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Repositioning India's brand

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Last updated on: December 09, 2003 13:16 IST
Part I: Is South Asian Studies undermining India?

Brand Management by other countries in USA

India is under-represented in American academia compared to China, Islam/Middle East and Japan, among others. Even the study of Tibet is stronger than that of India. Worse than the quantitative under-representation is the qualitative one: While other major countries positively influence the content of the discourse about them, pro-India forces rarely have much say in India Studies.


China is fortunate that its thinkers are mostly positive ambassadors promoting its brand. Chinese scholars have worked for decades to create a coherent and cohesive Chinese Grand Narrative that shows both continuity and advancement from within. This gives the Chinese people a common identity based on the sense of a shared past -- one that maps their future destiny as a world power. Pride in One Unifying Notion of the National Identity and Culture is a form of capital, providing an internal bond and a defense against external (or internal) subversions that threaten the whole nation. Scholars play an important role in this construction.

China's Grand Narrative is a strong, centripetal force bringing all Chinese together, whereas many Indian intellectuals are slavishly adopting ideologies that act as centrifugal forces pulling Indians apart.

The China Institute's New York mission is to influence public opinion on China. It holds art shows, language classes, lectures, films, and history lessons. Unlike the India-bashing films and lectures on many American campuses these day (selected by self-flagellating Indian professors), the Chinese project a positive image of China. The key difference is that China's scholars are not trying to go public with China's dirty laundry -- they are not trying to use international forums to fix domestic problems.

In sharp contrast, Indian academics often lack self-confidence and pride in India, and use every opportunity to demean India internationally, and to justify this as a way of helping India's human rights problems. These Indians seem too desperate to join the Grand Narrative of the West, in whatever role they are granted admission, whereas Chinese scholars have not sold out to the same extent.

The China Institute also has many pro-China programs for Chinese parents and kids, K-12 curriculum development, teacher training, student scholarships, and seminars for corporate executives and journalists. The Institute has a successful program to teach Chinese-Americans to project a hyphenated identity that combines both American and Chinese cultures, and they call this 'leadership training,' while South Asian scholar often labor to undermine the Indian-ness of our children's identities, by equating Indian-ness with chauvinism.


A good analysis would also scrutinize the Pakistani government funded Quaid-e-Azam Chairs of Pakistan Studies at Berkeley and Columbia. The appointments to these chairs are under the control of the Pakistani government, and are rotated every few years. Note that this is accepted as normal and has not attracted any criticism from academia. It is little wonder that the American media has interviewed more pro-Pakistan scholars than pro-India scholars.

Pakistani scholars have established their leadership over South Asian Muslims' campus activism in the US, and claim to represent Indian Muslims. Many Indian academicians have joined their bandwagon to denigrate Indian culture in the name of human rights activism and South Asian unity. These scholars hold great influence over young impressionable Indian kids in college. It seems that the Pakistani government has adopted a corporate-style strategic planning process, while many Indian-American donors have not approached this as competitive brand management.


Another good example of how soft power can be developed and projected via academic intervention is the case of Tibet. Twenty five years ago, H H the Dalai Lama asked his Western disciples to get PhDs from top Western universities, and to become Buddhism professors in colleges. Today, almost every major US campus has practicing Buddhists on the faculty, who project their spiritual identities very publicly and confidently.

Even though Buddhism shares most of its meditation techniques with other Indic traditions, Buddhism has become positioned as a valid research methodology for neuroscience, whereas Hinduism is plagued with the caste, cows and curry images. Buddhism is explained intellectually and sympathetically, not via an exotic/erotic lens. Buddhist scholars have a powerful impact on students, and serve as media experts and public intellectuals. Buddhism has major Hollywood endorsements. India has nothing even remotely comparable to the influence of Tibet House in building its cultural capital.

Japan and Korea:

The Japan Foundation and Korea Foundation are also great institutions worthy of study by NRI donors. The Japanese have funded over fifty academic chairs in USA.  Pro-Japan scholars occupy these chairs, and they have close ties with scholars based in Japan; they are loyal to the Japanese identity and culture. An ambitious teacher training program has certified thousands of Americans to 'Teach Japan' in schools. The Japanese drive the Americans' study of Japan, and not vice versa as in India's case.

The Korea Foundation has sponsored a series of books on a variety of subjects on Korea and donates/subsidizes these books to libraries worldwide.

Repositioning India's brand

As a priority, India's image in American academia needs a corporate type analysis of the market/competition and current status. This would lead to the diagnosis and identification of key problems needing correction. Only then could a viable strategy emerge. This brand repositioning is necessary for more Indian-Americans to succeed on their own terms in management and political arenas. It is also necessary for an independent profile of India.

The strategy for influencing India Studies could begin with looking at India's technology developments and opportunities, and the resulting geopolitical implications. This could build on the recent positive Indian image in corporate America and American business schools. Donors may want to think about initially working with business schools instead of South Asian Studies Departments, especially since Indian-American donors have better experience in evaluating business scholars than humanities scholars. Many of the contentious issues listed at the end of this article would not apply because of greater convergence between India's interests and the mindset of business schools.

At the same time, culture is an important form of capital and must be positively positioned as a part of any brand management. Cultural branding should not be allowed to become a liability under the control of anti-India forces. Yoga and Ayurveda are examples of positive cultural areas that are now in the mainstream and deserve to be brought back under the India brand. Two illustrations will show the economic cost of not managing cultural capital:

Yoga is a multi-billion dollar industry in the USA, with 18 million American practitioners, $27 billion/year revenues (from classes, videos, books, conferences, retreats), over 10,000 studios/teachers, and 700,000 subscribers to Yoga Journal. However, cultural shame has kept Indians out of this field, and over 98% of yoga teachers and students in USA are non-Indians.

Clearly, the economic potential here could be as big as India's software exports, especially if yoga were included in India's proposed initiative to export health care services. America's yoga centres are potential retail outlets for Indian culture and brand marketing.

Ayurveda is a $2 billion/year industry and a part of the high growth international market for plant medicines. The popular consumer brand, Aveda, was started by an American devotee of Indian gurus to bring Ayurveda to the West. (Aveda is short for Ayurveda.) He later sold it to Estee Lauder: Now, Estee Lauder sources herbs from countries other than India, and there has been no royalty to Kerala's farmers who are being displaced from their traditional industry. Nor is there any recognition of this loss in the Indian intellectual's mind. Contrast this with the way the Chinese government has turned Chinese medicine into a multi-billion dollar vehicle for Brand China, or with the way the French wine and cosmetic industries have endowed their products with a mystique that protects French jobs.

To explain why educated Indians are amongst the best knowledge workers in the world, the common reason given is that the British taught us English, science and governance. But under this theory, all former colonies, such as Kenya, Uganda, Egypt, Zaire, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Trinidad and Myanmar should be suppliers of knowledge workers on par with India. Few Indians have the courage to articulate that the reason is partly because of India's long cultural traditions that emphasize learning and inquiry, including the openness fostered by its pluralistic worldviews.

In fact, Indians were exporters of knowledge systems and knowledge workers throughout the Middle East and Pan-Asia for centuries prior to colonialism. Arab/Persian records indicate that many hospitals in the Middle East were run by Indian doctors and that Indian scholars ran their universities. Indians were chief accountants in many Persian courts. Indian mathematics went via Persian/Arab translations to influence European mathematics.

Furthermore, Buddhists took Indian knowledge systems to East and Southeast Asia, including medicine, linguistics, metallurgy, philosophy, astronomy, arts, martial arts, etc. Indian universities (such as Nalanda) attracted students from all parts of Asia, and were patronized by foreign rulers. All this is well appreciated by scholars in East and Southeast Asian countries but is hardly known to Indians.

Indian corporate executives are playing a key role in charting India's future through knowledge based industries. Therefore, it should be important for them to sponsor an honest account of India's long history of exporting both its knowledge workers and complete knowledge systems. This historical account is important in reinventing India's non-innovative education system and repositioning its brand. Hence, Indian-Americans must question the colonial discourse which promotes the view that 'anything positive about India was imported from elsewhere.' The impact of such skewed discourse on Indian children is pertinent and must be examined.

I have found that American audiences are very open and even eager to learn about India's contributions to American culture. But most professors of India Studies in American universities consider such themes irrelevant or, worse still, chauvinistic. In doing so, they apply a different standard to India as compared to other non-Western civilizations. This has a lot to do with the cultural shame that many Indians in academe feel burdened with – in contrast with successful Indian executives who project positive identities.

Consider the following examples that are usually not emphasized in the academic research/teaching in India Studies, when equivalent items concerning China, Islam, Japan, etc are emphasized:

  • America's 'Discovery' was the result of venture capital from the Queen of Spain to explore new trade routes to India, because Indian goods were highly sought after. Most persons find it hard to believe that India could have had such prized export items, and some find such suggestions troubling given their preconceived images of India's culturally linked poverty. Any genuine exploration of India's economic history is nipped in the bud.
  • The New Age Movement is neo-Hindu, with 18 million Americans doing yoga, meditation, and adopting vegetarianism,  animal rights and other Indian values. Eco-Feminism was brought to America by Vandana Shiva, who explained to Americans the philosophies of the sacredness of the environment. American Pop Culture owes a great deal to Indian music (via the Beatles and others), film, art, fashions and cuisine.
  • Icons of American Literature, such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Eliot, the Beats, among others, were deeply involved in the study and practice of Indian philosophy and spiritual traditions. While they are widely read and admired, the Indian wellsprings of their inspiration is often downplayed, to the detriment of all students. Modern Psychology, since the work of Jung and others, has assimilated many theories from India, and this has impacted mind-body healing and neurosciences.
  • American Religion has adopted many Indian theological ideas transmitted via Teilhard de Chardin's study of Ramanuja. Transcendental Meditation was learnt in the 1970s by monks in Massachusetts and repackaged into the popular 'Christian Centering Prayer.' The study of the Hindu Goddess became a source of empowerment for many American Christian women.
  • American Civil Rights drew inspiration from Gandhi: Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and others wrote about satyagraha as their guiding principle with great reverence in the 1960s, but this has faded from the memory of African-American history as taught today. How many Indians know that Indian social theories influenced J S Mill, who is regarded as the founder of modern Western liberalism, and that many Enlightenment ideas also originated in India and China? The Natural Law Party is considered a pioneer in American political liberalism, but it is generally unknown that it was started by, and is run by, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Western followers.

Such positive themes are rarely reflected in the humanities curricula concerning India. The disciplines are populated by scholars who typically entered the US after the Soviet collapse, when funding by Soviet-sponsored sources ended. They still continue to espouse sociological models that have been discarded for decades, thereby hindered India's progress in the global economy. They continue to promote divisive scholarship about India. One wonders why the West legitimizes such persons and positions them as representatives of India. Now they have reproduced their mindsets in a whole new generation of confused Indian-Americans with PhDs in the humanities.

Challenging the India-Bashing Club

While India's positive image is not adequately projected in US academia, the many negative stereotypes abound, devaluing India's brand into fragments and chaos. These include:

Anti-progress: Indian culture is depicted as primitive, obsolete, and frozen until outsiders come and push it forward. Hence, the implication seems to suggest, we must invite outsiders to come and fix our problems for us.

Unethical: Indian culture is essentialized by images of abusive caste, sati, dowry deaths, and other human rights atrocities, including aggressive charges of fascism, violation of minority rights and violence. Indian scholars often lead these parades that overemphasize public tirades against India in the West, while failing to understand the implications of brand damage in a global capitalist system.

Unscientific: Indians are shown as mystical people lacking Western style rationality.

Everything good about India is assumed to have been imported: The British gave us a sense of nation. There was no worthy Indian culture prior to the Mughals. The Greek brought philosophy and mathematics to India. The "Aryans" brought Sanskrit. By implication, Indians are doomed to dependency, which contradicts the vision of India's future trajectory being based on knowledge-based industries.

Many Indian scholars in the humanities, journalists, and 'intellectuals' in Non-Government Organizations depend on Western funding, Western sponsored foreign travel, acquiring legitimacy in the eyes of Western institutions, the ability to parrot canned Western 'theories,' and even identifying as a member of the Western Grand Narrative – not as options but as necessary conditions for success. Clearly, such loyalties, identities and ideologies must resonate with their sponsors.

Unlike China Studies and Islam Studies, India Studies is controlled by the West, often with the help of Indian mercenaries. The frequent bombardment of negative imagery of Indian society is devastating its soft power. The globalization of India's 'human rights' issues is not solving any social problems in India. It has become a cottage industry for many Indians – whose role may be seen as analogous to the sepoys who helped the British rule over the rest of their brethren. Many Indian scholars are, at best, apologetic about Indian culture. They go about with great aplomb 'exposing' internal problems of India at international forums, for which their careers are well rewarded.

Certainly, there is legitimacy and urgency to human rights concerns. But the academic treatment of this subject is asymmetric vis-à-vis India as compared to other countries. More importantly, American campuses are not the place to resolve them. Students are being brainwashed into thinking of India as a quagmire.

Proposed Mission Statement for NRI Philanthropists

Prior to supporting India Studies, Indian-American philanthropists must, first, establish their mission statement. I submit the following statement for their consideration, at least as a starting point:

The mission is to bring objectivity and fair balance to India Studies so as to: 1. strengthen and enrich America's multiculturalism at home; 2. empower Indian-American kids' hyphenated identities; 3. improve US-India cooperation as cultural equals; and 4. improve India's cultural brand in the globalization process.

It is important to note that this mission statement does not include using American classrooms or media as platforms to cure Indian society of its problems. This is the point over which there is a serious conflict of interest between Indian-American donors and many 'South Asian' academicians in the humanities who are deeply entrenched in anti-India activism. To put it bluntly, some oppose the very notion of a strong Indian nation state, calling that chauvinism, and would like a balkanized India consisting of weak sub-nationalities. Many have taken the position that to expose India's 'human rights atrocities' is central to their mandate. This is usually done without giving equal time (or any time) to India's many positive accomplishments in social development and pluralism. Naively putting such individuals in charge of one's well-intended donations would be like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Questions that donors must address

Since Indian-Americans have already earned the highest levels of success and self-esteem, they should not be overly impressed by the prestige of academic institutions. They must utilize their best negotiation skills and not get bulldozed into accepting 'standard' terms from the universities. Indian-Americans have no reason to be over-awed by the Western-centric approaches to social sciences and liberal arts, whose very validity and effectiveness are being challenged by serious thinkers in the West. Indian-Americans should bring to these discussions their own reference points from the corporate world, such as the following questions and issues suggest.

A strategic choice must be made between promoting India Studies (which would be a centripetal force helping India's unity as a nation state without compromising its diversity) and South Asian Studies (which is a centrifugal force pushing India towards balkanization).

Should the overarching theme support mutual understanding between cultures through exploring India's vast cultural capital, or support political activism against India? What is the brand damage currently being done by Indians engaged in one-sided public tirades, who exaggerate India's internal problems in front of audiences that are ill-equipped to make balanced judgments? How should one approach Indian scholars who have become mercenaries? What is the connection between such scholars and Marxism and its derivatives?

To address the above issues, Indian-American donors first need to clearly articulate what they consider to be their own vision of India. Next, they need to examine the degree to which their vision is compatible with that of various humanities scholars. India's brand must not be outsourced to people whose ideologies are subversive of India's integrity.

How is India's brand positioned relative to other civilizations? Who are the major competitors, and what are their strategies, strengths and weaknesses? A comparison between India Studies and China Studies, among others, is very important. What are the major brand problems that India faces today?

What is the relationship between India's cultural capital and its brand equity? For example, if India can supply world class professionals in so many fields, then why does India have less than two percent of the market share in the massive American industry of yoga, meditation and related areas? Why are there no world class Indian institutions in this field producing the equivalent of IIT graduates to go and capture world markets – given that the trend in holistic living is increasing worldwide and India has unmatched brand equity that could also boost its health care export industry? Furthermore, the positioning of Indian Classics in academe, as compared to Greek Classics and Chinese Classics, must be examined in relation to cultural capital formation.

What are the distribution channels that control the production and dissemination of ideas about India's brand? Who are the key players in control over each stage and what are their critical success factors? In particular, who funds the production and distribution, and who controls the intellectual platforms to think about India? The critical bottlenecks, especially those that tend to be monopolistic, should be identified.

What were the key trends over the past 25 years in India Studies? Why has India failed to enter India Studies as a serious player and, by default, allowed Indians to be reduced to consumers who lack their own intellectual capital to drive the field?

Why is there no funding for India Studies within India, to empower a new generation of 'insiders of the tradition' to enter the global field of India Studies; to contest old paradigms about India; and to shift the center of gravity of India Studies back to India, in the same way that most other major civilizations are controlling their own intellectual discourse?

Donors need to examine the consequences of these brand problems -- such as Indian students' identity crises, and the marginalization of India's soft power.

There are valuable lessons in the successes of other American minority cultures that have taken control over their own brand management -- Jews, blacks, women and gays being prominent examples.

Based on this type of research, donors should establish targets for the future. They should also establish the criteria for evaluation and the mechanisms to monitor the progress.

Undoubtedly, there will be those in India Studies departments who feel threatened by enlightened Indian-American donors entering the discourse as equal partners. One strategy to 'buy out' Indian-American donors is to admit them to prestigious committees where they can hobnob with dignitaries and send picture home.

Meanwhile, below are two good role models for objective India Studies in the US:

The Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania focuses on the business and political aspects of India: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/casi/  

The Center for India Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook is more multifaceted and emphasizes the humanities -- including culture, languages, history, religions, arts and dance: http://naples.cc.sunysb.edu/CAS/india.nsf/pages/about

Each is an India-centric approach, in which 'South Asia' is treated from India's perspective.

The former example (UPenn) is easier to implement in a pro-India manner, because corporate and political winds have shifted in India's favor lately. However, the latter (SUNY) has made a bigger impact on the identities of Indian students in that university -- one that is attributed to the courage and leadership of the scholars in charge and the Indian-American donors in that vicinity.

In the long run, culture will play a vital role in India's brand. Some Indian-American groups are hesitant to tackle the systemic biases that plague the academic work on Indian culture and society. They should delay funding in this area until they have a better understanding of the issues at stake. Their safer bet is to fund business schools. A good example of India's brand management is the recent joint initiative by the Government of India and the Confederation of Indian Industry. (See: http://www.ibef.org/index.asp )

Recommendations for Academic Funding 

  • Continue pushing the US to upgrade India on par with China in its discourse, and to decouple India from the South Asian grouping. Furthermore, expose the entrenched academic forces that are subversive of India's stability, which would be very dangerous for US interests.
  • Establish a clear mission statement for India Studies. This should include a position on whether it should remain positioned as a 'ghetto' separate from mainstream humanities, or if, as in the case of Western civilization, India should be in the mainstream curriculum of various departments, such as history, philosophy, music, dance, science, medicine, psychology, politics, and so forth.
  • Keep the Indian-American endowment with a trust/foundation that is in the hands of the Diaspora, and do not give the corpus away to any university. Give an annual budget to selected universities under a 2-year or 3-year contract, subject to evaluation and renewal. Universities do accept these terms.
  • Appoint a knowledgeable Diaspora evaluation and monitoring committee to oversee what goes on in each program, and don't just leave it to the university scholars to send you status reports. The committee should attend classes, read the publications of the department and participate in the events organized. Many problems of shoddy or biased scholarship disappear when the scholars know that they are being watched by the funding sources – as it is done by Western funding sources routinely.
  • Keep the appointment durations no longer than 2 or 3 years in the beginning, until there is enough experience. Tenured appointments are very counter-productive in case an India-hater gets in.
  • Require the program to be India Studies and not South Asia Studies. There is no point in including anti-India scholars on committees and having deadlocks in the decision-making. Examine the program details, and avoid funding scholars and topics that are counter to your vision.
  • Do annual surveys and publish reports on what the effect of the sponsored work is on students and the American public at large.


Rajiv Malhotra
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