Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Postcolonial Displacements: Migration, Narratives and Place-making

Postcolonial Displacements explores the multiple ways in which migration in South Asia contributes to the imagining, questioning, subverting and reframing of territories, nations and communities. The project focuses on the contested fringes of the politically divided South Asian subcontinent, across historical and contemporary socio-political contexts.

Erik de Maaker
AMT ‘Large Grant’ scheme

Postcolonial Displacements: Migration, Narratives and Place-making in South Asia introduces the new research theme of ‘displacement and place-making’ in South Asian Studies and Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. The project aims at bringing together multi-disciplinary research expertise, teaching modules and outreach initiatives to expand academic involvement with South Asia at Leiden University and in the Netherlands. The project asks:

  • How do people in South Asia engage, resist and support the arbitrary borders that divide, define and delineate the states of the subcontinent?
  • How are cultural imaginations, narratives, and claim-makings shaped by histories, memories and experiences of mobility and migration? 

The project explores displacement, in the context of South Asia’s fraught history of partition, through two core sub-themes: Mobility on the Margins and Migrations, Memories, Representations. 

Postcolonial Displacements intends to generate new theoretical perspectives, invite multi-disciplinary dialogues, and a rethinking of the area-concept across institutions within the university.

Dr. Erik de Maaker and Dr. Sanjukta Sunderason are the principle investigators of the Postcolonial Displacements project. Dr. Sanderien Verstappen coordinated the research and education activities of the project in the period 2017-2018, and designed the pilot course ‘Displacement and Development’. 

Mobility on the Margins explores narratives, trajectories and interpretations of movement with reference to origin, connectedness, belonging, and other claims to ‘soil’ in South Asia’s eastern borderlands.

Located at the fringes of two of South Asia’s largest states (India and Bangladesh), the people of these borderlands experience marginalization in terms of social hierarchy, economic exclusion and cultural rejection (Adnan: 2006; Van Schendel: 1992). The increasingly coercive presence of the nation-states in these fringes in economic and military as well as social and cultural terms has been and is conducive towards the substantiation and production of ethnicities and indigeneities (Gellner: 2013). Not only are the centres producing themselves through the borderlands that are supposedly marginal to them, the people of these margins also increasingly define themselves, and the groups they belong to, in ‘statist’ terms, such as ‘nations’ (Baruah: 2007, Bhaumik: 2009). Consequently, the post-colonial trajectories of the eastern borderlands of India and Bangladesh are marred by conflicts, militancies, and violent counter-insurgencies set in ethnic terms. These spill over into neighbouring Burma/Myanmar, with which these borderlands are culturally congruent and share a political history (Scott: 2009). False dichotomies such as those between hills and plains, tribe and caste, civilized and primitive, modern and traditional, deriving from crude evolutionist sociological models that originate from the colonial period, create social hierarchies. The people that these refer to increasingly experience these as arbitrary, humiliating and unacceptable, even though they also put these to strategic use. This theme will focus on narratives of origin, migration and belonging, and how these take on new and hitherto unheard meanings in contexts in which ethnicity and indigeneity serve to formulate  claims to scarce resources, political power, and being with or against the state (Karlsson: 2011, Longkumer 2010).

Migrations, Memories, Representations focuses on the field of cultural production where experiences and memories of displacement, refugee exodus, destitution or place-making are reconstituted and refigured in representation – in literary, cinematic or artistic narratives.

The nation is a subject of struggle in South Asia. This struggle lies in its histories of wrestling nationhood from external and internal colonialism, whether it be the pre-1947 resistance against the British colonial state, or post-1947 battles for regional autonomy, border control and population reorganization. Decolonisation became a renewed battleground for forging and policing mobilities and narratives of belonging, captured not only by waves of refugee flows between India, East and West Pakistan (1947-71), but also in iconic struggles like the civil war between West and East Pakistan and resulting in the creation of independent Bangladesh in 1971 (Mookherjee: 2011). These struggles prompted representations of place, dwelling and memory, producing narratives of mobility within and across nation-states (Dadi: 2010; Toor: 2011) that revealed time and again new modes of imagining selves and belongings to past and present. In the post-colonial period, as new states consolidated their frontiers and culture through nationalist assertions of cultural heritage and national-modern art, dissonant cultural imaginations of contra-national and cross-national identifications flourished under the shadow of the nation-state – whether in left-wing cultural movements in India (Gopal: 2005) and postcolonial Pakistan or language movement in East Pakistan (Uddin: 2006), or refugee literatures and films on the cathartic partition that displaced millions, skewing the affective registers of geopolitics in the region forever (Chatterji: 2007). This theme will study the forms, mechanisms and politics through which cultural memories fostered by migrations enter and become narratives that question, subvert or disperse the ‘national imaginary’ in South Asia (Kapur: 2000).


The project will generate new research and courses on postcolonial displacements that expands on Leiden’s overt academic specialisation on India, and brings Pakistan and Bangladesh into the gambit of its Modern South Asia studies programme.

The project will create and stimulate:

  • Postdoctoral grants (to be announced in Spring 2016)
  • Theme-based research collaborations with scholars working on and in South Asia
  • Individual/collaborative research initiatives
  • Lectures contributing to the Modern South Asia Seminar


The project has generated a new elective course, ‘Displacement and Development: Anthropological Perspectives on South Asia’. The course focusses on theories, histories, ethnographies, and narratives that address paradoxes of displacement and development in South Asia from anthropological and sociological perspectives, using combinations of textual, visual, and audio-visual resources. The regional focus is on India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, including their borderlands and transnational linkages.

The course was developed to combine Leiden’s expertise in South Asia studies with a thematic and disciplinary approach, to innovate the scope of Leiden’s Modern South Asia studies programme. It started as a pilot in 2017-18 with a batch of 24 students, who took the course as an elective to enrich their bachelor studies in the humanities and/ or the social sciences, received very positive evaluations, and is now consolidated.

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