Commentary – A Case for Himalayan Studies

 By Harinder Singh


Abstract:  An interdisciplinary approach for research on the Himalayan region, from diverse perspectives including border security, is an important policy imperative.

The Himalayas offer a unique geology and ecology. Historically, the mountain passes, astride these lofty ranges, have not only facilitated trans Himalayan localised trade, but also acted as conduits for ancient silk routes, tea and horse trade. The region has its unique and fascinating history too. The Himalayas have a special place in the Hindu spiritual cosmology, and they stand out as an abode of Buddhist traditions as well as a place for Sufi culture. Further, the region is home to diverse religious faiths and beliefs, anthropological and tribal cultures reflecting upon India’s rich cultural history, social customs and homogeneity.

Strategically, the Himalayas were always seen as a frontier region and natural outpost that has guarded India against several invasions from the inner Asian region. Later, during the colonial period, the region saw significant exploration and territorial consolidation, including the process of drawing of international boundaries between the then great powers. This has left far reaching geo-strategic implications that the Indian state continues to confront even today. The erstwhile colonial frontiers now happen to be the border regions of various Indian states. With the rise of China, in recent decades, the geo-strategic and security concerns have attracted renewed attention in the Himalayas. The region has witnessed recurring security tensions between China and India, that not only carry hardcore national security ramifications, but other important aspects related to diplomatic and political manoeuvrings, geo-economics, soft power and domestic politics. Simply put, the great power rivalry that this region witnessed during the late 19th and early 20th century seems to be manifesting once more, in which powers of the world and the region are increasingly involved.

Since India’s independence, environmental and ecological concerns for sustainable development in this fragile region have been at the forefront of any discourse or deliberations. Besides shaping the climatic conditions in the northern part of the country, the rivers flowing from these ranges provide a civilisational context to the Indian sub-continent. Today, its fragile geology supports a wide variety of water and forest based economic and developmental activities. The region is also envisioned as a passage for inter-state connectivity. While the state writ has permeated into every nook and corner of India’s border states and strengthened their fabric, the immense significance that the region bears on India’s strategic salience is unprecedented. The fact that, there is a long pending settlement on the boundary issue and, in the immediate context, of maintaining peace and tranquillity, reinforces the need to invest sufficient resources and effort in the study of this region. Needless to say that, the Himalayan region offers much scope of study, but this has not received adequate attention. There are not very many university departments and research institutes dedicated to the Himalayan studies in India. Further, there is no institution in the country to study the history, geography, geology, ecology, socio-economic conditions, sustainable development, strategic and security studies and border affairs, as an inter-disciplinary compact. This is important considering Himalaya’s multifarious importance for India.

There is a case to initiate a genre of studies at the university level, which envisions the Himalayas as a regional compact, which promotes research and understanding on inter-disciplinary themes pertaining to the mountainous region. Very recently, in January 2023, the Centre of Excellence for Himalayan Studies at the Shiv Nadar University has been launched. This is a welcome step. Few other initiatives, such as, the National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS) under the aegis of the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) attempts to provide much needed focus on specific issues relating to conservation and sustainable management of natural resources in the Himalayan Region.  The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), which falls under the jurisdiction of NMHS includes ten Himalayan states fully (i.e. Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttarakhand) and two states partially (i.e. hill districts of Assam and West Bengal). The ultimate goal is to improve quality of life and maintain ecosystem health of the region to ensure long-term ecological security of the country.

Possibly, there is a need to raise many more such centres, which are multidisciplinary in their outlook, as full-fledged departments under the state or central universities, to excel as truly recognised institutions and with a lasting legacy. The geographical and research ambit of these departments should not only limit itself to the core Himalayan region, but also include the adjoining regions impacting the security of the Indian state. Apart from enriching and contributing to enhancement of academic and scientific knowledge on the Himalayas, these departments could well be utilised as platforms of professional education for India’s armed forces, paramilitaries and other agencies by providing academic courses and research programmes to student trainees from these services.

The fact that an interdisciplinary approach for basic and focussed research on this strategically important mountainous region from diverse perspectives including border security can no longer be ignored, the raising of Himalayan Study Centres is an important policy imperative.