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Southeast Asian Studies in the Indian University System

Area Studies has been defined by the International Social Science Bulletin “as a comprehensive study of a given region from several points of view with the object of determining its role in international life”.  Teaching and research in International Relations and Area Studies began in India in a systematic way in October 1955, when the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) started the Indian School of International Studies (ISIS). Simultaneously, on the initiative taken by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Delhi University started a Department of African Studies. The ISIS (predecessor to the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University) is a testimony to the academic vision and pioneering zeal of Pandit Hridayanath Kunzru, Prof. A. Appadorai and Prof. MS Rajan. To quote Tagore’s picturesque phrase like the “banyan tree” the alumni of the ISIS branched off to different Universities and initiated teaching and research programmes in International Relations and Area Studies. Facilities for academic training and research in Area Studies are today available in nearly 30 Universities. Despite limited resources and inadequate support from the University Grants Commission and the State Governments, few Centres are doing fairly good work, some others, at the same time, are languishing for want of proper leadership and dearth of qualified staff.

Though the ISIS (at first an autonomous unit of the Delhi University and later a deemed University) started in October 1955, the Area Studies Programme came under the purview of the University Grants Commission only in the late 1960’s. The objectives of the programme, as envisaged by the UGC, were three fold: 1) To train a body of scholars for specialized studies on the problems and culture of the region; 2) To develop inter-disciplinary research and 3) To develop teaching and research in social sciences disciplines introducing a comparative and inter-disciplinary dimension. The Siva Rao Committee, appointed earlier and on whose recommendations the Area Studies programmes were started had emphasized two other points, namely 1) an essential feature of the Area Studies Programme should be the study of the languages of the area concerned and 2) Priority should be given to regions in which India has vital stakes namely South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia and East Asia.

As far as Southeast Asian Studies is concerned, today facilities for teaching and research in this area is available in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the Centre for Southeast and Pacific Studies in Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati. Southeast Asian Studies is partly covered in the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies in Madras University (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Maldives) and the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies in Calcutta University (Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand). The Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University has Southeast Asia as a major focus of teaching and research. What is more, Southeast Asian history is an integral part of the teaching curriculum both at the under-graduate and post-graduate levels in many Universities.

The educational system in India is modeled after the educational system in England and the United States and the imitation of the West in the development of Area Studies programme has done considerable harm to our thought processes. I recall studying a paper on the History of Far East as a post graduate student in Bombay University many years ago. The paper covered history of China, Japan and Korea. How did China, our northern and northeast neighbour, became Far East was a riddle I was not able to understand at that time. Later I realized that in the British Universities China came under Far East and we in India blindly followed the British model.

It is necessary to remind ourselves that the concept of “area” – South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia and East Asia – which gained currency after the Second World War, was an offshoot of our intellectual dependence on the Western scholarship. In fact the Cold War and the colonial legacies have done incalculable harm to Indian scholarship and thought processes. To illustrate, despite our great maritime heritage, few people in India are conscious of the fact that the island of Pu Breush, located in the northwest of Sumatra, is only 92 nautical miles away from India Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Tirupati. Similarly Phuket in Thailand is only 273 nautical miles away from Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai.

The United States was the first to realize that knowledge is power. The American Universities recognized the salience between scholarship and foreign policy. It is well known that the Area Studies Programme, initiated during the height of the Cold War, were the creation of the national security state. These programmes were structured and financed and their research agendas and methodologies set by the state/intelligence/ foundation nexus. Their research agendas were aped by Universities in the developing countries. The Indian Universities blindly accepted the American terms of reference, especially those relating to the division of the world into different areas. The artificial division between South Asia and Southeast Asia is a clear illustration of our intellectual dependence on the West.

The term Southeast Asia came into vogue after the Second World War as a defence connotation. The countries, South of the Tropic of Cancer, were placed under Southeast Asia Command led by Lord Mountbatten. Its headquarters was located in Colombo and its objective was to liberate the colonial possessions of Britain, Holland, France and the United States that came under Japanese Occupation. The term caught on and gained currency after the Second World War. Western scholars also used the term South Asia in a similar fashion. According to the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, the term South Asia which covers the countries of India, Pakistan, Ceylon and some smaller and semi-autonomous states in the Himalayas, had come into use after the partition of India in 1947. Academic concentration on India to the exclusion of smaller countries is evident if one peruses the library collections in leading Universities. The 18th Edition of Dewey Decimal Classification, which is commonly used in leading research libraries throughout the world, uses the term South Asia for India. Countries like Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are classified under the same number. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, South Asia programmes were started in an organized way in the United States. Invented by Pentagon and financed by the defence establishment in the post-Sputnik cold war era, the United States, having been overtaken in the race of outer space, did not want to lag behind in academic scholarship. One of the earliest publications was South Asia: An Introductory Bibliography, edited by Maureen L P Patterson and Ronald B Inden. Published by the syllabus section of the University of Chicago, the book has a sub title, Introduction to the Civilization of India, which brings out the Indo-centric nature of the programme. Prof. Harish Trivedi of the Delhi University, in an article, has written that Prof. Ronald Inden told him that we are the “Chicago Bulls of South Asia”.

India has land and maritime boundaries with Myanmar and maritime boundaries with Thailand and Indonesia. These countries are not only our next door neighbours but Indian political ideas, institutions, religion, art and language have in the past profoundly influenced them. Indianised kingdoms like Funan, Sri Kshetra, Pagan, Khemer, Sri Vijaya, Lankasuka, Sailendra and Majapahit, the familiar Indo-Sanskritic vocabulary in the Thai language and Bahasa Indonesia, architectural monuments like Angkor, Pagan, Borobudur and Lara Djonggrang, literary masterpieces like Ramkein, Amaramala, Arjuna Vivaha and Bharata Yudhha; the Wajang Kulit based on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata themes; the living Indian traditions in the Island of Bali – all these bear testimony to the courage and zeal of Indian princes, priests, poets, merchants and artisans and the ingratiating and assimilable qualities of the people of Southeast Asian countries.

It is necessary to highlight the fact historians like KM Panikkar, Prof. RC Majumdar and Prof Nilakanta Shastri used the term Southeast Asia to cover both present day South Asia and Southeast Asia. By accepting the American concept that Southeast Asia – countries stretching from Myanmar to the Philippines – is a different entity, we intellectually distanced ourselves from these countries. Another fall out was that Southeast Asian Studies never received adequate encouragement from the University Grants Commission and other funding agencies.

The fascinating encounter that has taken place among Indian, Chinese and indigenous influences in Southeast Asia deserves greater attention from scholarly community.  The general tendency among Indian scholars to look at Southeast Asia as “Greater India” does grave injustice to the local genius; what is more, Southeast Asian scholars are very sensitive to this patronizing attitude. Why did the Indian historians refer to Southeast Asia as Greater India? Their writings took place during the freedom movement; they resented writings of Western scholars as exemplified by Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, which Gandhiji characterized as a “drainage report”. When the strong cultural bonds between India and Southeast Asian countries became known and polularised by “Greater India Society’ and after visits of Indian leaders to the region like Rabindranath Tagore and Kalidas Nag, the Indian scholars, perhaps with pardonable exaggeration, referred to the process cultural interaction as “Hindu colonization”. It was also an illustration of India standing up to the West. Today there is considerable rethinking on the subject among Indian scholars. As Prof. Arun Das Gupta has convincingly argued, the concept of Greater India, in its older form, is not very useful.  “This does not mean we have to reject the unquestionable evidence of tremendous Indian influence in Southeast Asia. I suggest that instead of looking at Southeast Asian culture as an extension of Indian culture, we should treat the Southeast Asian region as a confluence area”.  Prof. Farish A Noor, the Malaysian scholar, echoes the same sentiments when he wrote, “In my own private capacity as a political historian I have tried to do precisely that: To reconnect the manifold stream of history that have jointly contributed to the creation of this complex plural society of ours, where a myriad of historical continuities existed and continue to reside side by side until now”.

I am left with mixed feelings. When I think of the enormous efforts that have gone to the study of the cultural evolution of Southeast Asian societies, I am, at the same time, conscious of the fact  that much more intense study remains to be done. Is the glass half empty or half full? The Indian scholars committed to Southeast Asian Studies should ponder over what Prof. Van Leur wrote few years ago about Dutch historiography, “The writing of real history has yet to begin”.

I would also like to highlight the significance of in–depth studies of neighbouring countries in the specific Indian context. Let me begin by stating something which is obvious. India shares maritime boundaries with seven countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives and land boundaries with Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. And India’s neighbourhood policy has its immediate fallout on the contiguous Indian states. Thus the vagaries of India-Pakistan relations have their fallout on Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Gujarat and Rajasthan; the twists and turns in India-Nepal relations affects the contiguous Indian states; India-Bangladesh relations and India-Myanmar relations have their repercussions on neighbouring Indian states. The welfare of thousands of Malayalees eking out their living in the Gulf countries is a matter of great concern for Kerala. We, in Tamil Nadu, are naturally concerned with India’s policy towards Southeast Asian countries and towards our immediate southern neighbour Sri Lanka. The ideal situation that we should strive to create is for the affected Indian States to make benign inputs into the making of India’s neighbourhood policy. This pre-supposes the functioning of dynamic and vibrant Area Studies departments in the universities in concerned states and also effective think tanks outside the University system, with the avowed objective of analyzing various problems in depth and sensitise the general public and the policy planners about various policy options.

I was associated with the Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies in the University of Madras from its inception in 1977 to 2000, initially as the founding Director and later as Senior Professor. I was also closely associated with the Advisory Committee on Area Studies of the University Grants Commission for many years and was a member of the UGC evaluation teams to several Universities. I am giving below the opportunities and challenges facing the Area Studies Departments, especially with reference to the development of Southeast Asian Studies programmes in Indian Universities.

First is to keep in mind the broad contours of the Indian University system. According to the Indian Constitution higher education is a concurrent subject and the both the Central and State governments have their assigned roles. The Central Government is responsible for major policy decisions relating to higher education. The State Governments are responsible for starting State Universities. As far as the Area Studies programme is concerned the University Grants Commission was eager to broad base the programme and introduce it in major Universities. And, as stated earlier, there are nearly 30 Universities which have Area Studies programmes now. Another significant point should be highlighted. In India there are three types of Universities, the Central Universities, the State Universities and the Deemed Universities. The funding for the Central Universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, University of Hyderabad, Pondicherry University, Aligarh Muslim University and Visvabharati comes from the University Grants Commission.  In terms of financial resources, faculty strength and introducing innovative courses, they are far ahead of the State Universities. Central Universities like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University have also maintained an all India character in terms of recruitment to faculty and students. The overwhelming number of Universities in India, like Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, are state Universities, established and funded by the State governments, though for specialized programmes they get funding from the University Grants Commission, the Department of Science and Technology and other funding organizations. These State Universities, by very nature, are subject to regional pulls and pressures. Then there are deemed Universities like Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa; Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi and Indian Law Institute, New Delhi.

The Area Studies programmes were conceived and encouraged by the University Grants Commission, the UGC sanctions faculty positions and research staff and give their salary for a period of five years. After five years the State Governments are required to take over the financial burden. But the State Governments are reluctant to take over the financial burden and, therefore, many posts sanctioned by the University Grants Commission remain vacant and, after few years, get lapsed. The University Grants Commission sanctioned several teaching and research posts to the University of Madras, but due to the step motherly policy of the Government of Tamil Nadu these posts got lapsed.  The same story applies to several other State Universities. The State Government, because of political pressure, is more interested in developing the regional language departments and introducing regional language as the medium of instruction. They also follow the policy of affirmative action in the recruitment of faculty and admission of students. The UGC has also issued guidelines for effective autonomous functioning of the Area Studies Centres, but in spite of the best efforts of the UGC, the Area Studies Centres continue to remain as the Cinderella children in the State Universities. In some Universities the Area Studies Centres do not have boards of studies, they find it difficult to offer courses for the Masters programmes in disciplinary departments and, what is more, in discipline oriented Social Science and Humanities departments, the multi-disciplinary Area Studies Centres find it difficult to function effectively. Equally troublesome is the question of degrees to be awarded to those who qualify for M Phil and PhD degrees. Should the successful candidates be given M Phil and PhD degrees in Southeast Asian Studies? Those who get their degrees in Southeast Asian Studies find it difficult to get teaching jobs in affiliated colleges and discipline departments.  What is more, in South India the best students are encouraged to go for medicine, engineering and information technology; the social science and humanities departments are able to attract only the second best. To illustrate, in the University of Madras, during this academic year, no student applied for admission to the MA progamme in Sanskrit.

During the initial years, the study of the languages of the region was insisted upon and the research scholars and faculty members used to visit the region regularly for field work. Unfortunately during recent times the language proficiency is not insisted upon and many Area Studies Centres do not have language teachers. In the University of Madras, during the 1970’s there were facilities for the teaching of Sinhalese and Bahasa Malaysia, the UGC also sanctioned two lecturers posts for the teaching of these languages. However, the Government of Tamil Nadu did not take over the financial burden and the posts of language lecturers lapsed. In Sri Venkateshwara University, Tirupati Vietnamese language was compulsory for students both at Masters and M Phil levels, but the SV University also has discontinued language instruction. Even in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University language training is not insisted upon. As a result the scholars write their dissertation, based mainly on English language sources. Students are sent for field work only for a month which is hardly sufficient for an on the spot study of the problem. Equally depressing is the fact that most of the dissertations pertain to foreign policy and international relations and hardly any student takes up topics relating to domestic politics, society and culture. Some countries like Myanmar are becoming increasingly “closed” for research scholars. And countries like Malaysia and Indonesia insist upon prior approval of the topic of dissertation before the students are granted visa for field work.

Despite the inherent limitations mentioned above, those who qualify in Southeast Asian Studies are meaningfully absorbed in the University system, Indian Foreign Service, research organizations, media and government organizations specializing in international economics and international trade. During recent years, a number of such organizations have come up. The more well known among them are the Indian Council of World Affairs, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India International Centre, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, National Maritime Foundation and Observer Research Foundation – all located in New Delhi; the Global India Foundation and the Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies, both located in Kolkata and the Center for Asia Studies and Centre for Security Analysis, both located in Chennai. Some of these organizations are financed by the Government of India, some others get foreign funding and organisations like the Center for Asia Studies function through the munificence of the founding fathers.

In a comparative perspective, the Southeast Asian Studies in India is better placed than South Asian Studies in Southeast Asian countries. But it is no consolation. The fact remains that we in India do not have an institution comparable to the Cornell University in the United States, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore or the Monash University in Australia. As Prof MS Rajan, one of the pioneers of International Relations and Area Studies wrote few years ago, that for a country of more than one billion people, there are hardly one or two specialists on Sri Lanka or Maldives or Myanmar, countries with which we had relations for several centuries “is a sad reflection on the Indian academic community and on the Universities and research institutions”.

It is imperative the Government of India, the University Grants Commission, the Indian Council for Social Science Research, the Indian Council for Historical Research, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the State Governments invest more resources in strengthening Southeast Asian Studies programmes so that these Centres could develop into institutions of academic excellence and also provide the much needed academic inputs into policy making. Given encouragement and training, these Centres could also act as catalysts of academic interaction between Indian scholars and their counterparts in Southeast Asia. Mutual respect and appreciation can be fostered only by educational exchange and cultural co-operation. Senator Fulbright once remarked, “Civilization is what educational exchange programmes are all about. They are concerned in part with increasing man’s knowledge about science and the arts. But they are primarily concerned with man’s understanding of himself and of the national and world societies in which he lives”. The Senator added, “Educational exchange is not merely one of those nice but marginal activities in which we engage in international affairs, but, rather from the standpoint of the future world peace and order, probably the most important and potentially rewarding of our foreign policy activities”.

The concluding part of the essay raises the important question – Has the Centres of Area Studies been able to make benign inputs into the making of India’s foreign policy? This part is subjective and based entirely on my long years of association with the Madras University and presently with the Center for Asia Studies. As mentioned earlier, in the Indian context, the State Governments have also started, more so after the coming into power of coalition governments in New Delhi, playing a role in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy.

Mention has already been made as to how the division of our region into two entities, South Asia and Southeast Asia, has led to our intellectually distancing ourselves from countries like Thailand and Indonesia, our close maritime neighbours.  What is more, the concept of ocean as a unifying force and focus of regional co-operation has not yet been fully grasped. Take Southeast Asia as an example. Except Laos which is landlocked, all others are maritime countries. Singapore is an island state and Indonesia and the Philippines are archipelagic states. Even within ASEAN issues relating to maritime co-operation have not received adequate attention.

Throughout history, sailing was an important means of communication between South India and distant lands. In fact, India was a bridge between the East and the West. Hence the Arab name for the Southwestern coast of India, Ma’abar, the Arabic world for bridge or causeway. We, in India and Indonesia, should redefine the concept of “area” taking into consideration both historical realities and geo-political imperatives. From early 1980’s two Indian scholars, Prof KR Singh from Jawaharlal Nehru University and myself from Madras University, have been advocating the concept of a “Bay of Bengal Community”. In a wider sense, we pointed out that the Bay of Bengal should also include the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Straits, which are only adjuncts of the Bay of Bengal. The underlying idea is not to replace SAARC or ASEAN, but to have an additional organization, which will bring India in close association with its southern and eastern neighbours

Historically all members of the Bay of Bengal Community – India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Sri Lanka – have witnessed dynamic interaction between maritime trade and cultural evolution. What Kenneth McPherson wrote about the Indian Ocean applies with equal validity to the Bay of Bengal.  “The Indian Ocean region is the home of the world’s first urban civilization and the centre of the first sophisticated commercial and maritime activities. The ocean as a highway and source of food and raw materials was a vital force moulding the many societies on its shores long before people maintained written records”.

One out of five people in the world is a part of the Bay of Bengal community. The region is rich in natural and mineral resources. And unlike the South China Sea, where conflicting territorial claims threaten the stability and security of the region, the Bay of Bengal region is relatively an area of tranquility. India has settled its maritime borders with all countries; and, what is more, China and Pakistan, with whom we have difficult relations since independence, are both absent from the area. In short, exploitation of living and non-living maritime resources, development of maritime communications, ship building and ship repair, weather forecasting, prevention of pollution and combating of maritime terrorism – these tasks, which are the exclusive responsibilities of individual countries, can best be accomplished through regional co-operation.

I was extremely happy when BIMSTEC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Co-operation) was formed in 1997. The name was changed to Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation in June 2003.  Despite joint statements issued in the annual summit meetings, the organization has yet to reach the take off stage. For the organization to be viable, it is essential that Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia should also join this grouping, India should take the initiative and open a dialogue with these three countries as to how oceanic co-operation can bring about common good.

The second illustration relates to the narrow and shallow waters of the Palk Bay which divide the State of Tamil Nadu from the northern parts of Sri Lanka. The maritime boundary agreements between India and Sri Lanka which were concluded in 1974 and 1976 not only ceded the island of Kachchatheevu, which was a part of the Zamindari of Raja of Ramnad, but also bartered away the traditional fishing rights of Tamil Nadu fishermen.  The two inter-related issues had been a matter of great concern for the Governments and people of Tamil Nadu. It may be recalled that on one occasion, August 15, 1991, then Chief Minister Jayalalitha called upon the people of the State to take a pledge to retrieve the island. She said the state government was willing to argue the case with the Centre and, “if necessary” prepared to fight on the issue. Since international agreements have a legal sanctity, however unjust it might have been, I suggested two courses of action for the consideration of the Government of Tamil Nadu. The first was to get back the Island of Kachchatheevu and the adjacent islets on “lease in perpetuity” (Tin Bigha agreement in reverse), which would enable the fishermen in Tamil Nadu to enjoy their traditional fishing rights. The second suggestion was to permit licensed Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters up to five nautical miles and, as a quid pro quo, Sri Lankan fishermen should be permitted, on the same terms and conditions, to fish in the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone to catch Tuna.  I am happy that the AIADMK and DMK Governments in Tamil Nadu have accepted these suggestions and have repeatedly written to the Central Government to consider them as the basis of solution to the vexed problem.

Given the historical fact that the Palk Bay was never a barrier between the two countries, but a bridge through which people, ideas and goods moved freely and also taking into consideration the reality that the fishermen throughout the world are no respecters of maritime boundaries, I have, along with R. Swaminathan, former Special Secretary to the Government of India, been pleading that the Palk Bay should not be treated as a contested territory but as a common heritage. We have recommended that a Palk Bay Authority, consisting of the representatives of the two countries in addition to experts in fisheries and marine environment, should be constituted. The Palk Bay Authority can determine the quantum of annual sustainable catch, the type of fishing equipment to be used and equitable fishing days to the fishermen. We should also take immediate steps to enrich the sea through joint research programmes. Such a dynamic initiative alone can lead to a “win win” situation. The objective should be co-operative development and sharing of know how which would lead to enrichment of marine resources and qualitative improvement in the lives of the people. I am happy to state that the fishermen of the two countries are today involved in a dialogue to come to a common understanding about the sharing of the marine resources. In the Asian context, a “solution from below” has greater chances of success than an agreement imposed from above by the two governments.

If regional co-operation is to succeed in our neighbourhood, we must, in letter and spirit, adhere to the concept of what the Javanese call Gotong Rojong (mutual co-operation). There is an Adivasi story which beautifully conveys the idea of regional co-operation. A few years back, a friend of mine visited an Adivasi village in north India, where a team of nuns were running a school for the Adivasi children. The school was celebrating the first anniversary. As part of the celebrations track and field events were being held. For one track event, the nun whistled for the children to get ready-set-and-go. The children ran mustering all their energy. One strong student raced ahead almost winning the race. Thunderous applause of the viewers reverberated. The student who was cheered by every one should have easily won the race and lifted the trophy. But to everybody’s surprise the Adivasi student refused to race ahead. He stopped running and looking back innocently told the curious nun who enquired why he stopped, said, “Sister, all my friends are left behind. Le them come forth. We will run and win the race together”.

This essay is partly based on Author’s earlier writings on the subject.

(The Writer, Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. He is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India.)

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