The Case For the Study of South Asia

The study of South Asia—home to 1.6 billion people, some of the globe’s earliest advanced civilizations, followers of four of the world’s largest religions, two nuclear powers, and one of the fastest growing economies today—is no longer a special-interest issue. Rather, study of the region has become absolutely essential to any curriculum that seeks to make global citizens of its students. However, despite claims by administrators that Harvard is committed to developing South Asian Studies, we have yet to see the administration devote resources to this area of study.

A student wishing to study South Asia at Harvard today has two primary resources: The Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and the South Asia Initiative. The Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, however, lacks sufficient faculty resources and has been largely focused upon language study and classical traditions, both of which are essential but insufficient for a well-rounded South Asia program. Despite the availability of a secondary concentration in South Asian Studies and a South Asian Studies track within Sanksrit and Indian Studies, the fact remains that only six undergraduate non-language courses on South Asia are offered this semester. That courses that spend only a few days on South Asia are accepted for concentration and certificate credit is yet another sign of the weakness in Harvard’s course offerings on the region.

Meanwhile, the South Asia Initiative (SAI), a faculty consortium founded in 1999 to provide a forum for South Asian scholars across disciplines, does not have the power to appoint faculty or grant degrees. Though SAI has begun to offer grants for study in South Asia, it was only able to fund less than 50 percent of summer grant proposals last year; this despite former President Lawrence H. Summers’ statement that his favorite trip of 2006 was to India: “Every American should visit the country that may be our most important ally two decades from now.”

Additionally, Harvard has yet to establish a study abroad program anywhere in the region, though such programs exist in Africa, Europe, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, and East Asia. Though SAI’s seminar series and special events have attracted prominent academics, politicians, and artists from the region, courses and opportunities for research abroad are the only ways in which undergraduate students can develop a sustained interest and deeper knowledge of the region. In these two areas, South Asian studies at Harvard has failed to meet undergraduate needs.

It is simply unacceptable that students at Harvard should lack academic opportunities of any sort, particularly those necessary to study a region of increasing global importance. The South Asian Studies Initiative (SASI), a student-led coalition, has exhaustively documented student interest in and dissatisfaction with South Asian Studies; in 2005, SASI undertook a comprehensive survey in which 126 students from a variety of concentrations and backgrounds participated. The survey showed that academic interest in South Asia, particularly from undergraduates, was on the rise, while Harvard resources were inadequate not only in fulfilling students’ demand but also in comparison to our peer institutions and other area studies programs. Fewer than 12 percent of students initially interested in pursuing a concentration in South Asian Studies actually followed through; many cited the lack of course offerings and adequate funding as barriers. Only 20 out of 47 students who had initially considered writing a thesis on South Asia remained likely to do so, while a mere three out of 59 students followed through with plans to study abroad.

Despite extensive coverage in the student press, as well as the unanimous endorsement of the Undergraduate Council in November of 2005, the SASI survey and subsequent survey have gone largely ignored. Most of the bill’s recommendations, including increased faculty searches and appointments, as well as student representation in the Sanskrit department, SAI, and Standing Committee for South Asian Studies, remain unfulfilled. Most troubling, however, has been the administration’s failure to provide students with a concrete, time-based action plan for developing South Asian Studies at Harvard.

At a time when Harvard is reevaluating its academic and curricular goals, the administration ought to reassert its commitment to developing South Asian Studies at Harvard. As students, we have done everything in our power to provide the university with extensive data on the current state of South Asian Studies at Harvard and at peer institutions; with statistics and recommendations illustrating undergraduate student desires; and with the endorsement of the larger student community. The onus now lies on the administration to implement these much-needed changes. In the words of former president Summers, “There is an enormous need for us to enhance our understanding of contemporary South Asia, and the development of our study of the region will be a major priority in the years ahead.” As the world’s premier university, Harvard would do well to remember this.



Vinita Andrapalliyal ’09 is co-chair of the South Asian Studies Initiative. Shreya Vora ’06 was chair of the South Asian Studies Initiative from 2003 to 2006.