Friday, 7 March 2014

The Dibrugarh conference: much ado about nothing

The occasion was the annual congress of the anthropologists in the country, hosted by the Dibrugarh University in February. Hundreds of anthropologists from all parts of the country and abroad were expected to attend. I am a life member of the INCAA, but had never attended a Congress. Since the venue was nearby in Dibrugarh, I decided to attend.

The very meagre communication between the organisers and the participants in the run up to the Congress bothered me a little.  I tried in vain to locate a conference website with the relevant information. But we hoped that everything would fall in place when the congress got under way.  The local arrangements were great, at first sight. The newly constructed Guest House of the Dibrugarh University is top class. We were all picked up from airports and railway stations. The food was very good and the transport arrangements were also adequate. And the cultural programmes in the evenings were nice.

The inaugural event was held at the huge Rong Ghar auditorium of the university. The stage was so completely decorated with flowers that I heard a fellow participant remarking – `this looks like a flower shop’. Anyway, the event started on time, but lasted almost a half day instead of the more appropriate half an hour. By the time it ended it was lunchtime.

In the afternoon a Plenary Round Table Discussion about insurgency and conflict was scheduled. That sounded very interesting. But when we reassembled after lunch, there was no sign of a physical round table anywhere. What was supposed to be a discussion got converted into a sequence of 13 plenary lectures, with each speaker reading out papers and speaking for about 35-40 minutes each; since the speakers were barely audible, and did not try to engage with anybody in discussion, I decided that it was time to scoot and use my time doing other things. Later I got a message from one of those who stayed: ‘at this rate we shall need another 7 hours for this round table to finish!’  It did seem that everyone there could do that much of arithmetic except the speakers and the chairman. Under the circumstances, the Round Table spilled over to the next morning, pushing the technical sessions till after lunch on the second day.

From then on it was pure pandemonium. None of the paper presenters knew when they were supposed to present and how much time they had. We had imagined that once the registration was done on the first day, the programme would be finalised and distributed. But there was no programme available with time and venues and names of speakers even by the afternoon of the second day – we just had a list of panels and venues. Just before the parallel sessions started, session chairs were given lists of speakers in their session. But nobody had bothered to check whether the speakers were actually present or not. As a result, for instance, one Chairman got a list of 18 speakers, but was not told that his panel was spread over 3 sessions. So he imagined that 120 minutes was all he had, and so he gave 6 minutes to each speaker! Once the session got under way, it became clear that more than half of the 18 people were absent, but it was too late to do anything about it; so the session ended in an hour with everyone terribly unhappy.

The main local organiser walked around looking forbiddingly grim; his junior colleagues in the department were all smartly dressed and tried to be friendly and sociable, but they seemed to be completely clueless about what was going on; a couple of student volunteers worked their legs out trying to keep things afloat, but their bosses mistook the whole event to be a social occasion, and forgot that more than funny jokes narrated over dinner, it was the papers the people had come to present and to listen to. And that something more needed to be done than just making sure that the food was great to enable fruitful academic interaction.

Somehow, I had the feeling that the huge Congress was not about listening to papers and learning from one another at all – it was just some huge mela where one met up with old friends and generally had a good time! And those few senior academics like Prof. A.C. Bhagabati, who love their subject and want to listen, to encourage and to get into contact with the younger generation of scholars, were vastly outnumbered by others who did not really care. And in the evenings, rather than have cultural programmes on both the evenings, it would perhaps have been more appropriate to reserve an hour for participants to visit the anthropological museum of the host department.

Now, after the end of it all, I am not sure what the Congress was all about. I am also doubtful about the intentions of the senior people who run the show. For instance, at the General Body, somebody mooted the idea of setting up a Young Anthropologists Forum. After some discussion, it was decided that the matter be looked into by a committee, but the names proposed for that committee belonged to the same set of senior people, none of whom, by any definition, could be considered to be a young anthropologist! This is very telling, for even if a Forum for young people was set up, it would have to  function according to terms set by the older people, without taking into account what the younger people think or want. As this example shows, the overwhelming sense of hierarchy involved in organisations like INCAA, can stifle, if not destroy, all good intentions.

Moreover, those younger set of students and researchers, who do not hold any position within the INCAA but all of whom have chosen to study anthropology, who had travelled to Dibrugarh from all parts of the country and elsewhere to present their papers and had spent a lot of time and energy in preparing them, went home disillusioned, first because they were given the feeling that they did not matter, nor did it matter whether they presented their papers at all nor what they presented, and second because given the prevailing confusion in locating where which panel was going on and who was presenting, they did not get the feedback that was their due from the senior scholars. Is this how we encourage young people to become committed anthropologists?

A greater pity that the handful of students of anthropology of Dibrugarh University, who worked non-stop during the days of the congress, did not have the time to gain from the deliberations at all as they had to be busy with mundane organisational matters. And the other students seemed to be busy dressing up, either to receive the guests, serve tea or then perform at the cultural programme in the evening – it was one big fashion show -- nobody had the time to sit down and listen to any of the talks. Poor things, I told myself, being forced to do all this. But there were moments when I felt ashamed at the total lack of education and decency of even those very university students. For instance everyone wanted to pose for photographs with the few foreign-looking foreigners in the crowd. That was annoying but could not be helped, I told myself. But it was a disgrace to the host institution when the whole group of foreigners was forced to get up and leave half way through the cultural programme, because their eyes were getting blinded by the flash of a million cameras, clicking at them in the dark auditorium. Is this how university students are supposed to behave? 

Back to the main story. The discrepancy between the care with which rituals like inaugurations were organised compared to that given (or not given) to organising the technical sessions, was hard to overlook. This is perhaps a general trend in the region (cf. read my earlier blog about another conference in the region last year) stemming out of a necessity for institutions and individuals to organize events which are at least as grand (if not grander) than those that have gone before, regardless of the academic content. `As long as it looks 'like' a grand big conference, it is fine, who cares about the actual papers,' seems to be the general attitude.

I believe there was no screening of abstracts. Otherwise how could it come about that many of the papers presented, barely sounded like papers. That most of the panels were on physical anthropology, a topic which is not taught anymore in many European anthropology departments, is matter for separate discussion. But that apart, my teacher Professor Binoy Kumar Tamuli had once remarked about the general level of academia in the country – `we revel in our mediocrity and are terrified of being found out. All our energies are directed towards ensuring that the lie lives on'. The just concluded Dibrugarh congress only vindicated Professor Tamuli’s remark.

So much money was spent on organising the Congress, not just on the flowers to decorate the stage, but on everything else as well. But what do we have to show from it at the end of the whole exercise?  A local organiser who is unhappy that all his hard work put into local organisation was overshadowed by the colossal mismanagement of the academic programme, a few tired student volunteers, many young researchers who were not helped to see why (and how) they should try to do better or why they should bother to attend the next Congress, and a bunch of senior anthropologists who are patting themselves on their backs for having pulled it off one more time. Do we not have the right to expect and demand more? 


  1. A teacher friend, who would not like to be named, shared some of his experiences of working at a university:

    Your observation that- `As long as it looks 'like' a grand big conference, it is fine, who cares about the actual papers,' seems to be the general attitude- is hundred percent correct. For most (if not all) of the students, holding a seminar/workshop/conference is just performing bihu and other cultural activities and enjoying great feast. Of course, the poor students can’t be blamed completely. Some of their teachers can’t think any better. In any seminar/workshop/symposium held in the university, you will be in real trouble to distinguish whether it is an academic event or someone’s marriage ceremony. You may not find any quality in the papers, but definitely you will find the host overseeing the cooking of fish curry to be served in lunch.

    A few years back, one fine morning, a foreign tourist greeted me at the university gate. He inquired from me whether he can have a look inside the university campus. I said yes. Half an hour later, a professor of another department asked me to inform all my students about a foreigner 'discovered' in the university. I did not. Twenty minutes later, I found that all the students along with two/three professors were running towards the professor's department. I enquired- what was the matter. They said – there is a foreigner in the university . Two hours later, I was invited to the conference hall to attend a meeting. A few of the senior professors of the university attended the meeting convened to felicitate the foreigner.

    10 March 2014 00:48


  2. Professor Sarit Kr. Chaudhuri of RGU, Itanagar had this to say after reading my blog:

    I have received your blog's content from multiple sources. I don't know what purpose it serves through wide circulation !!
    Meenaxi, you may not like sessions etcetc but you need to understand the involvement of people at various levels. Managing 30 people and 300 is a different story altogether. Your second part concerning foreigners, photo flashing etc couldn't be a reflection of whole university community or people who came to Congress. As an Anthropologist are actually social analyst, what was surprising to me that you didn't found anything positive !!! But in my session I found at least two promising presentations. I came to know from other sources that Ratna Tayeng's presentation was fascinating!! Criticism is healthy practice but in the process we should not bulldoze the whole structure itself so that nothing left to regenerate.

    1. This is my response: Saritda, I am really grateful that you have told me your opinion frankly. In my defense I can only say the following:

      It is very difficult to handle anything when people take any well-meant criticism personally. I do not have anything to say about DU or any of the people (since I do not know enough) but my main problem is against the whole culture of organising these big melas which serve no real purpose but use up a lot of money and energy: organising a conference with 300 people is not the same as inviting only 30, very true, but if inviting 300 means that the whole organisation collapses and it becomes a free for all then it might be better to stick to 30.

      I am not sure how you could have got the blog from multiple sources -- but I take it as a good sign -- at least it means that some people are reading.

      There are many things that I found positive that are mentioned in the blog -- the local arrangements, the hard working organiser and student volunteers etc. But you will also agree, I am sure, that most of the presentations were nothing to write home about. One Ratna Tayeng is not enough to redeem all the trash that was also presented.

      As for the students flashing cameras, I did not claim it had anything to do with the conference, but it is a reflection on the students of the host institution (and that is exactly what I say).

      Anyway, I would not be bothering to write and express what I feel if I did not care deeply for the improvement of institutions and academic standards. This culture of silence (or at best discussing only in informal circles) might be more comfortable to cope with but cannot do much to change the ground situation.

      In any case, I am sure all of us try, in ways we believe to be right, to help to improve things. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether a positive difference has been made. My approach is rather harsh, I admit, but if it can help to begin the process of introspection, then it is already something. I know I don't make any friends by being so blunt, but then, I can live with that, as long as the system changes for the better.

      In any case, I am uploading both your comment and my response with the hope that it will lead to some more discussion -- which is the whole point of writing a blog in the first place. I do hope some more of those who have read the blog will also come forward to express their views on the subject.