jump to navigation

India’s rise demands more than just watching Bollywood films September 8, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Maclean, Kama , trackback

Kama Maclean

This article first appeared in The Age on 7 September 2009.

I’ve sat in on a number of speeches about the nature of the Australia-India relationship in the past few years. Invariably, speakers pounce on a mutual love of cricket as the basis for a strong bilateral relationship. However the highly competitive and too often controversial nature of the game is an unstable matrix to build upon – consider India’s 2007-08 tour of Australia.

The problem is that cricketers (and their fans) are not natural diplomats. There are notable exceptions – Brett Lee has attained demigod status in India not as a result of his pace bowling but for his Bollywood appearances, his charity work, and his attempts to learn Hindi.

It was a relief then that the visit of the Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard to India last week showed a positive turn in the relationship. Gillard assured Indian audiences that students coming to Australia will be safe and can be confident that education programs they undertake will be ones of good quality. On Wednesday she launched the Australia India Institute, an initiative led by the University of Melbourne in partnership with UNSW and La Trobe Universities. The Institute promises to revive in Australia a long-standing tradition of intellectual and public engagement with India, which deprived of funding for over a decade has almost collapsed.

I first went to India in 1987, and I was hooked. I wanted to learn more, and I turned to the university sector. In 1987, there was still a rich and broad range of courses on offer in Australian universities. In Melbourne alone, Hindi was taught in three universities: Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe. These programs were supported and enriched by a range of cultural, political historical and economic courses on offer to undergraduates like me, who were fascinated by India’s rich and vibrant culture and its long history. Australian students in the generations before me were taught by some of the world’s greatest minds and specialists on India whose scholarship left and enduring mark.

The Subaltern Studies Collective, a landmark development in historical practice in India – which had important consequences for historiography globally – was formed under the leadership of Ranajit Guha at the ANU, with the critical input of Indians, such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, who made Australia their home.

But a range of developments in the early 1990s served to undermine this tradition. The end of the Cold War led to a decline in emphasis on ‘area studies’, in which many Indian teaching programs found a home. The steady contraction of funding to higher education in the 1990s meant that when esteemed Indianists retired, they were not replaced.

Increasingly scholars completing PhD programs were employed in positions in which their India expertise was tangential to their teaching programs, as entire courses on Indian history, culture and civilisations were replaced with more generic courses on globalisation and world history. But while this was happening, governments failed to see and respond to critical developments in India, and on our own shores. While language and humanities programs were being cut back, India was in the process of liberalising its economy in preparation for closer global engagement with the world.

Australian schools were changing demographically, as a vibrant and highly skilled community of Indians came to settle here and contribute to the highest levels of public life. Hindi has been introduced as a year-12 subject, but students completing it find that there is now only one university in Australia where they can pursue it at the undergraduate level. As Hamish MacDonald noted in his recent Asialink essay, the support to Indian studies in Australia has been ‘woeful’, despite the best efforts and lobbying of scholars across the country.

The Australia India Institute will bring together an array of scholars, teachers and researchers who have expertise on India in a wide range of disciplines and faculties, working collaboratively with many other partners in universities and institutes across Australia. India will increasingly define our world in the next 20 years. With few Indian specialists left in the humanities and social sciences in this country, we urgently need to work together to reinvigorate the study of the subcontinent.

While the Institute promises to make a positive impact through the tertiary sector, as well as engage the community through outreach programs, the government needs to implement policies which involve school students in Indian studies as well. For a start, India must be added to the list of four countries (China, Indonesia, Japan and Korea) eligible to receive funds from the government’s National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP).

Additionally, early drafts of the new National Curriculum simply do not deliver on expectations that Asia literacy will be a part of the educational experience of students growing up in a world in which China and India are rising powers. This is not simply about economics, but speaks to more vital issues such as environmental change and global security. Changing our approach to the study of India is vital if we are to resuscitate a long-standing and important relationship.

Comments

1. Nayantara Pothen - October 22, 2009

Really looking forward to hearing more about this.