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Paul Brass, ‘prolific & original’ scholar of Indian politics over 6 decades, passes away

The American political scientist was known for his seminal work on India’s socio-political realities, including a three-part biography of former PM Chaudhary Charan Singh.

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New Delhi: American political scientist Paul R. Brass, who was known for his extensive research on Indian politics, passed away on 31 May “after a lengthy illness”. He was 85.

Several Indian writers, journalists and academics have paid tribute to Brass, professor emeritus of political science at Seattle’s University of Washington, whose prolific career spanned six decades.

The news of his passing was announced Thursday by Frank Conlon, professor emeritus of history, South Asian studies and comparative religion at the University of Washington.

“Paul was a prolific and original scholar who explored comparative and South Asian politics, ethnic politics, communalism and collective violence,” Conlon posted on an online forum. 

Apart from an extensive analysis of communalism in India, Brass also authored a biography of former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh.

Among his early notable works were writings on ‘Factional Politics’ of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, and ‘Coalition Politics in North India’ in the late 1960s. 

Brass was best known for his pioneering research on and analysis of communal riots in India. He had to his credit groundbreaking books like Forms of Collective Violence, Theft of an Idol and The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India, which focussed on socio-political realities in northern India with special focus on Uttar Pradesh.

“During my field research in north India during the twenty years previous to publication of this book, I gathered considerable material on a number of incidents involving both police–village confrontations and so-called Hindu–Muslim riots in villages, small towns, and large cities,” Brass had said about his book Theft of an Idol.

For the book, he followed five incidents, collated ground notes and reconstructed the incidents as “whodunnit” accounts before showcasing “how the reconstructions themselves can lay no claim to a special truth status”. 

His magnum opus was a three-part political biography of former PM Chaudhary Charan Singh, called An Indian Political Life, Charan Singh and Congress Politics. Arguably his best work, the biography was published in three parts from 2011 to 2014 and covered the years between 1937, when Singh was first elected as an MLA, and 1987, when the later passed away. 

“[Charan Singh] came from a humble background and from the countryside, though he was no country bumpkin, but a self-made man of high intellect and spoke for a new social movement, that of the backward castes of northern India, whose interest he always promoted and in whose advancement he played the most important role,” reads a snippet from the biography on Brass’s website

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Tributes pour in

Tributes poured in for Brass from all quarters, with many citing his stellar research on communal violence in India.

“Sadly we don’t have a Paul Brass anymore. The study of Indian politics in academia has now largely become a matter of Microsoft Excel,” columnist Shivam Vij wrote on Twitter.

Recalling the time he accompanied Brass on field work in Meerut, Vij wrote: “As Paul Brass walked in rural Meerut, Jats showing him their memorabilia of his subject Chaudhry Charan Singh, you could see the old man was making a pilgrimage to his karmabhoomi. ‘I have walked this land for 50 years,’ he said repeatedly.”

“One of the foremost scholar [sic] on contemporary India, Paul Brass has left this world for the heavenly abode. Hardly, I have anything on Muslims in India without citing Brass or his arguments shaping mine,” tweeted journalist M Reyaz.

“Read the RSS chief with Paul Brass. Understand the way violence happens: Rehearsal, Enactment and Explanation and Interpretation. ‘Vyakti Nirman’ is that rehearsal: preparing the actor for violence. The interpretative community has now expanded,” wrote Apoorvanand Jha, a professor of Hindi at the Delhi University.

“RIP Paul Brass! Your “Theft of an Idol” and “Language, Religion and Politics in North India” were seminal, shaping scholarship and leaving a huge impact,” wrote professor and columnist Ashutosh Varshney, with whom Brass shared a professional rivalry in the early 2000s.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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