SOAS University of London

Message from the Deputy Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute

31 May 2019
Avinash Paliwal

In my first message on this platform, I would like to offer my greetings to all of you and thank you for your support over the years to make SSAI as one the UK and the EU's leading and largest institutes of excellence on South Asia. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit Delhi to witness and participate in the Indian elections, and explore the capital's buzzing think-tank and somewhat grim university circuit. On the elections front, our members have shared important insights on the SSAI blogs covering a broad range of topics from India's state politics to international security.

As for me, I landed in Delhi on the morning of election day and had a rather surreal run. It started with a powerful punch of Hindutva including Modi's "chutzpah" and Sonia Gandhi's "Italian roots" from my cab driver. The day progressed into a two-hour long line at the polling booth where Atish Taseer's article in Time was creating as much a stir as as the fact that one of the local parties in Delhi was registered as the "Anjan Aadmi Party" (Unknown Person Party). By the end of the day, it became clear that Delhiite's oral political activism did not really translate into massive electoral participation. Expect more on this story in a forthcoming - long-ish - blog from me.

Over the course of next ten-days, I visited both early career and experienced scholars from Carnegie India, Observer Research Foundation, Indian Council of World Affairs, Brookings India, Delhi University, and Ashoka University. Despite the (admittedly mild!) strains of government interference in the daily operations of non-Indian think-tanks based in Delhi and the systematic attack on India's higher education sector (since UPA-II), I found much intellectual excitement and many interesting ideas among budding scholars. A solid cohort of thinkers who we must engage with. The welcome they extended to SSAI means that any of you whose planning on visiting Delhi in future and would like to present your work to an academic and policy audience - please let us know.

The last bit among various other (alumni) engagements was my hour-short meeting with Prof. Romila Thapar. A SOAS alumnus who has been called "the mother of Indian history", Prof. Thapar has been in the news lately for challenging the Hindu-right's version of history. She very fondly remembered her years at SOAS, lamented the state of Indian universities today (barring the Azim Premji University in Bangalore, where she thought "she could really come back" after a session with their students and faculty), and heaped praises for the support SOAS library has offered her over the years. I was struck by how curious and clued in she is about institutional dynamics of British universities, and learnt that she hates people who asks for selfies with her (I was excused for my generation's insouciance before she heartily posed for a click). Hopefully, she will be at SOAS soon to deliver a talk.