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.
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.