Dr Medha Bisht – Decolonising Knowledge…

Dr Medha Bisht LE Mag May 2022

Download PDF Here Live Encounters Magazine May 2022.

Decolonising Knowledge and Practices: Towards Relational Thinking,
guest editorial by Dr Medha Bisht.

Photograph by Mark Ulyseas
Photograph by Mark Ulyseas

Where there is a forest there is Khasi people [sic] (Pdeng), as our life (Jingim) depends on forest (Khlaw) and our livelihood on betel leaves (Pathi). Either in Bangladesh or India, where there is a forest there is a Khasi..” These enlightening words belong to Monika Khonglah, an indigenous woman from a small town of Moulvi Bazaar, Sylhyt division, Bangladesh. She further adds, ‘taking care of forest means taking care (sumar) of stone (Shmia), stream (am khar/ wahliar), trees (Twia) and that without stream and water there would be no trees and no trees would mean no Khasi.

This narrative came upfront in one of the interviews [1], while doing a scoping study on Inclusive water governance in the Meghna Basin. The narrative is significant because it is not only reflective of the meanings that water and sustainable development hold for indigenous communities inhabiting the eastern borderlands of South Asia, but is also symbolic and indeed suggestive of an alternative worldview. Significantly, the meaning of water for these communities was not just about quantity or quality but took into account the entire ecosystem which emphasized the coexistence of both the human and the non-human.

Such perspectives hold importance in addressing the complexities of the world of 21st century. For example, take two dominant narratives in International Relations in the last few months- the Russia-Ukraine war and the multiple alliances which have been forged in the ‘Indo-Pacific’. Strategic narratives around these themes are oblivious of non-human dimensions. While in Russia’s Ukraine war little attention has been given to poisoning of air and rivers, in Indo-Pacific, environmental threats are often treated as isolated concerns. [2] One of the major reasons for such omissions is a lack of relational thinking, because of which the human and the non-human are often seen as separate categories.

This limitation has been recognized and brought to perspective through the lens of alternate/pluriversal worldview, and the discipline of International Relations has for some time now engaged with this theme by reintroducing the term ‘ontological turn’, which foregrounds the notion of a pluriverse in contrast to a singular universe, where states, institutional collectives or individual collectives are the main actors. Given its importance towards decolonizing thinking of the ‘international’ in International Relations, Blaney and Tickner have emphasised on the notion of difference that different claims to knowledge can make in approaching the world.

Making a case for multiple worlds, where both human and non-human co-exist and shape each other they note, “taking difference seriously means accepting that we are immersed in a politics/ethics of ontology, in which inter-human and inter-species encounters cannot be handled by supposedly neutral, technical, or universally liberal rules and norm [3].” This argument, which echoes the notion of what and how we study International Relations, has been referred to as one of the ways for decolonizing International Relations, which remains centric on how states are obsessed with survival at the cost of augmenting their power and security. Little in this analysis do we see how the non-human species are taken into account, and what role and impact non-human factor can play in responding to some key challenges in 21st century.

The focus on both human and non-human has also been highlighted by another scholar Bruno Latour, who has emphasized on action/interaction/relations based research. Introducing the concept of Actor Networks (actants-which are assemblage of both human and non-human), as his ontological starting point, for Latour a network becomes a recorded movement of things. Latour’s work finds relevance for understanding not only the role of the non-human but also paves a relational way of understanding things and thinking about phenomenon. Thus, his definition of social- includes both the human and non-human, and is an important pointer to understand webs of connection which sustain, shape and transform a specific entity [4].

The reason for highlighting some of the viewpoints is that it is reflective of a relational way of thinking, which as pointed out through the narrative in the opening paragraph, is an alternative worldview for seeing and understanding the world differently. More importantly, I argue that this relational worldview has been an important aspect of Asian thought and philosophy, and needs to be emancipated and recognized for understanding how cosmovisions (beliefs about how the world operates), impact our conceptual pathways to make sense of the world in general and responding to contemporary issues in particular.

While taking the indigenous worldviews as its departure point to understand alternative ways of thinking, this short article presents a case of relational thinking for exploring intersections between the human and the non-human, which it argues can become explicit through relational thinking. I present a short narratives here, which brings upfront the consequences of ignoring the relational approaches particularly in view of the negotiated water treaties in South Asia.

In order to foreground this argument, perspectives from Science and Technology studies are drawn upon. This perspective also helps in highlighting its resemblances with holistic yet relational thinking in Indian philosophy, and helps eliciting how relational thinking can be theorised in International Relations. Against this backdrop, I take the example of Arthashastra – a classic on state and statecraft in ancient India, which is important for understanding this perspective from the lens of ‘relational cosmology [5]’.

Second, perspectives from Science and Technology Studies also help foregrounding, how critical perspectives can help in advancing the notion of ‘relational cosmology’, which is an alternate cosmovision to make sense of the world, offering us ways to theorise relational ways of thinking. Finally, a vignette is presented in the third section, to emphasise a relational view of the world, particularly as one responds to the challenges posed by transboundary water politics in South Asia.

Relational Cosmology

Relational cosmology, a term brought upfront by Milja Kurki, is suggestive of understanding the world in relational ways, i.e. it is a shift of perspective from seeing the international relations not as a chessboard but a webbed or networked based understanding of the world. More fundamentally it raises certain ontological questions, i.e., rather than analyzing substances or things- one starts studying relations and thus start making sense of the world through relations, rather than by focusing on attributes which are fixed, aspects which would direct one to look at specific state motivations, rationality and behaviour. This discussion is often captured through the concept of plural ontologies, and is tied to the fundamental nature of knowledge- which produces an alternate way of thinking.

In this regard, Milja Kurki, notes “Knowledge is [often] tied up with the cosmological visions of the universe and our understandings of our role in it [6].” These different/plural ontologies, which takes cognizance of both human and non-human, as some scholars have termed it as the pluriverse, helps one to go beyond a singular understanding of universe- dominated principally by states in IR.

This thought is important because it draws our attention to distinct cosmovisions, which possibly existed but have been marginalized and have not been central in the discipline of International Relations. Understanding this cosmovision becomes significant because it draws attention not only to alternate meanings and vocabularies which stem from such cosmovision, but also advances different ways of theorizing International Relations. Ignoring such ways of thinking shall only perpetuate blind spots in (ab)using ideas to diversify thinking in International Relations.

In order to explain this, let me offer an example from the ancient classic Arthashastra, which is a well-known and researched text in International Relations. The text is often considered to be foundational, as it offers suggestion towards war, peace, espionage, treaties- aspects which are fundamental to the discipline. However, an often less spoken about theme is the cosmovision, which Arthashastra as a text is based on. As one delves into the text, the inspiration of a distinct cosmovision comes upfront through the concept of ‘dharma’- which could be interpreted as duty, order, morality, justice etc. ‘Dharma’ etymologically is formed by the root dhr, dharti or earth which means something which holds things together. Thus, as we read the text- we find that dharma became central to understanding of social and political order, giving meaning to terms like power, order, morality, justice, state etc [7].

It needs to be added here that this cosmovision, which revolved around dharma was not distinct to one particular religion or thought system. Infact, the cosmovisions related to dharma was distinct to Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, Sikhism etc., all of them, which offered a relational understanding the world.

A striking aspect between all these cosmovisions was that they emphasized a relational world rather than a substantialist understanding. This relational understanding also had striking semblance in the narrative of a young Khasi woman who was residing in the small village along the India- Bangladesh border. As noted in the introduction, this narrative of the Khasi indigenous woman was holistic but relational and appeared as striking because it was indicative not only of the overarching impact that the imagery of forests have for indigenous identity, but was also suggestive of a relational world view which governed these imageries- an aspect/ or perhaps a cosmovision which was not very unfamiliar to ancient India.

This discussion can be made intelligible by dwelling in the philosophy of knowledge, as constituted and articulated in ancient India. Against this backdrop, I shall discuss some significant questions on how ancient Indian thinking has approached questions related to the philosophy of knowledge (‘anvikshiki’), and in what ways do these ideas resonate/not resonate with critical IR.

The Concept of Anvikshiki

Anvikshiki, emerged as a primary lens to make sense of concepts used in Arthashastra, as it offers a philosophy of knowledge, a distinct logic of reasoning, which is reflective of holistic thinking in Indian classical thought. Significantly, this holism is informed by embracing contradictory elements (in this case contrasting philosophical traditions). More importantly, Anvikshiki draws our attention to distinct metatheoretical [8] insights, and dwells on questions related to the nature of knowledge itself. Meta-theoretical insights are important because they are different from theory as they explore underlying assumptions on which a specific theory is based on. For instance, assumptions on how one sees the world – and to what extent our knowledge about the world is based on distinct epistemological and methodological approaches is determined by where we stand as a researcher, or which theoretical approach are we inclined towards.

Anvikshiki, in the case of Kautilya’s Arthashastra is distinct, as it seeks to address the meaning of knowledge in political affairs. The earlier arthashastra traditions had emphasised dandniti as the primary branch of knowledge, even claiming it to be the only science. The school of Manu, meanwhile had rejected the claim of anvikshiki, as it was considered to be a branch of vedas [9]. Kautilya’s Arthashastra on the other hand, employs Anvikshiki for emphasizing critical skepticism- logical reasoning, aiming to syncretise contrasting philosophical tradition. In Arthashastra, it is not only underlined as a distinct branch of knowledge, but is also considered to be a lamp for all sciences. For instance, Kautilya’s Arthashastra notes that there are four type of knowledge systems that need to be emphasized upon for understanding political life. The other three were vedas (religious chants), varta (economics ) and dandniti (political science).

The term Anvikshiki means investigation, which according to Kautilya was necessary for critically assessing the other branches of knowledge. Arthashastra notes that only by means of anvikshiki (logical reasoning), can one know “ what is spiritual good and evil in Vedic lore, material gain and loss in economics , good policy and weak policy in science of politics [10]”. In other words, these lines are instructive of the judgment based on logical arguments, which becomes a pre-requisite for any strategic decision making. Later, Kautilya applies this logic to multiple stratagems, which are reflective of how decisions should be based on a holistic assessment.

Thus, Kautilya in Arthashastra sought to define the meaning of knowledge beyond a compartmentalised way of thinking, where religion, economics and political sciences were not treated as separate but were intertwined, and in a way relational with each other. This total way of thinking has received much attention by many scholars. For instance, Godwin points out, “India was a civilisation of proliferating totality.

The totality of the Veda itself, supposed to be complete, is never closed off: it is open to commentaries (the Brahmanas) and to commentaries on commentaries (the Upanishads); so much so that Indian writing presents a positively unique case in the history of thought by nurturing a single organism behind it’s expansive variety. [11]” Being more specific, L. Dumont insists that totality represents the ontological unity in India. He further clarifies that, “totality is a multiplicity organised through its oppositions, more often than not hierarchical [12].” Thus arguing for a more composite understanding, Godwin notes that Indian thought is more syncretic than synthetic, formed by competing thought traditions.

What is thus important here is that as a metatheoretical lens to organise knowledge, Anvikshiki, offers insights for holistic thinking, challenging the tradition of dogmatic thinking in Hindu philosophical tradition. The mention of contradictory systems of thought (darshanas or ways of thinking) of Indian philosophy in Arthashastra as components of knowledge testify to this. For instance, articulating the meaning of Anvikshiki, the text notes that “Samkhya, Yoga and Lokayata these constitute philosophy (Anvikshiki). [13]”

Notably, Samkhya emphasised dualism but converging on non-dualism (through a differentiation between purusa and prakriti) underlined the importance of discerning distinct qualities formed through the fusion of purusa (soul) and prakriti (matter). Yoga emphasised on discipline/meditation, experiential knowledge -recognizing the need of anubhava, and internalization of knowledge. Lokayata, meanwhile emphasised on a materialist pursuits of the state, with a focus on empirical evidence (pramana) Anvikshiki thus as a form of epistemic practice is indicative of logical reasoning through which contradictory Hindu philosophical traditions ranging from positivism to post positivism, were employed [14].

Given this holistic thinking which goes beyond binaries, what one observes is that in Arthashastra, issues under discussion ranged from the micro to the macro ,human to non-human, and from simple to complex, i.e. they focused on individual details which contributed to societal order, to matters which were relevant to the practice of effective ‘statecraft’ and to philosophical discussions and debates which bought value to the domain politics and strategy.

This relationship was holistic, composite and relational, where one phenomenon gave rise to the other, and this can be articulated as the key vantage point for informing how strategy was envisioned in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Strategy was thus understood in relational terms. It is at this point that conversations between ancient concept of Anvikshiki and critical IR would help and in order to facilitate this conversation Donna Haraway’s work can offer ’useful perspectives. This is because, Haraway underlines the notion and meaning of partial perspectives and problemitises the notion of objectivity which is inalienable from questions related to science. However, she goes beyond partial perspectives to highlight the relational aspects associated with them. Some important points which stem from Donna Haraway’s analysis and can be a significant contribution to Anvikshiki are:

(a) understanding of partial perspectives
(b) how partial perspectives are related to the concept of relational thinking and webbed connections and
(c) why this process is important to the very question of production of knowledge and can indeed help towards theorising non-Western IR.

Haraway’s work stands offers a critical appraisal of history of science where she highlights the importance partial/situated perspectives in contrast to a ‘god eyed view’- which is universal/authoritative account of what reality is. She supports reflexivity as opposed to objectivity, as the latter is mostly inspired by Western/modern dualistic thinking. Destabilising dualistic mode of thinking by proposing metaphors (vocabularies), her work has been used extensively in action centered research, and an applied understanding of science which emphasises webbed connections between entities.

Haraway’s critique of science most commonly is conveyed through the notion of ‘cyborg’, can only be meaningful through the powerful tool of ‘situated knowledge’- which help in producing ‘maps of consciousness’. These unmarked (but situated) knowledge fields which populate the heterogeneity of the world are important sites- a field to see and understand the world differently. Thus binaries for Haraway construct each other and need to be rescued from dualistic thinking lest they will be interpreted within the larger framework of western history and philosophy.

Thus, relationality in many ways helps Haraway to go beyond binaries while bringing the notion of ‘holism’ and ‘objectivity’ to her analysis. However, her holism does not mean totality- but is a more nuanced version of shared epistemologies. She notes that shared epistemologies of practice are the “doctrine and practice of objectivity that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing [15].”

These webbed connections can be understood through the notion of ‘vision’ –which is not total in terms of a gaze from no-where, but is a gaze of the unmarked, unseen claims to power and representation. For Haraway thus partial vision is an objective vision, which is a consequence of understanding processes and embraces contextual and situated knowledge. She notes, “feminist objectivity is about limited vision and partial knowledge”. However for her unlike knowledge, which can be situated, fixed, as some feminists would define it, for Haraway, it is more dynamic, open, emergent and fluid.

One of primary questions that Haraway has thus responded to, centres around modes of producing knowledge. Through her work on primates, she underlines the union of political and physiological, which is the ancient modern justification of domination. For her marked figures- which are a reflection of kinship of feminist figurations can be a guide to knowledge from ‘elsewhere’. She notes that “science and feminism, anti-racism and science studies, biology and cultural theory, fiction and fact closely cohabit and should do so [16]”. While Haraway’s work [17] offers a rich ground of engagement to understand social construction of knowledge, she insists on a cyborg vision which offers thus both a possibility of “solidarity and shared conversations” and the emancipation of those partial perspectives or situated knowledge, which might be left untouched or unmarked due to the intertwined nature- which so effectively has been conveyed through the power-knowledge nexus.

This conversation is important to the notion of Anvikshiki for two reasons. First, it offers an alternate cosmovision of what Kurki calls relational cosmology. When applied to frameworks, this endows a distinct meaning to concepts, vocabularies which emerged from different ways of thinking. Thus, statecraft, strategy, power, order etc, need to be interpreted in relational ways, which should take cognisance of the importance of partial perspectives- which are important for advancing relational thinking.

Second, it raises critical reflections on the larger discourse on contributing to relational yet holistic thinking in Anvikshiki. Haraway’s shared epistemologies and a relational understanding of things helps in making Anvikshiki intelligible towards understand concepts from a relational cosmology, Thus by offering useful insights such as partial perspectives in this regard, it offers ways through which one can arrive at relational -holistic ways of approach knowledge.

A vignette from India-Bangladesh Borderlands

Against this backdrop, a recent example of flash floods in an India-Bangladesh borderland will be a timely reminder for a relational approach. The story for understanding this relational approach goes back to October 20, 2021, when a flash hit the Teesta Basin in Bangladesh. The water levels went up to dangerous level, costing the life of several people and impacting the livelihood of several thousands. The cause of the floods was the excessive rainfall in the upper catchment of Teesta Basin (Sikkim and Northern parts of Western Bengal), which led Indian authorities to open the flood gates of the Gajoldoba barrage, located in the Indian side.

A report from the Daily Star notes, “According to local sources, the water reached the Teesta Barrage at Dalia by the evening of Wednesday, though the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) officials did not wake up to the information and the situation till Thursday morning, when they too decided to open the gates of the Teesta Barrage. However, by that time, the water accumulated at the head of this barrage had burst out of the river confines and flooded the area. The volume of the water was so huge that even opening the gates and the flood bypass—so the river water could spill over into the downstream reaches (from Teesta Barrage) of the river too—was not enough. The entire region of greater Rangpur was affected [18].”

Photograph by Jill Gocher.
Photograph by Jill Gocher.

Once the incident caused great loss to life and property, many reports flooded the public domain in terms of the international, bilateral, regional, national and local ramifications this held for water management and water diplomacy practices. However, what was missing form these debates was a debate on more relational approaches to water management and diplomacy than rational approaches, which essentially focus on volumetric allocation of water. In other words relational approaches would take the entire eco-system into account. The relational approach has also found voice through scholars, communities and international, national and local organisations working on the political ecology of water, who have taken conversations further by focusing on nature based solutions. [19]

In the relational approach scholars have brought the hydrological focus centre-stage, and the emphasis is on how understanding connections in Basin, through both human and non-human entities can give meaning to cooperation. One can say for the relationists the focus on anthropocene delta [20] and basin becomes an important vantage point of analysis, where integrated development of the Basin’s biophysical and socio-economic challenges are highlighted and emphasised.

The multiple ways of integrated development have been suggested through the linking of rivers with a cross country barrage complex which can give meaningful direction to a multi-lateral/bilateral approach between basin countries and address issues related to water augmentation and water supply. [21] This, as argued could enhance holistic development, and help synergizing national interests, people’s well-being, and regional prosperity, ensuring water, food, energy security in the region [22]. However, an aspect missing from this discourse are limitations to take the non-human into account. The relational ways of seeing and understanding connections between ‘things’ can help in offering solutions to the contemporary wicked problems in International Relations. However, how we understand the International and theorise the international is central to this endeavour.

End Notes
[1] https://asia.oxfam.org/get-involved/calendar/dr-medha-bisht-mayfereen-lyngdoh-ryntathiang-pallab-chakma-sarita-sundari-rout
[2] https://time.com/6158383/ukraine-environmental-health-risks-russia, https://www.top1000funds.com/2022/02/kotkin-warns-of-ukraine-break-up-as-key-geopolitical-risk, https://www.orfonline.org/research/threats-to-the-environment-in-the-indo-pacific.
[3] Blaney, David L. and Arlene B. Tickner (2017). “Worlding, Ontological Politics and the Possibility of a Decolonial IR”, Millennium, Vol. 43, No. 3.
[4] Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Harvard University Press; Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor network theory. Oxford University Press.
[5] Kurki, Milja. (2020). International Relations and Relational Cosmology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[6] Kurki, Milja. (2020). International Relations and Relational Cosmology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 3.
[7] Bisht, Medha (2020), Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Routledge: London and Newyork.
[8] Metatheory has been defined as theory of theories thus raising important questions which help differentiating between methodology and method. See, Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus (2011), Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics, New York, NY: Routledge.
[9] Braj Sinha, Arthashastra Categories in the Mahabharata: From Dandaniti to Raj Dharma, in Arvind Sharma (Ed), Essays on the Mahabharata, New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2011,
[10] Kangle, R.P. (1992), The Kautilya Arthashastra, Vol. II, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, The Kautilya Arthashastra 1.2.10:6).
[11] Christian Godin, (2000) .“ The Notion of Totality in Indian Thought” , Diogenes, 189,48.
[12] Cited in Godin, .“ The Notion of Totality in Indian Thought” , Diogenes, 189,
[13] Kangle, R.P. (1992), The Kautilya Arthashastra, Vol. II, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, The Kautilya Arthashastra 1.2.10:6.
[14] Medha Bisht (2020), Kautilya’s Arthashastra, Routledge: London and New York.
[15] Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in Feminism and the privilege of
partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), p 584.
[16] Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in Feminism and the privilege of
partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3).
[17] Haraway, D. J. (1991). A cyborg manifesto: Science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late
twentieth century. In Simians (Ed.), Cyborgs and women: The reinvention of nature , Routledge.
[18] https://www.thedailystar.net/views/opinion/news/lessons-the-untimely-teesta-flood-2206236
[19] V. Sinha, etal., (2018), Opportunities for benefit sharing in the Meghna Basin, Bangladesh and India. Scoping study. Bangkok, Thailand: IUCN
[20] Anthropocente delta is a term used by Tompkins etal, to emphasize how human interventions have changed the delta, a term employed to understand the relationship between humans and physical systems. This term can also be transposed to highlight similar impacts that river basins have witnessed.
[21] Brichieri-Colombi, S and Bradnock, R. W (2003). ‘Geopolitics, Water and Development in South Asia: Cooperative Development in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 169, no. 1, [Wiley, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)], pp. 43–64.
[22] Rasul, G. (2015). ‘Water for growth and development in the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Meghna basins: an economic perspective’, International Journal of River Basin Management 13(3), 387–400.

© Dr Medha Bisht

Medha Bisht is a Senior Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, in New Delhi. She has a PhD in Diplomatic Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and her research interests include South Asia, water diplomacy, and non-Western epistemologies. She was a recipient of a McArthur Fellowship, Strategic and Economic Capacity Building Programme for Young Scholars and Asia Pacific Water Leadership Programme.

She has also undertaken projects and done consultancies with UNIFEM, ICIMOD,UNDP, IUCN, OXFAM, DFID/Asia Foundation, and Mine Action Canada, with a focus on civil society, water diplomacy, women and governance. Dr Bisht also co-led a Winter School on Inclusive Water Governance jointly organised by South Asian University (SAU), TROSA OXFAM, and UNESCO Chair of International Cooperation, Uppsala University supported by the Government of Sweden. She has published on scenario building exercises and was subject matter expert on water security on DRDO-funded Strategic Trends project-2050, facilitated by Manohar Pannikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, Ministry of Defence, India, 2012.

Her publications include: Kautilya’s Arthashastra: Philosophy of Strategy; Monographs on Water Governance and Indigenous Communities in the Meghna Basin: Narratives from India and Bangladesh (coauthored); Local Narratives and Hydro Diplomacy: Case Studies of Indian and Pakistan Punjab ( co-authored); Water Sector in Pakistan: Policy, Politics and Management. She has published peer-reviewed chapters, and several articles in journals such as Strategic Analyses, South Asian Survey, Social Change, International Studies, Contemporary South Asia, Water Policy, Journal of the Indian Ocean Region and The Hague Journal of Diplomacy amongst others.

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