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Tri-campus Thursday: South Asia Group brings interdisciplinary scholars together

Students and faculty members gathered over samosas and steaming cups of chai in 2148 Jenkins and Nanovic Halls on Wednesday for the South Asia Group’s first event this semester. The South Asia Group is an interdisciplinary group of faculty, scholars and students at Notre Dame whose work relates to the region that includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. 

At the event, professors and students engaged in free-flowing conversations ranging from nationalistic propaganda in India to handicraft artisans in Nepal. 

Susan Ostermann, assistant professor of global affairs and political science for the Keough School of Global Affairs, founded the South Asia Group in 2017 with professors Nikhil Menon, Lakshmi Iyer and Amitava Dutt. Menon and Iyer were new to the University at the time, while Dutt has been at Notre Dame since 1988.

“There were enough of us working on South Asia but in different fields, and almost all of us had been accustomed to being at universities that had a larger community within our fields. I was hired to teach South Asian politics because nobody was doing it, so I was not expecting a community here, but in the spirit of the Keough School … we thought interdisciplinary work had a real place,” Ostermann said.  

The group’s events are funded by the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies.

“Even though the Institute was envisioned as a place that focuses on East Asia, Michel Hockx who runs it is very inclusive,” Ostermann said.

The South Asia Group typically meets four times a semester.

“After the pandemic, it was a little bit challenging to get people to remember we existed, and so we started doing the chai and samosa events to draw people in. It was so enjoyable that we continued doing it just because it brings everybody together,” Ostermann said.

According to the Liu Institute’s website, the group will be hosting two guest speakers this semester, including Yaqoob Bangash, a Notre Dame alumnus and Fulbright fellow at the Mittal Institute at Harvard University. Bangash will speak about the emergence of Pakistan as a postcolonial state. The group also plans to have an event later this semester for students to present their work related to South Asia.

Students can also get involved through taking courses and research assistance through channels like the Kellogg International Scholars Program or independently, Ostermann said.

“We have a lot of relatively young faculty [working on South Asia] so all of us have a very active research agenda … just email us,” she said. 

Ostermann and Iyer are also organizing a conference related to issues of democracy rights and development in May 2023.

“In 2019 we held a conference at the Keough School’s [Washington] D.C. office that put Notre Dame academics in dialogue with policymakers and academics from elsewhere. The topic was religion, development and South Asia at the time,” Ostermann said.

The upcoming conference will be held in Washington D.C. again, but will be livestreamed so it is accessible to the broader campus community.

Mahan Mirza, executive director of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion, participated in the 2019 conference.

“At that point I was working on advancing scientific and theological literacy among madrasa graduates in India and Pakistan with Ebrahim Moosa, and the conference was fantastic,” Mirza said. 

As an Islamic studies scholar, Mirza and members of the Ansari Institute often do projects in collaboration with the South Asia Group through the Liu Institute. Mirza is glad the group is increasing awareness about the region.

“Whenever the chai and samosa events get announced, you’ve even got people coming from the architecture school and Mendoza and it’s generated really interesting conversations,” Mirza said.

Prithvi Iyer, a member of the class of 2023 Master of Global Affairs (MGA) cohort who attended the event, got involved with the South Asia Group in March.

“Last semester the hijab row in India was pretty strong … given the amount of talk at Notre Dame about laïcité secularism and the burqa ban in France … not much was being done in the South Asian context,” Prithvi said.

Prithvi organized a panel about India’s hijab row featuring Nabeela Jamil, an attorney practicing in the Supreme Court of India, Notre Dame professor Julia Kowalski and journalist Fatima Khan to discuss the issue and its parallels with religious freedom in the West. 

Prithvi also attended the group’s chai and samosa gatherings last semester, where he was able to meet other graduate students and faculty members with similar research interests. 

Prithvi hopes the South Asia Group will make the University a place where community members critically engage with discourse about South Asia.

“[Indian Prime Minister] Narendra Modi’s rise in the context of rising autocracies in the world is a very important case study, not because he’s Indian, or because I’m Indian … but because 1.3 billion people somehow gave the largest political mandate … as a product of democracy, to a leader like him,” Prithvi said. “These are important questions that shouldn’t be thought of purely geographically as being a South Asian problem. These are questions that have enormous significance, like the way we think about the West.”

Contact Angela Mathew at amathew3@nd.edu.