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Intellectuals in search of a public

Rajeev makes some claims regarding CSDS’s contributions that seem to me to be somewhat misplaced.

The relationship between academics and the 'public' is a complex one. Aditya Nigam responds to recent comments by Rajeev Bhargava on the subject in TOI-Crest

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, TOI - Crest (November 17) carried an interview with Rajeev Bhargava, its current director. Fifty years in the life of a research institution that has made major interventions in India's intellectual life is well worth celebrating. Many would recall the pioneering critiques of secularism, modernity, mega-development and the nation-state; and the important theorising about Indian democracy that have over decades come to be associated with CSDS. Rajni Kothari, DL Sheth and Ashis Nandy are still involved with CSDS, while others like Sudhir Kakar, Shiv Visvanathan and Harsh Sethi moved into other institutions and fields. Not all of them add up to a happy story, but we will not go into that here. 

Celebrations can be occasions for critical reflection on institutional history. But they can also turn into self-congratulatory exercises that selectively valorise certain stories and write out others. Perhaps the best way of writing institutional history is to permit multiple voices to emerge. It is in this spirit that I engage with the issues raised in my friend and colleague Rajeev Bhargava's interview. These questions relate to CSDS's future as well as to the larger question of intellectual life in India today.

In summing up the "three valuable contributions" of CSDS to "political thought in India", Rajeev makes some claims regarding CSDS's contributions that seem to me to be somewhat misplaced. From teaching "people" the importance of democracy to teaching political parties the significance of caste in Indian politics, too much has been claimed as our distinctive contribution. Rajeev says for instance, that political parties "began to notice caste as a central unit of political analysis only after the Mandal agitation". But while this may be true for Marxist parties, it was in fact political parties that were responsible for the Mandal Commission and its 1950s predecessor, the Kaka Kalelkar Commission. Parties, from their inception, pioneered the recognition of caste as the most critical political factor. The role of scholars, including those in CSDS, was to bring that recognition into the field of democratic theory, thus complicating our understanding of actually existing democracy.

There are other claims made about being initiators of the ideas of multiple modernities and postcolonial theory which are highly exaggerated but I want to focus here on what seems to emerge as the key theme in the interview: the relation between intellectual life and "the public".

The question of "the public" gets reduced to "politics" in the interview. Hence the decline of the relation between intellectuals and politicians is lamented. Rajeev attributes this decline to the academicisation - by which he means professionalisation - of intellectual life. In contrast to this, he affirms the idea that intellectual activity must legitimate itself politically. The idea of scholarship and its public however, cannot be reduced to socialising with politicians and simply appearing in 'public' - that is to say, the television studio. Increasingly, the painstaking work of scholarship and research is being overtaken by the flashy requirements of the media, where academics are summoned to provide quick sound bites. It can be argued that what threatens scholarship today is not it's delinking from politics in this narrow sense, but its submission to demands of the media industry. Academic professionalisation can certainly reduce intellectual quest to a selfreferential activity among a self-selected group of people, but in rejecting such professionalisation, one must be careful not to undermine the need to adhere to certain protocols of scholarly rigour.

This is not to suggest that scholarship can only prosper in solitude. On the contrary, it has its own diverse publics - from class rooms, seminars and conferences to the larger intellectual publics that they can bring forth. Take for instance, the Sarai programme of the CSDS, whose work in the last decade produced a whole new public in conversation, facilitating a substantial body of research on the city. Its work on media, cinema and popular culture gave impetus to the emergence of new research and archives, and many other diverse intellectual initiatives. Strangely, this experience, also part of CSDS history, finds no mention in Rajeev's account, an experience that by any reckoning provides a significant lens to view the relationship between 'the intellectual' and 'the public'.

Rajeev Bhargava has ignored the broader ways in which both "politics" and "public" have emerged in his colleagues' work, both in individual scholarship as well as through public programmes, the teaching programme and the Indian Languages programme, choosing to celebrate only the first generation and a certain limited interpretation of "politics" and "public" in the present. However, the "politics" of intellectual activity is nothing less than the global politics of knowledge;the creation of new concepts and methods that bring the experience of the non-West into the heart of social and political theory. Scholars across the country are engaged in this long-term, patient work in different ways, as are some in CSDS. It requires a deep engagement with different traditions of thought and intellection, for the challenge is nothing short of 'reassembling social and political thought'.

The writer is a senior fellow, CSDS, Delhi

Reader's opinion (1)

Kerberus Dec 15th, 2012 at 09:56 AM

Most excellent post. As long as academia is a status-based caste, however, its connection to the real world will always be too theoretical to be of any true value to society.

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