Struggle, solidarity, scholarship

Written by  //  September 10, 2010  //  Law & The Judiciary  //  7 Comments

In a recently re-published book review,[1] Ranajit Guha praised Mary Tyler’s My Years in an Indian Prison (Victor Gollancz, London 1977), an account by a British woman of her five years of incarceration after being swept up in anti-Naxal operations in rural Bihar.  Guha’s concern is to explain how Tyler came to produce what he regards as a remarkably convincing account of the modern Indian polity, having been in prison for 1863 of her 1993 days in India.  Prison, he argues, was for Tyler the best school for lessons on Indian politics, the relationship between the prison authorities and prisoners replicating ‘in all essential respects’ the relationship between India’s rulers and her people.  But, more than this, Tyler did not stand aloof, ‘notebook in hand’, but rather joined the resistance against the tyrannical prison regime, by declining preferential treatment, by her small gestures of defiance against the authorities, by organising hunger strikes, and so on.  In closing, Guha writes:

Of the many things to be learned from this work perhaps the most important, for the present reviewer, has been the realization that even a foreigner can know the truth about a people by participating in their struggle against the violence of the state, and that conversely, no one, not even a native equipped with the most advanced research techniques and open access to information, can grasp this truth if he remains outside this struggle.  May this book blast the ivory towers.

Historians and social scientists will recognise this as one position in the long and ongoing debate about the meaning, possibility, and value of ‘objective’ scholarship.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for legal scholars, who tend generally to be indifferent – if not actively hostile – to questions of methodology.

The debate has particular resonance for legal scholarship in India.  The importance of such scholarship can hardly be exaggerated: as virtually any page of any newspaper on any day will reinforce, law and legal institutions are – for good or for ill – central to Indian public life.  So what do we want of Indian legal scholarship?  ‘Objective’, dispassionate commentary on Bills, statutes, judgments?  Or scholarship that candidly expresses solidarity with those oppressed by the workings of the law, that – as it were – participates in the struggle?  Things being as they are, can we understand Indian law – or, at any rate, those tracts of the law which elicit controversy – but from the perspective of those it ill-serves?  Perhaps we need both kinds of scholarship, equally or more of one than the other, or some synthesis of the two – or, indeed, something else entirely.

In a stocktake in 1987 of Indian legal scholarship, Rajeev Dhavan asked:[2]

… what is the task of legal research? To follow the practitioner’s market? To explore doctrine as an end in itself? Or to try to make· sense of the socio-political state of affairs and understand the diverse meanings of law with which it operates?

Now, more than two decades on, and with – if anything – a growth in the law’s power and reach, serious thinking on these questions is needed more than ever.  There will be some minor and tentative contributions here in the coming weeks and months.  As always, your contributions are more than welcome.


[1] ‘Knowing India by its Prisons’ in R Guha, The Small Voice of History: Collected Essays (Permanent Black, Ranikhet 2009).

[2] R Dhavan, ‘Means, Motives and Opportunities: Reflecting on Legal Research in India’ (1987) 50 Modern Law Review 725, 735.

7 Comments on "Struggle, solidarity, scholarship"

  1. Vipul September 10, 2010 at 7:48 pm ·

    Since there are no web links for the pieces you refer to, I don’t have a full understanding of the arguments that you’re referencing. So, what I say is based simply on the impressions that your post gives.

    I don’t have a problem with scholarship done by advocacy groups — the main question for me is whether the specific content of their scholarship is of the kind that would carry value for people who don’t already share the position they’re advocating for. Some advocacy scholarship does exactly this, by providing facts, experiences, and perspectives that would be of value to anybody thinking about the topic at hand. A lot of advocacy scholarship, however, simply assumes the position it is advocating for, draws sweeping generalisations, and does not try to establish key factual claims that would convince people not already convinced of their factual claims. They may be so steeped in the truth of their claims that they forget that others reading their work need to see the evidence.

    Personal experience and the use of anecdotes could be valuable tools in understanding the impact of laws, but when a single anecdote is used to establish a large-scale generality without even attempting to deal with large-scale data that might support or oppose that generality, I remain unconvinced and suspect sloppy scholarship.

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