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‘Europe and India: The Reciprocal Gaze’




The reciprocal gaze is a key instrument for advancing mutual knowledge.

The objective and the motive of the gaze are relevant, because they influence

and can even determine the outcome of the gaze. Learning ofcourse is an

obvious objective, a deeper understanding is perhaps another. When we

consider the relevance of this reciprocal gaze in the context of area studies

centres, we need to ask how and why this relevance has remained resilient to

the globalizing and interconnecting influences of our times.

India and Europe look at each other today with new eyes in order to

enhance reciprocal knowledge. The notion of the reciprocal gaze also suggests

that they take away from this encounter a new understanding of each other.

Neither India nor Europe should normally emerge unchanged from this reciprocal

gaze, unless they treat their worldview as a finished product, immune to change.

This gaze is deeply contextual, shaped by history and geography, but also

by culture and reciprocal knowledge that has been handed down and passed

through various distorting mirrors. Here the importance of the third gaze

becomes relevant. When Europe and India look at each other, they are not on an

island. The United States of America have become the universal interlocutor, and

no dialogue is possible without reference to this third gaze, more so in our

multipolar world. Given this setting, what are the specific issues that arise when

area study centres engage in studying these two very diverse unions, both of

which are in a sense regions that are seeking to encompass their diversity within

a single political entity.

This raises two major issues that are relevant to the concept of area






1. The issue of defining what constitutes an area is complicated by the

fact that we have to deal with shifting boundaries and changing geographies.

Three factors influence the definition of areas (a) geo political and geo strategic

concerns (b) trade and commerce in a globalised economy and (c) the need to

understand the cultural area in terms of cultures of knowledge, on the one hand,

and cultures of governance on the other.

This further raises the wider issue of defining larger regional groupings, as

zones of power and influence from the geo political perspective on the one hand,

as distinctive trade zones and markets, with different cultural attributes and

distinctive tastes and needs on the other.

Pseudo domains have also emerged, such as the Goldman Sachs

fabrication of the BRIC group, which is in reality a financial advisors tool for

guiding investment decisions rather than an entity which can be studied

meaningfully as such.

It is therefore more fruitful to focus on identifiable entities, hence the

significance of the reciprocal gaze between Europe and India, entities that have

withstood the test of time.

2. The second issue concerns the definition of the units of comparison.

The mode of coming together and holding together or staying together of

diverse unions is a case in point. Here the unit of comparison clearly matters. In

the earlier phases of the construction of Europe, major European powers viewed

India as a single country and bilateral relations were the norm in international

affairs. In comparative politics, for a long time the building of SAARC and Indo-

Pak rapprochement were seen as paralleling the construction of the EU and

Franco-German reconciliation respectively.

As Europe began to grapple with the complexities of an enlarged Union

with a common currency and a Constitution that calls itself a Treaty, which could

easily have been called a Compact or a Covenant, it appreciates better the

complexities of the Indian Union as a political entity, and understands that

pluricultural and multinational India is in reality made up of several federated



‘countries’ and peoples.

Management guru Charles Handy significantly argues that the smart

strategy for transnational corporations is to adopt the federal principle for their

internal organisation, a federative structure that gives autonomy to their

operations in each cultural area. He recognizes the significance of cultural

specificities in the strategies for effective corporate governance. From the

political standpoint, the specificities of different cultures of governance are

equally relevant for conceptualizing a globalized world.

We now turn our attention more specifically to the reciprocal gaze that

India and Europe have cast upon each other, first viewed historically and then in

relation to the needs and requirements of our times.

(a) India and Europe: An Old Relationship, a New Gaze

As Europe looks at India in new ways, through new lenses, India in turn

reassesses its past relationship and looks to Europe for ideas. Ideas that would

help in thinking the present differently, as well as in imagining the future

differently. Despite its emergence as a new market, change in India is more in

perceptions than in reality. However, perception management is a legitimate

priority for sovereign states, while uncovering reality is a prime concern for social


The rediscovery of Europe by postcolonial India brought with it many

surprises. On the cultural plane, India recognised in Europe an old partner in a

continuing dialogue which had a long history spanning centuries, and in which

there were many points of convergence in terms of shared values and concerns.

There were, at the same time, significant ruptures in the relationship during

which mutual incomprehension and even bitter hostility prevailed.

India, which had engaged the attention of serious European scholars in

the early 20th century, slowly slipped off the radar of European scholarly concern

and drowned in a sea of clichés. Europe, it appeared, had ceased to grapple with

the richness of the Indian reality and succumbed to the facility of ready-made




The problems of a multilingual and multicultural polity of continental

dimensions are common concerns for both Unions. Both of them are parallel

initiatives, which took shape in the context of the post-War world and have built

Unions against heavy odds. Both had their share of sceptics, who declared their

unions unworkable and unviable.

In both Unions, multiple identities seek to coexist within a single political

entity. The goal in both cases is to attain the minimum degree of uniformity

necessary to achieve and preserve the union, without sacrificing in any way the

richness of the pluralism and diversity that are precious facets of their

civilisational heritage.

As the eminent French thinker Edgar Morin puts it, the world is being

propelled by an engine with three facets – globalisation, westernisation and

development. This engine is being fuelled by science and technology, says he,

and an uncontrolled and unregulated profit motive. Global unification, he points

out, is techno-economic, and is simultaneously accompanied by several

withdrawals and closures: ethnic, national, and religious.

The global and the local have been growing simultaneously, each

knowing that it cannot wish away the other, and has to live with it. This imposes

upon us the obligation to critically examine ‘universal values’ in their regional

acceptations, as they cross national and cultural borders. Hence the pressing

need for revisiting the ordering framework of analysis for area study centres.

Political boundaries and national frontiers are the physical embodiment of

the concepts of the nation-state and national sovereignty. Even in this age of the

free flow of capital and social networks, cultural identities remain tenacious and

demand understanding in their historical depth and their social specificities. They

are the imponderables, which give rise to uncertainties. However, we must guard

against the excesses of culturalism, which would render impossible any

comparative framework and even vitiate the reciprocal gaze.



Speaking of our collective uncertain future, Edgar Morin cites Friedrich

Holderlin: “Where grows the peril also grows what saves”, and goes on to add

that hope feeds on that which leads to despair.

In the two parts that follow, we first look at the possibilities of developing

comparative insights through the study of India and Europe, for example by

exploring the dynamics of unity and diversity in political unions. In the second

part, we turn to the issues involved in redefining the role and relevance of area

study centres. We also argue that scientific theorisation demands comparative

validation, and unless a concept is validated from both Western and non-Western

perspectives, it cannot be truthfully considered a universal concept. The scientific

authority behind the rejection of non-conforming realities as deviant needs to be

established before it is asserted. In the name of what scientific tenets can we

declare that certain variants of democracy are more or less conform to an ideal

which is itself historically and culturally rooted? The reciprocal gaze lends

strength to the scientific validation process.



While democracy undoubtedly remains a strong element in European

construction, questions of diversity continue to receive varied responses from

different member states. On the important concepts of the public and the

private, as also of the religious and the secular, a transcultural validation would

come closest to the trans-subjectivisation of key social science concepts which

are projected as being of universal relevance.

It would therefore be instructive to look at the two entities that are the

focus of our discussion today, the European Union and the Indian Union, in a

comparative historical perspective. They have followed not only parallel paths in

the construction of their Unions, but both are grappling with the comparable

problems of the place of local identities and communities in the Union.



The Indian Union was born in a sub-continent ravaged by colonial

occupation, adopting largely through the devolutionary path, while the European

Union was built on the ruins of two successive wars via the evolutionary route.

India sought to repair the damage inflicted by colonial exploitation through a

policy of self-reliance and import substitution. Europe, helped by the Marshall

Plan, moved towards the construction of a common market, while India sought

to consolidate its new political union through the mechanism of development


(b) Europe as an Area of Study in India

What does Europe represent for India today, in a multipolar world?

Among other things, it represents a different tradition of conceptualising the

social, in terms of solidarity, equity and justice, on which India has drawn heavily

in defining its own constitutional objectives. Arising from these concepts are

distinct conceptions of the role of the State in the service of the nation, and the

central idea of public service. The European tradition of the State as a protector

and promoter of the public good has perhaps not lost its relevance. It offers an

alternative path of economic growth with social cohesion, inclusive or

harmonious growth, in which the public sphere retains its significance and the

public good is a strong value.

Two other dimensions need mention:

(a) Europe as a major economic power and trading partner

(b) Europe as an emerging political actor on the global stage, as a united


In the realm of sharing experiences and perceptions, the European and

Indian Unions are uniquely placed, in a situation that is both peculiar and

promising. Whereas Europe successfully negotiated an economic union, India has

yet to achieve the goal of a seamless common market. On the other hand, a

political union was crafted in India sixty years ago that enables it to encompass

multiple identities in a single state.



Where both have much to learn from each other is in linking economic

growth with human development. By looking at each other instead of looking

past each other. The reciprocal gaze, we believe, is embodied in the concept of

comparative area studies, in a pluri-disciplinary perspective.



Since we are engaged in looking at the past, present and future of area

studies, it is important to step back and see them contextually. Born in the

postcolonial context and the rivalries of the second half of the 20th century, these

centres have changed in terms of both geography and focus. The watershed

developments in Europe in 1989-91 had global repercussions. They accelerated

economic resurgence in India by compelling it to move more forcefully along a

path of economic liberalisation that has sustained impressive growth rates over

two decades. The face of Europe has also changed vastly.

In this context, what new thrust can be given to these study centres, what are

the gaps in reciprocal knowledge, what are the capacities that need building or


The stated goal of the workshop is to try to find out if a solid ground for area

study centres still exists in this age of globalization. In attempting to do this,

three major issues arise and raise questions that demand answers:

(a) What policy perspectives govern the creation of these centres? There are

ofcourse the needs and requirements of foreign policy perspective

planning. What are the other needs, notably in the fields of cultural and

commercial diplomacy and the requirements of business and professional

organisations? This is directly related to the development of relevant skills

for employment and professional development.

(b) What is the best mode of integration of these centres into the University

system? This involves also the relationship between teaching and



research. Student motivation should play an important part in determining

priorities for study and research. The primary obligation of universities is

to their students. Other needs and interests should play a secondary role

in determining research orientations.

(c) What would constitute a fruitful relationship between the two sets of

Centres involved in this reciprocal gaze, those studying India in Europe

and those studying Europe in India? Do they have anything to contribute

to each other’s work and understanding, because of their shared

commonalities? Simply put, do I understand Europe better through the

eyes of a European who also understands India and vice versa?

Comparative area studies pose a different set of conceptual and

methodological issues and challenges. Two such issues that could be

listed in conclusion are:

(a) There is on the one hand the accusation of under-theorisation of area

studies from a comparative perspective. The charge, as summed up by Mark

Tessler, is that “the work of area specialists lacks rigour and, above all, that it is

not scientific in that it favours description over explanation, lacks analytical

cumulativeness, and shows no interest in parsimony and generalisation.” The

challenge therefore is to further develop a methodology for refuting such

charges, which are far from being proved in any case. Cultural relativism and

exceptionalism should not be viewed as the norm in area studies. They are to be

viewed rather as deviations that detract from the scientific character of the larger

enterprise, which is and ought to remain firmly embedded in the comparative

perspective. In my opinion, theorisation emerging from comparative area

studies has perhaps greater scientific credibility, precisely because it incorporates

transcultural scientific perspectives. That there could be more of it is another

question, but its contribution to comparative social science theory is undeniable.


(b) On the other hand, it is increasingly clear that global macro trends are

not intelligible without reference to local dynamics. Globalisation has been

accompanied by cultural differentiation, and in recent times, the importance of

better understanding non-Western cultures of knowledge and governance has

gained in significance.

Hence, the utility of the transcultural gaze in the validation of concepts.

Concepts in the social sciences can only be considered to have been scientifically

validated and universally applicable if they have been subjected to critical

scrutiny from a cultural perspective different from the one in which they

originated. A transcultural analysis of concepts would reveal the commonalities

and differences that accompany their interpretation, and the obstacles in their

acceptance as universally tenable. This is particularly relevant for the validation

of ‘universal’ values across cultural borders. For example, the Turkish writer

Orhan Pamuk bemoans the fact that love in the hands of Marcel Proust is

considered to be universal love, whereas in his writings critics dub it ‘Turkish

Love’. The conflation of the western and the universal is becoming increasingly

problematic and contentious.

To conclude, we began with the objective of assessing the relevance of

area studies in our globalised and interconnected world. Area studies have not

only retained but also increased their relevance for the understanding of

contemporary processes at work, particularly in their historical depth. They have

a distinct space in the social sciences and humanities, provided they steer clear

of the extremes of rational choice theories on the one hand and raw culturalism

on the other. Finally, they are essential for promoting and enhancing reciprocal

knowledge, in a world where borders still retain their significance and people

cling tenaciously to their cultures and memories.