Can Universities Cure Ignorance About India?

A famous 19th century Irish poem lampoons an ignorant but authoritative Briton called Lord Tomnoddy, “speaking three phrases, a mistake in each.” When the U.S. media and its faithful adherents discuss India, the mythical Lord Tomnoddy is brought to life, establishing the synonymy of ignorance and arrogance.

The media is forced to look for exotic and sensational targets to fulfill the American appetite for sensationalism. India is a favorite target since there exists no counter-mechanism to correct fiction rampant in the media exoticising India. Universities are among society’s strongest engines of information. While there exists no cause-effect relationship between the dearth of India-related activity in universities and negative depiction in the media, there exists a strong correlation nevertheless. The universities can limit damage by media-spin with an academic and balanced opinion when called upon for “expert opinions.”

It would be pertinent to examine the reasons behind the universities’ apathy to India and Indian studies. Traditionally, university focus on a given country is proportional to American geo-political or economic interest in that country. Governmental agencies are primary contributors of university research in geopolitical studies; academic interests are therefore tied to the level of federal interest in a country.

As an example, Russia was the topic of much academic interest in the ’70s and ’80s as America’s chief rival. The demise of the former U.S.S.R. in 1990 has witnessed interest in Russia dwindle into nothingness with the quiet downsizing of relevant departments. Since China has prominently figured in American geo-political strategies and alliances since the ’70s, scholars specializing in Sinology can expect a comfortable sinecure at a renowned university. The ’70s saw China emerge as a potential partner to thwart Russian interests while the ’80s saw the transformation of China into a potential market for U.S. goods. Despite veteran China observers (e.g. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong) predicting that the only gold available in China would be would be fool’s gold, the U.S. government has been seduced by China’s myriad charms and the available funding has had a Pied-Piper effect on the universities.

India has always been perceived to be “interesting, but of no practical use.” While universities like Harvard and Yale have boasted of Indianists since the 1920s, the U.S. government discovered neither political nor financial potential in India. India’s self-proclaimed leadership of the non-aligned world never convinced state department experts like the legendary Loy Henderson; India was a socialist country in non-aligned clothing as evident from Nehruvian reforms. The ’60s saw India being perceived as a harmless, noisy, and rhetoric-prone nation clutching Russian skirts.

Not surprisingly, Indian studies received a lower priority than Chinese studies or East European studies, a status quo continuing well into the 1990s.

India became a favorite destination for U.S. businesses in the ’90s because of former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s economic reforms. They believed that India had enough potential to compete with China as a market for U.S. goods.

Unfortunately, this interest was too ephemeral to change anything at the universities. The bureaucracy in India was elephantine, with a pace to match. Bad experiences like the Dabhol fiasco saw interest in India ebb rapidly, and finally die out. Indian studies continued to languish; distinguished faculty members specializing in India, as late as 1998, couldn’t continue at places like Harvard due to fiscal constraints on Indian studies.

In view of the connection between geo-political interests and university research, will the recent developments in South Asia provide stimulus to Indian studies?  Will attention to India at an academic level be the silver lining in the cloud?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no.”

The U.S. is sensitive to its alienating many countries and communities in the Islamic crescent spanning North Africa, West, and Central Asia. The U.S. has come to perceive the assiduous cultivation of Pakistan as the cornerstone of improving relations with Islamic countries. In the process it kills two birds with one stone—obtaining a foothold in the Muslim world and containing anti-American factions in Afghanistan through monitoring the ISI.

While the action will be in India’s sphere, the beneficiary will be Pakistan. Consequently, universities will discover the influence of Islamic thought (e.g. the influence of the Deoband school on Islamic terrorists) on contemporary thinking or similar topics to be financially rewarding.

Any analysis discussing studies related to the plight of India are incomplete without discussing the role of the Government of India. The Indian government has steadfastly remained indifferent to promoting Indian studies inside and outside the country and has shown very little initiative in assisting with Indian studies in American universities. They should emulate the government of Japan, which subtly promotes interest in Japanese studies through supporting visiting scholars and assisting with their research.

The only viable route is the use of donor contributions to set up chairs in India-related studies. Prosperous and well-intentioned citizens have spawned interest in various subjects through funding professorships in specific fields.

Over the past decade, expatriate Indians have set up a few chairs at various universities through donor contributions—as examples we have the Kundan Kaur Kapany chair for Sikh studies at the UC Santa Barbara and the Hinduja Center at Columbia University. While such efforts are laudable, they also alter the profile of interest in India by focusing on specific topics of a religious or regional nature. It is important that donors understand the importance of focusing on India as a whole; the former method highlights Indian diversity over unity. More chairs and more focus on India will go a long way in dispelling the myths, amusing and annoying, rampant in present day America.

Remember, self-help is the best help. Indian-Americans should help themselves increase awareness about India among Americans.

S. Gopikrishna writes on topics of pertinence to India and Indians.




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