Unstable Archives presents: Digital Archives in South Asian Studies: Towards Decolonisation

Conveners: Sneha Krishnan (University of Oxford) and Megan Eaton Robb (University of Pennsylvania).

Speakers: Varsha Ayyar (Tata Institute of Social Sciences), Dhanashree Thorat (Mississipi State University), Amber Abbas (St. John’s University), and Roopika Risam (Salem State University).

Digital Archives in South Asian Studies: Towards Decolonisation

Archival research has long been rooted in colonial practices of cataloguing and classification whose goal was the establishment of political hegemony and a racial order. Even as a critical scholarship has engaged the archive as a site of colonial power, the ongoing accumulation of South Asian materials in major European and North American libraries – reinforced by increasingly stringent visa regimes and restrictions on travel – suggests that colonial dispossessions continue. Since the late 1980s, the digital turn in the humanities has posed itself in some ways as a panacea to barriers in knowledge production. On the one hand, born-digital archives such as Rekhta.org, Prosopographical Database for Indic Texts (PANDiT), and Mukurtu, with their emphasis on indigenous archival standards and open source commitments, reflect some of that promise. However, as feminist and postcolonial scholars have long warned, the promise of digital humanities is not straightforward. As scholars of indigenous histories in North America and Australia have shown, archives as records of relationality, rather than collections, need to be supported where they exist, or where they do not exist, imagined and digitised in ways that depart from the architecture of the traditional library. Further, as feminist, aboriginal, and Native American historians have shown, in some cases, digitisation might pose major threats to expectations of privacy. In South Asia, caste and its role in shaping archival cultures, particularly with the proliferation of the digital humanities, demands further study. Further, digitised collections of archival materials on South Asia and other formerly colonised regions remain in the possession of major universities in the Global North, often behind prohibitive paywalls. This risks digitisation reiterating the practice of accumulation on which colonial archives were founded.

This conversation comes at a time when, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars of South Asia increasingly rely on digital archival collections in our teaching and research. Simultaneously, a global movement for Black Lives calls for action to undo continuing colonial dispossessions in our academic work. In South Asia, scholars of Dalit, Muslim and indigenous histories also call for attention to the epistemic processes that continue to marginalise these communities. Addressing these legacies, we ask the panellists to reflect on what it means to do digital history in this moment, in the context of digital humanities in South Asia.

  • In what ways is digitisation entangled with the geopolitical processes that undergird traditional archives?
  • Is there a way of doing digital history that challenges these power structures?
  • To what extent do oral and visual histories, as well as ethnographic approaches to archival work allow historians to address questions of colonial power and caste in the archive?
  • How do we teach using digital archives in a way that critically addresses these structures of power?
  • What, if any, are the spaces for productive collaborations between institutions and archives founded as extensions of colonial regimes, and decolonial, born-digital archival efforts?