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We are the UK association for all those who research, study and teach global development issues

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What is development studies and decolonising development.

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We have around 1,000 members, made up of individuals and around 40 institutions

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Our conference this year is themed "Social justice and development in a polarising world"

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The DSA-OUP Book Series: Meet the author Arun Kumar

Did you know that the DSA, alongside Oxford University Press, publishes a number of single authored monographs every year? The DSA-OUP book series: Critical Frontiers of Theory, Research and Practice in International Development Studies aims to promote critical scholarship in development studies as an interdisciplinary and applied field.

The process of putting together and publishing a book might appear daunting. We’ll be sharing a number of blog posts to make that less so, and showcases that indeed, anyone from the DSA community can, and should, consider publishing via this route.  Expect interviews with DSA-OUP book series authors, how-tos, spotlights on different topics, and news and updates from the series editors.

For the first instalment of this collection of posts, we welcome Arun Kumar, a senior Lecturer at the University of Essex and author of the recently published Philanthropy and the Development of Modern India: In the Name of Nation (Oxford University Press, 2021). Here, Arun, tells us about the process of publishing his first book via the DSA-OUP series.

Headshot of Arun Kumar

Q. You originally trained as an architect, before working for around a decade with some of India’s leading development organisations, and finally moving into academia. What motivated and influenced these changes in direction, and how did they come about?

A. As instructive as training in architecture was (in terms of rigour, opening different fields and their questions, a general willingness to interrogate beyond the immediate), I found the training remarkably elitist and parochial in its engagement with the wider society. And so, having finished it and having enjoyed it more than I had imagined at different points, I quickly moved into the world of development working primarily on questions of social inclusion, urban poverty, and social accountability.

Over time, I came to occupy a somewhat strange space as a development consultant – hemmed in by the technomanagerialism and impact-fetish of most donor agencies, including the Tata Trusts (which later became the subject of my doctoral thesis), on the one hand; and the NGOs on the other hand, which despite their best intentions often found themselves with quite limited political power. And so, while the aid giving organizations made huge fuss about being equal partners, or learning from the field, or being ‘strategic’ in how they made and managed their funding decisions, I found that the geographies of doing development were quite rapidly moving away from the poor and their spaces; into NGOs’ training centres, board rooms of corporate foundations, and hotel lobbies in large urban centres – spaces to which only certain kinds of poor had access. And so, I was quite fed up as I found myself caught up in an increasingly post-political development landscape, which was quite rapidly corporatizing.

Academia and the idea of writing a doctoral thesis became a bit of a reprieve in terms of thinking about and thinking through some of the things that I had experienced over the last decade or so.

Q. Turning to your book, could you tell us a little about the no doubt long journey from its early genesis as an idea through to its recent publication?

A. In many ways, the return to academia and the book itself were a way by which I could think about ‘development’ that I had witnessed in the field and on the sidelines of living and working in different parts of India. It grew from my thesis , which had focused only on the history of the philanthropy of the Tata Group. Subsequently, the Economic History Society awarded a grant which allowed me to conduct further archival research on other business houses and their philanthropy in London, New Delhi, and Mumbai. It allowed me to investigate the histories of other business elites in India, especially the Marwari Baniyas, many of whom were quite caste conscious and socially conservative and whose relationship with the questions of development and modernity were remarkably different from the Anglophile Parsi community, to which the Tatas belonged.

The OUP-DSA book series was quite appealing to me in terms of its focus on critical perspectives and interest in the histories of development, of which suited the book that I was hoping to write. And so, while still working through the very early drafts of the different chapters of the book, I decided to submit a book proposal. I understand now, with the benefit of hindsight, that this was a little bit unusual as most researchers would approach a press at a somewhat later stage of writing. But I found the process of submitting the proposal, receiving feedback, and revising the proposal – even as I kept writing the book alongside – quite helpful in the sense that it helped me pin down the argument more tightly as well as frame it in a way that will appeal to the future readers of the book series.

The final submission of the manuscript was followed by a long and extensive production process, working through editing, proofreading, indexing, and cover design stages. Throughout this process, I found myself well supported by both the series editors as well as the acquisitions editor, and later the production editor at OUP.

I am also very happy that OUP India has released a more reasonably priced Indian edition of the book and hope it can now be read more widely.

Q. Your book centres on the philanthropy of India’s economic elites, and how their ideas and understanding of development have shifted and changed over time. What surprised you the most when researching this topic, and what were your most important findings?

A. So, there were several interesting things that I discovered.

For example, a large part of elites’ philanthropy in India was committed to preparing the society for the oncoming modernization: of industry, polity, etc. Despite this commitment to social modernization, it is remarkable how little interest there was in ending the oppressive caste system, for example. While the reluctance to steer clear of the caste system was only to be expected among the Marwari business elites, but even the supposedly Anglophile and quite modern Parsis, such as the Tatas, were often silent about reforming caste to modernize society. And this reluctance to engage with social vectors such as those of caste and gender, for example, has continued well into the 21st c. As it would be inaccurate to simply attribute this to the incomplete nature of the modern project, I suggest a more useful way of thinking about the development/modern question in India is in terms of a ‘circumscribed modernity’. That is, elites’ philanthropy propagated particular and narrow visions of reform and development (such as that of responsibility and self-reliance) and they deliberately side-stepped particular social vectors leaving them wholly intact. In this way, their visions of the future remained bounded and exclusionary.

Another interesting thing that I found was that while contemporary development philanthropy is targeted, to a large extent and on the face of it at least, at the poor; this was not always the case. While in the 19th c., business elites’ charity was largely restricted to helping the poor within one’s own community, the modernization of philanthropy in late-19th and early-20th c. shifted the focus onto what Jamsetji N. Tata, the founder of the Tata Group called the ‘best and most gifted’. And so, the route out of India’s poverty and underdevelopment, according to India’s business elites, was less about helping the poorest of the poor, but building the capacities of India’s brightest and the most meritorious. Even following India’s independence, they continued to invest in the founding of research and training institutions, and in the meritorious few. In this way, one finds that elites’ philanthropy has a way by which ideas of meritocracy have come to be sedimented and the spatializations of poverty and development keep moving away from the poor.

A third interesting finding was that even though we know that elites have often been overly invested in education as means of world-making, the scale on which 20th and 21st c. Indian business elites engaged in it was quite striking. Jamnalal Bajaj, Dorabji J. Tata, and Purshottamdas Thakurdas, etc. all funded the education of children, albeit in ways that were circumscribed by caste, gender, and class, in different parts of the country. But in doing so, they sought to synthesize modern Western education with Hindu/nationalist ideals with a view to nation-building through character-building. For example, in schools and colleges funded by Ghanshyam Das Birla, students were instructed in handicrafts or at least one ‘useful’ livelihood skills. Similarly, there was disciplining of their bodies, diets, and thoughts so that could develop ‘pure’ personalities and become ‘model’ citizens.

Of course, this educative impulse also worked when it came to what we now describe as adult education. So, they actively funded causes such as temperance, Swadeshi, khadi, on the one hand, as well as those of self-help, responsibility, etc., in which they funded educative activities quite extensively. The business elites’ philanthropy was animated by what I call the ‘pedagogic reflex’ where I use the term reflex both in its physiological sense of a default response/tendency but also as a way of reproducing the essence of their own development imaginaries.

Q. One of the central suggestions in your book is that development can be usefully read and critiqued as national-modern. Could you expand on what you mean by this?

A. One might conceive of some of these distinctive features of Indian business elites’ philanthropy and their visions of development as a lag or deviation from more recognizable and universal features of modernity. However, as I argue in the book, this is no different from the lag/deficit around which development itself has been premised and is not particularly useful analytically as it brings us to same kind of theoretical impasse where the careers of development and modernity in different postcolonial locations become lesser or deviations and they must return and follow or model themselves on ‘western’ models of development.

Equally, as I argue throughout the book, development in locations such as India have always been entangled with the broader national question. So, development was justified irrespective of the exclusions, displacement, dispossession it led to, because it was in the national interest. From elites’ equivocal patronage and embrace of anti-colonial nationalism, to nation-building project from the second half of the 20th c. onwards, and even now in the 21st c., development has been tied to the national question in different ways.

National-modern, then, is an analytically useful was of working through Indian business elites’ ambivalent attitude towards modernity, instead of describing these as mere deviations or the incomplete nature of modernity in different locations. It helps us understand how elites propagated their limited and exclusionary visions of reform, quite successfully by invoking the nation.

The idea of national-modern is also distinct from the national development projects from the second half of the 20th c. to which development studies has paid considerable attention. Out of historical necessity, national development followed colonialism and needed to articulate its distinctiveness from colonialism’s extraction and destruction. National-modern, on the other hand, has worked alongside or within colonialism and not simply after.

This analytical move of reading post-colonial modernization alongside the colonial era reform serves a crucial function as it allows us to trace the trajectories of different development ideas that have a much longer history: self-help, responsibility, citizenship, etc.

National-modern is also useful in revealing the strategic role of philanthropy in building the power of elites. By indexing their work with and within the national question in particular ways allowed the elites to build collaborative governing regimes across different kinds of divides, including with the British colonial administration, with the Indian nationalist leaders, as well as the post-independence Indian state. In this, Indian elites were expectedly pragmatic but what is instructive is their malleability in transforming policies and visions as well as the sheer breadth of their philanthropy, which we do not always pay critical attention to.

Q. Lastly, what advice do you have for early career scholars aspiring towards their first book publication?

A. I am still learning about the disciplinary peculiarities and wide range of practices around publishing books, I will say though that it is always worthwhile discussing things with and reaching out to as many people as one feels comfortable with. So, I discussed the practice of publishing research monographs, asked colleagues to read and comment on drafts of some of the chapters, and presented the argument in different forms at as many conferences and places as I could, across different fields. Although I did not always have the answer to all the questions I was being asked, it did help me think about why particular fields are framing questions in this way or that and how my work might/not speak to those questions. Likewise, asking colleagues and friends whose work I admired for comments was both reassuring but also helped me frame and develop my own work.

In the spirit of which, if anyone is looking for a constructive reader or to discuss their work then I am always happy to be contacted.

Interview by Ben Radley, DSA Council and Publications Committee Member.