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A consensual oligarchy of academics

The New Delhi-based institution, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), which was established by the famous political scientist Rajni Kothari in 1963, continues to be at the forefront of political and social debates in India, not a small accomplishment in a country where institutions often fall victim to politics and narrow agendas, KumKum Dasgupta writes.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2012 23:25 IST
KumKum Dasgupta

The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), one of India’s best-known think-tanks, is 50 years old, or as many would say, 50 years young. The New Delhi-based institution, which was established by the famous political scientist Rajni Kothari in 1963, continues to be at the forefront of political and social debates in India, not a small accomplishment in a country where institutions often fall victim to politics and narrow agendas.

Unsurprisingly, the Centre guards its autonomy fiercely. It is funded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, which was established in 1969 by the government to promote research in social sciences, and does not accept any ‘matching grants’ from the government of Delhi though ICSSR-funded institutions are eligible to seek such grants from state governments. “Governments change in Delhi and each has its own set of agendas. So it is best to stay clear,” Ashis Nandy, sociologist, clinical psychologist and Senior Honorary Fellow at the Centre told me. Even though the Centre has not faced much political pressure, it has faced political calumny. “We were accused of being American stooges, romantics, and even of fiddling with electoral data,” reminisced Nandy. But it is not always the State that can pose problems. They often come from the “bad civil society” like those who vandalised the almost-century old Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune.

The secret behind the Centre’s success as a thought leader is that it has remained true to its original charter: of providing an open environment and intellectual autonomy to its scholars and faculty. While selecting scholars, the Centre is known to look for those who can think creatively and have the ability to learn from their colleagues. This allows the Centre to support and nurture interdisciplinary modes of enquiry.

A few days before I met Nandy, I was at the Centre’s Director and Senior Fellow Rajeev Bhargava’s office. He had joined the institution in 2005, persuaded by two scholars who were his prime adversaries in the debate on secularism in India. Sitting in his airy and comfortable office, overflowing with books and papers, Bhargava said this openness of accepting different viewpoints was — and still is — the most positive quality of the Centre.

Over a cup of tea, Bhargava explained that researchers were committed to shaping significant public and academic debates within India and abroad. The Centre’s Lokniti programme has pioneered empirical studies of elections and comparative democracy; the Indian Languages programme generates social science resources for the non-English frontier; the Sarai programme does research on media, cinema and urban culture. Then there is its Institute for Chinese Studies and the programme in social and political theory.

The discussion with Bhargava had later moved from the Centre to the larger issue of the importance of social sciences and humanities in a country that is obsessed with science-related careers and the role institutions like the CSDS can/must play in the nation’s life. “We must attach more importance to the social sciences and humanities. And don’t think this is an abstract need... there is a breakdown of consensus in India and everyone seems to be feeling victimised by someone else... we need a new common theme. Only social sciences can provide that because they help us understand and appreciate the ‘other’,” said Bhargava forcefully. While not all fellows of the Centre can claim to be public intellectuals, each understands the responsibility to link research to the broader effort of enhancing the quality of collective life in India.

But unfortunately, he added, a career in social sciences is seen as less demanding (and so less paying) than natural sciences and unfortunately the middle classes seem to have internalised this view. “The market value of social scientists is low in India. We have to restore the balance between the two to strengthen India’s democracy”.

Bhargava wants the State to invest in social science research and in think-tanks because India needs more institutions that can do basic research on social and political issues that are relevant to India. “We must realise that western universities have a huge control on ideas and unless we change the premises of theory, there will be no change in the situation here,” he added. “Otherwise,” as Nandy correctly said, “scholars would be no different from bhasyakars” of the western models.

Nandy and Bhargava both feel that the bureaucracy is stifling scholarship in universities. The Centre has survived because it has always been faculty-run. “I would always opt for a consensual oligarchy of academics. It is always better than clerks holding up research grants,” Nandy said, summing up the issue succinctly. His colleagues at the Centre and in the wider academic circle would certainly agree with him.