Outgoing Director's Note
With effect from 31st March 2017, my five-year tenure as the ICS Director comes to an end. The passing of the baton is truly a defining moment – and truly difficult to define. There is both, an acknowledgement of the legacy of those who came before and who laid the foundations of this oldest think tank on China in India - from which we derive our strength and resilience - and expectations of new trajectories from the one who takes over. And taking charge at the helm is one of India’s most seasoned former diplomats, Ashok Kantha, who in addition to having been the Indian Ambassador to China in his last posting (2014-2016) has also a long association with the scholarly community at the ICS and fully shares the values and objectives of the ICS. We have no doubt that under his experienced guidance the ICS will continue to lead the discourse on China in India.
The Directorship has been a full-time commitment - and more. It was a labor of love, rooted in my association with the ICS since my student days; in my passion as a teacher in the field and in my mission to promote China studies in India by creating a strong network of Indian China scholars across the country. My efforts stemmed from the conviction that a research institute like the ICS, which sought to combine academic research with objective policy-pertinent output was not just required or relevant, but acutely necessary.
The ICS has been around in various avatars for more than forty years – and now has a national and international reputation and linkages. This is amply borne out by the globally-acclaimed China scholars who adorn the Editorial Board of our 53-year old journal China Report. That we have been able to emerge as India's leading research institute on China, is, in very ample measure due to the support the ICS has received from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) since the 1990s. No surprise then, that the ICS was identified by the MEA as the nodal institution to organize the First India-China Think Tanks Forum - set up during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China in May 2015 - which was held in New Delhi in December 2016. Two significant Track II initiatives piloted by the ICS a decade and a half back – which subsequently also became Track I events – are now well-entrenched and widely recognized as important discourse platforms: the BCIM Track II Meetings and the Russia-India-China Academic Trilateral Conferences.
Over the last five years we increased our collaborations with universities and other institutions across China to over a dozen. We are now in regular and frequent engagement with scholars and students from China; we both depute and receive researchers and academics, hold bilateral exchanges, organize conferences - and with every interaction we realize that these exchanges have to be increased manifold.
China’s growing importance for India is reflected in the increased calls on our small group from academia and media; in the increased footfalls to our Institute at all our multifold events and discussions; in the increasing numbers of bright and curious young folk seeking to intern at the ICS; and we realize that we have to create more capacity.
The possibilities of engaging and cooperating with China are multiplying rapidly – we are only limited by our ignorance. Ignorance of the reality in China today beyond Beijing and Shanghai; ignorance of the emergence of the numerous new political, social and economic actors and their importance in the complex structures in China at various levels and ignorance of its vibrant civil society debates and plethora of opinions among different sections, who have hopes, aspirations and challenges no less than ours. And we realize that we have to re-configure our sights, re-conceptualize our approaches and refresh our patterns of thinking.
The world appears to be ready to usher in an Asian century – a good number have already declared it to be China’s Century. Asians are looking both at themselves and at each other in new ways – and China is the nucleus around which much of Asia is moving. Almost all major players in Asia – and elsewhere - are investing in what has been described as “China literacy” – which means we must now step out of our comfort zones and explore this big neighbor of ours in greater depth – in its historical, cultural and socio-economic context. The hurdles to this are principally related to funding. Institutions – particularly social sciences related – world over, are facing this problem. Henceforth our challenges will multiply as we move from an annual grant to project-based funding. But we have been actively seeking alternative sources and are fortunate to have received donations from the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and the Pirojsha Godrej Foundation. And we are host to a number of multi-year research projects awarded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR). Immeasurable intangibles like collaborative ventures halve costs and multiply impact. As our efforts to expand and diversify our funding sources begin to gather momentum - we realize that we must crack the funding/resource crunch.
Any institution is only as good as its team…. And I have been fortunate to have worked alongside a small but highly committed and knowledgeable team of young scholars – fiercely independent, contentious, with a voracious appetite for learning – and working - to capacity. The complete autonomy with which they have worked – and the rigour and objectivity they bring to their writing, has been a source of great personal satisfaction. Most friends of the ICS are perpetually amazed at how much we are able to do with so little. This determined group is undoubtedly the new generation to watch out for – though I wish it had been possible to offer them extended field research opportunities, which would further enrich their insights and sharpen their analyses.
Here I also acknowledge the contribution of all the young folk who have worked for and with the ICS over the past five years for varying durations – and I have no hesitation in saying that it was a mutually beneficial association. And we realize that we need to enable these young scholars to give full play to their passion - there is no dearth of desire to push the boundaries
The ICS network has expanded enormously over the past five years. Our effectiveness comes to a greater degree from these partnerships; our value from the support we have in turn provided to the young researchers and scholars embarking on their study of China. The larger pool of academics associated with the ICS – from the University of Delhi, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Ambedkar University in Delhi – to the broader scholarly network that we have established across India in other universities and research Centres – have lent depth to our work and imparted a unique characteristic to the Institute.
We have supporters and partners from across India, China, Russia, Vietnam and the Harvard-Yenching Institute in the US – all of whom have added new dimensions to our multidisciplinary profile. The initiative that at once sets us apart from the rest is the multi-year doctoral fellowships that we offer in partnership with the Harvard-Yenching Institute. With some Chinese universities set to join the program, we are looking at possibly the best scheme available to young Indian researchers, enabling up to two years in China and a year at Harvard. And we have managed to attract funding for supporting this initiative in the years ahead. This would be one of the most critical initiatives towards building a pool of language-knowing scholars in the coming decade.
Since 2012 when I took charge as Director, it has been my endeavor to strengthen the academic components even as we kept the ‘utilitarian’ output in mind. Whether it is the growing popularity and reach of AICCS - our flagship annual conference – the All India Conference of China Studies (now in its tenth year) or our Wednesday Seminars (the longest continuing tradition of the ICS) or our flagship journal, China Report, annual subscriptions to which continue to increase, or our diverse Research Programs – there is a complex group of scholars, practitioners, lay-public and students benefiting in different ways. Their critical appreciation has been and will be the measure of our success.
We take our mission of informing public discourse very seriously and are justifiably proud of the extent and reach of our writings, in addition to promoting interest in China and India-China relations, through a very active presence on Facebook and Twitter. We of course are continually engaged in addressing the lacunae therein but we would be happy to get your feedback and suggestions for improvement.
Ashok Kantha takes over at a time when the volatility in international relations has intensified. India’s relationship with China has entered yet another challenging phase – priorities are being redefined in many ways, which will to some extent determine the direction of research and study, the scholars and experts that will be brought into the ICS, as also the collaborations we will promote. In our interactions with him over the years, he has shared our unease at the disturbing dearth of home-grown institutions where this growing interest in our increasingly powerful neighbor and top trading partner can be addressed and explored. Unarguably, any expectation of success in securing Indian interests, hinges on our own capacity to understand China from our own specific needs and requirements. And our Achilles Heel is undoubtedly our depressing lack of language capabilities and the continuing and catastrophic divide between Area Studies Research and Language learning. There is a sense of the enormity of the task – it requires resources that are way beyond our ken and we devoutly hope that this lacuna is urgently addressed – We dig at this mountain with our spoons – and we continue to push this cause with the concerned quarters.
I now revert to the Jawaharlal Nehru University where I teach at the Centre for East Asian Studies, in the School of International Studies in New Delhi. But my association with the ICS and my involvement in its future growth to greater heights will endure. In fact as JNU faculty, I would be part of the advisory group for the projects undertaken under the stewardship of the new Director. The scholars and experts at the ICS are greatly invested in this institution - it is now virtually a part of our DNA – and the growing importance of China guarantees it.
We could not have grown and expanded in the way we have, without the conviction that what we did was widely appreciated. To the many – and growing - supporters who have been with us and following our activities, Team ICS is devoutly thankful. We will continue to need your encouragement and appreciation to carry forward the foresight and forward-looking orientation of our founders.
You dear Readers, are infinitely vital to this process – in fact your growing numbers undergird the continuing centrality of the ICS. On behalf of the ICS as also on my personal behalf, I would like to thank you all.
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