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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  • Dear Arun,
    Marc Gallanter was my first choice to be interviewed for the cover story we are planning for Frontline. But unfortunately I could not get his email id. His website, you suggested, is certainly useful, to understand some of his contributions upto 2002. Is it possible for you or anyone else to help me contact him through email for an interview on the implications of the latest case?

  • Very interesting post, I have been wondering about such things too in the context of GM seeds. Even though many of the foreign researchers are very professional and seem thorough, it is not always clear what their interests are. Again we may need some help and study to sort such things out. See, for example the articles on GM seeds by various experts. In this context, I found the format of some of the articles in Current Anthropology useful. For example the article by Glenn Davis Stone “Agricultural Deskilling…” ( has substantial comments by other experts and Davis’ response at the end. This kind of format brings together diverse opinions, researches and references so that the reader has a wide choice and research to base his/her opinions.

  • Re: Marc Galanter. See

    for his contact info. It took 2 Google attempts to locate him, the first with the incorrect spelling “Gallanter.”

    Arun, since you, and not Venkatesan, were the author of this post, I am not sure my comment will reach him. Would you please do the needful?

    And, in reference to the post on the quality of Indian academic work – it is shocking what is passed off as such. Almost all that I have come across – in economics, and other social sciences – is very much of the sort this Vijayan paper/book purportedly illustrates.

    Furthermore, the typical publication of a social sciences academic in India appears to be a newspaper article! I.e. a non-peer refereed, essentially mass-market outlet policed by journalists and/or the capricious dictates of what sells.

    Journalism and academic work are meant to be, and should be different. When done well, they serve different social needs, have different clienteles, and hence are not interchangeable.

  • Clarification:

    I now see from a April 21 post on this blog that Venkatesan is aware of how to get in touch with Marc Galanter.