Pakistan Reader# 100, 1 November 2019
During the 1960s and 70s, when the US academia was focused elsewhere, Steve was one of the early American birds to look at South Asia. On South Asia, there would always be a Cohen reference in the US.D. Suba Chandran
Call me Steve.
That was his first response when I addressed the great Prof Stephen Cohen, a doyen of South Asian studies. At that time I was pursuing PhD at the School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) New Delhi, and also working with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) as a young research officer.
An eminent Pakistani scholar
For those who were pursuing their PhD in Pakistan at that time – Steve was a demi-god and great resource person. He had extensive links across the border; from political to the military to academic, people would know him or know of him and his work. He was a household name within Pakistan which made him even more popular in India, amongst the academic and scholarly circles.
Scholars in India would repeatedly quiz Steve about his trips to Pakistan, and how they see the world. Same would happen in Pakistan as well.
A bridge between India and Pakistan
Besides his own research on Pakistan and its far-reaching influence on the next generation of Pakistan scholarship across South Asia, he also attempted in bringing Indian and Pakistani scholars together. He succeeded in that attempt, which is no easy achievement.
He worked with two scholarly gladiators of his era – Prof PR Chari (who mentored me at the IPCS) and Prof Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema (another institution inside Pakistan). Steve was the engine that moved the three-Cs – Cohen-Chari-Cheema. Together, they engaged in some of the greatest and finest co-authored volumes on India-Pakistan-US triangle. Four Crises and a Peace Processes was one of their magnum opuses; I played a small part in that project as a research assistant organizing the dialogues and meetings! It was a great learning experience.
Their work on the 1990 crisis titled Perception, Politics and Security in South Asia, is also equally significant, for its pathbreaking effort, looking at the crisis from Indian, Pakistani and American perspectives. Along with Kanti Bajpai and Sumit Ganguly (who lead the long list of illustrious next-generation scholars trained in the Cohen factory) they also authored Brasstacks and Beyond: Perception and Management of Crisis in South Asia.
During the release and the follow-up discussions of Four Crises and a Peace Processes in Delhi, Cohen and Chari would discuss the future of India-Pakistan relations and hoped that there would not be an opportunity for them to write about another Indo-Pak crisis. Cohen’s later book – Shooting for Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum would explain the nature of India-Pakistan relations, from an outsider perspective.
It was ironic that a section in Pakistan would consider him as pro-Indian, and a section here in India as pro-Pakistani. But he studied both with the same intensity and objectivity. Speak to the scholars whom he hosted not only at the Brookings but elsewhere as well.
A bridge between the US and South Asia
Steve is one of the earliest scholars in the US to focus on India and Pakistan – individually, and collectively. Along with Howard Schaffer and Teresita Schaffer, Cohen forms the American academic legion on South Asia. Both South Asia and the US are so gifted to have such a scholarship.
During the 1960s and 70s, when the US academia was focused elsewhere, Steve was one of the early American birds to look at South Asia. On South Asia, there would always be a Cohen reference in the US. His focus on the militaries in South Asia, civil-military relations, disarmament and security made him a “go-to” person on South Asia.
He also built an army of scholars. Besides Kanti Bajpai and Sumit Ganguly, there were also other scholars under this banyan – Amit Gupta, Dinshaw Mistry and Sunil Dasgupta. Even after leaving the ACDIS, at the Brookings, he would continue this tradition.
A great mentor for the young scholars
Besides being a great scholar, Steve was also a great mentor, who believed in building capacity amongst the young scholars, along with Mr PR Chari. The Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) in Colombo was a brilliant idea of these two, along with a few others in the 1990s – to provide a platform for young scholars from South Asia. Since its inception, Cohen, along with Chari and Cheema would be there in almost all the workshops that the RCSS organized. The RCSS alumni would vouch for the time that Cohen spent with the young scholars at that time.
In supporting the young scholars - he not only preached; but also practised. During the late 1990s, I published a short commentary in one of the newspapers on Nawaz Sharif. Titled “Civilian Supremacy” it was about the civilian leadership taking on the military and judiciary in Pakistan. It was one of my earliest publications, and out of curiosity, I sent it to Steve for his comments. It was more of letting him know about what I’ve written. I was not expecting that he would reply. But he did. His response was cryptic and prophetic: there is nothing called civilian supremacy in Pakistan. Never there was one, and never there would be.
His two books – the Pakistan Army and the Idea of Pakistan would explain why he was right. There could be no reading list on Pakistan, without these two books!
A great institution builder
Cohen was also an institution builder. Besides the RCSS in Sri Lanka, he was also the primary reason for the Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS) within the University of Urbana Champaign.
ACDIS would also become a great bridge between the South Asian scholars and the US. Numerous scholars from South Asia went through Steve and ACDIS. I was fortunate to be at the ACDIS but was too late. By the time I went there, Steve was already in the Brookings.
A great human being
Steve was also a great human being. He would host us at his residence at Washington DC, with his wife taking centre stage. The last time we were at his house, it was an interesting conversation about “Steve” with his wife and his son, and how his grandchildren look at him.
Back in Delhi, during those parties that Mr Chari used to host, Cohen would be the centre of attraction, and one could see his warmth, especially to the young ones. He would listen to them without being condescending. He would find time to spend with the senior ones and also escape to be with the younger lot.
The Cohen void
During one of the meetings with Chari and Cohen a few years ago in Delhi, one of us asked them: So, Mr Chari and Mr Cohen, whom do you think, would fill the void of three-Cs – Cohen-Chari-Cheema? Chari, with his own wit responded: “We are not that old to leave a void”.
Cohen wished there were no more crises between the two countries that it would require another trio to analyze the relations. However, Steve was also realist enough to author – Shooting for the Century!
Unfortunately, all the three Cs left in quick succession, leaving a huge void. Is there a replacement in the near future in South Asia? Less likely; but having one would be the greatest tribute to these three titans.
We will miss you, Steve.
On the other side, you are now in a better company – with Chari and Cheema. You should now have an outsider perspective now. What would be your next project? Given the current state of relations between India and Pakistan, what would you three have worked on?