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India should’ve been centre of South Asian studies, but lacks enough experts on region

If India wants to manage its region better, it must first face up to its ignorance of its neighbours. We can’t leave understanding of South Asia to generalist diplomats.

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It is a basic, commonsensical thought that in strategy and so much else, you must put yourself in the shoes of others if you want to deal with them. It is one of the key things I tell students when I teach foreign policy and national security courses.

Stephen Walt, Harvard political scientist, recently made the same point in an article on “empathy” in international affairs in the US magazine, Foreign Policy. Constantino Xavier of the Indian think-tank Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CESP) endorsed Walt’s view in insisting that it is “impossible to understand India’s regional policies in South Asia without looking at Delhi from the perspective” of its neighbours.

India’s diplomats are paid to do many things, including lie for our country, but they are also paid to tell us the truth about how others see us, especially in our neighbourhood. I am not privy to what they write and say, but they could do with help from academics and think-tank analysts. Whereas our diplomats and intelligence officers switch roles and responsibilities every few years, researchers can spend an entire career on a subject and bring much-needed depth of knowledge.

As I tweeted in response to Xavier, it is an absurdity that given India’s population of 1.3 billion people, we cannot field even 20 well-trained China and Pakistan specialists. The emphasis in the previous sentence is on the word “well-trained”. Happily, things are getting somewhat better with respect to China specialists. But on Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, that is not the case.

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Missing South Asian studies centres

Part of the problem is that India has very few South Asian studies centres. The discipline is a vast field, but my reference here is to South Asian studies within the context of Political Science and International Relations, where the focus is on the internal and external policies of the regional countries.

When I Googled “South Asian Studies in India”, I found a couple of dozen US and other Western research centres studying the region. However, I found only four campuses in India that offered South Asian studies: Jawaharlal Nehru University, Pondicherry University, Madras University, and South Asian University. Search for Pakistan studies in India and you will draw a complete blank. In 2010, Panjab University in Chandigarh was contemplating such a centre, but after trawling three Google pages I was unable to find it.

There is a Bangladesh and Myanmar studies centre at Dibrugarh University, and Delhi University is supposed to have a Bangladesh chair, but you can open several pages of Google searches and those are the only dedicated Bangladeshi studies “hits” you will get. Fortunately, India does better at understanding Bangladesh, primarily because of West Bengal’s cultural affinities and engagement with its neighbour. Again, though, India has not invested in Bangladesh studies in any systematic way.

Beyond South Asian study centres, there are of course individual South Asian specialists in Political Science departments or departments of International Relations in India. I mean no offence to those who study contemporary South Asia, but has there been anyone after S.D. Muni of JNU who has written a book of any depth and who has any real name recognition?

In 2020, an Indian Association of South Asian Studies was launched. The president is a historian, and not surprisingly, the “Distinguished Speakers” it advertised at the first conference were historians of modern South Asia. Tellingly, there was only one historian based in India who featured among those speakers, and that was Delhi University’s Shahid Amin. If we had a conference of political scientists who do South Asia, we could well end up with a similar advertisement, with the distinguished speakers largely from outside India.

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The educational rabbit hole 

What is to be done? Given the abysmal state of Indian public universities, there is little hope of invigorating South Asian studies on the old campuses, at least in the foreseeable future. Indeed, all indications are that higher education standards are going to decline further, essentially because university governance is so dysfunctional and the government’s contempt for anything apart from STEM studies so deep that social science cannot flourish. The only real hope in India is with the private universities and think-tanks. Their biggest problem is funding and the scale of operations they can mount.

It is worth saying that Indian governments themselves have stifled South Asian studies. Indian scholars who seek to understand our neighbours must be careful in what they say, or else risk being called liberals, (is there any dirtier word in India today?), appeasers, or worse, anti-nationals. If the government is hostile to open inquiry and debate, then there is little hope of fostering high-quality South Asian studies.

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Neighbourhood first?

India talks the talk on being a “leading power” and having a “neighbourhood-first” outlook in its foreign policy, but it rarely walks the talk. This is quite apparent in terms of how much it invests in knowing the world outside its borders including its immediate neighbourhood. Given our connections in the region, we should be the global centre for South Asian studies. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near that position.

If India wants to manage its region better, it must first face up to its ignorance of its neighbours. We cannot leave an understanding of South Asia to our generalists and hard-pressed diplomats, and even our intelligence officers, who flit from subject to subject.

Kanti Bajpai is an author and Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. Views are personal.

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