Professor T.K. Oommen’s work as an Indian social scientist spans over five decades. He has addressed the Indian social reality in all its diversity. The complex historical processes that have contributed to the development of Indian society, its social and religious pluralism as well as its diverse stratifications based on caste, community, gender and class, along with society’s democratic demands and struggles for social and economic justice have all been reflected in the scores of books, monograms and reports he has authored.
If one were to try and summarise the key theme or concept of this multidimensional intellectual pursuit, it would have to be done by placing Oommen as a modernist and progressive Indian sociologist who has a clear understanding of the concept being Indian and the advancement of sociology, particularly Indian sociology, as a social science. Unlike many of his predecessors and peers, Oommen has sought to situate the idea of Indian sociology within the constitutional framework of the Indian Republic, the vision enshrined in the Constitution about the kind of society and citizenship that it wanted to evolve. In other words, the understanding in terms of the constitutional framework of what India should be and not as a perspective, which perceived India as a mere extension of past traditions and Indian sociology as something that was primarily based on this.
More specifically, he questioned the concept that sociological training in India is grounded in Sanskrit or any such language in which the traditions have been embodied as symbols and the argument that social research in India will be limited and deficient if it did not conform to these parameters. In advancing this distinct approach, Oommen also emphasised the relevance of having perspectives from below to “apprehending social reality in a hierarchical society”. Naturally, his own work encapsulates the varied perspectives from below.
Oommen’s latest book, Social Inclusion in Independent India: Dimensions and Approaches , marks a logical progression of this thematic approach. In fact, he states that the “idea of this book has been in the making for the last three decades”. However, he adds an important qualification in the very beginning of the book. This comes in the form of a categorisation of social inclusion in independent India and its dimensions and approaches and the assertion that its contents need to be perceived differently from other sociology-related treatises. Oommen points out that “Indian sociologists are accused by planners, administrators and even fellow social scientists of their disinclination to pursue research themes which are relevant to social policy” and goes on to add that “this book is conceived as a modest beginning to break this impasse”.
In the next 287 pages, he makes an attempt to “locate the causes of deprivations to which different excluded categories are subjected to” and also suggest and evolve some prescriptions that could be taken for their inclusion.
As in all his works, Oommen goes about his argument methodically, bringing together the micro and macro perspectives with nuanced objectivity. In terms of broad classification, Social Inclusion in Independent India is divided into 11 chapters, each dealing with a specific subject of exclusion or lack of inclusion. Starting with the overall colonial track record, this categorised discourse covers the plight of Dalits, Adivasis, the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the religious and linguistic minorities, women, migrants (including refugees, outsiders, foreigners) with a special reference to north-eastern India, the poor and persons with disabilities. A wide range of data pertaining to each of these categories is marshalled while discussing each of them. These, along with the thematic projections, add value to the discourse.
Dealing with the specifics of each of these categories, Oommen points out that “inclusion is the buzzword in contemporary societies, and people from all walks of life—politics, business, academia and religion—advocate it, although they do not have a shared understanding of the meaning of inclusion”. The discussion in terms of each of the specific categories highlights these myriad understandings, which from time to time work against each other and against the real processes for inclusion. The importance of the detailed discussions in Social Inclusion in Independent India is that it seeks to address these varied perspectives and related themes in terms of the subject under consideration, the various approaches that are being advanced by various vested interests, and the modus operandi and methodologies they employ to advance their case and cause.
An example of this kind of detailed delineation of the multiple nuances and dimensions relating to inclusion is evident in Oommen’s discourse of gender and Dalit exclusion. The book specifically points out that factors such as patriarchy, heterogeneity and hierarchy cause multiple deprivations for a poor Muslim woman of Dalit background while an upper-caste Hindu woman would only face deprivation relating to patriarchy. Social Inclusion in Independent India underscores the need to carefully identify the parameters of exclusion in order to devise effective inclusion strategies.
It suggests that various forms of discrimination and marginalisation that continue to persist in large parts of contemporary India can be eradicated only by ensuring social, economic and political justice for the socially and educationally backward classes of citizens through the implementation of clearly defined, inclusive, growth policies and plans. Oommen also signifies the continuing relevance of affirmative action or positive discrimination in various sectors.
Beyond the specific India-related factors dictated by stratifications based on caste, community, gender and class, Social Inclusion in Independent India also addresses universal factors that have been decisive in terms of exclusion and inclusion. Oommen says the three moments crucial in this context are European colonialism, the Cold War and globalisation. Issues raised by the current context of globalisation are discussed in relation to each of the categories and also in terms of the solution which Oommen terms “towards a category specific social inclusion policy for India”. The detailing on this policy summation focusses on four points. “One, recognising and nurturing cultural diversity within the national state; two, institutionalising political pluralism; three, abandoning the centre-periphery distinction (both spatial and social); and four, de-legitimising caste hierarchy.”
Indeed, the formulation and the discourse that leads to it do impart a broad prescription to follow for the drivers of contemporary Indian society, particularly its political and administrative classes. But, on account of its methodological approach Social Inclusion in Independent India is also a valuable tool for practitioners and students of sociology, social anthropology and political science. Over and above all this, at the ideological level, the book underscores Oommen’s steady contention that “as a discipline, sociology should endorse, and its practitioners should internalise the value package contained in the Indian Constitution, the differing interpretation of these values notwithstanding”. The importance of a work like this is immense in the current juncture in Indian polity, when the constitutional framework is being challenged from different quarters and by varied vested interests, both within the established power structure and from ideological, political and organisational structures proximate to it.