In a signed editorial in Dialogue, the quarterly journal that he edits, Braj Bihari Kumar, the newly-appointed chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, critiquing the state of academia in India, said: “…an established scholar in India assumes that he knows everything and speaks on any and every subject or topic.”
He mentions Amartya Sen by way of example, and writes:
“We may cite the case of Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate in Economics; his statements on almost every subject – history, education, religion, politics, language – is coming in the newspapers for the last 10-12 years. The subject of his book Argumentative India is politics, rather than economics.”
The council that Kumar now heads is the premier body that seeks to promote research in social sciences in the country.
Kumar’s own writings suggest that he suffers from the very thing he identifies as a malady. A teacher of organic chemistry for over 30 years, he also has degrees in Hindi and anthropology, and has written, among other things, bilingual and trilingual dictionaries, books on tribal identities (specifically Naga, which he says was built up by colonial administrators and Christian missionaries), on caste (which Muslim rulers are responsible for), and on the demarcation of states (small, economically unviable states are a bad idea).
His books, articles in edited volumes and signed editorials in Dialogue certainly give the impression that “he knows everything and speaks on any and every subject or topic”.
He has expounded on human rights, Anna Hazare, school textbooks, Narendra Modi, elections, foreign affairs, foreign scholarship on India, panchayati raj, the ancient historical and linguistic relationship between India and central Asia, illegal migration from Bangladesh, energy security, the railways, Tibet, The Satanic Verses, the situation in Afghanistan, the state of the civil service, floods, Kargil, Nandigram, the list goes on.
Here’s a sample of his opinions on these diverse issues.
On school textbooks:
“The materials taught to the young ones are partly responsible for the increasing social conflicts and the anarchical trends in the society.”
On Narendra Modi:
“There is none in India, who has suffered more due to intolerance than Narendra Modi.”
On the state of the civil service:
“Needless to say that heavy doze [sic] of Marxist intellectual input in the course content of the competitive examinations in our country, which is a reality, produces confused civil servants.”
Throughout, it seems, Kumar, is battling forces that he believes are tearing India asunder, and among them are intellectuals. He has therefore taken it upon himself to offer a counter to these forces.
This is set out quite succinctly in the mission statement of Astha Bharati, the society he set up in 1999, and which publishes Dialogue. It states:
“Astha Bharati has been established to promote unity and Integrity of the country amongst its people. This step is result of a perception that the divisive and centrifugal thought processes and forces are having undeserved prominence in the intellectual, social and political space of the country. The unifying cultural and historical traditions and factors have become victims of negativism, distortion and colonial misinterpretations. The integrity of the nation is under attack from varied forces, some even using the idiom of violence and terror, drowning the voices of sanity, truth and unity. Social and cultural conflicts are being promoted to retain and sustain narrow sectarian goals.”
The North East connections
This perspective is shared by many, particularly those who see their work as part of nation building in border regions or in areas with political conflict. Astha Bharati’s members include a panoply of well-known names from academia, journalism and government with links to the North East. Among them are the philosopher Mrinal Miri, the former vice-chancellor of the Shillong-based North-Eastern Hill University, and Patricia Mukhim, the editor of Shillong Times. Miri is also listed as a member of the advisory board of Dialogue, which once also boasted of the late Kannada writer UR Ananthamurthy as a member. Miri has contributed to an early volume of Dialogue, and Mukhim has been a regular contributor.
Miri recalled that his association with Kumar started when he was vice-chancellor of North-Eastern Hill University and Kumar was an energetic member of its academic council. He said that Kumar struck him as being sincere, and so when Kumar invited him to join the society that he set up on retirement, he saw no problem in associating with it, especially as its journal would have a special interest in the North East. He pointed out that the journal has an ideologically eclectic bunch of contributors, many of whom are well regarded in their field. But he said that he had never read Kumar’s work, not even his editorials in Dialogue.
Mukhim said that she contributed to Dialogue because it was widely read and there were few publications that had an interest in the North East, and hence she saw it as one more space for writing on issues pertaining to the region. She added that she had no truck with the Hindutva ideology that Kumar appeared to espouse.
The journalist Pradip Phanjoubam, editor of Imphal Free Press, who has also been a frequent contributor to Dialogue on current affairs in Manipur, said much the same thing. He said he sent updated versions of articles he had written when Kumar called asking for one, and that he was not familiar with Kumar’s work.
A Hindu nationalist framework
In his long career in the North East, even while he was teaching pre-university and undergraduate Chemistry at Kohima Science College, Kumar clearly saw himself as part of an effort to integrate the North East with mainstream India. In the 1970s, he set up the Nagaland Bhasha Parishad, a non-governmental organisation, in Kohima, which received Union government funds for the propagation and development of Hindi. The Parishad published dictionaries, including bilingual ones – Hindi-Mao, Hindi-Taraon, Angami-Hindi and Lotha-Hindi – and a self-learning guide to Nagamese that Kumar authored. His work on the Nagas, which is of a piece with a traditional nationalist framework, takes the view that Naga identity and nationalism were products of a conspiracy by India’s colonial rulers and Christian missionaries.
Kumar’s thesis on tribal and caste societies is rather more inventive and places his work squarely within the Hindu nationalist framework. He holds that the definition of tribes (according to which tribal communities are granted special status under the Constitution), and the distinction between tribe and caste are false, propagated by colonials, and work as a barrier to the proper unification of India.
Kumar feels that caste too has become a divisive force because it is misunderstood. His view on the antecedents of tribes and caste is summed up well in one of his Dialogue editorials:
“Caste and untouchability [sic], in its present form, is a recent, and, at best, a post-Turk phenomenon…Aggressive anti-Hindu agenda of conversion of the Muslim rulers, their capture and sale of Hindus as slaves, etc., led lakhs of Hindus to run away to the forests for saving themselves; many started taking pig’s flesh to avoid becoming Muslims; they, eventually, become Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes. This led to the increase in tribal and Scheduled Caste population… A point, needing emphasis, is that caste in the present form, untouchability and intra-Hindu societal exploitation are entirely non-Hindu factors.”
“Persons like Kancha Illaiyah [Kancha Ilaiah, an Indian political scientists and activist for Dalit rights] with the agenda of intra-Hindu divide, or those who are incapable of feeling the pain of those who revere the cow and equally feel the pain of our Dalit brothers have deep-rooted bias and agenda.”
Like many adherents of Hindu nationalism – Hindutva is not a word that appears in his publicly available writings – Kumar appears to lack an understanding of what ideology is. Like many Hindu nationalists he reserves the term ideological for left-wing views (he uses the terms Marxists and communists interchangeably). He accuses Indian historians of being ideological with regularity and with little evidence.
“Our historians, being ignorant about their tradition and original source, Sanskrit, rely mostly on the writings of the biased and motivated Western historiographers. But in reality, it is their ideology-driven scholarship also which makes them averse to their culture and tradition.”
Unmindful that his own ideas about India and Indian scholarship are framed by Hindu nationalist ideology, he then adds:
“…it needs mention that delinking Indian scholarly discourse from political and ideological strings, and end of collaborative character of scholarship is overdue.”
Kumar also says that there are all manner of conspiracies afoot on university campuses that are “facilitating the division of Hindu society”. In a Dialogue editorial in 2015 he declared:
“A lesson, which BJP and RSS, must learn, is that they can’t win the overall battle by ignoring the intellectual front; their soldiers in the field are too weak. And self-hypnotism is not going to help them.”
Expect changes at ICSSR
It seems the BJP and the RSS have heard him. This 76-year-old intellectual warrior of Hindu nationalism will now preside over a body that funds social science research.
This, succinctly, is Kumar’s view of Indian social scientists:
“A large number of our intellectuals – the scholars in the field of social sciences and humanities – themselves are deficient in the knowledge about their country and society; they have developed vested interests in being collaborators and agents. They are alienated from the traditional source of knowledge as well as from their social and natural environment. Keeping career interest above the interests of the society and the nation leads them to multiple subserviences; subservience to ideology-linked political masters as well as to Euro-American scholars. Needless to say that subservience pays them personally; they get jobs and privileges through the former and international recognition as scholars through the latter.”
And this is what he thinks of their work:
“Lack of discriminative intelligence, alertness and critical appraisal; selective use of data/to fit in the borrowed frame of research are clearly visible in the works of our social scientists, irrespective of the fact whether they receive inspiration and direction from Euro-American scholars or from the Red ones. Both have dogmatic mindsets; are duragrahis. The Marxist scholars forget that delusive ideologies result in disjunction between society and scholarship. Deconstruction brigades of our social scientists and Humanities scholars often forget that Euro-American scholars do not go so far in their scholarly pursuits of deconstruction of their society and nation. Our scholars often close their eyes towards ground realities if it counters the colonial myths. They often emphasize superficial similarities; slur over important differences. All this results in loss of intellectual creativity and demands immediate change.”
If Kumar is as good as his word, expect a change in how the Indian Council of Social Science Research defines good and rigorous research.