Thursday, April 05, 2007

Insights on academic research in India (with a focus on Reservations)

Like others on the blog, I have been trying to come to grips with the decision of the Supreme Court to stay OBC quotas in the Ashoke Kumar Thakur case. The complexity of the issues involved is aggravated by the fact that there are several Supreme Court decisions that have at least some relevance to this case (quite a few of which are inconsistent with each other), as well as the fact that there isn't any recent academic work which tries to put the core issues in historical, legal and sociological perspective.

Which is why the assertions made in this article in today's Indian Express seem particularly relevant. Authored by Harsh Sethi, who is a consulting editor with the venerable 'Seminar,' the article highlights the problems with academic research in
India with blunt precision. In particular the following struck me as particularly insightful:

"The end result is not only the paucity of quality research — exceptions apart — in the social sciences and humanities, but worse, ex-ante postulations, over-reliance on experiential insights and ideological biases marking public debate, often to the detriment of public policy. Without falling prey to xenophobia, it is time that we ask ourselves why so often some of the best analysis of Indian problems, both past and present, is available in the work of the foreign or non-resident Indian scholar.

Take Gujarat and the names that first come to mind are those of Jan Breman and David Hardiman. On the RSS, the most quoted book is still Brotherhood in Saffron by Walter Anderson and Sridhar Damle. In over three decades we have still to better it. The first book length work on the VHP is by Eva Tuti, a Swedish researcher. On Hindu nationalism, we turn to Christophe Jaffrelot; on Hindu-Muslim riots to Paul Brass, Steve Wilkinson and Ashutosh Varshney — all students of Myron Weiner, still remembered for his outstanding work on the child and the state in India and the ‘sons-of-the-soil’ movements. Even today, despite the intensity of polemical writing on reservations and quotas, it is Marc Gallanter (sic) and Thomas Weinskopf who are most cited. Surely, for all our claims as a knowledge super-power and our pride in our innate abilities, we Indians should have managed a better record.

... ... ...

Much of this is known as are the commonly advanced explanations by our teaching-researching community. They rue bad working conditions, poor pay and perks, exploitative managements, politicisation of institutions, and so on, as explanation, if not justification, for unsatisfactory performance. All this is in part true, as is the low public expenditure on higher education. But try and remember the last time unions of academics fought for pedagogic concerns (barring on the NCERT textbooks), to ensure that our libraries function better, for freedom to research and teach better, establish quality journals, strengthen refereeing and evaluation procedures. How often do we come across examples of involvement with student learning, mentoring younger researchers or translating key texts in non-English Indian languages. So why be surprised if there is considerable scepticism about the constant carping about work loads, salary scales and retirement benefits? Let’s face it, once tenured in public institutions, there is little demand for performance. More than a shortage of resources, far too many of our academics are lazy; they can get away without working.

As one of my senior colleagues once pointed out, the Indian intellectual environment is characterised by a skewed bi-modal distribution. Most academics do not have the wherewithal to engage in meaningful intellectual tasks. Those that do, once they have made their reputations or established their networks, are chased by a plethora of clients. For them it is a seller’s market. Quality invariably suffers(Emphasis added)."

One can add to the list of foreign scholars who have contributed to legal scholarship in India. For now, however, my focus is on academic works focusing on the law relating to reservations in India. To my knowledge, Marc Galanter has not focused on the more recent reservations jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of India, but his earlier work, especially his 1984 text, 'Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India' remains one of the most authoritative works in the area of reservations law in India, and still is among the best places to start for anyone interested in the overall issue. Galanter has a website where some of his earlier pieces are available online, and the section on 'Caste and Untouchability' has some of his articles on reservation.

The problem that Sethi focuses on become clear when one looks at recent writing on reservations law in
India. To cite but one example, take P. P. Vijayan's, "Reservation Policy and Judicial Activism" which was published in 2006. Based on the author's PhD research, the book has very useful charts on recent decisions of the Supreme Court on various aspects relating to reservations. However, the analytical quality of the book is woeful, and it does not provide any guidance on how one is to make sense of the often conflicting rulings handed down by the Supreme Court.

What is heartening is that academics from other disciplines seem to be focusing on the issue of reservations and producing solid academic work. During last year's debate, I found the articles by Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande published in the Hindu particularly helpful in understanding the empirical context against which OBC quotas should be viewed. The parts of the article (which was eventually published as a two part series) are available here and here.

Hopefully, the debate over the case will spur more academic legal research on the issue of reservations in
India. It is clear that policy-makers and judges in India will greatly benefit from such research.

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