This month on CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary — we bring you a conversation with D Shyam Babu, a Senior Fellow at CPR, who has over the years worked on subjects as varied as nuclear non-proliferation and national security as well as socio-economic mobility among Dalits and the societal impacts of liberalisation.
Shyam Babu was first associated with CPR in 1989, after which he spent time as a journalist and then as a fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, before returning to the Centre in 2011. After working on questions of national security in his initial years in policy, Shyam Babu shifted focus to look at social change, helping conduct a number of key socio-economic surveys that examined the impacts of liberalisation on the Dalit community.
He is the co-author of Defying the Odds, a critically acclaimed book that profiled the rise of Dalit entrepreneurs, as well as co-editor of a number of other books, including The Dalit Question: Reforms and Social Justice and The India Mosaic: Searching for an Identity… More recently, Shyam Babu has been working with CPR to conduct research workshops for scholars from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities.
In our conversation with Shyam Babu, we spoke about what it was like to work across two very different policy disciplines, why he thinks an understanding of society is vital for IR scholars and the ideas that led to his research and book on Dalit entrepreneurs. We also spoke about the need to challenge conventional wisdom on social justice in India, why he has looked more closely at the question of ‘social cognition’ in recent years and what role think tanks like CPR have to play in making the research world more inclusive.
If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here.
And if you missed our previous interviews, read our conversations with Partha Mukhopadhyay, Navroz Dubash, Avani Kapur, K P Krishnan and Mukta Naik.
(This transcript has been edited for length and clarity).
I’d like to get a sense of your journey. Tell me a little bit about your early years as a student and a scholar. What brought you into the policy space?
I entered the Centre for Policy Research in 1989. At the time, I was a student in JNU pursuing my M.Phil-PhD program. My professor happened to be a friend of Professor Bhabani Sen Gupta, who was a professor at JNU, who then moved to CPR. When he came to give a talk at JNU, he asked my professor for someone to help him with his book as a research assistant. I happened to be next to both of them. My professor turned to me and said, ‘why don’t you go?’ That’s how I came to CPR in 1989. Actually, the salary I received as a research assistant did not come from CPR. It came from the publisher who published that book, about Rajiv Gandhi, by Professor Sen Gupta. But I was coming to CPR regularly to meet him. My initial formal association with Professor Bhabani Sen Gupta, and CPR was very brief, but very soon we became very good friends. I was almost like a family member at his residence. As he continued here – I think he retired from CPR somewhere in the mid 90s – because of that association, I was coming to CPR every once in a while.
Tell me a bit about your broader thinking at the time, did you know for sure that you wanted to go into this academic policy world?
I don’t know how far you can relate to the world of 1980s, before the Internet. I was in JNU, which was politically a very conscious place. At that time all the information, knowledge, wisdom we received was from newspapers and news magazines. All India Radio was there and Doordarshan was there, but since they were government entities, we never took them seriously. So my fascination with CPR was that, being a student of International Relations, I was reading the same people who are working in CPR in the regular newspapers – the Times of India, the Hindu, news magazines, and EPW. These are the places CPR faculty were using to reach a wider audience, like me. It was really exciting that the scholar I was reading happened to come to CPR, and I could meet him and he asked me to come and join him as an assistant. It was quite something. The kind of importance newspapers had, it’s very difficult to understand in the current circumstances.
I was working on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The very fact that I was working on that particular topic meant that I would be looking into how the government is articulating our own position on nuclear weapons or international peace or regional dynamics like our relations with China, and our relations with Pakistan. So, without ever sitting and deciding that ‘OK, I want to do policy work’, I understood that policy mattered not just for policymakers, like ministers or officials, but for common people like me. So it’s more the gradual realisation of the importance of policy, not so much coming to that conclusion.
What made you choose International Relations?
I was a student of political science in BA and MA and international studies fascinated me. I also had this habit of writing newspaper articles from a very early age. I started writing Op-eds, originally in Telugu, in newspapers. I was covering both domestic issues and foreign relations to the extent I could understand and reflect. Remember that newspaper articles are written by two kinds of people. One, experts like, say, a former foreign secretary or a diplomat to a particular country who would comment on a particular event or a policy that he knows very well. The other is informed opinion: You know enough to form an opinion. You may not be an expert. So at least I could understand the difference so that when I was writing on IR then I naturally applied for JNU’s MPhil PhD program and I got into development studies. Because my professor was interested in nuclear nonproliferation, he said, why don’t you do your M.Phil on that. Unfortunately I couldn’t finish my PhD, but it was also related to regional arms control in South Asia.
What followed? You spent some time as a journalist before making your way back into the policy space at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute. Could you tell us about that arc?
When I came to JNU in 1986, I had enough English vocabulary – I could read a book and understand – but both written and spoken English was very, very limited. I took about 3-and-a-half to four years to brush up my English to such an extent that I could start writing newspaper articles. By the early 90s, I started writing in English and I published my dissertation as a book. And from Professor Bhabani Sen Gupta in 1992, I came in touch with Professor Stephen Cohen, who was at the University of Illinois. He read my book and invited me to spend a year with him at Illinois. In all this process, instead of spending my time wisely on my PhD dissertation, I spent that time and energy in revising my M.Phil dissertation to publish. So in a way, I lost steam. I spent one year in Illinois and came back. I became a journalist for about 10 years. And then I joined the Rajiv Gandhi Institute Of Contemporary Studies. There also I spent about a decade, and then moved on to CPR. All through, I was writing my commentaries in newspapers and publications like EPW. That’s broadly my trajectory.
If I’m not incorrect, at one point you considered entering the services as well?
For my generation, not appearing for the UPSC exam means you’re some kind of a weird personality. I was always clear I would be in a space where I would be spending my time reading and writing. Reading I did quite well, but probably writing not as much as I would have loved. So I appeared for the UPSC exam and I got into the Indian Revenue Service. But I decided not to join. That is the year Professor Cohen invited me to spend time with him at Illinois as a visiting scholar. So I got into the service but never reported for duty.
As you enter the Rajiv Gandhi Institute, my understanding is your focus as an academic started to shift. You had been writing about national security, nuclear non-proliferation, and so on, but that changed.
For a decade, I was working on national security and international relations. That’s up to the early 2000s. I did a lot of activism also, during my JNU days. I was very much there when the Mandal Commission was announced and [in] all the agitation [that followed]. Because of that Dalit activism, with a couple of friends we got an opportunity from Madhya Pradesh when Mr. Digvijay Singh was the chief minister there. He asked us, ‘why don’t you tell us what kind of policies are needed to uplift Dalits and tribal people.’ He had this very nice policy of reaching out to each segment of the population and finding the right people and carrying out an extensive dialogue, leading to a good conference or a committee – meaning several people come together and give a policy framework for the government to implement. When it comes to the interests of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes or what we call Dalits and Tribals, we were asked to do the same thing. So in 1992, we did a huge conference in Bhopal. It was known as the Bhopal Conference of Dalit intellectuals, activists and academics. From throughout the country, more than 600 or 700 people came. I also published on that process, and Professor Sudha Pai actually wrote a whole book on the experience. We did give several suggestions and actually Mr. Digvijay Singh, to his credit, implemented many of them. Unfortunately, the very next year he lost power. After that, the process was never taken up by subsequent governments there.
With that, I started a move away from IR and started working on social justice topics. The same year I joined the Rajiv Gandhi Institute. There also most of my work was related to this topic. In a way for almost a couple of decades, I spent most of my time on matters related to social justice. We did two very significant projects. From the beginning, I was lucky and really blessed to have wonderful teachers and mentors. And also, excellent friends Mr. Chanra Bhan Prasad and Dr. Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta and so many others really, who helped me and guided me.
We did two projects. By the mid-2000s we realised that the  economic reforms by the time had covered a whole generation and we saw several positive changes even in the lives of Dalits. So we wanted to measure what kind of positive impact or negative impact these economic reforms had had on the community. We had a very big project to look at two whole blocks in Uttar Pradesh, which we published as an EPW paper, reporting that economic reforms had in a way transformed social relations in the countryside, at least in the two blocks we studied. We also indicated that it’s a general trend through most of the Hindi belt. And subsequent to that, we also came up with a rough hypothesis that in the past 50 years, through affirmative action and through other means, there could have formed a Dalit bourgeoisie, who had some money. As a result of economic reforms, the public sector was shrinking. Earlier, those few Dalits who had education would get government jobs. In the 2000s, that was not the case. There were more and more educated people and fewer and fewer government jobs, and the number of jobs was actually shrinking at that time. So we thought it was possible that, because a couple of generations of affirmative action beneficiaries are in the system and their children might have been well educated and endowed with some resources – not necessarily a lot of money – and there are not many government jobs, obviously they wouldn’t sit at home. They would do something. It could be possible that many of them might be becoming entrepreneurs.
With that rough hypothesis, we wanted to go into the field and find them. Because the government had no data on this. The way we did it is, anecdotally, we find one or two Dalits who were in some kind of business doing well. They become rich in places like Pune or Faridabad or Jalandhar, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Lucknow. In all these places we found someone. We would go to one and try to get his trajectory, and asked him whether he knew anybody else similar to him, who had succeeded. That’s how we could track literally a few hundred of them. And in 2014, we selected about 19 or 20 of these entrepreneurs and we published a very popular book called Defying the Odds. It was received quite well.
Both of those projects are super interesting and we’ll come back to dig in a little bit more into how you went about it and what you found. But before that, one question comes to mind. The academic world can be quite siloed. In a sense, these two focuses of yours, the social justice side and the national security side, are quite far apart. I know in more recent years you’ve published a chapter in a book combining the two a little bit. But I wanted to know, at the time, did you find it hard to go back and forth between thinking about IR and thinking about questions on social justice? Did you make an active choice or was it just in terms of the opportunities that came up?
Frankly, to begin with, it was the opportunities that came my way. I just took them. But much later I realised that I did not take a U-turn. In a way, I made my intellectual enterprise much broader and much more curious. Because, if you are doing social justice in India, you can take gender, you can take class, or you can take caste. They’re not mutually exclusive. Sometimes all three could be in one category. But even in areas of, say, national security, caste matters a lot. That’s the point I was arguing in my latest paper, which you just mentioned. So to that extent, my intellectual concerns did not change much. From the very beginning, I was bothered by this phenomenon called caste and its deleterious effects not just on its victims like the lower caste and Dalits.
As long as you and I think that a particular problem is not our problem, we have no reason to attend to that. Like, say, corruption. In many other countries, for example, they talk in terms of taxpayers’ money. If a project is not done well, if a footpath is not built well, people say you wasted taxpayers’ money. But in India, we don’t have that concept. When we see badly done public work, you know it is a waste of public money, but you don’t really connect. That is the problem with caste. Most people tend to think that it is somebody else’s problem. But my point is, it’s not just somebody else’s problem. The whole system is affected by it. In my latest paper, I was arguing the same point. Even in terms of national security, why is it that India, with its rich history and civilizational pedigree, doesn’t have a coherent national security policy or an aspiration. What does it want outside its borders? What are its strategic aims in terms of what do you want to be after a couple of decades. In 2040 or 2050 where do you want to go? The latest example of a great power actually doing it is China. From 1978 onwards, they have been asking questions and setting deadlines, and a road map. They haven’t drifted to their current position, just like that. It was a very conscious policy. Their four modernizations, for example. They decided by the early 80s, these are the areas we are weak, so China must focus on these areas in a time bound manner to accomplish certain goals. We haven’t done that. Why? Probably people say it’s because of corruption, incompetence, or the ruling party is not interested or politicians are not interested. I do accept all of them there. I would say they’re only symptoms. Their real cause is caste. Caste would divide you. It would make you think small. That affects your national security. For example, when Ambedkar cited Metcalf to say that every time an invader came, Indian villagers didn’t really bother because they didn’t see themselves as a nation. I see all these different strands as one, affected by caste.
For the reader, we are referring to a paper called A Journey Without a Destination; The Cultural-Economy of a Great Power which appears in a book called How Realist is India’s National Security Policy, which was published earlier this year. In the academic world you point out that scholars in the IR space don’t think of these social or cultural issues, so was it a challenge to make an argument on these issues that in the Academy are kept in the sociology or the anthropology departments?
Absolutely, because international relations is not a standalone subject like economics or anthropology or sociology. It stands on the shoulders of other social sciences. For somebody to say that I’m an IR scholar, but I don’t really care about sociology or social aspects of the country or economic aspects or geographyit is not correct. You can’t be an IR specialist, if you have no grounding in Indian society. I’m not just talking about India. Be it Italy, Canada or the US, if you are not thorough with the social forces or economy. When you think of a nation and its standing or its foreign policy or security policy, what we must look at first is the so-called lay of the land. What are its capabilities? What are its vulnerabilities? For example, put in a very simplistic way, I would argue that say, I want to become a Wimbledon champion. I want to be playing for India in the Davis Cup. You might want to know my age. My physical condition. How much do I train? Did I really qualify for any domestic tennis matches? All that matters. Similarly, how a nation can position itself depends not so much on the declarative policies of its leaders but on its economy. Can the Indian economy underwrite our aspirations? Have we spent in terms of our National Defense to ward off any external aggression? Do we have sufficient domestic industrial capacity to provide equipment for a war effort? Do we have social cohesion, like the way Ukrainians have been demonstrating? When we’re at war, whether we as Indians come together and work for that war effort – these are the questions our IR scholars should be asking themselves. And to answer them, if they just talk about IR, how many times our Foreign Minister visited another country, what joint communique they issued, that’s fine, but these are the kind of dynamics we need to look into.
Given your arc of involvement with this from the late 80s onwards, do you see among either Indian scholars or scholars working on India, do you see a bigger recognition of this?
Outside [India] there is no problem. You know they cover the kind of concerns I just expressed in civil-military relations, for example. Most countries don’t have a caste system, so it’s not just about that. You have social aspects. There are economic aspects. Your industrial base. Is your population just monolingual? Is it multilingual? What are the social cleavages you have? All these things matter to your national security. Outside, these aspects are not ignored. It’s the bane of India, that our scholars, especially IR scholars, have ignored these factors. The few scholars who focus on caste and other aspects happen to be foreigners. My guru, Steven Cohen mentioned how caste and communal feelings were creeping into the British Indian Army by the late 19th century. Our scholars must have taken off from there to see how these things are happening now. What is the impact of caste or communal issues in the army, or police forces? Or what about our economy? How much can our economy actually support militarization? Militarization doesn’t have to be negative all the time because the kind of threats we face, we must be having a much bigger army, having a much bigger military industrial complex to produce weaponry for our own use and also for export. Those things are not happening because we are not focusing on that. We are not articulating demands. These are our needs. We are not saying that.
One of the threads in the work that you subsequently did on the question of caste was often a way to debunk certain ways of thinking of India’s caste problem even for those who are ostensibly anti-caste. So for example, in 2006 you had a paper that noted that although violence against Dalits seemed to be going up, the evidence almost suggested that it is because of social mobility within Dalit spaces that is increasing the number of atrocities. The paper that came out in 2010 shows that there have been quite big changes to the lives of Dalits after liberalisation, which is not necessarily captured in the way we talk about inequality increasing after liberalisation. So if I could get a sense of your approach to these issues as you started to write and think more about questions of social justice.
Caste is a reality. Any social marker is going to stay. We are not going to erase race. We are not going to erase gender or class or caste. What is the problem with all these markers? They tend to be too oppressive. While recognising that caste as a reality, what are you going to do about reducing it or rubbing off its rough edges? I put my entire work in that mode. It’s not so much about anti-caste. One of the biggest factors that has reduced caste inequalities is pure and simple good governance, rule of law. We haven’t been perfect, but certainly in the past several decades our governance has been robust enough to help the poor and marginalised. They could go to proper institutions of redressal like police or courts. And they can fight in the courts for their rights. These factors we don’t really give credit to. They all worked. Actually I should not say good governance, just pure and simple governance. Because we have a very good constitution, we have the IPC, we have the CRPC basically stipulating how we should manage our criminal justice system. With all the failures, it still succeeded in creating an environment that is conducive for the Dalits and Tribals to claim their rights. Over and above that, you can have some remedial measures like, say, affirmative action or special treatment or giving more scholarships. Those are the kind of things we should do to reduce these disparities and inequalities.
As you mentioned, in my paper of 2006, what we found is that it is not the poorest of the poor from the community but those who are sufficiently well off and upwardly mobile who were being targeted. It’s naturally a society’s response that when an oppressed group starts claiming its rights, you see backlash. You have seen the same phenomenon in the United States, where after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, lynching started in a major way.
I want to know what your own experience was of working on these projects and actually seeing out in the field things that you may have thought about more in terms of a hypothesis.
Interestingly, two really positive social changes I could report thanks to my friends, both Chandrabhan Prasad and Devesh Kapur, had nothing to do with state intervention in terms of helping Dalits and tribals. Economic reforms, let us say, introduced in 1991 did not have any component of social justice. That happened to be one of the core criticisms of economic reforms. They completely ignored social dynamics of inequality, poverty and all that. That being a legitimate criticism, what I want to tell you is through our work, we found that even though economic reforms were never intended or designed to produce positive social change, they end up producing this positive social change,coupled with somewhat rule-based liberal governments. Because of economic reforms and starting from almost a very low base, a little bit of economic activity in urban centres meant that the Dalits and other oppressed groups could find employment opportunities in cities. Interestingly, in areas where caste discrimination was not such a big deal, not many Dalits moved. The areas which we studied in Uttar Pradesh, where the feudal system was and is strong – oppression was very intense – Dalits started moving out into cities, creating labour shortages in the village. There were so many from each village, able-bodied men were leaving for work in cities. It created labour shortages, and within one generation brought about so much social change. I’ll try to put it as briefly as I can. Most able bodied men from a village moved to cities. They were in cities, as construction workers, maybe rickshaw pullers, whatever they were doing. But at least they created labour shortages in villages. How would landlords handle this? Nobody else was coming to work. There was no migrant labour.
So initially they thought technology would fix it. When we think of a landlord, you have this Bollywood image of a man having hundreds of acres, and he has his own car or a tractor. But if you go to the field you find the so-called landlords happen to be small and marginal farmers owning a few acres of land. And they don’t have labour to work in their lands. So many of them took bank loans to buy tractors. They thought that they could buy tractors and replace the human labour. It didn’t work because tractors were expensive and they bought them taking bank loans. And in a year, they could hardly use their own tractor for maybe a week or 10 days in their fields. What do you do with the rest of the year? How are you going to pay the EMIs every month? Then they started employing tractor drivers to go and work in other fields. Many found that it was not really economical for them to pay the salary for the driver, then the fuel expenses, then the bank EMI. So they started driving the tractors themselves. Still, they could not fix the problem. What was the final solution they took? They started giving their lands in sharecropping to the Dalits. Not only that, as Dalits started cultivating their land as sharecroppers, they would employ the same landlords to come and till their land using their tractors. So within a generation, what happened is, the same landless agricultural labour, some of them could become sharecroppers and engage their former landlords to till their lands using their tractors. That is the kind of social change that happened. It’s not some kind of a centrally sponsored scheme. This is not some kind of affirmative action, but nevertheless this is the result of economic reforms.
The second is the entrepreneurs. When we went into the field, our basic assumption was that these are the kids of officers. Since there are no government jobs, they might be coming into entrepreneurship. Almost all the entrepreneurs we profiled in Defying the Odds , did not have proper education. Most of them were first-generation entrepreneurs. Almost all of them did not seek government help. They found some collateral, went to the bank, put the collateral, took the loan, went and did their business and they succeeded. It is possible that there are so many other fields we did not study. But here also you don’t really find any government intervention. The point I’m conveying is that it is not always necessary that you need to have some kind of specialised programs or schemes to uplift the marginalised. Pure and simple good governance is enough. You know, famously, Mr Rajiv Gandhi when he was Prime Minister said that administrative reforms are the best anti-poverty program you can think of. Making administration work, making police do their job will have a far bigger impact on social change than any other targeted programs..
Some of the research also points, at least to me, as being important reminders to other people who are working in this space, that it’s not as simple as reducing things to numbers. More recently in a chapter called Reimagining Merit in India; Cognition and Affirmative Action, you draw attention to some of these aspects, which are not always captured in the way we think and talk about upliftment. One thing that jumped out to me in the earlier paper in 2010 was that Dalit households were moving away from the high-calorie content that tended to be eaten in poorer households to things that might not be as nutritional for them – but allowed them to ‘buy’ status. And again, in the Reimagining Merit piece, you say alongside affirmative action, we need to think about social cognition. Can you tell us more about this?
The credit must go to Chandrabhan Prasad. The way he postulated it is, for Manu (or many?) – that is the traditional Indian society – caste matters. There’s no way you can change your status. Despite all your hard work and all your success, your caste determines your place in society. But for the market, you can buy your status. With market I don’t mean urban areas. Even villages are markets now. The impact of the market is such that in a village, it doesn’t really matter what your caste is. Whether you have an iPhone or some cheaper Android phone, is a status marker. Some of our work is also informed by this concern. The dichotomy is between traditional society, as stipulated by say, Manusmriti, as opposed to the market whose laws which are stipulated in a much more rational way. This is in a way central to most of the work we have done over the past two decades.
As to social cognition, I’ll give you some anecdotal evidence. I’m sure if not now, maybe after a decade or so you will certainly find enough numbers to validate this. Those Dalits who moved to the Western countries, like the United States… let us say my contemporaries, who happened to marry here, then moved there so their kids were born there or when they were toddlers, they moved to the United States, so they grew up just as Indians,they attended the same regular schools as anybody else. They went on to colleges and universities and got their degrees. Some even ended up in very elite colleges and universities. They’re absolutely fine. You don’t really find much difference in terms of their academic accomplishments, compared to other Indians in America or other Americans. Our stress in that paper about social cognition is that your merit is not just a product of your hard work and your genes or your DNA. Those could be factors. My belief is your merit is a function of your social cognition. How are you conditioned to think ? How you understand your position in society determines your efficiency levels or your cognition.
Yeah, there’s a study that sort of brings this out very clearly, where Dalit students when they were told to spell out their full names…
Oh, yes, Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey. This is a very good study. They went to a north Indian village, I think in Uttar Pradesh. They went to a school. They gave a simple test to all students in the class. And they measured their performance. And Dalit students, it so happened, performed a bit better than the rest of the students. Now the second part of the experiment was, they asked each student to get up, mention their name and their father’s name and sit. After this exercise was over, they were again given a similar test. In the second test, the performance of Dalits literally plummeted. The explanation was that by reciting their name and their father’s name, they were reminded of their identity, which affected their performance. I 100% believe that. Why is this important in the context of merit? Because even the programs that were designed to help Dalits like, say, affirmative action, the way you implement them matters. For example, for my generation, when you get into a college, on the board, all the students that were selected will be there in one column, the next column they mentioned the SC students and in another the ST students. Or suddenly in the middle of a class, the school clerk would come with the textbooks and say that these are the free copies for the scheduled class students and scheduled tribe students.’ So you stand up and if you are scheduled caste, you get your copy. You could be happy. Others could be jealous . But the fact remains that. In a way all these gestures of the government with very, very good intentions did a different kind of damage. The way you can help in these marginalised communities is by either creating a completely neutral learning environment or do what is sufficient to help them to process their own thinking about this.That was our concern in the meritocracy paper.
I see it as part of that broader trend to nuance our understanding. Another example is a shorter piece you wrote in the Hindu a little while ago, arguing that far from seeing it a certain way that the Indian state should actually be quite proud that its policies have created a creamy layer amongst the most disadvantaged.
There’s one narrow context here, which is, when it comes to the appointment of civil servants, the judiciary talks about creamy layers, especially in the context of OBCs, that those whose parents income is above a particular threshold, they are dismissed as creamy layers and they are not given that job. My point was and is that if you are using public employment as a poverty alleviation measure, fine,there’s nothing wrong with that. Then you have to also remove the creamy layer from the general category. Why is it that the richest people can actually apply and get these jobs? Why are we using only this for the reserved categories? There’s a different concern as such, which is that we have caste differences which don’t go away. In any particular milieu, you know your caste and you also know everybody else’s caste. That certainly creates a particular dynamic. Now, our system, which was designed in a very laudable way to help the victims of caste to get into these spaces. But at the same time, you are removing their best and the brightest. Those, who could access quality education, whose parents have sufficient resources, who could bring up their kids in a good environment. By selecting candidates from these sections, who happen to be from the poorest of the poor households, you are putting these students, these candidates in league with the creamy layer from the rest of the society. Which is wrong.
Then, the quota category officer employees would not be performing their duties as well as the rest. So every generation, given the numbers, you keep on taking poor and marginalised candidates for reserved categories. And when it comes to the non-reserved categories, you are happy to take the creamy layer. I thought that was quite objectionable. It’s still a very narrow concern. But my broader point is, I’m old enough to remember that people get a kind of vicarious pleasure to say that we are not doing well. The whole world is collapsing, the heavens are falling. Nothing happened. I’ve been literally hearing, you know, three decades of independence, still we have so much poverty. Four decades of independence, we still have this much poverty. Now it’s seven decades, 75 years, we are still saying nothing happened. It’s absolute nonsense. The Indian state, with all its limitations and all its infirmities, incompetence and corruption has delivered tremendously. Even while articulating the concerns of the Dalits and Tribals, I would still say, yes, there are still problems, but let us not say that nothing happened. You know, because of economic reforms, millions of Dalits and tribals were lifted out of poverty. If you are in the space talking about issues of social justice and affirmative action, politics of quotas, legal litigation, there’s a tendency to be very negative. India is all about caste and nothing else is happening. I don’t belong to that view.
You mentioned things having changed over the years for the Indian state. Maybe if we look a little more closely at at the academic world or the think tank world, there is the contention for many that that spaces like CPR and other think tanks tend to to be elitist, to not also be open either to to individuals from from the lower castes, from Scheduled Tribes, or to not take seriously some of those issues. What do you think about this general sense about the think tank world and spaces like CPR?
Well, in general there is some merit in that point. Look, let’s not forget, in my case, I wanted to join CPRbecause it’s an elite organisation. For an individual like me from a mofussil town coming to Delhi and trying to find my space, even to publish an Op-ed, you send just your article to some newspaper without an affiliation, or you send it as a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, it makes all the difference. People tend to come to CPR because it’s in an elite place. I would say it is not automatically a kind of a disqualification or some kind of a pejorative identity. But what is a legitimate criticism is, these elite spaces only worry about elite concerns.At least in case of CPR, that is not true. We were very, very well focused on matters of administrative reforms and economic policies. During the past decade also, we have been working on social justice issues. But these spaces are not sufficiently open to the subalterns. Not just lower castes. Say, people from rural areas. Prima facie even I accepted that yes, places like CPR should be doing more to make the place somewhat more representative of the country. But there are so many structural issues that are not happening. But I would say in the past 50 years. CPR has done – I won’t say enough – but has done a lot not to be a kind of elitist organisation, only worried about elite concerns and hiring only elite.
So for example, the work we have done here over the past several years, conducting research methodology workshops. It’s not just one or two. From former president Pratap [Bhanu Mehta] and [current president] Yamini [Aiyar] on, most of our faculty were actively involved. This is a ICSSR-funded project. Typically, scheduled caste and scheduled tribe scholars tend to go to rural schools, non-English medium schools. Somehow they crawl their way up and go and do PhD somewhere. And thanks to the quota system they get into universities as faculty. But their competence levels as researchers are not up to the mark. So is there any way we can have brief interventions to help them. We did five such workshops. Some of our assumptions were true. To a large extent, we tried to bridge that. Have we succeeded completely? No. We have done really honourable work. Most of those candidates, about 150 candidates whom we trained here, gave us the feedback that they were happy with that and many actually told me that because of our workshops, they could finish their PhD so well. And who knows, in future, some of them may end up being the faculty at CPR. But again, back to your question, yes, it’s not easy for places like CPR to simply ignore this criticism that they are too elitist and they are not sufficiently open to get the mofussil India into these places.
As you are meeting these younger scholars in these workshops, if they were to ask you for advice about coming into the policy space not, what would you tell them?
Well, I wouldn’t advise whether they should get into policy or not, but what I would advise is: ocus on your skill set. Brush up your language, especially the English language. Probably much of our work in the future, we might do in our own languages. But still I would insist that English matters. It will continue to matter. Because most of the knowledge of the world is recorded in that one particular language, much more than any other language. And on the other side, almost all our Indian languages do not have even the rudimentary undergraduate level knowledge in their languages. You cannot do even a BA in political science with only books from, say, Hindi or Gujarati or Telugu language. So focus always on English. Read widely as and when an opportunity comes. Just grab it. Be open, flexible.
Are there misconceptions about either of your areas of research – on the national security side or on the social justice side – that you find yourself frequently correcting?
Social sciences are subjective areas. They are not objective, like, say, physics or chemistry. Social science is all about people and their sentiments and their views. Despite that, we still insist on some method. Some acceptable way of validating a point. In sciences, you come up with a hypothesis and test it. Either you validate it or invalidate it, go to the next one. In social sciences, the biggest problem I have noticed – probably I’m also not really immune to that – is that first you come with your thesis and try to raise a hypothesis that would really prove your thesis which is your own prejudice. Why is it that almost 99.9% of the people who support, say, affirmative action happened to be the beneficiaries? Why is it that almost the same kind of percentage of people who oppose happened to be the non-reserved categories? Similarly, you go to a foreign policy seminar. People come and give their own country’s viewpoint and insist that that is the right point. I would really ask young scholars to be very, very tough when it comes to designing their own questions first. Are you already concluding, based on your own preferences and your own prejudices, and then doing the research and in a way, validating those prejudices which don’t really have any rational basis? I think this happens all the time. As I said, even probably I’m not immune to that, but at least we should keep that in mind.
Are there any of your own pieces over the years that are particularly dear to you?
The social cognition piece I really enjoyed because, in addition to caste and social justice, I could just dip my toes into cognitive dimensions of social existence. How much our cognition plays a role in what we do and how we think, how we react, which is a huge field, and very technical. I don’t have any academic grounding in that. But thanks to my friends and collaborators, Devesh and Chandrabhan, we did that paper. I really enjoyed doing that paper because anybody reading it, especially young scholars, can really take it forward. A lot needs to be done in terms of the cognition part of it, which is a kind of neglected dimension.
If you had to pick out three works or scholars that have influenced you over the years, what would you point to?
Well, the first one is, of course, Doctor Ambedkar. Not just influence. He gives you the framework, he gives you the language to unpack any issue. I would specifically recommend his Annihilation of Caste and his final speech in the Constituent Assembly and his book on Pakistan. I wouldn’t say influences, but I’m still fascinated by two authors, HL Mencken and GK Chesterton. Their style I so admire, and at the same time, there’s no way anybody can emulate them. But they still stimulate me. Reading them is a pleasure and I would highly recommend anyone who is interested in improving their language or their communication skills, I would say Chesterton and Mencken. Just treasures.