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Reintroducing Indian history to campus

photo of India

While many American universities focus heavily on U.S. and European history, courses on the history of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and other areas are becoming increasingly important. Sudipa Topdar, an assistant professor in Illinois State University’s Department of History, teaches courses on the history of the Indian subcontinent.

“Teaching South Asian history is more than just filling a gap in the curriculum,” said Topdar. “India is becoming a greater political and economic power on the world stage and there is an important strategic partnership between the United States and India under the Obama administration, especially in relation to China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It’s increasingly important for students to have a broader understanding of the history and culture of South Asia.”

Covering nearly 5,000 years of Indian history, Topdar’s 100-level Introduction to Indian Civilization class examines the cultural and historical aspects of the region such as religion, ruling empires, the caste system, independence from Britain, the partition and formation of new nation states of India and Pakistan. “Throughout a good portion of this class, when I refer to India, I’m talking about the larger geographic region of the Indian sub-continent and not specifically the modern nation state of India,” she said.

Topdar also teaches a seminar class on the life and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. The course covers Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and how it influenced India’s move toward independence from British rule. Students learn about the influence that Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy had on Martin Luther King Jr.’s work in the U.S. Civil Rights movement.

“Some students come to the class knowing about Gandhi’s influence on King, but to many it’s a new subject,” said Topdar. “Students are also fascinated by the fact that the Civil Rights movement in turn influenced caste politics among the Dalit – or Untouchables – in India.”

photo of Sudipa TopdarFor many students, the history of South Asia is an unknown and, quite literally, foreign subject. However, as the classes progress, Topdar noted that students see familiar themes they have learned in the context of American and European history, such as racism and colonialism. “When I discuss issues such as racism or the caste system, students begin to make comparisons to racism and slavery in U.S. history,” she said. “I have had students who also see similarities between British colonialism in India and American imperialism in the world today.”

The South Asian history classes are unique offerings and Topdar said the subject matter helps students gain a wider perspective on the world. The majority of students in her introductory class on Indian civilization are not history majors. “Many of my students are business majors or may eventually take up jobs that require them to travel to South Asia or interact with delegates from the region,” she said. “The class helps them understand the region’s history and culture. This is especially important for those in the business world, as there are so many economic ties with the region.” She feels the class is also relevant for students in the teacher education program who may have to teach courses on global history in the future.

In the U.S., certain cliché images of India – spicy food, Bollywood films, arranged marriages – are pervasive. Topdar brings an interdisciplinary approach to her classes, using academic texts, short stories and documentary films to move beyond those clichés and bring alive the history of the region. By studying the broad spectrum of cultures in South Asia, students quickly gain an appreciation for the incredible diversity of the region and its global cultural impact. Topdar illustrated this by pointing out that one of the main world religions – Buddhism which spread to several countries in the Far East and South East Asia – counts India as its birthplace.

Topdar is pleased to see students gaining a new outlook on the world through the study of other cultures and ideas. The reaction of many student veterans to the teachings of Gandhi has been especially meaningful for her. “Those students have a shared experience because of their time in the military, with some serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “Many of them seem particularly drawn to Gandhi’s ideas of non-violence.”

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