Penn's Center for the Advanced Study of India marks 20 years

Over the summer, Penn senior Shumita Basu studied in India, left. Above, Devesh Kapur, center director.
Over the summer, Penn senior Shumita Basu studied in India, left. Above, Devesh Kapur, center director.
Posted: September 27, 2012

Indisputably populous, but mostly a bit player on the global stage, India in the late 1980s was viewed by the United States as neither a major threat nor a strategic partner.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and internal changes that opened India's economy to foreign investment in 1991, a transformation of India's stature in the world began. Francine Frankel, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, had the vision to see it coming.

The result was the creation in 1992 of Penn's Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), billed as the first academic center exclusively for India research.

On Thursday, CASI celebrates its 20th anniversary with "India: Two Decades of Transformation," a daylong symposium on the country's economy, society, and foreign relations. The event, at Penn's Law School, is expected to draw U.S. and Indian business leaders and academics.

In the two decades since CASI was founded, India has become a power player while adding 364 million people to its population.

"That's more than the entire population of the U.S.," said Devesh Kapur, the center's director.

By 2050, Kapur said, India's billion-plus population is projected to overtake China's. And sometime in the present decade, Indians will make up 25 percent of the world's job seekers.

Providing policy-makers with research and analysis of such breathtaking growth is a continuing challenge for the center, which operates on about $1 million a year in foundation and private grants.

Conducted by students, faculty, and visiting scholars, CASI research is followed closely inside India and the United States. Although preregistration for the symposium is closed, a video will be available on CASI's website next week.

In addition to academic-year research, Penn students are eligible for summer-in-India internships to study issues.

What is the impact of India's rapidly expanding middle class on its traditional caste system? As trade and strategic partnerships with the U.S. intensify, can India pursue an independent course vis-a-vis Iran? Those are the kinds of questions CASI was set up to tackle.

Frankel, who still teaches at Penn, was CASI's director from 1992 to 2006.

In a recent interview, she recalled how the institute received initial funding from the Indian government, the Ford Foundation, and the university.

In the years after India's independence from Britain in 1947, and against the backdrop of Cold War anxiety, academic exchanges between India and the United States withered. Frankel conceived of CASI as a way to reopen the dialogue.

A few years after the Soviet collapse and India's economic changes, the Clinton administration reassessed its strategic options regarding India and Pakistan, which had been treated equally. Clinton's National Security Council advised strengthening ties with India.

Seeing opportunity, and already an expert on India's political economy, Frankel reached out to its foreign secretary, Mani Dixit, and finance minister, Manmohan Singh (now the prime minister). Both agreed a center at Penn was a good idea.

"They offered me a grant toward the establishment of the center in the amount of $50,000," Frankel said. "In a sign of how things were done in India," a check for $50,000 was written to her personally and mailed to her Society Hill home.

With that money, an equivalent amount from the Ford Foundation, and office space provided by Penn, CASI was launched. In October 1993, it held its first important conference - on the relationship between technology transfer and nuclear proliferation.

A campaign to raise $3 million and a commitment from the university for continuing financial support helped anchor the center at 3600 Market St.

CASI's counterpart institution in New Delhi, the University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India, with which CASI conducts joint research, is separately funded.

CASI deputy director Juliana Di Giustini said the center at Penn nurtures the next generation of students and scholars who want to learn about contemporary India and how to engage with it, possibly in future careers.

"We live in a globalized economy and India is emerging as a key player," she said. "For anyone who is 16 or 18, the opportunity to be working with India or Indians will certainly happen in their lives."

Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or

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