Opinion

Remembering Paul Brass- A scholar of identity politics and violence in Northern India

How can I do justice to Paul Brass’s contribution to Indian studies in a thousand words? First of all, perhaps, by mentioning my first meeting with him — simply because it is revealing of his generosity (when he is said to be better known for his cantankerous nature). It was 1987. We were in Paris – where he had been invited by the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme – and I had just started my PhD. He not only spent two hours with a 23-year-old non-initiated doctoral student but gave me key information, including the address of Bruce Graham, the then best specialist on the Jana Sangh whom I was to visit a few months later in Brighton — and who finally supervised my thesis. Many colleagues have similar stories to tell.

Paul, like some of his contemporaries, Myron Weiner, Lloyd Rudolph and Susan Hoeber Rudolph, played a pioneering role in the study of India. And like them, he remained a key figure in the field for more than half a century. He visited India to do fieldwork for the first time in 1961 and chose Uttar Pradesh, a state he was to study for decades and knew like the palm of his hand — Western UP districts like Aligarh and Meerut in particular. Paul believed less in quantitative methods than in ethnography. During his long career, he interviewed several kinds of resource persons — including obscure local leaders and stalwarts of Indian politics. Most times these interviewees remained in his published works but were referred to in footnotes with a code number that harked back to Paul’s notebooks.

On the basis of this rich empirical material, Paul visited key themes of political science. He focused first on the party building process that the Congress and other political forces followed in UP. This allowed him to refine the role of factionalism in Indian politics — at the same time Rajni Kothari conducted his own study of the “Congress system”.

He then concentrated his energy on identity politics. In Language, Religion and Politics in North India (1974), his first masterpiece, he used case studies from Bihar, UP and Punjab to analyze the malleability of ethnic identities. Accounting for the strategy of political entrepreneurs of the Maithili movement, of the Muslim League before and after Partition, and of the Sikh activists till the Punjabi Suba agitation, he showed that language-based, and religious, identities far from being givens, were shaped and reshaped by ideologues and politicians against the so-called “others” (with whom, in fact, they often shared many cultural features). He articulated this instrumentalist theory against the primordialist approach very convincingly in his debate with Francis Robinson — a remarkably civilised, academic controversy.

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If ethnic politics continued to preoccupy Paul empirically and theoretically in the 1980s, his major subject by then had become communal violence — a theme he had encountered before but on which he started to focus systematically then. In 1983, while he was doing fieldwork in Aligarh — his main case study along with Meerut — he conceived the notion of the “institutionalised riot system”, a system “in which known persons and groups occupy specific roles in the rehearsal for and the production of communal riots”. And he added: “The production of communal riots is very often a political one, frequently associated with intense interparty competition…” The year the Ramjanmabhoomi movement started, Paul had already understood what was to be the mechanism of the march of India to ethno- religious polarisation. And by contrast to many of his colleagues, who preferred to use euphemisms, he called a spade a spade, as evident from the title of his books, including the one he published in 2005, Forms of collective violence: riots, pogroms and genocide in Modern India.

By then, a fourth cycle, the last one, had already started: Paul’s monumental biography of Charan Singh in three volumes. This magnum opus is like an allegory of Paul’s long-term relationship with India and UP in particular. He had met the great kisan politician for the first time in 1962, and then in 1967, and started a correspondence with him in 1968 that ended only in 1987, with the death of Charan Singh. By then, Singh had agreed to give Paul full access to his private papers, an amazing sign of trust. The three volumes draw from these 155 files. They offer a formidable entry point in the history of pre-independence and post-1947 India.

Paul, who has written 16 books and dozens of articles and book chapters, was so much in love with research that he took early retirement from the University of Washington in the late 1990s. Relived from teaching, he devoted his time — including some of the time he spent in his house in the Rocky Mountains — to writing. But he continued to do fieldwork. The last time I met him, with Gilles Verniers, another UP specialist whom he considered one of his most promising successors, it was at the India International Centre, in 2013, for a memorable lunch. On the following day, they both went to Meerut and Baghpat districts, to revisit some of the villages Paul had studied in his PhD, 50 years earlier.

Paul has left us, but his books are still with us, and it is the right time to (re)read them. Not only because they decipher India’s political and social trajectory over the last 50 years, and describe how we have reached where we are today, but also because they demonstrate the incomparable value of his method: A rigorous fieldwork-based technique of investigation relying on interviews , participant observation and archival work. Speaking about archives: Paul gave more than one hundred boxes of his papers to the University of Washington in Seattle; those who are interested in the primary sources he had collected can consult them and learn — not only about India but also about the job of the social scientist.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London

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