Political Science meant to unmask people in power, believed Prof. C.P. Bhambri (1933-2020)

Political Science was meant to unmask those who wielded power and focus on how to build a good society, believed the brilliant teacher, researcher and fiercely independent scholar

Political Science meant to unmask people in power, believed Prof. C.P. Bhambri (1933-2020)

Rakesh Batabyal

  • CP Bhambri noted how socialism had become the slogan of the ruling classes as a ruse to consolidate popular legitimacy
  • He wrote that the Indian state was too important to be left to anti-people forces camouflaging as popular movements defending democracy
  • He felt Maoists and Naxalites were adventurists, neither truly Marxist nor allowing popular solidarity to emerge
  • He opposed casteist and community reservation theories, which legitimized status quoist politics and impeded the move towards a progressive classless or casteless society.

The passing away of Prof. C.P Bhambhri, one of India’s foremost political scientists, one of the founding members of JNU and one of the sharpest minds in Indian academia, provides us the opportunity to think of the way Indian social scientists reflected on things Indian and global, attempting to provide unique Indian solutions to Indian problems while exhibiting a deep understanding of the global scenario.

Born in an established business family in Multan, and brought up in Kanpur where his family moved post-Partition, Chandra Prakash Bhambhri grew up to be a fighter, earning his Matriculation degree against all odds, studying with an oil lamp at night, working as a volunteer in refugee camps during the day.

Soon after his Masters, wanting to be a journalist, he approached M. Chalapati Rau of National Herald and was asked to be a reporter in the U.P. legislative assembly. It is here that he was inspired to study the relation of the legislative debates to the larger political life of the society, which remained a lifelong commitment, earning him his formidable reputation in the field.

Bhambhri’s evolution as an intellectual, along with others since the fifties, also defined the life of Indian Universities. Such intellectuals were fired by the spirit of the national movement and Independence to build a world premised on equality and dignity, uphold scientific temper, and to raise the poor, the peasant, labour and the marginals to the rank of prosperous stakeholders of the Republic.

The careers of many like Bhambhri represented the confidence of the Republic, inspired by what was later called the Nehruvian vision. He got his first job in Moradabad Degree College and later on travelled to Meerut College.

For him, the latter’s excellence rested on its ability to attract scholars from across the country; out of 18 heads of department, 13 were Bengalis, he would recount, a testimony to its national character.

The publication of his book in 1960 and its review by distinguished political scientists opened the doors for him in the newly established university of Rajasthan in Jaipur, where the two most enlightened Vice Chancellors – Mohan Singh Mehta and later M.V. Mathur – filled the university departments with some of the finest minds of the day – established and also emerging young ones.

C.P. Bhambhri was interviewed by people like V.K.N. Menon, the founder Director of IIPA and one of the renowned scholars on public administration of the time. Menon apparently asked him during the interview whether he was the same Bhambhri who had been recently quoted by Myron Weinor, the leading MIT political scientist. This was the time when appointments were made on the basis of the solidity of arguments and publications – the job was his.

It was in Jaipur that he flowered surrounded by a fabulous group of scholars such as Iqbal Narain, S.P.Verma, P.C. Mathur, GS Bhalla, Yoginder Alagh, Satish Chandra, and Yogendra Singh. The establishment of a Centre for South Asian Studies here also helped him develop his views on international politics clearly and sharply.

The overall result of all of these was his pioneering works on administration: namely Bureaucracy and Politics in India (1971), and Administration in a Changing Society (1972). Meticulous field work and insights from meeting and interacting with his peers helped him weave a fresh analytical frame; students of Indian politics and administration still find these works invaluable.

His move to JNU in 1972 further allowed him to do research and actively participate in building an independent political science flank in contrast to the reigning paradigm of Behavioralism, which after its burial in its own birth place had surfaced through some research institutions in India, with election studies as its flag-bearing agenda.

For Bhambhri, among others, such an agenda vulgarised both political science as well as studies of election. Political science was meant to unmask those who wielded power and focus on how to build a good society.

It is here that despite being a committed Marxist political scholar, he understood the great role played by Gandhi in mobilising the poor and in this he was in complete agreement with his dear friend and colleague, historian Bipan Chandra, that the national movement held the key to most of the post independent moves by the Indian state.

While he also brought his class analysis to bear upon his critique of the national movement and the post independent state which carried some of the weaknesses of the ruling classes, especially its compromise on the ideological fight against communal and obscurantist elements in Indian society, he, like Bipan Chandra, retained an unwavering conviction that Nehru himself was completely committed to a secular and just society.

He also noted how socialism increasingly became the slogan of the ruling classes as a ruse to consolidate popular legitimacy through caste and communal mobilisation.

Prof. Bhambhri and his peers were committed to see a progressive and prosperous Indian society along with a progressive and prosperous global society where the peasants, labourers and the poor had better lives. It is this telos which inspired his studies of both local society as well as global phenomenon, such as World Bank and India (1980).

As he was quick to tell his students, without understanding the world how can one understand where one was standing, and similarly, without understanding India, how will you understand the world?

His legionary battle against Rajani Kothari was well known. Kothari championed the idea, promoted by theorists in the United States’ establishment at the time, that the Indian state was the greatest impediment to democracy in India.

The Indian intelligentsia, Bhambhri an important part of it, was riled; for them, as articulated by Bhambhri in the bluntest manner, the Indian state was too important to be left to the anti-people forces camouflaging as popular movements defending democracy. Bhambhri stands vindicated today when one sees how the JP movement of 1975 and the anti-corruption movement in recent years have allowed the Indian state to be captured by forces that are clearly anti-labour and anti-peasant.

Bhambhri was also extremely critical of what Marx himself had defined as adventurism of any sort. Thus, to him the Maoists and Naxalites were neither truly Marxist nor they allowed popular solidarity to emerge, as their adventurism had given a handle to the Indian State to delegitimise real solidarities operating on the ground.

In recent years, he has been the foremost intellectual to critique the large section of social scientists and fashionable theory builders for accepting and propagating the representative theory of democracy developed in the western establishment.

The most challenging, for Bhambri, were the casteist and community reservation theories, which increasingly legitimized a status quo-ist politics under the leadership of individuals or groups, impeding the move towards a progressive classless or casteless society.

Second, he argued, it allowed the most regressive political and social forces to control the state apparatus behind representational claims. He showed how the BJP for example was using these claims to its advantage to ‘divide and rule’ (Reservation and Castes, 2005).

It is for this reason that while he was a strong votary of the MGNREGA of the UPA, he opposed the Sachar Commission’s recommendations of both caste-based and minority reservations. To him, caste-based policy of reservations based on "quota system" institutionalized the complete fragmentation of society, representing a victory of the ruling classes over any effort by the real victims of neglect – the poor – to unite, cutting across religion, caste or region.

On purely class issues, concerning the exploited laboring and productive classes, neither the Indian state nor the theorists of group representation showed any interest or concern. The success of the defenders of reservations left the majority of the exploited working classes to fend for themselves. The recent hapless migration of the labourers across India during the pandemic was testimony to this.

Bhambhri’s analysis called for the habilitation of the alternate narrative where the real poor, majority of the rural and urban under classes, who are the victims of exploitation and oppression by the social surplus appropriating ruling classes were allowed their role.

Therefore, he called upon both the centrist forces headed by Congress and the leftist forces to not subscribe to caste-based forces, and to delineate in clear terms the class based politics so as to break the hold of the politics as well as unmask the totalitarian political forces hiding their agenda behind caste accommodations and reservation based politics.

His writings since 2000 bore a clear mark of his battle against this trend and he recognised that his own university had become a front for many adherents of such ‘representativewallas’, as he would jokingly call them.

Bhambhri, who braved the anti-communist attacks of the sixties and the caste-based attacks in recent years, like the proverbial renaissance intellectual stuck to his guns, and also to his students.

He would often advise them, referring to Socrates, to ask the right questions as only then would one get the right answers. (Edited excerpts from a longer obituary)

(Dr Rakesh Batabyal teaches at the Centre for Media Studies, School of Social Sciences at JNU)

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Published: 12 Nov 2020, 11:21 AM