From where I sit - Yale makes India a key focus

April 14, 2011

Why is there a new buzz to the Yale-India relationship?

New Haven academia's links with India are longstanding, beginning in 1718 when the Collegiate School of Connecticut was renamed Yale College in honour of a benefactor named Elihu Yale, a none-too-distinguished British East India Company governor of Madras.

The first formal teaching of Sanskrit in the US was done at Yale by E.E. Salisbury in 1841. And in the 1930s, Yale's Helmut de Terra conducted fieldwork across an area stretching from the Swat to Madras that would lead to a framework within which Indian prehistoric research was understood until the 1980s. (Unfortunately, de Terra's time in Yale's geology department was cut short because he refused to increase the marks of one of his students, Yale's star footballer of the day.)

But these historic links have meant little in the grand scheme of things at Yale. For one, Indic linguistic scholarship at the university remained limited to Sanskrit for a fairly long time. For another, the de Terra connection seems to have been entirely forgotten.

The recent strengthening of connections began in earnest in 2008 with the launch of the Yale India Initiative, which has a projected endowment of $75 million (£47 million).

What makes this undertaking qualitatively different from any other area-studies programme in the US is that it seeks to build the study of India into a large number of programmes simultaneously. India will figure not only in Yale programmes in social sciences and humanities, but also in professional schools including those of architecture, business management, forestry and environmental studies, public health, nursing and law.

What's more, Yale aims to accomplish all this at a blistering pace. Unlike Harvard University, for instance, which has failed to make any senior appointment pertaining to South Asia in its Faculty of Arts and Sciences for nearly a decade, Yale has - and is likely to make many more in the next three or four years.

Also significant is its commitment to training and leadership programmes for political leaders and civil servants. That Yale has informally advised Kapil Sibal, India's human resources and development minister, is well known. For the past five years, a leadership programme has brought members of the Indian Parliament to Yale. Mid-career Indian officials will be trained in forestry management by the university's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and the Yale School of Nursing is working with Indian collaborators on the establishment of an Indian Institute of Advanced Nursing at Chennai.

The Yale-India Initiative is also unprecedented in less obvious ways. In contrast to the earlier links around Sanskrit and prehistory, Yale's new initiative emphasises the modern and contemporary. An even stronger departure is that rather than a South Asia programme - which is how the Indian subcontinent figures, for instance, at Columbia and Harvard - Yale's focus is on India alone.

Naturally, its decision to make this a priority area has to do with India's emergence as a major global economic and political player, and with the domicile status of important benefactors including Rohini and Nandan Nilekani. But whether the seeding of a well-rounded programme requires a broader focus remains to be seen.

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