Jalal, professor of South Asian history, talks India-Pakistan relations, philosophy of teaching

11/04/2019 - Medford/Somerville, MA - Ayesha Jalal, Mary Richardson Professor of History at Tufts, poses for a portrait in her office in East Hall on Nov. 4. Mengqi Irina Wang / The Tufts Daily

This year marks the 20th year at Tufts for Ayesha Jalal, the Mary Richardson Professor of History and an authority in the field of South Asian studies. Over the course of her time at Tufts, she has been a prominent voice in the field of India-Pakistan relations and an invested mentor for her students. She has taught courses on Islam and the West; Muslims, Liberalism, and Modernity; and the History of Modern South Asia.

“I didn’t think about becoming a professor, but I can tell you that what motivated me to study history are questions that disturb you from your comfort zone,” Jalal said on what brought her to the career.

Jalal often challenges the way students understand the roots of the Indo-Pakistani conflict. As this year has seen rising tension between the two countries, particularly regarding Kashmir, an area with a majority-Muslim population, her guidance has never been more topical.

“I have tried to suggest that we tend to interpret India-Pakistan problems through the religious lens, but you know, there was no battle over conceptions of God or about personal faith,” Jalal said. “This was more about the external identity.”

Jalal believes that by including a binary option of Muslim or Hindu on census enumerations in the late-19th century, the British moved the concept of religion from being a matter of personal faith to a matter of regional identity.

“These are identities based on a demarcation of differences with others rather than a demarcation of personal faith,” Jalal said. “Religion is about your personal relationship with your creator. That has been major to me to try to convey that to students. I think it really helps them to understand that there was a regional dimension to partition.”

A historically contested region, Kashmir was officially reconstituted by India on Oct. 31 after India passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act on Aug. 5, significantly reducing its autonomy. This came more than five months after the Pakistan Air Force conducted six surprise airstrikes on the region.

Jalal’s students, juniors Uzair Sattar and Atrey Bhargava, praised her as a challenger of the status quo.

“Working with someone like Professor Jalal intimidates you but makes you grow leaps and bounds,” Sattar said. “Everything that she has researched has questioned the existing narrative and shed light on the counter-narrative. Being with someone who has accomplished that makes you believe that you can do something of the sort and broaden your horizon in what you’re studying.”

“She loves hot takes,” Bhargava said. “If you think about any particular thing in political Islam or South Asian studies, she has always been the person who takes the take no one else is taking because she analyzes topics in such a unique way. She in many ways tries to go beyond the norm and challenge the thinking we have today.”

Jalal served as Sattar and Bhargava’s faculty advisor for their research project in Pakistan in the summer of their freshman year, in which they analyzed the role India played in Pakistan’s water crisis. Their research paper went on to be published in the Yale Review for International Studies.

“[As] one of the very few Indians to visit Pakistan, I had the invaluable opportunity to observe the similarities Pakistan had with India and interact with intellectuals, friends and strangers who have left a lasting impact on my life,” Bhargava said. “It was Professor Jalal who influenced me in my first semester of my freshman year in [the course] modern South Asia, and she continued to mentor both Uzair and I during the course of our research trip.”

Jalal finds the Tufts student body to be uniquely open to the challenge and receptive of her approach to understanding the region.

“I think the Tufts students are fabulous and that they respond extremely well,” Jalal said. “There will always be a typical kind of student who won’t, but I think that if you challenge them, the majority of them will respond well.”

As India and Pakistan continue to garner more attention in the media, Jalal encourages students to continue to approach the topic from a variety of perspectives in order to enhance their way of thinking.

“I worry there is a lack of interest, generally speaking, and an inability to understand crisis points in the world,” Jalal said. “I think people are not really motivated but I also feel that there are people who are not ready to move out of their comfort zones. I don’t tell people what to think, I tell them how to think. But you can’t teach people how to think without moving them from their comfort zone a little bit.

Sattar said he believes that the recent uptick in coverage on Kashmir is positive overall for the field of South Asian studies and encouraged students to become more informed.

“The coverage that the world has given to Kashmir since Aug. 5 has sparked interest in the region,” said Sattar. “Before Aug. 5, Kashmir was on a low burner. The fact that people are talking about it gives me hope that people … are asking questions and want to learn more about it because the humanitarian crisis on the ground is quite disturbing. It’s been almost three months since people have had access to mobile services or the internet. I’m glad people are talking about it more.”

Jalal, already an author of 11 books on the topic of South Asia and Islam, is currently working on a new book that seeks to understand the relationship between Islam and liberalism.

“There is this new slew of material that has come out post-9/11 about how Muslims can’t be liberal, so I’m looking at the late-19th/early 20th century which was really the height of colonial rule in India,” Jalal said. “My hypothesis is that the closing of the mind is a much more recent phenomenon.”

Jalal questions these recent trends in behavior and questions the motives behind them.

“Why have we become more insular? I think this is because a variety of fear and anxieties. This allows those who control us to control us better. I’m talking generally,” Jalal said.

This is consistent with Jalal’s broader contention that many Western international relations scholars have oversimplified Islam and its role in explaining the Indo-Pakistan conflict, and her role as a challenger of the status quo. She believes that the current perception of the West is the product of a “securitized” view.

“You can’t securitize a religion to that extent or make that your primary way of seeing it,” Jalal said. “So, in that way I do challenge the status quo because I think much of [international relations] is taught from a securitized position or from this identity as a demarcation rather than an identity of personal faith. So, in those senses, there has been a tendency to look at Islam in a very sort of two-dimensional manner, and I think it is much more complicated than that.”