China Studies in India: Of Caste, Class and Capital

An All India China Scholars Colloquium was organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) in New Delhi on 11 August 2012 with the objective of bringing in scholars from different parts of the country to hear their views on three issues: the priorities and challenges in Chinese Studies in the country, impediments to institutionalizing Chinese Studies in India and, the implementation of partnerships between Indian and Chinese institutions.

In his keynote address, Prof. Manoranjan Mohanty flagged three key problems of Chinese Studies in India. One, a lot of research related to China was media-driven while in fact, researchers ought not to focus simply on the topic du jour but think beyond to larger issues and problems. Further, the focus on media-dependant or media-driven research risked two additional problems of being misled or misdirected either by Western biases or by Chinese state propaganda. Two, Indian scholars had failed to come up with alternatives to the dominant Western discourses and models of the study of China ranging from Sino-centrism to cultural relativism to modernization theories. And three, an assessment of the state of Chinese Studies in India revealed that there were in fact more comparative studies about India and China originating abroad rather than India itself. In this sense, older generations of China scholars in India had failed in their goal of developing comparative frameworks on India-China studies and it was the media and Western discourses that had either driven or become the foundation of the Indian state’s efforts at understanding China.

I was discussant in the first session outlining the challenges and priorities in the field. The session opened with the lead speaker Dr. Tansen Sen, Associate Professor of Asian History and Religions, Baruch College, City University of New York highlighting three challenges before Chinese Studies in India – the lack of proper infrastructure, including lack of world class teachers and researchers; the lack of curriculum reform to enable the integration of language studies with disciplinary expertise and analytical tools; and, skewed employment opportunities. (His full presentation was later published in the Economic and Political Weekly and can be read here.)

In my presentation, I too raised three issues that I thought Chinese Studies, and Indian academia, in general had to engage with – caste, class and capital. There was surprise, some mystification and as the session progressed, not a little hostility, to the raising of these issues. Chinese Studies in India has problems enough. For one, there is the weight of history which means that scholars trying to take a balanced perspective or in other words, a position that might appear insufficiently critical of China or, God forbid, shows up Indian problems in shortcomings in relation to China, can be accused of being overly sympathetic to China or worse of being traitorous ‘panda-huggers’. Tackling widespread Indian prejudice and ignorance about China is a full-time occupation. Then, there is the problem of finding funding for a multidisciplinary approach to the study of China – as opposed to studies related only to either China’s strategic and military intentions or its economy, as is usually the case in most Indian think-tanks.  Further, there is the problem of attracting the best and the brightest, and then of convincing the latter to do both the language and the social sciences to develop an all-round understanding of China.

Of Caste and Class

To most Indians in the field, these are the big problems and particularly at this juncture of history deserve our highest attention. In any case, according to many, Chinese Studies is not especially afflicted among its practitioners by issues of caste or class conflict. Since the purveyors of Chinese Studies in India are rather few in number, simple experience tells us that this assertion is not completely without foundation. In particular, Chinese Studies has been blessed with some stalwarts who are giants in Indian political science, sociology and history, among other disciplines, who are thoroughly aware of the issues of inequality and injustice in Indian society and who have educated their students accordingly. There are yet others from non-academic backgrounds (usually from the diplomatic corps or the military), who are highly cosmopolitan and liberal in outlook, who also cannot be accused of narrow-mindedness. That said, as the questions and responses I received to my presentation showed, while it might be argued that many practitioners of Chinese Studies in India might personally be fair-minded, non-casteist and genuinely concerned about the welfare and progress of all their students equally, attitudes about caste and class exist that are rather simplistic or are ignorant of larger social realities and can therefore lead in turn, to exacerbating problems of caste and class in the field.

I must admit that while I see problems of caste and class as serious issues in Indian academia and society, I did not initially, see the problem as serious enough in Chinese Studies specifically, to warrant a full presentation on it. As discussant to Tansen Sen’s excellent analysis of academic and professional problems in the field of Chinese Studies in India, I did not think I could add anything new. I therefore, thought of how, I could say something that was different and decided to tackle the larger place of Chinese Studies in India. But any such exercise in India at this juncture in time – both in terms of its internal political dynamics and of our external comparisons with a rising China – takes us not up into the stratosphere of high thought or brilliant vision but down to the depths of Indian society – which is the source of our China scholars and of our worldviews, including views of China and of our place in relation to that country. At the end of discussions, I realized that the subject, which I had taken up, quite frankly, without much preparation – I was a last-minute replacement as speaker – was quite a lot more provocative and relevant, than I thought it would be.

What I have to say in simple words is this – at the root of the problem of identifying the best and the brightest, leave alone, attracting them, to Indian academia and to Chinese Studies are the twin problems of caste and class. Indian academia and by extension, Chinese Studies in India, remains largely mediocre and unable, with a few exceptions, to truly challenge and shake up established (read Western, perhaps) standards and discourses in academic disciplines because it is hobbled by its high priests’ (pun unintended) willful neglect and by various forms of overt and subtle discrimination they practice against students and scholars from the lower castes and economically-backward classes. One only needs to see the arguments made against reservations by otherwise splendid people using the trope of ‘merit’, or the fact that university appointments reserved for the SCs are often left unfilled on grounds that ‘suitable’ candidates were not found, or indeed, lower scores given students because their term-papers are unreadable and their oral presentations, incomprehensible because of poor English. Thus, even if reservations were to get good students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university, they would still start way behind the starting line because of various social handicaps, including the fact that they might have studied in the vernacular at school or college and are thrown into the deep end as far as understanding university-level English is concerned, leave alone Chinese. It takes years in the higher education system for these students to come up to par, if ever, with students from privileged backgrounds with convent school and elite college educations, and to enter the good books of their teachers who mark all students ‘fairly’ on the basis of performance without taking into account harsh social realities – or in other words, on the basis of ‘merit’.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds face not just a struggle for academic acceptance but also for social acceptance. Even SC students from well-off backgrounds can suffer from these disadvantages – the other big argument against reservations, namely, the concept of a ‘creamy layer’ among the SCs/STs cornering the benefits again ignores, often willfully, the difficulties of building the social capital and social cohesion that is required for any group or community to truly overcome the mental, and even physical, debilities of a long history of oppression and stigma.

Even if the perception, however true, is that Chinese Studies suffers less from the problems of caste and class, than other disciplines, it is important for Chinese Studies in India to address these problems openly as part of a larger ambition to not just clean the Augean stables of Indian academia, but also to become a world-class community of scholars, in the true sense of the term. With its constant comparison with China, can India and Chinese Studies in India truly hope to understand and to match if not overtake China (and other world powers) someday, without first looking inwards and resolving its social conflicts and contradictions?

It cannot. And the reasons, purely from a China point of view are numerous. India is at a stage today, in the observation and study of China, where resentment (over 1962 – it is exactly 50 years since the conflict this month), envy and lack of understanding all reign simultaneously. Whereas in the past, ordinary Indians and the majority of their scholars were simply ignorant in large measure of their vast neighbour and civilization to the north, today, there is no dearth of information. What remains, lacking is the ability to process this information and convert it into knowledge and understanding of China. And we lack it, I would argue for a number of reasons.

One, there aren’t enough young Indians coming into the discipline of Chinese Studies. While the number of young students learning Chinese as a language is increasing, there are very few of them who are interested in the social sciences. In places, like JNU’s School of Languages, students take only a cursory interest in the social sciences and that, often through optional courses from the School of Social Sciences (and where I have heard, these students are taught rather desultorily). There is also no link between the Chinese language centre in the School of Languages and the Chinese area studies division of the School of International Studies either, except a sometimes equally desultorily taught, first-year MPhil language course. Practically, no level of competence is achieved by the area studies stream students in the language, which should not be surprising given that classes are only held for about 3 hours a week, for the first year of a combined 2+5-year MPhil/PhD programme).

Class operates in other ways when it comes to Chinese Studies in India. The Chinese language stream students often shift quickly from academics to some form of full-time economic activity such as translation, interpretation or perhaps a small business right after completing a 3-year BA programme. Very few possess the financial wherewithal, even if they had the interest, to continue with higher academics. Many students from the weaker sections thus see the study of the Chinese language as a lucrative career move but not as a stepping stone to developing an all-round academic expertise on China. This situation is not helped by the lack of institutionalized government support for higher education in the form of adequate stipends or scholarships. The stipends currently disbursed to all MPhil/PhD students are certainly better than having none at all as was the case until a few years ago, but these are still not sufficient to keep interested students from the weaker sections in academia, when other financially attractive opportunities abound. While the Junior/Senior Research Fellowships scholarships disbursed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) are substantial by Indian standards, they are too few in number and there are none available in many specialties, including in Chinese Studies.

Two, Indians studying China cannot produce original work on China without first possessing more than a nodding acquaintance with India’s own social and political problems and realities, including caste. While the reality of caste certainly distinguishes India from China, there is a certain symmetry in other problems – of class, social organization, governance and the relationship to authority, the relationship to the land and environment, among other things – between the two countries that is inevitable when both have over a billion people to govern. Therefore, if Indian scholars of China do not first engage academically with the principal problems and issues of their own country, they will not be able to engage originally and substantially with the principal problems and issues in China. Even with excellent language expertise, Indian scholars will forever be condemned to study China within what will remain broadly Western paradigms.

Of Capital

The other major issue that China Studies in India needs to be concerned about is the nature of the capital that flows into the discipline. Often, the money follows India-China Studies focusing specifically on strategic and economic relations between the two countries. It is either the possibility of (staving off or profiting from) conflict between the two Asian giants or the potential for economic profit that wins money in the form of projects and grants from foreign funders or the Government of India. The market, in short, demands Indian expertise on China.

Meanwhile, it must be acknowledged that it is the market that is responsible for contributing to the slow build-up of a critical mass of Chinese language speakers in India – knowledge of the Chinese language is a lucrative skill in the Indian marketplace today with students with barely a two-year knowledge of the language being picked up by the Indian tourism industry or by businesses with linkages to China. These Indian Chinese speakers thus, contribute to Sino-Indian economic relations and no doubt, also to improving popular perceptions of China and India in the other country.

The important question really is – will ‘expertise’ be defined by the market? If that were so, while synergy between the Chinese language studies and area studies will be built up, it will still end up serving only limited goals and not help in the development of a truly multidisciplinary Indian perspective on China. A multidisciplinary approach to studying China is essential – if explanation were necessary – because it is only by trying to understand China at multiple levels – of its history, language, culture, domestic politics, military development, economy, and so on – that China problems or problems related to China be more thoroughly understood and solutions more correctly derived. Such an approach is of necessity time-consuming and requires years of investment both individual and institutional, and both academic and financial. For research of this sort, Indian enterprises will need to learn the art of academic philanthropy as practiced in the West. Or the government will need to step in more substantially than it has until now. At the very least, the government will have to deliver on at least its promised funds without let or hinder.

Indeed, the importance of role of the government in providing capital for the growth of both specialized and inter-disciplinary institutions devoted to the study of China cannot be overstated. Where the economic elite possesses little strategic vision for matters beyond the partaking of profit, and the social elite can, as described above, be circumscribed in their ways of thinking, it is the government that has to step in to fill the breach to provide capital to academic institutions, including to Chinese Studies – in order to prevent stagnation, to preempt the hollowing out or brain drain of existing expertise, and to build a solid foundation for the future.

Of course, the government cannot do everything and academic institutions that receive funding from the government must also take into account the limitations imposed by ties to the government, including the possible lack of a political and/or strategic vision, bureaucratic inefficiency and/or incompetence, and attempts at political or bureaucratic control, among other things. Ultimately therefore, academic streams – and especially Chinese Studies in India, which on the one hand, has to make up for lost decades and on the other, to deal with the ever-increasing importance of China and of Sino-Indian relations – must learn to raise funds on their own and in such a manner as to preserve their independence and integrity.


Like every discipline, there are intramural conflicts in the Chinese Studies community, which is particularly unfortunate since the community in India is such a small group. It is not given to all academics to have great academic skills, grand vision, excellent administrative skills, and the political savvy needed to build institutions while keeping vested political, personal and economic interests at bay. But Chinese Studies in India – perhaps much more so than other disciplines at this juncture of history – needs academics of this ilk to help it grow into the world-class endeavour that it needs to be in order not only to help improve India’s relations with China, but to help improve the quality of its academia in general.

Meanwhile, higher education in India, including in Chinese Studies, remains a leisure activity – possible only for a select few who possess either the social capital and/or the financial means (whether through family support or by the luck of an early job in either a think-tank or a university) to stay invested in the field. If India’s China problem can be described as one resulting from prejudice and ignorance, then the same problems afflict India internally in the development of academic excellence in the country. If India’s China problem is one of always being behind the curve of China’s political and economic rise, despite the ambition to overtake China or at least to stand toe to toe with it, then one must question if the ambition is properly channeled or even framed correctly at all. For Chinese Studies in India, the implication is clear – the overwhelming challenges of sustaining itself as a multidisciplinary field, and as a source of balanced and objective interpretation of China can well be interpreted as being the result of a lack of funding and government apathy but it is just as importantly, the result of Chinese Studies being unable to set an ambition for itself that can look beyond these challenges to achieving not just an understanding of China but of India itself. In short, Chinese Studies in India must possess the larger ambition of not just interpreting China from an Indian perspective, but of also interpreting India using the Chinese experience. If China’s 20th century revolutions sought to change not just China but the world itself, can the Republic of India and the academic community in the country aim for anything less?

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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  1. Chinaman ji, very much appreciate and endorse the emphasis on knowing self to be able to critically and qualitatively understand the other.


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