Halfway through a nearly two-hour commute to the outskirts of the capital city of Delhi, India where I was to meet with a group of community leaders, I was overcome by a sudden feeling of nervousness. It was the first month of my fieldwork, conducting life history interviews with Rohingya refugees living in Delhi, India and so far, I had little progress to show. This meeting had been hard to arrange, not least because of the increasingly hostile policy landscape for Rohingya refugees in India. In September 2022, the community was just emerging from a media storm set off by a controversial tweet from an Indian government official announcing the provision of low-income housing to the Rohingya in India on August 17. This was withdrawn just hours later, but the damage was done and refugees across the city suddenly became the focus of journalists and reporters looking for bytes and quotes. “This won’t come in the media, will it?” became a common refrain in my first few weeks and I lost count of the number of times I reassured my respondents that I was not a reporter. My nervousness was warranted, but as the coming weeks unfolded, I found myself repeatedly confronted with the strange and unexpected ways that my various identities, my various positionalities - both ascribed and innate - influenced and mediated my access, my reception, and ultimately the relationships I built. Reyes, in her 2018 paper on the topic, argues that researchers often draw on an ‘ethnographic toolkit’ - the visible (race/ethnicity/language) and invisible (social capital) tools emerging from their multiple social locations to mediate the process of research. In this piece, I briefly reflect on three such identities that came to definitively shape my fieldwork experience.
En route to one of the fieldsites in India
“Hello, I’m Rohini, I’m a PhD student”.
This was the identity I perceived as primary, the one I held up practically as a protective shield. I initially used ‘researcher’ and ‘PhD student’ interchangeably till a few respondents pointed out that calling myself a student would lead to me being viewed as less of a threat. Students and PhD scholars in Delhi have also been one of the key groups who have volunteered, worked, and advocated for Rohingya refugees in India and the fact that my work had educational motives would be viewed positively. Calling myself a researcher certainly lent credibility. The use of standardised research procedures, including letters of introduction and informed consent forms was reassuring to many respondents, who had had one too many experiences with fly-by-night data collection and unethical journalistic practices. However, asking for signatures on informed consent forms sometimes raised fears, and I had to frequently rely on previously built networks to vouch for me and my work, so that respondents felt comfortable to sign on a piece of paper that was being handed over to a total stranger. Sometimes I had to rely on oral consent entirely. I was often cautioned by respondents to not highlight my connection to Germany too much in case it generated expectations around the interviews I was conducting, a piece of advice I was not always comfortable taking. My own position as a young, female researcher, living and travelling alone in India drew a lot of curiosity from my respondents, especially from younger female refugees who had similar academic aspirations.
“If you had not come to us through the community, we would not have spoken to you.”
This was an identity that I did not give much attention to in the beginning but turned out to be of the most importance. Since the middle of 2019, when I began to nurture an interest in the topic of refugee policy and integration in India, I had begun to reach out to and have informal conversations with organisations working in the space. A series of interesting meetings and conversations eventually led to a volunteering stint with a refugee-led NGO based in Delhi - a position I still hold today. Over the years, I worked on internal reports, documentation efforts, advocacy, and got to know several community leaders and prominent advocates for refugees in India. The importance of these networks only became clear at the aforementioned hard-to-arrange meeting that I travelled 2 hours for. “Why are you doing this research” was the first question asked, as I sat before a group of refugee leaders who had taken precious time out of their workday to meet me. Of course, after multiple proposal presentations, it was not a new question, but suddenly the academic-and-policy-speak in which I usually parcelled the answer withered at the back of my throat. I spoke, instead, about my personal motivations. Later, on the long walk back to the auto-rickshaw stand from where I would begin the two-hour journey back home, one respondent began narrating a recent case of a refugee whose identity had been published by an unethical reporter. Since then, the community is extra cautious about who they engage with, he said, and had only agreed to speak to me because of the organisation that vouched for me as someone who had supported refugees through volunteer work.
“They only eat dal and roti here, with achaar everyday!”
[dal: lentils, roti: flatbread, achaar: pickle]
I come from the city of Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, paradoxically located in Eastern India. There is an important reason for this strange moniker. A reason rooted in the shared, traumatic history of Partition violence and displacement. West Bengal, so named in relation to the erstwhile East Bengal, then East Pakistan, and today, Bangladesh, is the first port of call for most Rohingya refugees coming to India. Nearly all my respondents first arrived in Kolkata after crossing the border before eventually making their way to other cities in India. Many also spoke the Bengali language, from long years of residence in Bangladesh. Being from Bengal, where we share cultural traditions with Bangladeshis, and some also with the Rohingya (who hail from a border region of Bangladesh and Myanmar) was an unexpected bonding exercise as I soon realised. When my respondents spoke of the strange food habits of North India that they cannot bring themselves to embrace, I, after days of subsisting on pure vegetarian fare, could not help but nod vigorously in agreement. In neither my world nor theirs can you eat dal and roti everyday, achaar notwithstanding. Where is the fish and meat? Starved as I was of adequate non-vegetarian food, some of the best meals I ate during fieldwork were in the homes of my respondents, where simple fish and chicken curries, often cooked as I conducted my interviews, were served with rice, almost exactly as in my home in Kolkata.
A number of overlapping identities, social locations, and privileges shaped my fieldwork experiences. Some, such as being from an upper-middle class, urban family, or my Indian citizenship were anticipated. Others like the ones described above took me by surprise. I was surprised also to find how easily I came to inhabit these identities, allowing some to dominate and others to recede in different contexts. In the encounter mentioned at the beginning of the piece, I found that highlighting my academic background, my student status, and the proper procedures I planned to follow (informed consent, anonymisation, etc) were reassuring to respondents. In another city, where the security and protection situation is far more precarious, my insistence on proper procedure was a major hindrance and it was rather the personal networks that vouched for me that enabled my interviews. In engaging with women within households, I often had to shed these entirely, relying instead on my identity as a young woman, as a newcomer to the city, as a fellow non-vegetarian in a predominantly vegetarian city. All of it comprises the ‘ethnographic toolkit’ that I initially was not even aware I possessed but which has fundamentally shaped my relationships with respondents and interlocutors, the understanding of my positionality, and the outcomes of my research.
Rohini Mitra is a doctoral student at the Centre for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn, where her research is focused on forced migration governance, networks, and refugee transnationalism in and beyond South Asia. Her doctoral research examines these themes in the context of the Rohingya refugees in India. Her larger research interests include migrant (and refugee) transnationalism, migration governance regimes, diaspora politics, and the lived experiences of migration. She has completed a Masters in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and worked in the migration policy and research space in India.