The Centre and Indian reality

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Interview with Rajni Kothari, Founder-Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies by Hilal Ahmed, Priyadarshini Vijaisri and Abhay Kumar Dubey, CSDS, Delhi.

How did the idea of the Centre emerge?

This rather short question begs a long answer. I would have liked not to be anecdotal, but the story of the Centre goes back to 1961. In this year Economic Weekly (today’s EPW) published my work, ‘Form and Substance of Indian Politics’ that ran into six issues. Sachin Chaudhuri was at the helm of the magazine and thanks to him a rather budding theorist of Indian politics like me could come to the fore. He waited week after week to receive those longish dispatches from me.

Retrospectively speaking, my first major outing as a political scientist made some impact among those who were debating the contours of federalism, panchayati raj, the parliamentary system, politics of administration, party system and, ultimately, the future of Indian democracy. Besides the social scientists, public figures like Jayprakash Narayan and Ashok Mehta were among them. Professor Richard Park, the main person of Asia Foundation’s Delhi chapter, also found some fresh ideas in my observations. He offered me a personal financial grant to carry on with further research. Instead, I used this small grant of seventy thousand rupees to float a research institute that could fit my vision of the social sciences. This vision had two aspects – one that I developed while teaching in Baroda University and the other that struck me when Professor Shyama Charan Dubey invited me to work on panchayati raj at the National Institute of Community Development, Mussoorie.

Though I enjoyed teaching at Baroda, I was not entirely comfortable with the manner in which empirical realities were researched and talked about in India. There was a virtual dominance of economics in the universities as well as in the public sphere. It was strongly assumed that all the country’s problems could be solved by adopting sophisticated ‘economic models’. This emphasis on economic and natural sciences was compatible with the nation-building mission of the planning-oriented Indian state of the 1950s. I could understand this problem better because in Baroda I was assigned to teach classical economics of Smith, Ricardo and Marx rather than political science. I clearly saw that the organic vision of classical economics was missing from this economics-centric approach.

The studies in the discipline of economics were, more or less, contingent upon the data generated by government departments. In this framework, the ‘official data’ had a great relevance: data was to be used to verify normative arguments and models; it had to work as evidence or ‘hard fact’ of some kind to make futuristic predictions. Interestingly, the collection of independent data for exploring, researching and analysing empirical realities was not given adequate attention in the academic research at the time. As a result, the gap between independent research and ground realities increased enormously.

Things did not stop there. Under the influence of the economic model-centric approach, the boundaries of academic disciplines were becoming increasingly narrow. The dominance of economics not merely created a hierarchy of knowledge but also affected the ways in which social phenomenon were researched. For instance, the role played by politics in shaping the agenda, and issues and concerns of a particular society were relegated to the margins simply to reproduce the centrality of economic activities thesis. It was, therefore, important to rethink this established apparatus of knowledge critically.

Linked with this concern was another set of issues – the substance and methods of social science research. Social sciences, at least at that point of time, were preoccupied with the study of ‘theories’. Even the reporting of certain kind of theories was considered to be acceptable research practice. This obsession with theory/thought paved the way for an equally essentialist division between ‘theoretical research’ and ‘applied research’. In this schema, the question of method was understood simply in terms of the theories of methods.

While working with Professor Dubey in Mussoorie, I did an enormous amount of field work, and constantly had to struggle against the red tape culture of government institutions. The moment the Asia Foundation grant came through, I wrote up the proposal for a new institution which would not be bogged down by the economic model-centric approach and bureaucratic structures. The idea of creating a research centre of a different kind was shared by many like-minded scholars. We felt the need to build a body of knowledge by undertaking comparative and cross-disciplinary research on social processes, goals and policies. We also felt the need for facilities for full time research, a programme of work, and an atmosphere of diverse capabilities, team spirit and academic commitment. Consequently, the Centre was formally set up towards the end of 1963 under the auspices of the Indian Adult Education Association.

I would like to clarify here that institution building has always been an important concern for me. The establishment of the Centre was thus intrinsically linked to my own initial study of the actual social and political processes.


How did the establishment of the Centre contribute to the study of social and political processes in the 1960s? Was it a conscious attempt to replace the ‘centrality of economic-model’ thesis by ‘centrality of political-model’ thesis? This question is relevant because the Centre was known as a ‘political science’ centre for some time.

I would like to emphasize the fact that although dissatisfied with the economic model-centric approach and keen to get out of this imposed framework, I was equally aware of and conscious about the autonomy of intellectual work. I must admit that a conscious and deliberate effort was made in the early years of the Centre to highlight the relevance of the study of politics. However, it was an interdisciplinary engagement with the study of politics at various levels. We wanted to take up the complex empirical realities very seriously.

It is true that the study of modernization emerged as one of the key research concerns of the Centre in the initial years. It is also true that I was interested in liberal political philosophy and had a fairly good opinion about western democracies. Yet, we did not entirely assimilate with the given notions of modernization, though many of us continued to employ terms such as ‘development’, ‘nation-building’, and ‘social change’ in our work. Instead of simply ‘reproducing’ American behaviouralism in the Indian context, we started focusing on the specificities of Indian realities to develop adequate methodological tools and appropriate conceptual apparatus.

The emphasis on the ‘empirical’ was never seen as a closed idea. Although the large-scale fieldwork based surveys were conducted to collect qualitative data, the ‘empirical’ was not reduced merely to data collection and data analysis. On the contrary, the empirical was understood in its complex multiplicity. This is quite evident in the core areas identified by the Centre in the initial years. Historical modernization, political leadership, party system and state politics, electoral behaviour, sociology of political change, culture-personality studies in modernization and political socialization, comparative and cross-cultural studies in social change, economic development and political attitudes were identified as research themes in the 1960s. Each thematic unit was given complete methodological autonomy. Thus, the Centre was able to produce a wide-ranging intellectual work even in the 1960s and 1970s and I do not think that we became a political science centre. However, on a personal note, I would like to add that I still believe that politics has a central role to play in social and cultural processes. This theoretical conviction helped me in redefining my own intellectual and political interventions in the later period.


You were considered to be close to the Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. How would you describe this proximity to the ruling party in relation to the Centre’s intellectual agenda?

Way back in 1958, while joyfully spending all my energies in teaching, I incidentally got an opportunity to observe the Bhavnagar session of the Congress from close quarters. The functioning of various Congress leaders and the working committee of the party made a lasting impact, as a result of which a new perspective dawned on me. I began to study politics differently. In this experience lay the future shape of my intellectual enterprise and its first expression was reflected in the publication of ‘Form and Substance’. I think my relationship with the Congress needs to be seen in this perspective. I was close to the Congress in so far that I wanted to study politics as a sensitive observer. It does not, however, mean that Congress, or for that matter any political-ideological front, was going to determine our intellectual agenda. I have two examples to explain this point.

As I have already mentioned, the Asia Foundation grant was an individual grant given to me, though I used it to create an institution. However, we soon began to suspect the credentials of the Asia Foundation when the Washington Post published an article indicating that the CIA was trying to create a worldwide intellectual network by funding research institutes. Though the name of the Asia Foundation did not figure in the list of CIA funded institutions provided by the Post, we wanted to keep away any possible controversy. Hence, we immediately decided to return the grant. I went to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and requested her to provide a matching grant for our work because we had decided to return the money. She laughed at my trepidation and told me that we should not be worried about the source of money. Note that the Asia Foundation had not been placed on any proscribed list. Those were the days when CIA was extending money for almost every department of the Indian government, especially for defence related projects. My friend and well-wisher, L.P. Singh, who was Home Secretary, confirmed this fact to me.

Nevertheless, we insisted upon snapping our links with the Foundation. After a lot of effort, we managed to secure a state grant for our research and returned the money given to us by the Asia Foundation. Yet, despite the fact that we continued to adhere to a value-based funding policy, I was labelled a rightist intellectual and even an American agent. On the contrary, I was the one who had decided to keep away from The Quest and the Congress for Cultural Freedom because they were critical of my leftist leanings, though I was never a part of the left set-up. But, in the context of the Cold War when the academic world in India was highly polarized between two ideological camps – an American faction and the devotees of the communist world – the Centre was often described as ‘CIA ka adda’ (CIA’s den), simply because of this episode. It also created a false image of our proximity to the Congress government.

In the mid-1970s, the Centre emerged as a symbol of political dissent. Political leaders, civil liberty activists, activists representing various grassroots movements, journalists, lawyers, intellectuals and academics representing various political ideologies came together to oppose the authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi’s government during and after the Emergency. The Centre not only provided an open space to these political activists but also offered a new intellectual direction to the debate on democracy.

In my view, the scope of the study of politics expanded in this period. Electoral politics, which had so far been one of the main objectives of systematic enquiry, was now seen in relation to those political forms and processes that were experienced and articulated by various stakeholders at the bottom level of society. This activists-intellectual dialogue led to the formation of Lokayan. Intellectual autonomy, a value which we consciously evolved and cherished, helped us to raise the question of accountability of political institutions. Therefore, I argue that the Centre continued to play a crucial role as a hub of intellectual activity without giving up value-based politics of social transformation.


What was the response of left groups and those intellectuals who described themselves as Marxists towards the Centre, especially in the post-1975 period, when the Centre’s anti-Congress/anti-state stand became quite evident?

I was seen as a person who did not allow the flow of ideas. Many Marxists alleged that I was involved in pursuing my own agenda in the name of survey research. I did not take these kind of personal attacks seriously.

But there was a critical issue involved in such so-called ‘ideological’ contentions. The Centre was deeply engaged in the empirical study of Indian politics. This was a challenge for a section of leftists. They were apprehensive about the empirical studies for two reasons. In their scheme of things, common people were to be led by a vanguard party and, therefore, there was no need for collecting views, perceptions and political choices of people at the bottom level of society. Second, many Marxists, and in my view most of them, in the 1960s used to treat the West as the epicentre of political and intellectual experiments. For them, western experiences of democracy, liberalism and even Marxism needed to be imitated by societies like India to think about the possibilities of an Indian revolution. Similarly, there was a great obsession with western political thinking – Hobbes, Locke, and even Marx. In this sense, political surveys did not have any space in these theoretical debates. The objective of empirical studies was to explain the complex Indian realities, which were very different from those conceptions of reality on which western political thinking was based. At the same time, the study of empirical realities did not have any ‘philosopher father’ who could engage with the ‘imaginary’ battles of western political thinkers.

I must confess that I was not a nationalist in the conventional sense of the term. Nor was I fully into western political thinking. Instead, I wanted to study the role of politics in the country. Since I did not carry any ideological and/or political baggage, it was somewhat easier for me to look at the other side of the argument(s) proposed by the West-oriented Indian Marxists. This relative intellectual openness helped a number of young Marxists of different shades to come closer to the faculty of the Centre.

I believe that ideological thinking is as central as thinking itself. However, ideological thinking has to adjust itself to changing social and political realities. This is what happened in the post-Emergency period. Many Marxists recognized the value and significance of democracy for the first time; they even started appreciating the Centre’s role. My thinking also gradually moved towards more radical shades of politics, especially towards grassroots movements. In my view, the non-party social movement politics of the 1980s played a central role in demolishing the established polarization of leftist and liberals in the Indian academic scenario.


How would you look at the role of the Centre in the wider institutionalization of social science research in the country?

It is important to point out that the Centre was simply established to do serious academic research in the country. It was a modest beginning. We never thought of engaging with the structures of higher studies in the country, at least in the beginning, though I was personally unhappy with the manner in which our universities were administered. I was interested in institutional collaboration at various levels. I had a firm belief in the need to nurture a culture of institution building. Universities were the obvious partners in this regard. Our first election study (Kerala assembly elections, 1965), which paved the way for the National Election Study (NES) in 1967, was conducted in collaboration with the University of Kerala and University of Michigan. In this sense, the Centre always made efforts to develop close links with the university system.

I also had two serious concerns regarding higher education in the country. By the mid-1970s, it was clear to many of us that the universities were being appropriated by the political establishment for its own vested interest. This was equally true about other institutional bodies such as the ICSSR and ICHR and so on – funds were given to favoured people, social research was highly institutionalized and the academic autonomy of intellectuals was curtailed.

I also noticed that higher education was promoted in the name of increasing the number of educated and trained academics, while both primary and secondary education were deliberately neglected. This kind of unevenness was favoured by the ruling party in the 1970s.

In 1977, when the Congress was defeated and Morarji Desai became the prime minister, I wrote a long note on the state of higher education in the country. In this report, which was submitted to the government, I argued for maximum academic autonomy of educational and research institutes in the country. I also suggested that there should be a balance between school education and higher education.

The Centre, it is important to note, was a dynamic space. We developed institutional networks, nationally and internationally. These collaborative ventures offered an opportunity to the Centre to play a crucial role in the institutionalization of social science research in a significant way.

Two examples could be given to elaborate the Centre’s role in this regard. The collection of reliable data on Indian society and politics was one of our main aims. However, we were clear that CSDS should not merely be seen as a data bank of some kind. We generated data for intellectual analysis and serious political thinking. The work produced by the Centre using its own data went beyond the conventional data-based social science research. Consequently, it became possible to institutionalize the CSDS Data Unit as an important research resource, without giving up the quest for theoretically profound explanations.

In later years, many of us moved away from survey research and became involved in other kinds of intellectual engagements. Yet, the Centre did not give up surveys. The coexistence of such intellectual experiments at the Centre helped create an institutional environment where social realities could be explored in a number of different ways. In a way, we institutionalized methodological pluralism in the country for the first time.

My second example is related to the Centre’s pursuit to play a role of an effective intellectual interlocutor. I have always been keen to intervene in the formal domain of politics. In the 1970s, I preferred to work as an active political observer. However, during the Emergency, I decided to play a more active role. Many of us at the Centre moved closer to civil liberty groups and people’s movements. At that time, we started thinking of an institutional set up that could facilitate the intellectuals-activists dialogues. Lokayan was an experiment in this regard. Thus, the Centre’s engagement with the grassroots movements not only paved the way for democratization of social sciences in the country but also established an institutional model of a different kind.


What is the political role of intellectuals in a society like India?

I understand this question as a question of transformative politics. In my view intervention in politics needs to be understood as an urge to transform the society in substantial ways.

The world of ideas and world of politics are related and influence each other. Intellectuals must recognize the significance of political processes in developing their understanding and critique of the existing social-political order. At the same time, those who play an active role in the domain of politics, at least in the formal sense of the term, must also value the importance of ideas. In this interactive process, I believe, it is not just political thought – the contributions of great thinkers of politics such as Hobbes, Locke, Mill and Marx – that becomes relevant, but equally the question of ideology emerges as an important reference point. However, in my view, the task of intellectuals is not limited to the study of the critical role played by politics at various levels; they also have to develop various critiques of existing politics. I also suggest that intellectuals must intervene in the political process by linking critical ideas to political debates. In this framework, intellectual intervention finds a legitimate space. I also believe that there should be a space for criticism and self-criticism in our thinking. If we close the possibility of criticism, the gap between ideas and processes will increase. It will restrict our role as intellectuals in society.