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September 23, 1999
Remembering Weiner's Legacy
Paul Brass and Ashutosh Varshney
This conference will explore what Myron Weiner has meant to and for us. We will, however, not only praise and honor him but also engage critically with his work and ideas. We want to respect him the way he would have most appreciated -- namely, by taking his work, ideas and values seriously as matters for discussion and retrospective assessment, including, as the issues warrant, argument and debate.
The theme we have chosen is India and the Politics of Developing Countries. The intersection of India and developing countries is in keeping with the spirit of Weiner's life-long work, which presented India in a comparative perspective, brought perspectives from India to the study of developing countries, and produced through this method many influential ideas in the field of political development.
Our writers include some major non-Indianists, in the field of comparative politics, who will tell us what Weiner's research meant for their work, and Indianists who will address how the comparative framing of Weiner's India-related work shaped their understanding of Indian politics.
The listed selection of paper writers and speakers represents three to four different generations of scholars associated with or influenced by Weiner since the 1950s.
Myron Weiner was born in New York in 1931, graduated from the City College, New York, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1951, and received his Ph D in Politics from Princeton University in 1955. He began his teaching career at Princeton, then moved to Chicago and, in 1961, to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he progressed from Associate Professor of Political Science to Professor, Chairman of the Department, and Ford International Professor of Political Science.
He also directed MIT's Center for International Studies between 1987 and 1992. During his career he held several visiting appointments at Harvard, Oxford, the Hebrew University, Delhi University, and the University of Paris. Before his death, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society.
He started studying India in 1952, as a student at Princeton. Later on, with his wife Sheila, a scholar of Indian art herself, and their two children, he lived in India for several years and visited the country on shorter research trips almost every year thereafter. The result was a remarkable intimacy with India and Indians, which made his insights authentic and his arguments deep. Over the course of his career he authored 13 books, edited 19 others, and wrote innumerable articles on Indian and comparative politics.
Weiner wrote an award-winning book (Party-Building in a New Nation Chicago, 1968) on the democratic success of the Congress party. Studying how the Congress functioned in five districts, he argued that a commitment to internal elections, a capacity to manage social conflicts within the structure of the party, and a pragmatic compromise with the local power structures explained its success.
He later wrote on the decline of the Congress as well, identifying the erosion of internal democracy and emergence of reliance on personalities -- de-institutionalization, in short -- as the salient cause of the party's fall. In the late 1960s and 1970s he challenged the 'modernization' theory, which predicted erosion of religious, caste, linguistic, and tribal identities as developing countries 'modernized.'
He argued, for example, in Sons of the Soil (Princeton, 1978), that as groups organized for economic gains and political power, modernization could be expected to reactivate and intensify ethnic conflicts.
Weiner anticipated much of the debate that later emerged in India over affirmative action, personal laws, and the Babri mosque. Along with Rajni Kothari, he also founded the study of Indian elections. His more recent scholarly work was dominated by a subject never touched by political scientists. In The Child and the State in India (Princeton and Oxford, 1992), his best-selling book that combines excellent social science with profound human values, Weiner critiqued the perceived orthodoxy that child labor would automatically disappear and primary education become universal as poor countries became richer.
He showed that most societies in the west as well as eastern Asia abolished child labor before they ended mass poverty.
The greatest obstacle in India, Weiner argued, has simply been that most children in India's labor force have come from the lower castes, and the upper-caste elite did not consider education necessary for performing the menial tasks of society, assigned to the lower castes by tradition.
It is a tribute to Weiner's stature as a scholar and also to India's vitality as a democracy that a book so critical of India's policymakers and elite was widely read not only by Indian intellectuals, activists, and scholars but also by bureaucrats. Weiner made us look harder at ourselves, and convinced many that we did not have to wait until incomes of poor families rose to end child labor. In the process, he opened a new activist resolve at the grassroots.
If there is some understanding of India in the US today -- though clearly a great deal more needs to be done -- it is partly because scholars like Weiner devoted virtually their entire careers to studying and explaining India's politics, political economy, and political culture, with great insight and persistence.
Weiner died at his home in Vermont on the morning of June 3, 1999. He was 68. He was buried, according to Jewish tradition, the next morning in the Jewish section of the Montpelier cemetery. He is survived by his wife and two children, Saul and Beth.
Paul Brass teaches at the University of Washington and Ashutosh Varshney is at the University of Notre Dame.
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