Dhirubhai L. Seth 1936-2021: Commemorating Intellectual Politics

Date01 December 2021
Published date01 December 2021
Subject MatterObituary
Dhirubhai L. Seth 1936-2021:
Commemorating Intellectual Politics
Writing a conventional obituary for Prof Dhirubhai L. Seth (or Dhirubhai!)—the former Director and
one of the founding members of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and member of
advisory board of this journal—is a difficult task.
Dhirubhai was a theorist of the present. He would always respond to the challenges, issues and
anxieties posed by the contemporary moment. The past in Dhirubhai’s framework is always seen in
relation to contemporary concerns. For him, ‘historicization of an event, or an object…or an institution
of a distant past becomes credible, and makes good historical sense, only when it is done in terms
of contemporary concerns and sensibilities’ (DLS, p. 25). Dhrubhai’s intellectual adherence to here and
now forces us to always engage with him as our contemporary. His lively, assertive and interven-
tionist intellectual quest cannot be treated as history. For this reason, the colourful intellectual
personality of Dhirubhai cannot be commemorated in an orthodox unadventurous mode.
The vastness of Dhirubhai’s work poses a challenge of a different kind. He used to describe himself
as a writer of short stories to justify his faithfulness for writing long essays instead of books. These
essays address a number issues such as nationalism, democracy, caste, religion, backwardness,
institutional development, non-party political processes, grassroots movements, intellectualism and so
on. Although there are two edited volumes based on his various writings —Satta Aur Samaj: Dhirubhai
Sheth (edited by Abhay Kumar Dubey, 2009) and At Home with Democracy: A Theory of India Politics
(edited by Peter R. deSouza, 2018)—it is very difficult to provide a thematic label to Dhirubhai’s
intellectual universe. Any conventional tribute, especially in strict professional academic sense, is almost
meaningless, if not entirely futile.
To avoid such explanatory difficulties, we must engage with Dhirubhai’s notion of intellectualism:
How did he conceptualize the role of intellectuals in a postcolonial society like India?
Dhirubhai makes a crucial distinction between academic work and intellectual pursuit. For him,
academic work refers to the formal, professional engagement with a particular subject matter. On the
other hand, intellectual work is seen as a creative devotion to an idea simply to nurture a process of
constructive thinking. Dhirubhai introduces an innovative dimension to this conceptual distinction. He
emphasises the decisive role of language in the realm of ideas. He writes:
(There are) …two languages of social thinking on India: English and the bhashas. When written in English an
essay in political sociology would sound scholarly and even social scientic. The same thing when rendered in
Gujarati sounded, at the best, commonsensical. It appeared as if the use of English lent the essay an air of being
academic and scientic. The same thing in Gujarati cannot be written without bringing the play of agencies
involved, and consequences entailed, into the process of depicting that reality. My work has been an attempt
to de-academize the idea of social change and to bring back the reality of agents, issues, and implications/
consequences involved. (Sheth, 2018, p. Vii)
Studies in Indian Politics
9(2) 152–154, 2021
© 2021 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230211058536

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