A return to social science

The social sciences have declined as part of the imagination of the university. The subject has been appropriated by security agencies, think tanks and marketing outfits which substitute their current interests for democracy

October 01, 2014 02:50 am | Updated May 08, 2016 03:15 am IST

There are moments in history where talent clusters in little pockets to produce a new excitement around knowledge. One senses a wonderful sparkle about scholarship, a sense of excitement and gossip which spreads all over. All one needs is a few books, a café, a lawn and a few scholars committed to chewing on an idea. One’s sense of the world changes as we watch them play with an idea. What then grows is not just an idea, but a group of friends, a community, and a commons of insights which attracts people from all over. I remember one such place used to be the wonderful group Rajni Kothari built in Delhi in the 1970s and the 1980s. Rajni is now almost forgotten but his ideas are still relevant to the problems of today.

This is an era which has seen the literal death of the Congress, the end of the Planning Commission, the rise of new majoritarianism, the decline of the great social moments; yet, one cannot think of one article or one book which captures this world adequately. Adding insult to intellectual injury, we have a whole array of diasporic intellectuals whose ideas of India are literally embarrassing. Their pastiche of nostalgia, didacticism and post-modernity adds little to the study of everyday issues. There have been a few exceptions to this dismal scene. One thinks of Ashis Nandy or U.R. Ananthamurthy. Both realised that the worlds they were critiquing and celebrating were disappearing before them. It is at these moments that one misses the magic of Rajni and his conversations on politics.

Studying democracy

The house that Rajni built was a bungalow with a few lawns. At lunch every day, the lawns housed an array of chairs, and scholars came, ate and talked. They discussed politics but what they celebrated was democracy, and democracy in all its variants was something all its scholars were committed to. Studying democracy became a ritual game, where experiment followed experiment. Rajni led the group, coming in largely at lunch time, clutching scraps of paper; many were old envelopes on which he jotted notes. Others would walk in. What one ate for lunch was incidental. What one talked about at lunchtime shaped the ideas of a generation.

Rajni brought his sense of Gujarati entrepreneurship to ideas. He triggered election studies inviting political scientists like Myron Wiener, Robert Dahl and Karl Deutsch to India. But politics was more than elections. Rajni and his colleagues realised that social science needed new experiments, new ways of thinking. He created the China Group so that China could be studied as the relevant other. He encouraged Future studies which was the one place where dissenting intellectuals from Eastern Europe could gather safely. The future was treated as a different country that Stalinist regimes of that time need not be paranoid about. He introduced a voluntary group called Lokayan which became a site for a range of grass-root imaginations. Lokayan went beyond the logic of expertise, the arrogance of intellectuals to listen to the experiences of ordinary people. In many ways, the creativity of the network lay not in its originality but in its ability to listen, adopt, mix and rework points of insight.

Rajni helped seed the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) to create a tradition of on-the-spot investigations to investigate the violence of the state. PUCL-PUDR (People’s Union for Democratic Rights) produced the classic report on the 1984 riots “Who are the guilty?” PUCL — which was civil society’s presence in every major moment of violence, investigating, chronicling the fate of the victim — has sadly almost disappeared today. One of the ironies we face is the vulnerability of civil society institutions as generations change. His search for different ways of thinking about governance created the journal Alternatives , which he founded along with Dick Falk and Saul Mendlovitz. The scholarship on security demystified security as something constructed by experts. It transformed the discourse into an open-ended demand for people’s security, where peace was something demanded by a people than as a consequence of security. Behind the technicality of all this scholarship, Rajni chaired an oral tradition, a classic adda of politics at lunch time, which made politics come alive.

Politics, for Rajni, represented the most open of systems. Education was elitist, the bureaucracy a club; only politics introduced new forces and new ideas with exciting regularity. It was only in the political domain that the elite, our second-hand elite with its first-hand pretensions, could not remain knowledge-proof about the changes modern democracy was creating.

Pluralism of social science

The Emergency destroyed many of the old hegemonies as a generation of social movements challenged planned development, interrogated the accepted categories of science and questioned the validity of economics as a form of expertise. Rajni and his group were at the forefront of this bandwagon of ideas which dulled the economist’s halo and returned a sense of everydayness and complexity to democracy. I must point out that this was not easy to achieve. Economics was the dominant social science and the aura around planning added a mystique to economists like Sukhamoy Chakraborty, Sen and K.N. Raj. Delhi School was the Mecca and Marxism or some variant of socialism, the dominant ideology of most intellectuals. I remember Rajni handling overbearing Marxists with aplomb. But more than that, what Rajni and his group tried to show was that the categories of each discipline created a captive mind. More than ideology, dominant classifications became the iron cages of the era.

For a reinvention

This thinking added to the pluralism of social science in many ways. It challenged the hegemony of economics and the dominance of Marxism as a dominant intellectual perception. It showed that the university, ironically, was not always the source of original theory. People resisting the regime or the social movements helped invent more understandings of the political than our sedate universities still living off old textbooks on political theory. One was like a collection of heresies, the other a catechism, a collection of orthodoxies that the church or the party could be fond of. Yet, there was something human about the process, where alcohol and laughter often added to the celebration of social science. What gave power to the group was that it behaved like a commons and yet tolerated individuality and difference. Rajni’s was the one institute which openly resisted the Emergency. Everyone, from the gardener and the chowkidar to the academic fellow, was party to the decision-making. It became the benchmark for a later era. As the community aged, it became a dull imitation of itself, idiosyncratic in parts but without realising it was banalising itself. What I will do is to summarise the insights it offers as a fable.

This exploration of the social sciences re-examined a whole glossary of concepts like development, the non-party process, voluntarism, human security, decolonising knowledge and sustainability. Whatever the temporary excitement of a concept, all were validated by the democratic impetus and democracy in turn was interrogated and fine-tuned according to fresh redefinitions; as policy gets confused with politics and think tanks pretend they are democratic instruments. The social sciences have declined as part of the imagination of the university. The subject has been appropriated by security agencies, think tanks and marketing outfits which substitute their current interests for democracy. What we need today is a Futures unit among non-government organisations to challenge the think tanks as a technocratic imagination. We need to rip through the sanitised picturesqueness of the Human Development Report and unravel the nature of violence today. We need to show the creative power of the informal economy rather than treat it as a space to be colonised. Our critique of science needs to be extended to a full-fledged critique of science in relation to a non-Promethean world. We need to collaborate with the ideas of scholars like Gustavo Esteva or Boas Santos who have emphasised the move from liberation to emancipation; where the victim confronts his roots in future oppression. All this would have been done in a non-Utopian way where everydayness, irony and laughter add a touch of scepticism to this work. All this would have been done without nostalgia.

We need a new heuristics for social science, a new attempt to invent a sociological imagination. As a society, we need new mindsets to create a new style of social science, a thinking which can revive the dullness of public policy and the hysterical triteness of social change. Only such a heuristics can reinvent democracy from cliché to a new sense of community.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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