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Bringing India to Princeton and Princeton to India with ‘Indian Democracy in Motion’

In 2018, PIIRS launched the Swani Family Global Seminar in India, “Indian Democracy in Motion,” with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, in Sonipat, India, just outside the Delhi metropolitan area; this summer, the seminar — which examines the ways in which the workings of democracy has shaped and transformed constitutionalism, religion, the economy, caste and the city in India — will be offered again.
Friday, November 30, 2018

For six weeks each summer, Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS),Global Seminars offer Princeton undergraduate students an opportunity to explore the international dimensions of their academic interests, build skills and become global citizens.

In 2018, PIIRS launched the Swani Family Global Seminar in India, “Indian Democracy in Motion,” with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, in Sonipat, India, just outside the Delhi metropolitan area. This summer, the seminar — which examines the ways in which the workings of democracy has shaped and transformed constitutionalism, religion, the economy, caste and the city in India — will be offered again. 

“Indian Democracy in Motion” is one of the first seminars not led not by a Princeton faculty member, but by an accomplished Indian academic with long ties to the University. Mehta is a 1993 Princeton graduate alumnus. Mehta, who received a master’s degree in politics from Princeton in 1990 and a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton in 1993, has published in the fields of political theory, intellectual history, constitutional law, politics and society in India, and India’s emerging role in world affairs.

“I really wanted to travel abroad, and the Global Seminar in India was my first trip overseas,” said Haydon John, a sophomore who took the seminar in 2018. “It was a perfect starting point for my overseas education,” she added, explaining that the duration was just right.

Ashoka, a private research university with a focus on liberal arts, was established in 2014 and is “one of the most exciting projects in Indian higher education,” according to Mehta. “Indian Democracy in Motion” coincided with Ashoka’s summer term. Princeton and Ashoka undergraduates shared not only the classroom, but also their residence halls. Princeton students paired with Ashoka students in the residence halls, and were invited to take part in all aspects of campus life — from dining to cultural activities to sports.

“The students benefited from each other not only in the classroom, where they could share their unique perspectives, but also on campus, where they interacted socially,” said Vanita Shastri, dean of global education and strategic programs at Ashoka. “Princeton students were really integrated in the Ashoka undergraduate experience.”

Princeton students were invited to take other classes at Ashoka during the term. John enrolled in a contemporary dance class, after coming to enjoy an extracurricular Bollywood (Hindi cinema) dance class. “We felt incredible freedom and so welcome at Ashoka,” John said.

In addition to seminar discussions at Ashoka, students participated in Hindi language classes at least twice a week; took excursions to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal, and to the lower Himalayas; and participated in community service projects.

John’s favorite trip was into the mountains. “It was beautiful,” she said. “It was not only visually interesting, but also calming and restorative.” While there, the students interacted with a panchayat, or village council, to understand rural democracy, and ate in a home of the local resident.  “It was wonderful to interact in a real way with the communities that we were learning about in the classroom,” she said.

Also related to their coursework, students also visited the U.S. Embassy in Delhi to delve into Indo-American foreign relations and the Indian Supreme Court to understand the country’s legal infrastructure, as well as to Raj Ghat, a memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi.

John, who is considering majoring in anthropology or sociology, is still in touch with her Ashoka roommate, and says the residence hall experience allowed for great friendships to develop. “Our Ashoka classmates were good company and excellent resources,” especially in the classroom, she said. She and many of her Princeton classmates had no prior knowledge about Indian democracy. “They gave us so much context. There is so much to learn from people whose culture and society is different from yours.”   

Sanjay Swani, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1987, who, with his wife, Preeti, endowed this Global Seminar, said that the course, along with the newly established the M.S. Chadha Center for Global India, greatly strengthens the University’s ability to study India. “We wanted create an opportunity for Princeton students to go to India, and not just study the country from here, in New Jersey,” he said. “India is an increasingly important part of the world; this is just one step in bringing India to Princeton and Princeton to India.”

PIIRS Global Seminars are held over six weeks in June, July and August. Since the program was launched in 2007 by PIIRS in collaboration with the Office of International Programs, more than 800 students have taken part in 56 Global Seminars in Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Europe, the Near East and South America. Participating students earn credits for one University course.

Learn more about the Global Seminars and apply to the Swani Family Global Seminar in India, “Indian Democracy in Motion.” The application deadline is Dec. 13, 2018.