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An insider’s view, an outsider’s eye

From caste to Gandhi, the Rudolphs’ lifelong study of India stands out for novelty and impact.

February 5, 2014 1:31:01 am
Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, now in their 80s, started studying Indian politics in the mid-1950s at Harvard, where they were PhD students and later junior professors. Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, now in their 80s, started studying Indian politics in the mid-1950s at Harvard, where they were PhD students and later junior professors.

Over the last two years, this column has focused on politics and political economy. Today I write about two extraordinary political scientists of India, who have just been conferred the Padma Bhushan by the government of India.

Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph, now in their 80s, started studying Indian politics in the mid-1950s at Harvard, where they were PhD students and later junior professors. In 1964, they moved to the University of Chicago, where they remained till their retirement in 2002. Chicago became a long-term home, but they also made a home in Jaipur, where they lived during their sabbatical years and often every January through March. They were instrumental in making the University of Chicago the foremost institution for the study of India, producing scholarship of eminence, mentoring a score of students, interacting with peers and nurturing younger colleagues. They also took their responsibilities as public intellectuals seriously, often stepping beyond the academy to enlighten US policymakers, writing for newspapers and magazines, appearing on television, even advising documentary filmmakers on India. Susanne Rudolph was elected to two of the highest honours of the profession: presidencies of the American Political Science Association and the Association of Asian Studies. The government of India should have recognised their massive contributions to the study of India earlier, but it is just as well that the recognition has finally come.

In one of their recent writings, they say: “We write as insiders and outsiders, insiders because for over five decades, from locations in Chicago and Jaipur, we have studied Indian politics, and outsiders because… we seek to be reflexive political scientists of India”. It is a terrific statement about how it is by combining the outsider and the insider that excellence in social science scholarship is often achieved. Being inside alone, one runs the risk of disregarding the forest, losing oneself in trees, branches and leaves. A pure outsider may only see the forest, but have no sense of the trees. The latter, too, is an avoidable truncation.

The themes on which they have written are wide-ranging: the interaction between caste and democracy; the politics of education and curricula; the rise of what they called the “bullock capitalists” after the Green Revolution; the impact of modernity on Indian religions and the evolving relationship between religion and politics; the interaction between princely and British India; federalism; Indo-US relations; and Mahatma Gandhi, who has been an object of lifelong fascination for them.

In this vast corpus, some ideas have stood out for novelty and impact. The Rudolphs were among the first to argue — in their book, The Modernity of Tradition (1967) — that democracy or modernity would not eliminate traditional social structures like caste, as the standard modernisation theories of the time argued, in which Jawaharlal Nehru had also believed. Rather, caste would have a new political avatar. Caste groups would use democracy to achieve their political and economic goals, as well as fight centuries-old caste prejudices. This idea has become conventional wisdom in recent times; it was a pioneering insight in the 1960s. Scholars as well as statesmen had believed that modernity’s onslaught would lead to a withering away of traditional social categories like caste, tribe, ethnicity and religion.

They wrote about three models of caste mobilisation under democracy: vertical, horizontal and differential. The first captured the process whereby lower castes, led by the upper caste “notables” in villages, could get some concessions; the second when lower castes developed their own leaders and mobilised themselves; and the third when an existing caste, faced with economic cleavages inside, would break up, or when several similarly placed lower castes would come together to form a larger political bloc. One can find examples of each even today: vertical mobilisation continues in places like Madhya Pradesh; horizontal mobilisation has spread from southern India to UP and Bihar; and differential mobilisation represents what has happened to some lower caste communities of Tamil Nadu, or how the term OBC, for example, has led to a form of composite consciousness, never present in India historically.
On Gandhi, the Rudolphs have written prodigiously, starting in the 1960s and continuing to this day. Some of their key writings have been made available in Postmodern Gandhi and Other Essays (2006). We learn how the Mahatma understood courage in politics, related self-control to political potency, developed a theory of asceticism as a tool of political empowerment; how Martin Luther King Jr was influenced by Gandhi; and in a truly intriguing essay, they show how a “traditional” Gandhi had a very “modern” concept of time, something not often noted. Examining Gandhi’s routine, they argue that “Gandhi was very meticulous about time… (he) considered the normal practice of great public figures, to keep their audiences waiting, a transgression.” Modern Protestant figures like Benjamin Franklin, they say, also had a similar conception of time, though their religious tradition was different.
One of their new arguments is that Gandhi anticipated the postmodern conception of truth decades before postmodern ideas became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Gandhi, they argue, had an experience-based, situational notion of truth, as opposed to a dogmatic notion of truth. His autobiography, after all, was entitled My Experiments with Truth.

This novel argument ought to be debated. My own understanding is that postmodernism is against the idea of truth itself, situational or otherwise. It is about contesting narratives, each picking up a slice of the reality, none capturing the truth. In one of the founding stories of postmodernist thinking, about a parricide, Michel Foucault presents narratives of the villagers, judges, doctor, psychiatrist, prosecutor and the killer himself. The battle is over the meaning of the parricide, not about the truth of parricide. While it is right to say that Gandhi’s concept of truth was experiential, I don’t think he went as far as Foucault about denying the possibility of establishing truth, or even the existence of truth.

I would like to end on a more biographical note. I was never a student of the Rudolphs. I took a PhD from MIT, not Chicago. Indeed, I started as a critic of the Rudolphs. In my youthful impetuosity as a PhD student, I wrote a critique of their book, In Pursuit of Lakshmi (1987). Their reply in print was spirited, but soon something remarkable happened. They embraced a younger scholar like me, providing hours of scholarly interlocution, fruitful advice and inexhaustible warmth. I closely watched how, as senior scholars, combining the insider and the outsider, they handled my curiosities, scepticisms and rebellions.

I imbibed a lesson that, I hope, will last throughout my scholarly life. Conformity stifles intellectual life; a critical spirit takes it forward. We can be friends
as critics so long as criticism takes a professional and civilised form.

The writer is director of the India Initiative, Brown University, a contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express’ and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’

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