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CPR Faculty Speak: Shylashri Shankar

Shylashri Shankar

January 21, 2022

Shylashri Shankar is a Senior Fellow at CPR. Her intellectual and research interests include constitutionalism and religious freedom, judicial activism and policy making, impact of anti-terror laws on civil liberties, conceptual history and migration of ideas between judiciaries, the political economy of anti-poverty initiatives, food history, nationalism and identity in Hyderabad.

She has a PhD from Columbia University, an MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science, an MA from the University of Cambridge, and a BA from Delhi University. In this edition of CPR Faculty Speak, she talks about her work and interests at CPR, why they matter, what impact she hopes to achieve and more.

Tell us about your research work and interests at CPR.
My research interests revolve around religious identity, democratic citizenship rights and justice. In Scaling Justice: India’s Supreme Court, Anti-Terror Laws and Social Rights (OUP, 2009), I analysed how the higher judiciary tackled citizenship rights when civil liberties and access to health and education were eroded. I asked identity-related questions such as – how does a litigant’s religious and political identity influence a judge’s decision? Do judges behave differently under majoritarian governments as compared to coalition governments? I used a mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to examine these issues.

I followed a similar mixed-method approach for a co-authored book. Battling Corruption: Has NREGA Reached India’s Rural Poor (OUP, 2013) focused on how anti-poverty programs could be more effectively targeted.

I have written on how and why courts have conflicting interpretations on secularism and religious freedom. For instance, how different imaginaries of Hinduism seeped into the constitution and later muddled the court’s interpretations of religious freedom is a chapter in my co-edited volume: A Secular Age Beyond the West: Religion, Law and the State in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (CUP 2018).

I have continued to explore how judges read constitutional provisions on secularism in South Asia, and how they borrow from other courts in Asia, America and Europe. I use different lenses such as conceptual history and food history and politics (in my recent book, Turmeric Nation) to make sense of it.

Why do these issues interest you?
Questions of who we are, how we identify ourselves and who we consider to be ‘others’ are pertinent in the current climate. It is important to analyse how these questions were tackled by institutions, political parties and the citizenry historically and in independent India. It helps us understand there were different answers proposed, and pushes us to discover the reasons for the primacy of an answer in a particular era.

How have these issues evolved in the country and globally over the years?
We have moved from a pluralist mindset to a more identitarian one in recent times in India and the world. Ironically, the shift has come with technology that makes our mental and physical access global while simultaneously enabling more partisan and insular ideologies to flourish and reach wider audiences.

What impact do you aim to achieve through your research?
I hope that by reading my work, a person glimpses other ways of thinking about questions of identity and democratic citizenship, and understands the nuances, challenges and implications of treading particular pathways, and the complex trade-offs institutions juggle in interpreting constitutional rights.

What does a typical day look like for you at CPR?
I start my day at 5.30 in the morning and write and compose until lunchtime. Afternoons and some evenings are usually spent on answering emails, edits, reading, and occasional meetings.

What are you currently working on and why is it important?
I am working on a book chapter on Hindu nationalism and Indian politics, and finishing the section of a book on the old city neighbourhood of Hyderabad. In both, the central question examined is how the insider/outsider dichotomy is drawn historically and in the contemporary era, and how democratic values and institutions shape it.

To know more about Shylashri Shankar’s work and research, click here.