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.