October 1, 2014
A return to social scienceShiv Visvanathan
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
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.