Celebrating its 50th anniversary, can the CSDS remain the loyal opposition to received opinion, asks Ayan Meer
IN ITS bucolic setting in New Delhi’s Civil Lines, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) has acted for the past 50 years as the hub of Indian socio-political research, producing polemical and insightful work on Indian democracy, treading between academic research and a prominent involvement in public life. “Rajni Kothari, Dhirubhai Sheth and the founders of the CSDS began a serious empirical study of Indian politics, independent of speculative ideas which were floating around at the time,” says Rajeev Bhargava, director of CSDS, proudly. One of the first breakthroughs of the research centre was to reassert the importance of caste in political behaviour, researching how it had an influence on democracy and contributed to its vibrancy.
Beyond their data collection efforts and interpretation of electoral processes, they kickstarted the Sarai Programme in 2000, a critical analysis of the transformation of life through media in urban spaces. At the confluence of arts — with the contribution of the Raqs Media Collective — and ethnographic research, the Sarai Programme set out to create “Cybermohallas” in working class neighbourhoods. Ravi Vasudevan, senior fellow and co-initiator of the programme, describes them as “an encouragement to develop vernacular media practices, to engage with the locality, to make media available against the property relations that tend to limit it.” The Centre’s drive towards new fields and methods of research has become over the years its blueprint, and Bhargava acknowledges how important it was for them to “explore inform al sectors and practices, as well as extra-legal or illegal domains”
In its 50 years of existence, the Centre never ceased to evolve and expand its interdisciplinary project, the characteristic that most prominently sets it apart from traditional academic institutions. A way to build bridges between different methods in order to understand social phenomena, or as Vasudevan puts it, “to establish conversations between concepts rather than normative certainties”. Although it’s part of the diversity of the Centre, one senses tension between two branches of their “conversation”, whereby some, like Vasudevan, promote a phenomenological approach to research, whereas others tend to be more avid proponents of normative concepts.
Bhargava is part of the latter, and has an antipathy to making a “fetish out of political concepts”, but is also determined to develop a non-Western academic research on democracy. “At its beginning, the Centre accepted and reflected the post-colonial West/non-West dichotomy,” he concedes, “and it played a very important polemical role in that historical context.” Although this postcolonial “software” behind the CSDS’s programmes is not as relevant today, Bhargava is consistent in his criticism of the Indian academic world for being “too saturated by Western political tropes”.
To illustrate his claim he cites the example of secularism, which is one of the ideas the CSDS set out to redefine, rejecting the traditional Western private/public distinction of the debate on religion and secularism. The risk, he says, is to “th row the baby out with the bathwater”, though some may claim that’s what CSDS Senior Honorary Fellow Ashis Nandy did in 1985 when he published ‘An Anti-Secularist Manifesto’, where he stated that secularism was “authoritarian”, “ethnocidal” and “middle class”, and that “there is no corresponding word for it in any Indian language.”
RESEARCH PRODUCED at the CSDS has always echoed prominently in public discourse, unsurprisingly since the institution is characterised by its will to have relevance outside of university libraries. Asked if it can be problematic to promote statements such as the ones above, out of context and in the public sphere, Nandy dismisses the idea, saying that “challenges to the academic gurus and to conventional thinking will always be received in a particular way”. Vasudevan takes a softer line but admits that “challenges arise when you take something away from the norms of intellectual discourse, but the challenge has kept alive the Centre”. In fact, Bhargava explains that the CSDS wants to take on a meaningful role in society. “We want to make a difference, because policy-making shouldn’t be done by a few elite,” he says, “that’s why civic engagement has been a central part of our project.”
Treading between academic and public spheres, an intellectual might question where to draw the line. Questions indeed arose when Senior Fellow Yogendra Yadav decided to become part of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, plunging in the muddy waters of party politics. Coming from a democratic socialist background, some might have been surprised to see him fully endorse such a complexly layered political movement, but not him. “You don’t just want to write nice books,” he explains, “you don’t want to live in an idealism incubator all your life, you want to step out of it and engage with real life.” As far as his involvement with the CSDS’s public survey work is concerned, he dissociated himself from it to avoid conflicts of interest. Bhargava also invokes all the prominent academics who have been members — at times even founders — of political parties, yet he notes that this responsibility should be taken on as a citizen, not as a member of the CSDS. “Power is attractive to make a difference as a thinker,” he says, “but if it’s getting in the way of your interpretation of the world, you should give that up.”
The academic and public praise received by the CSDS for its 50th anniversary almost rose-tints its first half-century of existence. But Bhargava is not keen to see the institution rest on its laurels: “Our success is not that we are publicly known, we are publicly known because we are good.” Having encompassed more fields of research over the years, such as history or linguistics, some hurdles still lie ahead for the CSDS. Nandy, who has seen it evolve from the beginning, feels “it is a bit more academic in its overall orientation”. Praveen Rai, the academic secretary, evokes the difficulties related to funding, for an institution that is mainly financed by the Indian Council of Social Science Research, a government body.
As Vasudevan eloquently defines it, the CSDS is “a space for critique. Non-ideological but with a desire for intellectual freedom and democratic transformation.” Although Bhargava admits that the term “developing” in their name is not something that most of the people at the CSDS are enamoured of, he stresses on the importance of “maintaining a space that tries to establish alternative notions of development for specific societies, the furthest away from predefined patterns”.