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Brandeis and India - A Talk with Daniel Terris and Harleen Singh

Brandeis is pursuing a wide variety of projects aimed at connecting the University more closely with India by deepening student, faculty and alumni relationships with the world’s largest democracy. Projects include partnerships with Indian institutions, hosting campus events, and supporting student involvement in social justice efforts. The following question and answer session with Daniel Terris, Vice President for Global Affairs, and Prof. Harleen Singh, Faculty Director of the Initiative and Helaine and Alvin Assistant Professor of Literature, gives a glimpse into the past, present, and future of these efforts.

Q: What is the Brandeis India initiative?

Dan Terris: Brandeis has a lot of strengths in India: a terrific group of alumni, a new South Asian Studies Program with some outstanding faculty, a great group of students from that area, some research interests and connections there.   

And yet, in relation to the importance of India politically, culturally, economically, historically, in relation to the overwhelming importance of India in global affairs, Brandeis is still somewhat underdeveloped in relation to India. We have the opportunity to build on the strengths that we do have to really make a series of first-class relationships that will extend our research and education and teaching mission with regard to the world's largest democracy. The Brandeis India initiative is an opportunity to pull together all of the people:  alumni, faculty, students, friends of the university, who are working on India, working in India, who have been thinking about India, and to try to create a set of activities that will extend Brandeis' connections there for many years to come.

Q: What are we doing now? 

Dan Terris: We now have a small but energetic core group of faculty from literature, from anthropology, from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, from the International Business School, who are working in India and who have begun to pull their resources in order to give Brandeis students a deeper and more coherent sense of the politics and culture of the subcontinent -- with India of course playing a significant role in that. In addition, our students are beginning to find India as a destination for their study and work abroad….  So we have a series of research, social service, and community- engagement activities, some of which involve our students, some of which involve our faculty, and some of which involve our alumni.

Q: Harleen, you are, let's see, small, energetic, and part of the core group in South Asian Studies, right? So would you give us some sense of what this program is now and where it is going?

Harleen Singh:  In recent years, we began to realize that there were courses being offered with a focus on India and South Asia, but there was no cohesive sense or direction…But, there was a core group of students, and there was a demand from students as well as a petition for a program in languages, which seemed to indicate to us that there was a need for a more cohesive program, a way of studying this region. We decided to begin modestly with a South Asian Studies minor. The minor now spans courses in anthropology, in literature, in English, from the Heller School, from sociology as well, and other courses in art history and art, which are cross-listed for the credit.  So students can take courses across a range of different disciplines and get a South Asian Studies minor. 

Q: Are you aiming to develop things that will differentiate South Asian Studies at Brandeis from the programs at other schools?

Harleen: Our focus, for now, is to build this program so we can offer a wider variety of courses to our students.  What I think will differentiate us in the future is actually the partnership with the Office of Global Affairs. Because OGA has really looked at building this program, we're not simply adding more courses, getting more faculty, but actually being able to build bridges with India and South Asia… so that our students can do internships, can work with other people there and can really be engaged with South Asia as a living entity rather than just a subject of study.

Dan: I think the Brandeis India initiative is going to be able to build on Brandeis' strengths in social justice and in sustainable development in a way that's going to set what we do apart from a lot of other places. We're able to build on the Heller school's students and tradition of engagement in community development. We're able to build on those Brandeis alumni who are running NGOs in Mumbai -- for example, our alumnus Devika Mahadevan ’00, who's running an organization called Mobile Creches that's serving women and children who are living on construction sites in Mumbai.

Q: What are the principle activities of the Brandeis India initiative currently?

Dan: Well, the first thing we're trying to do is to build a community, a world-wide community of Brandeis students, alumni, parents, friends who have some kind of relationship to India. Either these friends are from India, they've studied there, they've done research there, they have family there, they do business there. We are trying to build that community, identify who the people are, make contact with them, make sure they know about one another and about the variety of different relationships that Brandeis has with India. So that's a substantial initial step towards being able then to undertake a series of other things which would include developing further opportunities for our students to study and work there.  

We'd like to use that world-wide community to make it easier for students to find the right institutions where they can study and work in the country and be able to build from a relatively small number of around 10 students a year now who are finding their way there formally to doubling, tripling, or quadrupling that number in the years to come.  

We'd also like to use that community to build substantial and meaningful partnerships between Brandeis and Indian institutions that are engaged in research or in community engagement along the lines of our priorities. So we're looking at, for example, a prominent Indian institute that works on energy and environment issues. And looking for ways that our faculty and students can share ideas, information, and work on joint research projects or participate in internships at that important Indian institution.

Q: Last summer, Brandeis offered a set of seminars to visitors from TERI, a leading Indian energy and resources institute. How are you building on that?

Harleen: It was a great moment for us, thinking towards the future in terms of the India initiative, because the students were all mid-level professionals who had worked in the Indian government for a while. They were all Indian civil servants. In the future it would be wonderful to actually have them here at a time when we also could have them interact with our students, because I think that would be beneficial for both. 

Read more: Indian professionals study conflict and conservation during Brandeis visit

Q: Is this something that's under discussion?

Harleen: Yes, it is. We are looking towards more partnership with TERI.

Dan: We'll be meeting with Dr.  R.K. Pachauri, the Director-General of TERI, who shared the Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007, when we return to New Delhi in November. We're going to explore the details of the return of their graduate students in public policy to Brandeis, as well as what other specific initiatives might come out of it.

Q: Harleen, would you describe the South Asian community as it is now on campus?

Harleen: The community at Brandeis is very vibrant. We have a lot of undergraduates, a lot of graduate students, and a very vibrant South Asian Students Association (SASA), which puts on many events around campus and especially an annual event called MELA, which attracts more than 600 people. Always sold out. It’s a cultural program which showcases all of the various non-academic talents of the South Asian community on campus. Many of our students also go back and do internships over the summer in India; they’re a very vibrant community in terms of having relationships both in the U.S. and in India. It’s a “new moment” in India-U.S. relationships where it isn’t simply an immigrant population and a population that’s in India, but really a far more mobile population that looks at home as two places.

Q: In what ways is Brandeis prepared to receive and welcome students from India?

Dan: Brandeis has been welcoming students from India for almost half a century. Those students have been strong contributors to our community while on campus, and have been significant contributors to their society and world society after graduation. 

Some prominent Brandeis alumni from India include Arjun Appadurai ‘70, one of the world’s leading anthropologists and theorists on globalization, who has had an academic career at many of the strongest universities in the U.S. and who also leads an active NGO in Mumbai with a focus on urban issues and community empowerment using the media and local research techniques. Sundar Burra '71 also runs an important NGO in Mumbai called SPARC which focuses on urban issues. Another member of the class of 1970, Tejbir Singh, is the editor of one of India’s leading intellectual journals called Seminar, a monthly publication that focuses on politics and culture. It’s widely read in India and attracts the talents of many of India’s leading writers.

Harleen: Vineeta Singh Rai ’66 also served as a senior civil servant in the Indian government for a long time. She is now a member of the India Planning Commission, which is a national board appointed by the Prime Minister that looks at many of the issues and problems facing India today. This board is looking at the restructuring of government policies, agencies, and institutions. The appointment to this board is a great honor reserved for those leading intellectuals and long-term servants of government. Especially as a woman, her role in overseeing some of the judiciary issues there is really an achievement. She has really reached the upper echelons of government life, and is well known in India as someone who is a respected voice.  

Q: Does the India initiative have anything to do with Brandeis’ Jewish heritage?

Dan: One of the interesting things about India is it’s one of the very few places in the world where there’s been virtually no discrimination against the Jewish people. Two very important historic Jewish communities have lived in India umolested for a long time. So there’s an interesting culture and history of Jewish life in India that is still available for our students to visit and to study; in fact one of our students who studied abroad in Delhi in spring 2008 did a major project on some of these issues. And we’re having events on campus that discuss that history. So there’s an important strand of Jewish life that exists in India that is one piece of the initiative.

There is also some really interesting research to be done on thinking about India’s role in the world, particularly in relation to Israel. After all, India and Israel were born as independent nations at the same historic moment – both emerging out of the British Empire in different ways but with important parallels. Both dealt with issues of partition from the beginning, and struggled with democracy in regions where democracy was not well established. And in recent years India and Israel have established closer diplomatic, political and especially economic ties that make that connection very much alive and important.