in
In conversation with historian, writer, and associate professor of History at Ashoka University, Aparna Vaidik who was recently awarded a grant of £50,000 (about Rs.50 lacs) by the British academy for the project titled ‘The Ownership of Public History in India’ (TOPHI). Her co-collaborators are Dr Shalini Sharma from Keele’s School of Humanities, and Dr Maya Dodd from India’s FLAME University, and partner organisation The Keystone Foundation.
Isha: How did your journey as a student of history begin?
Vaidik: It was really by chance. I received admission for History Honours at St. Stephen’s College, a premier institution at the time. So, I decided to accept the offer and study history instead of political science—a subject that initially captivated my interest.
Isha: When did you realise that you wanted to teach and research?
Vaidik: I did my senior history thesis on Lord Curzon’s cultural policy with Prof. C. A. Bayly while studying at Cambridge University. It was the first time I went to different archives and lived through the frustration and thrills of doing research. I knew I only wanted to do research, but I had to teach in order to sustain it. Initially, I wasn’t sold on the idea of teaching as it was a demanding day-job. However, with time I grew to enjoy it.
Isha: Did you find the activities complementing each other?
Vaidik: Yes and no. In my early years of teaching in Delhi University, they were not complimentary as one had to teach the courses and syllabi framed by the University. Later when I taught at Georgetown University, USA, I began to design my own courses but still rarely taught anything related to my research. It was more fun to explore newer and different materials in the classroom setting. It is for the first time, with the Public History project, that my research and pedagogical interests are coming together.
Isha: Why did you choose the topic that you did for this study?
Vaidik: In the past few years the rise of right-wing in India and the crisis of liberalism have raised new questions for the historians such as: how can we historians enter into debate with individuals and groups in Indian society who have their own view of the past? How do we engage the popular understanding of the past or what we actually reject as partisan drivel? How do we deal with the public questioning of the alliance between history-writing and liberalism? These questions led me towards the idea of public history.
Isha: Do you think oral history and memory play a role in your research?
Vaidik: Oral history and memory do play an important role in this research because practicing public history fundamentally requires you to re-examine the notion of ‘archive’—a word associated with written documents preserved in institutional repositories. However, the archives while providing a wealth of information about the past are also spaces of violence and erasures that write out massacres, genocide and land grab. The archives can disempower communities. Therefore, public history requires us to turn to oral history and memory as repositories of the community’s traditions, belief systems, and experiential knowledge.
Isha: How do you think collaboration helps your research?
Vaidik: The word ‘Ownership’ in the title of the research project is important. Coming out of colonialism and with the bloody history of partition, the past came to be seen as an entity needing saving and therefore was only safe in the hands of a specialist trained to handle it. Indian historians thus became self-appointed custodians of this past. However, public history sees ‘the public’ not just as the target and recipient of the historical knowledge but participants in the work of analysis. This collaboration seeks to expand the consciousness of a public citizen.
Isha: How do you think your research will help marginalised communities?
Vaidik: It will allow them to write about their past on their own terms. It will be like deer, instead of the lions, narrating the story of the hunt.
Isha: What advice would you give to an amateur researcher?
Vaidik: Art for art’s sake is beautiful but art without politics is meaningless. Same goes for research.
Isha: What challenges do you anticipate while creating the database of public history resources in India?
Vaidik: First, Public History is a multilingual practice, and the primary challenge is going to be a linguistic one. Second challenge is one of collaboration: how to restrain the inherent elitism of historians and not impose our notions of past on people’s understanding of the past.
Isha: How can we encourage budding historians to delve into the world of research?
Vaidik: Research is fun if one is curious, irreverent, comfortable with solitude, and willing to question one’s own frames of reference. So, if that is something you enjoy then research is for you.
Isha: In what manner will the introduction of marginalised epistemologies in teaching affect university learning and experience, especially in Ashoka?
Vaidik: Receiving good education in India is a privilege. Introduction of marginalized epistemologies is one of the ways in which one can sensitize the students to other worlds and other lives: and to the limitations of their own.
Isha: Thank you for your time, professor, and once again, congratulations!