Mumbai-born and raised, Irfan Nooruddin to lead a major D.C. think tank

Georgetown University professor Irfan Nooruddin.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Mumbai-born and raised, Irfan Nooruddin, currently a Georgetown University professor, has become the most recent Indian-American Generation X’er to head the South Asia Program of a major DC think tank, replacing the older, white South Asia experts who have directed these programs for decades.

Last month, the Atlantic Council named Nooruddin, 46, professor and director of the school’s India Initiative, as the new head of its South Asia Center.

He now joins Tanvi Madan, senior Fellow and director of the India Project and South Asia Program at The Brookings Institution, which was headed for decades by Prof. Stephen P. Cohen — mentor to scores of South Asian scholars and policy wonks — Milan Vaishnav, senior Fellow and director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Aparna Pande, director of the Initiative on the Future of India South Asia at The Hudson Institute; and Sameer Lalwani, senior Fellow and director of the South Asia Program at The Stimson Center.

Meanwhile, the godfather of the Indian-American think tankers in DC, continuing to be prolific for the past three decades in authoring policy papers and reports, remains Ashley Tellis, one of the foremost strategic experts in the country, who now holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and has also been a mentor to the younger crop of Indian-American/South Asian American D.C. think tankers.

In announcing the appointment of Nooruddin on July 3, Frederick Kempe, the president and CEO of The Atlantic Council, said, “In Irfan, we are adding to our leadership team a proven institution-builder and an impressive, widely published intellect to the Council. He combines rigorous scholarship with a policy entrepreneur’s vision on how to address a region that is at the same time one of the most promising and most perilous in the world.”

Nooruddin, said, “South Asia is rich with innovative economies, diverse cultures, and complex politics, making it a region of critical importance to American strategic and commercial interests in the 21st Century,” and predicted, “The Atlantic Council can play an important role in helping the United States forge a productive relationship with South Asia, and I am proud to help do so as the new director of its South Asia Center.”

The South Asia Center is the Atlantic Council’s focal point for work on greater South Asia. Through partnerships with key institutions in the region, the Atlantic Council facilitates dialogue among decision-makers in South Asia, the United States and Europe with the aiming of “waging peace” and securing democracy and prosperity in the region. These deliberations cover internal and external security, governance, trade, economic development, education, climate sustainability and resilience, and other issues. The center is committed to working with stakeholders from South Asia in addition to partners and experts in the United States and Europe, to offer comprehensive analyses and practicable recommendations for policymakers.

Nooruddin will remain a professor at Georgetown University and continue to direct its India Initiative, a university-wide project that advances research and teaching around India and its role in world affairs and creates a platform for high-level dialogue among American and Indian leaders from government, business, civil society, and the academy.   

In an interview with India Abroad, Nooruddin, who first came to the U.S. at age 16 as a Rotary International Exchange Student, said, “The opportunity to lead the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council is humbling and I am excited to leverage the Center’s excellent reputation for rigorous research and convening thought leaders from South Asia and the United States to develop actionable ideas to improve people’s lives.”

He pointed out, “South Asia is home to some 40 percent of the global population and is an area of vital strategic importance to the United States and its partners in democratic Europe. The region provides one of the few bright spots globally for electoral democracy, albeit with challenges, and offers models of multi-religious multi-lingual societies worthy of study and emulation.

“Yet, even as South Asia’s economies grow, intra-regional trade and human mobility is limited, hurting growth prospects. Designing better policies to unlock the economic potential of the region is vital to human development in the region,” he added.

Nooruddin argued, “Climate change will have disproportionate impact on South Asia, and the region is woefully unprepared for the challenges it will face.

“From agricultural distress to bursting cities, developing bottom-up resiliency requires marrying the ingenuity of the private sector and academia with the scale impact only achievable by proactive government policy.

“The South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council aims to be at the forefront of advancing this critical conversation,” he declared.

Nooruddin said, “It has been my privilege to study and teach at some of the finest institutions in the United States. As a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, where I direct the Georgetown India Initiative, I teach the best and brightest young people who are determined to make the world more equitable and fair for those least privileged. To take those ideas and that energy to the policy world through the platform afforded by the Atlantic Council allows me to further these ideas by engaging policymakers in Washington and South Asia.”

Thus, he noted, “I am fortunate to be able to straddle academia and the policy world and am excited to see what can be done from this unique position.”

Nooruddin also said, “The South Asian diaspora is critical to advancing better U.S. policy towards the region and to influencing the next generation of South Asian leaders in government, business, and civil society,” and in this regard, he invited”all parties in the diaspora to reach out to explore how they might support the work of the South Asia Center, and to hear their ideas and vision for the work we should be doing. Together we can achieve more.”

A colleague of his at Georgetown, former U.S. Ambassador to India Rich Verma, an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown and also now a partner at The Asia Group in D.C., told India Abroad, “This is an outstanding and inspired appointment by The Atlantic Council. Irfan has reinvigorated the South Asia research agenda.  He is beloved by his students, and he has enormous respect and goodwill in the academic and policy communities.

After his visit to the U.S. as a Rotary International Exchange Student, Nooruddin returned to India to complete high school and then came back to the U.S. to study Economics at Ohio Wesleyan University and then went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for a Ph.D in Political Science. After teaching at Ohio State University for 11 years, he moved to Georgetown in 2014.

Nooruddin is married to Heidi Sherman, whom he met in college and they have two children — a daughter Esme, 10, and a son Emil, 6.

Prior to joining Georgetown, Nooruddin was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. and a team member with Lokniti: Programme on Comparative Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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