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Trading Freely in Ideas
THIS past September, I had the delightful experience of participating in a conference on the Indian economy at the University of Michigan’s William Davidson Institute. The conference brought home the realisation that after declining for over two decades scholarship on India was once again beginning to gather momentum in the United States. Scholars from such distinguished universities as Harvard, MIT, Michigan and Carnegie Mellon came to present their ongoing research on India.
Study of India by foreign scholars is, of course, nothing new. In his monumental work, Discovery of India, late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru offers a fascinating account of the two-way exchange of scholars that took place between India and China throughout the first millennium. Following the missionaries of emperor Ashoka, who blazed the trail in third century BC, thousands of Indian and Chinese scholars crossed the Gobi desert to reach one another for scholarly exchanges. It is said that in sixth century AD, there were three thousand Buddhist monks and ten thousand Indian families living in the Lo Yang province of China alone.
Among many Chinese scholars who visited India was Hsuan Tsang. He came to India in the seventh century during the reign of Harshavardhana and was warmly welcomed everywhere he went. He spent many years at the great Nalanda University, taking the degree of master of law and eventually becoming its vice-principal. His book, Si-Yu-Ki or the Record of the Western Kingdom (meaning India) gives the most valuable account of the Indian education system at the time.
Subsequently, during eighteenth century onward, European scholars took the centre stage and made pioneering contributions to the understanding of Indian history, culture and society. They put together the grammar of Sanskrit in Latin, translated ancient Indian scriptures into French and English and played a key role in the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation. At one extreme Max Mueller, after whom we have named a beautiful building, the Max Mueller Bhavan, and an important avenue, the Max Mueller Marg, produced the classic translations of the Rig Veda and at the other, Sir Richard Burton brought to the world’s attention Vatsayayana’s Kama Sutra.
Closer to our times, during 1950s and 1960s, India became the darling of US scholars. Attracted by its future importance, strong intellectual tradition, diversity and above all openness and hospitality towards outsiders, US scholars of history, culture, sociology and economics flocked to India. In the area of economics, particularly development economics, study of India quickly acquired central importance. In turn, India extended warm welcome to visiting economists with the important ones invariably getting an audience with Prime Minister Nehru.
Sadly, the Cold-War era politics placed India on the side of the Soviet Union and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi essentially shut the door to foreign scholars. Visas for them, especially Americans, became scarce and their research projects came under heavy official scrutiny. India’s progressive movement towards autarky in trade also brought with it a rapid movement towards autarky in ideas.
The impact of these events on scholarship on India in the US was swift. Even as early as 1974 when I first arrived there, interest in India was declining along a steep curve. The large premium on Ph D theses on India that had existed in the 1950s and early 1960s rapidly turned into a large discount. Not surprisingly, my generation and those that followed produced few distinguished scholars on India in the United States.
It is against this background that the conference at the University of Michigan was a pleasant surprise. The end of the Cold War, the embrace of liberal trade policies by India and renewed promise of its economy have combined to produce an unexpected benefit by re-igniting scholarly interest in India in the US. And young scholars of Indian origin, who were represented disproportionately at the Michigan conference, are among those leading the charge. This was not unlike the Indian scholars in ancient China who not only promoted scholarship on India in that country but also sent their disciples to India to gain the first-hand experience.
Benefits to India from reinforcing this turn in the events are enormous. Unlike India, scholars in the US exert major influence on policies. Not only do top policy makers frequently consult them, they themselves are often appointed to important policy-making positions. They also influence the decisions of businessmen on where to invest and which markets to enter as exporters and importers.
Therefore, our persistence in obstructing foreign scholars and scholarship in India is unfortunate. We continue to subject all research projects by foreign scholars to an elaborate approval process involving one or more ministries. The process is opaque so that sometimes projects are rejected for entirely arbitrary reasons while at other times their approval is held up indefinitely.
Recently, in January 2001, the government went a step further by requiring Indian universities to seek prior permission from the home ministry even for holding international seminars if (i) the subject matter of the conference is political, semi-political, communal or religious, or is related to human rights; (ii) it is to be held in areas covered under protected/restricted or inner-line regime; or (iii) it includes participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Indian scholars and journalists have protested these regulations but to no avail.
Restrictions such as these are a pox on the face of Indian democracy; they are also against our national interest. What harm can possibly come from the analysis of data and information that are in the public domain in the first place? It is ironic that we should be less open to foreign scholarship under an otherwise well functioning democracy than we were under authoritative regimes for more than two millennia.
It is time we did a thorough reform of the regulations facing foreign scholars and capitalised on the newly kindled interest in India among foreign scholars. In areas that are not related directly to national security, all regulations must be lifted. A long positive list of subjects not requiring any scrutiny for scholarly research should be adopted. Or more desirably, scrutiny should be limited to a short negative list of subjects.