Susanne Rudolph (1930-2015): The world has lost one of the best interpreters of Indian politics

An outstanding scholar, she didn't lose faith in the pluralism and sagacity of the Indian people till the very end.

Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, who died on December 23 in Oakland, California, was one of the most extraordinary interpreters of politics and society in modern India. An incredible scholar with a long list of distinctions to her credit, including a Padma Bhushan in 2014, Susanne Rudolph forged a lifelong intellectual collaboration with her husband and co-author Lloyd I. Rudolph to produce a ground-breaking corpus of work on Indian politics over 60 years.

As one of their last doctoral students at the University of Chicago, I got to know the Rudolphs as outstanding scholars of the Indian political condition. While I was grappling with the ominous challenges to democracy in post-liberalisation India, exemplified by the paradox of democracy in Gujarat, it was Susanne Rudolph’s advice that helped me find my way.

Tradition and modernity

During Susanne Rudolph’s academic career at the University of Chicago, where she taught comparative politics for over three decades, she along with Lloyd Rudolph pioneered the field of Area Studies. The growth of Area Studies was partly fuelled by American foreign policy interests during the Cold War in understanding and influencing the newly independent non-western countries.

The 1960s were the heyday of “modernisation theory”, which saw the western path to modernity as the model that non-western countries would achieve or not achieve due to the presence or absence of a set of criteria. According to modernisation theorists, India, with its largely illiterate population and traditional caste-ridden society, was a doomed democracy, least likely to achieve the prize of modernity.

But Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph debunked the notion that tradition and modernity are mutually exclusive entities. In their celebrated book, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (1967), they launched an insightful critique of the assumptions of modernisation theory. They showed how Indians have reinvented the traditional system of caste as a modern political institution in response to the logics of electoral democracy, enabling (in a counter-intuitive way) marginalised groups to secure political representation.

When Area Studies fell out of vogue during the era of globalisation in the1990s, Susanne Rudolph lent her bold, if increasingly lonely, voice in support of the continued relevance and importance of what she called “situated knowledge”. In her presidential address to the American Political Science Association in 2005, she reminded her colleagues of the imperative of “recognising time, place and circumstance” in local settings for building grounded social science theory.

Preconceived theories

Susanne Rudolph was an exceptional mentor. Well after retiring from the University of Chicago, she continued to be a nurturing and crucial interlocutor, helping me with my doctoral query regarding the paradox of democracy in Gujarat: How have rapid urbanisation, an active civil society and economic growth in the state coincided with the systematic erosion of democracy on at least two counts?

First, increasing communal hostility has led to growing ghettoisation in cities such as Ahmedabad, which is justified by Hindus as necessary and part of “normal” civic life. Second, those who oppose aspects of the state’s governance and Hindutva politics are attacked as enemies of the state, narrowing the scope of public debate. Should the presence of non-democratic aspects evident on the ground in Gujarat then lead us to dismiss the presence of a civil society and democracy per se in the state?

Influenced by the great social scientist Max Weber, the Rudolphs developed an open-ended and empirically-grounded way of studying Indian democracy, without imposing preconceived theories developed in the West. In this approach, every study of a political phenomenon must begin with a flexible definition of what is being studied. After evidence is gathered about how things actually work on the ground, it is used to refine the original theory.

As per this Weberian approach, it was clear that the procedures of democracy such as routine elections appeared to be in place in Gujarat. Yet there was a palpable absence of the substance of democracy, such as meaningful opposition and dissenting views in public debates within Gujarati civil society. Given these facts, one would have to consider whether the procedures of liberal democracy and civil society were themselves complicit in the erosion of substantive democracy in the state.

Faith in pluralism

Some of the puzzling features of democracy in Gujarat resonated with the Rudolphs’ larger insight that there is no singular, linear path of modernisation. Contrary to the popular belief that the middle classes ensure a stable democracy, this class in Gujarat has vocally hailed unilateral and authoritarian decision-making as a model of “good governance”. The case of Gujarat appeared to undermine our faith in liberal democracy and pluralism in India, values deeply cherished by the Rudolphs.

I will always remember how Susanne remained doggedly committed to a profound sense of intellectual honesty and openness. Not one to fit all new political realities within older pet intellectual frameworks or ideological dogmas, she suggested that the ground realities in Gujarat resemble the contours of a “Potemkin Democracy”, where the procedural façade remains in place with nothing of substance to back it. Her mentorship helped me understand the Gujarat paradox not as a case study of the absence of democracy, but as an example of the profound vulnerability of democracy. The conditions under which the soul of democracy can be sabotaged through formal democratic procedures had to be studied.

The profound scholarly insights of Susanne Rudolph enabled her to interpret complex emergent political realities, some of which seemed to threaten the very foundations of Indian democracy. Even during our last meeting in March 2014 in Delhi, she remained optimistic, not losing faith in the enduring pluralism and sagacity of the “tradition-loving” Indian masses, especially their clever ability to chart unique democratic modernities on their own terms.

Mona G Mehta received her PhD in political science from the University of Chicago and is assistant professor of politics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.