Rigour in the margins
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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.