‘India front and center’

Director Tariq Thachil of the Center for Advanced Study of India discusses his current work, the balance between research and teaching, and his ‘incredibly affirming’ move to Philadelphia.

Man walks up stairs. Posters in Hindi hang on the walls.
Thachil visits a municipal office in India to collect data on annual city budgets. (Image: Adam Auerbach)

Tariq Thachil joined Penn in July as the new director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), associate professor of political science, and the Madan Lal Sobti Chair for the Study of Contemporary India. Thachil studies political parties and behavior, social movements, ethnic politics, and urban migration. At Penn, he plans to continue research on rapid urbanization and internal migration in India while furthering CASI’s policy-oriented research and engaging students in a vibrant and current vision of contemporary India. 

Thachil talks with Penn Today about his current work, the balance between research and teaching, and the unique appeal of CASI. 

Portrait of man in blue suit
Tariq Thachil, formerly of Vanderbilt University, started his new CASI appointment on July 1. “CASI puts India front and center,” Thachil says. “To be part of that space and direct that space is just an incredible privilege.” (Image: Piyali Bhattacharya) 

What drew you to the position at CASI, and what is your vision for the Center?

I think what I find most attractive about CASI is the opportunity to privilege research and programming that is of interest to India and to Indians and not simply to the U.S. academy. Even as a graduate student, I was sometimes frustrated by the constant need to justify the importance of a subject or a conversation that was based on India within U.S. universities, to render it legible to the concerns of this academy. This is a problem for many social science disciplines, including my own field of political science. Scholars like myself are constantly asked why a certain phenomenon within India is important to study. The fact that such questions neglect the intrinsic importance of experiences within a 1.3-billion-person country is as problematic as the fact that similar justifications are rarely asked of scholars of the U.S. or France. 

What makes CASI a special place for me is that it has had a mandate for over a quarter-century to produce social science research and programming that are relevant for contemporary India, without the need for such justification. To be in a position where you get to convene those conversations, shape such research, is incredibly appealing. 

What was it like moving to Philadelphia in the middle of the pandemic?

It was overwhelming in many ways but also incredibly affirming, in part because Philadelphia is the place that I consider home in the U.S. My parents live here, and although I never lived here, it is a place that I’ve been in and out of over the past few decades. My wife [Pilayli Bhattacharya, artist-in-residence at the Penn Creative Writing Program] went to Bryn Mawr and did one of her majors at Penn. So, for the two of us, in some ways, to come home during the pandemic felt extremely fortunate, especially as it is a time when many people are far removed from their loved ones and face insurmountable barriers in trying to see them. 

At the same time, it was a logistical nightmare. I don’t recommend it for keeping your sanity. 

It was also especially energizing to come here at a time when Philadelphia at the apex of the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, when the city was pulsing with questions about what kind of space it wanted to be. In fact, the last day we left Nashville we attended a protest, and when we arrived in Philadelphia on a Saturday it was, I think, the biggest protest in the city at that point. To immediately feel we were part of this important conversation about what the city we wanted to be was just very powerful. 

It also has resonances across the world. The Indian cities I work in are also marked by deep inequalities in material resources and lived experiences. Indeed, some of my work has specifically examined the impact of urban police repression and discrimination by urban elites on disadvantaged migrants from India’s villages who come to work in the city as construction workers and street vendors.

Rows of houses with corrugated metal roofs are interspersed with trees. A mountain range is in the background
Thachil does fieldwork in slum settlements, including this one in Jaipur, India. (Image: Adam Auerbach) 

How do you navigate the balance between teaching and research, and why is that important? 

The value of field work and spending time in the places we study cannot be overstated. I firmly believe that scholars who have not spent time with the communities they study will have a hard time producing research that accurately captures the experiences of those communities, let alone holds relevance for them.

But, of course, unlike scholars of the U.S., for those of us who study places far removed from Philadelphia, this presents a challenge. If you need to spend long stretches in India, how do you maintain a presence as a teacher in your university in the U.S.? So, I will always advocate for faculty to have the chance to spend some uninterrupted time away from campus and teaching obligations to further their own understanding of the communities they work with.

That said, I have also been incredibly privileged in that the positions I have held as an academic have made these tradeoffs less sharp than they are for many others. I get four months of the year to be in India, and I make sure to take as much of that time as possible to be there. Much of that time is in the summer, when many people might balk at spending summers in India and especially the places in north India that I spend time. Yes, it’s 42° Celsius, and much of my fieldwork involves being outside, conducting surveys and roaming between government offices. But what a privilege to have such time to spend. 

The second way in which I have been fortunate in balancing teaching and research is in the amazing students I have been privileged to teach. They have pushed me to think about what is important, question my assumptions, and make me want to go back to the field. I’ve been very privileged to teach students who you don’t have to motivate, who are excited about learning. And when you have to teach a concept, you have to learn it so much better than if you have to read it or write it. I’ve found the interplay to be really productive. In short, teaching has enhanced my fieldwork. 

I’ve taught undergraduates for every single year of my career, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Their energy is so infectious that it makes me more willing to go back out in the heat over the summer so that I can learn more things to come back and teach them. 

I should also say that one of the things we’ve been looking forward to building is our engagement with students, beyond the small section of students that have research interests in India and our successful internship program. What we really want to do is expand our year-round engagement with undergraduates and maybe put on accessible events that broaden student exposure to conversations on India beyond the traditional Bollywood and bhangra fare. 

Students of all backgrounds should have a sense of India in its contemporary and dynamic state, not some fossilized vision. When we invoke terms like ‘tradition’ and ‘culture,’ we too often refer to ideas we receive from other people and often a static, fossilized understanding of these terms. But culture and tradition are dynamic, contested, and fluid concepts that each person should think through for themselves. And CASI has a role to play in enabling that process. To me, that is what a liberal arts education is all about.

How do you serve the communities in which you do research?

That is a question I wrestle a lot with. I think there are a couple of ways. The first is by being careful and selective in the questions that I ask. I don’t think that I’ve ever asked a question about a community that I’ve studied where I haven’t first been in the community and assessed whether it was important to them. So, I haven’t just sat here in the U.S. and thought, Oh, this is a question that might get me a journal publication. We have an obligation to make sure the questions we are asking are engaging for the communities we study, so I think that goes back to the first point about field work: Is what I am working on at all relevant to this community? That’s especially important to me because I mostly study disadvantaged communities in a low-income country. There are all kinds of ways in which I could absolve myself of responsibility because those communities don’t have the means to question or challenge my research. 

I also try as much to share my findings; I go back to the places I’ve studied repeatedly. I’ve often shared what my findings are in conversation: ‘You remember I came here last year and did a survey; here’s what I found.’ Sometimes communities are surprised by my findings, which is always fun, to hear what they think about those findings. I also write for local Indian newspapers so that my findings are at least locally disseminated. Many of those publications are in English, which is a limitation as well, but on occasion they’ve been translated into Hindi and other local Indian languages. I sometimes take cutouts of my newspaper articles back into the communities and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m writing. You’re always asking me, what am I working on; well here’s what I’m working on.’ 

Those forms of engagement are I think the biggest things that I do. I don’t pretend to have research that solves problems for communities necessarily; I don’t think most of the problems I’m analyzing are that easily solvable. To the extent that they help deepen understanding, I do try and share with the communities as much as possible. One of my goals at CASI is to try to ensure that as much as possible of what we write is available in Hindi and hopefully, eventually, in other Indian languages as well. 

A man gets up from a table to shake a woman's hand. They are surrounded by a large group of people.
A politician visits a slum settlement in Bhopal City to confer with residents. (Image: Adam Auerbach) 

What is your current research?

I’m finishing a book project this year that looks at the larger political consequences of urbanization in India, focusing on slums, which are being drawn in by political parties. The analog with the U.S. experience is with Tammany Hall and the early days of the Democratic and Republican machines that tried to integrate immigrant neighborhoods. New immigrant populations were coming into U.S. cities, and they had to be incorporated, often by political operatives who solve problems for local neighborhoods and got stuff done for immigrant localities and in turn got their support. 

There’s a similar dynamic happening in Indian cities. Migrants from the countryside come into cities and settle in squatter settlements, or slums. These slums are often completely blank slates in terms of their infrastructure. They need streetlights, they need water tanks, they need paved roads, and I look at how do these slums go about getting these things. 

The way that they do it is often by insinuating themselves into city politics, by making themselves politically influential. They do so by voting at very high rates in local elections, making themselves attractive to politicians in the city. Unlike in the U.S. where the poorer you are, they less you vote, in India the poorer you are, the more likely you are to vote, in cities. 

Why is there that difference?

In the two cities that I study, the turnout rate was about 90% of slum residents we surveyed. In the middle-class areas, that rate is about 50-55%. Why is that? For slum residents, the vote is the currency they have to get stuff done. They very deliberately will position themselves as valuable pools of votes in order to transact to get things. The fact that they lack legal standing means that they have no rights to get public services. They use informal transactions to essentially trade their votes for services. 

Part of what my work suggests is that there’s much more bottom-up agency in this process. We typically think slums are captured by these mafia bosses, these dons who hold sway at the end of the barrel of a gun. We—me and my co-author Adam Auerbach of American University—find that that’s not the Indian story. 

Over the past seven years that we’ve been researching, we’ve found that slums actually select local leaders and sometimes hold informal elections in which they cast ballots to find out who’s going to be the slum president. And that president goes to politicians and lobbies for services and says, ‘please bring me streetlights, bring me paved roads,’ and in return, promises the deliverance of votes from the settlement. Slums vote at such high rates precisely to make themselves politically consequential, so that they have this heft to make these requests. 

By no means do we romanticize what a slum in India looks like. Slums remain incredibly difficult places to live, and few slum residents have obtained what they want most, a formal title for their land. But over the years, many of these slums have got paved roads, have got street lights, some degree of water and sanitation. Most of that is off the books. The way they’ve been able to do that is by making themselves politically matter. And that’s why they vote.