Since its founding in 1992 as the first academic research center in the United States focused on modern India, the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) has connected academics, policymakers, and business leaders from America and India while nurturing a new generation of young scholars of contemporary India.
“I started CASI,” she says, “because from the time in 1959 when I first went to India on a student Fulbright fellowship, I realized that it was unique as a civilization, social order, and polity and needed to be understood holistically.”
Back then, she says it was difficult for political scientists to broaden the scope of understanding about India because of the break between the Sanskritists studying the ancient culture and social science scholars of modern India.
Academically, India was placed in the context of South Asia, which she calls an artificial post-colonial construct and a bad fit. “This was distorted further by the American Cold War perspective that equated non-aligned India and allied Pakistan, ignoring the reality that India had emerged as the dominant power in South Asia, as well as a rival to China in Asia.”
With the end of the Cold War, CASI’s focus on India represented the new realities of the international environment in which Asia would play a significantly greater role in global issues affecting the U.S.
Under Frankel’s leadership, the Center became a major voice in the dialogue among the academic, business, and policy communities.
When she stepped down in 2006, Devesh Kapur joined the political science faculty at Penn to helm CASI as the Madan Lal Sobti Professor for the Study of Contemporary India.
He has overseen CASI’s role as a hub for students and scholars at Penn and its emergence as a key player in policy debates in India and in CASI’s international research.
“Centers need to do several things to take deep roots,” Kapur says. “We are part of a great university. We must make students and young people an important part of our mission, whether it is mentorship, scholarship, internships, or exposure. That is important.”
At CASI there are no formal faculty affiliations, rather faculty from across the University and researchers from other institutions in the U.S. and in India are affiliated with the Center as they conduct research projects, contribute articles to CASI publications, and participate in conferences.
Kapur has collaborated with other researchers to deepen scholarship and public understanding of India’s politics and economy on topics as varied as migration, urbanization, entrepreneurship among socially marginalized groups, higher education, and public institutions. His articles appear regularly in Foreign Policy, Business Standard, Financial Times, The Hindu, India Abroad, Indian Express, Newsweek, The Times of India, The Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets.
CASI scholars from Penn and other institutions contribute articles to CASI’s “India in Transition.” Articles from a network of contributors, including students from Penn, also appear in the publication.
Over the years, CASI has been awarded numerous research grants from major philanthropic foundations such as The GE Fund, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
CASI internships to India meet a growing demand among Penn students and recent grads to pursue learning experiences in India. Students placed in CASI summer internships have worked and learned in a range of placements focused on affordable healthcare at Aravind Eye Care System, public health research at the Public Health Foundation of India, education and social entrepreneurship at LEAP Skills Academy, rural development at Samaj Pragati Sahayog, and public-private partnerships at the Naandi Foundation.
CASI’s Visiting Scholars/Fellows Program is designed to bring to Penn people with different areas of expertise from academia, the bureaucracy and civil services, NGOs, and media. Resident fellows and scholars come to CASI for a period of two months to participate in Center events, engage in a scholarly research project, present their research as a part of the CASI seminar series, and interact with undergraduate and graduate students and Penn faculty.
“Pound for pound, CASI churns out more path-breaking work on contemporary India than any other university institute or think tank I can think of,” says Milan Vaishnav, a 2002 College graduate who is director and senior fellow of the South Asia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Over the past five years, he has been involved in several CASI-based research projects.
CASI marked its 25th anniversary on campus with a major conference on Oct. 12, “A Quarter Century of India’s Transformations: CASI’s 25th Anniversary Symposium.” The event featured speakers on the economy, politics, and gender, as well as a panel on the U.S., India, and the new global order.
Next year, CASI’s small staff of five, bolstered by work-study students, will relocate from a suite on the fifth floor of 3600 Market St. to join several Penn academic and research centers in new offices at the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics in the West Philadelphia Title and Trust Company building at 133 South 36th St., currently under construction.
That’s not the only change. Kapur plans to step down as director next June. “Every place needs new leadership and the next person will have a vision to take CASI to new and greater heights,” he explains.
“I think I’ll leave the place better than I found it,” he replies when asked whether he thinks he has achieved his vision for the Center. “But as my friends say, how do we know there was not someone else who could have done even better?”
Photo at top: CASI has supported more than 175 Penn students to travel to India to participate in volunteer internships and independent research. Castillo (right) spent her summer internship at Samaj Pragati Sahayog.