This essay is inspired, or more accurately perhaps provoked, by an invitation to participate in a cross-cultural symposium on ‘New Trends in South Asian Studies’. The symposium’s organizers suggested that while ‘Europe has long developed research traditions and produced much scholarly work on Asia’, it was ‘only in the last two decades that an increased production of knowledge has emerged from studies conducted by Asian scholars “at home”, to the extent that these have come to challenge past research trends and contributed to a renewed vision of these societies and cultures.’ Here, social science research of quality is believed to be of recent provenance in South Asia. It is further claimed that South Asian scholarship has come of age only through the migration of talented individuals to the intellectual centres of the West. Thus ‘Asian scholars are increasingly holding academic positions in the most prestigious institutions in the West, focusing on new questions, new objects, new approaches which—it might be argued—have contributed to defining new paradigms for research and to reconsidering the links between disciplines (i.e. anthropology and history)’.
Certainly, at the time the British left the sub-continent in 1947, there was not, in the strict sense, an established social science tradition in the region. The universities were few and far between. Research was not their aim; rather, they were supposed only to turn out lawyers and clerks and irrigation engineers. There were no serious scholarly journals either. Nonetheless, there were some individuals who defied the inhospitable climate of colonial rule to produce work of high quality. In Bombay, G. S. Ghurye was encouraging his students to conduct rigorous field-work while himself working on an enviable range of subjects: race, Indology, the comparison of civilizations. In Lucknow, Radhakamal Mukerjee was pioneering the discipline of social ecology. In Puné, Irawati Karve was beginning the studies of caste and kinship organization with which she was to make her name. Across the country, in Calcutta, Nirmal Bose was developing his idea of the ‘Hindu model of tribal absorption’.
Research in the social sciences and humanities got a ferocious filip with Independence. There were now new universities with new departments. New professional associations and journals were born. By the standards of a poor country, the state was generous with its funding. The quantity and, in time, the quality of research markedly increased. Institutions such as the Delhi School of Economics set standards of research and teaching to match those elsewhere in the world. Scholars were encouraged and inspired by the commitment of their political leaders to the spirit of democracy. Unlike in other ex-colonies, there were no curbs on the freedom of expression and movement. Researchers could go where they wished, study what they wanted to, and say what they thought.
Fortunately for the new generation of South Asian scholars, there were now three acknowledged journals of merit: The Indian Economic and Social History Review, edited by Dharma Kumar from the Delhi School of Economics; Contributions to Indian Sociology, edited by T. N. Madan at the Institute of Economic Growth, and the Economic Weekly (later the Economic and Political Weekly), edited, successively, by Sachin Chaudhuri and Krishna Raj from Bombay. These outstanding editors published essays on all kinds of themes: economic planning, agrarian structure, foreign trade; caste, kinship, social conflict; religion, party politics, electoral behavior; nationalism, environmentalism, feminism. They could call upon a bevy of first-rate Indian scholars who would write for them or solicit essays for them. Consider some of the people living and working in India in the nineteen sixties and seventies, the scholars whose names peeped in and out of the aforementioned journals. They included Romilla Thapar, Irfan Habib, and Ashin Dasgupta in history; S. C. Dube, André Béteille, and M. N. Srinivas in sociology; Amartya Sen, K. N. Raj, V. M. Dandekar and Krishna Bharadwaj in economics; and Rajni Kothari in political science.
The list, naturally, is illustrative, not exhaustive. Other names could (and must) be added. What they will illustrate is that, speaking of India, at any rate, one could say with confidence that by the late nineteen sixties there was in place a vigorous tradition of research and debate in the humanities and social sciences. It is quite mistaken to suggest that ‘it is only in the last two decades’ that work by Asian scholars at home and abroad has ‘come to challenge past research trends and contributed to a renewed vision of these societies and cultures.’
These words suggest an amnesia that, unfortunately, is quite widespread. The increasing visibility of South Asians in the international (especially American) academy has led to the mistaken and ahistorical claim that there was no tradition of serious research before the present crop of diasporic intellectuals made their leisurely way to the West. The work done by the Indian scholars of an earlier generation, it must be underlined, was theoretically subtle as well as empirically rich. André Béteille’s comparative studies of inequality elegantly matched social theory with field materials. M. N. Srinivas provided three concepts that greatly aided the understanding of modern India: Sanskritization, dominant caste, and vote bank. (The last of these concepts, indeed, can be used with profit to explore political processes almost anywhere in the modern world.) Radhakamal Mukerjee anticipated, by decades, the methodological alliance recently forged in American university departments between ecology and the social sciences. Years before any of us, these scholars were ‘focusing on new questions, new objects, new approaches which—it might be argued—have contributed to defining new paradigms for research and to reconsidering the links between disciplines.’
A direct acknowledgement of the robustness of Indian scholarship in the nineteen sixties and seventies is how highly this work was regarded in the metropolitan centres of intellectual power. In the early nineteen sixties, Romilla Thapar was invited to write the Penguin History of India. A decade later, Dharma Kumar was asked to edit the Cambridge Economic History of India. Two women scholars based in India were chosen over a host of likely foreign contenders by these generally conservative publishing houses. More noteworthy still were the invitations to Indian sociologists to undertake projects that were not about India at all. Thus M. N. Srinivas was invited to edit the posthumously collected papers of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and André Béteille was asked by Penguin to edit an authoritative cross-cultural collection on social inequality.
A second indicator of the ‘state of the field’ was that the best foreign scholars of South Asia wished to publish their best work in Indian journals. That was where the most vigorous and productive debates were. This is where you wished to be noticed if you lived in Paris or New York but worked on caste, or peasants, or de-industrialization, or religious violence.
Since the nineteen eighties, however, there has arisen a parallel discourse on South Asia. This is conducted in North American journals. The actors may be mostly of South Asian origin, and the subjects may nominally be South Asian. But the place of publication and, more importantly, the style of analysis and presentation are driven by the preoccupations of the American academy.
Thus, in 2003, one can speak meaningfully of two quite distinct discourses: one conducted within India, one conducted outside but apparently on India. These discourses have different inflections, different theoretical orientations, different purposes. Also, for the most part, different and largely overlapping casts of characters. Thus Indians living and working in India write primarily in Indian journals, while non-resident Indians and (increasingly) foreign scholars write primarily in journals published in North America.
The separation of the two discourses comes home most powerfully when one reads dissertations produced in America, which often tend to be ignorant of relevant Indian literature in the field, while quoting to excess works of social theory which seem to have little bearing on the dissertation’s themes.
One more pointer to this separation: the journals a scholar might choose to publish his or her work in. I know from experience how hard it is to persuade a young scholar based in North America to publish in one of the quality Indian journals I have mentioned. Of ten individuals one asks, at best two or three might consider it, and then not for the ‘meat’ of their work, which is reserved for publication in American journals, but for its incidental by-products. On would think that for a diasporic scholar working on topics such as agriculture and pastoralism the Economic and Political Weekly is the logical place to publish, for the journal is read by thousands of scholars, social workers, activists, journalists and bureaucrats. To publish in its pages is to actively contribute to a rich and sophisticated public debate. When such a scholar chooses an American journal in preference to the EPW, it is not difficult to conclude that for him (or her) ‘India’ is merely a resource on the road to scholarly advancement.
There is some traffic of ideas, but only a little. The Indian journals can be read by those in the West who are interested. However, the prohibitive cost of foreign journals means that, at least outside Delhi, no Indian student can get to read them. As for the aspiring scholar, he or she has to very quickly decide where his or her primary audience must lie. For the two discourses are driven by very different agendas. One is responding to the history and social debates of the sub-continent, the other to debates current in the American academy. The point will become clearer if one tries to compile an alphabetical lists of key words. The list, for the Indian case, might begin with ‘Adivasi, backward caste, communalism, decentralization…’. The list, for the North American or diasporic scenario, might begin with ‘aporia, bricolage, Cultural Studies, deconstruction…’ Likewise, a list of key texts and authors in India might begin with ‘Ambedkar, Béteille, (the) Constitution, Dharampal…’, whereas the diasporic list might begin with ‘Althusser, Bourdieu, Certeau, Derrida….’. The point cannot be over-stressed: that one discourse is located firmly in the cultural and political mileu of the sub-continent, whereas the other discourse is deliberately distancing itself from that milieu.
As I see it, scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences basically has three kinds of motivations. One might be driven by the criteria of ‘relevance’, by the desire to influence policy by one’s work or at least correct the injustices of history by one’s writing. One might be excited by an intellectual puzzle, seeking through research and analysis to explain a complicated social process. Or one might merely be following an intellectual fashion.
The first two agendas take their cues from the wider world. They are both productive of serious and rigorous empirical research. The last trend is a response to the printed word. It is dictated by the journals or thinkers that are currently influential. Here, research takes second place to what passes for ‘theory’.
None of these agendas are the privilege of any particular geographical location. Specific research projects may partake of more than one agenda. Over the course of their careers individuals may shift from one style of research to another. Yet I would suggest that there are discernible orientations, clear choices made by scholars and, in the aggregate, by communities. Indian scholars are more likely to be moved by ‘social relevance’ in choosing their topic of study and strategies of research. European scholars are by temperament and training more inclined to seek out, and answer, an intellectual puzzle. And scholars based in America are just a little more likely to be driven by fashion.
I have myself been lucky to have known two scholars who have devoted more than a decade of their lives to a single project. Nicholas Boyle, of Cambridge, had, as a very young man, planned a definitive life of Goethe; Hans Medick, of Gottingen, had, in middle-age—when other historians consider writing a ‘soft’ volume on historiography—begun a long-range study of a single Swabian village. The two volumes Boyle has now published have assured his work the status of a great modern biography. Medick’s study of Laichingen, when published, was immediately acclaimed as a classic work of social history. The years of toil and struggle paid off: yet can one easily imagine their undertaking the task had they been located in an American academy? Would not considerations of tenure, citation indices, student assessments and the like have put paid to any such ambitions?
As it happens, there are a few American scholars who have bucked the trend. One such is Robert P. Goldman of the University of California at Berkeley. He has made it his life’s work to study and translate the Ramayana. He is a scholar of depth and subtlety who is truly in command of his subject. But the subject, alas, is not currently fashionable. Indeed, it can too easily be cast as an ‘Orientalist’ project, an unpolitical and hence anti-political work of the kind white males tend to take up.
Another American scholar I greatly admire is Richard Eaton. His book The Rise of Islam on the Bengal Frontier is a classic. It starts with a puzzle: how did Islam most flourish in a part of the sub-continent distant from the centres of Muslim rule? Why did Bengalis convert en masse when the Rajputs and Jats, so close to Delhi, did not? Eaton learnt some new languages to find out. Still, the answer required him to detour into geography, agriculture, anthropology, religious history, and architecture. His book thus became a ‘total’ history. Yet it is presented in prose so transparent that it effectively masks the years of dogged and difficult research which lie beneath it. The illustrations, gathered from the author’s fieldwork, are an added treat.
A third American scholar I might mention here is Thomas Trautmann. He is a superb intellectual craftsman whose chosen field is the history of ideas. I have read with delight Trautmann’s extraordinary ‘biography of a book’, on the making of Lewis Henry Morgan’s book on kinship. I have been educated and entertained by his recent essays on the idea of race and the study of Indian languages. His little essay ‘Elephants and the Mauryas’ is one of my all-time favourite pieces of historical reconstruction.
I have singled out a series of white men, so let me complicate the picture by introducing a little diversity. A fourth American whose work has both captivated and influenced me is Eleanor Zelliot, the doyenne of historians of untouchability, that senstitive student of contemporary Maharashtra who is widely admired by the scholars and activists of Maharashtra. The last name on this necessarily abbreviated list is that of Ann Grodzins Gold. Gold is the author of an acclaimed study of Rajasthani pilgrims. I have just read her most recent book, which is an ethno-history of the changing physical and moral ecology of Rajasthan. This is a model of empathetic and in-depth ethnography, its results communicated with an uncommon grace.
Where do Goldman and Eaton and Trautmann and Zelliot and Gold figure in the canon of South Asian Studies? Judging from the country where they work in, the United States of America, not very high. Were they to enter a seminar room at the Association of Asian Studies meetings there would not be the buzz that would certainly accompany the entrance of diasporic scholars ten times as glamorous but not half as accomplished. I venture to suggest that there are two reasons for this state of affairs: the style of their research, which is classical rather than contemporary, and the colour of their skin. For the demographic changes in the American academy and the rise of ‘identity politics’ have successfully marginalized the white scholar of South Asia. The careful empirical work and command of languages that was their hallmark now tends to be dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ (or worse). The need to appear politically correct or to be in with the latest trends becomes paramount. These trends can have a painful effect on emigré scholars too. At least two Indian historians of my acquaintance have abandoned empirical research after moving to permanent jobs in U. S. universities. They each wrote a fine work of social history, based on research in a dozen different archives. They have now taken to writing essays based on books ordered from the library. These essays are supposed to be exercises in ‘theory’. For the most part, however, they are merely extended literature reviews, parasitic assessments of other people’s works according to the winds of theoretical fashion and the canons of political correctness.
Some American scholars do have reservations about the trends I have here identified, but are relucant to express them even in private, let alone in public. This is in part due to the contagion known as ‘white liberal guilt’. These scholars know that any criticism of the styles of scholarship that run under the rubrics of ‘post-structuralism’ and ‘Cultural Studies’ would expose them to accusations of being ‘racist’ or ‘ethnocentric’. However poorly founded, these accusations, once made, would be deadly in personal as well as political terms.
This is doubly unfortunate, because post-structuralism and Cultural Studies are trends of dubious intellectual worth, and because its South Asian proponents belong overwhelmingly to the upper class. In the American academy they might strategically ally with the African-Americans. But they are far from being victims of racial oppression; nor—unlike the East European Jews or the Irish or the Vietnamese boat people, did they come to North America fleeing poverty or persecution. One might even say that, after the men who travelled to America on the Mayflower, the South Asian professionals are the first immigrants who come from a privileged background. They have gone from being élites in their own society to being élites in North America. Why feel intimidated by them?
In the eyes of their American colleagues, the diasporic scholar has come to ‘represent’ India much as the Vietnamese or Ukranian emigré represents Vietnam or the Ukraine. Some crucial distinctions are thereby overlooked: namely, that unlike Vietnam and Ukraine and many other countries whose former nationals now work in the American academy, India is (for the most part) an open society with a functioning democracy, and that unlike those other countries India has an old and still active tradition of intellectual enquiry.
This said, one must admit that the picture is not, of course, completely black and white. There are American scholars of WASP extraction who have likewise reduced history to the scrutiny of easily accessible printed texts. And there are Indian scholars based in North America who continue to do serious and subtle research on anthropological and historical subjects. To pick names, again for illustrative purposes only, I might mention Kirin Narayan’s studies of folklore and Vijay Prashad’s work on untouchables, both of which have genuinely illuminated for me the India that I live in. Then there is K. Sivaramakrishnan, whose anthropological history of Bengal forestry breaks new ground in inter-disciplinary research. One must hope that scholars such as these set the trend for the younger generation, rather than the diasporic South Asians who currently hold sway, whose penchant for posturing and jargon-mongering greatly exceeds their capacity for independent and original research.
These scholars speak grandly of ‘provincializing Europe’, but refuse to learn the necessary languages to do the job themselves. Consider, by way of contrast, the biography of Vasco Da Gama written by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, a work of impeccable scholarship that does not choose to present itself as a ‘reversing of the gaze’ or ‘the provincializing of Europe’. My own hope is that in time the diaspora shall turn from its current absorption with the self towards the serious study of the history and politics of the West. Or of other countries around the world. Exemplary here has been the work on the Chinese peasantry of Kamal Sheel and Prasenjit Duara, of Sunil Khilnani on French intellectual history, and (as already mentioned) of Subrahmanyam on European expansion.
The founding fathers and mothers of Indian scholarship were always open to ideas and individuals from the West. They travelled extensively outside India with an open mind and an enquiring eye. For the most part, however, they lived and worked in India. They followed Tagore and Gandhi in believing that a commitment to one’s culture was not necessarily incompatible with a creative and ongoing engagement with other cultures. Perhaps I should stop speaking in the past tense, for there are still many of these scholars at work in India, scholars old, middle-aged, and young. In Calcutta, individuals such as Rajat Ray and Sukanta Chaudhuri nobly carry on the great Bengali tradition of the teacher-scholar. Teachers at institutions such as the Delhi School of Economics and JNU’s Centre for Historical Studies continue to inspire their students to produce high-quality dissertations.
Admittedly, these scholars face major obstacles: low salaries, shortages of research funds, lousy libraries, political interference, and so on. Largely for material reasons, young Indian academics now are increasingly attracted to jobs in the West (and particularly in the U. S. A.) Previously it was only the economists who migrated. Now the historians and anthropologists are joining them. A tradition of humanistic research in India that goes back almost a century is under threat. I must confess to a vested interest in its renewal. But there are solid intellectual reasons for us to wish that the tradition stays alive. Judging by what it has produced in the past, it is of rather more worth than the self-regarding productions advertised as the intellectual achievements of the South Asian diaspora.
The Telegraph, reviewing ‘At Home in Diaspora’, singles out my piece as ‘interesting’, but says ‘most of the essays are marked by much narcissism and self-indulgence, which is surprising since most of the contributors are well into middle age’.
[actually, it is not surprising– it in fact explains it].
I just saw your piece in the Book Review. There you write: ‘Just about all the European historians Guha mentions with approval also teach in the US’. For the record, these are the European scholars I mention in my piece:
Hans Medick, Nicholas Boyle, David Arnold, Jonathan Parry, David Hardiman, Juan Martinez Alier, Arne Kalland, Wolfgang Sachs. Of these none, I repeat none, teach in the U. S. All have full-time appointments in European institutions.
I do not want to read too much into your error. But it can only reinforce my ‘anti theoretical voice’.
A collection of papers on this theme, ‘New Trends in South Asian Studies’, edited by Veronique Benei and Jackie Assayag, is to be published by Permanent Black. A slightly different form of the present essay will also be published there.
The names singled out above are of individuals of character and achievement who also tended to be individualists. However, one must not forget to mention two of their contemporaries who were scholars as well as institution-builders: the economist and sociologist D. R. Gadgil, who founded the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, and the physicist P. C. Mahalanobis, who founded the Indian Statistical Institute in Caclutta, which despite its name and the formal training of its Director was from the beginning hospitable to inter-disciplinary research in the social sciences. On Gadgil and Mahalanobis, see also Ramachandra Guha, ‘The Absent Liberal: An Essay on Politics and Intellectual Life’, EPW, 15 December 2001.
This is perhaps the place to inject a further word or two in praise of M. N. Srinivas. No scholar, in my view, has contributed more creatively or substantively to the understanding of modern India, both through his own scholarly work, and through his training of an outstanding set of sociologists and anthropologists in Baroda and Delhi (André Béteille, Veena Das, E. A. Ramaswamy, A. M. Shah, and N. R. Sheth were among his doctoral students). I personally regard him as the first world-class social scientist or historian produced by India. That my opinion is not more widely shared is probably because Srinivas was a scholar qua scholar, who did not place himself at the head of a political or ideological school. Relevant in this connection is a remark I once heard made Srinivas make in the privacy of his own drawing-room: ‘Media attention is the enemy of scholarship’.
Having said this, there are indeed some scholars, not usually Indian, who have adequately recognized Srinivas’s precosity and distinction. He was greatly admired by generations of British social anthropologists (among these, many who did not work on India). And I remember reading a book published c. 1990 by an American Marxist anthropologist who worked on Africa. This book’s preface started with a slice of autobiography, where the author (David Donham) spoke of how he came to the study of anthropology. The first sentences went something like this: ‘It was 1970. The war had begun to intensify in Vietnam. After the unnatural deaths of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the civil rights movement had gone into decline. Richard Nixon was contemplating the set of illegal actions that were to be collapsed under the rubric, “Watergate”. And M. N. Srinivas’s field notes had just been burnt by an arsonist in Stanford’.
The invocation was evocative and wholly apposite. I have quoted the lines from memory—Donham’s book is not available in any library in the town in which I live—and have possibly embellished a bit. But not by very much. The point is this—the juxtaposition of the making of The Remembered Village with political events of large import shows how much Srinivas’s work meant to the intellectual biography of an American anthropologist of Africa, and, beyond this, to the larger history of the discipline as well.
The names singled out in the preceding paragraphs stem exclusively from one person’s experience. These are the scholars with whom I have come in contact through circumstance and common interests. One could easily multiply this list ten fold, thus to more effectively make the point that there is an impressive depth and versatility to white American scholarship on South Asia.
An earlier version of this essay was read and commented upon by Rukun Advani, André Béteille, and Nandini Sundar. The usual disclaimer applies with more-than-usual force: I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.
THE ONES WHO STAYED BEHIND
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 22nd March 2003)