Dialogue  April-June, 2012, Volume 13 No. 4

Post-Colonial Indian Scholarship in Humanities and Social Sciences: some Reflections1

Kapil Kapoor


After 1947, India and other such former British colonies are supposed to have acquired a ‘Post-colonial’ character- that is, they became societies deep into the process of freeing themselves from the imperial/colonial baggage in culture and institutions. However the impetus of this drive of "freeing themselves from the imperial/colonial baggage in culture and institutions" that had originated in the colonial period and had acquired great strength began to peter out by the fifties and died out completely in the mid-seventies. The growth of Marxist anti-Indian knowledge traditions that ruined the great Calcutta University by debunking Sanskrit Studies in general and came to acquire policy control of the Ministry of Education put paid to the efforts to reshape Indian education, and mind, in its own native mould because the Marxist strategy accorded great merit to the Anglo-American theory and practices as it gave them a weapon to suppress the continuous, cumulative heritage of Indian thought. So the Universities witnessed the ironic drama of opposition to Pepsi but welcome of the Anglo-American theory!

We will look at this issue in the context of the universities and academic scholarship outside the Universities.

The disciplinary formations initially borrowed from Great Britain in the 19th century continue to be the base of the faculties in Indian Universities. In the second half of 20th century, with USA becoming the dominant power after World War II, we saw the addition, under the growing American influence, of some new disciplines such as Language Teaching, Linguistics and Psychology – disciplines that had broken away from parent disciplines of Literature, Philology and Philosophy. However, the following basic disciplinary formation continued to remain unchanged:

                    Faculty of Arts/Humanities
                    Faculty of Social Sciences
                    Science Faculty
                    Followed later by the
                    Faculty of Engineering, and
                    Faculty of Medicine

While Sciences have been growing and developing any number of new disciplines, such as Electronics, Astro-Physics, IT, Space Technology, Missile Technology and what have you, Humanities and Social Sciences have been stagnating, even degrading. As the Social Sciences and Humanities become more and more peripheral in India as elsewhere, their contribution becomes less affirmative and more conflict-promotion oriented. This is so because they are not rooted in the soil and the theoretical frames that are used to study them are borrowed from a culture that has looked upon progress as a product of conflict.

Today, the disciplines counted as social sciences are, among others:

Anthropology, geology, geography, psychology, sociology, history, education, social medicine and community health, political science, commerce and management.


The designation ‘Social Sciences’ is very suggestive. It

i.  acknowledge the Anglo-American opposition between ‘Science’ and ‘Arts’
ii. denies the possibility of, say, a science of painting/music
iii. it invests ‘science’, its kind of ‘knowledge’, its methodology with prestige and by implication degrades humanities and arts.

In a lighter vein, of course, it makes other academic pursuits, such as that of literature, anti-social!

It is also a hold-all term for disciplines that, in some other taxonomy, will belong to different categories or may not constitute different disciplines at all or which as they develop ‘overflow’ into allied areas.

All this is also true Humanities – they are perceived as the farthest from ‘science’ and therefore least rational and, in the rampant utilitarian view, least useful for ‘struggling, suffering people’. And disciplines have been moving out of the domain of Humanities and emerging as a semi-respectable Social Science – ‘semi-respectable because it is still not ‘science’.

There is so much inter-connection say between commerce and economics, political science and sociology, psychology and education and so on that it is not possible to study them as autonomous disciplines. This awareness has been growing and therefore inter-disciplinarity has become an overriding academic principle and practice.


It is easy to see that the Social Sciences in India are losing their definition, their connectivity with the felt needs of the society. New areas of study are emerging that have more connectivity with immediate society – they continue to operate under the old rubrics but have only tenuous basis in the ‘old’ disciplines. Some such emerging ‘social sciences’ for Indian reality are – Women as knowledge and Energy Resource, Integrated Water-Land-Dairy Management, Microfinance, Integrated Energy Resource management, Organic Farming and Marketing, Development Paradigms and Ecology, Urbanisation, Population, Mechanisation and Employment, Women Cooperatives Management.

These new emerging ‘social science’ areas of study are multi-disciplinary and out of the strict definitions of the given social sciences. Till now, these are being taken up by non-University, non-governmental sectors but are beginning to be incorporated in the given disciplines of Management, Commerce and Social Work, which is a relatively ‘new’ social-science but has a strong nexus with the emerging areas of work and study. That ‘Social Sciences’ have to deal with these apparently idiosyncratic areas now is clear when we randomly review, for example, the themes taken up by important research journals such as the Journal of Social Science Research and the E-Journal of Social Science in the last five years:

India’s ecological heritage, India’s tribal heritage, Global Financial Crisis and its Impact on India, Metaphysics and the Challenge of Logical Positivism, Female Migration and Urban Informal Sector, Alternative Development Paradigm for Africa, Geoinformatics in Agricultural Development, Management of the Democratization Process, Sibling Relationship, Educating Adolescent Girls and Young Women on Family Life Education Issues, Juvenile Delinquency, Barriers to Educational Development of Scheduled Caste Students, Social Implications of Electronic Commerce, Health Awareness of Rural Adolescent Girls, Work Participation among Disabilities in India, Parenting in Single Parent and Intact Families, Public Administration Paradigm Shift, Involvement of Women in Direct Selling Enterprises, Single Mothers, Childlessness, Team. Leadership and Team Commitment, Contemporary Women Artists, Banking Finance and Macroeconomics, Representation of Women in Urban Government, Memory and Locality, History of Emotions, Demography and Economy of Tribals in Jharkhand, Ideas of the City, Economic History, Modem Historiography.

Following E-Journal themes further reinforce the pattern of diverse, non-homogeneous issues that cut across disciplinary boundaries:
        Agricultural Commodities,
        China: Explorations and Analyses
        Ethics in Social Sciences
        Focus on SAARC Countries
        Infant and Child Health
        Infant and Child Mortality in India
        International Trade
        Microfinance: Research Roundup
        Public Finance
        Rivers, Dams and People
        School Education
        Urban Development and Displacement
        Urban World: Bridging the Urban Divide
        Women and Health

These subjects/issues do not figure in routine Sociology, Economics, Commerce, Psychology or History. One clear conclusion one may draw is that the issues of classical ‘Social Sciences’ have little if anything to do with the societal dynamics of India today. This is true in fact of the University education as a whole today and it is this disjunction which is turning Indian Universities into islands of doubly alienated people - alienated from their intellectual traditions and from their social and natural environment.


Humanities however retain their definition - the arts are closely allied to it if not actually belonging to the same domain and that is the Humanities’ strength, the idea of Beauty, a certain symmetry (justice"), permeating all its discourses, whether philosophy or aesthetics or literature or music or painting. From the beginning, from Plato in the West and the much older Upanishads in India, one stream of human inquiry has delved into the mind and the heart, thought and emotions, and this object of knowledge is perennial because while the structure of a mechanism or society can change -and evolve, the structure of the human being has remained unchanged. So the social sciences have been changing along with the changing social forms and ways as have been the technologies (not the sciences that can grow in the fund of knowledge but not change as its object, the physical reality) is constant. But in the stomach-oriented, empirically driven, utilitarian world / India of today, Humanities are the last options for the aspiring university entrants - the best minds go to commerce and the worst to philosophy. We can only bemoan with Goldsmith:
        Ill fares the land
        To hastening ills a prey
        Where wealth accumulates
        and men decay.

But the neglect of Humanities is dangerous for human order. Prof. Sheldon Pollock who has been named as the Editor for the multi-million dollar Humanities project of Indian classics, justifying this huge endowment for something other than poverty and disease, in a recent interview to Outlook, said: "Without the Humanities, how human are we? What would it mean to win the world and lose the soul?"

Under Humanities, we count philosophy, literatures, languages, aesthetics, music, drama, dance and folk arts and performances.

In the study of these too, there is a disjunction between the lived life of the people and the academics. Thus, for example, the School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU, has little room or time for Indian arts or performances except as saleable packaged commodities for the western audiences. And Indian theories are conspicuous by their absence - look at their courses and the readings prescribed/advised for those courses and you are in the familiar Indian academic ambience of young minds being brought up on special ‘imported’ diet, of receiving learning with nothing to give in return.

In English Literature departments all over the country, there is the perpetual flux born of the need to relate English studies more closely to the Indian context. In language teaching, the goals and methods have been re-defined with amazing rapidity to keep with the changing fashions in theory in USA and Britain. We have accepted limited learning and limited ability in the language as legitimate goals, we accepted the formulation that language is a habit, threw out grammar, adopted mechanical drill and pattern-practice and have ended up in training people to wag their tongue without using their mind! This foreign invasion has percolated into the study of Indian languages as well - no surprise therefore that ‘it is a truth universally acknowledge...’2 that standards of language leaning have fallen abysmally.


In literary studies we have witnessed two movements:

1. from all British we have moved- to practically no British literature in our Post-Graduate and Research programmes. We have faithlessly abandoned the original English literature and philandered with so many non-British, and often non-descript, literatures. This happened because .the literary studies lost their autonomy in the new, post-liberation euphoria of ‘development’ and ‘reform’. Literature became a handmaiden of the social sciences and this reduced the literary texts to the status of ‘documents’ for one or the other thesis of the social ‘scientists’. The literatures of ‘emerging’ countries naturally provided more grist to the social mill. Another factor was that as the British lost their empire, their purse became thin and the British Council openings for Indian academics to travel to UK became progressively restricted, new possibilities of international travel opened out in the new, emerging expansionist political and commercial centers such as USA, Canada and Australia and their literatures one after the other in that order filled more and more slots in the English literature syllabi pushing out the British literature. Finally, to be a little charitable, there was also the feeling that one could perhaps make literature studies more immediately relevant by including literatures of the colonially sibling communities.

2. The first partly explains the second movement as well – literary texts came to be read more and more in the ‘consumerist’ manner – we didn’t any more read them for the reading experience but we fished in them for ‘incriminating’ materials. This is demanded by the sociological or historicist readings of literature. They are not ‘read’ so much as ‘talked’ about’ – theorized. With the result that we now talk about the texts rather than absorb them for what they are. The reading function has been submerged in the critical function. Theory is at the center of literature syllabi now and the theory ‘done’ (that is the right verb) in India is the hegemonistic Anglo-American, more ‘American’ than ‘Anglo’, theory that has served as an instrument of the missionary politics of ‘globalisation’, an euphemism for financial evangelism3.

There are three consequences – (i) British literature – the ‘classics’ – are out and those who are interested in literature and not in its sociology literature are shortchanged; (ii) a certain indeterminacy now marks the English departments – there is a flux of ‘new literatures’ this is often seen as a virtue – a man who does not know where he belongs can belong anywhere. There is no clarity about what an English department in India should be doing at a time when the humanities in particular are being made more and more irrelevant and education is becoming ‘vocationalised’. All these neo-literatures have turned the English syllabus into a syllabus of specializations – the center is lost; (iii) all research gets clustered round ‘popular’4 theoretical frames/theories, reducing its range and limiting its freshness and also putting a question mark on its relevance.

One must examine the role and impact of theory both in language teaching and in literature. In ELT (English Language Teaching) theory has promoted business – with every new theory, a new technology (from spool recorders to CD’s through several intermediate technologies) and a new package of teaching materials became saleable and were sold every three or four years or so. Universities have labs that also house junkyards of expensive un-utilised or under-utilised equipment and their libraries are full of language course books that have rarely been used, if at all. But it was always good business. In the process language learning got de-linked from thinking as language was now defined as ‘communication’ (and not cognition), a means of transferring information and not a mode of ‘communion’.

In literature the theory has had an equally damaging effect. The American theory, structuralist to post-modern, essentially metropolitan, ethnographic and supremacist, has promoted divisiveness in Indian society and reduced Indian reality to the status of mere data. All such theory, with its embedded ‘drivers’ of ‘origins’ and ‘evolution’, is structured as a conflict model5. Its ethnographic parameter of ‘difference’, necessary perhaps to break through the strait-jacket of uncompromising Hebraic monism/monotheism, is counter-productive in a pluralistic/pluri-theistic Indian society which needs for its harmonious existence synthesizing universalism rather than bheda (‘difference’) buddhi which has always been considered in the Indian intellectual tradition, as a lower form of intellect,, one produced by avidya, ‘not-right’ knowledge.

Therefore when we adopt uncritically the western theory, we unwittingly undercutting our country’s unity and we are alienating ourselves from our own thought. We must therefore evaluate the impact of this theory on our society and reflect on the real felt needs of our society and ponder whether these are actually being served or thwarted by this divisive, ‘difference’-oriented, ‘evolutionary’, apparently reformist, certainly supremacist theory. In other words, the Departments of English need now to theorise about theory they promote and use.


As part of the mainstream educational system both the Humanities and the Social Sciences suffer from the known disabilities of the system, Anglo-American Centrism being the most obvious and disabling constraint. That there is something basically wrong with the Indian education was noted by .Sri Ananda Coomaraswamy in the thirties and earlier by Max Mueller. Max Mueller had said in his What India Can Teach Us that Hindu intellectuals are always at pains to be dismissive about and distance themselves from their own learning and intellectual tradition. Sri Ananda Coomaraswamy in his Dance of Shiva refers to ‘educated Indians’ and then says in the footnote - "that is how the victims of Indian education are described". This is what our mainstream education does to us. All knowledge is presented as coming from the West, implying that India never produced any worthwhile knowledge. This education has little to do with the environment and with the tradition, cultural, intellectual. Our country has often been rightly described as primarily agricultural/rural (krishi-pradhana) but the subject matter of our social sciences is urban visioned and has very little to do with the rural way of life: its discussions and assumptions are those of a self-seeking urban society. With its imperative of ‘modernization’ this education promotes a materialistic and an atheistic way of life in what was always recognized as a morally oriented (dharma-pradhana) society.

To achieve that it excludes and marginalizes the Indian intellectual traditions of learning and thought so that it may produce generations of young Indians victims of cultural anomie or schizophrenia-who have contempt for things Indian and reserve their admiration for the western civilization and its ‘success’ whatever that may be - young people who value freedom rather than self-regulation, indulgence rather than restraint and rights rather than duties.

This intellectual subordination of the Indian academy to the western by establishing a recipient-donor, data-theory relationship is facilitated and strengthened by the complete exclusion of Indian knowledge systems from the mainstream syllabi.

Social Sciences are no exception. Examine the reading lists given by teachers, in any of the disciplines listed above - all references and readings are from the West, primarily USA these days. This trend was established in the sixties when following the PL-480 food exchange agreement, a large sum of money became available to USA to fund higher education in India. This and the Ford Foundation grants enabled gifts of American books to the university libraries in India an also sending of thousands of young ambitious Indian Post-Graduates to USA, under Fullbright (and ‘Half-Bright’!) program to work for their doctorate. The flood started returning late sixties and all those young fellows were directly appointed (such was the prestige of the American degree then) as Readers (the second level in the three tier hierarchy of University teachers) and many of them came to head the departments. These ‘returned natives’ promulgated American theory and methodology and deferred indefinitely the incorporation of Indian thought in the syllabi.

So in Linguistics, for example, it was phoneme and morpheme all the way no room even for Panini whose ‘transformational’ credentials had been acknowledged by the most eminent western linguists such as Chomsky, Bloomfield, Firth and Henry Sweet. It was only in 1978 that the present writer introduced the first course in Indian Linguistics in JNU - but such courses are still only exceptions. Take any discipline, be it philosophy, history, geography, sociology, and you find that strong Indian textual tradition in these disciplines is completely out. In philosophy, there may be one paper out of eight that has a comparative slant and allows atma to be compared with soul! In geography, there is no room for authentic puranic or Rgvedic geography nor for the geography in Mahabharata or, surprisingly, in such texts as the 8th century Kavyamimamsa of Rajashekhara, the court poet of Kannauj. In sociology, a discipline apparently devoted to understanding the complex Indian society, there is no reference to or room for the long sociological textual tradition of Dharmasutras, Dharmashastras and Nibandhas. Kautilya and the whole tradition of Nitishastra has no place in either polity or economy or commerce.


This brings us to the methodology of Social Sciences, the sampling method and ethnography. The Indian society had successfully transcended over thousands of years of its existence its multi-lingual/ethnic reality and welded itself into a cultural polity - transformed itself from a geographic entity (jambudvipa bharatakhanda) to a cultural unity (rashtra). The Western thinkers, once they experienced multiplicity as a consequence of the immigration that followed the end of colonies, foregrounded ethnicity as the overriding parameter of identity and made it their primary research principle. All Ford Foundation funded research in Social Sciences, by American or Indian scholars, took to ethnographic research in a big way to produce what I call ‘tanni-tirtham’ research to establish what is in fact a motivated political statement that India is not a ‘nation’ and that its major challenge is ‘justice’ for non-mainstream (though ‘mainstream’ itself has been questioned and fragmented) religious, linguistic, ethnic minorities. This research therefore is dangerously divisive, as perhaps it was intended to be, and India now is just a conglomerate of communities who by some peculiar logic are all ‘victims’.’

The ignoring of long textual traditions in philosophy, history, polity, commerce, management and what have you has its basis in the absence of such long attested textual traditions in the west and the reliance of western scholars, therefore, on literary documents for their historical, social and cultural research. But that use of literature as a document is not motivated in the Indian intellectual context as India has attested textual traditions in most disciplines. It is unfortunate that the western lack or absence is the reason why Indian knowledge systems have been ignored in all education, not just the social sciences. The consequence is an invalid academic exercise and the resultant growth of a number of subjects of research and study that are subverting the Indian University Social Sciences.


2. Part of the famous opening phrase of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudic.
3. Are the metaphors getting mixed?
4. There may be different and interesting reasons for the ‘popularity’ of particular theories. The cement favourites are – ‘Nation Construction’, Gender studies (feminist), Post-coloniality and ‘sad plight of women in Indian, particularly Hindu society’ are two popular themes. Deconstruction had a brief season in the late eighties and early nineties.
5. In the middle ages it was God against man–God was the adversary. In Renaissance nature became the adversary. In ‘the age of enlightenment’, religion or belief was the adversary (of 18th -19th century, during industrialization, man became the adversary of man (class-war). And now it is woman against man.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati