From Cambridge to Cambridge Via Tejgadh

Time and distance are relative. The importance of this statement cannot perhaps be overemphasized when thinking back about engagement as an AIF Clinton Fellow. 

I remember my interview with the AIF Clinton Fellowship team as if it was yesterday. It was just after winter in New York but it was still quite cold and rainy. In the interview, I was asked if having worked as a lawyer in India, the Fellowship would be seen as a step backwards in my career. I honestly viewed the Fellowship as a step sideways rather than backwards. Not having worked in the development sector before, it would be a new experience for me. In fact, it would be something that I quite looked forward to.

That was over a year ago. The Fellowship, which was 10 months, is now already over. If you think about it, it isn’t all that long. I had spent 10 months immediately before the Fellowship in the United States. Yet, those 10 months were perhaps as different from the 10 months I spent during my Fellowship in India.

As expected, the 10 months at Harvard Law School were extremely hectic and demanding. From Cambridge, Massachusetts, I managed to go to Boston only a handful of times. Most of my time was spent preparing for classes, working on assignments and papers. It was my first long stint outside India. While initially intimidating, it was truly wonderful to know an amazing class of people from over 60 countries. It was intellectually stimulating and exhilarating and very different from the many years that I had spent studying and working in India. It was a particularly cold winter when I applied for the AIF Clinton Fellowship. 

Cambridge, MA, when I applied for the AIF Clinton Fellowship

After AIF notified me of my selection, I interviewed remotely with three potential host organizations while in the United States. My interview with Bhasha (where I eventually served) was on the day that I had to pack up and move out of my accommodation. The project required developing a long-term plan for the Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy library to optimize the use of its multi-lingual collection of over 50,000 books focused on tribal, Adivasi, and indigenous issues. My to-be project supervisor told me that if selected, I would be based in Tejgadh – a small village of just over 6,000 people. It was near the city of Vadodara, which has a rich intellectual tradition and is a center for liberal arts education. Yet, Tejgadh, which is less than 100 km away, is part of a district (Chhota Udaipur), with an abysmally low rate of education and poor socioeconomic indicators. (My previous blog talks about this in some detail.)

Perfect! I thought to myself. Having worked a student job with the Harvard Law School library, I had a few ideas which I thought could be useful. I had not stayed in rural India for an extended period of time and this would be a good change from city life. A distance just shy of 100 km is the shelving space of Harvard University’s Widener Library. The contrast between moving from a space where knowledge was so highly regarded and so densely packed to one which was only beginning to discover its immense potential was an exciting prospect. The project appealed to me instantly as it coincided with my research interest on tribal and Adivasi legal history.

The 10 month fFllowship was challenging in its own unique way. The pace of village life was much slower than what I was used to. Working till 7 pm was considered very late. Electricity and internet connectivity could not be taken for granted. Many of the people I interacted with were first-generation learners and therefore it made me question many assumptions I held previously. Unlike many others I knew who valued the “Harvard tag”, many people I spoke to in Tejgadh were suitably impressed when they found out that I had been to “Amerika”. Many were curious why I would leave life in a city in Mumbai to move to their little village. 

In its own way, the Fellowship experience was exceedingly enjoyable and exhilarating. Through daily interactions with staff members of the Adivasi Academy and members of the local community, I got to learn as much if not more than I did from interacting with various researchers who occasionally visited as well as the wide range of books I got to read there. The long treks with volunteers from Germany and other visitors to the Adivasi Academy ensured that I got out into nature often. The 10 months I spent in Tejgadh helped to question a number of assumptions that I held having lived mostly in urban India. Perhaps most importantly for me personally, the wide range of resources available in the library helped me develop a clearer understanding of gaps in scholarship about tribes and Adivasi communities. These would inform my future research.

Sunset Adivasi Academy at dusk on a hot summer evening

During my Fellowship year, I applied and was accepted to the University of Cambridge for a Ph.D. in law. I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship to be able to attend. I had never been to the U.K., save as a transit passenger. When I told people I was going to Cambridge after my AIF Fellowship, I was pleasantly surprised to know that it was not a place which was distant and alien to many people in Tejgadh. In 2017, a locally renowned Adivasi artist from the Rathwa community, Balubhai Rathwa, was commissioned by the Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology to make several traditional wooden sculptures. Not only are his sculptures at the museum, but Balubhai was invited there as well for the installation. (Source: Annual Report 2017-18, MAA, pg. 30).  

On my last day at Tejgadh, a wonderful farewell was organized where I was presented with a red turban which is a mark of respect amongst the Rathwa community, a traditional Gond painting, and some books by Dr. Ganesh N. Devy, one of the founders of Bhasha. With the Fellowship now having concluded, I am happy to report that the step sideways was, for me, a step in the right direction.

Having started my Fellowship journey from Cambridge in the United States, preparations are now underway to begin my doctoral studies at Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The Cambridge to which I am headed, is one that I am yet to visit, but knowing that the rural community I called home for nearly a year feels connected with it, is strangely reassuring.

A Warm Farewell with the Adivasi Academy Staff, Volunteers and a few visiting guests (Photo Credit: Naranbhai Rathwa)

References:

The Widener Library at Harvard University, available at https://library.harvard.edu/libraries/widener (last visited 31st July 2019)

Annual Report 2017-18, Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge (2018), available at http://maa.cam.ac.uk/maa/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Annual-Report17-18.pdf (last visited 31st July 2019).

Nishant graduated from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata in 2011 and received his LL.M. degree from Harvard Law School. He clerked with the Supreme Court of India and later litigated a diverse range of cases in and around New Delhi with a litigation chamber. His most recent engagement was with the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University, Delhi where he was one of the founding members and assisted inmates sentenced to death secure legal representation. At Harvard Law School, Nishant wrote about the impact of colonialism on tribal groups in India and pursued diverse interests ranging from natural resource issues, law and neuroscience, food law and criminal justice policy. He frequently writes about criminal justice issues in academic and popular publications. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Nishant will be working on issues related to de-notified "criminal" tribes in India and hopes to better understand the law's impact on the lives of marginalized peoples.

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