There is a lot of talk on the need to understand each other in South Asia, but strangely nothing is being done to promote area studies Take one instance: the low level of intellectual activity in India about Nepal.
While academics in one or another South Asian country have occasionally taken stock of their own national corpus of regional studies, they have seldom studied the obstacles that hinder a robust future for regional studies in South Asia taken as a whole. If such an exercise were to take place, the first task would be an analysis of the substantive orientations of previous scholarly research done in any particular South Asian country on any of the its neighbouring countries. Subsequently one would discuss how these orientations aid or do not aid the flowering of a good regional scholarship in South Asia and then consider institutions which can execute research on the concerned subjects. This kind of exercise is necessary because it is quite clear that without strong home bases for social science research activity in each of the South Asian countries, no region-wide South Asian scholarship can flourish. However we have not seen much of this kind of analysis.
A reading of South Asian academic journals, as well as Himal, indicates that there is not much reflection going on in the realm of area studies in South Asia. This lack is significant, at a time when much ink is being spent on the possibilities and limitations of SAARC and non-official South Asian cooperation initiatives. While there is a lot of talk about understanding each other in South Asia, one of the most reliable methods to achieve that goal, academic research about each other, remains mediocre at best. We can examine the extent of this problem by looking at the case of area studies in India, with particular focus on how Nepal has been studied there.
Area Studies in India: Focus on Nepal
Nepal Studies in post-Independence India started in the late 1950s after the establishment of the Indian School of International Studies in Delhi in 1955. This institution was founded at a time, in the words of B Vivekanandan, an area studies expert at Jawaharlal Nehru University, “When newly independent India felt the imperative need for competent Indian academic specialists who could regularly watch developments in other areas of the world, interpret their significance, and give a studied second opinion or a critical evaluation of India’s own external policies.” As one former director of this School, MS Rajan, recalled, its founder A Appadorai was convinced that, “without an institution training specialists on international and area studies…it was difficult to promote Indian expertise in these fields.”
That was at a time when India and its prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, were especially keen to foster friendly relations between Asian countries during the 1940s and the 1950s. Area studies programmes were established as a way to respond to this imperative. The Department of African Studies was established at the University of Delhi in December 1954 and the Indian School of International Studies was established in October 1955 with sponsorship from the Indian Council of World Affairs. In 1963, the University Grant- Commission (UGC) of India appointed a committee to prepare a plan for the promotion of area studies. The committee recommended that area studies be promoted in a small number of universities and emphasised that reference materials, language training and fieldwork be made essential aspects of areas studies programmes. These recommendations were accepted by the UGC and, accordingly, more than 20 area study centres went on to be established in Indian universities.
Within five years of the founding of the Indian School of International Studies, Nepal Studies was started there in the form of research on political history and contemporary politics of Nepal as well as on Indo-Nepal relations. On the first of these topics, Satish Kumar did a dissertation on Nepal under the hereditary rule of the Ranas and Anirudha Gupta wrote about political developments in Nepal since the end of Rana rule in 1951. Kanchanmoy Mojumdar analysed India-Nepal relations during the period between 1837 and 1877. But the School was not the only place where research on themes related to Nepal was picked up in the 1950s and the 1960s. A few researchers located in traditional departments elsewhere also worked on Nepal. One can recall, for instance, the work of historian KC Chaudhuri on Anglo-Nepal relations until 1816, completed at Calcutta University in the late 1950s. Political scientist Ramakant (who used only one name) completed a dissertation on the same subject at the University of Allahabad in 1960, focusing on the period between 1816 and 1877. Considering the time at which these research projects were completed and given the material and other constraints under which they worked, scholars like Kumar, Mojumdar, Gupta, Chaudhuri and Ramakant must be credited for setting up the initial high standards in Nepal Studies in post-Independence India.
The Indian School of International Studies was merged with the newly founded Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in June 1970 and is now known as the School of International Studies (SIS). Thirty years later, this school and two other institutions in India— the South Asia Studies Centre of the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur and the Centre for the Study of Nepal (CSN) in Banaras Hindu University (BHU)— are the main locations where social science research on Nepal is conducted on a regular basis. At SIS, Nepal has received attention from researchers affiliated predominantly with its South Asian Studies Division. About 40 MPhil. and PhD dissertations have been completed on Nepal-related subjects. Bilateral relations and diplomatic history (India-Nepal, Nepal-China) and research on the politics of Nepal since the late Rana era (c post-1940), informed by perspectives arising from the disciplines of political science, political history and international relations, have dominated the themes selected for study by researchers at SIS. On the rare occasion when researchers at SIS have focused on non-traditional subjects, these topics have also been amongst those in which the State in India was very interested. This can be seen, for instance, in the work of Mollica Dastider on Muslims and the State in Nepal, the topic of her recently completed dissertation at SIS. Dastider began her research on the Nepali Muslims in the early 1990s when sections of the Indian establishment started accusing them of being implicated in Pakistani ISI attempts to use Nepal as a launching pad for anti-Indian activities.
Nepal has also been studied by researchers affiliated with the South Asia Studies Centre of the University of Rajasthan. This Centre was established in 1963 by SP Varma as a programme in the University’s Department of Political Science and was adopted by the UGC as a separate Area Studies centre only in 1968. In an unpublished report written in 1981, it is mentioned that when the Centre was established it was decided that it “would not be wedded to any given theoretical framework”. Instead, it “preferred to adopt a multi-disciplinary approach with a view to developing a comprehensive understanding of the socio-economic and political realities of the countries in South Asia”. Nepal Studies became a subject pursued at the Centre from 1963 itself with the induction of Ramakant, who as mentioned earlier, had done a dissertation on 19th century Indo-Nepal relations. Some of the early Nepal Studies research students at the Centre included SD Muni (currently professor at SIS, JNU), RS Chauhan, and MD Dharamdasani who now heads CSN in Varanasi. The Centre has trained several other Nepal experts, almost all of them political scientists. Notable among them is BC Upreti who is its current director. Articles on Nepal by these researchers and others have regularly appeared in the Centre’s journal, South Asian Studies, which was established in 1966. Several members of the faculty have written books on Nepal.
Muni’s doctoral research resulted in the book Foreign Policy of Nepal (1973). He later edited an important set of essays on Nepal under King Mahendra, Nepal: An Assertive Monarchy (1977). RS Chauhan’s doctoral research was on politics in Nepal after the downfall of the Ranas in 1950. This resulted in a series of articles in South Asian Studies and the book, Political Development in Nepal 1950-70 (1971). After becoming a faculty member at the Centre, Chauhan wrote critically about politics in Nepal under the autocratic Panchayat system and later an overly ambitious book on society and state building in Nepal. MD Dharamdasani, who also taught at the Centre until 1981, initially did research on Indian diplomacy vis-a-vis Nepal. Ramakant continued to do more research on the diplomatic history and foreign policy of Nepal, especially with respect to China, and published several articles related to this theme in the Centre’s journal. Much of this research was later presented in the book Nepal-China and India (1976). Later, collaborating with BC Upreti, he wrote about regionalism in Nepal. Upreti’s doctoral research was on Indian aid to Nepal. After becoming a faculty member at the Centre, Upreti has written about the Nepali Congress Party, water resources and on various aspects of Indo-Nepal relationship.
Nepal Studies in India is also carried out at the Centre for the Study of Nepal in BHU. The UGC established this Centre in 1976. Its stated objective is to sponsor and promote research on Nepal from a multidisciplinary perspective. The Centre has built up a documentation collection of materials on Nepal and organised more than ten big seminars. About 25 PhDs have been completed at the Centre, many by students from Nepal. More than 15 of these doctoral research projects have been from the discipline of political science. In recent years though, the Centre has not been very active due to severe resource constraints that have already affected its documentation collection project and staff retention ability. Apart from Professor MD Dharamdasani who heads the Centre, there is one lecturer in Nepali and several research associates and no other full-time faculty appointments.
In the past, the Centre has undertaken several research projects on themes including foreign aid in Nepal, Nepal’s elite, political ideology of the Nepali leader BP Koirala, status of Nepali women in modern Nepali literature, Indo-Nepal trade relations, and post- 1990 democratic experiments in Nepal. Since 1987, the Centre has also published an irregular journal, Indian Journal of Nepalese Studies. The Centre has also published various papers on Nepal as part of an Occasional Paper Series. Eleven booklets have been published under this series up to the end of 1998. The topics covered have included the 1980 Political Referendum in Nepal, the Nepali elite, elections in Nepal, Nepali constitutional practices, Nepal’s foreign trade, and parliamentary democracy. In terms of book publication by faculty members, apart from some books he published earlier on, MD Dharamdasani has recently edited Democratic Nepal (1992), Nepal in Transition (1997) and India-Nepal Partnership and South Asian Resurgence (2000).
Scholarship on Nepal that has come out of the S1S, the South Asia Studies Centre, and the BHU’s CSN, as the above discussion suggests, covers predominantly contemporary politics and political and diplomatic history of Nepal. While substantial in volume, this scholarship, especially the more recent ones, is significantly deficient in terms of quality and variety. First of all, as has been noted above, in terms of disciplines, political science, political and diplomatic history and international relations provide the analytical perspectives to a disproportionate number of studies. This means that Indian scholarship on Nepal tends to be restricted to a narrow band within social science research disciplines. In their review of area studies works done in India until the end of the 1960s, Bimal Prasad and Urmila Phadnis had commented that “it is disappointing to note that no anthropological and sociological studies have been attempted by Indian scholars on Nepal or on Pakistan so far.” Thirty years later there has been no significant change in this situation. As the conference on the history of Indian anthropology and sociology organised by the Delhibased Institute of Economic Growth in April 2000 noted, there has been very little research by Indian scholars of these disciplines on other countries. In fact, the Institute had started a programme on Asian Research in the 1960s but could not sustain it for “both a lack of resources, and the hostility of scholars in other SAARC countries to attempts to study their countries by Indian scholars.”
As the first corollary of this fact, present-day Indian researchers on Nepal demonstrate very little awareness of the substantial amount of social science writings on Nepal (especially anthropological) in English and other European languages. The second corollary is that since the unit of their analysis is the state, Indian political scientists, especially those working on Indo-Nepal relations, have seldom been able to establish positions that are clearly independent of those forwarded by the government in power in New Delhi. Why is this so? Kanti Bajpai, who teaches at MI’s SIS, has argued that Indian intellectuals tend to give the State “the benefit of the doubt” in its dealings with other states. He states, “In this international sphere, the image of the State-asoppressor recedes and of the State-as-protector supervenes to the detriment of a critical-minded field of study.” Bajpai further points out that, more often than not, the data needed for the kind of studies carried out by Indian scholars in the field of international and area studies is located within the state domains and the Indian state, like states elsewhere, is “stingy in sharing it with outsiders….Those who are critical of the State and its policies could well find their access to Stateowned information denied.
Another general deficiency of Indian scholarship on Nepal is related to the issue of language proficiency. Area studies programmes have emphasised that unless the concerned researchers are very proficient in the main language(s) used in the society under study, the resulting research can not be taken too seriously. Keeping this point in mind, the UGC had emphasised in the late 1960s that good language training should be an essential part of area studies programmes. While the first generation of post-Independence Indian scholars did exhibit language proficiency, the more recent Indian scholars of Nepal have shown virtually no ability to read Nepali, let alone the other languages used inside Nepal. As a consequence, English language sources- both from the world of media and academiarelated to Nepal get disproportionate attention from the Nepal experts in India. This is unfortunate since English is not the popular mode of discourse in Nepal, even among its most influential intellectuals. English proficiency is limited to a small number -of Nepali academics, and Kathmandu’s English language media cannot function as a substitute for Nepali language media sources. Thus, whatever the discipline, a researcher of Nepal who lacks proficiency in Nepali is seriously handicapped.
This lack of language proficiency can perhaps be blamed on the absence of proper language training programmes within area studies centres. Except for the Centre in BHU, Nepali is not available at the other two institutions discussed above. It is no surprise to find out that published materials in the languages of Nepal are not systematically available even in the concerned libraries in Delhi, Jaipur and Varanasi. This state of affairs is in sharp contrast to how area studies programmes are supported through good library resources in as many languages as possible in the better institutions of the West. It is no surprise that most of the existing bibliographic reference books about South Asia have been compiled outside of the region.
The third limitation of current Indian scholarship on Nepal is related to the notion of fieldwork employed by researchers. To begin with, many write their papers and books based on secondary and media sources, excusing this practice by referring to the lack of funds to do good fieldwork. This in itself is an interesting proposition, given the minimal costs required to do research “on the ground” in Nepal. But even when fieldwork is done, it leaves a lot to be desired. Due to the absence of anthropological regimes of fieldwork in the disciplines of the current crop of Nepal experts in India, a short visit to Kathmandu and interviews with a few well-known personalities constitute the entirety of fieldwork for all kinds of inquiries. Given their reliance on English language sources and interviews with Nepalis well-versed in English, it is no surprise that the nature of evidence used to support arguments remains almost the same in most of the works.
Accounting for Mediocrity
the main reason why area studies, including Nepal Studies programmes, are not thriving in India, is their overall poor financial resource base management. With respect to area study centres within universities (such as the ones with a Nepal focus in Jaipur and Varanasi) supported by the UGC, they are supposed to get 100 percent assistance from it under two categories: recurring costs and non-recurring costs. Under the former, the UGC should provide salaries for four faculty members— a Professor who would also be director of the centre, one reader and two lecturers. The UGC should also provide honorarium for two research associates. Calculated at current average salary rates, the total salary commitment amounts to about INR 948,000 per year. Under the non-recurring costs, such centres are eligible to get limited amounts of money to construct their buildings, purchase equipment and library material, and pay for fieldwork and conferences.
But is the UGC providing the amounts to the area study centres? During the fiscal year 1997-98, it provided a total sum of INR 7.6 million to 20 area study centres located in 17 universities. On an average each centre got only INR 381,500. During the fiscal year 1998-99, the UGC disbursed a total sum of INR 9.653 million to 19 centres in seventeen universities at an average of just IRs 508,053 per centre. The average annual salary of a professor in India is about INR 300,000 and that of a reader is about INR 216,000. From these calculations, we can conclude that the average amount each area study centre received during the year 1998-99 was not even enough to pay the salary of one professor and one reader in any area study centre, let alone be enough to buy books for the library or pay for fieldwork. The centres have also not received the non-recurring grant amounts promised by the UGC.
The implications of this fiscal deficit are evident in all areas vital to the active life of research centres. Due to the non-availability of the committed monies under the non-recurring category, such centres cannot buy new books, journals and other material for their specialist libraries. Some may have computers, but cannot afford Internet connections. Libraries in the centres in Jaipur and Varanasi have suffered in recent years, and the building of the Centre for the Study of Nepal remains incomplete eight years after its foundation stones were laid by the former prime minister of Nepal, Girija P Koirala. Similarly research scholars and students do not have access to adequate amounts of funding for long-term fieldwork in the countries they want to study. Moreover, conferences with participation of scholars from the countries of the region has proved to be very difficult to organise. This situation has hampered the possibility of productive collaborative work between research scholars from two or more countries in the region. Due to the inadequacy of committed monies under the recurring category, area study centres have not been able to provide good language training to its students. Such centres have been unable to retain, replace and recruit outstanding faculty members.
Anirudha Gupta, a veteran Nepal expert and the former dean of the SIS at JNU noted in 1997, “Facing acute shortage of library material and facilities for field work, the faculty in area studies indulge in petty factionalism or, if based on Delhi, seek gainful outlets as unofficial PROs of the external affairs ministry or embassies of the countries which fall within their areas of specialisation.” In other words, the funding crunch has made a direct impact on the quality of work coming out of such institutions. For the same reason, such centres are no longer able to attract the best students. Talking about the situation in his School, Gupta writes that it attracts students “who bide their time either because they have little else to do or use the University’s hostel and library facilities to prepare for Civil Service Examinations.”
Most area study centres have been opened in Indian universities in the absence of long-term plans. They have been opened on the fancy of individuals who were interested in creating academic jobs for themselves and those they patronised. As Gupta has observed, “Very often, such initiative lacked convincing rationale. Nor did the beneficiary university make any effort to build up suitably trained staff, language experts or library resources.” Gupta further added that the UGC’s approach to the opening of such centres “has been regrettably overindulgent or innocent of self-analysis.” With respect to the establishment of the Centre for the Study of Nepal in BHU, Gupta said that it was “done without ever caring to assess how much effort and expenses must be spent to produce a single scholar ‘adequately acquainted with the historical, cultural, social and economic background’ of Nepal”. There is no reason to believe that the story behind the establishment of many of the other area study centres is any different.
If they cannot be sustained, can some of the current area centres be closed? Yes, for instance, during the year 1997-98, one area study centre supported by the UGC was “discontinued…because of poor functioning”. But closing down is hard to do in most cases. Once a centre has been set-up, those who secure permanent jobs understandably want all the facilities of pay and promotion offered to faculty members in regular departments. They eventually become an interested party in continuing the life of these centres even when there is not much money available for anything but the salaries of the few staff members. In addition these centres become susceptible to the fancies of university bureaucrats who feel no shame in adding more programmes to the burden of already disabled area studies centres for very personal reasons. For example, the Centre at BHU has been asked by university bosses to add a Japanese studies wing to it. This is so because the wife of a top university bureaucrat happens to be Japanese.
This kind of weak existence of area studies programmes in India must also be due to the rampant political patronage in key academia-related institutions and misplaced priorities of the political bosses. In the latest instance, not only the UGC, but many other government- supported research promoting institutions in India such as the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and the Indian_ Council of Historical Research (ICHR), have had to suffer appointments of academically mediocre people faithful to the current ruling coalition led by the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party. These appointees have not been spending too much energy in trying to turn around almost defunct area studies programmes. At a time when there is not enough money for existing programmes, in fact, the UGC has decided to introduce studies in the pseudo-science of Vedic Astrology in Indian universities. The UGC lacks transparency and is increasingly seen to be academically inept. Meanwhile, speaking of misplaced priorities, when all academic studies including area studies programmes in India are suffering from inadequate funding, the Government of India has endowed IRs 120 million to Oxford University to establish a chair in Indian History and Culture.
No wonder then that, in the background of this developing academic environment, Nepal Studies in India is progressively losing its quality. The current Indian scholarship on Nepal does not match the academic rigour and competence level of the scholarship demonstrated by the first generation of post-Independence Indian scholars of Nepal. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the state of Indian studies on any other country of South Asia is any better than the case for Nepal (As far as the reverse is concerned, this writer has reported on the poor status of Indian studies in Nepal in the March 1998 Himal). Casual conversations with researchers from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have suggested that general academic governance related to area studies programmes in the universities of those countries is not any better than those in India or Nepal.
Given the present scenario regarding area studies in South Asia, remedial programmes involving a few individuals and institutions will hardly constitute a solution. A solution can only come in the form of investments in institutions- universities and research centres- and academics in each of the countries of the region in the long run. It is up to the individual countries of South Asia to decide what kind of priority they want to place on acquiring knowledge about each other in the region. Regional organisations such as SAARC and international agencies can at best play a supporting role. Given the negative academic and political environment in much of South Asia, the chances that fresh investments will be made for South Asian studies in South Asia are negligible. In that case, we are looking at a bleak future for South Asian Studies in South Asia.