Prof Talk: Arjun Guneratne on Nepal, Sri Lanka

By Lily Alexander

Professor Arjun Guneratne of the Anthropology Department has taught at Macalester since 1995. As a socio-cultural anthropologist, Guneratne has focused his research on the Tharu people of Nepal and has published a book entitled Many Tongues, One People: The Making of Tharu Identity in Nepal. He has also conducted research in Sri Lanka focusing on the relationship between globalization and environmental movements. Guneratne is the editor of the journal Himalaya and a member of the executive board of the Association for Nepal and Himalaya Studies (ANHS). From Oct. 28-30, Macalester will be hosting the first ANHS meeting. TMW: Your first book concerned the Tharu people of Nepal. What drew you to study the Tharu people? Arjun Guneratne: The main thing that drew me to study the Tharu people was that not many other people have been writing about them. There was a lot of work that had been done on mountain people but almost half the population of Nepal lives in the lowlands. So I thought this is some place I could do something creative and original and the Tharu are people that live in the lowlands. That’s what took me to Nepal. Are they the majority ethnic group in Nepal? No, there isn’t really a majority ethnic group. Nepal is really a country of minorities. No single community forms a majority. Some communities are much more powerful and much more socially, politically and economically dominant than others, and the Tharu are not one of them. I think people that would call themselves Tharu are probably six or seven percent of the population. They’re one of the larger ethnic groups in Nepal, but they don’t have a lot of political or economic power. You’ve also written about different conceptions of the environment and ecology in the Himalayas. Is this an outgrowth of your study of the Tharu? No, actually the two aren’t really connected. My work on the Tharu has focused mostly on questions of ethnic identity and identity formation, and its relationship to state formation. I also have a very long-term interest in environmental issues and so I wanted to pursue those interests. Where the Himalaya is concerned, I pursued that interest in terms of asking how different groups of people, different communities, different societies in the Himalaya conceptualize environment. I organized a conference at Macalester in 2004, and a bunch of people came and presented papers, and we had great discussions about this issue, and those [papers] were finally collected and published as a book a couple of years ago. That book examines the question: is environment a concept with cross-cultural validity? And the conclusion we came to is that it isn’t. That even for Himalaya, which is a fairly small place, different communities of people conceptualize environment in different ways which are not necessarily compatible with each other, and some people don’t even have a concept of environment. Your biography also mentions that you have long-time interest in the development of the environmental movement in Sri Lanka. Has that movement interacted with the environmental movements elsewhere in the world? We live in a world that is globally connected, and environmental movements everywhere usually have some connection or some contact with what’s going on elsewhere. My work in Sri Lanka has really developed in the direction of an interest in ideas and practices about wildlife and conservation and how those ideas and practices emerged from particular social groups. I’m actually looking at the history of wildlife preservation in Sri Lanka and locating it in its origins in the British colonial period where it began as a movement for preserving certain kinds of large mammals that the British liked to hunt. It started as a game preservation movement and then over a period of time, as local Sri Lankan elite groups came into prominence and sort of took control from the British, the focus has shifted to a much broader perspective, not just game but wildlife in general. And so that is what my current research is about. It’s really focusing on wildlife conservation as a sort of a sub-area of environmentalism and I see it mostly as a kind of movement for people we might call middle-class activists and it’s not really sort of broad-based, it’s not a popular movement. How long have you been involved in the Association for Nepal and Himalayan studies? For a very long time, probably since 1996. 1996 is when I became a member of the executive council but I’ve been a member since I was in graduate school, so the early 90s. So yes, for a very long time. How did you assume the role of organizing this particular conference? The way it worked it out is there are two conferences that I’m organizing and they’re both taking place at the same time. One is called the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs, and I used to be a member of the executive council of that. Basically the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs meets at a different university or college in the Midwest every year. Someone’s got to volunteer. I volunteered to do it at Macalester, but once I had let myself do that I figured well if I’m doing one conference, I can do two conferences because it’s not exactly double the workload. And part of my motivation for organizing the Himalaya Studies Conference is that as editor of the journal I’m interested in generating submissions to it, so by organizing a conference where people come and present their research, my hope is that they will then take the next step and work their research that they present up into publishable form and send it to the journal. So that’s part of the motivation to do that, and also because I think organizing a conference is one of the ways that you promote research. You’re creating outlets for people to engage each other in conversation and talk about what they’ve found and create the synergies that lead to more work and more good stuff. How was the theme chosen for this conference? This is the first time we’re doing a Himalayan studies conference. Normally when we present papers it’s in the context of some other conference. So very often Himalayan studies people go to Madison in late October, every year for the last 30 odd years. A conference on South Asia has taken place at the University of Wisconsin during the third week in October. And so people who work on the Himalaya – Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, so on – go to Madison and they organize panels but its all part of the Madison conference. This is the first time we’ve really pulled things out of there and had our own conference, which allows us much more creative control of what papers are presented, how they are presented, you know the whole thing is organized. So it’s the first time we’re doing that. The conference theme echoes another conference that took place a long time ago, in the 1970s again about the Himalaya. You could also say that was a Himalaya studies conference, although I wouldn’t necessarily say it was articulated as such. But there was a conference that took place about 30 years ago, and the proceedings of that conference were published in a book that was edited by professor James Fisher who recently retired from Carleton College. And what James Fisher’s book was called “Himalayan Anthropology: The Indo-Tibetan interface.” And basically what people were talking about there was thinking about the Himalaya1970s to see whether they continue to be a valid way of thinking or whether we need to think in new ways about what constitutes the Himalaya as an area. What different issues within this umbrella Indo-Tibetan interface theme will be addressed and what are some presentations you are particularly looking forward to? We have three keynote speakers who are going to be addressing this issue specifically. The first of them who will give the keynote address on Friday evening is professor David Gellner. He is a professor of anthropology at Oxford University in England and he is a very distinguished scholar of Nepal. He is going to be speaking on “Upland Region or ‘a World of Peripheries’? Some Thoughts on Himalayan Identities.” He is trying to conceptuali
ze the way in which we might think, so what are some of the attributes or characteristics of this area called the Himalaya and one attribute of the Himalaya is that its peripheral to everything around it. It’s where the margins of Indian culture meet the margins of Tibetan culture and the margins of Islamic culture. It’s not the heartlands of these places. So in a sense it’s sort of an area defined by marginalities. Then we have a gentleman named Drona Rasali and he is the founder of a website called and he is himself a dalit. Dalit is the term that is applied to the people who some people call untouchables. Dalits prefer to refer to themselves as dalit. He is going to be speaking on the topic, “Envisioning an equitable space for marginalized people in Nepal: A journey of small strides contributing to the ‘change’ for social justice.” So he’s our second plenary speaker. Our last one is Pratyoush Onta. He is talking about the “Past and Future of Nepal Studies in Nepal.” Those are our three speakers for the Himalaya conference. We have 20 odd panels on different topics and all of them are up on the web. What would you say you’re most excited about for this conference? I think one of the things I would be excited about, from the Himalayan studies part of it, is that we have about 60 odd people showing up for the Himalayan studies conference and the rest are mostly on the MCAA. So the MCAA is the bigger conference. What I am in fact looking forward to is having a business meeting of the Association for Nepal and Himalaya studies, which we will have during the conference, in which I hope for the first time there will be a really good turnout. Because when you do it at Madison you may have 20 people show up because it’s the South Asia conference and these are just the people for Himalaya. But the fact that it’s a Himalaya studies conference has drawn a much bigger number of paper presenters than is normally the case if its just the South Asia conference in Madison. So we have way more panels and way more people and most of those people will probably show up for the meeting. So we could have a really good meeting and we could really discuss the future of the association, which is very bright. The association is doing very well; it has a very good council and board of officers in charge. But now we’ll be able to reach out, face-to-face with a lot of people. That’s something that I have been looking forward to. If I can add a second thing I’m looking forward to it would be as editor of the journal, seeing the contributions to the journal go up. So those would be two very good outcomes of the conference.