As Director of the Australia India Institute I’d like to write a regular feature – giving you a peep behind the scenes of what’s happening in our Institute.
Sitting on my desk in our Barry Street offices is a copy of the excellent journal South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, which profiles the huge contribution to South Asian Studies in Australia made by the late Anthony Low. The section of the journal devoted to Low’s memory contains some fascinating insights provided by – among others – Dipesh Chakrabarty and Robin Jeffrey.
Not only is the collection a testament to the remarkable life of a distinguished scholar, it provides an object lesson in how persistence, passion and intellectual community building can have lasting effects. Low comes across as a man deeply committed both to place and to people. It’s a wonderful read.
If studying India in the early 1970s was important, as Low argued so eloquently all those years ago when based at the Australian National University, it is scarcely less so in 2016.
India is the world’s fastest growing major economy. It is experiencing a social revolution as increasing numbers of people acquire education, new technology, and come to embrace notions of citizenship. And, at the same time, profound economic and environmental crises are unfolding in the subcontinent. Even as I write, the BBC and The Hindu are carrying reports of 330 million people suffering from severe drought and water shortages and of terrifying forest fires in Uttarakhand due to El Niño.
The challenge of ensuring that Australian students are aware of these developments – and are ‘India literate’ in some broader sense – is as pressing in the mid 2010s as it was for Low in the early 70s. Currently, two out of the 40 universities in Australia teach Hindi; 33 teach Mandarin. Beyond the problem of language-learning opportunities, Australia urgently requires a world-class centre for the study of contemporary India, including scholars and students working on economy, politics, culture, society, and the environment. The building blocks are there – we have some world class scholars on India in Australia and great public interest – but there needs to be a concerted and organised institutional push to make it happen.
But it is not just a question of encouraging research and engagement in general. We need to keep thinking about how to do academic work differently so our scholarship is broad, relevant, and policy friendly. We need to think about the overall contribution scholars of India might make to Australian and Indian public life.
One of Low’s complaints in an interview with Dipesh Chakrabarty held in 2008 was that South Asian Studies was becoming too fragmented, “There seems to be a lack of people who are trying to say something with a wider resonance”.
How could the Aii respond to the challenge of doing engaged research on India and of having that wider resonance? One move would be to identify overall themes that might guide the Institute’s involvement with India. We’ve been trying to think about this carefully. Over the next two years, we anticipate developing research, teaching and engagement on four sets of topics at the Aii: education, youth and skills; health and technology, cities, infrastructure and sustainability; and governance, security and justice. This list is not exhaustive, but it gives a sense of our direction.
Another response might be to build intellectual capacity. I am thrilled that Professor Haripriya Rangan, whose research covers environmentalism in India and the political ecology of the Indian Ocean region, joined us at the beginning of last month. We also have three new graduate students who have made our Melbourne office their home: Andrew Deuchar, Souresh Roy, and Viresh Patel. The Aii in Delhi is involved in a wide range of important initiatives in terms of capacity building.
Equally exciting are the ten early career post-doctoral research positions we are currently advertising. These ten scholars will form a ‘New Generation Network’ of India-focused scholars who will be based at the University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales, La Trobe University, Deakin University and Queensland University of Technology. This New Generation Network will collaborate in conducting policy-relevant research on contemporary India from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. This network will be a game changer in terms of what the Aii can achieve, from a scholarly perspective and in terms of policy engagement – and across Australia rather than simply in Victoria. I eagerly anticipate the workshops, briefing papers, and exciting joint Australia-India ventures that these early career researchers will facilitate.
I hope Anthony Low would approve.