Editing Studies in Nepali History and Society- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24
It all started as a simple proposal from Madhab Lal Maharjan, the owner of Mandala Book Point.
I was writing my PhD dissertation then and would often visit his shop in Kantipath to not only look for new books but also chat with Madhab and fellow academics. Such conversations would break the monotony of dissertation writing.
During one such visit in mid-1994, Madhab told me that if I were to edit an academic journal, he would publish it. As a researcher, I was familiar with several journals published from and about Nepal, including Contributions to Nepalese Studies, Kailash, Himalayan Research Bulletin (now called Himalaya), European Bulletin of Himalayan Research, Purnima, Pragya, Voice of History, and many others. However, until that conversation, I had not thought of starting a new journal myself. My dissertation was far from over and finishing its draft was my chief worry then. On that day, I made no commitments to Madhab, but that conversation stayed with me.
In December 1994, I returned to the University of Pennsylvania for my last year of dissertation writing. Before I left, I told Madhab that I would discuss his proposal with my colleagues and get back to him. One thing was clear in my mind: if the journal was going to happen, it was going to be a collaborative project from the beginning.
Once in the US, I discussed the possibility of starting a new journal with anthropologist Mary Des Chene, who used to teach at a college near Philadelphia. We often met at Philadelphia’s main railway station—the 30th Street Station—and talked about the journal idea amidst the entire politics of knowledge creation with respect to Nepal. Mary had submitted an excellent dissertation at Stanford University in 1991. Titled Relics of Empire: A Cultural History of the Gurkhas 1815-1987, it was based on two years of fieldwork in Ghandruk, Kaski and several weeks of archival research in the UK.
We also talked with Mark Liechty. Mark had then just got his PhD in anthropology from UPenn. In early 1995, he held a post-doctoral fellowship in The Netherlands (he is now a professor of anthropology and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago). Our ‘talking’ initially happened over email, which I was then using seriously for academic purposes for the first time. When Mark returned to the US in the summer of 1995, the three of us met in person as well. We agreed to start a new journal and also invited my sister, Lazima Onta-Bhatta, then finishing her PhD in anthropology at Cornell University to join the founding editorial team.
We decided to name the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS). In choosing this name, we were influenced by the title of the famous journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. SINHAS would be published twice a year and each issue would be about 200 pages thick. Discussions about the details of the publishing arrangement with Madhab had to wait until after my return to Kathmandu in September 1995. He and I reached a simple agreement: the editorial team would prepare the ‘camera ready copy’ of each issue of SINHAS and he would publish, distribute and sell it. With this agreement in place, Mary, Mark and Lazima started promoting the journal in the US by contacting various potential authors. I did the same in Nepal.
As the four founding editors of SINHAS, we agreed that our project was to produce a top-class journal focused on Nepal, in which qualitative social science and humanities research would be published. We wanted the journal to be a result of international collaboration.
As editors, we were not explicitly concerned with defining what ‘Nepal Studies’ meant, but we did have a view on the type of Nepal Studies we wanted to promote through SINHAS. We were not interested in building an exclusive school of thought. Hence, we hoped to pursue pluralism in terms of the themes and methods used in the articles published. We hoped to publish content that was a mix of theory and ethnography in the case of anthropological works or rigorously analytical texts from other disciplines.
We aimed to publish mainly academic articles but also some commentaries, literature, reviews, essays and bibliographies. We chose not to publish single book reviews since that would have involved too many editorial communications with potential book reviewers, something that we were not capable of as a group initially (such reviews were only carried in SINHAS from volume eight, 2003).
Our mission was further elaborated in the editorial published in the inaugural issue. Therein we talked about three divides in Nepal Studies that had motivated us to create this new journal:
“First, there is the linguistic divide. Studies in English rarely made use of the large body of scholarship written in the languages of Nepal. Second, there is a divide between description in the mode of area studies and analysis in the mode of metropolitan theory. Third, there is a divide between Nepali and foreign scholars who, with some individual exceptions, do not communicate as much as they might. In our view these various divides are related, and scholarship on Nepal would be enhanced by their elimination.”
In SINHAS, we hoped to publish new writings that tried to overcome those divides. Use and engagement with texts written in the languages of Nepal was going to be an important criterion of quality scholarship. This was to recognise that Nepalis writing in the languages of Nepal are legitimate and central participants in Nepal Studies.
Second, theory dance alone was not going to impress the editors, who were not interested in reading articles where Nepal-related case studies were only used to exemplify some theory. We wanted to see theoretical innovations based on engagement with Nepali field and archival details. On this, the editorial further elaborated: “By promoting work grounded in Nepali specificities SINHAS will provide a needed reminder that even the ‘transnational’ has its locations, and global processes intersect with regional histories and political formations in ways that will not be predicted on the basis of theory alone.”
The above were our declared objectives. To meet them, we instituted a simple peer review process. Everything that was submitted to SINHAS would be read by two or three peer reviewers, including at least one editor. The idea was to try to make sure that the article under review adds something new, important and possibly interesting to our collective knowledge of Nepali history and society. It is not always easy to figure this out. Two or three sets of comments would collectively help the editors to decide what is new and important in the article under review.
In June 1996, the first issue was handed over to Madhab. Forty-five separate issues of the journal have been published since.
Looking back, we can say that the editorial team has been a manifestation of international collaboration from day one and despite several changes, it has remained that way. Nepali and non-Nepali contributions in the main article category have been about equal. SINHAS has managed to get contributions from just about all the countries where Nepal Studies exists in some significant way and from others where it is a minor presence. These countries include Nepal, India, Hong Kong/China, Japan, Australia, Austria, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, France, Germany, the UK, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, US, and Canada.
In terms of the disciplines, most of the 215 articles we have published thus far have been from anthropology, history, sociology, political science, geography, and literary studies. A few contributions have come from the disciplines of international relations, economics, public health, Indology/Sanskrit Studies, musicology, and law. Some of the themes covered by the published articles include politics, agriculture and land/labour relations, gender relations, urbanisation, livelihoods, media and public sphere, education, religion, cultural politics and identity, public health, environment, social movements, knowledge production, civil society, foreign aid, childhood, youth, literature, and middle-class identity.
With respect to the use of and engagement with Nepali sources, we have not succeeded 100 percent. Even when we have told some authors about Nepali sources they could benefit from, they have been unable to do so because of the limitations of their linguistic abilities.
On the balance between theory and ethnography based on field or archival data, our achievement is satisfactory. Nepali and non-Nepali scholars of Nepal do increasingly cite publications in SINHAS in their work these days. That could be taken as an evidence of their ‘talking’ to each other.
Out of about 200 folks who have reviewed materials submitted to SINHAS, the number of Nepali and non-Nepali reviewers has been about equal. What that means is that the number of Nepalis who have brought their learning and sensibilities to evaluate Nepal-related studies before publication is a lot more than is the case for any other similar journal.
Journal editing is very labour intensive, but we have shown that an international journal like SINHAS can be published from Nepal for over two decades.
The challenge is to keep it going for the next 25 years!
The author tweets @pratyoushonta