Connecting with Yasmin Saikia on the study of peace

Born in Assam, India, Yasmin Saikia comes from a long line of academics. Her family raised her to be an educated, secular, successful young woman, and to live in the world as a global individual.

It wasn’t until Saikia came to America to study history, however, that she began to study race and had what she describes as a “psychological unhinging.” The inequality that she witnessed here, in what she regarded as the greatest country in the world, reminded her of the caste system in her native India.

After completing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Saikia became the first South Asian historian at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. There, she began studying the effects of violence and war on women and children. She focused on the 1971 war that led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Her encounters with men and women in refugee camps in Bangladesh and post-war communities in Pakistan inspired her to pursue a career in peace studies.

Today, Saikia is the Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University. Also a professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Saikia studies the cultural and religious turmoil affecting marginalized groups in South Asia.

She recently received the 2013 Oral History Association Book Award for “Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971.” The book has been lauded for changing the field of peace studies by centering people as the agents of change developing a new vision of peace through religious humanism.

OKED writer Lorraine Longhi sat down with Saikia to discuss her research, her role at ASU and the evolving definition of peace studies.

Q: Peace studies is an abstract concept. How do you define peace?

A: Peace studies is a discipline in many European universities and colleges, but it is not a discipline in itself in the United States. In America, when we study peace it’s usually just a course here or there. We seem to think of peace as a personal issue, to reach a level of tranquility within ourselves. But to live peacefully with others requires more than just feeling calm and happy. It requires certain negotiations and compromises and accommodations. That makes it into a field of study. There are no countries in the world that have an official peace policy. There are defense and war policies but no peace policies. So to define that sense of peace, living peacefully and interacting with others peacefully, we have to define it ourselves. It cannot be defined in one word. If you ask a Buddhist, they might say peace is “tranquility.” If you ask a Muslim, they would say “surrender.” If you ask a Hindu, they will say it is “liberation.” But peace is not an afterword for war or violence; it is simultaneous. There’s no definition, but I see it as a healthy anxiety. We have to remember it is a human goal that has to be renewed every day in all of our negotiations and interactions, and through generations. It is a horizon that you aspire to. It is a dynamic thing, constantly evolving. Because it’s dynamic, it demands each one of us be constantly vigilant about our humanity.

Q: Your topics are always relevant in times of war and displacement. How can we look at history to solve problems in the present and the future?

A: These are stories that can be shared anywhere at any time because they’re human stories. I try to write about these things not as a historian, but as a journeying woman, trying to see communities that carry the past with them. It’s important to look at the problems with these communities and examine them. Are they historic problems or are they problems that are created? I’m finding very quickly that these problems do not always have deep histories but that they’re very much constructed by the political conditions of our times. They are sudden ruptures. Cleavages between people are created, and studying how these cleavages are created and constructed is important to look forward to a better future. We have to start respecting people and giving them the chance to express their wants and needs instead of imposing our wants and needs. We can’t pretend we know what they want. The cacophonous voices of diverse human concerns must be listened to and respected.

Q: What is one of the biggest challenges in studying such an emotional issue?

A: It’s an extremely emotional and extremely difficult field. I’m dealing with real people and living subjects. To listen to their stories and to be able to recall these stories and tell them to others is very difficult. It is not simply a story. You’re a caretaker of these people’s lives and I’m trying to relate these lives to others to show how we are all alike. I’m very proud when I’m able to convey these emotions and experiences in a way that others can absorb and think about it. The more awareness we create, the more potential we create for peaceful worlds. From that point of view, I feel that the emotion is well-invested. I want people to realize that we all share the same condition. Hopefully somewhere, some change will happen and people will begin a dialogue with one another.

Q: You’ve studied the impacts of war and displacement on men and women. Now your focus has turned to children. What has that experience been like?

A: Studying men and women made me realize I was studying my own generation’s response to history. But what is the legacy of history that we leave behind? I realized the legacy that we leave to our children is our responsibility. I started looking at how children view peace and violence, and how they judge our generation. From children, I’m seeing a very different understanding of peace and violence. The beauty of children is that they are untainted by political circumstances or divisions of hate and prejudice. Children have a mentality of looking introspectively and asking why, and what does peace and violence mean in real life situations; how it affects the other child. This is very different from the way adults theorize peace, as if it is a “management” issue. For children, the feeling for the other is an institutive thing. It is important to study children and their views because we are living and using their future time now; we are borrowing it from them and we have a responsibility because of it.

Q: How difficult is it to translate the issue of peace studies into your classroom?

A: We are human beings and we have to care about one another. To teach that idea is not very easy without making it touchy-feely. To keep it at the level of a critical idea is not very easy. Additionally, there is nobody else at this university that is directly and fully absorbed in the study of peace. There are people who are tangentially interested in the topic, but I have no one else to speak with about where can we really go with this field of study. You need community, and this community still needs to be developed. My hope is that we can become a community of scholars that is thinking of peace as a field of study at ASU. To build that community is one of my biggest challenges.

Q: Why did you decide to come to ASU and become the Hardt-Nickachos chair?

A: I took this position because it gave me the opportunity to work with history through the lens of peace. I had never visited Arizona before, but because of the nature of this position, I came to ASU. I wasn’t just looking for a job – I was looking for a different kind of job that provides new meaning to my scholarship. I believe that if my research and teaching would impact even one person’s life and make him or her think of issues that concern the well-being of others, I have achieved some success. My purpose is not focused so much on building my career. I am now focused on how my career can enable others to contribute to building ethical communities. The university is a wonderful space for this engagement because we have to deal with a variety of others.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

I’m taking it one step at a time. I started as a historian of medieval South Asia, and now I am historian of peace. At this point in my career, I think I’ve realized that I’ll be doing this for a long time. It has become an ethical, an intellectual and a political issue for me. I’m no longer interested in solely writing histories of big issue and big events, but in writing about issues that enhance the thinking about peace dignifying the human at an individual and collective level. My projects will continue to shift and evolve, but the thrust of my research is grounded in the ethics and politics of peace.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies are research and academic units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Written by Lorraine Longhi, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development