In UK pipeline: a new-India institute - Historian Sunil Khilnani 'poached' from US varsity to head London centre

Read more below

  • Published 17.04.11

London, April 16: The distinguished author and historian Sunil Khilnani is taking on many bright young academics, several of them women, at a new “cutting-edge” India Institute he is setting up at King’s College London.

The word is that he has been “poached” to return to London in July after a 10-year stint at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington to become director and professor of politics at the institute, which will be “up and running by September”.

Khilnani, who made his name in 1997 with his seminal book, The Idea of India, emphasised that his India Institute would be different from India departments in other British universities because it will focus on “contemporary India”.

“I very much want this institute to focus on India now — not least because this is a moment of huge transformation in India. We need to be tracking it and making sense of it,” he said.

Some of the funding will come from King’s but, later this year, Khilnani will also reveal the name of a generous benefactor in India.

Along with politics and economics, he intends to devote special attention to journalism and the arts in the MA and PhD courses.

“I plan for the institute to engage with contemporary Indian arts and culture. We plan to hold small exhibitions by leading art practitioners, photographers and to foster collaboration between artists and other disciplines,” Khilnani said.

Journalism will be a priority.

“One of the strands that we have in MA Modern India is precisely for people in the media and journalism, because very often in the world of the media, particularly in India, you are constantly dealing with NOW and you never have the time to stand back and think about how that relates to the underlying processes,” Khilnani explained.

“We hope we will be able to have a steady stream of young journalists, young people from the media, electronic and so forth. It is not a journalism degree as such, (but) it is giving them the kind of substantial context to do good journalism and that is something that Ian Jack is going to be overseeing for us at the institute,” he said.

Journalist Ian Jack, an old India hand who worked on The Sunday Times and later edited The Independent on Sunday, confirmed: “As a correspondent in India, I was lucky and unlucky. Lucky that I worked for a Sunday newspaper and had the time to go places and meet people; unlucky because India then didn’t command the space and importance in the western media that it does now.”

Jack, who does a monthly column for The Telegraph, went on: “For Indian reporters in the UK and British reporters in India, my advice would be the same: get out more, read more, discover more. I also think western reporters in India should learn a language — Hindi, probably.”

Khilnani, who was previously based at Birkbeck, University of London, joked: “All my academic colleagues and others warned me that this is a mad move to be giving up a 10-year position at a leading American research university. But I have always liked to try something different and new. I also think this is a moment when in Britain, in Europe, there is a recognition they have to engage much more seriously with India now.”

Khilnani is optimistic about India but with qualifications. “There are reasons to be optimistic but there are also reasons to focus very seriously on the small window we have, because if we don’t get things right in the next five to 10 years, we really will have missed a rare historical chance.”

Assessing the consequences of India’s recent World Cup triumph, Khilnani recalled: “The first Test match I ever watched was in 1974 when India made 42 (against England in the second innings at Lord’s).”

In contrast, though he did not want to make too much of India’s victory in Mumbai, he observed: “Of course, victory ripples through the mood of the country. What was very striking was the self-assuredness of people like (Gautam) Gambhir, especially (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni. They knew they would be able to do it and that kind of cool-headed confidence was to me remarkable to see. And different from the past.”

On behalf of King’s, Professor Keith Hoggart, vice-principal (arts & sciences and external relations), commented: “We look forward to expanding and intensifying our links with India and the Indian diaspora. Sunil Khilnani will provide us with the intellectual leadership, vision and drive to take forward ambitious plans for King’s to become a central focus for promoting deeper understanding of India in the UK and beyond, as well as to provide a vehicle for generating high-quality research on India as a global, cultural, economic and political force in the 21st century.”