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The Social Sciences in Post-1947 India

A panel discussion at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, recently debated why the social sciences in India have failed to generate a sense of contemporary history. However, many of the issues raised were not addressed by the gathering and a wider collective thinking is necessary.

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The Social Sciences in Post-1947 India

Prathama Banerjee

A panel discussion at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, recently debated why the social sciences in India have failed to generate a sense of contemporary history. However, many of the issues raised were not addressed by the gathering and a wider collective thinking is necessary.

Prathama Banerjee (prathamabanerjee@ gmail.com) teaches history at Miranda House, Delhi.

T
he sociology unit of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, held a panel discussion recently on ‘The Possibility of a Contemporary History: Disciplinary Formations and the Social Sciences in Post-1947 India’. Conceptualised by Veena Naregal, the panel was chaired by Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. The panelists were Partha Chatterjee of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta; Mary John of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi; Ravi Vasudevan of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and Vinay Lal of the University of California, Los Angeles. The critical question here was why social sciences in India have failed to generate a sense of contemporary history.

The panelists responded in interestingly different ways. Vinay Lal opened by saying that our social sciences were historically constrained by English being its sole academic language and by a long-standing gap between our pedagogical and research imaginations. He then mentioned two other largely unacknowledged lacks. The first was that our knowledge systems lacked a site of the “commons”. Borrowed primarily from environmental studies, the commons as a concept refers to natural

resources which are neither private nor state-owned, to which ideas of property, and therefore of exclusive usage, cannot be applied. Our disciplines need a similar imagination of the commons, where knowledge appears as without copyright and as open to different uses by different people. Lal went further. The very idea of commons as a subject of inquiry, he said, shows where our social sciences have failed us. While environmentalists have worked with the question of common property resources; political economists with intellectual property rights; historians, using E P Thompson, with questions of pre-capitalist customs and commons, and architectural critics with the question of common life of the streets, none of these specialists have conversed across disciplinary boundaries and thus produced a general theorisation of the idea itself. (A question to ask here would be how Lal’s notion of the knowledge-commons relates to the Gramscian notion of common sense? Can we talk of post-1947 creation by the state’s

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culture and education policy of a hegemonic common sense about Indian culture/ society/nation?)

Lal also pointed to the lack of a tradition of criticism in our academia. He distinguished “critique”, a teleologicallyoriented and totalising notion, from “criticism”. Criticism was an intellectual exercise that was meant as an ongoing, everyday effort at unpacking the details of one’s surroundings, a relentless speaking and writing about anything and everything without deference for disciplinary boundaries – somewhat on the lines of the work of Umberto Eco, Edward Said, etc. Criticism, Lal said, would enable us to be far more directly engaging and contemporary than we have hitherto been. It would be interesting to ask here if this lack that Lal talks about is somewhere connected to the lack in India of traditions of art, music, film “criticism” – in that while social sciences in India have successfully offered critiques in the conventional sense, its inability to generate a public idiom of cultural criticism cannot be missed.

Mary John came in differently, saying that we need to urgently question our overly simplistic imagination of a one-toone relationship between knowledge, institutional structure and socio-political context. Taking the example of gender studies, she showed that this field did not emerge in India in direct response to a coherent political constituency of women. Rather, it came about partly as an internal critique of conventional disciplinary norms that rendered women invisible, partly in negotiation with the nation state and its legal regimes and partly in response to United Nations discourses about gendering development and international women’s day. In other words, she urged a serious complicating of our understanding of how disciplinary knowledges change through time. (Perhaps the first step towards imagining social sciences in a more inclusive manner, rather than in terms of strict disciplinary norms, is to admit this necessarily dispersed location of the knowledge-imperative?) Our contemporary predicament, she said, is our inability to grasp the new kind of distance that has emerged between the domain of current issues and the available conceptual apparatus meant to turn such issues into

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a problematic of knowledge, into a “research question”. Taking the example of recent rounds of the National Family Health Survey, which sought to present, through survey and sampling, data about health, fertility, family planning, domestic violence and sexuality in India, Mary showed how the public presentation of the results of this research got played out in the Hindi media in unanticipated and surprising ways, through the rhetorical mobilisation of decontextualised and discrete facts about domestic violence. To engage the contemporary, our social sciences, she argued, urgently needed to address this as-yet untheorised mismatch between the language and mode of knowledge production and the language and mode of contemporary reportage, public discourse, policymaking and media representation.

‘Mediatised’ Reality

Ravi Vasudevan emphasised this latter aspect – that today in India it is impossible to imagine knowledge, even disciplinary knowledge, without engaging with the intercession of the media form. In an interesting take on the story of post-Independence India, he brought into play a series of circulating images that through the years sought to embody the moment of the contemporary – the early radio and the national/regional broadcast, the mid-20th century government documentary, the Bombay cinema, Doordarshan in the 1980s, the 1990s “disaggregation” of the media through proliferating cable-channels, pirated videos, the web, the extraordinarily competitive creation of “news”, “reality TV” and so on. The implication was that reality – the object of study of the social sciences – was by now thoroughly “mediatised”, such that the “real” as the ground for disciplinary knowledge-formation no longer offered the promise of direct access. History as discipline must therefore reconfigure its relationship to the archive, given that traces of reality no longer seemed available as contained in its “proper” place, in the records-room; rather lay disaggregated across many moments of what would earlier be considered ephemera sans ordering and classification. A similar rethink, one could say, is demanded of the very notion of the event, and by implication of periodisation, including of the idea of the contemporary, which founds the very disciplinary claim of history.

Ravi Vasudevan’s presentation opened up serious questions, though they remained mostly unaddressed in the day’s discussions. Does not the notion of a disaggregated/mediated reality render the very dream of an “inclusive” public discourse redundant, given that the inclusion/ exclusion binary is based on a sensibility of bounded and continuous rather than disaggregated spaces? Do we also need to rethink today’s fraught media-academia relationship in this context? After all, the media’s claim to truth is that it creates an inclusive public discourse through participatory/interactive debate. The academia’s claim to truth is that it creates the special competence needed to represent, and make sense of, a debate. Are we then looking at the playing out of a political tension between the inclusive/participatory and the exclusive/representational paradigms in the media/academia face-off? How does a knowledge-practitioner engage with such an articulation of the contemporary? How does this question speak to Lal’s aforementioned idea of the commons, or lack of it?

An Authentic Domain?

Partha Chatterjee, finally, proposed a critical counterpoise between two domains

– the academic and the vernacular – as a way of thinking through the current questions that faced our social sciences. The vernacular, in his formulation, was not defined by its being purely non-English speaking domain – for English could very well be used with great facility in this space. It was a domain that defined itself, in a critique of the academic, as a more grounded, even “authentic”, discursive space, claiming to be less alienated from the “popular”, the “Indian”, the contemporary. The significant point here was that the vernacular did not subsist in indifference to the academic, rather that its identity was articulated precisely in opposition to it. At the same time, the vernacular actually used discursive techniques, notions of evidence and protocols of argumentation that were generated by the academic, except that these practices were harnessed here with perhaps deliberate flexibility and unpredictability. Partha Chatterjee

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argued that this precisely was how the vernacular flourished on the same ground as, but in defiance to, the disciplined and disciplinary. According to him, Indian academia urgently needed to intervene in this vernacular domain, self-consciously and thoughtfully, even if at some risk to itself. After all, questions of religion and caste had emerged out of precisely the vernacular domain and forced our disciplines into serious self-questioning.

A lively discussion followed, with Pratap Bhanu Mehta adding, from the chair, another dimension to the academicvernacular binary. The question to ask, he said, was why the vernacular sought to represent (and criticise) the academic as a thoroughly ideologised space, while at the same time making strong ideological claims of itself being properly Indian/ popular? Clearly at issue here is history – as discipline, public discourse, common sense – that has become in the last few decades the ground of contemporary political demands for justice (as sought by lower castes) and revenge (as sought by the Hindu right).

Mehta’s comments foregrounded the big question of the 1990s – namely, the question of the relationship between the academic and the political. Many associated questions emerge from this. There is, first, the question of how history as a discipline emerged in India as the primary site of political contest, and why other social sciences, like economics or sociology, never claimed this legitimacy as site for public contestation? There is also the related question of how the 1990s redefined the oppositional edge that history had once enjoyed in the public eye, because of its imbrication in the nationalist movement. After all, while the Babri masjid controversy did make public intellectuals of our historians, their failure to influence the course of events was in full evidence. The bigger question then becomes: Are we looking at the fall-out of a longer 20th century history of management/containment of the “political” (as opposed to what befitted academic attention), such that the academia today experiences the “political” as a kind of external and alien threat, rather as a domain in which it consciously participates? Admittedly, economics and culture-policy have been deployed through the years in India to painstakingly empty the domain of knowledge of the political, claiming neutrality, objectivity and diversity while seeking to banish differences/ conflict into what it saw as the properly political domain of practice, the “other” of knowledge as it were.

Expectedly, the largest number of questions that followed were about the nature of the vernacular. There was a feeling that Chatterjee’s conclusions were drawn from his experience of the very specific history of the Bengali vernacular – and its particular version/claim of cultural “modernism” – and that this was very different from, say, the contemporary Hindi vernacular domain. The latter demonstrated a hegemonic streak; and given the statecentric history of Hindi as a language, the growth of the Hindi vernacular sphere – which seems today to threaten the academic – was actually facilitated and mediated by academic institutions in north India. In other words, in this case the rise of the Indian disciplines and the rise of the vernacular public domain were mutually complicit.

In our desire for too neat an academic-vernacular binary, we must not forget the complex history of their relationship – namely, the 19th century history of fashioning the appropriate and hegemonic vernacular, out of contesting local languages, the early 20th century history of the rise of the “region” in India as political, linguistic and cultural formation in India. Also, we must remember that historically the vernacular public sphere predated the rise of the academic, and the latter in early 20th century grew out of an effort to discipline and epistemologise the former. (For example, in the case of history there is clear evidence of early 20th century Bengali historians campaigning against history-writing having become a popular past-time!) And yet the legitimacy of Indian academia rested precisely on the act of constituting, mobilising and representing the vernacular. In other words, this complex history of managing of the academic-vernacular relationship might be more critical to our story than invoking an academic-vernacular binary. (Also, we must not be too quick in imagining the vernacular as a fully flexible and un fettered domain contra the disciplinary,

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given the notions of morality and obscenity that are often mobilised in vernacular aesthetic as well as political judgments.)

Looking Within

There were also questions about the very formulation of an “intervention” by the academic into the vernacular. Did an interventionist sensibility not smack of a certain hegemonic agenda, especially ironic when today the very autonomy, reach and political relevance of the Indian academia seemed suspect? Can one also overlook the fact that more often than not the academic has sought to develop an instru mentalist, if not appropriative, attitude towards what it perceives as the vernacular – a kind of ethnographic field which one enters and exits at will? Is not the fraught relationship between the intellectual and the political activist today very much a function of this? Could not one think differently, as one commentator pointed out, in terms of whether we can experiment with institutional forms, so as to create an internal democratic space for the vernacular? There also arose the question of internal differentiation within both the academic and the vernacular domains. Too stark a counterpoise, it was said, would “normalise” this divide and blind us to contestations going on within these domains, which is where we must look to connect if we must renegotiate the place of our disciplines in the country’s public life.

And finally, there emerged the question of the classroom. Given that in India social sciences have evolved, historically, in the institutional location of the university, with its huge network of colleges, the classroom emerges as the critical space where knowledge produces, and reproduces, its public interface. What would be the location of the classroom, of curricula, of pedagogy itself, in a scheme of things configured in terms of an academic-vernacular axis? Mehta, interestingly, hinted at rethinking the university as a mobilisational, rather than only an educational space – with implications for the dynamics of disciplinary knowledge production.

While the discussion on Chatterjee’s proposition of the academic/vernacular counterpoise raised a storm of questions and comments, one must also emphatically remark on the fact that many other issues

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raised by the panelists were not really addressed by the gathering of the day – apart from a single remark on the (im)possibility of imagining a knowledge-commons in the time of image and information explosion (in a reference to both Lal’s and Vasudevan’s presentations), and another question on how to imagine the place of economics in a history of Indian social sciences (in a reference to the absence of an economist in the panel). Yet this perhaps was the most crucial aspect of the day’s deliberations – this total preoccupation with the vernacular, the “other” of the disciplinary, as it were (though Chatterjee himself might not have intended to posit the idea exactly as such). While the intention behind the panel was to explore the structures of our disciplines, and the histories thereof, the discussion ended up being actually on the structure of the vernacular, the “outside” of the disciplinary. This “displaced” form in which the debate about our social sciences got articulated is significant – because, as Mehta indicated, in his summing up, it is perhaps here that the moment of the contemporary lay. If the panel, to begin with, had called itself ‘The Possibility of a Contemporary History’, perhaps we could imagine the “contemporary” as primarily embodied by this current experience, this intense anxiety, about the place, the reach, the efficacy of the social sciences in India. Of course, this is merely to ask the question, and is very far from answering it.

Seeking Answers

In other words, the panel discussion above all pointed towards the urgent need for further brainstorming. In anticipation then, let us set out a few pointers towards the kind of questions we are looking at here – also in the hope that this will generate comments from readers and create a greater possibility of collective thinking. One way is to break up our big concern – that of the contemporary – into a set of details. To understand the inadequacies of our social sciences in the face of the contemporary, we need to firstly to historicise our disciplines.

In what way did the Indian social sciences evolve in the Nehruvian years, discursively and institutionally, into established/secure disciplinary formations, in complicity with a nationalist politics of planning, development and regulation by an interventionist body of “experts”? What were the limits of our post-Emergency academic efforts at disentangling social sciences from the statist imperative? How have our disciplines constituted, historically, their “objects” of study, be it “society”, “culture”, tradition, nation or region, and with what material implications? Apart from the question of public/policy deployments of our social sciences, how do we analyse the production of disciplinary norms, notions of evidence and truth, discursive techniques and form; as well as the production of themes and problema tics specific to a discipline. How to understand the production of intellectual subjectivities

  • as that of the historian or the sociologist
  • in terms of a larger politics of exclusion and disciplining of the lay and the outsider.
  • Interesting too will be to ask questions about interdisciplinary conflicts – and/or alignments – through the years. To face up to the contemporary in this way would also require us to work out the as yet un resolved question of the relationship between the 19th century and the 20th century in India
  • the overarching frame of “modern India” has clearly yielded little. Also, needless to emphasise, we need to urgently move beyond the too easy periodisation of colonialpostcolonial India, if we have to reconstitute our sense of the present at all. While we are talking about the social sciences here, it must also be strongly emphasised that we need simultaneously to historicise the complex history of culture policy in India, not only because our times demand that we take cultural politics seriously but also because the Indian nation state’s political claims have historically rested on an a priori notion of cultural difference vis-a-vis (colonial) modernity. In other words, the effort here is to think through a history of our times in terms of a history of the ways in which the present has been framed and represented via knowledge-regimes. Or to say the same thing differently, the effort is to ask how far our sense of the contemporary has been mediated through the years by disciplinary self-definitions – and in what ways have these social-scientific mediations succeeded, in what ways and with what implications have they been thwarted.
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