The aim of the book is to explicate the moorings and development of social, economic and political thought prior to the institutionalization of social science disciplines at universities in India. The papers included in the book, and particularly the introduction of the editor, seek to delineate the ‘pre-history’ of the aforesaid disciplines in such a way as to dispel the general assumption that social science theory (by social science I mean, inter alia, political, social, and economic sciences) originated in the ‘metropolitan’ West and what concerned the social scientists in the periphery, the colony, is the dissemination, empirical verification, or local application of the theories.
The book has been divided into five sections.
Section I deals primarily with the prehistory of Economics presenting diverse conceptions of economy and the internal debates that they threw up.
Commenting on the ‘Evolution of economic thinking in India’, Ratan Khasnabis feels ‘that there was a heterogeneity in the social identity of the people of the country that brought forward the possibility of multiple discourse in social thought, each discourse having its own way of looking into the colonial economy’ (p. 3). He traces the different shades of this diversity reflected in the thinking of prominent leaders and in the distinct social constituencies that made their presence felt in the nationalist movement. L.C. Jain explores the fate of Gandhi’s economic thinking that challenged some of the fundamentals of the discipline but got ‘totally sidelined in independent India by his followers in decision-making positions’ (p. 44). He thinks that the main reason for such a turn was, ‘after Gandhi’s exit, the centre of economic strategy thinking shifted largely from political leadership to government leadership and professional economists’ (p. 54), and ‘from development (self-development) of the people, to the development of the economy’ (p. 63).
Section II highlights the prehistory of Sociology. Parthasarthi Banerjee in his paper argues that traditional pandits initially did not feel uncomfortable about their encounter with western ideas and thought that ‘most Western positions in Knowledge could be described as positions known to their system of thought’ (p. 92). Even though the pandits’ traditional knowledge system suffered from a lack of data and facts of the natural world they did not feel threatened by such shortcomings. It is the institutionalization of modern knowledges under colonial dispensation which denied them space and confined them to the ‘sub-altern non-metropolitan’ section of the society. Amiya P. Sen explores the contraposition and interplay between the traditional ideas and the new western ones. Sen contends that the invocation of tradition imparted a certain complexity to the idea of reform creating a site for the complex interplay between revivalism and reformism. Bella Gupta argues that through associations, the press and literature the newly educated intelligentsia practised a sociology without demarcating the ‘criterion of significance, or established methods or concepts to guide their work’ (p. 139). They, however, developed sustained arguments on the basis of data on social institutions and change. Yogendra Singh however, feels that social enquiry, prior to its institutionalization in Universities, ‘a pre-sociology’, was embedded in two contexts. The first, was the huge colonial enterprise of the state to gather a mass of data through ethnographic surveys, censuses, gazetteers etc. creating in the process a set of ‘categories’ and ‘concepts’ for colonial dominance that were ‘anchored into the Brahmanical-textual ideology or on the principle of segmentation of social entities devoid of linkages’ (p. 170). Secondly, the endogamous response to the colonial project in terms of ‘ideological schisms and tensions such as between nationalism and imperialism, between East and West and between Brahmanism and non-Brahmanism on the Indian intellectual horizon’ (p. 174). Sociology as a discipline was constituted by stalwarts such as G.S. Ghurye, Radhakamal Murherjee and D.P. Mukherji by engaging with these two-fold contexts and outgrowing their limitations.
Sections III traces the social and political prehistory of dalit articulation in India. Adapa Satyanarayana adopting a region-specific approach makes a systematic socio-economic profiling of lower castes in Andhra Pradesh in the 1930s and shows how the new Dalit-Bahujan socio-political ideology came to challenge the tyranny of the caste system and suggested modes of emancipation that were significantly different from the meta-narratives of nationalism in India. Gopal Guru carrying forward the general theme of this section attempts to formulate a theory of social justice grounded in the particular which in turn invokes history, experience, the here and now and does not hesitate to resort to ‘transgression of boundaries’. His argument is that a ‘universal that is not samkya ( historicized vision) . . . becomes problematic, because it makes huge concessions to an oppressive particular’ (p. 225). He argues that the theory of social justice carried overboard by nationalist thinkers stressed merely the discrimination of the upper castes by the British maintaining a ‘profound silence’ on other modes of denial and exploitation. The story of universal normative claims such as justice, nation or rights would be different if they are formulated from the quarantined spaces than from the platform of unmarked nationalism. Guru thinks that Ambedkar’s vision of social justice is a search for the universal but grounded in the particular.
Section IV of the book shows us the pre-sociological and pre-political discourses on the status of women in India. They provide for a contraposition between the Muslim and Hindu liberal reformist positions on the one hand and the conservative discourses on the question of social status of women on the other. Primala Rao argues that ‘For the first time in Indian history, the position of women came under scrutiny in the nineteenth century’ and demonstrates how Tilak through his paper Mahratta attempted to turn the wheel towards the reinforcement of ‘Aryan religious morality’, advocating an instruction and grooming that can keep them in subservient roles and insert them within the domestic division of labour. Mazhar Hussain highlights a positive conception of education for women that the Aligarh movement envisaged and the limitations in which it was caught. Many of the prominent thinkers of the Movement including Sir Syed Ahmed Khan laid priority on the accomplishments of men over those of women, of ashraf male and female over ajlaf male and female, on the content of the instruction to be imparted to females and were not favourably disposed towards co-education. Only Shibli Nomani (1837–1914) had great clarity in this regard: ‘He considered the idea of separate curricula for men and women as discrimination against women . . . argued for uniform curriculum and uniform education for both the sexes. ‘He considered it against the interest of women to fix a limit to education for women up to a particular standard . . . (and) advocated equal opportunities of education for women’ (p. 283).
By far the largest (pp. 293–422) section, Section V outlines the prehistory of political thought in India. This section has been divided into two broad categories of inquiry: Firstly, an examination of particular discourses of a region and secondly larger concerns and inclusive concepts. Palsikar identifies three characteristics of political thought in Maharastra: ‘first, it was markedly this-worldly; second, even while welcoming the Western idea, practices, or institutions, it consciously tried to retain something that it can call native . . . and finally it was anxious to establish India’s credentials as a society and a nation as mature and enlightened as the European nations’ (p. 298). Subrata Mukherjee provides a glimpse of the culture specific political thought of Bengal focussing on Surendranath, Bipin Chandra Pal, Chittaranjan Das and M.N. Roy. He argues that ‘What united them was their trying to comprehend the Indian situation with all its diversity but also to portray an Indian presence in the main current of modern World’s civilizational progress’ (p. 330). Bidyut Chakrabarty captures the different nuances of the concept of swaraj empoyed in the course of the national movement and argues that it was one of ‘an innovative intervention that remained meaningful in the different phases of the nationalist movement’ (p. 352). Ranabir Samaddar’s essay explores the three concepts of freedom, independence and sovereignty that came to be posited in the public domain in the 1940s by Tagore, Jinnah and the constitutional exercises of transfer of power and marks the trajectory of politics that emerged in the subcontinent. Finally, Bishnu Mohapatra’s essay takes us back to a more regional level, Orissa. He analyses the growing concept of identity consciousness in this large one-language community and argues that the gradual emergence of ‘Oriya consciousness’ was one of the crucial features of the 19th century socio-political developments and in this ‘emerging Oriya consciousness, the economic and cultural issues were often an integral whole’, seeking not merely economic benefits but dignity and self-respect as well (p. 402).
The thrust of the volume is a big idea that the editor very scrupulously highlights in his introduction: Social Science disciplines were not written in India on an empty slate but were deeply marked by distinct streams of thought that came to be formulated in the encounter with colonialism on one hand and by drawing from the pre-existing intellectual traditions on the other. In other words social sciences in India mark, or should mark, a distinct journey irreducible in several ways to anything like a homologous universal discourse. However, most of the papers do not succeed in establishing the bond, and the incompatibility between diverse streams of social enquiry on one hand and institutionalization of the social science disciplines on the other remains. The only exception in this regard is the essay by Yogendra Singh. Most of the papers however, succeed in demonstrating that by the time of India’s independence there was a body of ideas in place regarding diverse walks of life which are deeply anchored in context. In fact one could argue that the development and institutionalization of social sciences charts a course of its own and there is no one-to-one relationship between it and the development of modern thought in India. Many would say that there is deep disjuncture. This is definitely not a desirable affair and social sciences need to be critically embedded in modes of thought that have preceded it in context. The great strength of this book lies in imaginatively drawing our attention to the fact that social sciences need to be anchored in context. Several contributions also highlight the play of power in assigning significance to ideas and issues. Ideas are not tested in the battlefield of ideas but in the configurations of power.
The volume is highly wanting in its representative value, conceding the fact that no volume of this kind can ever fulfil such a demand. Among social sciences, only Economics, Politics and Sociology are invoked. Anthropology, Linguistics, Psychology or for that matter Philosophy and the ideas that foregrounded them as disciplines are not invoked. There is an excessive focus on Bengal while there is nothing on the great Hindi heartland, the Tamil country or the plains of Punjab. One would have also wished to read something on the ancestry of the great public institutions that India was eventually able to painfully construct—institutions, which in spite of all their frailities, have sustained democracy in this country to the bewilderment of many.
Valerian Rodrigues is Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.