The inaugural lecture of the Golden Jubilee Lecture Series, organized by the School for Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad, took place on the 24th of January in a hall packed with an eager audience of students, scholars and professors alike. Professor Surinder S. Jodhka delivered the main address on the theme: ‘Revisiting the Village, Revisioning the Rural: Spatialities in 21st century India.’ Prof. V S Rao introduced Professor Jodhkla as an eminent sociologist, prolific writer, researcher and thinker. Professor Rao listed his publications and research interests in themes ranging from social inequalities and caste in contemporary times to rural societies, rural-urban relationships, agrarian changes, identities, etc. He also mentioned Professor Jodhka’s intimate connection with the University of Hyderabad, where he did his first stint as a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology. He later worked at Punjab University, did projects with Oxford, World Bank and many other esteemed institutions, and is currently associated with the Centre for Social Studies, JNU.
Hall was set into motion by Prof. Jyotirmaya Sharma, dean of the School of Social Sciences, with words of gratitude for the speaker, esteemed guests, audience and dedicated volunteers. Chief Guest Professor Ghanshyam Krishna, Director of the Institute of Eminence, thanked him for thinking of this novel, academic and enriching way of celebrating Golden Jubilee, calling it an ‘inspiration’ for other institutions to follow. Professor B J Rao, Vice Chancellor, University of Hyderabad, echoed these sentiments, further adding his condensed and succinct comments on the relevance of the selected topic. He mentioned how rural areas have been relegated to ‘margins’ in a GDP-centric growth model, emphasizing the need for collective action, not merely from policymakers and political actors but also from intellectuals and academics to search for models of ‘new and all-round growth.’ Intellectuals cannot live secluded from the ‘ground reality’ and ‘real dynamics of growth and its repercussions.’ He expressed the hope that this lecture series would serve as a ‘fertilization ground for new ideas’ that would connect intellectuals, both budding and mature and students to the real world outside academic spaces.
Professor Jodhka began his lecture by expressing his nostalgic familiarity with the campus and people. He then discussed the historical marginalization of rural spaces, a process he traced back at least two centuries. He argued that this marginalization is not just the result of post-colonial economic policies but is also tied to a larger “ideological and hegemonic project” of colonial legitimacy and nationalist aspirations for a “singular India-ness.” He based his conceptual discussion on his extensive empirical research in rural areas of Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, and the peripheries of Hyderabad. He pointed out how colonial categories persist in social science theories, state practices, and national “common sense.”
British, most eloquently Macaulay, presented Indian villages as stagnant, self-sustaining little republics to justify their own position as a liberator of an ‘ahistorical’ society. Anthropological studies guided by colonial aspirations worked within these presuppositions instead of challenging them. The village was conflated with India, and the city was deemed inauthentic and ‘alien.’ Nationalist leadership did little to change this picture. Gandhi’s traditionalist approach is the most obvious example. However, Professor Jodhka argued that even ‘modernists’ like Nehru and Ambedkar were in their own ways continuing the ‘received wisdom’ of colonists. Despite his rich direct experiences and nuanced understanding, Ambedkar focused exclusively on the Hindu and Brahmanical character of villages, emphasizing the graded inequality and discrimination enmeshed in rural life. The discrimination he had faced in cities, Baroda, for instance, cannot be adequately explained within this binary of rural versus urban, where the former becomes the ‘den’ of casteism.
Professor Jodhka discussed the limitations of modernist theories that have dominated the understanding of Indian villages since the 1950s. These theories, which depict a universal and “inevitable” development trajectory from villages to cities, continue to be influenced by colonial presuppositions and fail to consider local specificities. He challenged the conflation of villages with caste, arguing that cities have been the fountainhead of modern-day casteism. He also emphasized the complex relationship between villages and cities, stating that studying either as separate and “immune and pristine spheres” is a flawed approach. He concluded that reductionist approaches, such as the textual-Brahmanical, romanticist-colonial, and nationalist-modernist, have proven inadequate for understanding the complex spatialities of rural and urban India.
In his lecture, Professor Jodhka critiqued modernist accounts that view villages as “infants” that must develop to reach “adult” urbanhood. He argued that the binaries used to describe villages, such as traditional-modern and authentic-inauthentic, are “essentialized” terms that reflect a value bias towards a specific Western developmental trajectory. He emphasized that villages are not disappearing, as shown by the fact that the number of people living in villages is higher today than at any point in human history. Post-Covid urban-to-rural migration has only strengthened this trend. He also highlighted the complex factors influencing villages, including local ecologies, political history, global political processes, and various contingencies. He concluded that spatial formations are both structural and agentic, and social scientists must consider both aspects and lay bare the ideological biases of existing categories to make effective academic interventions.
This insightful lecture was followed up with a question-and-answer session. When asked to give a new definition of villages as Professor Jodhka understands them, the speaker highlighted the sheer diversity of what villages constitute by giving examples from all over the country. He emphasized the need for rigorous empirical work as a test as well as germination ground for all hypotheses. Professor Jairath, from the Department of Sociology, enquired whether any strict separation of ‘judgmental’ and ‘empirical’ is feasible, for all empirical work does presuppose some a-priori judgement. The speaker responded by further substantiating and contextualizing his terminology. Empirical is always accessible, and can be readily tested, while its converse is composed of hegemonic conceptions that are either too vague to allow any effective verification or so sanctioned by power structures that they evade and resist academic enquiry. Professor Jodhka posited empirical as a counterweight to such hegemonic simplifications, and it can serve this purpose without claiming to be completely immune from some value biases of the researcher. Thus, the lecture ended with a profound and enriching stirring among the audience and a fruitful interaction of students with the speaker, vindicating the hopes Professor B J Rao had placed and indeed proving to be a ‘fertilization ground for ideas.’
Report by: Rajat Pratap – MA 1st year, Department of Political Science