Teaching Political Violence: Experiences from a South Asian Classroom

Published date01 December 2017
Date01 December 2017
Subject MatterTeaching-Learning Politics in India
Teaching-Learning Politics in India
Teaching Political Violence:
Experiences from a
South Asian Classroom
Ankur Datta1
In his seminal book on violence during the Sri Lankan civil war, the anthropologist E. Valentine Daniel
writes about his experiences while teaching a course on violence in an American classroom. During a
discussion on ethnic violence in South Asia, one of the students had remarked that violent events took
place in South Asian countries due to the inherent violence of South Asian societies unlike the Modern
West (1996, p. 7). For Valentine Daniel, the certainty of the student’s belief in an essentialized view of
cultures was disturbing, compounded by the apparent ignorance of the history of war in Europe alone.
This encounter also raises an important set of questions: How is a topic such as political violence to be
taught in a university classroom in a way that pushes forward our thinking on violence and suffering and
helps us avoid essentialized notions? What would a course on political violence have to offer to students
who are otherwise exposed to a larger public discourse on and of violence in all forms? How is such a
course to be taught in classrooms in countries such as India where violence can be observed in a range
of forms and situations and where students and teachers are perhaps often implicated in violence?
This article seeks to engage with such questions as I draw on my experiences in teaching a single
semester course on political violence for a postgraduate programme in Sociology at the South Asian
University (SAU). I shall first situate my experiences in relation to anthropological scholarship on
violence and then describe the course and classroom setting. This is a course I developed and have taught
over a period of 5 years. From these experiences, I shall draw on two sets of themes, the first of which
relate to situations where students are themselves implicated in histories of violence, as heirs to violent
legacies or direct witnesses. This will be followed by a second related theme which pertains to how
teachers and students look at experiences of violence and suffering of others. The article will then end
with a discussion of the contexts in which teaching topics such as violence take place.
Framing an Anthropology of Violence
While there is a long history of engagement with political life in anthropology and sociology, the interest
in violence started much later. As Malesevic suggests, early twentieth century sociology was marked by
a tendency to avoid an engagement with collective violence and war (2010, p. 17). It was during the
post-colonial period when research began to be conducted on a much larger scale in the new nation-states
Note: This section is coordinated by Rajeshwari Deshpande. E-mail: rajeshwari.deshpande@gmail.com
1 Assistant Professor, South Asian University, Akbar Bhavan, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Ankur Datta, Assistant Professor, South Asian University, Akbar Bhavan, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi - 110021, India.
E-mail: ankurdatta@soc.sau.ac.in
Studies in Indian Politics
5(2) 262–268
© 2017 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023017727983

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