With a stipend of Rs 1.5 lakh a month and mentorship by eminent scholars Ramachandra Guha and Srinath Raghavan, among others, it is no surprise that when the call for applications to the New India Foundation Fellowships open, the organisation is overwhelmed by the response. The idea of the Foundation, with its focus on the study and writing on modern Indian history, has been a revelation, opening new and necessary avenues for Indian academics, journalists and authors to retell narratives of independent India that have long been neglected.

But these are unprecedented and unfortunate times. A pandemic inevitably brings economic bloodshed in its wake, and the story is not different for India. With cases surging past two million, the economy has taken a crippling hit. Politics, culture and society – all touchstones of history – are in a state of flux. Against the backdrop of an undoubted crossroads in modern India’s story, then, the New India Foundation’s call for applications becomes even more important. Can the opportunities it provides be the tools for change in today’s economically hamstrung scenario? What new platform can the Foundation build to enable the study of our evolving history, by and for the future? Srinath Raghavan, a trustee at NIF – and also Professor of History and International Relations at Ashoka University, and a Senior Fellow at Carnegie India – spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:

Can you tell us about the inception of the New India Foundation Fellowship? What was its appeal for you individually?
Ramachandra Guha and Nandan Nilekani came up with the idea of the New India Foundation. Set up in 2004, we’re a Bengaluru-based trust that aims to encourage talented authors who are interested in documenting the rich history of India. The Trustees of the foundation include Ramachandra Guha, Nandan Nilekani, Manish Sabharwal, Niraja Gopal Jayal and myself.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about the idea behind the New India Foundation, which appealed to all of us. If you notice, in the seven decades since Independence, there has been a large body of work produced by Indian historians and social scientists. But there is also a clear divide. Historians look primarily at the period before independence, while the social scientists focus almost exclusively on the most contemporary times. As a result, the political, social and economic transformations that India has undergone since 1947 have been neglected.

The absence of good research on various aspects of independent India’s history is rather unfortunate. The NIF aims to help fill this gap in our collective knowledge. We believe there is an extraordinary range of researchable topics related to India since 1947 that have yet to be written about. The NIF Fellowships were designed to encourage and support research of this kind, which would lead to book-length studies.

Tell us more about the NIF Fellowships, how they work. How much does the fellowship pay and how long does it go on? How many scholarships are awarded every year? Who’s eligible?
The number of fellowships awarded every year is determined by the strength of the proposals we receive in that particular year. But to give you an idea, 51 fellowships have been awarded so far. We decided to peg the amount of the stipend at a professor’s salary (it is currently Rs 1.5 lakh per month for a twelve-month period). The fellowship is open to all Indian citizens, regardless of age, and is given for a year, to enable and support the research that a serious non-fiction book project would involve.

What is the selection process for the fellowship? Who are the judges?
From a large pool of several hundred applications, about 15-20 are shortlisted to meet the jury, and five to ten among them are awarded fellowships every two years.

There are several rounds of discussions on the shortlisted applications, followed by a detailed interview process. The interviews are conducted by a jury panel consisting of the NIF trustees and some very eminent personalities. In the early years we were privileged to have the distinguished sociologist André Béteille chair the jury. Political scientist Niraja Jayal (now part of the trust), and Rukmini Banerjee of Pratham Education Foundation have been serving on the jury from the outset.

The discussions among the jury members tend to be quite rigorous, passionate and invigorating. I think it’s safe to say that all of us have seen projects and scholars that we admired turned down on one occasion or another.

What happens next? Are the chosen candidates mentored or supervised for the course of the fellowship? If so, how?
The NIF provides extensive mentoring. For years, Ram Guha had been single-handedly shepherding each of the projects – he would offer the fellows suggestions on how to go about the research, edit and redraft their manuscripts, and even place them with publishers. Now, given the increased number of fellows, we have got an in-house editor, Rivka Israel, who works closely with them in getting their manuscripts in shape.

Besides, other trustees like Niraja Jayal and I also offer editorial and other inputs to fellows. We provide practically end-to-end support – intellectual, editorial and publishing. We’re very keen that the research work that we support actually results in a book.

So how many book proposals chosen by the Foundation have actually seen the light of day?
Out of the 51 book proposals selected by the Foundation since its inception, 22 have already been published as full-length books; another nine are in press, while some others are in the works.

Does the NIF place its selected authors with publishing houses? How does the process of submitting a completed manuscript work?
The non-fiction works selected by NIF span a wide spectrum of genres, and caters to a wide range of audiences. Given the diversity of non-fiction writings that we aim to support, we have to be mindful of which publishers might be interested and best positioned to give a book the best platform, visibility and exposure to the right audiences.

Therefore, we work with individual authors to identify which publishers to approach. We also use our extended contacts with a range of publishers to help the fellows in the process. Additionally, over the last couple of years we have built a very strong in-house editorial team that helps polish the manuscripts to the degree where it becomes easy for a publisher to pick them and turn them around for publication in a faster time.

We also regularly keep in touch with the publishers so that they aware of the work coming out of the NIF.

The list of past recipients of the fellowship is an illustrious one – from Akshaya Mukul to Gautam Bhatia, among others. How much weightage do you give younger (non-published) writers with excellent potential, as compared to older, more seasoned scholars?
In fact, one of the most encouraging trends is that NIF has consistently selected excellent first-time writers (Akshaya Mukul, Harish Damodaran, and Saba Dewan among others) for the fellowship. If you look at our list of fellows over the years, you’ll find many first-timers who have produced brilliant books. So I don’t think we have used age or previous writing experience as a criterion for choosing Fellows.

For us, the only thing that matters is if there is an interesting story to be told about contemporary India, and whether the writer has the intellectual content, is passionate about the project, and possesses the necessary background to execute it.

What support, if any, does the New India Foundation give to young, first-time authors, as far as promotions are concerned?
The NIF is committed to getting the widest audiences possible for the works of all its writers, whether they are established names or first-time authors. Starting this year, we have also got a team on board for marketing and publicity, and we are looking to offer enhanced support in terms of promotions and visibility at various levels. We intend to work with publishers and the book retail and explore other platforms as well to promote and showcase these works.

We will also be looking at working with the authors individually for promotional plans of their books, and will use all our digital media channels to generate conversations. Should an author want detailed support or guidance on promotions for their work, we have colleagues who can help with that too, and will work with the publishers and the authors for this.

Do you think that the NIF Fellowships have incentivised the writing of new and important non-fiction? Has it made a difference in terms of expanding academic horizons?
The primary focus of the New India Foundation is to encourage and support research and writings on post-Independence India. All of our initiatives are aimed towards this goal. With the fellowships for instance, we hope the sponsorship will enable a writer with a book idea to take some time off for up to a year to work on it. I think the list of the projects we’ve funded and the books some of these have resulted in will reflect that. We have, we hope, been able to make a difference in the area of serious research and non-fiction writing on post-Independence India.

The New India Foundation has expanded its focus area with the Girish Karnad Memorial Lecture and the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Prize for non-fiction. Tell us a bit about these.
The NIF Lectures have been going on for some years: the venue used to alternate among various cities before we decided to hold it exclusively in Bengaluru – the city that is home to the NIF. The Lecture was renamed in honour of Girish Karnad last year. Our aim is to bring in top-quality scholars from various parts of the world to talk about the excellent research and writing about independent India.

The Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Book Prize was our attempt to explore the other way in which we could foster non-fiction writing about India. While our fellowships provide a very stable structure – both financially and organisationally (in terms of editorial, mentoring, publishing), the awards recognise outstanding books being produced outside of the NIF. We see this as another way of promoting non-fiction writing about India.

Our vision in the broad sense is to catalyse a culture of top quality non-fiction writing in this country. There are so many subjects that can be approached with such diversity as far as India is concerned. We want to recognise the outstanding work that is being produced each year.

If the NIF’s application criterion is restricted to Indian nationals only, why are the rules governing the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Award different? Why is it a global award, while the fellowship isn’t? Was that a conscious decision?
Yes it was a conscious decision. Where the NIF Fellowships are concerned, there are no comparable fellowships being offered in India. Many of those abroad are not open to Indian nationals. Hence, we wanted to keep the fellowship exclusive to Indians writing on India.

The book prize was instituted to award the best writing on India since independence. Which is why it recognises those who have written fascinating works on India, irrespective of where they originate from. If you look at the previous winners (Dr Milind Vaishnav and Professor Ornit Shani), neither of them lives in India, but both have had a long and deep engagement with India’s transformations since 1947.

How has the pandemic changed the functioning of the New India Foundation?
Thankfully, the pandemic has not greatly impacted our activities, apart from compelling us to make some practical adjustments. For the fellowship, the application deadline has been extended from June 30 to August 31, considering lives have been dislocated owing to the pandemic. If conducting in-person interviews is not feasible, we’ll do online interviews with the shortlisted candidates.

For the Book Prize too, the date was extended for the publishers and authors (from May 31 to July 31) considering that people are working from home, and the regular office structure has been disrupted.

The NIF lecture is of course in an in-person format, so we may not be able to hold it in this calendar year.

With libraries and archives closed for business due to the pandemic, how will the fellowship plan to accommodate scholars reduced to working from home?
We recognise that there might be disruptions and challenges due to the pandemic, and we will take that into account as the fellowship progresses. This round of fellowship will go as planned. We have been cognisant of the fact that producing a top quality book takes time, and that people’s personal circumstances vary. For us each fellowship is an intellectual investment, which we want to see through till the publication of the book. We will support the scholars through the difficulties they might face in terms of accessibility to material.

The NIF offers a generous stipend – but at a time when most archives are inaccessible, and the ones that offer online resources are often too expensive for easy access, how would you look to support researchers and scholars?
To begin with, we recognise that digital archives may not entirely substitute the real archives. We understand that due to the pandemic, there might be some disruptions in terms of the ability to access archives. All of us have to navigate those challenges together, and we will take all of that into account as the fellowship progresses this year.

Also, the pandemic isn’t a permanent situation, and will, we hope, be mitigated as the fellowships progress. Till then, we are discussing such issues and how to navigate the challenges.

So far, most of the NIF works have been in English, which is automatically restrictive. The history of post-independence India deserves to be told and retold in all of India’s many languages. Are there any plans to expand the NIF to reach scholars in other languages across the country?
That’s a good point. As of now, we are open to providing fellowships to people who translate top-quality works of post-independent India from regional languages. Ayesha Kidwai, for example, translated Anish Kidwai’s work from Urdu to English (a classic Partition memoir, In Freedom’s Shade). We are actively encouraging more such works.

What has the NIF done to ensure that the field of history-writing sees and represents minorities? When it comes to scholars from a less privileged background, what kind of support does the NIF provide?
Our attempt has been to ensure that we cover as many aspects of contemporary India, including the voices that are not in the mainstream. We think of it as important to promote scholarships on all themes and perspectives. A look at our list of published books would illustrate the diversity and range of voices and subjects being published under NIF.

India is a diverse country, and its inclusivity is an important virtue.The only way to understand India is through its diversity.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.