Remembering Rajni Kothari and His Wisdom on Things Political

rajni kothatiI met Rajni Kothari – who passed away one year ago on January 19, 2015 –  briefly in the summer of 1986 when I had travelled to India for a summer internship. Although we did not have an extended interaction, the fact that he had agreed to my request for the internship furnished not only my first direct experience of India, but more importantly and unknown to me at the time, it planted the seeds for quite a profound relationship with that country. So if nothing else, Kothari played a role, indirect and unbeknownst to him, in shaping the life of a 24-year-old Iranian. For that I owe him thanks.

Estranged at the time from the country of my birth, I was searching unconsciously for a culture I might call home. The opportunity Kothari afforded to this young man, I now realise for the first time, was one of the steps on a path that would shape my life in important ways. From the many tributes I have been able to read, he played even more pivotal roles in many people’s lives, apart from his important social and political contributions. As a result of that summer almost 30 years ago, I was privileged to be introduced to many interesting and influential thinkers and activists in India, some of whom I remain in contact with to this day.

The story of how I ended up in Kothari’s office shows how Lokayan (and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which is where their offices were located if I recall correctly) was a part of an international network of progressive social scientists.

A voyage of discovery

My journey started in 1985 in the MacManus bar on 7th Ave and 19th St. in Manhattan, where those attending events at the left-leaning Brecht forum would go for refreshments. I explained to some friends that my plans to travel to Iran that summer had been dashed (I had been denied a student waiver for military service, for this was during the Iraq-Iran war). At the time, I had been working for a couple of years in New York for a community based NGO on low-income housing issues. Cheryl Payer, the well-known author of a number of critical books on international political economy, suggested I write to her friends at an Indian NGO to see if I could do an internship. I did write (a real paper letter) and the response was “get yourself to India and we’ll find something for you.” In the event, it was decided that I was to help on a project on indigenous water conservation. I was asked to report to Vandana Shiva and J. Bandyopadhyay in Dehradun, which I duly did after arriving at Delhi airport, finding my way to the ISBT, then onto a regular bus (really regular – no windows so I got a continuous blast of mid-May heat, wooden seats and I’m sure no shock absorbers, which in combination rattled all my bones, almost as badly as the New York subway cars in those days), arriving in the cool of evening to fresh juice from their lychee trees.

After a few days, in which I heard about the Chipko movement, I was directed back to CSDS where Kothari passed me on to (the late) Smithu Kothari and Harsh Sethi, who were then involved in a Lokayan project collecting data on rural and urban indigenous water harvesting techniques. I was to travel almost the entire length and breadth of the country and document images and information on these traditional water management systems. The many interesting details of that trip must wait for another time. But one astonishing fact bears reporting. Lokayan, it seemed to me, had a network of local associates in every single village and town and city in India. I was given a list of locations and contacts, and from the main centre where I arrived by train I would be directed to a village or town with an example of local irrigation technology worthy of study. I would be met by the local contact who would either know exactly why I was there or readily understood the task at hand. This is astonishing simply because not every state system would tolerate such an extensive alternative organisational capacity. After two months of travelling, I returned to Delhi (exhausted) and wrote up my report – as I recall now – in a very hot room with huge blasting and noisy fans, which in my semi-delirium seemed to me like re-fitted jumbo jet engines.

Regarding the substance of the project – the idea that there could be sustainable alternatives that conserve water through traditional water harvesting techniques – I recall expressing tentative reservations about the feasibility of the traditional methods, in particular for large population centres. I didn’t know enough really to offer a robust opinion, but I felt cautious about what I thought were somewhat unrealistic and utopian hopes. I handed the report in to Rajni Kothari – the last time I saw him. I have no idea what came of it. Indeed, I have never really thought about that project since, but I now notice from a cursory internet search that it appears to have continued to some extent. A “National People’s Water Forum Declaration” in 2003 captures the objectives of the project as I remember it: “Across the country communities have created sustainable alternatives that conserve water through reforestation and water harvesting, and improved efficiency through water prudent agriculture such as organic farming and people’s community efforts.” (Dr. Vandana Shiva was one of the signatories.) A more recent report  describes some similar projects, and in 2010 the Planning Commission and Lokayan published a report which included a focus on traditional water harvesting techniques. These are also a clearly the legacy of those early Lokayan projects.

The forest of the state

One final point I can’t resist making. I learnt something that summer about the problems of biodiversity and forestry that I have continued to use to understand certain problems of social change. I visited a government commercial tree farm where there were large areas planted only with eucalyptus trees. These trees were favoured because they had a high commercial value (popular for furniture apparently) and grew faster than many local varieties. Plantations with only one type of tree were replacing diverse indigenous types of trees. But some local residents were not happy, because they knew that in the long run these monoculture farms were unsustainable as they degraded the soil. The over-concentration of the falling leaves with a relatively high acid content, in combination with rapid growth that drew more water from the soil than it could sustain, meant that after a few years of high cash revenue from commercial sales, the top soil would be unusable. Much better to have diverse species with more a tolerable effect on the soil, even at the cost of less revenue in the short term.

I have no idea how much of a problem this is in India today. But over the years I have returned to this experience as an analogy to illustrate the thesis linking state centralisation to the atrophying of society. If the penumbra of the state grows too large, it will poison the soil from which it must nonetheless continue to derive nourishment. But the tree has forgotten its dependence on the ground out of which it has grown, so after the soil and ground water dies, so will the tree. I believe Rajni Kothari’s warnings about the dangers of state centralisation and confining “politics” to the formal political system were based on just this kind of understanding. So it was fitting that the project he sent me on taught me the value of political decentralisation and pluralism through an understanding of the ecology of trees.

With this example in mind I cannot help comment briefly on seems to be the somewhat exaggerated animosity against “western” social theory among some parts of the Indian left.

Tocqueville and Durkheim, to take just two well-known thinkers, were among the first to diagnose and warn of the dangers of the “modernisation trap” I have just described – the idea that the formal procedural institutions of modern post-Enlightenment society (the tree and its foliage) exists on the basis of substantive normative presuppositions (the soil and groundwater) that itself cannot reproduce. So I am somewhat baffled by the persistent animus against “Western” models or social theory in some quarters of the Indian left. I understand the intention is to challenge so-called “official” development discourse, but even that seems often to be the wrong target. Kothari’s later, more realistic (some have said disillusioned) assessment of the role of decentralisation and local government institutions in a modern democratic nation-state such as India seems to me to be sensitive to just those dimensions also highlighted by the western thinkers I mentioned above. (“The advantage of a decentralised perspective” Kothari wrote in Rethinking Democracy, is that it is conceived within the framework of the state, but is sensitive to the plurality of civil society.”) Because I have learnt as much from the problems of those eucalyptus trees as I have from those western thinkers, I don’t see the dichotomy so starkly.

Project as pilgrimage

I do not have space to explain here why and how my experience in India played a pivotal role in my decision to return to Iran. However, one point related to my summer project is relevant. From where I am today I cannot help but think that the type of “activist social scientist” that I was introduced to in CSDS that summer was fateful in several ways. I ended up trying to reproduce that social model in Iran – albeit on somewhat different ideological and political principles from those represented by early Kothari and perhaps the CSDS more generally. I left academia in the US to pursue more social and “applied” activities in Iran. As I remind myself of Kothari’s goals for Lokayan and CSDS, the parallels between that model and what I became involved in Iran are striking. All the objectives that Kothari pioneered and institutionalised became more or less standard approaches for the organisations with which I later became associated.

Still, the model to which I was introduced that summer was fateful because, to use the title of an article I wrote a few years ago, “Iran is not India.” The CSDS or Lokayan model was impossible to use in Iran; it was as if someone had moved the goalposts and “social activist” (an actual job description in India it seems) became “revolutionist” –  as indeed one of those social activists put it to me. Apart from the fact that in Iran I soon found myself way out of my depth, I got into trouble for working to promote many of the objectives that Rajni Kothari sought to advance in India. Perhaps he would have been surprised at the extent to which his ideas of combatting so-called “western hegemony” could, in other cultural circumstances, be uncoupled from other ideas he championed, such as the critique of an over-centralised state, or the defence of human rights and democracy and pluralism.

Although Kothari’s writings do not come across as especially “ideological”, one of its features is often encountered in left-leaning intellectual currents: the fact that both what was critiqued and what was defended came as a “package.” This in my view accounts, at least in part, for the confusion among some of the Indian left when faced, for example, with certain Middle Easter politicians advancing an “anti-imperialist” and “anti-American” agenda (something only a few observers such as Praful Bidwai recognised at the time).

One of Kothari’s former colleagues has written that he believed “that projects should begin as pilgrimages.” For me it was other way round; one of my most important pilgrimages started with that summer project. Even though I did not get to know him on a personal level, in retrospect Rajni Kothari played a role connecting me with India and for that, belatedly, I am grateful. As we say in Persian: Ruhesh shaad.

Kian Tajbakhsh is a Teheran-based scholar