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Understanding South Asia
Understanding South Asia

PRATYOUSH ONTA

Please join me in these thought exercises.


Think of any academic from Nepal who is an expert on India, expert here defined as a researcher who specialises on studying and writing (in any one of the standard academic formats) about some aspects of the Indian polity or society in depth and is recognised as such on the basis of their peer-reviewed published writings. I cannot think of any such Nepali academic expert based in Nepal or elsewhere. I would be rather surprised if your answer is any different than mine.


If you do not like the above-mentioned version of the thought exercise, you can ask a slightly different question. For instance, ask yourself if you know an Indian sociologist, anthropologist, historian, or political scientist who has spent an academic year in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, or Bhutan actively researching—and not just occupying some visiting professorial chair lecturing on the topic of their expertise—some aspect of the respective country. Again, for instance, I do not know of any Indian post-PhD academic researcher from the above-mentioned disciplines who has spent an academic year researching any subject in Nepal during the past 20 years.

A serious lack
These thought exercises can be discussed further, but the basic point is that there is a serious lack of such social scientists in South Asian countries, who have researched extensively on various aspects of other countries in the region. If my inference is correct, we need to collectively reflect on this lack and take steps within our possibilities to redress it.


I cannot claim expertise on the state of South Asian studies in all the countries of South Asia. However, I have, in the past, researched and written about the state of mutual area studies in two countries of the region, Nepal and India. That research was completed in the year 2000 and several write-ups were published in the following two years (see, for instance,‘Regional Area Studies in South Asia: Dark Days Ahead,’ Nepali Journal of Contemporary Studies, 2001) in different publications including The Kathmandu Post.


To summarise, here is what I had concluded on the Nepal side then. As a country that shares borders with India in three directions, Nepal has various imperatives to closely study India, whereas India can ‘afford’ ignorance about Nepal. Logically, this would suggest that the political and academic leadership in Nepal would have identified India studies as a high priority item within academia and that considerably more scholarship on India from Nepal would exist than vice-versa. But this is hardly the case. Overall, an inadequate research infrastructure nationwide, feeble attempts to establish India studies within Tribhuvan University’s Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies during the 1980s (under the leadership of the late Khadga Bikram Shah), and the inability of financially weak independent research institutions to carry out academic studies of India account for the current absence of India studies in Nepal.   


In the case of India, which has the largest area studies academic infrastructure in South Asia, I had then concluded that scholarship on Nepal has emanated mostly from the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi, the South Asia Studies Centre (SASC) of the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur, and the Centre for the Study of Nepal (CSN) at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in Varanasi. These studies cover contemporary politics and political and diplomatic history (especially Nepal-India relations) of Nepal. While substantial in volume, this scholarship is rather limited in scope. The predominantly political science orientation, the overall use of only Indian and Nepali newspapers published in the English language as sources, and the use of a few key Nepali personalities as regular informants mean that most Indian scholarship on Nepal tends to be restricted to a narrow band—political history, diplomatic history, and international relations—within social science research possibilities.


Writing in the journal International Studies in 2009, Varun Shani, a JNU professor, noted that this is a weakness of most area studies programmes in India, which are “not sufficiently multidisciplinary”. Academic disciplines such as social history, sociology, or anthropology could have contributed to the execution of other types of research by Indian researchers, but regretfully these have not been realised.    


In my earlier writings, I had also noted the overlap between Indian scholarship in Nepal and Indian political interests in Nepal and had concluded that Indian scholars tend to be far less free when it comes to studying subjects and establishing positions that are clearly independent of those forwarded by the Indian government. Again, this is not only a feature of Nepal studies in India. Writing in International Studies in 2009, Amitabh Mattoo, then a professor at JNU, argued that Indian area studies scholars “have not liberated themselves intellectually from their dependence on the state, and scholars who take a different view of the world from the government of India can even now invite sanctions in some form or the other”.     


Based on the above discussion, it is fair to conclude that area studies programmes on the South Asian region are languishing in at least two countries of South Asia, Nepal and India. Pakistani scholar S Akbar Zaidi reports much the same for the case of India studies in Pakistan (‘A Conspicuous Absence: Teaching and Research on India in Pakistan’, Economic and Political Weekly, 2009). Conversations with colleagues from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka over the years have revealed that the state of South Asian regional studies in those countries is not any better. It is clear that not much investment has been made in this field in the universities and the concerned research centres in all of the South Asian countries, despite the high level of talks held under the Saarc framework during the past three decades. The South Asian University established in New Delhi as a Saarc initiative has shown very little evidence that it will redress the lack noted herein anytime soon.

Academia matters
If South Asian studies in South Asia is not in a healthy state, what needs to be done? Long-term solutions can only come in the form of investments in our institutions—universities and research centres—and academics in each of the countries of the region. These investments, single- or multi-country initiatives, will have to dedicate substantial resources for field research for doctoral students, writing fellowships for junior and senior scholars, visiting chair positions for university teachers, libraries, and thematic workshops and conferences.


More immediately, we could perhaps begin by further documenting (in the form of bibliographies) the mutual research record of countries in the region and analysing the state of country-specific area studies in each of the countries where such an exercise has not been carried out until now. Collaborative networks of scholars and researchers across the region, who are willing to create innovative research programmes, must be encouraged by their home institutions. The University Grant Commissions and various councils that fund social science research in each of our countries must support such collaborative research. These exercises would also enable us to call upon our governments, regional organisations, and international agencies to better support long-term regional research initiatives in South Asia. Academia should matter to the shaping of mutual understandings in South Asia.

Posted On: 26th November, 2014

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