Obituary: Paul R Brass’s scholarship transformed Indian political science

ByGilles Verniers
Jun 03, 2022 06:51 PM IST

In a career that spanned nearly six decades, Paul Brass was dedicated to his scholarly work. He tackled many of the most important questions of Indian politics and authored sixteen books and dozens of articles.

“Why does the modern state, particularly the developing state such as India, see some kinds of riots as assaults on its authority and others not? How is it that state leaders may even find riots useful in justifying their authority?”

Paul’s scholarship is bound together by a fieldwork-based empirical approach he early adopted and always preferred.(University of Washington) PREMIUM
Paul’s scholarship is bound together by a fieldwork-based empirical approach he early adopted and always preferred.(University of Washington)

These inquiries, which seem startlingly contemporary, are just two of the many fundamental questions that Paul R Brass, who recently passed away, asked in a lifetime of scholarly work dedicated to the study of Indian politics.

In a career that spanned nearly six decades, Paul Brass tackled many of the most important questions of Indian politics — the role of factionalism in the formation of the Congress Party in Uttar Pradesh (his doctoral thesis, Factional Politics in an Indian State: The Congress Party in Uttar Pradesh, published in 1965), to language and identity politics (Language, Religion, and Politics in North India, 1974), caste politics and the rise of the kisan movement in Northern India (Caste, Faction, and Party in Indian Politics, two volumes in 1984-85) and communal conflict, in a series of foundational books that opened the field of study of ethnic politics and political violence in India.

One of the most prolific scholars of his generation, Paul authored sixteen books and dozens of articles.

Paul’s scholarship is bound together by a fieldwork-based empirical approach he early adopted and always preferred. At every stage of his career, he was a first-hand witness of the key transformations of Indian politics, often anticipating them well in advance due to his long and intense engagement with political and social actors, from party leaders to members of subaltern communities. His approach contrasts favourably with the deductive, inferential “theory-testing” methodologies that are more characteristic of the field of Indian politics.

“I know what I saw, and I know what I heard”, he kept telling me when I visited him in his secluded house in the Rocky Mountains, north of Seattle, where he lived with his wife Su, who also spent considerable time with him on the field.

Paul’s empirical, qualitative approach to politics did not stop him from engaging in a constant back-and-forth with theory, binding local observations to larger questions and reflections that, decades later, have allowed his books to remain intensely relevant to India’s contemporary politics.

Paul’s work on communalism, in particular, has much to teach us. He argued that riots are a form of deliberate collective action — never spontaneous, always organised. A so-called communal riot thus derives from the political exploitation of a violent event, rather than from “ancient hatreds” or essential characteristics of ethnic communities.

In his masterpiece, Theft of an Idol: Text and Context in the Representation of Collective Violence (1997) – also his personal favourite – he shifted the focus of the study of violence away from causal explanations based on empirical patterns to the study of mechanisms — how violence becomes political through its interpretation by a variety of interested actors, including parties and local politicians, journalists, activists and indeed scholars themselves, who are often quick to apply concepts and theories on situations whose facts cannot possibly be objectively established. It is these acts of interpretation by external actors, Paul argued, that are mostly responsible for the perpetuation of riots in India.

Through his work on the ground in Meerut and Aligarh, Paul developed the notion of “institutionalized riot system”, an informal arrangement in which various specialised actors play a role in the preparation, conduct, and then the interpretation of violence. In this framing, riots are only a snapshot in a longer sequence of events, a “grisly form of dramatic production” divided into three phases — preparation and rehearsal, activation and enactment, and explanation and interpretation.

Paul Brass visited India in 2013 after a long hiatus, on a Fulbright fellowship, to finish collecting material for his magisterial three-volume biography of Chaudhary Charan Singh, a politician he admired and had known personally from the late 1960s. Paul had exclusive access to a trove of personal documents that would form the base of his biography. But characteristically, he and Su also went back to the field, revisiting some of the villages where he had conducted fieldwork in many decades ago. There, I witnessed his extraordinary ability to create connections with farmers, to unhesitatingly ask direct, blunt questions that would initiate meaningful conversations.

Paul’s books should be read today for their relevance to today’s politics, and for insights into the past. They also should be read for their literary quality. It is rare in our times to find political scientists writing with such clarity, precision, bluntness and rigour. Many of these texts provide excellent material for teaching. I have seen in my classes how Paul’s writings never fail to provoke students.

Born in 1936, Paul Brass studied politics at Harvard College and at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his thesis under the supervision of Myron Weiner, whom he spoke of fondly all his life. He spent most of his career at the University of Washington, from where he took early retirement from teaching in 1990 in order to focus on writing.

Paul was an atypical figure among his peers. In a long career in the field, Paul accepted very few doctoral students and preferred working alone. He was known, too, for his strong, at times tempestuous character, and his proclivity for biting criticism. At the same time, he was also extremely generous with younger scholars, offering time and advice. While I was working on my doctoral thesis, he shared his prodigious personal archives, including hundreds of recorded interviews with every political figure that mattered in Uttar Pradesh and in national politics from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

The field of political science has lost an extraordinary figure. Paul Brass’s legacy will endure in his exceptional body of work and through the example of a scholarly life well-lived.

Gilles Verniers is assistant professor of Political Science and co-director, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University

The views expressed are personal

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