Perspective on Fletcher and India

Reflections from Fletcher alumna Farah Pandith (MALD 95)
Farah Pandith

"Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems - but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible." -Midnight's Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie


This week marks the 75th birthday of a nation that offers students of international affairs important lessons about rule of law, climate, equality, freedom of expression, democracy, minority rights, pluralism, poverty, extremism, innovation, soft and hard power, and so much more. How should students (current and future) at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy consider the global moment we are in as political, corporate and policy currents swirl in new and significant ways? As the world is reshaped by choices leaders and civil society have made? What can we learn from the last 75 years of India’s trajectory?

As a former American diplomat, I have observed with a special interest (I was born in Srinagar, Kashmir, India) how America has navigated through its feelings and relationship with India. It is a powerful case study. In the past, deep distrust and disengagement resulted in a cool relationship – and strategic assessments were often made through a Cold War perspective. Today, our strategic partnership with India is founded on shared interests and values, as well as on upholding a rules-based international system.

No longer only linked to its neighbor Pakistan in policy memos, conversations and calculations, India is now evaluated differently. Washington applies new standards and perspective to India’s worth based on a wide issue set from economics to defense...and the dynamic Indian-American diaspora. The four million strong diaspora is active, alert and engaged. They are high ranking public servants, CEOs of the largest American companies and philanthropies, cultural icons, and profoundly influential researchers and academics.

Note the compelling tribute made for India’s 75th birthday by the US Department of State. America is not alone in looking at India with a new perspective in today’s challenging global landscape. Countries, companies, and community leaders are building new pathways with a 21st century global player. India at 75 is transforming once again.

When the first Indian graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy Harish Mahindra (F’46), (whose son Anand was Fletcher’s 2022 Class Day Keynote Speaker), completed his studies, India was not yet born. In his application letter, he offered a compelling perspective about India’s situation:

If India achieves dominion status or a state of complete independence - she will need the help of men trained in foreign affairs to see that she establishes friendly and economic relations with other nations of the world.

He was, of course, absolutely right (except for the historic use of “men”). To offer judgement, analysis, wisdom, and leadership, one needs intellectual tools and historic perspective.

“Reality is a question of perspective” wrote Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, his celebrated and iconic work about India’s birth. As he recovers from a horrific attack last weekend, this Mumbai born author’s words are especially poignant.

But where do we get perspective? One place is Fletcher.

Though India is already included in many parts of Fletcher’s curriculum from statecraft and defense to business and the environment, there are newer areas of profound importance to study because they offer critical lessons that impact our world today – and the reality of tomorrow.

For example, I look to India to learn about societies, leadership, and identity. How its giant population is influenced by dis/misinformation offers lessons to other parts of the world. Social media usage by Millennials, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha transforms ideas about identity, belonging, history and heritage. These concepts impact stability, pluralism and democracy. Its changing demographics (in 2050, the world’s largest population of Muslims anywhere on earth will be in India) offer some unprecedented aspects to global trends and impact on culture, consumption, and networks. India’s soft power efforts through fashion, food and film are already transforming consumer behavior and national and international attitudes. And its strategic choices on alignment and collaboration are literally changing the safety and security of millions of humans.

I am biased - both about the value of my Fletcher degree as well as the importance of finding ways for all nations to build friendly (or at least neutral) relations with other nations in the world. I have spent my career working toward that end. Using the tools of soft power to generate more understanding, collective action and new ideas, I believe we need more Fletcher trained individuals to build strong human societies and more successful nations – especially those that advance pluralism, rule of law, and democracy.

While dozens of students with Indian heritages have passed through the Hall of Flags since India’s independence, we know that thousands more from all over the world interested in various components of India’s history and activity have made, and are making, a difference to its present and future.

In the words of one of Fletcher’s most celebrated Indian graduates, Shashi Tharoor (MA 76, MALD 77, PhD 79) -- author, historian, and congressional MP in India -- “India in many ways is at the cusp of some of the most exciting adventures facing the world.”

Let’s make sure Fletcher graduates continue to engage in its transformation and adventure.

Farah Pandith (MALD 95) is an author, media commentator, foreign policy strategist, and former diplomat who served as a political appointee under U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Most recently, she served U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry as the first-ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities. A renowned expert in countering violent extremism, Pandith served in senior roles within the National Security Council, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Department of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council, where she chaired its task force on countering violent extremism.

Photo credit: Kaveh Sardari