The idea of the India International Centre first came up in October-November 1958, when Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, then Vice President of India, and John D. Rockefeller III discussed setting up a centre for the ‘quickening and deepening of true and thoughtful understanding between peoples of nations’. Mr. Rockefeller suggested an International House on the model of Tokyo’s International House of Japan, in whose founding he had played a great part and offered a generous grant towards this end. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, then Prime Minister of India, was so enthused by the idea that he personally took interest in the selection of the beautiful 4.76 acres site adjacent to Lodi Gardens, on which the present complex stands. As the activities of the Centre expanded, an Annexe was added to the main complex in December 1996; and later in 2011, an additional building, the Kamaladevi Complex was added for hosting conferences.

Some of the best minds of the time came together in the preparatory committee to spell out the objectives of the Centre set up by Dr S. Radhakrishnan. They were Dr. C. D. Deshmukh (Chairman), Smt. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Pt. H. N. Kunzru, Professor Humayun Kabir, Dr. V. K. R. V. Rao, Shri Raja Ram, Dr. Malcolm S. Adiseshiah and Shri Prem Kirpal. Dr. C. D. Deshmukh, then Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), was identified by Dr. Radhakrishnan as the person who would be able to set up such an institution. This faith in Dr. Deshmukh was vindicated for by 24 December 1958, the Centre had been founded and by 19 March 1959, it was registered under the Societies Registration Act (XXI) of 1860.

Dr. Deshmukh invited Joseph Allen Stein to be the architect of the Centre’s building. What Stein created here is best expressed in his own words: ‘There was an attempt to create something which depended upon simplicity and relationships rather than things. So this is not a five-star appearance in marble and granite. But it is a place where a certain kind of relationship exists—between the garden and the building and the water and the earth and the sky, and the learning and activities that take place and the things that happen...’

Dr. Deshmukh was convinced, however, that unlike the Japanese institution, which was mainly supported by businessmen and journalists, the Centre in Delhi would have to lean heavily on the universities--it would have to be ‘a pooled guest-house of the universities--in the metropolis’. Funds were raised from the Rockefeller Foundation, and from 37 Indian universities. On 15 April 1960 Smt. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, a Life Trustee and the first Vice-President of the IIC, turned the first sod. In November 1960, Crown Prince Akihito of Japan, later the Emperor of Japan laid the cornerstone for the superstructure. The building was completed by 22 January 1962 and inaugurated by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, John D. Rockefeller III and many prominent citizens and intellectuals of Delhi were also present on this historic occasion.

At its inauguration, Pandit Nehru exclaimed, ‘(It) surprises me, now it is here, to realise that we did not have it previously, because the world today is so constituted that there can be no escape from international cooperation…. This international Centre will, of course, not change the nature of the world, but it will help in the process, which is very essential today....’

Through its close contacts with prominent academic and cultural institutions in India and abroad, and through its networking with diplomatic missions in the capital, the India International Centre draws thinkers and professionals from different parts of the world and this country. In the early years visiting delegates have included Pearl Buck, P.M.S. Blackett, Robert Goheen, Paul Gore-Booth, Frédérick Leboyer and Ivan Illich.

In recent years, eminent public personalities speaking at the Centre have included H.H. the Dalai Lama, Julius Nyerere from Tanzania, Willy Brandt from West Germany, Henry Kissinger from the U.S., Lee Kuan Yew from Singapore, Shimon Peres from Israel, Fernando Henrique Cardoso from Brazil, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindorn of Thailand and Sheikh Hasina from Bangladesh.

The talks and symposia at the Centre range from international and civic affairs, ethics and human rights, environment, ecology and wildlife to dimensions in science and medicine, to religion, philosophy, culture and literature. Among the famous writers and scholars who have been hosted here are such famous personalities as Octavio Paz, Christophe von Furer-Haimendorf, Gunter Grass, Hasan Fathy, Sayed Hossein Nasr, Ved Mehta, Dominique Lapierre, Noam Chomsky, Kathleen Raine, Helene Cixous, Mahasweta Devi, Yehuda Amichai, Nissim Ezekiel, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Amartya Sen, Orhan Palmuk, Jung Chang and Gloria Steinem.

From its inception, decision-making of policies at the Centre has been invested in the authority of the Board of Trustees. The five original Life Trustees of the IIC were Dr. C. D. Deshmukh, Pandit H.N. Kunzru, Lala Shri Ram, Nawab Zainyar Jung Bahadur and Smt. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya. The present Life Trustees are: Shri Soli J. Sorabjee, Shri N.N. Vohra, Justice B.N. Srikrishna, Shri Shyam Saran and Shri Gopalkrishna Gandhi. Each Trustee is an eminent authority in his/her field, bringing years of experience to the governing of the Centre. Every two years, two Trustees are elected in addition to the Life Trustees, to the Board.

Since 1960, there have been eleven Directors of the Centre selected by the Board of Trustees, each with years of administrative experience: P.N. Kirpal (I960), D.L. Mazumdar (1961-66), Romesh Thapar (1967-72), J.S. Lall (1973-78), U.S. Bajpai (1979-85), Eric Gonsalves (1986-91), A. Madhavan (1992-95), N.N. Vohra (1995-2003), P.C. Sen (2003-2008), Kavita A. Sharma (2008-2014) and Air Marshal Naresh Verma (2014-2018).