Honouring Alice Thorner

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

Thinking Social Science in India: Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner, edited by Sujatha Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi and Krishna Raj; Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2002; pages 468; Rs.795.

"ALICE THORNER has been concerned with India and Indians for more than six decades, ever since her husband Daniel started work on his doctoral dissertation on Indian railways. With Daniel, Alice helped shape the thinking on India's growth and development since Independence. In the 1950s, when they were staying in India the Thorners wrote on agrarian India and made an assessment of the development of capitalism in Indian agriculture, analysed work participation rates and elaborated on the thesis of de-industrialisation. Although they shifted in the 1960s to Paris (where Alice still lives and is a constant host to Indian visitors and to scholars working on South Asia), their commitment to India continued. After Daniel's death in 1974 Alice continued to visit India every year, researching on aspects of the urban process and on women and work and established successfully a forum for publication of research in gender studies. Over these decades she introduced scholars from two or even three generations and three continents to one another." These sentences are from the Editors' Introduction to the volume. In an appreciation of Alice Thorner the Senior Editor adds: "... Those close to her know of her passion for poetry, extending to occasional forays of her own into the genre of creativity. As important as her own studies and publications, she has been, and continues to be at the age of 84, a sounding board for a large number of scholars whose ideas she encouraged and worked hard to expand and sharpen."

For those who are not familiar with Alice Thorner's long and sustained involvement with the academic community in India and with her contributions, independently and in collaboration with her husband, to social science research in the country, these passages will convey some idea of the deservedly high esteem in which Indian scholars hold her. Hence it is not surprising that 31 scholars spontaneously responded to the Editors' invitation to honour Alice with their writings. The volume contains their essays. They are grouped into four sections, the first on "Reflecting on Contemporary Perspectives", the second on "Journey of the Economy", the third on "Culture, Literature and Language", and the fourth on "Politics in History and History in Politics". The essays are of uniformly high quality, but the reviewer has to be selective, the selection reflecting his own interests rather than the significance of the pieces.

The first essay in the first section is by Nirmal Kumar Chandra, which is a critical appraisal, from a Marxist perspective, of the Russian agronomist A.V. Chayanov whose work on peasant economy fairly soon after the 1917 Revolution had generated much controversy in the Soviet Union. It may be mentioned that it was a small team of scholars led by Daniel Thorner who got Chayanov's work translated into English and published in 1966. Since then Chayanov's views on peasantry and what he claimed to be "non-capitalist economic systems" have been widely debated in many parts of the world including India. Although initially Chayanov's views, especially about the need to bring peasants into cooperatives was stubbornly resisted by Lenin, Chandra's conclusion is that while Chayanov might have been shaky on aspects such as the ability of family farms to prevail over capitalist farms, his writings on the optimal size of an agricultural enterprise under different socio-economic conditions can be incorporated into the Marxist tradition. Another piece that this reviewer found particularly attractive is Uma Chakravarti's analysis, initially through a discussion of Jotiba Phule's understanding of the cultural power of Brahmanism and later through an appraisal of selected Dalit writings, of the power to marginalise and exclude. The essay closes with a poem (page 130) by Hira Bansode, a Dalit poet, addressed to Yashoda, the Buddha's wife, whom he left home as he went forth in search of salvation. It is a stirring poem which, as Chakravarti puts it, "finds a creative way to restore a marginalised woman to her rightful place even if centuries of male discourse have obliterated her presence because she represents an uncomfortable set of questions for them".

In the seccond section, two Ashok Mitra examines the much celebrated growth of the service sector of the Indian economy in the 1990s when it came to exceed 50 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). While some have interpreted it as a sign of modernisation and progress, Mitra points out that this surging of the service sector's share in the GDP is not accompanied by any increase in its share in the labour force. Hence the phenomenon is likely to be a reflection of structural imbalance characteristic of poor economies without much dynamic thrust.

Reviewing the first three Five Year Plans K. Saradamoni comes to the thought-provoking conclusion: "Our planners did not use the word stigma, but the poor were reduced to a category of target deserving special treatment. Development was for the non-poor." There are two essays directly dealing with labour. Making a comprehensive survey of population growth, employment, unemployment and related issues K.S. Krishnaswamy draws attention to the fact that even in an increasingly global economy, the excess supply of labour in one country cannot be reduced by its export to another country which may have labour shortage and that, therefore, securing a balance in the employment market remains a national, not an international, concern. Dealing with a related theme with special attention to gendered labour markets in Asian countries, Gita Sen points out the need for a variety of policy prescriptions, and not a uniform policy, to increase employment and empowerment of women workers. She warns against the usual tendency to take advantage of cheap labour through labour-intensive growth strategies and calls for investment needed to increase labour productivity. Discussing a related issue, N. Krishnaji examines whether the empirical evidence of close correlation between women's employment and higher level of child mortality implies that the latter is caused by the former and concludes that the inference is not tenable, and that the relationship only suggests that a common cause like poverty influences the two correlated variables in predictable ways.

There is only one essay in the volume dealing with problems relating to land. Considering the enormous contributions that the Thorners have made to the analysis of land statistics and land relations in India this is rather surprising. In a piece with the significant title, "What Happened to Land Reform?" Joan Mencher recalls how prominently land reforms figured in academic and policy discourses during the freedom movement and the first few decades since Independence and observes that in recent years the focus has changed almost completely among those in power. She points out too that the question of ownership and control over land will again become a major issue as newer forms of labour-intensive and highly productive forms of agriculture take hold in different parts of the country.

In Part Three where the focus is on culture, the reviewer found four essays particularly interesting. The first is Meena Alexander's treatment of poetry "which fashions an immaterial dwelling, yet leaves within itself traces of all that is nervous, stoic, edgy, the skin turned inside out". Sylvia Vatuk provides a rare- to-come-across account of old age in India's past, drawing upon literary and biographical as well as demographic and other quantitative data from one large south Indian Muslim extended family with special reference to the older women's role within the household. Patricia Uberoi has an illustrated essay on "Baby Iconography: Constructing Childhood in Indian Calendar Art". Basing herself on early Malayalam novels, G. Arunima shows how "friendship", a term so frequently used, means different things to different people.

Part Four has 10 essays. Claude Markovits discusses when, how and why Gandhi became the Father of the Nation and through that shows the importance of "images" in nation building. Nasir Tyabji provides an account of Liaquat Ali Khan's Budget of 1947 (when he was Finance Minister in the interim government) whose objectives were widely welcomed in principle initially, but which led to a political panic subsequently. Eleanor Zelliot considers the physical, economic and cultural factors in Bombay that enabled Ambedkar's rise to prominence and which Mumbai now provides to the Dalit movement. Rajni Kothari recalls the new dawn that seemed to emerge around the time Nehru talked about India's tryst with destiny - with new and hopeful stirrings throughout the world, liberation and prospects of material progress for the newly emerging nations in Asia and Africa, socialist regimes or social democracies in the West, a new-model United Nations. These seemed to presage a new era in human history. If this was the ethos "then", the situation "now" is very different - one of fragmentation and tension, of void and vacuum. Under such conditions what is the role of those who are still interested in furthering the dreams of freedom and emancipation? Kothari suggests a few possibilities.

By the variety of themes it provides and the freshness with which they are treated, this volume is a rich fare - a fitting tribute to one who has done so much to stimulate thinking about Indian society and to encourage and enrich scholarly discourse about its problems and prospects.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment