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Updated: September 2, 2013 21:57 IST

Studying the Indian State

B. G. Verghese
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Political Science Vol.1: Edited by Sami Kumar Das.
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Political Science Vol.1: Edited by Sami Kumar Das.

The research surveys of ICSSR set the agenda for scholarship but leave vital gaps unfilled

These volumes contain reviews of political science research for researchers, a periodic exercise sponsored by the ICSSR to map the output and thrust of recent research by both Indian and foreign scholars in different fields of social science in India, laying out the state of art and pointing to promising new areas for research exploration. These volumes are clearly not intended for the general reader but offer guidance for what might be a useful research agenda for the next round of academic scholarship.

This is a valuable service in directing research towards newer areas of inquiry since the ICSSR itself was only established in 1967. This moved the locus of social science research from the Planning Commission to a more autonomous body of academics and widened its focus to include things like policy research, gender studies, security issues and international relations. The overhang of western scholarship and ideas on India also began to diminish in consequence.

Nowhere was this more striking than in looking at democracy as more than a western construct as Achin Vanaik notes. The West, and some in India, scoffed at the very idea. Yet Indian democracy, embracing an extraordinary diversity, is despite its many flaws a wonder that has influenced as many people around the world as has the Westminster model or Lincoln and Jefferson. Again, ideas of the state and nation and the practice of diplomacy do not stem exclusively from western thought. K.P.S. Menon, India’s first Foreign Secretary, recalled Krishna’s words in the Mahabharata, “I shall go to the court of the Kauravas to present your case in the best light and try to get them to accept your demands; but if my efforts fail and war becomes inevitable, we shall show the world that we are right …. ”.

The volumes cover a wide range of subjects but touch on certain facets rather lightly if at all. No fault of the authors this, but rather the stark fact that some seminal areas of vital interest have been barely touched upon by Indian scholarship, let alone decision makers, parliamentarians and the media. Some examples would be in order.

Mounting concerns over the fragmentation inherent in coalitional, regional and identity politics need to be seen in the context of the continuing empowerment of hitherto marginalised, suppressed, silent and disparate under-mass which is forming its own pressure groups and alliances to assert long-denied rights and identities, especially in the Northeast. India is truly a commonwealth of many actual or embryonic nation-states or a so termed states-nation which remains a work in progress. This explains the demand for new or smaller states, such as Telangana, better to match local aspirations with good governance. But there are limits to this process on a number of grounds, including security and strategic considerations in some cases. The movement from representative to participative government has seen the rise of NGOs, protest movements, civil society and the social media as organising principles. Add to this market factors, the rise of a powerful corporate sector, both national and trans-national, and increasing globalisation with the on-going communications revolution.

In this view of things, more attention needs to be given to how we structure governance and society and give form and shape to principles of subsidiarity, dividing at one level only to unite at another, higher level to ensure economies of scale, coordination and better outcomes. The first States Reorganisation Commission gave birth to the concept of Zonal Development Councils to play just such a role. Other forms of zoning, for transport, transmission grids, river basin authorities have received little research attention.

The tribal problem has been ignored. The Fifth Schedule, the constitutional shield for heartland tribes has been grossly violated and disregarded; while few have cared to examine why the autonomous councils of the NE Sixth Schedule Areas have not worked as intended. Concepts of non-territorial devolution or sharing await serious exploration. The geo-strategic character of the Northeast has been totally ignored and bodies like the North East Council and the DONeR Ministry have been failures, wrongly conceived, structured and located. These are national and not just “Northeast” issues.

Nor has adequate attention been given to differentiating between borders and boundaries. We have a vague semblance of a boundary policy but no border policy. The fact of a boundary is less important than its nature — a bridge or a divide. Our border policy has been grossly lacking in imagination.

Gender issues

Gender issues have rightly assumed great importance. Yet, it is extraordinary that there should be a curtain of silence drawn around the constitutional directive favouring a uniform civil code on grotesque, false and foolish grounds that do not bear legal scrutiny and pander to communal and male-dominated property interests. There is no worthwhile research in this area, not even an elementary exposure of the supreme illiteracy and communalism surrounding discourse on this subject.

Likewise, the research on secularism is extremely disappointing. The concept has been hollowed out to mean “equal respect” for everybody’s communalism through ferocious and blatant vote-bank politics. No research has been done on the impact of the foolish move to introduce “Secularism” as one of the guiding principles of the Preamble in 1976, a word that otherwise simply does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. This is because the Founding Fathers enthroned the far larger, nobler and meaningful concept of “Fraternity”, assuring the “Dignity” of the individual — terms almost never used by any leader, manifesto, Plan or vision document. Dr. Ambedkar had spoken of the social deficit India would face as it increasingly confronted social contradictions. Have these themes been adequately addressed? It is not any lack of liberty — often licence — but the lack of inclusiveness, dignity and Fraternity that is tearing India apart.

Nor has any worthwhile research been done on why Satyameve Jayate, the national motto, remains almost dead because of totally wrong-headed classification, archival, cartographic and communication policies in an instant world.

India’s engagement with the world is extensively discussed. But more work needs to be done on new concepts such as the “responsibility to protect” which has sometimes provided licence to intervene in the affairs of smaller, largely non-Western nations with egregious results such as in Iraq and Afghanistan and the blatant use of double standards in order to preserve or advance Western interests.

The four volumes produced are most useful. But vital gaps remain.

(B.G. Verghese is former editor of the Hindustan Times and the Indian Express)

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