Looking only at India-Nepal scholarship as example, a Kathmandu historian finds little reason to be optimistic about the production of quality scholarship among SAARC countries about each other.
Official SAARC process: Track One
One of the key components of the official SAARC Process is the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA). Twelve areas of cooperation have been agreed upon under the IPA, each looked after by a technical committee. One area designated is “Education, Culture and Sports”. The technical committee which looks after education, culture and sports has prioritised several themes in the field of education and listed activities such as “expert group meetings” on various subjects including higher education. In its own words, the committee is “also engaged in the improvement and expansion of the SAARC chairs, fellowships and scholarship schemes”, which are described as having a “tremendous potential to facilitate greater interaction among the intelligentsia in the region.”
Needless to say, this “potential” remains far from realised. As much has been admitted in government circles. It was back in December 1995 at the Commemorative Session of the Council of Ministers held in New Delhi to celebrate the 10th anniversary of SAARC that the then Foreign Minister of Nepal, Prakash C. Lohani, said in his statement: “The SAARC chairs, SAARC fellowships and SAARC scholarships schemes need to be rescued from the limbo they have descended into… We need to expand education links.”
Even before the founding of SAARC in late 1985, various academic exercises had been held regarding the potential benefits that would accrue to the entire region after the realisation of the regional association. Many position papers were commissioned from academics of the various countries as part of the exercise leading to the foundation of SAARC. Several surveys focusing on different aspects of the regional economy and developments that could be achieved through regional cooperation were published as monographs in the early 1980s.
During those same years, many articles entitled “Regional Cooperation in South Asia: Perspective from Country X” were published in various journals. Since its founding, the SAARC organisation´s initiatives in academia have produced further surveys of the same nature. While these surveys may have added a bit to our understanding of the region, their overall superficiality has meant that despite exhortations on the part of the concerned officials, or the proclaimed IPA of SAARC, the official initiative has done little to facilitate serious scholarship by members of the academia of the region.
Non-Official SAARC process: Tracks Two and Three
Even as the official SAARC organisation continues to languish amidst the pomp generated by its formal activities, various commentators hasten to highlight the achievements recorded through what has been called the ´non-official SAARC process´ – the meeting of activists, journalists, filmmakers, physicians, scholars and various other professionals in cross-South Asian forums. The non-official SAARC process obviously has a role to play. It includes so-called “track two” initiatives which seek to influence governmental policies in the region, which more often than not are manned by retired government officials or individuals close to official thinking, as also “track three”, the realm of social activists who prefer to provide alternatives to government-led thinking. All these twin-track meetings must perforce have allowed non-governmental professionals to discuss issues of importance with individual countries and the region in general.
But how has this non-official process touched the field of academia? What is the nature of the scholarly exchange that exists? The May/June 1997 issue of Himal notes: “Part of the reason why SAARC was not more effective in its first decade is that it was not challenged enough by academia and media.” The article further stated that good scholars had stayed away from SAARC studies mainly because “they saw the organisation as a non-starter,” hence “leaving the field open for mediocrity to flourish”. Once good scholar? supersede the nationalist intellectual ghettos in which they have allowed themselves to be incarcerated for the past half a century, said the article, South Asian regional scholarship would flourish.
To be sure, a small number of mostly English-fluent academics have met in different parts of the region under the auspices of institutions and with funds which are mostly provided by Western donor agencies. These meetings have allowed academics some of whom have done very little by way of participation in national academic exercises within their own countries – to gain professional and personal friendships as part of the building up of new regional networks, to sometimes challenge stereotyped views of each other´s countries, and to circulate otherwise obscure writings amongst each other. Despite these achievements, these non-official initiatives have not produced any foundational works that are recognisably different from the official productions of the SAARC-variety. As a researcher who received formal training in South Asian history, and now based in Kathmandu, this writer is far less optimistic about the so-called non-official SAARC process when it comes to academia. The intention is not to undermine the need for good South Asian scholarship on the region but to emphasise that more than just the breaking out of “nationalist intellectual ghettos” needs to happen before good regional scholarship can flourish.
To begin with, we have not taken adequate stock of the obstacles that prevent an optimistic future and this should be our first exercise. Without expecting much, we have to analyse the substantive orientations of previous scholarly research done in any one South Asian country on a neighbouring country. We then have to discuss how these orientations aid or do not aid the flowering of a good regional scholarship. For without strong homebases for broadly defined social science research activity in each of the SAARC countries, no region-wide South Asian scholarship can flourish. These homebases in each of the regional countries should not only be active generators of research and publications but should also be evaluating scholarship on the individual countries and the region as a whole. Writings on individual countries and the region as a whole may, of course, also be written outside the region and these too should be evaluated. In effect, this means having competent research institutions within each SAARC country to focus on each of the regional countries before a region-wide scholarship can be built. In other words, we need a good Nepali research institution or group of active Nepali scholars doing significant research on India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bhutan, etc, and vice versa respectively, and so on.
Since the kind of region-wide analysis of scholarship mentioned above is beyond the scope of this writer´s expertise, this analysis will limit itself to the case of India and Nepal alone. It will only discuss institutional orientations and common topical foci found in Nepali scholarship on India and Indian scholarship on Nepal.
Studying India in Nepal
Comparatively speaking, India can ´afford´ ignorance about Nepal, whereas, because of its huge impact on the country, Nepal has imperatives enough to closely study its southern giant. This would suggest that the political and academic leadership in Nepal would have identified Indian Studies as a high-priority item within academia and that considerably more scholarship on India from Nepal exists rather than the other way around. But this is not the case. The reasons for the low grade of India Studies in Nepal have to be sought generally in the visionless politics and valueless education under which the country has suffered for the past half century. More specifically, the blame lies on the massively chaotic situation within Tribhuvan University (TU), the only institution in the country that offers social science courses, and the stunted domains of research in these subjects within it and in Nepal in general.
Despite platitudes on the sacrosanct nature of India-Nepal relations from ´time immemorial´ that have been a fixture of Nepali political rhetoric, this writer knows of no serious governmental effort to establish, within its own bureaucracy, a research cell of scholars doing work on various aspects of Indian polity. A beginning was made with the establishment of the Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies in TU in the early 1970s, which did provide an opportunity for Nepali scholars to begin talking about a programme in area studies. By the end of the decade, however, the Institute had been downgraded to the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS), and it was not until the mid-1980s that it actually began work on the subject under the directorship of Khadga Bikram Shah, a brother-in-law of the then all-powerful King Birendra. Shah had gathered almost all of the top political scientists of Nepal in CNAS by 1984-85, and his efforts resulted in two major publications, the Strategic Studies Series started in 1984 and the CNAS Year Review in 1986.
CNAS scholars not only began carrying out country-wise studies but also participated in the academic exercises related to the founding of the official SAARC. In this connection, a special issue of the Strategic Studies Series was published in Spring 1985 and subsequent issues of this journal contained other articles highlighting various perspectives on regional cooperation. The CNAS Year Review contained survey articles similar to those found in the annual country-wise survey editions of the American journal, Asian Survey. Starting from 1986, various Nepali scholars wrote country reviews for SAARC countries and two or three additional countries outside of the region.
The ´India desk´ inside cnas was looked after by political scientist Govinda Malla, whose own annual review articles on India unfortunately were not the kind that could be called informed analyses. Based largely on Indian newspaper and magazine reports, these reports did not engage with scholarship from India and elsewhere. They were superficial surveys written in a mode devoid of any serious disciplinary perspective. As director, Shah did try to re-invigorate studies on India among researchers during the 1989 Indo-Nepal trade and transit impasse. But differences between scholars who took up ultra-nationalist positions and those who were seen to be ´soft´ on India grew so large that the director abandoned the initiative. With Shah´s own subsequent departure from CNAS, the CNAS Year Review and the Strategic Studies Series vanished from the scene. The beginning that had been made on India studies in Nepal died a premature death. This loss meant that to this day discerning politicians and policy- makers are not able to contend with India in important matters from an informed ´Nepali´ position.
Today, Nepali efforts to understand India and Indian society through rigorous research and scholarly work is largely non-existent. Studies on India within TU are limited to isolated scholarly efforts whose themes have included lndo-Nepal relations, transborder migration and new dimensions of regional security, Some scholars outside TU have, in the´ course of researching Nepal´s hydro-power possibilities, highlighted Indian interests in specific hydro-power development trajectories in Nepal. In the meantime, networks in a number of disciplines representing international scholarship on India remain largely unread by Nepali academics.
Studying Nepal in India
At the moment, there are three cities in India where social science research on Nepal is conducted: New Delhi. Jaipur and Banaras. In the first city, at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Nepal has received some attention from researchers affiliated predominantly with the South Asian Studies Division of its School of Internationa] Studies (SIS). The precursor to SIS was the Indian School of International Studies in New Delhi, where some of the most insightful works related to Nepal was done by the first generation of scholars of post-Independence India. Anirudha Gupta´s Politics in Nepal (1964) and Kanchanmoy Mojumdar´s fine work on the diplomatic history of India and Nepal (1962) were first completed as dissertations there. Subsequently, about 40 MPhil and PhD dissertations have been completed from JNU on subjects related to Nepal, mostly from within SIS. International relations and diplomatic history (India-Nepal, Nepal-China), and research on the politics of Nepal since the late-Rana era through the perspectives of political science and political history have dominated the themes selected for study by Indian scholars. It is worth noting that given JNU´s prominence in various other social science disciplines, the number of studies on Nepal completed in programmes other than those of SIS is negligible. While SIS-generated research has generally supported Indian political interests in Nepal, hardly anything has been done to examine Nepal from other social science disciplinary perspectives.
In Jaipur, Nepal has been studied by researchers affiliated with the South Asia Studies Centre of the University of Rajasthan. Articles on Nepal by various faculty members of the Centre and others have occasionally appeared in its journal, South Asian Studies. And from Banaras Hindu University´s Centre for the Study of Nepal (CSN), established in 1976, several papers on Nepal have been published as part of an Occasional Paper Series. An irregular journal, the Indian ]ournal of Nepalese Studies has also been appearing since 1987 from CSN. Since 1983, about 25 PhDs have been completed by researchers associated with the Centre. The research work that has emerged from Jaipur and Banaras on Nepal is no different in its topical foci from that produced at JNU´s SIS. 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 only a few key Nepali personalities as regular informants mean that most Indian scholarship on Nepal tends to be confined to a narrow band within what is possible in social science research. The linkages between this scholarship and Indian political interests in Nepal are obvious, and Indian scholars have been seen to be far less free when it comes to establishing positions that are independent of South Block.
These facts have several implications for the argument being made here. Firstly, due to their narrow interests, Indian scholars on Nepal have very little sense of the substantial amount of social science writings (especially anthropology) that is available on Nepal. Secondly, they exhibit no knowledge of writings available in the languages of Nepal. These and relevant Nepali journals are not available even in the best libraries in Delhi. Thirdly, Indian scholars who have specialised in South Asian history tend to show embarrassing levels of understanding of Nepali history even within otherwise fine pieces of work. Fourthly, since there are very few institutional incentives for Indians to study Nepal in innovative ways, competent young researchers are advised to “move on” to other areas if they wish to have a viable career. Within this scenario, Indian scholarship on Nepal reproduces its own 1960s-70s models of Nepal but at a competence level that does not match the work of the first generation of Indian scholars like Gupta or Mojumdar. Even a quick reading of works like Nepal in Transition (1997), edited by M.D. Dharamdasani, director of Banaras Hindu University´s CSN, should prove this point. At a time when Indian scholarship in history, cultural studies, economics and sociology is drawing worldwide attention for its quality, it is depressing to read most Indian works on Nepal.
English alone won´t do
Going back to scholarly exchanges at the regional level, there is one other issue to be considered: the language of research. We need to be able to use more than just English as our contact language if good regional scholarship is to flourish. English as a language of discovery has serious limitations that at least one recent major study of non-official dialogues in South Asia failed to recognise. Having access only to English language media or scholarship on any part of South Asia is inadequate for getting an authentic sense about those places. The self-colonisation that is perpetuated by the prestige value accorded to publications in English as opposed to publications in so-called “vernaculars” is a sad fact of “post-colonial” South Asia.
Also, publication in English raises questions of who is doing the analysis and who is being addressed and why, within any given South Asian country. The answer to these questions are, mostly though not exclusively, the elites. It has to be added that this kind of scholarship, oriented to regional elites and their Euro-American counterparts, is not even ab initio serious about intra-South Asia dialogues. As English writings are manifestly not oriented toward the bulk of population in one´s own country or other South Asian countries, we might ask what about scholarship for “the people”? South Asian academic initiatives, if serious about proclaimed goals, would reasonably include massive translation projects across South Asian languages. This means we need an army of capable translators who can breach the scholarly worlds constructed in various South Asian languages and who are institutionally supported to do this work.
If official or non-official SAARC initiatives in the academia are to become more than just junketeering, all the countries need to begin their work at their respective in-country research universities or centres. And if the necessary financial and creative resources were to be invested to create the possibilities for doing the kind of research suggested in this analysis now, SAARC-level academic exchanges, one can hope, can begin to assume significant meanings only by the second decade of the 21st century. But without such investments in-country, there is very little reason to be optimistic about the SAARC process in academia in any track – one, two, or three.
In analysing the inter-country scholarship in South Asia, Pratyoush Onta homes in on the academic weaknesses in the Indo-Nepal sphere. It is clear that a similar exercise needs to be carried out with regard to scholarship in each country of South Asia about every other regional country. Given India’s size and importance, however, a logical beginning to the exercise would be to study the state of scholarship in each of the South Asian countries about India, and vice versa. Over the course of 1998, Himal will proceed to carry out this exercise through these columns.