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Eurocentric versus Indigenous

While sympathising with the general critique of Eurocentrism expressed by Claude Alvares in his critical essay on the social sciences in India (EPW, 28 May 2011), this response finds some of his contentions problematic. It appears that Alvares' overall submission is based on a couple of preconceived conceptual binaries such as European/non-European and Eurocentric/indigenous.

Eurocentric versus Indigenous Anirudh Deshpande a set of ideal values, is both transhistorical and trans-local; these values are present as much in the European Renaissance as in ancient Buddhism and the medieval Bhakti tradition of India. I am referring to

While sympathising with the general critique of Eurocentrism expressed by Claude Alvares in his critical essay on the social sciences in India (EPW, 28 May 2011), this response finds some of his contentions problematic. It appears that Alvares’ overall submission is based on a couple of preconceived conceptual binaries such as European/non-European and Eurocentric/indigenous.

Anirudh Deshpande ( is with the Department of History, University of Delhi, New Delhi.

laude Alvares has raised several important questions related to the teaching of the social sciences in India in a thought-provoking paper published in this journal “A Critique of Eurocentric Social Science and the Question of Alternatives” (EPW, 28 May 2011).

His concerns regarding the acceptance of European funding by the Department of Sociology (DOS), University of Delhi, and the setting up of a European study centre therein are also well-founded. Further, the undemocratic manner in which the DOS went about implementing this European programme has been a subject of intense criticism in the academic circles of the Delhi University in the recent past. Undoubtedly, all this justifies the fear of academic imperialism expressed by Alvares in his overview of the contemporary Indian social sciences. Although Alvares has raised several crucial issues in his timely article, I shall restrict myself to a few serious pedagogical, ideological and philosophical issues raised by him in this response.

Conceptual Binaries

While sympathising with the general critique of Eurocentrism expressed by him I could not help find some of his contentions problematic. It appears that Alvares’ overall submission is based on a couple of preconceived conceptual binaries such as European/non-European and Eurocentric/ indigenous guided by his justified anger with the state of the Indian social sciences today. However, unless we believe the master narratives of the European ruling classes, and their counterparts in the colonial and ex-colonial countries, these binaries are difficult, if not altogether impossible, to substantiate historically.

In particular, three serious questions arise from his bold presentation. The first is the identification and definition of the European tradition. The second is the question of universal humanism which, as

Economic & Political Weekly

july 23, 2011 vol xlvi no 30

this because Tagore, a great believer in universal humanism, features in his paper. The third is the question of the indigenous, which, in my opinion, is a transitory category constructed and reconstructed temporally and spatially by societies in changing political contexts.

Multiple Voices of History

Alvares’ characterisation of almost all European knowledge, in general, as Eurocentric and, thereby, imperialist presents a subjective view of what usually passes as the early modern and modern European intellectual tradition. In contrast, and without mentioning authors, I wish to emphasis e that critical European history speaks to us in multiple voices many of which do not identify with the hegemonic Eurocentric cultural imperialism of the modern European ruling class.

In fact, a perusal of new European historiography tends to suggest that Europe has historically been as diverse in thought and practice as Asia, Africa and America. Examples, which I have drawn from modern Europe, are abundant in this respect. The Renaissance, we may note, produced a variegated humanism, illustrated in the work and life of pioneers like Leonardo da Vinci who became a vegetarian and animal protector and the famous Utopia whose author preferred the scaffold to recanting. The Reformation gave us both Martin Luther King and Thomas Muntzer with diametrically opposite traditions besides the several heretical sects which, in turn, sparked off the inquisition. The work of numerous scholars like Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, who might be Marxist and non-Marxist, asserts the existence of the other Europe which remains outside the colonial Eurocentric textbooks. Even in the 19th century, a period of expanding industry, capital and imperia lism, the European scholars and the European classes were divided, inter alia, along ideological lines evident in the appearance of the Bonapartists,


Communards and the Narodniks on the European political horizon.

Great European Knowledge

Similarly, the European intellectuals did not speak in one voice. Macaulay, Darwin, Marx, Balzac, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kropotkin, Hugo, Flaubert, Michelet, Burckhardt and Weber represent diverse traditions. There is much to learn, as Gandhi did from Tolstoy and Ruskin, from the geogra phical, social and intellectual variety of Europe without losing one’s sense of being non-European.

Further, there are numerous western scholars whose perspective on Indian history is certainly not Eurocentric. The work of Stewart Gordon, Randolf Cooper, Nile Green, Douglas Peers, Saul David and William Dalrymple, not to mention the late Burton Stein and Eric Stokes, has done a lot to undermine Eurocentrism in the writing of Indian history. Indeed, a blistering attack on Eurocentrism and its patrons in the French historical establishment was launched by Jean Chesneaux, the renowned French Marxist historian of China and Vietnam, in the mid1970s in the terse What Is History For: The Past and Its Future.

Thus, there is enough evidence to assert that a great body of “European” knowledge exists outside the Eurocentric paradigm preferred by the makers of capita lism and modern colonialism. Our position on this could be similar to the one taken on the “Enlightenment” by Noam Chomsky who writes that there is no need to abandon the universal values of the Enlightenment just because these values have been hijacked by the European bourgeoisie; “liberty, equality and fraternity” continue to have a salience in non-European societies as well.

If modern and contemporary Europeans and Americans have found Islam, Buddhism and yoga interesting for a variety of reasons, we too could find the several European intellectual traditions rewarding for peculiar reasons. Shutting out Europe and western scholars from our perspective or geographical locale, as Alvares seems to suggest, would amount to denying the dialectical process by which civilisation itself develops. Instead, our curriculum should be reformed to seriously engage with the other Europe in order for our students to understand and grapple with modernity better.

Return to the Indigenous

Alvares calls for a return to the indigenous on the assumption that the indigenous is the binary and almost revolutionary opposite of the Eurocentric. But what is the indigenous? Is it always free of the nonindigenous? I would describe the indigenous in historically changing terms. An example will suffice. In 1526, the Mughals were foreigners to both Rajputs and the Indian Muslims. During the reign of Jahangir, nobody, and least of all the European tra ders, would have considered the Mughal system foreign to India. The indigenou s became problematic with the rising regio nal revolts against the Mughals from the mid-17th century. Nonetheless, in 1857, Bahadur Shah Zafar, a direct descendan t of Babur, was considered indigenou s enough by the high caste Hindu and Muslim sepoys of the Bengal army to be proclaimed as the leader of their revolt. By the end of the 19th century the Mughals, and the Muslims in general, had become the “other” within the rising communal discourse in colonial India. Post-1947, the Mughals were once again clearly indigenous in K Asif’s nationalist Mugal-e-Azam in 1959.

Finally, in 1992 a movement culminated in the re-designation of the Mughals as outsiders to the Indian civilisation. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 reinforced the majoritarian tendency of identifying the Muslims as outsiders to the essentially Hindu civilisation of India. This argument can be extended to the time when the Vedic Aryans arrived in India and ensla ved the indigenous pre-Aryan and non-Sanskritic adivasi people of India. Since then the term indigenous has remained contested between the various brahmanical and anti-brahmanical religio- cultural traditions of India. Hence, what appeared indigenous to William Jones and Warren Hastings in the 1780s with the help of an assortment of brahmins was challenged by Jotiba Phule in the latter half of the 19th century and totally undermined by Ambedkar in late colonial India. Both Phule and Ambedkar, it must be noticed in passing, also appreciated the spaces created for the dalits by the British rule in India.

In conclusion, it can be said that terms like European and indigenous need to be re-configured keeping in mind the dialogical nature of India’s civilisation. Marxism, feminism and postmodernism tell us that a binary of orient/occident does not work when it comes to teaching the history of civilisation. India’s interaction with the European languages and the printing press goes back to the 16th century.

The contribution of Europe to Indian languages and culture, and vice versa, cannot be underestimated. It should not be forgotten that outside Britain and the United States, India has the largest Englishspeaking population in the world and demand for English is growing in India steadily. This demand should be set against the demystification of Britain and Europe by revisiting and not rejecting their intellectual and material history. It is also important to remember that both Islam and Christianity arrived in India quite early and became indigenised in a variety of ways despite the assertion of communal texts to the contrary. Even parliamentary democracy, imported into India largely from the west, has become deeply institutionalised and indigenised in the last 60 years. Obviously, no scheme of pedagogy can ignore these facts.

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july 23, 2011 vol xlvi no 30

Economic & Political Weekly

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