‘Don’t Go to India for the First Time’: A protégé remembers Stephen P. Cohen

Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, who passed away last week.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. It may be an adage, but Prof. Stephen Philip Cohen (1936-2019) often paid from his pocket to prove it wrong. I am one among those scores of South Asian scholars, journalists and policymakers fortunate enough to come in contact with this brilliant and generous mentor.

Thanks to Steve, I first travelled by air — to Lahore. He lent me money to buy my first blazer. Each one of those South Asian scholars would have a version of my story. Many of us immensely benefited from the visiting scholars program he initiated at the Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security program at the University of Illinois.

For the rest of the world he was a preeminent scholar of the South Asian security studies. Not merely preeminent but, I would say, he occupied the first five rankings in this category.

This is no insult to many scholars of the region but most of them are in fact country experts. C. Christine Fair of Georgetown University was right in describing Steve as the “inimitable father of South Asian studies” and that “he literally created this discipline.”

For the U.S. establishment, Steve was too emotional about the region. During a 1993 conference organized by the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., he reprimanded a high-ranking Clinton administration official for the administration’s delay in appointing the U.S. ambassador to India.

Indians and Pakistanis were suspicious of his equanimity, believing that he had a soft-corner for the other arch-rival. His peers in Delhi and Islamabad respected him as a scholar and as a friend; they also loathed him for his ‘mission’ to persuade them not to develop nuclear weapons.

He would tell you what you didn’t want to hear.

On the nuclear proliferation, I asked him to explain the conundrum: American insistence on India’s nuclear nonproliferation while sitting on a large stockpile of nuclear weapons, and India, while posing as a global champion of nuclear disarmament, determined to have its own nukes.

“Great powers got to be hypocritical; they cannot afford to be consistent,” was his answer.

I am certain that Steve had a fondness for India. After all, his doctoral dissertation was on the Indian army. He insisted on the shared destiny of India and the U.S. and that’s why he was furious at ‘irritants’ like human rights and non-proliferation that preoccupied Indo-U.S. ties most of his life.

While prescribing non-proliferation to India, he was acting more as a friend who kept India’s long-term interests in mind, less as an American who was promoting American interests.

He sought to dissuade fellow Americans who tended to treat nuclear non-proliferation over and above friendship with India. His strategic objective was always to keep India as an ally of the U.S.

His tongue-in-cheek advice to his compatriots whose understanding of India he found to be shallow? “Don’t go to India for the first time!” (Paraphrasing a quote attributed to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) One ought to visit that ancient land several times, not confining to policy circles in Delhi but to travel extensively.

Over the course of half a century, Steve travelled to India more than once a year. He didn’t confine himself to Delhi.

In the late 1970s, he spent a year at Andhra University, my alma mater. He recounted to me with relish how, upon completing his stint at AU, he was hosted two or three farewell parties, each by a different caste group!

While being a scholar-in-residence at the Ford Foundation’s Delhi office during 1992-93, Steve used the opportunity to mentor many young and aspiring scholars on security matters. Oh yes, that’s how I ended up having my first (free) lunch at the much-coveted India International Center (IIC).

He told us the reason why he was focusing on young scholars. Around the same time, during his interaction with Delhi’s intellectual class at IIC, Robert S. McNamara apparently observed that the average age of the group was close to 70 years and urged them to bring in more young poeple. That accounts for his focus mostly on grooming young scholars.

He travelled extensively in the region and institutionalized the process by setting up the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) in Colombo. The RCSS’s tagline, ‘Together for a better South Asia,’ is a fitting tribute to Steve’s engagement with the region.

As a career move, didn’t he shoot in his foot by choosing South Asia, a backwater when it came to the U.S. priorities, instead of the more-sexy Middle East or East Asia?

For him, it wasn’t about career. He developed a fondness for the region while growing up among Indians and Pakistanis on the Devon Avenue, Chicago IL.

Any remembrance of Steve is incomplete without a mention of his wife, Bobby. In most of my emails to him, I would invariably add special greetings to her. She personified grace so much for me that I would always remember her as gracious Bobby.

All those who knew him intimately would say, there was a man and those were the days.


D. Shyam Babu is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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