DENVER -- Is there anywhere in the world an academic association can hold a conference without making some kind of ethical compromise?
The Association for Asian Studies held a town hall meeting here Saturday night during its annual meeting to ask the question of whether it should continue to organize regional conferences in Asia. Controversy ensued last year after it emerged that the Indian government had barred Pakistani scholars from participating in an AAS-in-Asia conference in New Delhi.
More than 600 scholars signed an open letter at the time faulting the AAS leadership for not canceling the conference and for not informing participants about the restrictions on Pakistani scholars in a timely manner so that they might have the option of withdrawing prior to making travel arrangements. The February letter from India’s Ministry of External Affairs barring Pakistani participants was posted on the conference website as a hyperlinked document in a section about visa information, but AAS did not call attention to the restrictions or make any kind of public statement until news of it broke on social media in June, one month prior to the conference.
Anne Feldhaus, the Distinguished Foundation Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and the president of AAS at the time of Saturday's town hall, said the association chose not to make a public statement upon learning of the visa restrictions in March at the request of its partner in organizing the conference, the New Delhi-based Ashoka University.
“The reason we didn’t cancel the conference is one we can debate,” Feldhaus said during Saturday’s town hall. “The reason we did not reveal in a very loud, public way the fact that this had been done to us was that our partners in Delhi insisted that that was their prerogative and that they were working behind the scenes with the government of India and it was not for us to speak about the government of India. That was their job. In my view, we were faced with the choice between being as transparent as our membership would like and if we did that being neocolonial in our relationship with our partners, or on the other hand being true partners of our partners.”
Members speaking at Saturday’s town hall criticized AAS for its handling of the situation and said the failure to notify participants as soon as the visa restrictions became known put them in ethically compromising positions. “By the time I got the news, it was too late for me to step back,” said Martha Selby, chair of Asian studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Selby said by the time she learned of the ban -- via Facebook, not an official AAS communication -- her university had already committed funds for her travel and she’d engaged in extensive planning of a panel with colleagues from India.
“Had I known when AAS knew this would have been an issue, I would have very quietly withdrawn,” Selby said, “and it also put me at odds with several of my colleagues on the U of T campus, colleagues who are very dear to me. They questioned me about why I would go to such an event after this happened.”
But while there was criticism of AAS’s handling of the situation in Delhi, several AAS members spoke in favor of continuing to organize conferences in Asia in the future.
“I strongly endorse the idea of continuing to meet in Asia,” said Arjun Guneratne, a professor of anthropology at Macalester College. He added that he was astonished by the lack of self-reflection in the discussion in Denver.
“We live in a country where scholars from Iran, Sudan and elsewhere may not attend a conference in this country purely because of their citizenship, purely because of their religion,” Guneratne said. “If we are going to be outraged because Pakistani scholars were not allowed to come to New Delhi, we should be outraged now that there are potentially Asianists from Iran or Asianists from some other country that are in the crosshairs of the State Department that are unable to come here.”
Ananya Vajpeyi, an associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, offered the perspective of an American-trained academic who taught at U.S. colleges but is now teaching in India. “For someone like me … it’s great for us that there is a conference option somewhere closer to home, more affordable,” she said.
Vajpeyi also argued that the problem of visa restrictions isn’t one that can be solved by either AAS or Ashoka University. “These are issues of national policy and international politics; it should not be a matter of a blame game on the leadership of the AAS,” she said.
“We all condemn hypernationalism, we all condemn xenophobia, and we can’t be responsible that our countries are practicing such policies that we ourselves don’t agree with … Some perspective and some modulation are called for.”
Fabio Lanza, a professor of history at the University of Arizona, argued, however, that if AAS does move ahead with hosting conferences in Asia, it needs to be more transparent with members, and not only in the event of a problem.
"What’s the standard for not choosing a place?" Lanza asked. "Do they ban LGBT people, should we go? Can we have a panel about Xinjiang or Tibet [two sensitive topics in China that are often subject to censorship] -- should we go? I’m not saying the answer is no or yes. I’m saying this is a decision the members should actually be part of."
"I’d also point out that we are a pan-Asian institution in terms of membership, but we are a North American-based institution," Lanza added (AAS's secretariat is based in Ann Arbor, Mich.). "Why do AAS-in-Asia is also a question. We don’t have to do it.”
AAS started holding regional conferences in Asia in 2014. The association has so far held five conferences in Asia -- in Singapore, Taipei, Kyoto, Seoul and Delhi -- and has a sixth conference scheduled for this summer in Bangkok. A seventh conference is in the planning stages for Hong Kong.
“I can imagine that if there are topics that couldn’t be talked about in Bangkok, they could be encouraged in Hong Kong,” said Laurel Kendall, a past president of the association and the curator of Asian Ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History. “If this is a pan-Asian organization and if we all recognize that there are going to be issues everywhere -- including huge visa issues in this country -- there are ways we can … use the resources we have as a pan-Asian organization to allow for the discussion of topics that can’t be discussed here but can be there.”
But each location brings different issues. Katherine Bowie, another past president and the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, raised the question of whether AAS will need to warn members planning on participating in the Bangkok conference that they cannot criticize the monarchy, which is a criminal offense in Thailand punishable by jail time.
Bowie also discussed the difficulty of finding university partners in certain countries in Asia that have the capacity to organize conferences with 1,000 or more attendees. Sri Lanka is difficult, she said, as is Nepal; if AAS is unable to locate a partner in Pakistan, “that means we go back to India; we do this all over again.” And in regards to its conference in Thailand this summer, Bowie said the association could be criticized for de facto supporting a military regime.
AAS is following up on Saturday’s town hall with a survey of members about their views on future AAS-in-Asia conferences. “Do we continue to do this knowing that in every location we will be compromised?” Bowie asked. “Maybe not in the same way, but we will always be compromised.”