UCSB Professor Helps Us Understand India
Mary Hancock Gives Insight into Her Latest Book The Politics of Heritage from Madras to Chennai
Professor Mary Hancock has just released a second book, following her successful Womanhood in the Making, which was published in 1999. She has taught at UCSB since 1994 and currently holds dual appointments as associate professor in both the anthropology and history departments. Hancock began visiting Chennai, then called Madras, in the mid 1980s, and has based her new book, The Politics of Heritage from Madras to Chennai, on the changes she’s witnessed in the past two decades. We corresponded recently by email.
If you could sum up in one sentence what you want people to take away from reading your book, what would it be?
I’ll have to say this in two-and-a-half sentences! First, heritage isn’t just buildings, statues, and museums, but includes cultural knowledge and practices, and there are always multiple and competing ways of remembering and representing the past. And second, cultural heritage conservation (including debates about what should be conserved and by whom) is a critical part of how people enact their identities.
Of all the cities you could study, why Chennai?
Chennai, formerly Madras, is one of India’s largest cities and has long been a global city – from its 17th century roots as an East India Company trading post to its current status as an outsourcing, information technology, and manufacturing center. However, until the 1990s, life there tended to be slower paced and more culturally conservative than India’s other large cities. It also maintained a strong regional identity, based on Tamil language and culture. (Tamil, the regional language, is completely different from Hindi and is thought to have originated with India’s earliest indigenous populations; Hindi is a descendent of the languages spoken by early migrants to the Indian subcontinent.) This changed with the liberalization of India’s economy and the rapidity of economic change. Its far-reaching social and cultural effects made Chennai a perfect case to examine how local cultural identity and heritage are impacted by large-scale economic change.
Are there aspects of Santa Barbara that correlate with these ideas of public space and redefining itself to adapt to changing times?
Great question! I think that S.B.’s efforts to retain architectural, visual, spatial, and performative (e.g., Fiesta) references to its Spanish colonial past are good examples of this. While this was spurred by the destruction of the downtown during the 1920s, it has become a focal point for local identity formation as well as for tourist industry “branding” of the city. S.B. also has active communities of cultural producers and local history-keepers who have introduced new, sometimes counter-cultural forms of performance and space that are important parts of minority and oppositional identities – I’m thinking here of the original Solistice celebrations, of Chumash oral historical and cultural projects, and the efforts to record oral histories of Isla Vista and commemorate its role in student and antiwar movements of the 1960s.
When you heard about the recent Mumbai attacks, what was your initial reaction?
I was distraught and deeply saddened, having many friends who live there (or whose families live there). I was also shocked by the way that the attacks were carried out, especially the attackers’ ability to bring a city of 19 million to a virtual standstill for a protracted period of time.
Does it surprise you or make sense that India was targeted?
First, as of today (December 3), we don’t yet know exactly who was responsible for the attacks – beyond the likelihood that the Pakistan-based Lakshar-e-Taiba was involved in their coordination and implementation, so it is hard to do more than speculate about why Mumbai was selected. That said, it does not surprise me that an attack of that sort took place, as it follows a pattern of violence that has escalated since 2001, including the 2001 bombing of the Indian Parliament building and the recent bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel.
What social or historical aspects of India make it especially vulnerable to terrorist attacks?
To understand the attacks, it’s important to put them in the context of India’s history, especially since independence and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, which has included waves of ethnic, class, and sectarian conflict, much of it attendant on nation-building efforts by the federal government. This continuing history of conflict has included the participation of a powerful and often violent Hindu nationalist movement.
How has the nationalist movement contributed to terrorist activity?
That movement originated in the 1920s as an anti-colonialist movement, but remobilized in the 1980s in response to a variety of domestic political crises. Organizations affiliated with Hindu nationalist groups targeted India’s Muslim community (who constitute about 13 percent of India’s population and tend to be poorer and less advantaged socially and politically), destroying residential and commercial areas, inciting riots, attacking mosques. (Indian Christians have also been targeted by these organizations, especially in Orissa, an east-central state, and in the states of northeast India.) Mumbai, then known as Bombay, was the site of some of the worst riots in India’s history in early 1993, following Hindu nationalists’ destruction of a mosque in another state. Indeed, Mumbai is the new name that was selected by the Hindu nationalist sympathizers who controlled the city’s government in the 1990s. Mumbai’s class divide, its size, and its organized crime network set the stage for those events.
From your observations in Chennai, are the extreme views of the Hindu nationalist organizations representative of the majority of the Hindu population?
No, they represent the views and interests of only a minority of the Hindu population. But they have gained considerable political power, with a Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, heading the national government from 1998 to 2004. The bottom line is that there is a complicated situation of domestic conflict between Hindu and Muslim communities, particularly in certain locations, including Mumbai. These local conflicts, moreover, have been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan over the control of Kashmir and by Pakistan’s political and economic instability, which have enabled Islamicist movements such as Wahhabism and the Taliban groups to flourish.