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Meet the Fellows: 2018 Newcombe Fellow Smriti Upadhyay

The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship fosters the original and significant study of ethical or religious values in all fields of the humanities and social sciences. The 2018 class, announced by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, includes Smriti Upadhyay, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Smriti’s dissertation, titled Sacrifice, Selflessness, and Struggle: Religious Mobilization and the contemporary Indian Labor Movement, examines Hindu nationalism in India to analyze how within a cross-class movement, both elites and workers can simultaneously wield and be undermined by the double-edged sword of religion:

In 2002, the western Indian state of Gujarat was the site of some of the most horrific inter-religious violence ever witnessed in the country. When I began my fieldwork there nearly 15 years later, I expected to find working class politics still saturated with religious zeal and fractured by ethno-religious antagonism.

What I discovered was more complicated. Indeed, communal antagonisms still persist in Gujarat today. But more importantly, I also found that even members of a staunchly Hindu nationalist labor organization could build bridges of solidarity across different faith traditions. One such episode occurred during an important strike by cable factory workers who were members of the Hindu nationalist union I was studying.

One day, a young Hindu worker started to sing at the picket line. This would happen occasionally and when it did, it was always Hindu devotional songs that were sung. That day, however, the worker sang a song in the style of a Sufi qawwali—a Muslim devotional song. He sang beautifully and quickly drew an ecstatic audience. As it often happened in moments like these, my interpretation of the situation was ever-changing. Initially, I was elated to have witnessed such a poetic display of India’s religious diversity in the heartland of Hindu nationalism. A moment later, I realized that the song, though a qawwali, was actually about a Hindu saint! Upon further research that night, I discovered that the saint may not have been Hindu after all, and in any case was revered by both Hindus and Muslims. The song was a hit from a popular Bollywood film from the late 70s celebrating India’s secularism and religious diversity.

This experience, along with the strike more broadly, showcases what I had observed more consistently during my research in Gujarat: despite divisions that employers, the state, and even union leaders constantly draw between workers, as workers struggle to better their working and living conditions, they also transform the labor movement into a more democratic and inclusive space.

For more information about the 2018 Newcombe Fellows and a list of their dissertation titles, click here.

 


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