Interview with Nandini Sundar

Nandini Sundar

Nandini Sundar is a professor of sociology at the University of Delhi. After studying at the University of Oxford and Columbia University, she returned to her native India to conduct research on the country’s marginalised populations. She is the author of The Burning Forest: India’s war against the Maoists (2019), about indigenous peasants in the Bastar region, and is a vocal advocate for academic freedom.

Where and when were you born?
Delhi, 1967.

How did your upbringing influence you?
My parents were civil servants who, along with their own large book collection, enrolled my sister and me in several libraries. My mother, who soon left the service, took us on field trips and also feminist marches when we were young. They were very progressive parents and allowed us to do pretty much what we wanted. I guess all of this influenced us.

You attended Oxford for your BA and Columbia for your MA and PhD. What was your experience like as a young Indian woman in the West?
This was the late 1980s to mid-1990s. It was exciting to be exposed to all sorts of new experiences, including museums and some of the largest demonstrations I have been on in the world – against apartheid, or the first Gulf war. In Oxford, I felt a bit overwhelmed and inadequate; but while some of this was certainly due to being a young Indian woman abroad, I think a lot of local British students also felt like that. New York was much more open, but perhaps I was also older and more confident.

Why and when did you return to India?
I returned to India in 1994-95 after I finished my PhD, although I spent two years in between doing fieldwork. I had always wanted to return to and work in India.

Why did you decide to study and defend some of the most vulnerable groups in India, such as villagers, scheduled tribes [various indigenous communities] and forest dwellers?
In part because Marxist history, subalternism and political economy was in fashion then; in part because I was looking for a PhD area that had not been explored before.

You’ve received serious threats for your human rights work, including harassment and even trumped-up murder charges. How do you cope with that?
Looking back, I’ve been very lucky because there are currently very many people who are in jail on totally false charges. When I started challenging the state on human rights violations in central India during the course of counterinsurgency, the government made it almost impossible for me to travel in the area. I would keep getting stopped, getting surrounded by escorts of armed guards, my phone was tapped, and my effigy was burned, along with those of others. In 2016, six of us were accused of murder; but the case was so unbelievable, we got protection from the Supreme Court. Eventually, in 2019, the charges were dropped. Earlier this year, the National Human Rights Commission ordered compensation for the harassment we had faced due to the false murder charges. But my biggest regret is that I was not able to achieve similar compensation for all the victims of human rights violations in the area, or prosecution of those state personnel accused, despite fighting for it in court for so many years. Despite having a judgment in our favour banning state support for vigilantism and providing redress for victims, the government simply ignored it.

You have just submitted a report to the United Nations on Indian academic freedom. Why is that important to you?
The vigilantism that I witnessed in central India from 2005 onwards has now spread to the whole country. Universities, in particular, have become targets. Indeed, there is almost a sort of counterinsurgency taking place against universities – with academics being demonised or delegitimised, students and faculty arrested, and seminars cancelled. In almost every case of physical attacks, it is the ABVP [Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, or All Indian Student Council], the student wing of the ruling government party, that is responsible. Since 2014, when the Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] took power, India has fallen drastically in global rankings on academic freedom, freedom of the press and democracy. If academics don’t speak up for academic freedom now, we will lose whatever limited autonomy we have to teach and do research.

You frequently blog and comment in the media. Do you think it’s important for academics to be outspoken?
When the need arises, yes. In “normal” times, there is less pressure, but for a long time we have all been living in abnormal times.

When you are not fighting for social justice, what do you do to relax in your free time?
Unfortunately, I spend far too little time fighting for social justice or doing research and far too much time playing with my dogs or pottering around my house.

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