Rigour in the margins

Why do social sciences in India thrive best outside the university system?

The infirmities and failings of Indian academia are so well known that it is easy to drown in them. But once in a while there is good reason to appreciate that despite great odds, India has sustained a vigorous intellectual culture. This week marks the 50th anniversary celebrations of a uniquely Indian institution: the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), founded by the great Rajni Kothari. These institutions need to be acknowledged for their intrinsic achievement and excellence. But they are also a wonderful window on the ways in which a whole bunch of small institutions, like the CSDS, the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS) in Kolkata (and if I may be allowed to violate the civilised grace of never being a judge in one's own cause) the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), have contributed to national intellectual life well beyond what their scale would lead you to predict.

In the course of its 50 years, the CSDS has amply redeemed its promise. It was set up, self-consciously, as an institution that would break the shackles of both entrenched disciplines in universities and encrusted ideological debates. Its mission was to promote thinking, in the truest sense of that impoverished word. Thinking is an elusive activity: it is about puzzling through the premises behind arguments, connecting particular details to a larger picture, and attentiveness to the circumstances under which arguments become obsolete, and sheer insight. Much of what passes off as thinking or solution mongering in Indian society is a series of premature certainties and dogmas. Many CSDS faculty developed an intellectual style that pushed the boundaries of thinking in exemplary ways. This allowed the CSDS to position itself as one of the best interlocutors of our contemporary democratic predicament. For decades, the empirical study of Indian politics was a series of footnotes to Rajni Kothari. The CSDS did some of the best work in charting the complex relationship between caste, identity and politics, culminating in Yogendra Yadav's landmark account of the second democratic upsurge. Ashis Nandy, a national treasure in his own right, plumbed the depths of the human psyche and the complex constructions of identities. He is one of the few figures to have examined those depths and still retained his sense of humanity and humour. The list could go on, but there is little doubt that the CSDS single-handedly pioneered the study of democratic politics. It is making defining contributions to the study of political theory, the making of cultural memory, and the search for alternative possibilities. It has also created a network of researchers across different states in India, bridging the gap between the vernacular and the cosmopolitan in its own unique way.

The CSDS has its blind spots, moments of partisanship and the occasional internal squabble. But they cannot overshadow the extraordinary achievement of this institution. It is hard to imagine how impoverished Indian intellectual life would have been without the insouciantly brilliant intellectual culture it fostered. The CSDS became the best exemplar of traits that several small institutions in India have preserved against great odds. It has intellectuals who are strangely unhoused in the dominant categories of the times. It has intellectuals who have achieved a measure of eminence and excellence, but not in ways that can be measured by the usual professional categories. It has intellectuals comfortable in different genres: the abstruse academic publication, the public sphere and even that much-maligned oral culture of argument. But what it has retained for the most part is a fierce sense of independence and self-possession, not just from government but from shifting fashions. There are two kinds of intellectual cultures. Some define themselves in the context of fads and fashions, and cling to sacred dogmas or texts even against a recalcitrant reality. Others define themselves in the context of wondering about reality, enchanted by its variousness. They shape a way of looking at the world rather than becoming prisoners of authority. The CSDS was decidedly in the second camp, and that was the source of its creativity.

The CSDS also promoted a style important for democracies. Intellectuals must say what they think; but they must not carry any sense of presumption or special authority. They must be critical but without falling into the whole-scale misanthropy that afflicts so many intellectuals. They must push theory, but they must not confuse theory with judgement. The CSDS, on the whole, maintained that balance. Even when its faculty members were wrong or blindsided, there was more to learn from them than from those who had got it right.

Why did so many of these fiercely independent and mischievously creative spaces have to be created outside of the university system? Certainly, from a pedagogic point of view, it is something of a shame that many of Indian's most creative writers and social scientists, in disciplines other than history, have been housed in such institutions, somewhat cut off from students. It has also meant that sometimes, Indian social science and humanities looks weaker than it actually is. It is more dispersed. We are not entitled to self-congratulation. But an occasion such as the CSDS's anniversary is also a reminder of how interesting public argument in India can be. Certainly, it is to the credit of so many Indian intellectuals that they have resisted taking the standpoint of the state, perhaps far more so than in other democracies. Indian social science, with some exceptions, has also been woefully under-professionalised. But it has also had to cope with the extraordinary challenge of intervening in a society rapidly changing, with little overlapping consensus, and a cacophony that can be bewildering. The CSDS, in some ways, paved the way for the thought that intervening in this complex process will require a different kind of institutional imagination as well.

But it has to be said that for the most part, the migration of so much interesting work and engagement with contemporary issues to spaces outside the university was largely a result of push factors. The combination of dogmatism, factional politics and dispiriting institutional complexity in many of our universities have made these small institutions hugely attractive. As Yogendra Yadav is fond of reminding us, to judge our institutions by standards taken from models elsewhere is to completely miss the point that we have evolved our own institutional cultures. Perhaps our institutional eco-system will look different from what has evolved elsewhere. The CSDS was a pioneer in this respect.

In an age of instrumental values, this has to be said: for all the limitations of Indian intellectual life, the marginal intellectual return on money spent on good institutions in India is still very high. The CSDS's intellectual identity has been an inoculation against the allures of superficial branding, whether it is in politics or academia. It deserves acknowledgment.

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, `The Indian Express'


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