Reframing Migration: A Conversation With Historian Sunil Amrith

Historians in the News
tags: migration, Sunil Amrith

The Bay of Bengal has long been defined by the histories of the nations it borders, but its own story is an outcome of radical flux. On a world map, it appears almost entirely enclosed by South and Southeast Asia's coastal rim. Its irregularly conical body—three times the size of Texas—juts into the Asian continent, flanked by India and Sri Lanka in the west, Bangladesh to the north, and Myanmar and the Malay Peninsula in the east. 

Because of this unique geography, the Bay is both place and passage. In one sense, it's a nation unto itself, housing over 500 million people on its precarious coasts: a population comprised of distinct nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. In another, it's a connective tissue between countries that have been physically and commercially reshaped by British colonialism in the 20th century. It presents a fragmented history of human movement in a region of increasingly energetic monsoons, milky silt-ridden waters, and tough tropical cyclones.

Sunil Amrith, a historian and the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard University, has been studying this complex history for over a decade. This October, his work—spanning three books and multiple academic publications–won him a MacArthur "genius" grant, for "illustrating the role of centuries of transnational migration in the present-day social and cultural dynamics of South and Southeast Asia."

Amrith is interested in how national and international institutions, from European imperialism to the United Nations, have helped or hindered the movement of people globally. His most recent book, 2013's Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, reads like a biography of the waters, introducing us to a centuries of historical forces that have shaped its surrounding populations. 

To better understand where his academic work fits into our current geopolitical context, Pacific Standard spoke with Amrith about reframing the relationship between migration, nationalism, and the environment.

What drew you to the histories of South and Southeast Asia, and specifically the Bay of Bengal? 

I grew up in Singapore with Indian parents, so my personal experience of the region has, in a sense, come from observing the constant connectedness between India and Southeast Asia. But when I began studying Indian history at university, I found an absolute disconnect—there was no mention of Southeast Asia. I was struck immediately by how profoundly national and colonial borders have shaped the way professional historians do their work. 

My academic research helped bridge together what I intuitively knew to be true, having spent the first 18 years of my life in the region, which is that there are all kinds of connections and flows—migratory, cultural, economic—crossing borders, but these weren't at all academically linked.

The lines we think of when we divide South and Southeast Asia really go right through the Bay of Bengal. When you think about it, there's a lot of arbitrariness in the way these lines have been drawn. I mean, why, for instance, do we consider Myanmar as a part of Southeast Asia and not South Asia? But then, of course, these arbitrary lines become institutionalized—not just in politics but also in academia. South Asian and Southeast Asian studies departments are often quite separate and barely have any contact with each other. I probably don't count as a real South Asian-ist in some people's minds because I work in other regions. ...

Read entire article at Pacific Standard Magazine