WASHINGTON, D.C.— Stephen Philip Cohen, for decades the undisputed doyen of South Asian security studies and often described as the ‘dean’ of U.S.-South Asia scholars, experts, and policy wonks, has died, after a prolonged illness that marked his absence at The Brookings Institution, which was his home for many years. He was 83.
From the early hours of Oct. 27, when two of his former students, Sumit Ganguly, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Vipin Narang, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and member of MIT’s Security Studies Program, posted on Facebook and Twitter the demise of Cohen, tributes poured in about the scholar who single-handedly created the field of South Asian security studies, while being a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and then made it into a veritable art form while serving in the Reagan administration in its Policy Planning Bureau and finally at Brookings.
But perhaps, more than anything he achieved, what Cohen, who was a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, was most proud of and gave him the greatest joy was the scores of students and aspiring policy wonks he mentored and molded their careers – being catalytic in helping them to secure niche positions in their field of study.
One of the most significant publications he helped bring out a few years before he left the scene — in addition to the 12 books he wrote on military history, military sociology and South Asia’s strategic emergence — was his curating a unique collection of the most interesting and important articles, chapters, and speeches from his fifty-year career titled, The South Asia Papers: A Critical Anthology of Writings.
This exceptional collection included material that had hitherto never appeared in book form, including his original essays on the region’s military history, the transition from British rule to independence, et al.
Ganguly in his Facebook post said Cohen “Single handedly, he created the field of South Asian security studies in the United States at a time when there was scant interest in the subject. He mentored more doctorates than I can possibly recall, and I am privileged to be amongst them.”
Ganguly added, “Above all, he never nurtured sycophants and allowed us to disagree with him on a range of intellectual issues. One can only hope that those of us who were fortunate enough to work under him can prove to be worthy of his intellectual legacy. RIP.”
Narang described him as “a pioneer and a giant in the security field and mentor to so many of us.”
“I will never forget his encouragement and support to me, a nobody graduate student,” he said, and added, “Rest in peace Professor Cohen.”
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in addition to Cohen’s scholarship and erudition, spoke of the man that ‘Steve’ as he was affectionately called, was — a most decent human being.
“Deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Steve Cohen, dean of America’s experts on India and Pakistan,” he said, and noted, “Steve was everything you could want in a scholar—fair, knowledgeable, curious, thoughtful.”
Above all, Haass said, “He was decent, kind and modest. We’ve lost a real treasure and a real mensch.”
Former Ambassador Teresita Schaffer, whose diplomatic career spanned over three decades in and on South Asia, told India Abroad, “Steve Cohen was a giant among scholars of South Asia, and one of the last Americans who became really prominent in that field.”
She said, “Most people think first of his books on India-Pakistan military clashes or on both countries' armies. But I think he actually had more fun writing about the big picture — how Indians and Pakistanis thought about their countries and their role in the world.”
Donald Camp, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, and Director, South Asia at the National Security Council, told India Abroad that “the outpouring on Twitter has been quite extraordinary and heartwarming,” and added, “I think the many people whose lives he touched are eloquent about what he meant to them.”
“The main thing I would note on the professional side is how well he balanced the policy world in Washington and the think tank one,” Camp said, and observed, “Not many people can do that and be so relevant in both domains.”
Another former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, Alyssa Ayres, said that she woke up in Bengaluru to the sad news of the passing of Cohen.
“He defined the academic field in the U.S.—an important legacy. But he also created space in foreign policy circles to prioritize the region—an important legacy,” she tweeted.
Ashutosh Misra wrote that Cohen’s books, “’The Idea of Pakistan,’ ‘India: Emerging Power,’ and ‘The Future of Pakistan’ have deeply influenced my works and knowledge over the past two decades.”
He recalled, “During my Ph.D days he told me while interviewing him ‘disillusionment and frustration during PhD research is common for all scholars, but take my word Ashutosh life begins after PhD.’ Indeed, it does and how true it proved.”
Misra said that Cohen “always said that he lived with the irony that Pakistanis found him to be pro-India, and vice versa. But I think that is a great achievement, and speaks volumes about his objective analysis. Today South Asian scholarship has been rendered poor. Rest in Peace Steve!”
Another political scientists and author, Christine Fair called Cohen “the inimitable father of South Asian security studies,” and echoed the sentiments of several others, pointing out that “ all of us who work in this space owe our careers to him. He literally created this discipline. He was a friend and a mentor. Another light has gone out.”
Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the US, now Director of the South Asia Program at Hudson Institute, a D.C. think tank, described Cohen as a "scholar, friend and mentor" who had studied the South Asia region for "five decades, trying always to be fair and thoughtful".
“His erudition and friendship will be missed,” Haqqani Tweeted.
Cohen was also extremely helpful to the journalistic fraternity — including this correspondent — covering the South Asia beat from Washington, D.C., and was a great fan and supporter of India Abroad, contributing several opinion articles over the years, and sitting down for dozens of interviews. He was always accessible, even as they say, “at God-forsaken hours” ever ready to provide a quote or two for breaking stories.
Perhaps, this facet was best underscored by Edward Luce, Financial Times’ national editor, who tweeted, “Deeply saddened to hear of Stephen P. Cohen’s death. He was an immensely generous mentor to anyone who was going to India or Pakistan, as he was for me.”
“A gentle, incisive and deep scholar of South Asia, whose work radiated the integrity and goodness of his character,” Luce said.
This was also manifested in a Tweet by Shekhar Gupta, another journalist whom Cohen got over to Urbana-Champaign on a University fellowship in the 1980s for in-depth studies on South Asia security studies.
“RIP Prof Stephen Philip Cohen, doyen of the South Asia strategic community. Ever-so-willing teacher to generations of scholars/journalists, spreading his intellectual largesse generously. Author of many landmark books, his best his early seminal works, on Indian & Pak Armies..” Gupta tweeted.
Dhruva Jaishankar, currently director of the US Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation and formerly a fellow in foreign policy studies at Brookings India in New Delhi and the Brookings Institution in D.C., was one of Cohen’s first, if not the first intern when he was a Senior Fellow and head of the think tank’s South Asia Program.
Jaishankar told India Abroad, Cohen, “More than anything else, he felt passionately about mentoring young scholars, including from India, Pakistan, and other parts of South Asia. This sentiment continued even after he left pure academics and joined the Brookings Institution after India and Pakistan's 1998 nuclear tests.”
“There he wrote prolifically, including books on India, Pakistan, and South Asian crises, nurtured several young academics who are now themselves professors and leading scholars, and taught occasionally.”
Jaishnkar said, “Today, there are dozens of people occupying a space where he was once ploughing a lonely furrow. Most of us, for I am fortunate to count myself as one of them, would not be where we are today had it not been for Steve."
Cohen started studying Indian and South Asian security at a time when it was unfashionable in U.S. academic circles and made it his lifelong passion.
And when conducting research in India proved difficult after the '70s, his focus shifted to Pakistan and he would often speak of his contrasting experiences in the two countries.
Jaishankar said, “Steve had strong views, many of which I disagreed with. But rather than shut me down, he would encourage me to advance and improve my arguments. Not many bosses of his standing would have given such latitude to a 23-year-old. It's a quality I shall dearly miss.”
When Cohen launched his South Asian papers in May 2016, he said, “This book includes chapters that try to explain the past, but also look ahead to the future,” and recalled how “my career has been a form of time travel — working on the Indian Army, visiting regimental training centers from South India to the Northwest Frontier propelled me back to the 19th Century.”
“But looking at India for 53 years, observing changes in politics and society, and regional politics and relations with the USA, I tried to imagine the future, especially after Dick Park asked me to co-author India—Emergent Power.”
Cohen said, “Through all of this my own angle of vision changed—I was a student, a professor, a government official and now a think tank member.”
He said five events had especially shaped his understanding of India beginning with in 1965 when “I lived for six months with a scheduled caste member of Parliament, saw India from below — for someone active in the U.S. civil rights movement this was important.”
In 1972, he said teaching for one year in Tokyo, helped him view Asia from a different perspective, “an ally central to the U.S., and try to make sense of Jonathan Pollack’s question -- how do you make India the center of the world when no one else believes it to be so.”
Cohen said, in 1977, he traveled to Pakistan, “the un-India, not better or worse, but different than I had imagined it from my Indian vantage point, and the same year, lived through and wrote a book on the Andhra cyclone — India had learned how to manage natural disasters.”
And then, he said, when from 1985-1987, he served two years in the U.S. government, in the State Department’s Policy Planning Bureau under Secretary of State George Shultz, “I acquired a different set of metrics.”