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Updated: February 18, 2011 00:44 IST

‘U.K. universities lack focus on modern India'

Hasan Suroor
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WAY AHEAD: “We are not going to impose any ideological view and would welcome, indeed encourage, diversity of views and debate,” says Sunil Khilnani. Photo: Murali Kumar K.
WAY AHEAD: “We are not going to impose any ideological view and would welcome, indeed encourage, diversity of views and debate,” says Sunil Khilnani. Photo: Murali Kumar K.

British and European universities have often been criticised for neglecting contemporary India which, critics say, is studied in a somewhat “fragmentary” way with much of what passes for Indian studies being either about ancient India or colonial and post-colonial “stuff.”

Now, King's College London, which has old links with India (it proudly lists Khushwant Singh among its famous alumni), has stepped in to plug the gap by setting up an India Institute which it hopes to develop as “a focal point” for an inter-disciplinary study of contemporary India.

It has poached well-known modern India scholar Sunil Khilnani from Johns Hopkins University, Washington, to run the Institute to be formally launched in the summer.

Prof Khilnani, best-known for his 1997 seminal book The Idea of India, says that in Britain and Europe more generally there is a lack of focus on contemporary India.

“If you look at British and European engagement with India it is either in terms of Indology or colonialism — the rise of nationalism and the end of the raj, that is, mostly up to independence. There is very little coherence when it comes to engaging with contemporary India. Lots of individuals are doing some good work and you have great university departments working on specific areas such as economic development or strategic studies but the focus on post-1947 India is lacking. We will bring all these strands together to promote an understanding of modern India through cutting-edge research and debate,” he told The Hindu.

More than just a department

The Institute, he said, would be more than just a university department. It would be a “cross” between a centre of academic study and a think-tank developing links with British and European think-tanks like the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and the India-Europe Futures Forum. The idea behind the Institute derived from the recognition that India had emerged not only as a major economic power but also as a global player in a whole range of other areas such as environment, security, and democracy.

“It comes from a recognition that India is going to play an increasingly crucial role in years to come and you have to look at India if you want to understand global issues. The institute will be an arena for regular interaction between the scholarly and policy-making community as well as a platform for major India-related events. It will aim to connect Indian questions and subjects to more general academic and policy debates,” Prof. Khilnani said.

Multi-disciplinary approach

The approach would be multi-disciplinary involving specialists from diverse fields, including the media. The focus in media studies would be on “reporting India” both as it is reported by journalists in India and by the foreign, especially western, media. His own sense is that India is not reported by western journalists in the “informed” way that China is.

As someone who wears two hats — that of a historian and a political scientist — with strong views on how modern India has developed and where it is going, what does he hope to bring to the programme?

“I will attempt to connect different disciplinary perspectives to understanding India and look at contemporary India in a long historical perspective. If you want to understand the present you have to see where it comes from and where it is going,” said Prof. Khilnani who is working on a book on India's global role and prospects.

How much of his own left-of-centre, Nehruvian, position would influence the Institute's programme?

“We are not going to impose any ideological view and would welcome, indeed encourage, diversity of views and debate. You can't keep out ideas. If I disagree with something I would rather have those views debated inside than exclude them.”

Meanwhile, at a time when British universities are facing massive spending cuts with some facing closure, the King's move may surprise some. But, according to Prof. Khilnani, if anything, it simply confirms the growing interest in India.

“The fact that they are making such a huge investment shows the importance they attach to Indian studies. It is a high priority for King's,” he said.

The college would welcome support from the Indian government as well as private sector so long as it comes without any strings attached to it.

“Our ideas are not for hire. We are very clear on that,” said Prof. Khilnani ahead of a visit to India before taking up his new assignment.

As an Indian born in the UK , i can add that there is SOAS London - offering degrees in Sanskrit , Bengali , Hindi and the Theology of India. Naturally Oxford offers Sanskrit and other courses on India. Now KCL which is fitting as it has a huge Indian student population from the Indian diaspora, it feels like home for me , so many Indian students from the UK, USA and India attend Kings College London to study medicine, dentistry and law , it is the most popular destination for young Indians like myself. Great that they now have an Indian institute.

from:  Rahul
Posted on: Apr 13, 2011 at 00:02 IST

I totally agree with the move made by King's College London- as a Kings alumni during my time there I was only too aware how backward-looking and indeed empire-focused many of the courses and modules were. However I feel that credit should be given where it is due and that is to Oxford University and their centre for South Asian studies which has already set the precedent for this new approach to India. Oxford is now in it's third year of offering an altogether ambitious and incredible Master of Science in Contemporary India. This course is multi-disciplined including modules on the environment and human development and offers an excellent postgraduate degree to anyone interested in the India of today, warts and all.

from:  Rose Schreiber
Posted on: Mar 17, 2011 at 05:50 IST

Well, no doubt it is a land mark step on the study of contemporary India going to be set up for the first in the United Kingdom. But the irony is till date there are no subjects on contemporary India being taught in Indian universities itself. Tragically the Indian universities does not offer any courses on India of that type. I won't disagree on the fact that innumerable publications being done on the subject by rich academicians, policy makers and think tankers in India. But the problem is, if the subject itself is not taught rigorously in Indian universities, what guarantee will it portray in a foreign university ? I guess the Government of India should start investing huge funds to interested Indian students who would love to learn about contemporary India in a foreign land. I also wonder why Indian brainy Profs keep shifting places from London to the United States. Why they are so keen to impart knowledge of India to foreigners in a foreign land than to their own Indian students ? It is high time that the world's largest democracy learnt something from the European, American and from its own neighbor, China's systems and how they meticulously and smartly exercising their 'soft-power' through education. The India 'shining' 'super power' 'leading world leader' etc. will be a dream come true, when India learns 'knowledge is power.'

from:  Elmie Konwar Rengma
Posted on: Mar 13, 2011 at 05:27 IST

If modern India is so important, I wonder why the prof. Wouldnt come to India and enlightens the world about modern India. No, he won't because he knows the truth about state of affairs in India.

from:  R Singh
Posted on: Mar 8, 2011 at 16:13 IST

Why should we even bother to read about the West's analysis of contemporary and ancient India history? I suggest the author must spend time on focussing on the research by Indian academia. We need more inward focus to improve the quality of work done by our universities.

from:  Sabil Ahmed
Posted on: Mar 5, 2011 at 12:48 IST

As India's next door neighbors whose society has profoundly been influenced by Buddhism of Indic origin and, 'more recently' Marxist-influenced Indian nationalist movement against the British Raj, some of us from Burma who are engaged Burmese scholars are delighted to see a brand new policy-scholarship hybrid initiative at King's College to be headed by an Indian scholar of high repute, Professor Sunil Khilnani. It is also heartening that the Indian government itself is supportive of the contemporary Indian studies initiative, which is more than what we can say for Burma's military dictatorship. (The Burma Studies is similarly guilty of the charges that Professor Khilani has leveled against the Indian studies - contemporary and policy irrelevance as it is primarily engaged in the "post-colonial stuff.") Since 'the idea behind the (Indian) Institute derived from the recognition that India had emerged not only as a major economic power but also as a global player in a whole range of other areas such as environment, security, and democracy," we would be grateful if Professor Khilani would consider placing on the Institute's research agenda the anti-democratic and socially and ecologically harmful Burma policies - harmful to the 50-plus million Burmese -- which successive Indian governments over the past 17 years have adopted. Just this month, the Indian government which prides itself as the government of the world's largest democracy has effectively barred Zakir Husain College, University of Delhi from holding an international academic seminar on the democratization in Burma while blocking government funding, thereby forcing the local organizers to scale back the seminar into a local event now scheduled for 3-4 March. Dr. (Ms) Sonu Trivedi, who is the conference's convenor and Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at the University ( will gladly share her experience of her college's unsuccessful attempt at seeking permissions from Indian authorities to host a rather harmless academic seminar on democratization in one of the Indianized states in Southeast Asia. If Professor Khalini's vision of India as a (positive) global player in democracy, environment and security, she has a million light years to go, if she feels vulnerable - or too self-interested - to discuss the idea of democratization in a tiny neighbor under a tin pot dictatorship of Senior General Than Shwe who was most warmly and lavishly received by the government of PM Manmohan Singh. On behalf of his Burmese scholar compatriots in Burma whose names cannot be mentioned because they live and work in the military-ruled country. - Research Fellow on Burma, LSE Global Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science

from:  Maung Zarni
Posted on: Feb 25, 2011 at 16:11 IST

Its good that finally efforts are being made to make India rise out of images of slumdogs and show some real and contemporary stuff as well.....

from:  Pranav Vashist
Posted on: Feb 18, 2011 at 00:55 IST
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