The economic and strategic relevance of South Asia has enormously grown in recent years. While India’s economic story and South Asia’s struggle with terror are often noted, there is a great deal more to the region, which is of intellectual relevance.
Consider some of the “big” questions of politics, political economy and security, on which the South Asian region in general, and India in particular, offer engaging perspectives:
(1) Historically speaking, universal franchise democracy came to the West after the industrial revolution had been completed. In India, universal franchise was born at a time when the country was overwhelmingly agrarian and manufacturing constituted a mere 2–3% of GDP. What can we surmise about the simultaneous pursuit of economic transformation and democratic deepening from India’s experience? India-China comparisons are directly relevant here. More generally, as Africa and other Asian countries contemplate economic future, is democracy to be viewed as a political framework within which economic development ought to be pursued?
(2) Historically, manufacturing has always led an economic revolution. It is as true of Europe and the US as of East Asia. In India, high-tech services, primarily export-based, have led the boom, and are now wrestling with an international economic downturn. What are the larger lessons of a services-led economic transformation?
(3) India’s democracy has functioned amidst one of the most hierarchical social orders the world has witnessed: viz., caste system. Has the equality principle of democracy undermined the caste system, or have caste inequalities changed the script of Indian democracy, forcing it to differ significantly from the Western democratic experience?
(4) Serious regional disparities mark virtually the entire region. In India, compared to the northern and eastern states, the southern and western states have not only boomed economically, but their human development performance has been markedly superior. In Pakistan, Punjab continues to be far ahead of the other regions. How does one explain such variations? Are there larger social science theories at stake? Can newer theories be developed?
(5) The shadow of security over politics and economics is now dark and deep. Why has terrorism taken such roots in Pakistan? What is it about the polity or society of Pakistan that has provided a home to terrorism? Given how terrorism works, can it spread to India in a significant way?
(6) The security situation in Afghanistan is now the center of international attention. How does one understand the security problems of Afghanistan? Why is establishing order such a monumental task in Afghanistan and also a tall task in Pakistan?
(7) Security has a so-called softer side. Human rights of some minority groups have been compromised for the sake of “nation-building” all over the region. This is true even in India, which has functioned as a democracy for over six decades. With far greater intensity, the same issues crop up in Sri Lanka, once the most vigorous democracy in the developing world. Why have South Asian democracies found it hard to develop more robust human rights regimes? Is it a South Asian problem, or a more generic problem of democracies faced with insurgencies?
(8) In a related vein, raging debates over the rule of law have taken place all over South Asia. In India, the debate has also covered the role of public interest litigation. Why have South Asian societies struggled so hard to establish a reliable legal regime? Is it simply a function of low incomes and unstable security environments? Or, do cultural and sociological norms seriously clash with the rule of law? Do we have theories that tell us how rule of law got institutionalized in the richer countries? Can those theories be used for understanding South Asia?
(9) South Asia as a region has been one of the original homes of the NGO movement in the world. Some of the world’s most respected non-governmental organizations have been working in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. What can we learn about what kinds of NGOs succeed and what types fail? Is the learning region-specific, or is it portable?
(10) India’s democratic longevity has coexisted with substantial party fractionalization. Over the last twenty years, Delhi has been ruled by coalition governments. Such coalitions have normally marked polities that have proportional representation, not first-past-the-post systems, which tend to produce fewer parties in power. How do we understand India’s party fractionalization?
The list above is not exhaustive, but these are some of the issues that this annual seminar series, concentrating on contemporary South Asian politics and political economy, will investigate. Some sessions of the seminar will be entirely academic, but other sessions will conceptualized as a Habermasian public sphere, where academics alone do not monopolize discourse. Rather, public figures — from politics, business, journalism, security and NGO sector– and academic researchers and students will engage in a sustained conversation. Knowledge, inevitably, has many facets.
This seminar is a joint effort of, and is funded by, four institutions of the Boston-Providence area: the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia atWatson Institute at Brown, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the South Asia Institute both at Harvard and the MIT Center for International Studies. It will be co-directed by faculty working on different aspects of South Asian politics and political economy in each of these universities. The location of the seminar will alternate between Brown, Harvard and MIT. A detailed program for the series can be found below.
(University of Oxford)
Friday, September 24, 2021, 12:00 PM, Via Zoom
Dr. Sumitra Badrinathan is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Oxford. In May 2021, she received a PhD in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include studying misinformation, media effects and political behavior, with a regional focus on India. Sumitra’s dissertation evaluates the effectiveness of interventions to combat political misinformation in India and the power of partisanship and motivated reasoning to affect information processing. To shed light on these questions, her research has focused on techniques to fight fake news on WhatsApp and digital literacy trainings to decrease vulnerability to misinformation.
Her work has appeared in academic journals such as the American Political Science Review well as popular press such as The Washington Post. Methodologically, Sumitra uses experimental and survey methods to study the relationship between newer forms of media like WhatsApp and their effect on trust in news, polarization, political participation, and quality of democracy. Originally from Mumbai, India, Sumitra holds an M.A. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
Friday, October 29, 2021, 10:00AM, Via Zoom
Vijay Gokhale is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie India. Mr. Gokhale retired from the Indian Foreign Service in January 2020 after a diplomatic career that spanned thirty-nine years. From January 2018 to January 2020, he served as the foreign secretary of India.
Shivshankar Menon is a Distinguished Fellow at CSEP and a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University. His long career in public service spans diplomacy, national security, atomic energy, disarmament policy, and India’s relations with its neighbours and major global powers. Menon served as national security advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from January 2010 to May 2014. He currently serves as chairman of the advisory board of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi. He was also a Distinguished Fellow with Brookings India. He is the author of “Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy” published by the Brookings Press and Penguin Random House in 2016. His new book, “India and Asian Geopolitics; The Past, Present” is likely to be out in 2021.
Kanti Prasad Bajpai is a Professor of Asian Studies at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation.Bajpai is an expert on a range of policy issues, including international relations theory, international security, regional cooperation in South Asia, and Indian security and foreign policy.
Vipin Narang is the Frank Stanton Professor of Nuclear Security and Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
(Jawaharlal Nehru University)
Friday, November 19, 2021, 11:00 AM, Via Zoom
Harish Naraindas is professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and honorary professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University. He was adjunct faculty at the University of Iowa (2004-19); joint-appointments professor of the Cluster of Excellence, University of Heidelberg (2008-12); visiting professor at the department of sociology, University of Freiburg (2009); and DAAD visiting professor at the department of anthropology, University of Heidelberg (2017).
He works on the history and sociology of science and medicine and has published on a range of topics, including an epistemological history of tropical medicine, a comparative history of smallpox from the 18th to the 20th century, on the creolisation of contemporary Ayurveda, on spa medicine in Germany, on pregnancy and childbirth within the context of competing medical epistemes, and recently on how anthropology attempts to explain the non-human. He is currently working on AyurGenomics and P4 medicine; past-life aetiologies and therapeutic trance in German psychosomatic medicine; a multi-sited study of perinatal loss and bereavement in the Anglophone world; and on the pedagogy and practice of obstetrics in India.
Discussant: Prerna Singh, Brown University
Friday, December 3, 2021, 12:00 PM, Via Zoom