India at 70: U-M experts can discuss

August 14, 2017
Mandira Banerjee

India will celebrate 70 years of independence on August 15. University of Michigan experts are available to comment on how partition and the last seven decades have shaped the India of today.

Leela Fernandes, professor of political science and women’s studies, is an expert on the relationship between politics and culture, and has done extensive field research on labor politics, democratization and the politics of economic reform in India.

“After the deleterious effects of centuries of colonial rule, India has made significant economic strides in the context of a stable democratic framework,” she said. “From India’s historic rule in the nonaligned movement to its current status as a growing economic power, India also remains a central actor in world affairs.

“India’s challenge will be to ensure that its many successes are accompanied by progress that effectively benefits all of its citizens. This will mean making democracy work in substantive ways both by addressing enduring forms of social and economic inequality and by assuring that minority communities receive full and equal rights that are enshrined in the constitution of independent India.”

Contact: 734-780-7514,

Aswin Punathambekar, associate professor of communication studies, researches media convergence, media history and public culture with a focus on South Asia.

“There is no doubt that India has one of the most vibrant media scenes in the world,” he said. “Economic reforms of 1991 did spark a media revolution that has, over the past two decades, led to the creation of a dynamic commercial media landscape across print, radio and television, and of course, the mobile and digital sectors. But paying attention to the sheer number of media outlets and platforms across various regions of the country masks deep-rooted problems.

“The stories we hear and tell, the representations of people and communities we encounter and make sense of, and the incidents and events we pay attention to all depend on a rich, yet deeply flawed media environment.

“Without an independent, public media system in place, commercial media organizations do little to question and hold those in power accountable. Media professionals have done little to diversify their own companies, with the result that minority voices remain marginalized in the public sphere. A handful of global corporations control social media platforms, and with the government’s support and influence, happily ignore concerns over privacy and surveillance.

“The current political regime has only intensified efforts to shape public opinion towards a narrow-minded nationalism. Be it through silencing journalists and others critical of the government, launching sophisticated digital campaigns that spread vicious rumors, or by appointing ideologues to head key institutions like the Film & Television Institute of India, the Indian government is clearly determined to police public discourse.

“Of course, there are civil society groups and grassroots media organizations working tirelessly to counter this. And at times, audiences and users respond in creative ways (through parody and satire, for example) to mobilize media for activist ends. But given the nature and extent of polarization, particularly along religious and caste lines, in India today, we desperately need a more open and hospitable media environment.”

Contact: 734-615-0949,

Hafsa Kanjwal is a doctoral student in history and women’s studies. Her research looks at social and cultural history of Kashmir, a region disputed between India and Pakistan.

“The region of Kashmir often gets overlooked when it comes to discussions on Partition,” she said. “To be sure, not only is it one of the primary reasons for continued antagonism and hostility between India and Pakistan, but we often forget that Kashmir itself was ‘partitioned’ at the time of independence. As a result of war between the two countries, the pre-’47 state of Jammu and Kashmir was partitioned into its current Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled regions. Families were divided, villages were cut in half, and economic, political, social and emotional ties were disrupted.

“In addition, Kashmir easily gets swept up under the larger narratives surrounding partition. But it’s important to remember that the region was facing its own moment of change—as an indigenous protest movement against the Dogra monarchy that governed Kashmir was gaining popularity. What we see in Kashmir today has its roots in the pre-1947 moment: a protest of a people against despotic rule—be it the Dogras or the post-’47 political setup.”


Dana Kornberg is a doctoral student in sociology. She researches how social relations facilitate economic provisioning and examines economic life in India’s informal garbage-collection and scrap-recycling economy.

“If India at its founding was a nation torn between the agrarian and industrial, the 21st century national project is a decidedly urban one,” she said. “With cities both large and small being pushed beyond their already meager infrastructures, ordinary people have created systems to provide basic services: housing, water, light and garbage collection.

“India is in the process of not simply exhibiting pre-existing, familiar forms of urban life. Rather, simply by making their lives, hundreds of millions of urban Indians continually challenge the world to reconsider our perceived wisdom about what it means to be urban as they seek shelter, find or create employment, and provide or gain access to basic services. India in 2017 is a nation of thousands of cities—places that are at once deeply personal and familial, marked by precocity and danger, and punctuated with deep aspiration.”