August 17,2013, 08.51 AM IST
There has been a rumbling in the belly of social science habitations in India in the past year; a deep unease which squirts to the surface, sludge-like, in casual conversations between co-travellers, as if there is a sudden malfunction in a vital safety valve in the academic research industry. Having been soaked with this sludge more than a couple of times, I think the issue merits some serious and open reflection.
Since last year, the ICSSR has rolled out a series of programmes that support research on social marginality and vulnerability, to be carried out by scholars belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. There has been a systematic move to identify Dalit and adivasi/tribal scholars in every State, in State universities, research institutes and Central universities, and invite them to submit proposals, and even help them write proposals and conceptualise research projects.
This has gone hand in hand with an increasing activity in screening proposals and making grants to scholars who do not belong to these categories, where, likewise, scholars across the range (very senior and very young and upcoming ones) are invited to think through projects that will lead to significant outcomes – theoretically and empirically. There is all of a sudden a rush of activity in an institution otherwise known to be rather placid.
The rumbling, however, is not about the increased activity and opportunity to scholars in the general category; that has been a birthright. It is the former that draws ire. I will cite two comments I was subjected to – one by a scholar affronted at criticism of his views by a reputed senior scholar who stated quite simply at a gathering, “I understand his position. He has after all used caste as a vehicle of his personal mobility”. The second comment by a senior academic was that the current fashion in the social sciences is the racialization of research. These are otherwise enlightened scholars known for good work. But that is the trouble, really.
Inter-generational access within families and within castes not just to higher education but also to secure employment and unlimited research funding is not seen as resulting from social privilege, even when the numbers might be screaming this simple fact. The critical lens remains a window to view the outside; it is not a mirror that details the marks of privilege on the self. This naiveté in the comprehension of the far-reaching consequences of discrimination is pervasive in the academia in independent India, which has endowed privileged access in perpetuity to those belonging to groups not marked by the Constitution.
The presumption of merit where caste/tribe is not stated, and the deafening silence on hegemonic social privilege that folds into academic privilege is left completely uninvestigated by the most critical of social science scholars and, by extension, by most institutions in their governance structures. With all this opening of doors, it must be said the volume of research being carried out by SC/ST scholars is nowhere near overtaking the rest. It is an opportunity being created by a public body in the hope that it might result in a redistribution of academic opportunities and capabilities, and the sludge of encrusted academic privilege is spewing over because the guarantee and monopoly of unmediated access is called into question.
Let us look at just three aspects that open up by forcing the social science academy to be thoroughly representative. First, as an example we may take the radical difference in standpoint, method, theory and politics that Professor MN Srinivas and Dr. BR Ambedkar represent. We have in the contemporary history of social science in India few examples of such juxtapositions that are so essential to the development of a robust, critical academy. How will we even begin to weave in diverse perspectives without diversity of social location of researchers? It has been all too easily argued that the focus should be on the research subject and not on the researcher.
Second, the lament on unjustifiable access to scholars belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. All the scholars being given research grants have obtained their doctorates, like other scholars, from different universities in the country – so their academic qualifications are about as good or as bad as those of their colleagues.
Several of them hold positions in universities and research institutions, and have, therefore, made it through selection procedures that have formal standards. (That these standards are periodically “tweaked” to ensure claims in perpetuity and entrench exclusions in perpetuity is a widely acknowledged fact in the open academy, in the making of which these scholars and their forbears did not play a part).
So these are all people who satisfy the minimum requirements for holding a research grant. Notably, a significant number of these scholars belong to the first generation in their families to access higher education, a precious fact we cannot afford to lose sight of. Third, the charge that incompetence is being fostered and the bar lowered in the academy. It is true that the social sciences in India have come in for rather serious criticism in the past for being of very poor quality barring a few noteworthy exceptions. Again, this is not the making of scholars from disadvantaged groups. The trend towards nepotism and formation of academic cartels that have all but destroyed critical social science has it origin at the opposite end.
This is one side to the story. On the other side, the training that is available to Dalit/ adivasi/ tribal scholars, as well as the opportunities they can access are often dependent on the good offices of decision makers, making such exposure halting and sporadic, if at all. Justifiably, there is animosity and suspicion from these quarters of any measures for “inclusion” that are not driven from within – disconcerting as this may be for those that are committed to shifting the terms of engagement.
In irrationally dismissing the claims to scholarship and research grants by Dalit/ adivasi/ tribal scholars we are denying them the right to equal opportunity to participate in shaping the agendas of research and influencing its outcomes – which can be fully ensured only through affirmative action. Hostility and indifference to this important dimension of academic engagement results in practices of segregation and prejudice that reproduce themselves in perpetuity in institutions of higher education and research, defeating any concerted articulation of social justice that must form the basis of a new common sense in India today and for the future.
(The author is Professor & Director, Council for Social Development,