Remembering D L Sheth: Indian Politics in Theory and Action

In this reading list, we present a theorisation of political development in India, with the writings of academic and activist D L Sheth.

Dhirubhai L Sheth (1931–2021), founding member and former director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), wrote and commented voluminously on the nature of democracy, modernisation, human rights and social movements in India and abroad. His academic writings have been instrumental in shaping a social and political theory of India, but equally abiding are his contributions as an institution builder. Hand in hand with this engagement with the CSDS, he has served as the chair of the Lokniti Programme on Comparative Democracy, and was a founding member of Lokayan, a movement for alternatives in politics and development. 

Reflecting on his legacy after his death on 7 May 2021, Peter Ronald deSouza observed:

His deep commitment to the activist world led him to initiate and sustain a dialogue, through Lokayan, between the activist and the academic. It was a firm epistemic statement about what constitutes valid knowledge.

Sheth’s commitment to the activist world stemmed from democracy being at the centre of all that he thought and wrote about, explained deSouza.

Democracy was at the base of everything he thought, said, advised, and wrote about. If you looked beyond his words, and deep into his hopes, you saw democracy. All pretenders to it were his enemies.

While democracy lay at the heart of his thought and action, many more themes are covered in his work, such as grassroots movements, non-party political formations, reservations, secularisation, nation-building, globalisation and the concept of “deve­lopment” and so on. 

In this reading list, we curate excerpts from Sheth’s articles published in EPW to map out some themes that underscore his social and political thought.


Grassroots Movements versus ‘Development’


Sheth was a strong advocate for grassroots movements, especially as bastions against the narrative building of “development.” He identified the concept of “grassroots” itself in contraposition to the “uprooting” caused by so-called “development.”

In 1984, he wrote:

When societies are ruled by rootless elites, the concept 'grass-roots' becomes an ironic coinage. For the ruled still continue to have their roots firmly in the ground and are resilient and unobliging to all attempts of the rootless rulers to uproot them even if it is for 'development'. So grass-roots have always been there. But they now are in a danger of slowly doing up or being uprooted. And since they are subject to threats to their very survival, they are beginning to show some initiative. 

In Sheth’s analysis, the “rootless” too have come to be a part of grassroots organisation as “change-agents” but “it is the population, written off by development and by organised politics, for whom and with whom most new change-agents and grass-roots organisations work.”

The emphases of their programmes vary widely from raising the level of material life, to raising consciousness, to demanding a rightful share in the national cake, to working for self-reliant economic, social and cultural development in the local or regional settings. But almost all grassroots activists are in their different ways in search for an alternative to the present model of development.

After 20 years, in 2004, his position on the special role of local “micromovements” amid pressure from globalising forces of “development” remained similar.

Just when the global discourse on democracy has become unidimensional, purveying the neo-liberal model of market democracy as the only universally desirable model, and when the Indian state has linked itself to the vertical hierarchy of global economic and political power, significant countervailing processes have emerged in the form of political and social movements at the grass roots making new, provincial and national-level alliances aimed at countering the state’s policies of globalisation. 

In the 1990s, many such micromovements, led by small groups of social activists, which had been active in different parts of India for over three decades, came together and joined larger worldwide alliances and forums protesting against hegemonic policies of the institutions representing global economic and political power.

In this context, Sheth explained how movements-politics articulate a new discourse on democracy through a sustained political practice.

This is done at three levels: (a) at the grass roots level through building peoples’ own power and capabilities, which inevitably involve political struggles for establishing rights as well as a degree of local autonomy for people to manage their own affairs collectively; (b) at the provincial and national level through launching nationwide campaigns and building alliances and coalitions for mobilising protests on larger issues (against ‘anti-people projects and policies’) and creating organisational networks of mutual support and of solidarity among movements; (c) at the global level, by a small section of movements-activists who in recent years have begun to actively participate in several transnational alliances and movements for creating a politics of counter-hegemonic globalisation. In all this, the long-term goal of the movements is to bring the immediate environment (social, economic, cultural and ecological) the people live in, within their own reach and control.

In a nutshell, Sheth believed that movements allowed for participatory democracy as a parallel politics of social action, creating and maintaining new spaces for decision-making and self-governance by people on matters affecting their lives directly.


Role of Civil Society in Nation-building


In a 1992 paper, Sheth also wrote about the importance of social movements in the context of nation-building, arguing that the project of nation-building works differently in multi-ethnic societies. He explained that the formulation of social policy in modern states is geared toward achieving a degree of congruity with society, posing unique challenges for multi-ethnic societies.

For this, [the state] strives to create a 'national' society out of a conglomeration of cultural pluralities. This homogenising tendency through which the state seeks a cultural basis for its rule, is intrinsic to all modern states. In a plural, multi-ethnic society such a cultural basis does not become available to it unless it succeeds in transcending the prevailing pluralities and creates for itself a political culture of citizenship, universalises formal education and opens up the opportunity structure by equalising life-chances of individuals in the society.

… The project of nation-building; however, works differently in those multi-ethnic societies of the third world in which the state has to rely on the institutions of a liberal, representative democracy for accomplishing the project (eg, in India).

Nation-building becomes far too complex a project for these societies and, according to Sheth, the state in a liberal democracy cannot pursue this goal unilaterally. This is where the role of social movements re-emerges for Sheth.

The state is often the primary but not the only agency engaged in the process of nation-building. Active in this process are also a variety of political and social movements working for the expansion of civil and democratic rights for different groups of citizens. Being a part of the modern sector and engaged in the processes of social transformation they too are, in their own way, involved in nationbuilding. 

… The state and the movements, however, often do not work in tandem. On the contrary, through political and social mobilisation of populations, often on issues of rights, the movements seek to compel the state—which is guided primarily by the reason of governance rather than of transformation—to adopt policies and enact legislation which, left to itself, is not inclined to pursue.

On a more fundamental level, Sheth critiqued the universalised model of the nation-state and advocated that third world countries “need not remain wedded to the textbook model of the nation-state given to them.” In a 1989 article, he wrote:

The people living in the decolonised territories were given a model, an ideal universalised model of the nation-state, to follow. This model was perfected by the old nation-states of Europe through wars, bloody nationalist revolutions and colonisation. A model they had developed at great cost to themselves, was now held up to others as a cost-free way to follow.

… under this order, the nonusers of this political technology were put at a great disadvantage; they were denied any political identity. No identity other than that of a nation-state was recognised in the international order. 

Sheth argues that the very logic of superimposing a nation-state on ethnically plural societies undermines the state in many third world countries, especially in cases where the ruling elites that represent the state in the international order lack legitimacy within their societies. The task of nation-building thus became one of transforming a multi-ethnic society into a national society, with nationalism finding an easy base in majority ethnicism.

The other ethnic communities in the society simply became ‘minorities’ without any claim in the national enterprise unless they could assert themselves politically. For the first time in the history of these societies, ethnic distinctions began to be perceived in terms of political antagonism by the respective ethnic groups. Inevitably, politicisation of all possible manner of ethno-linguistic, ethno-religious and tribal groups followed, each competing with the other. But at another level, they worked against the state for achieving political autonomy for themselves. At the extremes, they even sought an independent state for themselves. 

… The state, rather than addressing itself to the creation of civil society (in which several social categories could participate in one political system), became largely a mediator of ethnic political equations.

Sheth noted these tensions in the project of the Indian state, as well. 

The state, in response to growing ethnic and other pressures, has become more and more centralised and coercive; its federal character has been considerably diluted and democratic institutions have been emasculated. The project of transforming ethnic identities into a national identity of citizens is now subject to centrifugal ethnic pulls in the society. In the process, majority ethnicism is beginning increasingly to be seen by the state and some sections of the elite as providing a new, and in their view a stable basis for nationalism; as a result, the ethnic minorities feel ever more insecure.

How to get out of such a vicious circle of cultural fragmentation and majority ethnicism supported by a coercive and authoritarian state? Again, for Sheth, the solution was to be found in civil society. He proposed a new mode of governance, wherein the state would not be an instrument of an ethnically defined nation but a political entity functioning under the control of civil society—a civil state and not a nation-state.


Role of Political Parties in Political Development


While the above excerpts highlight the importance of civil society and social movements in Sheth’s writings, he has also theorised about political parties and their role in the politicisation of voters.

In a 1971 paper, Sheth wrote that political parties contribute to the expansion of the political sector in society, cutting across various social and economic divisions by performing general mobilisation functions for the whole political system.

It is political parties that have provided for the first time in Indian history not only an associational basis for nation-wide identifications but also a series of intermediate structures between political authority on the one hand and social structure on the other. 

… The expansion of the political sector through such an open process of competition between socio-economic groups that had hitherto functioned in a hierarchical order directly undermines traditional status relationships and makes political power accessible to various social and economic strata in the society. It not only brings various voter populations into the realm of participatory politics but in the process also makes social and economic cleavages relevant to the distributive processes of politics.

He maintained that parties tend to provide meaning to cleavage structures in society as part of their competition for the control of the power apparatus. 

It is through these new identifications that citizens develop vis-a-vis political parties that dormant cleavages and differentiations in society are activated. The support structures of parties cannot thus be viewed as mere mechanisms of “articulation” and “aggregation” of socio-economic “interests”, for it is through wholly new identifications (with political parties) that true interest perceptions develop and become meaningful for different social strata. 

Similarly, in a 1970 paper, Sheth argued that the traditional categories of social belonging are transferred to political and civic life introduced by modern political institutions. But these traditional categories do not remain immutable in the face of modern democratic institutions. 

Confrontation with these new environmental conditions and institutional stimuli has produced certain attitudinal and behavioural changes in the electorate.

… In this process of adaptation, the ritualistic and religious aspects of group living are undermined in favour of political articulation of group interests, including even the more primordial group interests. This is sought through identification with larger collectivities like political parties and pressure groups.


Political Development and ‘Secularisation of Caste’


One of the “ritualistic and religious aspects of group living” that Sheth went on to theorise about in the context of its confrontation with “modern political institutions,” is caste.

In 1999, he posited that caste has been detached from the ritual status hierarchy on the one hand, and has led to politicisation on the other, through a process which he broadly characterised as “secularisation of caste.”

I argue that the changes that have occurred in Indian society, especially after India's decolonisation, have led to de-ritualisation of caste – meaning delinking of caste from various forms of rituality which bounded it to a fixed status, an occupation and to specific rules of commensality and endogamy. I further argue that with the erosion of rituality, a large part of the 'support system' of caste has collapsed. Uprooted from its ritually determined ideological, economic and political contexts it has ceased to be a unit of the ritual-status hierarchy. Caste now survives as a kinship-based cultural community, but operates in a different, newly emergent system of social stratification.

Such a characterisation of caste by Sheth has been strongly disputed by others, including Dalit scholars. Referring to Sheth’s 1999 article in his memoriam piece, deSouza explained

In his article on “Secularisation of Caste and the Making of the New Middle Class,” he identifies three processes that have emerged because of democratic politics in India. The first is de-ritualisation where caste is delinked from “various forms of rituality which bound it to a fixed status, an occupation and to specific rules of commensality and endogamy.” Caste for Dhirubhai thereby ceases to be a unit of a ritual status hierarchy (deSouza 2018: 129). This is a radical claim disputed by many scholars, especially Dalit intellectuals, who claim that such de-ritualisation has not occurred. The violence visited on the Dalits when they transgress caste boundaries is an inconvenient fact that his theory has to contend with. 

In the same contentious paper, Sheth had also hypothesised a change in the politicisation of caste groups due to forces of modernisation and democratisation—from the hierarchically ordered strata of castes to “horizontal groups” that compete for power and control over resources in society. According to Sheth,

Caste consciousness is now articulated as political consciousness of groups staking claims to power and to new places in the changed opportunity structure. It is a different kind of collective consciousness from that of belonging to a 'high' or 'low' ritual status-group. The rise of such consciousness of castes has led to disruption of hierarchical relations and to increase in competition and conflict among them. Far from strengthening the caste system, the emergent competitive character of 'caste consciousness' has contributed to its systemic disintegration. The disintegrating system of traditional statuses is now thickly overlaid by the new power system created by elections, political parties and above all by social policies – such as of affirmative action – of the state. 

Sheth also goes on to theorise about what he calls the process of “classisation,” where individual members of all castes are released from their fixed locations, within the stratification system, and subsequently linked to new interests that describe them in class terms rather than caste terms.

Calling the article “so rich that it alone can support a multidisciplinary research programme,” deSouza wrote that Sheth’s propositions regarding de-ritualisation, political horizontalisation and classization of caste—all need “detailed empirical refutation.”

Many case studies need to be conducted across India to see the impact of democracy on age-old social structures.


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