Overcoming resistance

Last Updated 29 October 2015, 17:27 IST

The RSS has been relatively successful among people with a background in sciences and engineering. None of its chiefs were trained in humanities/social sciences, for instance. Not coincidentally, the humanities and social sciences institutions, which the RSS has found difficult to penetrate, are being attacked for being intellectually subservient to the West.

Economics, a social science that avoids political and social controversies, has been spared though. The right wing propaganda is, however, only one of the many factors behind the growing unease with western intellectual frameworks.

The West has long advised others to adopt its institutions and modes of thinking that are presumably uniquely conducive to material and social progress.  Since the 1980s, a number of developing countries have made significant economic progress without adhering to western advice. The turning of the economic tide has given greater legitimacy to non-Western institutional alternatives.

Moreover, economic success has meant that developing countries can afford to deviate from western institutional norms. Even the countries that have not done well are increasingly able to resist pressure to adopt western norms due to the growing south-south trade and investment ties that have reduced the dependence upon the West.

In a parallel development, a number of developing countries, including India and Turkey, have seen the rise of socially conservative political parties. These parties draw support from upwardly mobile groups that have benefited from the recent economic progress and are demanding entry into spaces dominated by westernised elites.

In Dynamics Among Nations, Hilton Root suggests that these political and economic developments have created the demand and space for non-western institutional alternatives. We can add that the conservative political revolution has also generated demand for new/indigenous knowledge to counter the westernised academia that denies it intellectual legitimacy.

In India, the rise of a Hindu nationalist party, regional parties, and backward classes, who are neither well-versed with western modes of thinking nor emotionally attached to the West, has diluted the support for the “Nehruvian” model that has come under concerted attack for lacking indigenous roots. This has forced the model’s defenders to bolster it using “indigenous” justifications.

On the other hand, there has been a growing recognition within the academia of the need to relax pre-commitment to western intellectual frameworks whose conceptual inadequacy vis-à-vis non-Western thought and experience is increasingly evident. The fact that the right wing groups also appear to be raising this issue should not dissuade academics from trying to develop intellectual frameworks better suited to our social and political realities (the costs of abandoning this task to the right wing are enormous).

If we neglect this task, we will forever remain a pale imitation of the West and judge ourselves in terms of their Nobels and Oscars. The Amir Khans will exhort us to maintain cleanliness to please western tourists and Arun Jaitleys will advise us to avoid communal violence to protect our image in the West.

Our teachers will have to spend much of their lectures explaining why Western categories such as religion that may not necessarily have direct correlates in our context have to be used for want of better alternatives (in Western languages and social sciences!).
Our scholars will have to display their mastery over western classics before they discuss India. Our students will have to learn about India from scratch because indigenous self-knowledge (and conceptual vocabulary) unmediated by western social sciences has no place in our classrooms. It is time we learnt to live without caring for how the West will judge us and to talk to each other within India (and even elsewhere in the world) without the intermediation of norm-ative standards and intellectual frameworks borrowed from the West.

The humanities and social sciences curriculum is the place to build this new, freer India. The task of recovering intellectual autonomy is easier said than done, though. Since the dominance of the modern West in the field of knowledge survived its physical retreat after decolonisation, we need to better understand the factors, which sustain that dominance.

After decolonisation
After decolonisation, many countries tried to achieve economic and intellectual autonomy to bolster their political independence. In most countries, poorly conceived initiatives to promote import substitution only accentuated the dependence on the rapidly innovating west. Outside the hard sciences, nationalist rhetoric seeped into the humanities and social sciences.
In its Marxist avatar, this led to clichéd output after a point and, in its pure
nationalist/religious avatars it led to intellectual disasters. Neither posed a credible challenge to the West. This failure was both a cause and a consequence of the outflow of students and skilled manpower – including academics cutting across disciplinary and ideological boundaries – to the West. The outflow was facilitated by better work environment and salaries and the relaxation of immigration restrictions in the post-War period.

Educational institutions for the elite’s children adopted English as the medium of instruction and western-style curricula to facilitate access to western universities and job markets. Even the elite who remained in the country, relied upon English and western knowledge to organise the polity and economy because of the limitations of their educational training (similarly, the intellectual concerns of India-based academics were often shaped by their pursuit of recognition in the West).

Now, even the less well-to-do are leaving public schools where English is not the medium of instruction and the curriculum is allegedly misaligned with competitive examinations. So, the elite’s educational choices have locked us into a structural intellectual dependence upon the West.

Attempts to recover intellectual autonomy will face enormous resistance given the difficulty in changing the curriculum and medium of instruction in face of the westward orientation of the political economy. We should nevertheless develop curriculum in Indian languages that is local without being parochial and present people with an alternative.

(The writer teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

(Published 29 October 2015, 17:27 IST)

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