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An impressive show

The expanding horizons of South Asian Studies

An impressive show

Until my sojourn to Kathmandu (Jan 4-8, 2018) to take part in INDAS-South Asia/Martin Chautari International Symposium on “Peaceful Development of South Asia”, I knew very little about the academic interests of Japanese academia in South Asian Studies. INDAS is abbreviation of India Area Studies, which is understood as the South Asian Studies in most of the world. It is indicative of the academia’s indifference to this area, which is remorseful to say the least.

Anyhow, this academic initiative was taken in 2010 with an aim “to foster a comprehensive understanding of the dynamism of contemporary India and South Asia and to establish academic perspectives and methodologies that can provide a vision for the future”.

Since the importance of historical studies is given a due emphasis in the entire spectrum of research, therefore I was particularly keen to be a part of that symposium. Japanese academics were convinced that it is indeed impossible to suggest solutions to the actual problems in the real world without having deep insight into their origins and context. That is what makes the input from historians very significant.

Efforts are afoot to construct a consortium of South Asian research centres around the globe. The agenda is to study demographic changes and its impact on cultures and South Asian values.

The INDAS-South Asia project has unequivocal commitment to encourage research that “links historical studies to the contemporary studies”. It will be pertinent to introduce the co-host Martin Chautari, a non-governmental organisation based in Kathmandu.

Martin Chautari began as an informal discussion group in Kathmandu in 1991, allowing development professionals, social activists and academics to meet every two weeks to share insights and experiences related to Nepal’s development and society. The founders of this discussion group included the Nepali power engineer Bikas Pandey, the Norwegian engineer Odd Hoftun and the Norwegian academic Martin Hoftun. In 1995, the name ‘Martin Chautari’ was adopted in memory of Martin Hoftun, who was tragically killed in an airplane accident in 1992. However, in 2002, Chautari was registered as a separate non-government organisation in Kathmandu, Nepal. Its offices are currently located in Thapathali, Kathmandu.

Reverting to our original theme, Japan has six INDAS-South Asia research centres in as many universities and institutions. The South Asia research centres in the six universities have been assigned a particular ‘research topic’, and it is supposed to focus its research endeavours to produce research on that topic. Kyoto University serves as the central hub and, in that capacity, it organises and coordinates the ‘collaborative research activities of the INDAS-South Asia network’.

Prof. Tatsuro Fujikura is the Director of The Center of South Asian Studies, University of Kyoto. As the central hub, Kyoto University hosted that symposium with ‘Environment and Politics in South Asia’ as its research topic. In order to carry out research on that topic, two research groups have been organised. The first research group focuses on ‘Population, Resources, and Environment in South Asia’ aims to understand “the interrelationships between nature and ecosystems, society and culture, and politics and economics, and how they have changed historically, employing a comprehensive, long-term perspective”. Thus the inter-disciplinary impulse in the overall comprehension of the important issues pertaining to South Asia is very prominent here. The second research group focuses on ‘Democratic Politics and International Relations of South Asia’. It teases out the nature of democratic politics in South Asia as a whole, and underscores the complexities involved in international relations of that region.

The symposium, its overall organisation and logistics etc. were overseen by the charismatic and meticulous Prof. Minoru Mio, the director of National Museum of Ethnology. I was really impressed by his style of management and dealing with the delegates — like a family elder, kind and firm at the same time. National Museum of Ethnology has its own CSAS which is the secondary hub. Its mission includes organising international symposiums, promoting English language publications on the achievements of the whole project, and arranging and supporting international academic exchange.

Efforts are afoot to construct a consortium of South Asian research centres around the globe. The agenda is to study demographic changes and its impact on cultures and South Asian values. More so, the particular characteristics of relationships form the focus of research undertaken at National Museum of Ethnology, which keeps them sustainable in this era of rapid change. The primary aim of this research is to ascertain ‘the social risks resulting from meteoric globalisation’ and findings of that research will be shared with academics the world over.

I cannot but appreciate such research trajectories which are nuanced and extremely significant for their content as well as tenor. Studying demographic mobility and its interface with the human relationships is not an easy undertaking. But then the Japanese, with the proverbial doggedness and determination as their big assets, can achieve that seemingly daunting task.

Can we Pakistanis take a leaf out of the Japanese book is a question that needs to be broached with all earnestness.

South Asia is under a scholarly gaze in various other Japanese universities like University of Tokyo, Hiroshima University, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and Ryukokju University. All these Universities have their own centres of South Asian Studies which are nationally integrated under the umbrella of National Institutes for the Humanities of Japan Project. Prof. Koichi Fujita is its convener. These centres don’t register students and research seems to be their priority. Then, the way these centres are set up, their linkage with policy-makers for South Asian region appears to be the central aim. Unfortunately, Pakistani area study centres have not been able to impinge upon policy making. Policy makers are quite ‘self-sufficient’ in the performance of that very crucial task. Our policy having gone awry has that very valid explanation.

I would like to mention two academics in particular with whom I had the chance to interact at length, Prof. Akio Tanabe from the University of Tokyo and Mitsuya Dake from Ryukoku University. Prof. Tanabe specialises on the changes in the caste system with particular reference to Orissa where he spent a few years for his field work whereas Prof. Dake is an expert on the Philosophy of Buddhism and his prowess on philosophy was visibly represented even in his most mundane conversation.

To conclude, one must say that it was an impressive show. Pakistani universities ought to forge academic relations with their Japanese counterparts. It is particularly advisable in a scenario when the US and UK do not quite seem as hospitable academic destinations anymore.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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