The past in the present at international meeting on ancient and medieval Telangana

Dr Rebecca Darley, a lecturer in medieval history from the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology reviews an international conference on the history of Telangana in Hyderabad, India.

In January 2018, researchers from across the world met in Hyderabad, India for the second international congress uncovering the history of ancient and medieval Telangana. The first, held in 2017, had been inaugurated only three years after Telangana became India’s newest federal state and the first new state to be created since India’s independence in 1947.

Though Telangana is administratively a very new state, its claims to an independent identity are rooted in the antiquity and uniqueness of its culture. These conferences, hosted by the Telangana State Department for Archaeology and Museums, now re-named Heritage Telangana, were therefore aimed at bringing together researchers and the public to celebrate and uncover this past. In particular, the focus on the ancient and medieval periods was intended to provide a sense of the depth of this identity beyond the recent rhetoric of an independence campaign which was, for obvious reasons, rooted in modern grievances and modern decisions about how to establish the states of India.

I was very fortunate to have been at the 2017 gathering as well and it was great to meet new people, see old faces and to be back in one of my favourite cities in the world. My own research focuses on discoveries of Byzantine and Roman coins, minted in the Mediterranean region, but exported to south India in the first seven centuries AD. The State Archaeology Museum in Hyderabad has one of the largest collections of these coin finds in India and many were discovered within what is now Telangana. This was the challenge I had set myself; to interpret these ancient finds through the lens of the modern boundaries of Telangana State.

Mine was the first paper after the elaborate and extremely enjoyable opening ceremonies, and it received a very good response. It was a particular honour to be on a panel with P. V. Radhakrishnan and T. Satyamurthy, both senior scholars whose work I have used and admired for many years.

Being the first paper also meant that I was then free to enjoy the rest of the conference – two days of papers and cultural performances. Director of Heritage Telangana, Smt. N. R. Visalatchy has made it her mission in this post not just to raise the profile of cultural heritage in Telangana, but also to expand its definition, and so academic papers were combined with demonstrations of classical dance and folk musical performance. The range and standard of papers was wonderful, as was the public interest shown in the conference. It would be fair to say that academic conferences in the UK rarely attract a substantial public audience, even when they are open and advertised. By contrast, in both 2017 and 2018, the international meetings on Telangana heritage filled an auditorium with a crowd including journalists, members of learned societies, local history enthusiasts, writers and teachers, as well as archaeologists, academics and heritage workers.

Heritage institutions in India, as in the UK, often have to struggle with budgetary constraints, maintenance of buildings which are themselves heritage structures and recording and cataloguing ever-growing collections. The support given by Telangana State to these conferences is, therefore, most welcome and was an opportunity also to see some of the success stories as excavators reported on ongoing archaeological excavations and developing projects.

Hopefully, there will be a chance to meet again in Hyderabad for the third international conference on Telangana Heritage. My own research, in part as a result of this paper, has raised a wealth of new questions about how Roman and Byzantine coin evidence can reveal social practices and state structures in inland India. There remains much more to say and to discover.

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Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.

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Constitutions, committees and campaigns: an evening at the Birkbeck Students’ Union AGM

Sean Fitzpatrick, Communications Coordinator for Birkbeck’s Students’ Union, gives a run-down of the most recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) – and invites current students to stand in the elections as Liberation Officers and Student Leaders.

A lot has been going on across the Students’ Union this academic year – so much, in fact, we had to have two Annual General Meetings.

Every Birkbeck Student is welcome to come along to our AGM. Everyone is welcome to vote on any issues that arise at the meeting. This is one of the many ways that we make sure everything we do is informed by what students tell us they want.

With one of the largest attendances of the past decade, we settled down for an evening of discussion on all things Birkbeck. First up was officer accountability, where attendees were invited to grill the elected Student Leaders and Liberation Officers on their work, poring over their officer reports and manifestos to make sure they’re doing everything that they said they’d do!

Incidentally, we’re looking for people who would be interested in being one of our paid Liberation Officers and Student Leaders for the 2018/19 academic year. If you’re interested – you can read more about our elections and put your name forward on our website.

We then had a brief run through the current financial state of the Students’ Union, where students can see where our funding comes from and how we’re spending it – it’s important for us to be transparent. We then ran through changes to our constitution, the core document that defines the Union’s ethos and purpose. All of the changes were put to the room, and students voted either in favour or against each proposed change. Once that was done, we continued our discussions at the George Bar on the fourth floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street building, right next to the Students’ Union offices.

Our AGMs are a great introduction to how the Students’ Union works and how we can work to support Birkbeck students. They also give you an opportunity to vote on how the Students’ Union uses its resources and to bring any issues you feel are affecting students to our attention.

If you have anything you feel the Students’ Union can help you with, please contact us! We’re here to help you make the most of your time at Birkbeck. Get in touch by messaging us on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing us at

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Strategic litigation: anti-racism in the courtroom?

Rebecca Sparrow, second year LLM student, discusses a recent event about how to challenge structural and state-sanctioned racism in law.

The Centre for the Research of Race and Law’s most recent event, Strategic Litigation: Anti-Racism in the Courtroom?, hosted two panels, each of which broadened understandings of what strategic litigation does and might look like. How, whether, and when to litigate, and how to ethically, and effectively occupy Mari Matsuda’s ‘multiple consciousnesses’ of working within and against the law, is a constant and pressing concern for anyone involved in social justice or political campaigns, critical academia and legal advocacy. This set of workshops provided a stimulating space for discussion and exploration of this fraught battleground of the law, particularly in the context of challenges to structural and state-sanctioned racism, including in its ever-increasing formulation through immigration policy.

In the first session, Ioannis Kalpouzos from the Global Legal Action Network suggested a challenge to Upendra Baxi’s suggestion that all political issues of salience in the second half of the 20th Century must be articulated through human rights. Kalpouzos described the Network’s efforts to use the International Criminal Court to challenge offshore detention in Australia, a country he described as the ‘envy of the Western world’ when it comes to brutal immigration regimes. He explored the potential of using International Criminal Law to name and label western state-sanctioned violence – even when that violence is not spectacular or radical, but bureaucratic and all-pervasive. This raised questions from the audience about whether using criminal law might exceptionalize particular moments of violence, and therefore also serve to normalise violence that we should be pushing to be accepted as human rights violations. The responses to these questions made the particularly strategic nature of such litigation clear.

Lewis Kett from Duncan Lewis Solicitors, one of the main law firms with legal aid contracts to represent those in UK immigration detention, spoke about his recent successful case challenging laws on segregation in immigration detention centres. Although this, and previous wins of Duncan Lewis’, have been important, and provided some of the only real positive changes to detention policy in recent years, Kett also expanded on the extent of the problems within existing policy, and how much further there is to go. In response to queries from workshop participants, he reflected on whether improving structurally violent institutions such as detention can serve to make them more palatable without removing their inherent violence, but concluded that as a solicitor it is ethically impossible not to litigate for reform where possible, not only to change practice but also to provide accountability, and as part of wider campaigns.

The second panel began with Muhammad Rabbani, the director of CAGE recently charged and convicted under terrorism legislation for refusing to hand over the passwords to his mobile phone and laptop in Heathrow airport. He was stopped under Schedule 7, the law introduced in 2000 that sees 50,000 people per year stopped in airports, with no right to remain silent, to seek legal advice, to refuse a strip search or the handing over of data. The 99.8% non-arrest rate, as Rabbani highlighted, signifies a breach of the Magna Carta principles against suspicionless arrest. Rabbani asked brave, poignant questions about how he might have been treated, both during his arrest and during legal proceedings, particularly when unable to find any lawyer willing to submit a judicial review on his behalf because he had a ‘pigmentation problem’, and so wasn’t considered ‘the ideal case’. Thus Rabbani questioned the possibilities for strategic litigation when the law is actively constructed to target Muslims. Where, in this context, is the space for strategic litigation? Rabbani had to take his strategy beyond the courtroom and run his own campaign.

Gracie-Mae Bradley’s presentation followed on perfectly from Rabbani’s warnings. She spoke about her experience both within human rights organisation Liberty, and as an organiser of the Against Borders for Children (ABC) campaign. In particular, she highlighted ways in which litigation, however strategic, is severely compromised if it is not accompanied or preceded by wide-reaching social campaigns. She drew attention to previous strategic wins in the context of UK immigration detention, such as the retracting of the Detained Fast Track programme, and the way in which the Home Office is finding ways to re-introduce slight variations on the same policies only a couple of years later. Litigation, she reminded us, is a way of challenging policy that is fully incorporated within the limits of the system that created it, and controversial policy changes are often actively channeled by Government into legal frameworks, as the delays entailed by public consultations often mean that any successful litigation has to be applied retrospectively, which makes old policies easier to reinstate later. Quoting Gary Bellow, himself quoted by Derrick Bell, in the context of Leroy Clark’s insistence that an over-reliance on the law limited the potential of the black community’s success in pushing for school desegregation in the South, Bradley noted that ‘rule change, without a political base to support it, just doesn’t produce any substantial result because rules are not self-executing: they require an enforcement mechanism.’ Thus she showed that ‘riding on a technicality’, to which much strategic litigation must often be confined, though often crucial, is never enough to establish real change alone. Using the examples of data collection in schools that can be used to inform the Home Office of undocumented children and their parents, she argued that litigation must be accompanied by campaigns that highlight the implications and mechanisms of damaging policies, rather than just channelling the technicalities of their implementation.

Shining a light from a different direction, though with many of the same implications, Chai Patel explored the difficulties litigating strategically in anti-racist campaigns, when many of the effects of harmful and racist policy are not quantifiable in the terms required by the law. Speaking about the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ attempts to challenge the Right to Rent legislation of 2016, Patel described the insidious ways in which even though the requirement on landlords to ensure the immigration status of their tenants encouraged, in their own words, discrimination on the basis of perceived race or nationality, it was very difficult to quantify and record such prejudice. In particular, the detail that landlords will be fined for not checking documents if tenants are found to be residing unlawfully, but not for failing to check if they are legally renting, encouraged this discrimination. Thus the detail in the legislation makes it particularly likely to encourage biased assessments of prospective tenants’ immigration status. It also makes it particularly hard to collect data, pushing all conclusions into the realm of the hypothetical. Although litigation might, in this case, be one way to challenge the policy, it has been incredibly hard to show that it was the policy itself that was causing discrimination.

To sit in a room with such a broad mix of academics and practitioners, getting absorbed in the details, methods, implications, ethics, efficacy and revolutionary potential of strategic litigation against racist policy was inspirational. The mood was neither of cynical criticism nor naively hopeful for impossible change. And though the workshop participants, panellists and audience, provided necessary and timely reminders not to put all our faith in litigation, however strategic, the conference itself was inspiring testament to Rabbani’s moving encouragement that if we strive for compassion and courage, much is possible.


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