Two UC San Diego faculty members, Assistant Professor Dr. Shaista Patel and Associate Professor Dr. Wendy Matsumura, have resigned from UCSD’s Critical Gender Studies (CGS) Program’s Executive Committee. On Jan. 4, the CGS program’s Executive Committee authored and published “CGS Statement on Faculty Affiliation” that addressed concerns about Associate Professor of Anthropology Dr. Saiba Varma’s research in Kashmiri clinics, as an upper caste Indian anthropologist with familial ties to India’s highest intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Their resignations follow an advisory decision by the CGS program to remove CGS Executive Committee’s Jan 4. statement. Patel and Matsumura will continue their positions in the UCSD ethnic Studies and history departments respectively, and remain affiliated with the CGS program.
Varma has been embroiled in controversy since September last year. On Sept. 14, an anonymous Twitter handle revealed that she had concealed her father’s employment by RAW in Kashmir in the 1990s, when researching the interconnectedness of medicine and militarism in the Kashmiri context. The Twitter account, which claimed to represent “a group of Kashmiri activists, students & researchers,” asserted that such concealment breached standard research ethics and protocol.
These revelations sparked condemnation from numerous groups. A separate group of Kashmiri scholars noted that while Varma should not be held responsible for her father’s involvement, they maintained that her concealment and misconstruction of her familial ties to the “colonial state” was a concerning breach of ethics Similarly, the Indian publisher of Varma’s book, Arpita Das of Yoda Press, advocated for researchers’ complete disclosure on her Twitter account.
In response to the online furor, the CGS had released a statement discussing Varma’s research practices. Referring to an open letter signed by “dominant caste Indian scholars, other concerned scholars, and everyone in solidarity with colonized people of Kashmir” to Duke University Press, the U.S. publisher of Varma’s book, the CGS Executive Committee’s statement asserts that Varma’s decision to conduct research in Kashmir on Kashmiris, despite her intimate familial ties to the RAW, was deceitful and violent.
“We also believe that Varma’s unrelentingly violent decision to work in this place, where the colonial Indian state intelligence apparatus had appointed her father … and his colleagues to draw up plans that included torture, sexual violence, and counter-insurgency as instruments of war and everyday occupation was dishonest and deliberately misleading,” the statement read.
The statement also asserts that Varma’s non-disclosure of her father’s employment with the RAW to other Kashmiri scholars, and most importantly to her research subjects, Kashmiris seeking treatment at psychiatric clinics, was both harmful and irresponsible.
“Furthermore, Varma worked without disclosing these familial ties to the patients in whose sessions she sat, or to the psychiatrists and other Kashmiris she is accountable to as an Indian anthropologist working on Kashmir, teaching courses on decolonial methodology, and claiming to harbor a commitment to decolonial, anti-racist, and feminist of color politics” the statment continued.
In closing, the statement concluded that CGS has disaffiliated from Varma, clarifying that Varma’s courses will no longer count toward the CGS major or minor.
However, during the faculty affiliates’ meeting on Feb. 4, it appeared clear to Patel and Matsumura that CGS faculty had conflicting views about the statement.
In Matsumura’s resignation statement, they elaborated on the proceedings of the faculty affiliates’ meeting. Matsumura wrote that their primary reason for resignation was their feeling unsafe to remain on the Executive Committee, given the differences in priorities of CGS faculty.
“I resigned primarily because it did not feel safe to remain on the executive committee,” Matsumura said. “During the affiliates’ meeting, it became clear that the most vocal of those who attended were mostly offended by what they read as a ‘breach in collegiality’ and a violation of the ‘due process’ rather than what the statement amplified — serious questions of professional ethics by an anthropologist working in Kashmir that scholars and activists had been voicing, but that came to broader public awareness last September.”
In Patel’s resignation statement, they explained that the meeting was unproductive in fostering discussion about improving accountability practices in research, given the questionable research practices of the UCSD-employed caste-dominant Indian academic.
“Testimonies from us mostly Dalit, Muslim, Indigenous, and racialized women and non-binary untenured scholars (clearly all on one side with mostly tenured white faculty on the other — think about this matter even just in terms of the visual optics) advocated for strengthening practices of accountability in academic research, but were ignored for the sake of staying on the side of institutional power and upholding its misogynist, casteist, colonial, and racist practices,” Patel wrote.
Patel noted that academia’s disconnect with and distance from the individuals it conducts research on is nothing new. However, Patel reaffirms their commitment to continue fighting for gender studies programs as a Muslim feminist social scientist.
“Decades ago, gender studies departments and programs were fought for by Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other racialized women and non-binary scholars on this continent in ways that connected the streets to these ivory towers,” Patel wrote. “We pay homage to that radical organizing and are absolutely not invested in upholding the power of any program that seeks to do convenient solidarity work.”
Varma has not responded to CGS’s statement directly, but she had previously addressed a statement from a group of 53 scholars condemning her research practices. In her response, Varma asserted she had followed anthropological ethical norms. In addition, Varma explained she had withheld their identity as the daughter of an Indian intelligence officer to avoid misunderstanding that she was part of the security state.
“In this milieu of heightened surveillance, I could best protect my interlocutors’ personal views and narratives from undue scrutiny and my own safety by maintaining the independence of my research practice from any state influence or oversight,” Varma said.
Varma, a former CGS executive committee member, currently serves as vice chair of undergraduate studies, and continues to teach in the anthropology department at UCSD.
Editor’s Note: This article was modified on Feb. 22, 2022 at 9:36 AM to clarify the intention of the Kashmiri scholars in their critique of Varma. Matsumura’s name was also corrected for a misspelling.
Artwork courtesy of Tony Anguiano for The UCSD Guardian.