Let us commence with a dialogue that transpired between Buddha and Anand as they journeyed through Vaishali, Bihar. Buddha inquired, “Do you know why the Vajjian dynasty thrives and endures?” Anand responded, “No, my lord, I am not aware.” Buddha explained, “It is because they engage in free and fearless discussions among themselves.” We are all familiar with the fate that befell them once they abandoned this cherished tradition.
Dialogue, discussion, and deliberation are not only the lifeblood of academia but also mould the collective psyche of our societies. This is what defines the essence of the ‘universe’ within the idea of a ‘university’.
Before delving into the concerns that have dominated the thoughts of many in our academic community, we must establish a common starting point. The discipline of social science must recognise that without safeguarding and fostering the tradition of critical reflection within its pedagogical sphere, we will remain passive observers who are unable to contribute to the transformation of our social and political structures. We must not forget that our civilisational heritage of dialogue, debate and dissent is impossible to preserve and practise without confronting socio-economic inequalities. And without this practice, the entire edifice of social science will fade into oblivion. Today, there is a concerted effort to question the value of the social sciences in higher education. Let us recall the moments when different branches of the discipline stood up against various forms of oppression in solidarity with the oppressed.
But on reading Howard Zinn, we discover that during the Vietnam War, the social sciences remained conspicuously silent, while Noam Chomsky, a linguist, Benjamin Spock, a paediatrician, and William Coffin, a chaplain, were the intellectuals who vehemently opposed the war and its atrocities. These individuals became spokespersons for Vietnam while core social science disciplines sought ‘non-controversial’ topics for their dissertations and classroom discussions. Why can’t we, as academic activists and teacher activists, take our classroom and field reflections as acts of praxis, as Paulo Freire taught us in his book, Pedagogy of Hope? More than ever, the social sciences need the critical language of resistance and dissent. For this to occur naturally and seamlessly, the discipline must adopt a political stance.
Before I am accused of advocating for my colleagues to be politically aligned in the narrow, popular sense, let me clarify that politics extends beyond occasional voting or affiliations with political parties. Being political means becoming part of an ongoing project that seeks to raise our consciousness and re-examine the world we inhabit. Understanding the political and economic structures of a society is defined by politics. Every choice we make or refrain from making has political underpinnings. The books we read, the films we watch, the food we consume, and the clothes we purchase are all political acts.
Grounded in the notions of human betterment, good life and happiness for all, social science research and teaching must reflect the principles of justice and rights. As such, social science disciplines can ill afford silence and muted response to the oppressed who yearn for us to speak out through our classrooms, dissertations, academic writings and media articulations. In the garb of objectivity and unbiased research, the persona of social work has been predominantly clinical. In these politically fragile times, as the grammar of oppression and invisibility persists, how long can we afford to remain ‘apolitical’ and non-critical of the harsh socio-political realities? How long can we keep regurgitating common sense on the nauseating normalisation of caste atrocities and the clockwork-like periodicity of communal massacres in India? Although tomes are routinely published to respond to the demands of academic careers, in true sense, scant research attention is given to the perspectives that could provide imaginative and critical framings and explorations within the social sciences that can provide leads to emancipation and peace.
Recent events should disrupt not only our personal lives but also the academic rhythms that dull our senses. Communal or ethnic violence today appears to bear genocidal intent, and no amount of diversion will absolve us from questions of credibility.
It is indeed a collective failure that we have made minimal impact on the lives of oppressed castes. While we launched Chandrayaan-3 and reached the moon, it is ironic that as a nation we have not been able to secure a life of dignity for a significant portion of our population. Daily sewer deaths in our country disproportionately affect the same caste group. Social scientists often view these deaths through a clinical and statistical lens. But is it truly that simple? Understanding the direct correlation between this occupation and the caste group does not necessitate extraordinary research projects. What is lacking is a moral-political compass. Do our disciplines engage with such deaths as a failure of civilisation?
We are not lacking in emancipatory literature, found often in the form of autobiographies chronicling the struggles of individuals navigating an unequal social landscape. Dalit literature, in particular, has a rich legacy. Yet, our social science disciplinary domain has largely chosen to remain oblivious to its existence. Even universities that dare to engage have often failed to move beyond symbolism. A critical analysis rooted in such liberatory literature can provide us with a lens that is not caste-blind. It should be a priority to academically engage with socio-cultural contexts where structures dehumanise certain groups in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘religion’. Let us remind ourselves that a mandatory reading and analysis of Dr Ambedkar’s”Annihilation of Caste” would unveil the intricate facets and inherent cruelties of our structures. These treatises shed light on how our everyday socio-cultural and political milieu is structured where caste, class, and religion intersect. The rhetoric of ‘equality for all’ is not an easily attainable fruit. The privileged may effortlessly reach it, but for the poor and downtrodden, it remains an arduous endeavour. We should also read Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, written in the context of the civil rights movement in the United States of America. The ideological lens we choose to view the world through is crucial. As Karl Marx asserted, those who cannot represent themselves must be represented. Are we willing to make this essential course correction?
How can we progress? Dr Ambedkar’s vision of India enshrined in the Indian Constitution and Gandhi’s model of non-violence and coexistence provide two perspectives for social science pedagogy and curriculum. When India celebrated its Independence, Gandhi was engaged in peacebuilding in Noakhali amidst riots, negotiating with both the rioters and the victims. Upon his return, his prayer meetings shifted from ‘Bhaj Man Pyare Sita Ram’ to ‘Bhaj Man Pyare Ram Raheem’ and ‘Bhaj Man Pyare Krishna Kareem’. Gurudev Tagore imparted the lesson of tolerance, urging us to keep our minds open to new ideas and thoughts and to create a society “where the mind is without fear”.
In these polarised and tumultuous times, the social sciences cannot afford to remain detached and complacent with their conventional modes of engagement. Violence, oppression, and various forms of inequality must be addressed within an emancipatory framework. The prevailing culture of silence and fear in academia must be broken and give way to a new posture, one where our academic endeavour is to question and reshape the structures that perpetuate inequalities and injustices against the marginalised sections. To achieve this, we must confront our own privileges and recognise our specific socio-cultural contexts. Without this self-awareness, we will remain in the cocoon of false comfort to the utter disappointment of those who implore us to ‘break the cycle of criminal silence’.
(Excerpts from a talk delivered in a Refresher Course for university teachers organised by the Department of Social Work and CPDHE, Delhi University, on September 4)
Manoj Kumar Jha is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and Professor at University of Delhi