With support from Parag and Usha Saxena, the renamed Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown’s Watson Institute will grow its research, teaching, public policy and programming.
Ashutosh Varshney (left), a professor of international studies and political science, directs the newly renamed Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia at Brown. In November 2021, the center hosted author Salman Rushdie for a conversation on the politics, religion and literature of India and Pakistan.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With a $10 million gift from Parag and Usha Saxena, parents of three Brown University graduates, Brown will elevate and extend the global reach of its groundbreaking teaching and research on issues of modern South Asia.
In recognition of the generous support, the Corporation of Brown University approved the naming of the Saxena Center for Contemporary South Asia during its winter meeting in February.
Known to date as the Center for Contemporary South Asia, the Saxena Center, housed at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, promotes interdisciplinary research, teaching and public engagement on key issues of India and the surrounding region. The gift will enable the center to expand its footprint in research, teaching, public policy and programming.
Ashutosh Varshney, a professor of international studies and political science who directs the center, notes that it currently has four areas of programmatic and research focus: democracy, urban development, pluralism and inequalities. The gift will make it possible to expand the center’s offerings, have more ambitious research plans, and send more students for research, language training and internships in South Asia, Varshney said; it will also open more residency opportunities for visiting scholars, policy makers, public figures and artists.
In particular, the gift will increase the number of undergraduate and graduate students the center sends to India and other parts of South Asia for research and internships, and Varshney hopes to add new institutional linkages to its existing partnerships — with the Centre for Policy Research and the National Council of Applied Economics Research, both in Delhi, and with the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, in Bangalore.
In addition, the Saxena Center will deepen its relationship with Brown’s School of Public Health. SPH Dean Dr. Ashish Jha’s conviction that the problems of public health are not exclusively the domain of medicine, said Varshney, “made it easy to extend an intellectual arm for collaboration.” The Saxena Center and the school will work together to create academic programs at Brown and forge partnerships with Indian institutions.
The center’s origins date to 2011 and then-Brown President Ruth Simmons’ conviction that the international scope of a university like Brown should extend well beyond Europe to the Global South — including India and the rest of South Asia. At her invitation, Varshney created the India Initiative in 2012; with ongoing support since the arrival of President Christina H. Paxson in 2012, the initiative ultimately became the Center for Contemporary South Asia.
While anchored in the social sciences, the initiative-turned-center has embraced the humanities and arts from the start: “The humanities have so much to contribute to our social, cultural and even political understanding that not to include them would make us intellectually poorer,” Varshney said.
He noted that until recently, South Asia was the second-largest region in the world after East Asia. Since the early 1990s, India has been the second-fastest growing economy in the developing world after China and has by now become the fifth-largest economy in the world. In recent years, Bangladesh has made great strides in public health and education, and Pakistan is important geopolitically. He points to the formation of the Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — an emerging partnership among Japan, Australia, India and the United States for the Indo-Pacific region) as a sign of the region’s importance to the current U.S. administration’s foreign policy.
“Simply put,” he said, “political, economic and cultural developments in India will have an impact that is not confined to India. South Asia is strategically and economically important, and is likely to continue to rise.”
Scholars at the Saxena Center are helping us to better understand ourselves, whoever we happen to be, and wherever we happen to reside. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can hope to resolve our collective societal challenges.
Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute, said the center has and will continue to be extraordinarily successful in delivering path-breaking research and teaching on South Asia.
“To me, though, the center has been doing something still more profound: using its work on South Asia to illuminate the fundamental human experience,” Steinfeld said. “Whether with respect to economic development, public goods provision, inter-ethnic relations, or any number of other areas, scholars at the Saxena Center are helping us to better understand ourselves, whoever we happen to be, and wherever we happen to reside. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can hope to resolve our collective societal challenges.”
As three-time Brown parents, Parag and Usha Saxena formed an initial affiliation with the University through their children, but the couple over time developed a personal relationship with Simmons. In 2010, Parag Saxena traveled to India with Simmons to introduce her to his alma mater, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, where he earned his degree in chemical engineering. The Saxenas were early supporters of the India Initiative, and their sustained philanthropy has contributed meaningfully to Brown’s India and South Asia programs.
Parag Saxena came to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering and subsequently completed an MBA at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. His business experience spans four decades, with considerable activities and interests in South Asia as well as venture capital in the U.S.
The Saxenas said they are excited about the prospect of furthering the work of Varshney and Jha in South Asia, and hope that their gift will foster discussion and research among policymakers and scholars in the social sciences. But they also hope it will promote scholarship on and appreciation of South Asian literature, culture and art, about which they are passionate. Last November, the Saxenas traveled to Brown, where they attended an event organized by Varshney featuring the writer Salman Rushdie.
The Saxenas said their support for the center is based in their own Indian heritage and continued interest in India and South Asia, as well as the center’s potential to influence debate and accelerate the momentum for positive change in the region.
Varshney said that one of the greatest benefits of the Saxenas’ generous gift is the ability to pivot as world events shift or dialogue and research on South Asia issues deepens.
“A gift that gives you that freedom is in principle transformational,” he said.
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