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New center opens to increase visibility, cooperation among South Asia scholars at UCLA
Map of South Asia produced with NASA's World Wind

New center opens to increase visibility, cooperation among South Asia scholars at UCLA

Faculty and students expect that the new Center for India and South Asia will help fill a void on campus that has been apparent for many years.

Angilee Shah Email AngileeShah

Vital elements of South Asian studies are missing at UCLA. South Asian politics, for example, is not taught here, says CISA director, Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

The strengthening of the organization and visibility of South Asian studies has been a long time coming, says UCLA alumnus Neetal Parekh.

Parekh, who graduated in 2002, was a founding member of the student-initiated South Asian Studies Task Force, formed in February 2001 to address what many on campus saw as a serious deficiency in UCLA’s South Asian curriculum. By 2004, the group succeeded in lobbying for a South Asian studies interdepartmental minor program. Now, one of the group's long-term goals has been fulfilled with the opening of a new center for South Asian studies.

The Center for India and South Asia (CISA) officially opened as part of the UCLA International Institute on July 1, 2005. Like the Centers for Southeast Asian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean Studies, CISA is part of the Asia Institute and encourages faculty and students to share ideas across disciplinary boundaries. It will also be a body that encourages the formation of new South Asian faculty positions in various departments and the expansion of South Asian curriculum. CISA will also sponsor lectures and workshops focused on the region.

"We put the pieces there," says Parekh, "and then it was up to the students and faculty to make it happen."

Inaugural director, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, says the Center was a natural move for the Institute. He took on the task, he says, because he felt that he was in a good position implement a program that was of clear value to UCLA and had been in an administrative quagmire for too long. "Unless you have someone pushing for it and making some sort of argument," says Subrahmanyam, "the counterargument is always there: We have lived without [South Asia programs] for twenty years. Why do we need it?"

Subrahmanyam, who came to UCLA as the Doshi Chair in the Department of History in 2004, says there are already more than fifteen professors spread across the campus who study or teach about South Asia. CISA, he says, will help these scholars to meet, collaborate and explore ways to improve programs for graduate and undergraduate students.

Vinay Lal, chair of the South Asian studies minor, says CISA will help make South Asia as a region more recognizable at UCLA. "This campus will finally be more attentive to South Asia in a scholarly way," he says.

Nitin Dhamija became the first UCLA student to earn a South Asian studies minor in 2004. The program had just been approved and he happened to have taken all the required courses simply because he was interested in the topic. Now a student at UCLA's School of Medicine, Dhamija says the campus was in need of the minor and the new Center for a long time. "There wasn't anything consolidated that was addressing South Asians or the South Asian diaspora," Dhamija says. Other universities have well-established South Asia programs, he adds. The University of Pennsylvania's Department of South Asia Studies and South Asia Center is one of the oldest programs in the nation, while UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago have thriving South Asia centers. At UCLA, it is important for both South Asian and non-South Asian students to learn and appreciate the history of the region, he adds.

There was general consensus that this void needed to be filled, but the administrative process to create and approve programs was slow, says Dhajima. In Oct. 2001, the student task force presented their request for more South Asian programs, including a petition with over 1,000 signatures from faculty and students, to Chancellor Albert Carnesale. More than two years later, a six-member South Asia faculty task force was convened to make recommendations for programs; they submitted their report in early 2004. The faculty task force put together what Subrahmanyam calls a "wish list" for South Asian studies at UCLA.

Jonathan Silk, a professor in Asian Languages and Cultures, was a member of that task force. He says that at the time the task force convened, the UC system was in the throes of a budget crisis and was considering cutting major institutional goals, such as outreach programs, altogether. "I wondered whether the resources would be available [for a center]," he says, "and I'm delighted that they have been."

One of the faculty task force recommendations was the creation of a curriculum for "heritage students," those who are second or third generation South Asian, such as Dhamija and Parekh, and have some access to but not systematic knowledge of the region. It was apparent that those students wanted to learn about South Asia, even though South Asia was not necessarily the focus of their studies.

Silk's ongoing concern is that UCLA provides language instruction in Hindu and Urdu but no other South Asian languages. It is important, he believes, to provide courses in other widely spoken languages such in Tamil and Kannada, as well as Gujarati, the home language for many Indian Americans in Southern California. He also says that no one on campus is teaching courses on literature in their original South Asian languages.

Other vital elements of South Asian studies are missing at UCLA. South Asian politics, for example, is not taught here, says Subrahmanyam. Yet it is a subject that is of clear interest to many South Asians in the United States. Last March, there were strong protests when the Chief Minister of Gujarat, India, Narendra Modi was invited to inaugurate the Yadunandan Center for Indian Studies at California State University Long Beach (CSULB). Modi has been condemned by human rights organizations for his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. While Modi did not speak at CSULB -- the U.S. government revoked his visa for egregious violations of religious freedom -- the incident highlights how much interest and investment many Americans have in South Asian politics.

CISA was created with the help of a three year seed grant from the University. Subrahmanyam says the next step will be to raise additional funds from individual and institutional donors. This will permit the Center to continue beyond the initial three-year allocation.

The Center's name was a compromise between standard terminology in area studies, the region of South Asia, and terminology that helps non-academics understand what South Asia is. Putting India and South Asia in the name of the Center makes it easier for anyone to understand what South Asia means, says Subrahmanyam. The region includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The entire region is home to about 1.5 billion people, close to one-sixth of the world's population.