West meets East

Published : Apr 11, 2008 00:00 IST

Without imposing any Western theories, these volumes understand Indian realities well and are relevant to many controversies of today.

THESE volumes will be warmly welcomed by all students of Indian affairs within and outside the country. The authors are two of the most highly respected scholars, dedicated India hands, who have enriched India studies.

The research of Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph is thorough; empathy pronounced but never for a moment impairing objectivity. The husband and wife make a formidable team.

Their academic careers began in 1956 when they arrived in India with two Ford Foundation fellowships in Foreign Area Studies. They were among the first generation of American scholars to do research in India.

Their academic careers came to a close at the University of Chicago in April 2003 with a Festschrift Conference on Area Studies Redux: Situating Knowledge in a Globalising World.

Area Studies is central to their inquiries in the 51 essays. Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph have spent half a century explaining Indian democracy not only to Americans but to Indians as well. Their first work, The Modernity of Tradition (1967), broke new paths. Indias tradition will not vanish into history but will survive and adapt to modern times.

The essays in these volumes cover a vast area on Indias domestic and foreign affairs; some are written singly, others jointly. They were ever ready to learn and think afresh. In an arresting passage, Susanne writes, Using Anglo-American concepts and methods in new research areas was unavoidable. They were our tool kits, our means for entering complex and unfamiliar non-Western environments.

To what extent were the tool kits we brought with us from the United States capable of bridging differences between the civilisations, cultures and worldviews of the Western observer and the non-Western observed?

Early in our research in India, Lloyd Rudolph and I coined the phrase imperialism of categories. It was meant to designate the academic practice of imposing concepts on the other the export of concepts as part of a hegemonic relationship. Concepts crafted in a dominant sociocultural environment are exported to a subordinate one.

The imperialism of categories entails an unselfconscious parochialism of categories scholars from a dominant culture sometimes called the centre, travel to a distant and lesser place, sometimes called the periphery, where they apply universal concepts. The trouble is that these concepts have been fashioned out of the centres materials in our case out of Anglo-American clay. The authors governing passion was to understand the realities, not impose theories.

Some of the old articles make one sad at the straits to which we have reduced ourselves. An article Susanne wrote in 1961, Consensus and Conflict in Indian Politics, reminds us that the politics of consensus was a practical and, indeed, attractive proposition then. After the Congress split in 1969, Indias politics became polarised.

The whole of South Asia presents a sad spectacle of split politics in which the main parties find little common ground. All the states have suffered assassination of leaders, dynastic succession and populism. India is split between the forces of Hindutva and the rest.

This imposes severe strains on the parliamentary system, on the civil service, the media and the judiciary. Lloyds essay on Media and Cultural Politics (1992) documents how politics shaped the media and was, in turn, shaped by it.

Successive governments tinkered with autonomy for Doordarshan and Akashvani. No statute can ensure autonomy if society lacks a culture that prizes autonomy. Witness: the aftermath of the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990.

Many of the essays are relevant to the controversies of today. Judicial Review versus Parliamentary Sovereignty (1981) is one.

Another is Modern Hate: How Ancient Animosities get Invented.

Societies are not torn apart by history, but by invention of historic wrongs in present times. The Babri Masjid was made an issue by the BJP in its Palampur resolution in 1989 on the eve of the general election to the Lok Sabha.

Which identities become relevant for politics is not predetermined by some primordial ancientness. They are crafted in benign and malignant ways in print and electronic media, in textbooks and advertising in Indias TV mega series and Americas talk shows in campaign strategies in all the places and all the ways that self and other, us and them, are represented in an expanding public culture.

When TV talking heads and op-ed contributors portray mobs as frenzied and believers as fanatic, they have given up the task of discerning the human inducements and political calculations that make politics happen. They have given up making motives visible and showing how they are transformed. Ancient hatreds function like the evil empire.

The doctrine of ancient hatreds may become the post-Cold Wars most robust mystification, a way of having an enemy and knowing evil that deceives as it satisfies. The hatred is modern, and may be closer than we think.

The authors reaction to the Emergency and what passed muster under its protection deserves a place in any anthology of writings on the Emergency.

Even Homer nods. A small error has crept in. The article on Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964) avers that he moved towards a new approach to the Kashmir situation releasing Sheikh Abdullah.

It was Nehru who ordered his release in April 1964 and invited him over for talks. Nehrus death in May wrecked the peace process. Shastri was too weak politically to pursue it.

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