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Stephen P Cohen laid the foundation for South Asian security studies

Stephen P Cohen inspired not just by being a driven scholar, mentor, and institution builder. He inspired by his many sterling human qualities that became apparent as you got to know him.

Written by Kanti Bajpai |
Updated: October 30, 2019 3:49:48 pm
stephen philip Cohen, Stephen cohen death, who was Stephen cohen, delhi, washington, Cohen dead, opinion, indian express Stephen P Cohen passed away at 83. (1936-2019)

Stephen Philip Cohen, Emeritus Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Illinois, and Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Brookings Institution died on Sunday. In his passing, South Asian security studies has lost a foundational scholar, teacher-mentor, and institution-builder. For nearly 50 years, from the publication of his classic on the Indian Army, he was an inescapable reference point.

South Asian studies covers a wide range of subjects: Anyone who has attended the eponymously-named annual conference in the American Midwest, which Steve supported from its inception in 1971, can testify to its breadth. In this “corner of a foreign field”, to borrow Ramchandra Guha’s cricket reference, Steve cultivated and curated South Asian security studies.

Amongst the first generation of South Asianists in the US, W Norman Brown and Richard L Park had written on Indian foreign policy. A bit later, Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph would publish on India’s civil-military affairs and external relations. However, it was Steve who recognised the need for a long-term and systematic engagement with civil-military issues and national security, first with respect to India and later Pakistan. And from here, beginning in the 1970s, he built South Asian security studies.

How did he almost single-handedly do this? First, Steve’s scholarly writings framed and populated the incipient field. From 1971 to 2016, he wrote voluminously, deftly, and illuminatingly on South Asian armies, nuclear proliferation and arms control, India-Pakistan crises and the causes and possible resolution of the India-Pakistan conflict, India as an emerging power, the idea of Pakistan, India’s military modernisation and the US and South Asian security.

At the core of Steve’s concerns was the problem of violence, particularly organised violence — its causes, uses, limitations and management. One of his favourite studies was a little-known book he wrote on the Andhra cyclone of 1978, with his former student, C V Raghavulu. The subtitle of the book was “Individual and Institutional Responses to Mass Death”. This was violence on a large scale but traceable to human neglect and ineptitude.

Second, when no one else saw fit to do so, Steve encouraged his doctoral students to specialise in South Asian security. When I arrived in Illinois in 1982, Sumit Ganguly was finishing his PhD on the causes of war in South Asia. I soon decided to study the emergence of regional cooperation in South Asia, nudged in this direction by Steve’s urging me to think of the then-nascent SAARC in security terms.

Before Sumit and me, Shivaji Ganguly had written a thesis on US policy towards South Asia. Following us, Kavita Khory, Amit Gupta, Chetan Kumar, Dinshaw Mistry, and Sunil Dasgupta, among others, would write on security-related subjects. Steve also generously mentored students other than his own, who would blaze a trail in regional security studies including S Rashid Naim, Itty Abraham, Dhruva Jaishankar, Gaurav Kampani, Tanvi Madan, Constantino Xavier, and Moeed Yusuf. Scores of his “grand students” — his term for his students’ students — can attest to his generosity as well.

Third, Steve built South Asian security studies institutionally. He was brilliant at attracting funding from US foundations — Ford, Macarthur, Rockefeller, Alton Jones. The funds were deployed for specific projects but also to make the Office of Arms Control, Disarmament, and International Security (ACDIS) at the University of Illinois into a centre for doctoral students, visiting fellows, and workshops and conferences.

Virtually anyone of note in South Asian security studies, scholar or scholar-practitioner, eventually found his or her way to ACDIS and later to the South Asia/India programme that Steve built at Brookings. Beyond ACDIS and the Brookings programme, in collaboration with South Asian colleagues, Steve helped establish the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) in Colombo, which has gone on to encourage the study of traditional and non-traditional security.

Steve inspired not just by being a driven scholar, mentor, and institution builder. He inspired by his many sterling human qualities that became apparent as you got to know him. For one, he was unfailingly respectful and had a deep affection for all South Asians. He rarely criticised colleagues and certainly not before students. I cannot remember his holding a grudge or being ill-tempered. All his students were his favourite and best students! And they all got household bits and pieces upon arriving so that they could quickly set up home. Steve was also boyishly in love with technology, especially Apple devices. Into his sixties, if memory serves, he was an avid tennis and basketball player.

Above all, Steve was a consummate American family man. It always seemed to me that he was happiest when he was with his lovely wife Bobby and around his children. In fact, he was relaxed and affable around other people’s families as well: My children still recall a wonderful day out in Baltimore with Steve and Bobby.

I am sure Steve was stoical to the end. The last time I saw him was in 2013. I knew he had been seriously ill and had dealt with a number of painful injuries. We met for lunch. He was animated and solicitous, but as always, he would not be drawn on his health. He unsentimentally but warmly said goodbye. I hoped I would see him again, but I pulled my coat around me and didn’t look back. I imagined him doing the same, and this brought a smile.

RIP Steve.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 30, 2019 under the title ‘His corner of the foreign field’. The writer is Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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