Passages to India: Reflecting on 50 years of research in South Asia

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editors’ Note: How do states manage their armed forces, domestic politics, and foreign affairs? Stephen Cohen, senior fellow with the India Project at Brookings, has studied this and a range of other issues in Southeast Asia since the 1960s. In a new book, titled “The South Asia Papers: A Critical Anthology of Writings,” Cohen reflects on more than a half-century of scholarship on India, describing the dramatic changes he has personally witnessed in the field of research. The following is an excerpt from the book’s preface.

[In the 1960s, questions about how states manage their armed forces] were not only unasked in the South Asian context by scholars; they were also frowned on by the Indian government. This made preparation both interesting and difficult. It was interesting because a burgeoning literature on civil–military relations in non-Western states could be applied to India. Most of it dealt with two themes: the “man on horseback,” or how the military came to power in a large number of new states, and how the military could assist in the developmental process. No one had asked these questions of India, although the first was relevant to Pakistan, then still governed by the Pakistani army in the form of Field Marshal Ayub Khan.


During my first and second trips [in the 1960s] my research was as a historian, albeit one interested in the army’s social, cultural, and policy dimensions. I discovered, by accident, that this was part of the movement toward the “new military history.” Over the years I have thus interacted with those historians who were interested in Indian military history, including several of my own students. 

While the standard of historians in India was high in places like the University of Calcutta, military history was a minor field, just as it was in the West. Military historians are often dismissed as the “drums and trumpets” crowd, interested in battles, regiments, and hardware, but not much else. My own self-tutoring in military history uncovered something quite different: a number of scholars, especially sociologists, had written on the social and cultural impact of armed forces, a literature largely ignored by the historians. While none of this group was interested in India, the connection between one of the world’s most complicated and subtle societies, the state’s use of force, and the emergence of a democratic India was self-evident. 


A new generation of scholars and experts, many of them Indians (some trained in the United States) and Indian Americans who have done research in India, have it right: this is a complex civilizational-state with expanding power, and its rise is dependent on its domestic stability, its policies toward neighbors (notably Pakistan), the rise of China, and the policies of the United States. 

The literature that predicts a conflict between the rising powers (India and China), and between them and America the “hegemon,” is misguided: the existence of nuclear weapons by all three states, plus Pakistan, ensures that barring insanity, any rivalries between rising and established states will be channeled into “ordinary” diplomatic posturing, ruthless economic competition, and the clash of soft power. In this competition, India has some liabilities and many advantages, and the structure of the emerging world suggests a closer relationship between the United States and India, without ruling out much closer ties between China and India. 

There remain some questions: Can the present Indian leadership show magnanimity in dealing with Pakistan, and does it have the foresight to look ahead to new challenges, notably environmental and energy issues that require new skills and new international arrangements? Importantly, some of the best work on answering these questions is being done in India itself, and the work of Kanti Bajpai, Amitabh Mattoo, Harsh Pant, C. Raja Mohan, Rajesh Basrur, and others reveals the maturity of Indian thinking on strategic issues. It has not come too soon, as the challenges that India will face are growing, and those of Pakistan are even more daunting.