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Psychology Professor Studies Conflict, Works for Peace

Urmitapa Dutta Researches Ethnic and Gender Violence in Northeast India

Asst. Prof. Urmitapa Dutta receives the 2015 Martin Luther King Award for Distinguished Service from Larry Siegel, Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, and then-Executive Vice Chancellor Jacquie Moloney. Photo by Tory Germann
Asst. Prof. of Psychology Urmitapa Dutta receives the 2015 MLK Distinguished Service Award from Associate Vice Chancellor Larry Siegel and then-Executive Vice Chancellor Jacquie Moloney.

By Katharine Webster

Urmitapa Dutta is an assistant professor of psychology who researches violence in the Garo Hills of Northeast India, where some members of the Garo tribe are fighting to carve out a separate state of Greater Garoland. Dutta won the university’s Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Faculty Service Award in 2015 for her research on violence against women in Garo Hills and her everyday peacemaking projects with young people in Lowell. She also teaches in the Peace and Conflict Studies program and is an affiliate of the university’s Center for Women and Work, where she convenes the Gender and Violence Research Group

Q: What led you to study violence in Garo Hills?

A: I grew up in Tura, a remote town in the Garo Hills region of Northeast India. My dad taught in the local college and my mom ran a school, mostly for first-generation students from different ethnic groups. We were non-tribals, so we were considered ethnic outsiders, but we lived in a Garo neighborhood and were deeply involved in community work. There is little infrastructure in Garo Hills, so people have to leave for work, education and health care.

When I moved to Delhi for my undergraduate education, it brought a lot of things into sharp focus for me. On the one hand, I wasn’t always conscious of being non-tribal. Also, armed insurgency was escalating in Garo Hills at that time, and because it was targeted against non-tribals, I realized I might no longer have a home there. Yet on the other hand, the people I felt the strongest affinity with in Delhi were tribals from Northeast India, and I witnessed the marginalization and stereotypes they were constantly subjected to in mainland India. 

Q: Did you return to Garo Hills?

A: Yes. For my master’s thesis, I worked with young men who were incarcerated for their alleged affiliation with armed groups. In a very naïve way, I was interested in what made them become militants. When I interviewed them, all the psychological theories about extremism went down the drain. These young men didn’t show signs of brainwashing or radicalization: They were dealing with extreme deprivation and social injustice. Many of them had joined insurgent groups in exchange for a sack of rice given to their families.

That’s when I realized the need for work in the larger community, not just with specific individuals, and I pursued that when I came to the United States for my Ph.D.

Q: That’s also when you started doing participatory action research. What is that, and why is it helpful when studying marginalized groups?

A: The idea is to explicitly involve the people who are affected by a particular issue as co-researchers in studying that issue. People who live day-to-day with armed conflict, for example, have different knowledge and experiences than university researchers, so we involve them in deciding on the research questions and methods, analyzing the results, determining how and where our findings should be disseminated and then deciding what kind of advocacy or activism can emerge from those findings. So instead of speaking for marginalized people, we create conditions where their voices are heard.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: In one project, I worked with a mixed group of youths – tribals and non-tribals. The risk of violence in an ethnically mixed group was so high that I couldn’t ask them, “What do you think about the ethnic violence?” so I asked them about issues in the community instead. They began to see that many of the problems they struggled with – lack of infrastructure, education and career opportunities – were not limited to a particular ethnic group. 

They decided to do a community survey and ask ordinary people about the problems they faced, what their aspirations were and what their visions were for an ideal Garo Hills. As we identified themes in the responses, I used that to encourage the group members to share their own experiences – and that became a safer way to talk about the ethnic violence. 

The group presented the survey results at a community forum and went on to work on various projects. The project built solidarity among them. They also recognized the importance of social critique and how research is a powerful tool to engage in that.

Asst. Prof. Urmitapa Dutta gazes at a spider web on a bridge over a Lowell Canal. Photo by Katherine Cox
A portrait of Dutta taken during PhotoVoice training, overlooking a Lowell canal.
Q: How does that work inform your teaching here? 

A: When you are dealing with violence that is entrenched, institutionalized and everyday – what we call “structural violence” – the way you think about peace also has to be more everyday and sustainable, building on community strengths instead of just reacting to incidents of violence. So I developed a graduate course, “Everyday Peace,” using the participatory action research model to help students think about peace as social justice and community-building here on campus and in their communities. We’ve had radically different, action-oriented projects each time I’ve taught the class because each cohort of students is different. 

Q: Tell me about one of the projects for which you won the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Faculty Service Award in 2015: your work with Teen Block at the Lowell Community Health Center.

A: I began working with Cambodian and African-American teenagers at Teen Block, an after-school program, to learn about the issues facing young people of color in Lowell. I’ve involved university students in that work, too. Using a Public Service Seed Grant from the university, we trained the teens and staff in “PhotoVoice,” a form of participatory action research in which marginalized groups use photos and digital storytelling to communicate their experiences and perspectives. We held an event at the health center where the teens displayed their work and discussed Lowell’s strengths and deficits around teenagers’ needs for health, safety and education. Now they hope to take their recommendations to City Hall. 

Q: What lessons does your work offer for the ethnic and racial hatred and violence we’re seeing in the U.S. today involving immigrants, Muslims, police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement?

A: Too often, we react to issues using a crisis-based framework, and the response is usually militaristic, be it “The War on Drugs,” “The War on Poverty,” or “The War on Terror.” This erases the social and political origins of problems and puts the blame for the crisis on struggling communities. 

We need to reframe social problems by recognizing institutionalized and structural violence, the kind that becomes so entrenched that we no longer notice it. We should ask about institutional policies and practices that sustain social injustice. We also should address symbolic violence – negative and inaccurate stereotyping in politics and the media along lines of race, gender, class and religion – because it creates a culture that legitimizes violence and systemic oppression against marginalized communities. Once we start listening to people in those communities and focus on structural injustice in their everyday lives, we can move toward addressing the root causes of violence.