Having traveled to France, Peru, Japan, Uganda, Rwanda and now India—Oldham Scholar Maria Sebastian, ’12, is pursuing her international ambitions at the University of Richmond.

As a political science and international studies double major, Sebastian’s multiple opportunities to study abroad have aligned with her academic interests, inspiring her to seek a greater understanding of the political dimensions in different countries.

This summer Sebastian conducted an independent research project through an Arts & Sciences summer research fellowship in her home state of Kerala, India. Her research analyzed local perceptions and outcomes of a very common form of political activism called hartals. Hartals are essentially a form of mass strike organized by political parties and other groups to shut down all businesses, daily services and social activities.

“This sort of political expression in Kerala is rather common and viewed as a powerful tool,” Sebastian said. “Although there is near unanimous opposition to hartals, they continue to plague Kerala society.”

Sebastian’s interest in Kerala’s political atmosphere began years before she arrived at the University of Richmond. Although raised in the United States, Sebastian continues to identify with her family’s place of origin and travels to Kerala almost every other year. She recalled a summer when she was 14, frustrated with the prolonged and frequent hartals that made outside travel impossible for several days. Fed up, she called a representative of the Bharatiya Janata Party—the political party conducting the hartal.

“The representative’s arguments in favor of hartals contrasted starkly with those of most other Keralites I spoke to,” she said, “who are generally opposed to what they see as a pointless demonstration of political might.”

That phone call, combined with reading Western scholars’ positive impressions of the issue and the lack of other academic writings, is what ultimately inspired Sebastian to study the more subtle aspects of Kerala’s political landscape.

Approaching her research through a larger, theoretical framework of scholarly discussions on public participation and social choice theory, Sebastian studied how enhanced political freedom affected development and how this issue was reflected in Kerala. Her research involved in-depth questionnaires and interviews with a broad cross-section of citizens, from coastal fishermen to government employees.

“My findings have demonstrated the unique effect of hartals on Keralites’ perceptions of political activism,” she said. “The majority of respondents believed that they must participate in a hartal because of the perceived negative consequences if they do otherwise. The result is a lack of genuine dialogue in the political sphere, concerning not only the efficacy of hartals, but also the general direction of Kerala’s development.”

Sebastian’s faculty mentor for the research was political science professor Rick Mayes. She got to know Mayes when she participated in the “Global Health, Infectious Disease, and Human Rights” Living and Learning program.

“Dr. Mayes has been an incredible inspiration for me by sharing my belief that a passion for social justice has an important role to play in academic scholarship,” she said. “The guidance and support of Dr. Mayes encouraged me to complete independent research in India.”

For Sebastian, this wasn't just another summer in Kerala. In addition to her research, she had the opportunity to live with her grandparents, who own a farm and grow nutmeg and other crops.

“This was the first time I went to Kerala alone,” she said, “but once I was there, I was constantly surrounded by family, which I really appreciated. I would go with my grandfather every day to our farm in the mountains. It was really nice to spend time with him.”