A Mind at Work: Srinath Raghavan Visits Yale for Spring Semester

February 22, 2023

Professor Srinath Raghavan’s desk in Horchow Hall is covered with notes, papers, and books. That’s unsurprising, given that the professor and historian is working on not one but two book projects during his stay at Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs for the Spring 2023 semester. Those forthcoming works will join four acclaimed histories of South Asia: The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia (2018), India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945 (2016), 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (2013), and War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru Years (2010).

Raghavan is visiting Yale from Ashoka University, where he holds the title of Professor of International Relations and History. He describes himself as an “international historian of modern South Asia” whose work has spanned the period from the 1940s to the late 1990s. Raghavan began his career with traditional Indian foreign policy issues during the Nehru period (which became War and Peace in Modern India) and has shifted to various points in modern South Asian history since. His work has earned praise for its scope, perspectives, and skillful synthesis of strategic and political issues. When he was awarded the Infosys Prize, one of India’s most prestigious academic awards, in 2015, he was described by the Prize as “the most significant Indian exponent of military history and strategic studies.”

The first of Raghavan’s current book projects has intellectual roots that reach back over a decade, he told me. It’s a history of India in the “long 1970s,” tracing the transformation of India from the Nehru period—when India was dominated by the Congress Party and maintained a non-aligned international posture that sought to leverage aid from both sides of the Cold War—to the early 1990s, when India became a country with a multiparty political system and an economy geared toward privatization, liberalization, and globalization that sought to find its place in a world dominated by the United States. In a sense, Raghavan said, “It’s turning my interests inside out. I’m interested in understanding how the global history of the period speaks to what is happening in the Indian context itself,” rather than how India speaks to global trends, as his other work has done. He also emphasized the value of easy access to archival collections at Yale, whether physically at the school or through digital and shared access: “I’m constantly finding new things that I didn’t know about or which were much more difficult for me to access sitting in India.”

The second book project Raghavan is working on is the official history of the Kargil War for the Government of India, which he couldn’t tell me much about. But his selection as the author of the book is unusual. The History Division at the Indian Ministry of Defense usually writes official histories of operations involving the Indian military. But when the government contacted Raghavan about writing the book, he said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. He’s no stranger to the Indian Armed Forces: he served for six years in the Indian Army, including during the Kargil War.

In addition to his book projects, Raghavan is teaching a seminar called Conflict and Security in South Asia, which said has been “fantastic.” The seminar is a departure from his usual teaching at Ashoka, which leans toward broader courses on international history because so many of his colleagues are South Asianists. He selected the course topic after conversations with Jackson School colleagues about what was missing in existing offerings to students at the school. Putt Punyagupta SY ’24, a student in the course, said, “Professor Raghavan’s class is a great addition to the already thriving course offerings on modern South Asia at Yale. What I appreciate the most about the class is that Professor Raghavan grounds our understanding of 20th-century South Asian international relations in rigorous historical analysis. I welcome this much-needed approach at a time when social scientific methods are becoming increasingly ascendant in studies of global affairs in the developing world.”

Professor Sunil Amrith, Chair of the South Asian Studies Council, said he counts Raghavan among his close friends and colleagues. “Not only is Srinath one of the most talented historians anywhere in the world today, he is also an exceptionally generous colleague and mentor to students, as many at Yale have already found in the weeks he has been here. It’s a true pleasure to have him with us for the whole semester.”

Raghavan had similarly warm words for the larger Yale community: “This is perhaps my fourth or fifth trip to Yale, and the first for an extended period of time. It’s been great partly because the sense of community is so strong. There are all these colleagues and friends I have here. And as an intellectual community Yale has so much to offer that I’m trying to make the most of it.”

Byline: Daevan Mangalmurti