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C.P. Bhambhri (1933-2020) and the Life of a Public Intellectual | Rakesh Batabyal

Saturday 21 November 2020

by Rakesh Batabyal *

Since the time Prof. Bhambhri retired in 2000 from teaching in the class rooms, which he began in the early fifties, he was gifted a little office space at a corner in the huge School of Bio-Technology in the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The space created under a staircase, just about accommodating two to three chairs at a time, however, emerged as, what Jurgen Habermas had famously called, a ‘public sphere.’ From 9.15 in the morning, when Prof. Bhambhri usually entered this alcove, till 1.30 in the afternoon when left for home every day, including Sundays, the place bristled with people, animated discussion interspersed with the booming laughter of Prof. Bhambhri and the aroma of tea brought in either by the local security guard or some good samaritan. The place, near the school’s washroom, was shorn of any luxury as such but, going by the levels of engagement and range of discussions happening there at any point of time, could be termed as one of the finest intellectual salons of the city. Prof. Bhambhri gloried in reigning over it. In the eighties, a Visiting Professor, failing to locate Prof. Bhambhri was told by the Vice chancellor K.R. Narayanan that he needed to have followed the sound of Bhambhri and not the ‘sight’ of him. The same booming laughter still reverberated the place with Prof. Bhambhri’s immaculately dressed self adding luster: brown Corduroy or Tweed jacket with matching shirt and ties, Karakul cap in winter, and shining shoes, making him probably the best dressed of the University population.

What did people discuss with Prof. Bhambhri? A senior Professor going to his interview for Vice Chancellorship needing last minute tips and blessings could be spotted sitting in his office, with some parents bringing their young daughter for advice as to what subject she should opt for the civil services exam, to a journalist seeking to interview him on the recent spate of violence in the West Bank in Palestine – this was the motley array that peopled his space. His former colleagues were also regulars, discussing a paper they had just finished writing, requesting a last minute glance of Prof. Bhambhri to check and sharpen arguments. He himself would ask his friend and colleague for decades Prof. Bhalla to come over, have tea, and to discuss the quality of data on, for instance, the urban poor released recently in the Arjun Sengupta Committee Report. He could also be heard telling a friend over the telephone about the Khacchar Commission recommendation, as he always referred to the Sachar Commision in a light vein. He might also be heard congratulating someone on the latter’s newspaper article that day, while also requesting the Book Review editor at Business Standard to send a particular book that he might be interested in reviewing. One could also spot invitation cards on his table indicating that he needed to leave in the next five minutes for his key note lecture at an international seminar on India’s internal security, or on Trends in Indian history.

Thursdays were a bit tight as he had to give in his weekly column to the newspaper edited by his distinguished students or well wishers, and this was important as the space was increasingly becoming limited for the leftist scholars in the mainstream Media. He thus needed to hang on, and especially he needed volunteers to get the article typed. The volunteers in the process were paid handsomely: training in deciphering script, understanding how the human mind works logically and scientifically, and how human concerns were predominant with a man of culture and intellect. In addition would come a couple of Britania biscuits and a cup of tea. The Vice Chancellors came in regular intervals of five years and to them Prof. Bhambhri, with all affection, would give one personal advice: the University is what it is but the buck stopped at them. Similarly, he also seems to have accepted that the buck stops at the door of the Public intellectuals in raising the social consciousness of people. He, for one, knew his role and in this one rarely finds a public intellectual of the kind that we had in him till he left us on 8 November 2020.

Bhambhri Saab, as he was affectionately referred by his colleagues, was a victim of the partition when the family left its ancestral home in Multan for an uncertain future in Kanpur. In recent years, the surge of the Hindu communal forces was making him quite unsettled as he could see the democratic edifice of which he was a valiant fighter, increasingly slipping into authoritarian quicksand. His understanding of history had trained him well to see the future of all such developments and hence he was worried for the people for whom he had researched and written all through his academic career. He therefore stuck to his role till his last: presenting his analysis of the situation and providing what he thought was the historically correct line of politics based on the most scientific lines of enquiry that he would argue his training in Historical Materialism had taught him.

I: Making of a Marxist Political Scientist: Reading the Movement of Capital and Labour

For many novitiates in political science, Bhambhri’s Bureaucracy and Politics in India (1971) and Administration and Social Change (1972) are still the compulsory readings. In fact, Prof. Bhambhri, a product of the liberal Political Science scholarship which keenly observed the coming of the Indian constitution and the parliamentary democracy, diligently worked and wrote his Doctoral thesis on the way the Parliamentary discussion was responsible for shaping the Indian Public Sector enterprise. It is here he could discern the lines of enquiry he followed till the end: the division between the capitalist and the socialist visions of economy. While he recognised that the path chosen for India was a capitalist one, his historical sense told him that the anti-colonial grounding of the national movement and Nehru leading from the front still presented possibilities of a socialistic turn. He was not alone in this belief as the entire left from communists to socialists too shared the same hope and belief. The work was cut out: to prepare the intellectual and academic ground for such a future. His teaching and research from the time he began his career in Meerut and Mordabad till the time he breathed his last was defined by this preparation for a better society: a socialist society. One may be cynical of such hopes but the tenacity of the hope must be viewed in the light of India’s freedom struggle which had provided such spaces for possibilities.

In following India’s developmental trajectory, Bhambhri rarely strayed from his earliest reading that the Indian leadership had chosen the capitalist path of development. As a political scientist, he was number one in the field of one. There were almost none who would take up the issue of placing the political analysis on a firm material foundation. Bhambhri grasped this quite well and began placing his discussion on the issue of politics on the platform of a historically evolved economy. His association with two of the eminent historically minded economists of the time, namely Amit Bhaduri and Krishna Bharadwaj in his early years, and later Prabhat Patnaik and Utsa Patnaik on the one hand and his intense and friendly discussions and debates with his friend and colleague historian Bipan Chandra and his students, made him further sensitive to the role of historical trajectories. He in fact in this manner tried to correct, in the light of his friend Bipan Chandra’s joking refrain, ‘that political science without history is vulgar’.
The central project for him remained the character of Capital and its movement on the one hand, and the shape the labour and his world were taking. While Capital was in its monopolistic phase and presented itself for critical analysis, labour required empathetic hearing. Both were Bhambhri’s forte, and he wanted to study their moves in their concrete realities.

The capitalist path of development had presented India with the option of having a close technological and other alliance with developed capitalist countries. However, as a quintessential product of the milieu of the freedom movement, he was also quick to understand the importance of Nehru as a bulwark against cleintalist thinking, in not surrendering India’s hard won freedom due to such alliances. However as a student of class society, he knew that the capitalist class would also like to subvert any such national sovereignty which would block their ambitions for profit maximisation. This made Bhambhri a keen student of India’s foreign policy along V.P. Dutt and K.P. Karunakaran, which was a reflection of the contradiction between the strong popular notion of freedom on one hand and the class interest of the Capitalist. While Dutt and Karunakaran founded the discipline, Bhambhri took it further and by the 1990s was one of the few voices that resounded even in the 2st century, when the neo liberal scholarship has crowded out any such opinion. However, his analysis still had a field day, as this millennium saw the capitalists shedding the cloak of national freedom.
The real issue Bhambhri could see was the Indian Capital’s complete dependence on western technology. The west would not transfer any such technology, as could be seen since 1947, unless there was compromise on sovereignty. Bhambhri argued that the anti colonial nature of the Indian national movement had provided the Indian leadership the basic template which made them reject easy submergence of the India’s foreign policy to the needs and interests of the western capitalist order. Thus, while capitalist path, for reasons of capital and technology, suggested such an subservient position within the global order of things, the historical context, as his colleague Bipan Chandra argued quite forcefully, made Indian leadership forego such an easy option. Indira Gandhi’s resistance to the United State’s threats both in 1967 and in 1971, according to Bhambhri, were manifestation of such historically driven political resistance to neo colonialism.

It is this contest in which he placed Nehru’s institution building exercise and Indira Gandhi’s effort to bolster the non aligned movement so that there are widespread arrangements of such need. This is an aspect which is quite often blurred in the recent cold war studies. Bhambhri’s own work and many academic works by the students in Rajasthan University and Jawaharlal Nehru University mentored by him and his peers were testimony that such scholars have served national interest diligently, unlike those chest-thumping scholars who made no distinction between accepting clientele status and upholding economic freedom. In fact, if India has produced some of the most sophisticated scholars on International Relations and Area Studies on world scale, Bhambhri deserves credit.

Was Bhambhri pro-Soviet? Yes, and as he explained in his paper on Indian foreign Policy in 1980 at the height of military escalations between the super powers, that mutual friendship with Soviet Union provided India the best possible option in the given scenario where the western capital wanted to swamp India. This was showed with utmost academic clarity, despite the general caricaturing that his pro-Soviet bias was because of his belonging to the communist party of India. Bhambhri was Marxist scholar and he would tell his students, collection of facts and rigourous analysis is the only way to scholarship and not the party line. Maybe this was what earned him the reputation of being the fourth communist party (Communist Party, Bhambhri), an expression coined by his student and later colleague (Indian Express, 11 November 2020).

It is the stress on facts and analysis which made Bhambhri one of the most critical voices on Indian foreign policy, which argued Non-alignment as the most appropriate position, both historically driven as also for reason of the building an economy, which could use this freedom from alliance to acquire autonomy in the global monopoly capitalism. However since to him history and concrete realities mattered, it would be too early to take a position like the world systems analysis of Wallerstein, where the peripheral countries were seen as having no place to develop as development is a zero sum game. For Bhambhri, national development was required for the well being of people, but the nature of development was to be watched for it could turn anti people following the nature of capital which tended to be monopolistic.

This concern for national sovereignty as the only guarantor of people’s well being against the marauding expansion of capital made him undertake in 1980 the study of World Bank. It remains the only work to date. For Bhambhri, the decade since 1990 witnessed the rapid penetration of monopoly capital and it also saw the increasing subservience of India’s foreign policy to the cause of monopoly capital. This also manifested, to him, in the increasing isolation of India from all popular struggles in the world, and her identification with the most oppressive regimes and their rulers, i.e., Netanyahu (Israel), Bolsenaro (Brazil), etc. There is therefore an increasing abandonment of the historical template of Indian state’s self-definition as well as definition of others. This, for a scholar of his penetrative eye had implications back home: the repudiation of the anti-colonial vision and metamorphosis of the Indian state.

II: Bhambhri and Indian State

Bhambhri’s biggest contribution to the life of the mind in India has been his penetrating analysis of the Indian state. It is here that he was far ahead of his peers in the field who were living on borrowed paradigms, where state either did not matter or needed to be fought back for establishing some sort of democracy the content of which was never delineated. Thus from Huntington to Lucien Pye, the American establishment political scientists wanted the states in the newly independent countries to follow certain trajectories prescribed, lest they come under Chinese and Russian communist control.
Bhambhri rare among Indian political scientists, presented an alternative reading. Indian state is not a monolith which can be manipulated either by the Chinese, Soviet or even the Capitalist class. While state remains the handmaiden of the ruling classes, Bhambhri took upon himself the task of unmaking the ruling class composition.

His readings on bureaucracy were helpful as unlike many he did not confuse the apparatus with the essence. Bhambhri’s contribution was to make the bureaucracy aware of the hiatus that existed between their training, location and self consciousness, and the way the societal needs demanded something else. Thus, their class position was extremely important. This also gave him a hold over the way the bureaucracy works and the way the state apparatus operated in a country like India.

His deck was now clear to see the state in all its openness. He brought back his understanding of economic development to bear upon this particular reading of the state. It is in this that one could now locate his ideas of democracy, popular movements and nature of Indian political changes.

First, for him the nature of capitalist development is intrinsically linked to the way the state in India finds itself in crisis. There is both the crisis of democratic legitimacy of the ruling classes on one hand, and the resultant coercion by the state on the other, further deepening the crisis of legitimation. Bhambhri saw this beginning to happen quite rapidly since the 1980s which was also the period of India’s approaching World Bank for loans. Almost as if presenting a contemporary picture, he wrote:

Those at the helm of affairs have followed a path of development, which has led to a crisis. One consequence of this development is slow erosion of the democratic legitimacy of the ruling classes and an excessive use of oppression against mass movements and against the parties of the masses. Rigging of elections, use of paramilitary forces, detention without trial, firing on the unarmed workers (as at the Swadeshi Cotton Mills of Kanpur), etc, are basic characteristics of governance in India. Because of the sharpening economic crisis, the ruling classes find it difficult to function in accordance with the normal democratic practices. Hence those state governments which are wedded to radical social transformation would have to be in perpetual confrontation with the Central government, which is dominated by those classes which prefer the capitalist path. [1]

Bhambhri was critical of all those who would help the state to legitimize its oppression and at the same. He continuously made us aware that the presence of massive security and paramilitary force in a system skewed in favour of the central government did not bode well for the future of federal India, which was quite central to the entire democratic edifice

"It is not generally known that at over 8,00,000, the total strength of the police and the paramilitary forces is almost equal to that of the country’s regular armed forces. The functions that are performed by many of these forces today bear no relationship to the purposes for which they.were originally created."

. Bhambhri’s fears were genuine as he saw that such an accumulation of coercive power at the centre was taking place at the same time when there was increasing fragmentation of the people, and more importantly of the poor and marginals at the ground level. It was to him no accidental coincidence that this was happening at a time when India was cosying up to the IMF and World Bank and global capitalism, indicating the Indian state’s increasing desire to be subordinated to the global capitalism. He also saw that popular struggles were now crushed with massive state forces, from the way the railway strike was broken to the way the police forces were being used in Assam.
Bhambhri also wrote how the sectarian forces were used by the ruling classes to increasingly communalize the Indian politics. He, along with Bipan Chandra, G.S Bhalla and the Vice Chancellor of JNU and one of India’s most eminent scholars of west Asia, Prof. M.S. Agwani, tried to counter the sectarian and communal forces from playing havoc on the social fabric in Punjab in the late seventies and eighties. Quite often at the risk of their personal safety, they kept raising the social and political consciousness and morale of those who were fighting Sikh communalism. Being a refugee, he knew the perils of communalism, and hence was alert to such mobilizations.

The coming of the Hindu communal forces to dominate popular consciousness was seen by him as not good for the Indian people. He thought India was close to a fascist take-over. Such an emergence at a time when Capital was facing a crisis since 2007 everywhere would make the state more coercive. Shorn of any popular democratic legitimacy, the manufacturing of such legitimacy would mean the state would use media to the hilt, along with force. It is here that any show of radical rhetoric and adventurism needed to be watched. This made him relentlessly expose the vacuity of the rhetoric of many prophets of revolution, quite often present in New Delhi’s talk circuit, as well as among the student circles in his own University. Contemporary politics of Africa in the seventies clearly indicated to him that the anti democratic forces there used exactly the same radical rhetoric, but in the end were absent to defend the people when the armed forces with the help of the neo-colonial powers came to destroy universities, institutions and finally democracy itself. It is this experience and understanding that made Bhambhri an ardent critic of the intellectual trends which mask the radicals’ intellectual subordination to Capital and neo-colonial trends.

One must also remember that he was a fervent critique of the Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev led anti-corruption movement in 2011, which he regularly wrote about as anti-poor and anti-democratic in their nature. The way they espoused dictation over the parliament was tantamount to basically delegitimizing the voice of Indian people in favour of Magsaysay award winners, who going by Anna Hazare’s invocation would be the only entitled Jan Lok Pals.

To Bhambhri, good education and training was meant to unmask these forces which play on the lives of poor and marginals. It is again this that made him argue against communal formation ruling in the states or in the centre. The communal mobilization, both Hindu and Muslim, were obscurantist at the core and anti humanist in their telos. Hindu communalism of recent decades would destroy all the gains of the last century and half by the people.

III: University and the Public Engagement

The making of such an intellectual as Prof. Bhambhri is also the story of making of the Indian intellectual universe in post-Independence India. Here, the University provided self confidence, equality, and the freedom to pursue in which the colleges and Universities have played quite an significant role. The zeal that Prof. Bhambhri exuded in the way he lived was infectious. He had his angularities like anyone in academia might have, but they never interfered with his appreciation or estimation of the worth of others - his colleagues, opponents or admirers. As has been often mentioned he was a self-proclaimed ‘class conscious’ person, meaning thereby that he was punctual and regular in his classes and he abhorred anyone who were derelict in their duties and role. He hated those who were perennially on leave from their classes on one pretext or the other. He did not like anyone who went on fellowship or leave and did not come back with any new insight. On the other hand, a good article in the newspaper of the day would most probably result in his telephonic congratulation. He was there for you. If you are a fighter, you won him to your side. His own interaction with scholars was a productive one, from whom he learnt many things and also he injected in them the exuberance of the Indian academia. In this, he could be seen as the calendar boy of independent minded Indian University academia.

A recently arrived refugee boy from Multan, Chandra Prakash was admitted to the local school in Kanpur where he was referred to as refugee baccha (refugee child), and he could not get a seat in the science stream in which he was interested. There was no looking back once he embarked on his career in political science, although he remained a life-long practioner in the art of science. To him, life must be lived well, and the world must be understood from the eye of a scientist.

Like a scientist, therefore, he never allowed himself to succumb to a narrow sectarian and communal idea, nor was he willing to denigrate his opponents and their wisdom and rights to present their case. His mind, like his small office in the School of Biotechnology, was open to all. To him this was the world of the University, which was in many sense the chief site of Indian modernity, which provided an escape route for the young and not so young to escape the obscurantisms of the times. This is where people and their ideas interacted with a large horizon and brought out something new. Coming from Multan, an ancient trading centre (in Pakistan now) that had links far and wide, Bhambhri also traded that openness. Every new encounter was an opportunity to refine ideas and arguments of his own and of those who shared those moments in his company. It is this exuberance, this scientific eye with childlike curiosity of the world around, and an openness to embrace ideas and people that will be missed.
One can end with a tribute paid to him by another political scientist who while critically reviewing Prof. Bhambhri’s book in 2003, wrote:

…the author is, after all, Bhambhri. This book bristles with his unrelenting and unrepentant liberalism and articulates his concerns and commitments that are deeply rooted in the ideals of social justice and freedom. He remains a personal and professional example for many. Clearly India, and perhaps the world, needs more engaged academics. [2]

(Author: Rakesh Batabyal is with Centre for Media Studies, JNU)


[1C. P. Bhambhri, Role of Paramilitary Forces in Centre-State Relations, Economic and Political Weekly, Apr. 29, 1978, pp. 735

[2Ahrar Ahmed, ‘Review of Bharatiya Janata Party: Periphery to Centre’, Journal Of Asian Studies, vol. 63, no. 4, 2003, p. 1271.

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