On the mission of Ramachandra Guha

I would like to revisit Ram Guha’s article that Arun posted on the 28th of September. I decided that I would make an independent posting and not simply comment on Arun’s post since in my mind it brought up a couple of issues that merit further attention.

Arun sets up Guha writing as scholarship that legal academics would do well to learn from. However having followed Guha’s biographical essays over the last couple of years I couldnt disagree more with Arun about their usefulness for academic and scholarly reflection. The piece that we have been directed to is I think a case in point.

While I am not for a moment quarelling with the literary significance of biographical writing I am not sure that it necessarily provides us with a model for academic reflection and scholarship. This I think is amply reflected in this particular essay, which says nothing whatsoever on the significance of Amartya Sen or Andre Beteille to their respective fields of scholarship. While Guha is skillful writer who evokes the biographic richness of Indian public life, I think that we must be extremely cautious in offering him as a model for academic scholarship. As Arun himself has pointed out and as this essay demonstrates Guha can often be given to hagiographic interpretations of important intellectual and political figures while glossing over the intellectual and political problems that concern them. For example in this case it is not at all clear why Sen and Beteille are the ‘finest and most honorable intellectuals of our land and our time’. Im sure that many would agree with Guha but without justification it becomes nothing more than an empty assertion.

What then is the task of Academic writing and reflection (in law as well as other social sciences)? In my mind I have little doubt that academic writing involves identifying and solving intellectual problems. While I can fully understand Arun’s concern that academic writing strive for clarity I think it also has to bite the bullet and deal with difficult questions problems and questions (For instance like the question ‘what is law?’ that Hart takes up in his book ‘the concept of law’) . In doing so its immediate relevance, interest and significance to the so called broader public might be limited. Arun seems to worry about this excluding possibility lurking in academic activity however Im not sure if there is any other way in being an academic? Wonder if others have thoughts on the matter?

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  • Dear Mathew,

    Thanks for your stimulating post. I hope others on the team as well as those who read this blog will respond with their views. I debated over whether and how to respond to the questions you’ve raised. I’ve decided that I will not address all your points about Guha specifically, because why one likes a particular author’s writings is always a difficult subject to convince others on. We should probably have a more pointed discussion about Guha’s writings in a face-to-face encounter.

    I will say, however, that I do stand by all that I said about Guha’s writings. I know that you are familiar with Guha’s academic writing (notably his books, “The Unquiet Woods” and “Savaging the Civilised”) where he does deal with “difficult questions and problems” and also cites long lists of references in support of his conclusions. However, I think we need to distinguish between academic writings in journals and those that are addressed to the general public in newspaper and magazine articles (or for that matter, on blogs such as ours which seek to reach out to a broader audience beyond lawyers). The medium does make a huge difference. I am not sure how one can do justice to what you call “the significance of Amartya Sen or Andre Beteille to their respective fields of scholarship” in the space of a newspaper column. As you well know, that would require book-length contributions. What Guha has managed to do in this piece is give an overall sense of the background and life experiences of these two individuals, while also providing insightful commonalities and contrasts between them. For my part, reading the piece made me revisit the little that I knew of the scholarly work of Sen and Beteille, and I have since tried to learn more about their contributions on my own. That, I think, is the most that a newspaper article can aim for: to stimulate its audience, and to encourage people to make their own further enquiries.

    I for one am quite appalled by the run-of-the-mill columns that one comes across in today’s newspapers and magazines. While there is a lot more to choose from, I find that there are very few columnists and opinion writers who actually illuminate; more often than not, their outpourings generate in me more heat than light. Most such columnists tend to be careless with facts, history and even language. Of late, academics such as Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta have started engaging in regular writings in the media, which is a very welcome trend. I am not suggesting that being an academic is a pre-requisite for good writing. In fact, most academic writing tends to be inherently inaccessible to people outside their disciplines.

    Scholars should of course continue to engage with the intellectual problems of their particular disciplines in their own journals. However, I believe that the times that we live in demand that they also get out of their cocoons, and their jargon-laden discourses to engage with the pressing issues of the day in a medium where their ideas and thoughts can be accessible to people beyond their disciplines. In doing so, they must necessarily choose general and overarching themes, which does not mean that they are not careful about their conclusions. To be heard and understood, they must first be read. And if they continue to write in a detailed, highly specific manner, they will not be accessible. I can’t help but comment on the one example that you do cite: Hart’s Concept of the Law. While the book has become a celebrated icon in legal theory, I for one believe that its style is to be avoided. I found the language that Hart chose to employ incredibly dense and boring – it completely failed to grasp my attention, and I will readily admit that I am yet to actually finish the book. Being forced to read the book in my first year of law school had a lot to do with my aversion for legal theory, which I am now trying hard to overcome.

    I think the reason why academic columnists like Guha and Mehta have been successful in gaining a wide readership, is because while bringing their academic training to the analysis of contemporary events, they have left behind the technical writing styles of their respective disciplines, and have worked hard to convey their ideas in accessible ways.

    I will end here, in the hope that this discussion will continue with inputs from others.


  • Skeptical Blogger

    Extremely well put. Social science research in India is often hampered by the fact that one has a left/left leaning but articulate intellectuals on one hand and a mediocre alternative. This skews intellectual discussions in social science.

    The left tends to control Indian research. Take history for example. There is Romila Thapar, Sarvapalli Gopal, Irfan Habib, K.N. Panikkar, R.S. Sharma and the likes. There views, albeit well articulated, tend to strangle free academic discussion. One has to turn to Indic departments in the United States for meaningful alternate interpretations.

    Amartya Sen, while a good economist, has entered into the realm of sociology and history of which he is often less well equipped to comment one. Like the UN diplomat Sashi Tharoor, there is a reiteration of views that are too PC for me.

    Ramachandra Guha, while he also writes well, often rehashes the views commonly bandied about in mainstream Indian academia. What we need is debate, fresh thinking and a vigorous clash of viewpoints that can be intellectually sustained.

    I think that Arun’s (we share a Singapore connection!) and you make a difference.

    Also check out our website secular-right.blogspot.com