Yoda Press publisher Arpita Das on what prompted her decision to suspend publication of anthropologist Saiba Varma’s book on Kashmir in South Asia and why the allegations of cancelling her author lack nuance
A little over a fortnight ago, an anonymous Twitter account that claimed to represent a group of Kashmiri activists, students and academics, levied an accusation against author and anthropologist Saiba Varma, an associate professor at the University of California, over her prize-winning book, The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir, published in October last year by Duke University in the US and by Delhi-based indie publisher Yoda Press in South Asia.
Remarking on the lack of transparency on Varma’s part in keeping her father’s employment with India’s foreign intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and his posting in Kashmir in the strife-torn ’90s a secret, the account raised questions on accountability, privilege and consent in research work. It led to the book’s South Asia publisher Yoda Press to suspend publication till further clarification. Arpita Das, who heads the indie publishing house, speaks on why the lack of clarity was a breach of academic ethics and giving up the rights of the book in the wake of the controversy:
When had you commissioned US-based anthropologist Saiba Varma’s book The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir?
I did not commission the book. Duke University Press is the original publisher. I met Saiba Varma in my office in 2019 and we talked about publishing the South Asian edition, which is what Yoda Press did subsequently. Right from the beginning, we made it clear to her that we wanted a special preface to the South Asia edition, something we always ask of our authors whose book rights we purchase from foreign presses, in order for particularities of publishing in South Asia to be addressed in it. I feel now that her not mentioning in the preface unambiguously about her antecedents was a real missed opportunity on her part.
When did you first come to know of her antecedents?
I became aware of Saiba Varma’s antecedents along with the rest of the Yoda Press team when the anonymous Twitter thread by a group of Kashmir scholars was brought to my attention by another Yoda Press author about a fortnight or so ago. I had no idea about her father’s involvement in the national security establishment (Varma is the daughter of Krishan Varma, a retired R&AW employee) till that point.
Has she, since, clarified her position on the issue to you?
I tried in vain to contact her for the first 16 hours while taking an enormous amount of questioning and flak from other members of the academia about how we could have given a platform to a book on security, militarism and mental health care in Kashmir where clear disclosure about the author’s own antecedents had not been made. She got in touch with me at the end of that terrible day to tell me that she believed she had done nothing wrong. ‘That nothing could compel her to drag her father through the mud.’ I was disappointed and surprised to hear her say this because scholarly ethics and positionality demanded that she disclose her antecedents before, during and after her ethnography, research, and publication of said research. This is a norm throughout academia which all scholars are expected to deliver on.
In your statement, you spoke of how your decision to suspend publication of the book in South Asia was motivated by the need to fix ethical accountability. But you have also been trolled and accused of not standing by your author, for ‘cancelling’ her work. How do you react to this criticism?
I continue to stand by the statement of the Yoda Press team. We took a decision to pause further printing of the book since we felt that other voices and aspects which are vital to a clearer understanding of the matter were only now beginning to emerge. However, a week ago, Saiba Varma got in touch with us asking that South Asia edition rights to her book be returned to her. I immediately asked my rights manager to initiate the paperwork to do so. We do not want to stand in the way of Saiba taking the book where she likes — it is , after all, her book. But our stand on ethical accountability of the titles we put our name to remains the same. We owe that to our other scholarly authors and to our readers who would not expect anything less from us than complete accountability. That is not to say that for a small indie press like ours the fact that we have had to drop a new book from our publication list has not meant a substantive commercial loss as well as — and more importantly — caused a deep sense of heartache. Every book we sign up becomes a labour of love for us.
Yoda Press has, over the years, had a reputation for standing by its authors come what may, even when the latter are hounded by the State. For the trolls who have gone after us on Twitter saying we have ‘cancelled’ Saiba’s work, I shall just say that perhaps we are too small for them to have known anything about our work, otherwise they would not have said what they did. I also observed that many of these trolls, not being part of the academy, have no inkling about the vital concepts of scholarly accountability and disclosure. They have, therefore, broken this rather complex issue of what it means to have scholarly accountability towards your research site and subjects down into something banal about ‘why should the child be punished for her father’s sins.’
Ultimately, all that has to be said is that we remain committed to publishing on Kashmir the way we have done before, so that the silences that have accompanied the suffering of the Kashmiri people continue to be lifted
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