The Agency of Change

Cel­e­brat­ing its 50th an­niver­sary, can the CSDS re­main the loyal op­po­si­tion to re­ceived opin­ion, asks AYAN MEER

Tehelka - - CSDS -

IN ITS bu­colic­set­ting­in­New­Delhi’s­Civil­Lines, ­the Cen­tre­for­the­Study­of­De­vel­op­ing­So­ci­eties­( CSDS) has­acted­for­the­past­50­years­as­the­hub­of­In­dian ­so­ciopo­lit­i­cal­re­search, ­pro­duc­ing­polem­i­cal­and ­in­sight­ful­work­on­In­dian­democ­racy, ­tread­ing ­be­tween­aca­demic­re­search­and­a­prom­i­nent­involvement­in­pub­lic­life.­“Ra­jni­Kothari, ­Dhirub­hai­Sheth­andthe­founders­of­the­CSDS be­gan­a­se­ri­ous­em­pir­i­cal­study­of In­dian­pol­i­tics, ­in­de­pen­dent­of­spec­u­la­tive­ideas­which­were float­ing­around­at­the­time,” ­says­Ra­jeev­Bhar­gava, ­di­rec­tor of­CSDS, proudly.­One­of­the­first­break­throughs­of­the ­re­search­cen­tre­was­to­re­assert­the­im­por­tance­of­caste­in ­po­lit­i­cal­be­hav­iour, ­re­search­ing­how­it­had­an­in­flu­ence­on democ­racy­and­contributed­to­its­vi­brancy.

Be­yond­their­data­col­lec­tion­ef­forts­and­in­ter­pre­ta­tion­of elec­toral­pro­cesses, ­they­kick­started­the­Sarai­Progr­amme­in 2000,­a­crit­i­cal­anal­y­sis­of­the­trans­for­ma­tion­of­life­through me­dia­in­ur­ban­spa­ces. ­At­the­con­flu­ence­of­arts­— with­the con­tri­bu­tion­of­the­Raqs­Me­dia­Col­lec­tive­— and­ethno­graphic­re­search,­the­Sarai­Pro­gramme­set­out­to­cre­ate ­“Cy­ber­mo­hal­las”­in­work­ing­class­neigh­bour­hoods. ­Ravi ­Va­sude­van, ­se­nior­fel­low­and­coini­tia­tor­of­the­pro­gramme, de­scribes­them­as­“an­en­cour­age­ment­to­de­velop­ver­nac­u­lar me­dia­prac­tices, ­to­en­gage­with­the­lo­cal­ity, ­to­make­me­dia avail­able­against­the­pro­perty­re­la­tions­that­tend­to­lim­i­tit.”­The­Cen­tre’s­drive­to­wards­new­fields­and­meth­ods­of rese­arch­has­be­come­over­the­years­its­blue­print, ­and ­Bhar­gava­ac­knowl­edges­how­im­por­tant­it­was­for­them­to “ex­plore­in­form­al­sec­tors­and­prac­tices, ­as­well­as­ex­trale­gal or­il­le­gal­do­mains”

In­its­50­years­of­ex­is­tence, ­the­Cen­tre­never­ceased­to evolve­and­ex­pand­its­in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary­project, ­the­char­ac­ter­is­tic­that­most­promi­nently­sets­it­apart­from­tra­di­tional aca­demic­in­sti­tu­tions. ­A­way­to­build­bridges­be­tween­dif­fer­ent­meth­ods­in­or­der­to­un­der­stand­so­cial­phe­nom­ena,­or­as Va­sude­van­puts­it, ­“to­es­tab­lish­con­ver­sa­tions­be­tween­con­cepts­rather­than­nor­ma­tive­cer­tain­ties”.­­Although­it’s­part of­the­di­ver­sity­of­the­Cen­tre, ­one­senses­ten­sion­be­tween two­branches­of­their­“con­ver­sa­tion”,­whereby­some, ­like ­Va­sude­van, ­pro­mote­a­phe­nomeno­log­i­cal­ap­proach­to ­re­search, ­whereas­oth­ers­tend­to­be­more­avid­pro­po­nentsof­nor­ma­tive­con­cepts.

Bhar­gava­is­part­of­the­lat­ter, ­and has­an­an­tipa­thy­to­mak­ing­a­“fetish out­of­po­lit­i­cal­con­cepts”, ­but­is­also de­ter­mined­to­de­velop­a­nonWestern­aca­demic­­re­search­on­democ­racy. “At­its­be­gin­ning, ­the­Cen­tre­ac­cepted­and­re­flected­the­post-colo­nial West/non-West­di­chotomy,” ­he ­con­cedes, ­“and­it­played­a­very ­im­por­tant­polem­i­cal­role­in­that­his­tor­i­cal­con­text.”­Although­this­post­colo­nial­“soft­ware”­­be­hind­the­CSDS’s pro­grammes­is­not­as­rel­e­vant­to­day, Bhar­gava­is­con­sis­tent­in­his­crit­i­cism of­the­In­dian­aca­demic­world­for ­be­ing­“too­sat­u­rated­by­West­ern ­po­lit­i­cal­tropes”.

To­il­lus­trate­his­claim­he­cites­the ex­am­ple­of­sec­u­lar­ism, ­which­is­one of­the­ideas­the­CSDS set­out­to­re­de­fine,­re­ject­ing­the­tra­di­tional­West­ern pri­vate/pub­lic­dis­tinc­tion­of­the ­de­bate­on­re­li­gion­and­sec­u­lar­ism. The­risk, ­he­says, ­is­to­­“th­row­the baby­out­with­the­bath­wa­ter”, ­though some­may­claim­that’s­what­CSDS Se­nior­Honorary­Fel­low­Ashis­Nandy­did

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