ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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D L Sheth (1932–2021)

Activist and Intellectual

Dhirubhai Sheth’s intellectual quest was to reinvent social and political theory based on innovations coming from India. The test for a theory of Indian politics was a sustained dialogue between academics and activists—evidenced in his co-founding of Lokayan and Lokniti. Democracy was at the centre of all he thought and wrote about. All pretenders to it were his enemies.


They say that Dhirubhai Sheth did not write much and that is why his ideas and insights have not had the big influence that they should have had in the social sciences in India. This is partly true and partly false. True, because he could have written more. True, because social sciences would have profited by an engagement with his insights. True, because social science practitioners have remained trapped in explanatory frameworks that are suboptimal. By studying Dhirubhai’s works they would have, to some extent, been freed of conceptual domination by epistemo­logies of the global North. He had a theory of epistemic validity when he advocated a perpetual conversation bet­ween activists and academics. If scholars in India had examined closely his writings on democracy, law, caste, grassroots movements, non-party political formations, and even the politics of Hindutva, social sciences in India would be so much richer.

But the claim is also partly false. Dhirubhai wrote enough. This is a qualitative, not a quantitative statement. His hundred-plus articles are scattered across many edited books, journals, magazines and reports. His ideas can be sourced from his interviews in print and from those on electronic platforms. Take, for example, his video interview with Boaventura de Sousa Santos.1 It focuses on four key aspects of Indian society: “(1) re-inventing a new social theory based on social and political innovations coming from India; (2) Indian democracy marked by primarily economic, and social and cultural divides; (3) Religion and caste characterising a redefinition of the idea of ‘nation-state’; and (4) the increasing need for sustenance of, and a wider role in policy making of, alternative economies featuring predominantly the role of agricultural farmers and adivasis in ­India.” The conversation is freely available online. But it has not been heard or discussed even by the narrower Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) community who work in allied areas and who would ­benefit from an engagement with it. The problem of neglect is therefore much deeper. It is about the colonisation and decolonisation of knowledge practices in the Indian academy. Dhirubhai was not glamourous. But he was real, sharp, grounded, and honest. And he was brilliant in his understanding of India. He had few equals. This I discovered when I set about editing his articles for a planned collection.

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Updated On : 21st May, 2021
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