Amartya Sen kicks off 25th anniversary CSAIOS conference

Dr. Amartya Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University speaks during the 25th Anniversary Conference of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

The 25th Anniversary Conference of the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies (CSAIOS) kicked off last Friday with its Anniversary Keynote Lecture, titled “Is there Anything Special about South Asian Studies?” by Amartya Sen, Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University, in a full Cabot Intercultural Center ASEAN Auditorium.

The two-day event featured a variety of speakers and panelists from different universities who spoke about contemporary issues in the field of South Asian studies. The CSAIOS, which was established in 1989, is housed in the Department of History.

Provost and Senior Vice President David Harris and Interim Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences James Glaser started off the conference, noting the strength of the speakers this year and celebrating the success of the CSAIOS at Tufts.

“The school has benefited so much from [the CSAIOS],” Glaser said. “It has brought great intellectual rigor to the school, and it has been a magnet for students and faculty.”

Tufts Mary Richardson Professor of History Ayesha Jalal introduced Sen and underlined the global relevance of the CSAIOS and its cross-border implications.

“The center has been extremely fortunate, really, to have extraordinary support from the Tufts administration over the years,” Jalal said.

Sen, who is the winner of the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, spoke about the enduring relevancy and purpose of South Asian studies.

“If you look at the Indian, South Asian situation … it’s very important to identify what sets this region apart, what makes this region so important,” he explained

Sen said that he hoped to explore the question of whether the study of a particular region or a particular part of humanity is a good way to understand humanity in general. He added that there is a concern that with a focus on regional studies, it can be hard to judge if such knowledge can be applied universally.

“To divide the world up is a favorite exercise of many people,” he said.

Instead, Sen concluded that it is more relevant to study particular aspects of a region that could also be applicable elsewhere.

“I think that’s the form that universality has to take if we’re not going to be insensitive to differences that exist in the world,” he noted.

Sen spoke of the British colonial rule of India as an example of the exterior applicability of certain themes, such as the the consequences of invasion and foreign-led conversion in India. He said that the lessons of these studies in India can, for example, be applied to other places that were under colonial rule such as the United States or Australia.

The particular plurality of India’s population is another aspect that could be applied to other multi-faceted regions in the world, Sen added. He also discussed the different standards for gender and gender equality in India, noting its contemporary problems surrounding gender violence.

Sen explained that, ultimately, it is most important to perform a detailed analysis of a specific characteristic, attempt to explain the origin and consequences of the feature and then see what can be done to solve the problem.

After Sen’s lecture, Associate Professor of History Kris Manjapra introduced the second speaker of the conference, Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University and founder of the CSAIOS.

Bose’s lecture, titled “A Sea Change in South Asian Historiography? Reflections on the Last Twenty-Five Years,” covered the history of South Asian historical studies. Bose discussed the growth of the field over the past 25 years during his time as a scholar.

“Our intellectual ambition in those days was to argue that South Asia … could contribute to broader debates and theories,” he said.

Bose highlighted the key role of the CSAIOS in the development of this field in the past 25 years.

“One of the secrets of this center’s success was its creed of generous hospitality,” he said.

A reception following the two lectures brought the first day of the conference to an end, with Saturday featuring a number of panel discussions to conclude the event.