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D L Seth influenced a generation of academics, activists with his ideas on democracy

His primary legacy was as mentor to scores of activists who played a key role in many struggles for justice – from grassroots efforts to counter communalism to struggles against “destructive development”

The year was 1980. Indira Gandhi had just returned to power, less than three years after her post-Emergency electoral defeat. An entire generation of young social and political activists in India was struggling with some basic questions: What happens to democracy now? How can democracy actually be realised by Indians of every caste, class and creed?

D L Sheth, political scientist and philosopher of life, spent the next three decades helping activists and academics alike to answer these questions — not from their armchairs, but through action.

“Dhirubhai”, who passed away in the early hours of May 7, will be remembered as one of the founding fathers of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), one of India’s most highly reputed and independent research institutions.

His primary legacy, however, is an invisible one — as mentor to scores of activists who played a key role in many struggles for justice — from grassroots efforts to counter communalism to struggles against “destructive development”, such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

In 1980, Dhirubhai, along with three other senior academics at CSDS, founded “Lokayan: A dialogue of the people”. At a time when the embers of the JP movement were cooling and there was hardly any pan-India platform for idealistic activists to learn from each other, Lokayan played a crucial role. It was conceived as an ongoing dialogue between academics and activists, between the purely intellectual and those who got their feet wet. This mutual learning process functioned both through face-to-face meetings and the Lokayan Bulletin, which was published simultaneously in English and Hindi.

Dhirubhai was a unique presence in this process. He guided us by provoking us to re-examine our pet theories and identifying in-built prejudices or limitations that we were not otherwise aware of.

It was from Dhirubhai that I first learnt the danger of making sweeping one-dimensional claims about any reality. With a laconic and subtle humour, Dhirubhai would point out that life is never that simple. Yes, there were terrible oppressions in India’s past but that is not all there was. His usually unruffled calm could waver when he was confronted by a narrative that projected the oppressed only in terms of unrelenting and abject misery. Also look for the creativity and defiant assertions of the oppressed, he would say. This is how I learnt never to see social, political and cultural relations in terms of black and white.

These were the strengths that Dhirubhai carried into his role as a member of the National Commission for Backward Classes from 1993 to 1996. He also served as president of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties from 1991 to 1993.

Along with Rajni Kothari, the main founder of CSDS, Dhirubhai coined the term “non-party political formations”, which went on to dominate the social sector discourse through the 1980s and 1990s.

Over the years, Dhirubhai took an intricate interest in the intersection of the non-party political processes and electoral democracy. Since he brought a detachment to his scholarship, he was equally, clinically, critical of both sectors. Above all, he never hesitated to be self-critical of past analysis and understandings and was always ready to modify them.

In many ways, Dhirubhai was deeply embedded in India’s oral traditions. Friends and peers often lamented that he should write much more than he did. Often, when faced with these complaints, he would just smile, rather mischievously.

His last and only singly authored book was quite aptly titled At Home with Democracy. Generations of future seekers will draw upon the theory of Indian politics which this book explored.

The richness of a charged and excited dialogue with Dhirubhai is lost to us forever now. But his contributions to the shaping of our understanding of our “samaj” and the ongoing struggle to secure democracy will continue to influence and inspire.

As Ashis Nandy wrote on the back-cover of At Home with Democracy, without Dhirubai’s contributions “the story of India’s noisy, chaotic transition from a colonial social knowledge system to a more self-confident, more autonomous body of scholars would have remained incomplete”.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 8, 2021 under the title ‘An academic in action’. Bakshi is an author and was co-convenor of Lokayan from 1989 to 1991.

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