Fieldwork is the most critical, and perhaps, the most demanding component of research, especially in difficult and hazardous contexts such as active conflict zones or nations with authoritarian regimes.
I started my fieldwork in June 2021, at a time when India was slowly recovering from a severe second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that had also affected the disputed region of Kashmir, where I was undertaking my research on the rise of anti-state socio-political movement in relation to the restructuring of land relations in this restive Himalayan valley. Although the entire region had been put under a strict lockdown – restricting public mobility and access to government offices – I steadily began my fieldwork.
I had been cautious in interacting with people and gathering data because of the sensitive nature of my research and the region’s extensive hyper surveillance. Despite being a native of the place, I found it difficult to have people talk to me on record or being interviewed. At the time, there was a massive clampdown on political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers who were critical of the state.
Despite my cautious approach, I soon found myself under investigation by state police, who started querying for information about me from my family, friends, and acquaintances. They even visited my home to take my picture and additional information. It was suggested that I put my research on hold and resume it after the situation had calmed down. While the situation was still unravelling, I remained unaware of the extensiveness of the problem of state surveillance and continued traveling to different parts of the valley.
However, it became clear in the first week of September that I was not only facing the possibility of being detained by the state, but that the sensitive data that I had collected was also at risk of being accessed by state agencies, which would not only have violent consequences for me, but would also jeopardize the safety of my interviewees. The situation had escalated after the residences of four of my fellow journalists were raided by the police, and their documents, books, and phones were confiscated. As the state police was widening its crackdown, I was informally being informed from different sources that I was also at risk of police search and questioning.
Current pre-fieldwork protocols inadequate to ensure researchers’ safety on the ground
Given that state authorities often confiscate all electronic devices, including phones, computers, and hard drives, and force you to give up all passwords as part of the interrogation process, I discovered few resources for protecting and securing research data in such scenarios. As a researcher, I knew I had very little legal options and protections.
I was also informed that my name had appeared on the list of three dozen researchers, scholars, journalists, and activists that had been put on the ‘no-fly’ list and faced the risk of passport cancellation. As a researcher, I had followed all the required procedures to ensure that the research I was undertaking was done in an ethical, responsible, and safe manner. However, when I became aware of the state machinery creeping in on me, all the existing guidelines and protocols appeared inadequate.
The data and privacy management plans the institutions expect researchers to follow fail to include the possibilities of scholars facing detention or confiscation of their research material, especially when researchers can be detained without trials even on the flimsiest pretext of holding contact details of an interviewee or a document deemed ‘anti-state.’
It appears that the pre-fieldwork safety evaluation does not reflect the possibility of incarceration, material seizure, or travel prohibitions. These assessments, it appears, only look at the level of threat, nature of possible hazards, and ethical issues. There is no training to prepare or inform scholars what to expect from the institutions in situations where they are detained or restricted from traveling..
Prioritising researchers’ safety is possible with bold and proactive measures by academic institutions
Conducting research has become increasingly difficult for many scholars in growingly illiberal and authoritarian countries like India, where scholars are actively targeted. Recently, an anthropologist at University of Sussex, Filippo Osella, was denied entry and deported from the country. Many others have been jailed and remain incarcerated for years. Many scholars, especially from Kashmir, who study in universities across the globe have faced intimidations and raids from state agencies, with many unable to return to even visit families, let alone conduct any research. The government is actively censoring all forms of research to erase the facts, and their documentation, on the ground.
As scholars, these are critical challenges to address, given that governments are increasingly targeting researchers, thereby making it harder to undertake any kind of study, especially those deemed critical of the state.
One conceivable agreement that universities and critical research institutes like the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) can establish is to set up mechanisms with governments, through their embassies or other state organisations, that make them the guarantor of academicians’ and researchers’ safety, especially for those undertaking research in places like Kashmir. Universities must make governments pledge their support for establishing such mechanisms through legally binding bonds or MOUs.
If such requests to ensure safety of scholars are not met, institutes must discontinue undertaking any research in countries that refuse to ensure the safety of scholars and academics. This will guarantee that the government doesn’t only say it’ll provide a safe atmosphere for researchers to undertake research, but also holds them accountable if something goes wrong. This idea will be key for securing protection of scholars and academics, who otherwise lack any immunity from the state onslaught.
My fieldwork was supported by the Peace Research Grant Program of the International Peach Research Association Foundation.
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About the author:
Haris Zargar is a Ph.D. student at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, whose research investigates social movements in the disputed Kashmir valley, particularly those cantered in Muslim revivalist thought. For over a decade, he has been a journalist covering the intersection of politics, conflict, and human security, and holds degrees in journalism and development studies.
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