Why India Needs Good Social Scientists

The February 9 JNU issue brought out two important issues to the political fora:

  1. That the Indian institution is ready to take any issue and spiral it out of control
  2. That there is a need to not misrepresent and misunderstand social scientists

Indians have fundamentally shunned the social sciences ever since the tech boom or rather since Independence, when our founding fathers, with a background in the social sciences ended up unconsciously putting social sciences in the background in their search for ‘modernising’ India. The social tumult India went through during the years of the Emergency and later liberalisation of the economy failed to ask a very basic question – has India’s quantitative expansion of its higher education system failed to qualitatively discover itself?

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Image source: DNA

The tussle of the Indian government with JNU brought up very important debates into the public forum. All of a sudden, students of the most prestigious social science institution in India became ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-nationals’. The discipline of history was viewed with scorn when Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, students of the History department of JNU stood up in solidarity with Kanhaiya Kumar, the defamed students’ union leader of JNU.

This is not surprising in a country that has failed to produce good social scientists over the years to answer the never-ending debate of why social stigma, social differences and political unrest still prevail in a country that is supposedly a melting point of all the races of the world.

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Image source: Indian Express

India’s tryst with the study of the social sciences started under the British rule, with the teaching of European enlightenment ideas under their education system in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The ideas of Rousseau, Voltaire, Kant and Aristotle did evoke generations of scholars like Rammohan Roy, Surendranath Banerjea, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Jawaharlal Nehru  and even Gandhi to take forth the mantle of independent thought and action forward in their struggle for India’s fight for Independence. But Independence brought with it an absence of the teachings of these leaders and what they learnt from the European Enlightenment.

Take for example, the Father of the Nation, Gandhi. How many of us in India have been exposed to his teachings in school? Hardly a few can even vouch for having read Gandhi, apart from the regular exposure to him in history books, that has reduced him to a mere political figure.

The Indian diaspora desperately needs social scientists today more than ever before as glaring problems confront India. From Naxalites in the states of Chattisgarh and Jharkhand to disgruntled students to changing voter identities to caste issues, the country needs a force of social scientists that can analyse the differences and formulate social methods to bind the country together. Getting more political scientists or historians into the Civil Services isn’t the answer. The Indian society needs to let writers, journalists, political analysts, think tanks, theatre artists – any form of social dissent thrive, that can question and reform the structural basis of Indian society.

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Image source: voanews

We need to understand why institutions like JNU are important for the society. Places that produce research on the social sciences reproduce talent that understands the social fabric of India, understands the behavioral psyche of people, treats people as humans, not resources. Take for example farmer suicides. In 2015, a drought in places like Latur in Maharashtra led many farmers to commit suicide after their crops failed. Politicians treated it as a scenario where the average day-to-day farmer was disgruntled with the credit system, and faced a rising debt in light of little or no crop.

A social scientist would have understood exactly which kind of farmers were being affected by the drought – the marginal farmer with land less than an acre, whose land was divided over generations, because of the Hindu system of land sharing amongst the sons. For him, the need wasn’t a better credit system or a better market rate for his crops – his need was for the government to understand that India still lives in its villages and we need to be prepared for the irregular monsoon by giving the farmers high-yielding varieties of seeds and better irrigation facilities, not bank accounts.

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Image source: The Hindu

Recently, social scientists are being viewed by people who are making use of the identity to pursue a career in politics. And I fail to understand why that is viewed as a bad thing. People like Shashi Tharoor, with a PhD in History are trying to make a difference to Indian politics by using their deep understanding of the Indian system and its failings/strengths to work within the system and produce something relevant out of it.

Politicians in the United States are mostly from liberal arts backgrounds,  and they are people who use their knowledge of American politics and foreign policy to represent their country better on an international platform (I am discarding the example of Trump’s election in this essay, for now).

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Image source: tehelka

Social sciences research in India has seen dismal growth in the past decade with a rather low number of papers from Indian scholars based in their country’s universities getting published in leading international journals. Even those assuming charge of important institutions like the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) have had papers published in only half-yearly college journals, with their academic research failing to reach an international forum, where feedback is more fierce and emphasis on analysis and quality more rampant.

While the dominance of the Global North in academics can not be denied, there is still a need to retrospect the failings in the Indian academic system that presents rusty social sciences research to the world. This is a scary number as it shows that Indians are failing to question their society, an example of inward regression into non-acceptance of many realities.

T.S Papola puts this in a better way in his paper, Social Sciences Research in Globalizing India:

Major concerns of India as a politically independent nation were seen to be economic in nature, and it was assumed that economic development would lead to resolution of most social problems as well…by reorienting the pattern of growth to make it more equitable and by adopting special measures, mostly economic, favouring the poor and the disadvantaged. As a result, Economics attained the major importance among social science disciplines, in terms of relevance for identifying, diagnosing and treating the problems of Indian society.

Yet, we can’t put the blame on the research universities alone. The Government also needs to set aside money for pursuing research in the social sciences. It’s a commonly known fact by students that it will be easier to get money for pursuing research in nanotechnology or even stem cell research, rather than on deciphering the Indus Valley script. That itself is alarming. Without funding, the Archaeological Survey of India took nearly 100 years to excavate the Harappan civilization and date India’s history back by another thousand years. And now, without further research in the social sciences, the discipline will be open to political conflict and re-interpretation because no new research is being undertaken to counter politically-inflamed views.

Economists now hold top positions in policy-making in the country, but historians, philosophers and political scientists have receded to the background. Interdisciplinary studies have diminished, making every view a narrow one.

India’s Constitution is a standing example of what can happen if only a particular discipline is allowed to prevail. At 395 articles in 22 parts and 8 schedules, India’s constitution is the longest in the world, because it was composed by mostly lawyers. The Constitution ended up being a legal document with numerous loopholes, that answered many questions, yet remained silent on others, making it open to interpretation and potential abuse.

Institutions like the London School of Economics and Oxford have become institutions of excellence because students there are forced to think, and not conform to a certain academic viewpoint. In India, a Bachelor of Arts degree has been reduced to mere rote learning. Students are expected to mug thousands of pages, ready answers to furnish as their own in the examination, leaving no scope for them to think beyond what they can read in their academic text. The vast syllabus the universities aim to complete within three years is also an injustice on the students.

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Image source: blacknet

The presence of multiple view points in India present a unique scenario for social sciences research and if tapped, India’s market, economy and society can be mapped on paper like never before. Students, if led on the right path, can grow into conscientious individuals ready to question the things given to them, and can help mend the cracks in the current system.

The discipline of social science gives individuals an opportunity to think, something the sciences can not offer. If we don’t create our own Tagores or Gandhis, then very soon this country will become a walking replica of George Orwell’s 1984. And one doesn’t need to read the novel to understand what kind of state I am referring to.

Learning to learn, and manipulating education.

In 2011, there was an uproar in Delhi University, when an academic article by linguist A.K Ramanujan (no, this is not the mathematician), was removed from the B.A Program course, because it hurt ‘religious sentiments’.

The article was called, ‘300 Ramayanas, five examples and three thoughts on Translation’. It was about the various interpretations of the Ramayana and how the Ramayana did not belong to just one community. Though the removal didn’t directly affect the students of the History (Honours) course, there was an uproar in the History faculty. This move was labelled as an attack on education, especially restriction of the social sciences, that questioned basic things like religion.

This was the first time I had seen such a huge academic uproar against a small move, and I was also surprised to see the huge amount of support the removal had amongst certain groups of people. I distinctly remember reading the statement of a Hindi Honours professor – “This article says that Hanuman is a playboy and Ram and Sita are brothers and sisters – we can’t let our students read this.”

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source: swamiindology.blogspot.com

Of course, we can’t. After all, how many students will be able to accept their Gods as playboys and incestuous couples?

For me, Ram is an incarnation of Lord Krishna. I have grown up reading Tulsidas’s Ramayana, which talks about an evil Ravana, who kidnaps the innocent Sita and how Ram saves his wife by killing the invincible Ravana, with the help of Monkey warriors, Sugreev and Hanumana. But, has any one ever given a thought as to why this is the only version we read? Why didn’t we grow up reading the Thai version of the Ramayana? Or the Buddhist one?

Knowledge spreads. It can’t be bound to a root, like our thoughts. Our stories/mythologies have crossed borders, entertained various people beyond India, but why is it so hard to accept that?

I decided to read up some more on this ‘Ramayana’ problem. I went and accessed academic books, took out the first book I found on the library shelf on the multiple interpretations of the Ramayana.

The first version hinted about a relationship between Lakshmana and Sita, while Ram was away in his ‘harem’, and the second version talked about how Lakshmana had actually cut of Surpanakha’s (Ravana’s sister) breasts instead of her nose.

I had to keep the book down and breathe. Because I was scandalized.

It’s natural to be unable to accept the truth when you have been fed a lie for your whole life. And it was very, very difficult for me to accept the various versions of the Ramayana. I somehow connected to the surging anger of the people on the ‘other side’. I understood their viewpoint that only those people should read this article who are able to read it, it shouldn’t be shoved down the throats of ‘innocent’ students.

Of course it shouldn’t. Freedom is a personal choice. But what I understand is – If an article like this is included in the syllabus, it is actually an eye opener for people like me disillusioned about life. This kind of article is related to life in general – we perceive life as a bed of roses, only to discover thorns in between.

Schools are the first pogrom of manipulations. Subjects like science and maths don’t shape plurality in opinion – politics and history do. And some people have already understood that generations ago, because of which history textbooks have become the subject of propaganda.

Take for example the Palestine crisis. How many school students know that Palestine as an issue is not just related to the Jews cry for a homeland, but also the slow eviction of Arabs from their own lands since the 18th century by the Jews themselves? How many school students know that the 1857 revolt of Indian ‘independence’ is actually just a small revolution, centered around certain areas of India like Awadh, and is not exactly a national event? Ravana was a great scholar, the Mahabharata is a classic text of manipulation mastered by Krishna – how many students are willing to stand up and claim that they know this?
No, no student is taught so much, because these kind of things are dangerous. It can force a student to form multiple opinions. Sadly by the time a child reaches college level- most of them abandon Historical research and end up formulating absolutely biased opinions about most of the world – because their foundation is biased in the first place.

I believe education can really help a child. But education can also ruin a child, making them corrosive, adamant and biased. All those psychologists looking for tips on understanding children – check their textbooks in the first place.

There is a saying – History is a biased form of storytelling. But honestly, a historian’s lens is a big responsibility to handle, as it requires absolute impartial, objective views. Those who are accused to be historians affiliated to the BJP, Congress, and other parties are not really supporting anyone – they are simply presenting facts of History. But those manipulating these facts and projecting themselves as “official historians” of a particular political regime – aren’t historians, they are academic cheats.

In India, the biggest field of concern right now, is ancient India. India has been looking to its past for inspiration for quite some time now, and Ancient India is a dangerous and volatile field. We attribute hero status to King Ashoka, we aspire to be scholars like Chanakya – and there are people working hard to prove these points of theory correct. Harappa and Mohenjodaro – the biggest Harappan civilization sites are actually located in Pakistan, but India, in a desperate attempt to declare one of the world’s ‘first’ civilizations its own is trying to find newer and ‘bigger’ Harappan sites within India.

But what if the Harappan script is someday deciphered and it is found out that this civilization is not really a civilization in the first place? How many people will have access to that information?

Information should be freely available in this current cyber age, but what is astonishing that we tend to rely on Google search that turns up what every other biased personality – like you and me is looking up over the internet. We are losing our originality, and relying on agents that will misuse our ignorance.

My fellow friends who are not Historians – please don’t treat History as something that can be learnt by just reading multiple books. Sometimes our clouded understanding disillusions us to such an extent that we end up reading only those things that we ‘believe’ in, and leave out the others that ‘challenge’ our thinking.

History?! Really?! Why?!

A statement I have to constantly hear when I tell people I read History in college is – How do you manage to remember so many dates? Not that I am judging anyone, but I sometimes wonder why History is such a stereotyped subject. Agreed, it may have been the subject most of us slept through in school (I mostly attribute this to bad teaching), but I fail to understand why History is in general is considered so boring.

I mean we all book tickets to visit a historical place. We get excited on seeing a plaque commemorating a historical figure. We become so happy when we learn about our heritage. So, how can history be boring?

I have faced days when I have slept in classes, or slept in the library because the book I was reading was extremely boring. But does that make everything about History boring? It’s very unfortunate that one bad experience bitters us for life. For what I am about to tell you is a realization most people don’t understand that they have had over the course of their short span of life.

There are days in our life when we remember the past. And we should, because the past constructs our behaviour in the present. We all try to learn from our mistakes, and try to reform ourselves to be a ‘better’ person. Every new year is a resolution – to not commit the mistakes we did last year. Every year is a revelation – of our faults, mistakes and our good qualities. Then, if we refer to the past so much, how does studying it make it so boring?

History, and humanities in general are not subjects generally preferred by students (and parents) for getting people jobs. I mean, how will reading about Hitler get me a job at Goldman Sachs? He was an evil man, who did evil things, everyone knows that, what’s there to study?

I recently met a woman during a train journey who was highly fascinated to know how I memorise the huge number of Russian and Arabic (she actually said Arabic- my only thought was, is she serious?) names I study. The general stereotype is – remember names and remember dates. Memorise them, write them in the exam and move on. My subject sounds like a casual date whom I should simply kiss and move on, because a relationship won’t really work out between us in the first place.

Am I bitter? No. I am just sure that what most people believe, is what I do too – but from a different perspective. I do find what I do boring in bits and pieces – but that’s because that period of history doesn’t interest me. I do have to remember loads of names, but that’s only for a General Knowledge quiz, not for my University exam.

Learning a humanities subject doesn’t make you an esoteric personality who just walks around in baggy jeans smoking a cigarette, talking big but not doing anything. It makes you understand that the world around you is still stuck in the back of the past, while you have an opportunity to move on.

If you ever do book tickets to go to see the Taj Mahal in India or the Buckingham Palace in London, or the Grand Canyon in USA, you know that it’s a beautiful creation of mankind and it’s a ‘tourist attraction’. But have you ever given a thought that there would have been no tourist attraction had the people back then behaved like us today? Had Lincoln said, I don’t care about history, let slavery be, would it ever had been abolished? Had Mahatma Gandhi not begun the non- violence movement and treated it as an ideology that one should only read in books, then would India have ever achieved independence, making Gandhi the most revered leader in the modern age?

We all want to create history. That’s how we are connected to history. We all come to live this short life to create History. We may not become a Gandhi, a Marilyn Monroe or a Malala (yes, I believe she has an important place in history, because she is a living example of a western media created icon), but we all can make a change to life in general by not being so complacent about it.

There is a need to look beyond what we think. We all believe what the ‘general people’ say, but I believe experiencing something on your own is far more important that just hearing about it. The United States and United Kingdom have succeeded in creating respect for the Humanities, connecting people in every way possible to the history of their country. But in Asia, with a population striving for development and industrialization, humanities education is just seen as a waste of resources and time as it is a relentless pursuit for writing and reading something completely useless for securing a job or developing the country. I am not generalising, I just believe this is a mentality ingrained in a lot of people I have met (and I am fortunate to have met people from Singapore, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.).

Not just Asia, but the world in general needs to understand how connected we are to what everyone does. If an engineer can build a bridge for you, a humanities student can connect you to your heritage, can build you a world where you can understand the failings of humanity and solve the current world’s crisis. But lack of awareness is indeed leading the world nowhere.

Africa is the place where all of Humanity began, the Middle East is a region with immense history, especially with regards to women rights. But stereotypification in this connected world of the internet is making us more and more inert. It is making us retreat to a smaller bubble of generalisations and typifications and there is a need to move beyond what we read over the internet to understanding the situation using our common sense. Don’t assume Ebola is everywhere, the countries mostly affected by it are Sierra Leone, Liberia – most countries in West Africa. Go and read medical articles and NGO bulletins, which show the amount of help being given by doctors around the world to eradicate the disease, and how some of them have actually succeeded. Don’t label all Muslim countries as backward or conservative – Egypt has had an immense history of women’s movements, women activists like Doria Shafik advocated suffrage rights for women in the 1940’s (That’s before the independence of many non- Muslim countries around the world). For some women in the Middle East, veiling during the 19th and 20th century became a symbol of feminism, or asserting their right over their body.

History is not just what we read in the books. History is interpreted by anyone, any way they want, and instead of just hear say, go out there in the world and try to understand why people say what they say and how we can say what we want to say by not sounding corny or being unapologetically stupid. And by going ‘out there’, I don’t mean buying a ticket and flying to Syria or Israel right away- I mean getting yourself out of that tiny bubble and becoming aware that we are more connected than we have ever been and generalizations are meant to be undermined.

History is really a knowledge to be had and disseminated. So, the next time if you wish to ask someone how many dates they had to remember while reading History, remember to not ask such a question again. 🙂