Please tell us about yourself

On September 5, 2017, the new COFUND-fellows were welcomed at the Max-Weber-Kolleg at the University of Erfurt, among them the Indian sociologist Dr. Juhi Tyagi. About six months after her arrival, we take the opportunity to interview her and reflect on  the first months of her research stay in Erfurt.

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Welcome to the University of Erfurt, Ms. Tyagi. Would you first tell us something about your background as a researcher?

I entered into research differently than most people. I come from the South of India and, after my basic education, decided to work in villages in the regions of Bihar and Kashmir. At that time, my first goal was to do development work. But after about five years I realized, that I had no analytical tools to answer the questions that I encountered. Only then did I decide to go for my Masters degree and for my Ph.D. My goal was to better understand what I found in the local villages, more specifically, how the movements of resistance in these villages came about and how they sustained themselves. I was amazed by the fact that the armed peasant movements that I had encountered during my fieldwork, experienced government oppression because of their violent actions but still received support in their villages. Some of them have been active for over 50 years. How was it possible that these underground movements came into existence and survived for such a long time?

How do you explain your current research projects to your students?

I work on radical social movements. For the past decade and a half, at least, this issue has found constant mention in the media. Everybody has read or, if not, heard about the pervasive presence of violent groups. These accounts have almost always been from the state perspective, focusing on the need and type of military counter-operations against rebel forces. Think of what you have read about American intervention in Iraq, about state counter-insurgency operations against terrorists in Syria, in Columbia; the list goes on.

I introduce my topic to students by asking them how we define a terrorist and what constitutes a terrorist act. I ask them to consider what configurations of power and social structures lead to the creation of radical groups and their definition as terrorist. This is not a new question by any means. In fact, even a recent mainstream Indian film had a leading protagonist question the court about its definition of terrorism, asking why systematic violence against dalits or the annihilation of adivasis (tribals) in the name of development were not considered terrorist acts; despite fitting the broader definition of being an unlawful use of violence and intimidation.

As a sociologist my aim is, through an analysis of the largest radical movement in India, to investigate and understand these groups in their entirety, including the structural systems that facilitate or abate their formations. The Maoists in India, for instance, were formed under the name of Naxalites in the 1970s. They continue to operate in several parts of India, demonstrating resilience. I look beyond state narratives of violence, carefully analyzing the existing political economy, types of class and caste networks, and non-violent (hence often neglected) organizational mechanisms used by such groups. I find that violent movements sustain themselves only when they painstakingly spend time forming local organizations that create and work on class-based networks. When these village class-networks are left to operate relatively autonomously, it enables the movement to align their ideologies with local needs, adequately address people’s problems through effective communication channels, and create what I call long-standing infrastructures of protest.

In discussing my research, I try to infuse students with a sense of inquiry and curiosity about current systems of inequality and injustice. To enable students to systematically seek to analyse the operation of capitalism within which groups enter conflicts, to learn to identify the mechanisms operating within these systems that produce competing interests and certain development practices. It also nudges students, as critical individuals, to think about viable forms of resistance, like the implications of the Occupy movements eschewing organizations, which my research points are crucial in movement sustenance.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I grew up in India. In the 10th grade, I began to help a friend’s mother with her research on obstetric health of rural women in the state of Karnataka, where I lived. What started as a summer project opened my mind to so many complexities. Women’s health was so deeply embedded within caste, class and gender inequalities. You couldn’t just create a government scheme that effectively improved the health of women without addressing patriarchy, low wages, and land ownership inequalities. A few years later after completing my Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Economics, Psychology from Jyoti Nivas College, Bangalore, I enrolled myself for a Masters in Development Studies at the Institute of Social Studies (in The Hague), to go deeper into some of these issues. It was a great program. I interacted with activists, development practitioners and academics from all over the world and returned to India, inspired and armed with a broader perspective than before. I became determined to start working on and learning about other rural contexts within the country. I joined a small non-profit research team called Aman (meaning peace) that worked in areas of political conflict in India. This took me to states like Bihar and Kashmir. It was my five years spent in the villages there that pushed me to pursue my current research on radical movements. I could see that these regions faced persistent gender, caste, class and religious injustice, but had equally complex movements as responses to their situation. I had read about these movements in the newspapers where they had always been represented as violent actors coercing local people. It is really only when you travel to these areas that you see a more complex side to how they work.

When I began my PhD at SUNY, Stony Brook, I found a great mentor in Michael Schwartz. He was as excited and convinced in my research question about how violent movements sustain themselves—and we both agreed that the answer probably lay beyond focusing on questions that had been asked thus far, specifically the timing and type of violent acts by these groups. We hypothesized that groups that attained some degree of longevity must be doing something more, something that entangled their organization with the villagers – who were the entities that could best sustain the movement. This led to my inquiry into the organizational networks necessary for these movements to become resilient, and beyond that to ask if and when these movements won anything for the poorest they claimed to represent. Both Michael and I believed that any research should always aim to ask big questions: about inequality, injustice, and the working of power structures. That it should matter for understanding and improving the plight of the most immiserated. Working on movements that intended to overthrow existing unequal power structures certainly met that goal.

Is this the question that you will focus on during your time at the Max-Weber-Kolleg as well?

Yes, these peasant movements will be the basis for my research here in Erfurt. But now I will also look at the question of what these armed movements actually achieved. For that purpose, I will compare two Indian states: one, in which there is no radical peasant movement, and one, in which there are active armed movements. Then, I will research what the living conditions of the agricultural workers in these states actually are, whether some of them are able to live better lives because of the action that these resistance movements took.

How are you ‘doing’ research? What are your most important research methods (interviews, archives, excavations…?)

I have relied on spending time in the field: both to define my questions and to find my answers. With a topic like mine, it can be both physically and emotionally draining to be in the field for extended periods, but for the same reasons, it can also always be very valuable and gratifying. I combined, in a limited way, the traditional style of ethnography, where you spend time observing people and their lives, with a more mobile open ended interview method that took me to over seventy villages. I spent time speaking with current cadre, surrendered militants and non-movement village members, using snowball sampling to locate these villages; some being in very remote areas located within dense forests. On several occasions, I failed to win the trust of the village and left without gathering any information. Building relationships with people takes time and in each situation there are different reasons for why people welcome you into their life and tell you their stories. Some were convinced by my previous work in the villages, some by my academic qualifications and research question, and others by the fact that if I as a single woman from the city had borne the hardship to live a village life for months, they owed it to me to tell me their stories.

I lived in villages in three distinct districts where I conducted the field work for my current book, over a period of sixteen months in 2013-2014. I compared villages that had a sustained movement presence to those with an episodic presence and those that had no movement at all, both within and across districts. The logic behind this method was to control for structural factors, so that I could safely narrow down on other (non-structural) causal mechanisms that proved crucial in the sustained movement villages. Technically, this is known as using the method of difference and the method of agreement.

I also relied on archives such as district gazettes to build the historical context informing contemporary economic and social arrangements. Lastly, I created and worked with a unique quantitative dataset which would not only allow me to triangulate my results but also allow me to directly address most ‘terrorism’ scholarship that has been predominantly quantitative, based on the number of casualties and amount of property damage. Using my field observations, I coded all major English newspaper dailies in India for the years 2000 to 2012 that made any mention of the Maoists. But instead of coding for just casualty or violent data, I created an elaborate coding for organizational strength of the movement on the ground. So, if villagers were caught storing arms for the rebels in their house, I knew (from my ethnographic research) that this indicated the presence of informational networks of the movement on the ground. Hence, backed with my field data, I started to code every Maoist story for what it indicated of the relationship and organizational structure of the movement in the villages. If the Maoists were threatening or killing civilians for being informers, or blasting school buildings, for instance, I saw it as an indicator of negative or very weak movement-village relations.

I found, in both my qualitative and quantitative analysis, that it was the creation of relatively autonomous local village organizations that ultimately helped sustain a movement. Areas with negative or weak movement organizational presence (plunging the group into indiscriminate and illegitimate violence, categorized as terrorism) failed to find longevity.

Do you have any preliminary results already that you might be able to tell us about?

I already did some field work through the ICAS-project – with which the Max-Weber-Kolleg is also involved – in New Delhi and, of course, have thought about and reflected on these topics during my time here. My hunch is that the armed movements in one of the districts brought about political education, which then led to the organization of the workers, which in turn led to higher wages. I think that the rise in wages is not simply due to demand and supply but due to the active involvement of the labor movement in these areas. I will now attempt to find more data in order to support my preliminary findings.

How does your time at the Max-Weber-Kolleg contribute to your project?

I found that doing work in the field as a sociologist is a time of data-gathering. I collect everything I can find, file it away, and go into the field again in order to find more data. When I am at a university setting such as at the University of Erfurt, I analyze all the data and only then see an argument emerge. My time in Erfurt is thus a time of reflecting and writing. I also find it extremely useful to meet with people at the Max-Weber-Kolleg who do research on India and on topics such as political structures during antiguity or the nature of capitalism. In that way, I learn to position my work in the larger field and within an interdisciplinary context. This is also the reason why I applied for a fellowship. I already knew a couple of researchers at the MWK: I wanted to work with Martin Fuchs in the ICAS-project and I had personal connections such as to Antje Linkenbach-Fuchs and Andreas Pettenkofer that led to an institutional connection, which I very much appreciate.

What does your typical day as a researcher and COFUND-Fellow look like?

I usually go running in the morning. Then I either go to German class or straightaway to my office. Being at my office structures my work, and the breaks and chats with the colleagues in the building enrich it.

Is there any location in Erfurt that you particularly enjoy?

Since I love the outdoors, I really like the parks, walks along the canal and the quaint streets here. On the other hand, Erfurt was also a bit of a surprise to me. I noticed a certain lack of diversity. I stand out with my skin color, and not all of the experiences here were pleasant. I had never experienced this to such a degree before, neither in India nor in New York City where I studied before. Therefore, it is my goal to become more involved in the community here. I am interested in working with the refugee population and, both because of my personal experiences and because I am a sociologist, I am interested in finding out why some people here have become so afraid of the Other, of people who are or look different than they are. I have already had contact with the local unions to work for their political training program with refugees.

Becoming involved in society is also part of the COFUND-programme…

Yes, and I hope to be able to contribute to this discussion within German society by lecturing and talking about my experiences and research of power and structure in India, the U.S., and here.

What is next for you after you leave Erfurt?

My heart is always divided between fieldwork and academic study. Right now, I think I might look towards life as an academic. In the end, I am not sure where I will go. My basic training was done in India, I received my Ph.D. at the State University of New York, now I am here, but my partner and my dog are still in the Himalayas. All of this, and especially my partner, will play an important part in future decisions. I know that I can work pretty much everywhere as I wrote my dissertation in a Himalayan village in total seclusion, just with the computer and a Kindle that connected me to the outside world.