Aditya Nigam, professor with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, responds to Kuldeep Kumar's column, Hindi Belt, dated May 31, 2014

I write this in response to Kuldeep Kumar’s ‘Filling Up a Gap’ (The Hindu, 31 May, 2014) where he has reviewed the Hindi journal Pratiman: Samay Samaj Sanskriti brought out by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). It is not possible to enter into a debate with Kumar on a range of questions that he has obliquely raised — including that of our ‘ideological preferences’, which according to him is characterised by an unduly heavy emphasis on ‘Indianness’.

I want to take his specific response to my paper in the current issue — the only piece that he mentions out of a body of printed material running into roughly 1200 pages. Of this paper, too, he does not seem to have read beyond the first page. The only point that has caught his fancy is that I have used a word, that has apparently been patented by Marxists, in a way very different from the way they use it. Kumar is ‘shocked’ at my use of the word ‘janvad’ because I do not use it to mean ‘democracy’ as many Marxists do but to connote ‘populism’. How, asks Kumar in horror, can this be, when there are terms like ‘loklubhavanvad’ or ‘lokpriyatavad’ already in use for the word populism? And this, says Kumar, is done “under the mistaken belief that ‘lok’ is a one-dimensional word that refers only to folk”. This is a complete misrepresentation of what I have written.

In a long footnote on the very first page, I have explained why I am using this term. I would have understood if Kumar had said that he disagreed with this use. Instead, his shock is as if I have used the term out of ignorance. If he had read beyond the first page of the 10,000 word essay, Kumar would have understood why I think both the terms for populism currently in use are hopelessly off the mark. The point of my entire essay is to demonstrate that populism is not about ‘loklubhavan’ or ‘lokpriyata’. That is to say, it is not about a privileged leader — or leaders — who seduce the people (‘lubhavan’ suggests precisely that) or seek popularity (‘lokpriyatavad’).

Rather, populism has to be seen as the eruption of the popular into the formal domain of politics. The populist leader is not a separate entity from the people she represents. On the other hand, ‘populism’ in its everyday journalistic sense is a pejorative word whose charge these days comes from a neoliberal vocabulary. Any policy that takes the popular seriously is dubbed as populism. Even in its pre-neoliberal uses, it is always from an elite position that the term is hurled as a term of abuse at popular politics.

In the essay referred to by Kumar, my point is precisely that ‘populism’ has no comparable term in any of the Indian languages and this fact should be read as a sign of a different understanding of politics in their universes. The need here for a term that moves away from the negative and highly imprecise meanings suggested by the two terms above, can therefore hardly be overstated. Another part of my argument that ties up here with my terminological preference for ‘janvad’ has to do with the fact that I see democracy and populism as two kindred phenomena. This is of course, not an entirely original argument — for it takes off from some very suggestive and important work by political philosophers Ernesto Laclau and Jacques Ranciere.

It is presumptuousness to assume that I have a “mistaken understanding that ‘lok’ as a one-dimensional term”. In fact, it is precisely because the term has such an expansive range of meanings in our Indian languages (ranging from ‘world’ and ‘this-worldly’ to ‘folk’ and sometimes ‘popular’) that I make the move of distinguishing the more modern political term ‘jan’ from ‘lok’, for the purposes of my paper. Kumar may disagree, but offers no counter argument. In conclusion, let me turn to the more general point about words and meaning. Words that carry a specific meaning in ordinary usage are bound to undergo a transformation when they are deployed in social scientific or theoretical writing. For example, the word ‘bourgeois’ meant in French, simply ‘middle class’, before Marxism took it over and made it a synonym for the capitalist class. Or take the term ‘class’ which means very different things in Marxist and Weberian social theory, and its Marxist usage has hardly any relation to its common everyday usage. Hannah Arendt takes the ordinary language word ‘power’ and transforms it so radically as to purge it of every negative connotation of force and violence. All these are the necessary steps through which social science or social theory makes distinctions between often related but different phenomena. And in all languages without exception. Is Kumar saying that Hindi should be immune from this because it is uniquely bound by its unchangeable traditions? Is he suggesting that people should do social sciences in Hindi but leave the existing language and vocabulary intact?

Kuldeep Kumar’s response

Aditya Nigam is mistaken in thinking that I have “reviewed” the three issues of the journal that run into roughly 1200 pages. No ordinary mortal can accomplish this feat in a 700-word column.

I have welcomed the initiative in a very enthusiastic but not unqualified manner. By sarcastically saying that the word ‘janvad’ has been “apparently patented” by Marxists, he is insinuating something that I have not said or meant. I was merely arguing for the need to standardise Hindi equivalents of technical terms and concepts.

If Nigam thinks that he is serving the cause of Hindi and social sciences better by using familiar terms in a totally unfamiliar manner, he is entitled to his opinion. And so am I who differ. Only time will tell if his peculiar usage of ‘janvad’ finds wider acceptability.

Till then, the jury is out.

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