Himalayan Studies Workshop – 1

- Shiv Nadar University and India Office of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung

The Himalayas have been neglected as an area of systematic focus in academia and policy-circles in India for far too long. So, the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies (IRGS) at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences in Shiv Nadar University (SNU) together with the India Office of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung organised the Himalayan Studies Workshop 1 on 28th November 2020. The workshop aimed to initiate a long overdue conversation in India on the Himalayas and its neighbouring spaces from a multidimensional and multi-sectoral perspective covering knowledge creation, cultural dynamics, development challenges, environmental issues and cross-border flows of multiple kinds as well as regional geopolitics. The workshop brought together scholars from various institutions across India.

Key Takeaways:


Panel 1: Frontier Conversations and Cross Border Relationships

When understanding the Himalayas, our perspective must extend beyond the paradigm offered by the nation-state. Nation-state ‘containers’ are challenged by geopolitical realities. As nature is transboundary, viewing the Himalayas through an eco-regional or bio-regional perspective would help create a better understanding of the region.

Development that takes place in these areas is not linear and cannot sidestep geopolitical realities. It must be contextualized in the social, political, cultural, and ethnic landscape of which it is a part. Further, the development of one community cannot be undertaken without considering the other communities in the region. In the name of national security or larger political goals, democratic decision-making often suffers. An inclusive, participatory method of development is essential to create a framework that is sustainable over the long-term.

Although there are many understandings of the Himalayan region (from a national security perspective to its romanticizing), these perspectives view the land as ‘fragile’ and create conditions for communities to be disconnected from their land. This disconnect is propagated through changing nomenclature and altering social structures by governments and other dominant paradigms. Cultural meanings that people associate with the land are erased in this process, and communities become indifferent to the landscape.  The diverse groups that are part of the Himalayas are rarely discussed. Herders, for instance, are often forced to take up dual roles – herding and navigating or patrolling for the armed forces.

Another instance is of the Kashmiris viewing themselves as an occupied people, but which sense of ‘indigenous’ and ‘foreigner’ are only recent developments. Locating Kashmir through a perspective of ‘connected histories’ while studying archival records, it is found that ‘land’ does not figure as a political category in these records. The 1940s and 1950s see no mention or desire of an independent state from Kashmiris. This is because the relationship between the land and the people was dynamic. Routes were important, and trade, travel, mobility defined Kashmir, as opposed to regional patriotism.


Panel 2: ‘Development’ and Environment in the Himalayas

There is a paucity of literature regarding development in the Himalaya. The papers in this session aimed to fill/ address this gap

Consider, for instance, changes that have occurred in the waste sector of a Himalayan city after the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Smart Cities Mission. While the cleanliness of the region used to be maintained through civil society organizations and NGOs, it has been increasingly subcontracted after the coming in of these national-level projects. Subcontractors. in line with the vision of the Missions, seek to make various technological changes – such as small underground dustbins; door to door collection of waste; landfills – which are, however, more often than not unsuitable for the mountains. The trucks employed to collect waste from underground dustbins, for example, were unable to navigate the narrow streets and the terrain. The sensors on the underground dustbins would stop working, and although household waste was supposed to be segregated, it seldom was.

The informal sector is the idiom of urban planning and management and current top-heavy, technological changes that are taking place in the Himalaya are unsuitable for the region. 

Specifically, in Sikkim, the economy has seen rapid changes; the role of the service sector is decreasing while that of the secondary sector is increasing. This then has wider implications for the economy and society. Even as development occurs in the region, scholars highlight environmental and security concerns. The human-environment relationship has been threatened through development – unscientific hydropower projects, improper agriculture, unplanned urbanization.

Elsewhere, in Himachal Pradesh, the duality of the ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ communities must be reconsidered as it does not fit the context. Further, households are multi-local (i.e. members of a single household reside in several locations), with a fair amount of mobility. Yet, community identity remains strong in this region. Many changes are now occurring in the towns of Himachal Pradesh: capitalist relationships replacing subsistence agriculture, the in-migration of a number of people, an increase in the number of households but not the population, and diversification of income.


Panel 3: Geopolitics in the Himalayas

The focus of this panel was to understand the role of Chinese policies in the wider Himalayan neighbourhood including the Karakoram and Hindu Kush regions.

The Karakoram region gained importance because of its strategic location for the construction of trade routes. Today, Chinese influence has caused some policy changes in the region, transforming political structures and dividing societies. These policies include: i) the policies of ethnic marginalization and segregation and ii) economic development policies including large-scale infrastructure projects. 

The Chinese Party-state has, in its Xinjiang province, sought to create a hegemonic politico-economic structure of governance through the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Han migration facilitated in Xinjiang, and the Belt and Road Initiative have created volatility and resulted in the alienation of the local Uyghur and other minority peoples. Often, people that hail from the region are not employed in the infrastructure projects with the XPCC explicitly functioning in a manner facilitating the colonization of the region and helping the Chinese army in its conflict with India at the LAC.

Our understanding of the trans-Himalayan region is different from that of China’s. China’s growing influence in the region is aggressive and authoritarian. This aggressiveness has intensified since the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This growing Chinese influence in the region deserves greater and closer scholarly attention.

Another crucial concern is environmental security. While geopolitics often considers the geography of a region to be stagnant, security concerns in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region must be reimagined and made cognizant of the environmental fragility of the area. Climate change is changing the geography of the region. Demilitarization of the region, while infeasible in the immediate term, would benefit the region. An eco-regional approach, such as that practiced by certain organizations like the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is a useful model to follow both for governments as well as other non-government bodies to address the myriad old and new challenges in the region.


Valedictory Session

When considering the relationship between Tibet and India, the Himalayas ought to be seen as a ‘bridge’. Spiritualism has been part of this function – Buddhism and the Nalanda tradition form a gift that was transferred from India to Tibet.

There is a need for more awareness and information regarding the Himalaya. This especially includes the history and culture of the region. The role of institutions is paramount here: they must document and scientifically study among other things the sociological, economic and environmental issues in the region.

The Himalayas needs a coordinated policy. This has so far been missing as an element of Indian foreign policy in the region. Within the government, all stakeholders should be on board when designing policies for the region, especially in the case of environmental policy which is likely to be a growing challenge of the future.

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