Dominant narratives in Indian politics

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Dominant narratives in Indian politics

Politics For A New India edited by Shriprakash Singh deals with the present issues and covers the trajectories followed by historical, anthropological, textual, philosophical, legal and culturally critical approaches which are used for further explored invigoration.  An excerpt:

The contestation to see India’s social and political issues from the perspective of our own—which, in Michel Foucault’s terms, correctly problematizes them—has been going on since India threw off colonial rule. This debate is directed towards carving out an alternative path to bring to the fore the inadequacy, irrelevance and unsuitability of mainstream discourses dominated by the West. This has been seen more often in dichotomies constituting the polar difference between the Orient and the Occident, giving rise to the concerns of ‘endogenous intellectual creativity.’

After Independence, India has not experienced much success in this direction since studies in social sciences in general and Indian politics in particular were neither culture-specific nor driven by its historical experiences. Getting exposed to what is called by a Malaysian scholar SH Alatas, a ‘captive mind’, social sciences in India ended up ‘imitating uncritically’ the West in its methodology, conceptual designing, abstraction, theoretical underpinning and analysis. Robert Merton, a world-renowned social scientist, while addressing Indian academia in November 1969 in Mumbai, appositely epitomized the concern as: ‘Social sciences in India have long suffered slings and arrows of outrageously unprepared and altogether exogenous social scientists engaging in swift, superficial inquiries into matters [of] India.’

The mainstream discourses of social sciences are Eurocentric and are an essential reflection of how the analysis by a postcolonial theorist like Edward Said made it possible for scholars ‘to deconstruct literary and historical texts in order to understand how they reflected and reinforced the imperialist project…that endures even after former colonies gain independence.’

The subtle and extremely damaging cultural domination of the ‘core’ has found a greater expression in the work of Ng˜ug˜I wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, whose influential interpretation holds that postcolonial societies continue to rely without hesitation on the apparatus of imperialist perpetuation.

Education, being an intrinsic element of culture, has played a major role in colonial intrusion and maintenance. The extent and intensity of the vast reservoir of knowledge is subjected, in the words of Elleke Boehmer, to ‘textual undertakings’ in societies like India. Therefore, decolonizing or indigenizing the science of society of the ‘periphery’ essentially requires a change in the orientation of social scientists who, with them, port not only ideas but also research techniques of the metropole. The system of Eurosupremacist domination — as identified by Ward Churchill — depends for its continued maintenance and expansion, nay, even its survival, upon the reproduction of its own intellectual paradigm in its approved way of thinking, seeing, understanding, and being, to the ultimate exclusion of all others. This academic imperialism, in contrast with political imperialism, is subtle but incisive and high in its intensity and outreach. Moreover, in developing societies, ideological compartmentalization of the search for knowledge has also taken a pernicious form for two reasons: first, in the name of indigenizing social sciences by a set of scholarship embedding a particular type of ideological values—although borrowed from the West—has rendered the social sciences investigation murky; second, the other issue pertains to an epistemological problem. For instance, Marxism, often treated as a Grand Theory, had its genesis in Europe, but it is not beyond contestation that its followers continue to insist on its universal applicability. Therefore, imitating blindly without carefully testing against empirical realities, as in India, is bound to end up in a biased outcome.

However, the bigger question which still remains unaddressed is why ‘knowledge divides’. UNESCO’s World Social Science Report 2010 reflects the perplexing situation and points out that ‘social scientists produce work of outstanding quality and tremendous practical value, but… social scientific knowledge is often the least developed in those parts of the world where it is most keenly needed.’

It further accentuates the concern that ‘the huge disparities in research capacities across countries and the fragmentation of knowledge hamper the capacity of social sciences to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow. While we may be building a “knowledge society”, it is one that looks very different depending on one’s regional perspective.

The division is stark. Yet, such phenomena in the intellectual space of the Third World represents a bizarre continuum of radical exclusion and radical inclusion. Wiebke Keim rightly puts forth: The North Atlantic domination […] leads to a strongly distorted form of universality. It is distorted because, to date, this claim of universality relies on both ‘radical exclusion’ and ‘radical inclusion’. These supposedly general theories do not take into account the experience of the majority of humanity, those living in the global South. Nor do they recognize the social theories produced in the South. […] this [is] ‘radical exclusion’. In turn, ‘radical inclusion’ means that despite these radical exclusions, general social theory is regarded as universally valid. The social realities in the southern hemisphere are thus subsumed, without further thought, under the claims produced in the North. This tendency, which has largely not been reflected on, blurs the distinction between the universal and the particular, and the North Atlantic particular is thought to have universal validity. This is a fundamental epistemological problem for social science: that is, for disciplines aiming at the formulation of generally valid claims about society.

Indian political studies, being a vital constituent of social science, have been under the huge influence of Western legacy. It can’t be denied that the Enlightenment which arose in Europe in the seventeenth century witnessed many a synchronous intellectual blossoming that had a deep impact in the making of modern Indian politics. Hugo Grotius, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Baron de Montesquieu, Thomas Reid, Moses Mendelssohn, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are a few names of the formative era who shaped the boundary and authored the content upon which discourses of the discipline were based in the coming era, with further enhancement in the nineteenth and twentieth century. When Europe entrenched politically and established colonies in Asia, Latin America and Africa, they carried with them all the possible tools that could stabilize their authority with ease. India was not immune to such influence. The colonial era heralded the loss of India’s own majestic intellectual tradition which had rendered great service to this ancient civilization in surviving several foreign onslaughts. It wouldn’t be out of place if Heinrich Zimmer were to be remembered here as saying that, ‘We, of the Occident, are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some 700 years before Christ.’

Where does India stand in the quest of its own identity in the field of intellectual tradition? The comment made by Max Müller awakens and revives the glory of the past. He said, ‘…in […] study of the history of the human mind…India occupies a place second to no other country.’11 Beautifully accounted by Norman D. Palmer in his 1955 article published in The American Political Science Review as: ‘Contemporary Indian political thought […] stems from many sources, Eastern and Western, ancient and modern… Indeed, Indian political thought is probably as diverse as that of the West. In view of the antiquity and the richness of Indian civilization, this should occasion no surprise; as Toynbee reminds, India is a whole world in herself; she is a society of the same magnitude as our Western society.The quest for an alternative discourse in Indian politics as against a hegemonic discourse necessitates a diversifying of the outlook; it must be amenable to the historical and cultural context of India and be qualified for tackling the larger issues of society. The yardstick should be the relevance. This must be wedded to our own philosophical tradition. As Alatas rightly said: ‘One way to achieve relevance is to develop original concepts and theories on the bases of the philosophical traditions and popular discourses of these societies; to achieve such relevance is but one aspect of broader efforts to free social sciences from cultural dependency and ethnocentrism, and to achieve genuine universalism.’

The alternative discourse need not be divorced from Western legacy; rather, suitability in our context would reinforce the Indian quest in a genuine direction. ‘The goal is not to substitute Eurocentrism with another ethnocentrism. But any claim to universality must respect the extent of the differences between Asian and non-Asian societies, and admit that in some instances distinct theoretical backgrounds are required.’ It should not be forgotten that at no point in time did Indian political thinkers have an inferior scheme of thought about their own political setting and the universe as well.

Excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications

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