Tonight, the South Asia Society will hold its ninth annual Diwali show, which has grown into one of the largest student-sponsored events on campus. With its diverse and colorful displays of South Asian culture, this celebration packs Irvine Auditorium and testifies to the South Asian presence at Penn, which has one of the largest populations of South Asian students in the United States. Penn's renowned South Asia Regional Studies Department, the first of its kind in the nation, anchors the community's academic presence on campus. Founded in 1947, the SARS Department has not only educated undergraduate students; it has also populated other South Asia studies departments around the country with its graduates. In fact, the department at the University of Texas at Austin, a rising star in South Asian studies, is jokingly called "Penn West." Recently, however, South Asian studies at Penn have suffered setbacks. This year, for the first time ever, Penn did not receive a U.S. Department of Education Title VI grant as a national resource center for South Asian studies. Nine other universities received this grant -- quite a shock given Penn's stellar reputation. It is, however, indicative of the University's tenuous commitment to South Asian studies. For example, the SARS Department has not had a full-time faculty appointment in 25 years, and the number of standing faculty has dwindled to less than half of what it once was. Faculty appointments to replace SARS retirees have gone to other departments such as History, and while appointees are sometimes interested in South Asia, the department has suffered greatly. Area studies departments, such as SARS, are important to mitigate Eurocentric biases within academic institutions. While the History Department may hire a few South Asianists, they will sadly always be fewer than the department's number of European historians. South Asian studies may easily be lost in the mix. SARS also offers unique opportunities for interdisciplinary studies. Last spring, I took a course with Rosane Rocher entitled "South Asians in the United States," which combined History, Literature, Political Science and other disciplines. It was a most enlightening educational experience. I learned about the Bhagat Singh Thind case of 1924, in which the Supreme Court ruled that South Asians were not "white" and therefore not entitled to citizenship. We discussed the Immigration Act of 1965, which allowed my parents to come to the United States, and the broader implications of immigration for both South Asian countries and the U.S. The class also covered family issues, religion and other dilemmas faced by South Asian Americans. This knowledge allowed me to see my own experiences in a larger social and historical context. And no other department could have provided it. SARS fills a unique niche at Penn, and with the increasing South Asian student population -- 8 to 10 percent of undergraduates and growing -- this niche will only grow. Recently, the University appointed a task force to make recommendations for the future of South Asian studies. Hopefully, this will include strengthening the SARS Department. According to SARS Chairman Guy Welbon, if the current situation continues, we will "need bloodhounds to find the department in five years." Students interested in South Asian studies need to be aware of the situation and speak up in support of SARS. Many South Asian-American students rely on SARS classes to learn their native languages and study their cultural heritage. While students of Western European descent can generally take these opportunities for granted, South Asian students cannot afford to be complacent. We cannot buy into the model minority myth, which discourages activism. In spite of stereotypes of South Asian passivity, we are here today because our forebearers lived by two words: Inquilab Zindabad, or "Long live the revolution." If you don't know the significance of these words, take some SARS courses to find out. Then stand up and declare to the University, "SARS Department Zindabad!" -- "Long live the SARS Department!"Comments powered by Disqus
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