I WRITE this at a moment of deep personal tragedy arising from the loss of a life-long companion, ending a 52 year long engagement which looked likely to go on till eternity but was brought to an abrupt end at a time in my life when I needed her the most. It is a moment that, in the context of writing on Seminar, recalls to my mind the loss of Raj and Romesh at the end of a highly productive and catalytic career in both creative journalism and involvement in the complex terrain of India’s body politic, leaving behind a legacy that the new generation at Seminar which inherited the mantle is trying its best to at once continue and reconstruct towards fresher directions.
The conditions under which the inheritors are struggling are vastly different from the ones that obtained when Romesh and Raj had launched the enterprise. A combination of Hindutva, economic capitulation to global forces and chauvinist psychosis, combined with an erosion of ideological confidence and vision is what they face. While on the positive side they are trying to make meaning out of a vast variety of professional, multi-sectoral and technical arenas, as well as new yearnings from both the middle and the ground levels.
Forty years ago things were quite different. Nehru was still around, the 1962 crisis was still to come, the Congress was fully in saddle and the ‘Congress system’ still functioning, and there was a fair amount of confidence in both intellectual and political circles. There was great belief in both self-reliance and a foreign policy based on non-alignment. Both the communalist and the right-wing economic challenges (the latter already represented by the Swatantra party against which Nehru led an all round campaign) were yet to strike. However, both the dk challenge from the South and the seeds of what was to become the Naxalite uprising had already begun to pose a new set of problems.
If despite such a positive scenario the need was felt by Raj and Romesh Thapar and those who closely interacted with them to start a process of seminaring in print, the reason was a gradually growing concern with complacency, a cynical acceptance by large sections of the intelligentsia of the powers that be and a deeply-felt neglect of basic issues that faced the nation. The Lohiaite attack had begun but was yet to make its full impact. Seminar appeared on the scene before that. The need for it was felt both intellectually-cum-journalistically and politically. Those of us who got engaged in the early years of Seminar also found ourselves involved in the larger political/intellectual process.
Speaking personally, I found myself drawn out by Romesh even before I had moved to Delhi and set up the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 1963. Whenever I was passing through Delhi, Romesh would get in touch – I had already started writing for Seminar even while I was teaching at Baroda – and take me to an informal lunch at Nirula’s (which was quite a different place than what it has become today). I later learnt he had interacted with others like me and recruited them into joining the Seminar parivar. It was his style to try and know people with whom he felt like engaging in a collaborative relationship. Seminar was in that way a journal that was uniquely conceived and planned from the very beginning; it was meant to be a lasting proposition from the day go by enrolling a large number of subscribers and advertisers before launching it.
Those of us who became part of it found ourselves involved in other cognate activities. Many of these were related to the changing political scenario before and after Nehru’s departure from the political scene. Romesh had known Indira Gandhi from early on. He, with the assistance of people like Dinesh Singh and a couple of others who later came to be associated with what was called the ‘kitchen cabinet’, began an informal process of exchange of views in Indira Gandhi’s part of the Nehru household which, apart from personally interested individual like Asoka Mehta, included intellectuals like M.N. Srinivas, Sisir Gupta, Shyam Lal (then Editor of The Times of India) and myself – a small group assembled to deliberate on the coming transition.
Considered in the longer run, it was an initiative that did not quite work (like many other initiatives then and since). But it made some of us observe the political process at close quarters, comment on it and indirectly participate fairly early in it, bringing to bear on the enterprise our own intellectual strivings. In my case the process continued through a set of meetings with Indira Gandhi who was an avid reader of Seminar, issues of which were sometimes sent to her in advance. I distinctly remember her engaging me in a dialogue in which I could discern her antipathy to the organisation men who were in control of the Congress party (which was to later develop into a full-blown rebellion against the ‘Syndicate’).
The interactions between individuals like me, the Seminar core group and some individuals in power continued since and, among other things, led to a sense of involvement in the party in 1969, the 1971 election and the garibi hatao phenomenon which some of us, though not necessarily all those who surrounded Indira Gandhi, took seriously. P.N. Haksar played an important role in all this. Even during this period the ‘seminaring’ process continued, for instance by a strong criticism voiced by me of the highly personalised build-up of the pm’s secretariat which was reproduced in a leading newspaper.
The break came with the Emergency and the years leading upto it during which Jayaprakash Narayan had taken some of us into confidence, sharing with us his serious concern about Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial tendencies. The emerging controversies both before, during and after the Emergency were reflected at length in Seminar (until it was forced to be closed down with Romesh and Raj refusing to be subjected to pre-censorship and writing a bold letter reporting their decision to all the subscribers). There followed over the next few years an increasingly engaged role in the political process, following the erosion of the Congress and what it had once stood for, to explore various channels in a search for an alternative to it.
In much of this Seminar was felt by some of us as an integral part of a wider structure of dissent in which a variety of institutions and individuals felt as one. In particular, from my point of view, there was a sharing of concerns and engagements between some of us at the CSDS and Seminar, almost representing what some observers and commentators described as a ‘school of thought’. Seminar, thus, became a mouthpiece for the evolving thinking among many of us, both at the Centre and in parts of the Delhi University, the JNU and academic institutions elsewhere.
What was interesting about this engagement was that it was not conceived as being a simple academic-cum-journalistic enterprise but also one that involved interventions in politics and in matters of policy making and institution-building at large. The most known of these exercises of course was the ‘Agenda for India’ in which Seminar became a catalyst of a much larger engagement of academics and politically motivated activists. The tradition continued even after Romesh and Raj had left the scene, as for example in the issue on ‘Technology Missions’ in which again the CSDS and Seminar collaborated.
The process, though begun through the instrumentality of Seminar, continued outside of it too. Romesh in particular interacted with a series of Opposition politicians in an effort to draw them into a viable and credible process of creating a truly democratic and secular alternative to the Congress. I was at the same time, apart from continuous writing and engaging in the realm of ideas, involved (along with a few colleagues) in setting up Lokayan and initiating dialogues between academics, activists and policy-makers in what some of us called the ‘non-party political process’.
Nor did it all stop at engaging in national affairs. We carried the process beyond as well. Making use of contacts already available and positions occupied, we began to engage in the international arena. Thus, when I was Chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), I invited Romesh to take part in its international programme. Romesh brought to bear his characteristic frontal approach in what was otherwise a semi-government, bureaucratically-fashioned, set-up. It was during this time that we initiated a series of bilateral dialogues among intellectuals, concerned politicians, businessmen and leading journalists across countries.
Starting with Indo-British dialogues, first held in India in 1977 so that our guests could observe the functioning of the Shah Commission (they were greatly impressed) and then in U.K., where we were able to take with us, among others, politicians like Devraj Urs and George Fernandes – the focus of both dialogues being the strengthening of democracy in these and other countries – were followed by an Indo-Japanese dialogue and other such exchanges. Subsequently, the process moved on to cover larger issues facing humanity such as the phenomenon of the future in which the World Future Studies Federation, located in Rome and headed by Eleonora Masini, of which Romesh was Vice President for many years and in which Ashis Nandy and myself were involved from the beginning, played a catalytic role. In all this, social scientists from India as well as other Third World countries participated in large numbers.
Though much of this took place in diverse national and international settings, it was seen by us as a projection of the effort to participate in the ongoing struggle for democratic values and perspectives. That it all took place in the aftermath of democratic churning within India starting soon after the Emergency, and that much of it got reflected not only in some issues of Seminar but also in the larger process of seminaring over basic parameters of democratic nation-building and onslaughts against it, is what makes me include it in this article written on the 40th anniversary of Seminar.
There is no space to lay out the full details of this simultaneous political, journalistic, academic and activist process of producing an alternative model of both ‘development’ and ‘democracy’ at home and in the world at large. The process still continues and despite many setbacks and disappointments, including with the very people on which one had relied so much, I for one continue to pin my hopes on it.
The point of it all is that the Seminar of old was conceived in a fundamentally political perspective. As compared to that (if I may say so) the Seminar of today, while displaying considerable improvements in competence, the range of issues dealt with, broad comprehension and even relevance to a changing and increasingly more complex national and international scenario, no longer wields the kind of political-intellectual influence that it once did. As with many other such enterprises the old romance and ideological thrust has given place to a more ‘professional’ stance.
Given this reading of mine, what future do I visualize for seminaring, particularly seminaring in print? There is little doubt that all conceivable spheres except a few are likely to be informed by growing controversy, thereby establishing a natural role for a journal like this. Yet, on the other hand, there is increasing awareness and concern that this manner of discourse may well be running its course. There may be need to tie up with ongoing debates in the public arena so that the printed word reflects the churning taking place in the real world, particularly at the grassroots. Given the crisis-ridden state of the nation-state and of macro institutions, as well as of diverse segments within civil society, there is need to return to the Raj and Romesh vision of Seminar, of making it an instrument of the fast changing political process. A journal like Seminar has little meaning unless it is seen as part of the larger seminaring that is under way in the society – and world – at large.