I am what I am; I will be what I will be.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Contributions to Contemporary Knowledge in a Vanishing Public Sphere

(Introductory comments made at the 6th Contributions to Contemporary Knowledge lecture featuring Nancy Fraser on 19th April 2018, New Delhi).
(Photo curtesy of Sakuna Gamage, South Asian University)
It gives me immense pleasure to see so many people gathered here today, to listen to someone speak. 
And that too at a time when we are well aware that the public sphere in this entire region is rapidly shrinking, and along with it, the space we have for reasonable debate, discourse and civilized dissent.
I see the genesis of this series, ‘Contributions to Contemporary Knowledge’ and today’s lecture in this broader context. For me and for those who have worked to ensure its sustainability, this series is about creating our own public oasis in a rapidly compromised public sphere while also taking the larger political and intellectual mandate of our university to what is left of that public domain.
But this is also a moment for reflection on what we have attempted, achieved and failed over the years. This is because an institution, or for that matter a country without a reflexive sense of history cannot realistically visualize the future.  And I think this is crucially important in these times in general, and in our university in particular, where institutional memory is so liminal and sometimes even hallucinatory.   The Faculty of Social Sciences has taken concerted efforts to design and organize this series since 2013.
This annual event adds to other public engagements in the Faculty, which have been going on since 2011. Our idea from the beginning was to make this a bi-annual event when we were convinced that we were well established as an institution.  But this is easier said than done when we reflect on our larger institutional reality.  Unlike many universities in our immediate backyard whose collective futures depend on the fancies of a single unenlightened state, we have to deal with the thinking of not one, but eight such unenlightened states. 
Even so, in terms of our collective understanding, the efforts undertaken by the Faculty of Social Sciences are not simply intellectual and academic, but also public, social and self-consciously political.
The Faculty of Social Sciences was established in 2011, merely one year after the university itself was officially setup. Some of us who opted to come here to teach who were not merely looking for a job -- were well aware that the path we had chosen was an uphill one.

By now, we have faced many hurdles; we have won some battles, and have lost many others. And we are yet to face many more. But the goal still remains the same. At least, it should. That is, within the overall idea of the South Asian University, to build a Faculty that would be South Asian in character in real terms, and not simply as a matter of rhetoric.

As individuals, some of us have been more successful in this endeavor than others. And some academic programs have been more committed and consistent in striving for this goal than others. But the steadfast commitment to a regional university where we could teach on our own terms, think in our own terms and present our work in forums we build as we feel fit, does not mean that we are not open to ideas from other parts of the world or other schools of thought.

In fact, while very open to a plurality of ideas that makes sense to us irrespective of their geographic or temporal origins, what we insist on is the need to create our own intellectual and professional futures unshackled by bonds of colonialism, parochial local nationalisms as well as global agendas, which we have not authored. 

But as we proceed with our work, a crucial preoccupation must necessarily be in our minds. That is, how best could we practically de-center the Euro-American thought that continue to hold sway in the center of historical and intellectual practice in South Asia without falling into the trap of parochial nativism. If we can successfully do this, we also need to envisage the consequences when cultural practices from our region are translated into categories of social science, which derive their own power and legitimacy from very different historical and political lineages.

It is my personal conviction that this historic challenge must be the guiding principle of the Faculty of Social Sciences at our university, and should outlast my colleagues and me as the Faculty’s modus operandi.  If this can be achieved, I am confident that we can be the authors of our own history rather than becoming its footnotes.

For the record, let me outline what we have done so far: We started the first edition of Contributions to Contemporary Knowledge in 2013 with a lecture by Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Princeton University. He talked about ‘The Coming of Brahmin Migrants: The Sudra Fate of an Indian Elite in Sri Lanka.’ 
In the second edition of the series in 2014, Professor S.D. Muni, Professor Emeritus of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Singapore National University spoke on ‘Re-imagining South Asia: An Intellectual Agenda for the Next Generation of South Asians.’  
In the third installment in 2015 Prof Keith Hart, Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics spoke on ‘Gandhi as a Global Thinker: Legacies of the Anti-Colonial Revolution.’
The fourth lecture in 2016 was delivered by Prof Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, Harvard University on, ‘The Idea of Asia.’

The fifth lecture in 2017 was delivered by Prof Faisal Devji, Reader in Modern South Asian History and Fellow of St. Antony's College at University of Oxford on, ‘Gandhi, Hinduism and Humanity.’
And today, we have Prof Nancy Fraser, Henry A & Louise Loeb Professor of Political & Social Science at the New School in New York to talk about, ‘Race, Empire, Capitalism: Theorizing the Nexus.’ And I want to thank you Nancy for coming all the way from New York to be with us. 
But as we come to the sixth edition of the series, the time has come to reflect upon what our futures might be. This is not simply about the series, but about intellectual practice in general as well as the nature of our public sphere, the anxiety with which I began my thoughts today.
Though we have spent many years building and fine-tuning this series as an institution that carries our identity and attitude to knowledge, the University informed us last year that from 2018, our funding would be drastically restricted.  I am thankful to the president for ensuring that some funding continues despite the difficulties. Knowing quite well the financial circumstances our university has to endure amidst unenviable challenges, I accepted this reality.
But instead of succumbing to this institutional position and embracing an untimely intellectual death, we began to explore other possibilities of keeping the series afloat in the way we had initially envisaged. This is because some of us were convinced that we should not be a burden to the university in operationalizing our own vision. Instead, as we had already done in different activities, we opted to look for possibilities of collaboration beyond the university.   My colleague, Ravi Kumar took the lead in this effort, and through his work, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which has been our partner for many years, has come to our rescue. Prof Fraser is with us here today and for a few other engagements with other institutions in Delhi over the next few days, not only because of our efforts, but also because of the generosity of Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.  I want to thank our colleagues in RLF for everything they have done and also my colleague Ravi Kumar for his leadership when it was most clearly needed. I am thankful to the India International Centre for very willingly offering us this space not only for today’s event, but on many occasions before as well.  We hope this generosity will continue as well.
The ups and downs of our brief institutional history and our proven ability to prevail gives me some hope in a time when hope is in short supply, and the ability to envision the future is difficult. That is, with the collaboration of sensible and generous people and organizations in our extended neighborhood, we hope, we would be able to continue in times to come what we have already begun.

Thank you for your time.

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