India hub in Indira’s old college at Oxford

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  • Published 30.01.14

Oxford, Jan. 29: Oxford University is to put up “a new focal point” for the in-depth study of India to be housed in the purpose-built “Oxford India Building”.

This has been revealed by Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College, Oxford, who admits the hugely ambitious project is “my baby”.

But first she has to raise £15 million (Rs 155 crore) to ensure the construction and long-term viability of the Oxford India Building, which will serve as a magnet for the best students from India at one of the best universities of the world.

Prochaska appears confident that she will be able to see the Oxford India Building from her study before she completes her seven-year term as principal in 2017.

Somerville’s best known Indian connection is that this is, of course, Indira Gandhi’s old college (also that of the other “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher). Although Indira Nehru came up in 1937 to read history, ill health meant she had to cut short her Oxford stay after just one year. But this has been sufficient to ensure that Somerville has an Indian tradition.

Another of Prochaska’s dreams was to set up some kind of research facility at Oxford in Indira Gandhi’s memory. This has now become a reality (there is also one in Margaret Thatcher’s name).

Indian HRD minister M.M. Pallam Raju, who dropped in one day recently for lunch, remarked how Prochaska’s “persistent charm” had persuaded the Indian government to allocate £3m towards the Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development at Somerville.

With the help of a matching £3m grant from Oxford University, the centre is now up and running with the first three scholars from India in residence and already into their second term.

The three scholars were also invited to lunch and spoke with passion about their subjects.

Sumanas Koulagi, from Melkote, Karnataka, is studying for an MSc in “biodiversity, conservation and management”; Shahana Munazir, from Patna is working on “contemporary India”; and Shriman Sai Raman, who was born in Chennai but grew up in Delhi, on “water science, policy and management”.

“I am tremendously fortunate to be here,” commented Munazir. “Oxford will equip me to go back and be of some assistance to my home country. I would like to complete my DPhil at Oxford and then join the Indian civil service, so as to put my theoretical expertise into practice.”

Soon, the annual intake of Indira Gandhi scholars at Somerville will be increased to five. Anyone who gets a place at Oxford can apply for one of the scholarships.

“We make it clear we expect them to return to India after they finish their courses,” said the principal.

If all goes according to plan, the Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development will be located inside the Oxford India Building. But the latter will have much more — “a 200-seat auditorium, high-tech conference facilities, seminar rooms, an exhibition space and space for performances and rehearsals” plus accommodation for students as well as teaching facilities.

The idea is for the building to act as the centre for studies on everything to do with India — and it will be open to all at Oxford. The building, according to the prospectus, “will bring together academics, students, practitioners and policy makers from Oxford, India and beyond to work across traditional subject boundaries and develop multi-disciplinary solutions to the challenges that India faces”.

Sonia Gandhi visited Somerville in 2002 and presented a portrait of her late mother-in-law to her old college — the paintings of Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher hang side by side.

There is one difference — Indira Gandhi was given an honorary degree, while Thatcher was denied one.

Sonia, not known for her eloquence, made quite a moving speech at the time. “Indira Gandhi’s place in history is assured,” began Sonia.

And she added: “Indira Gandhi, the statesman and the politician is well-known. Less well-known is the human side to her personality. She was an accomplished linguist. She was a voracious reader. She had a trenchant sense of humour. She was a gracious hostess and a doting grandmother. Elegant and stylish, she was also a tenacious fighter. Although no feminist, she became an icon to a large number of women in many countries.”

Despite the atmosphere of time standing still, Somerville, founded in 1879, has evolved over the decades. The women’s college went co-ed in 1994.

Today, it has 565 students, including 411 undergraduates. There are 10 students from India, which does not include British-born Indians who are considered part of the home grown intake at Oxford.