Prof. Jit Pal Singh Uberoi, popularly known as JPS, taught at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, for close to three decades between 1968 and 1998. He passed away on January 3, 2024. This is not an occasion to summarise his oeuvre, but certainly a moment to reflect on and celebrate his profound thoughts.
One of the most fascinating aspects of JPS’s writings was the compelling case he made for cooperation and complementarity, contrasting it against the duality of heterogeneity and homogeneity. In the current context, JPS’s work gains relevance when India faces its most significant challenge in preserving its plural core. Deeply political in tone, JPS’s intellectual position serves as a crucial critique for a nation in constant struggle with its founding ideals of secularism.
Despite not being the most popular social commentator or columnist in the media, JPS's layered and nuanced works are more relevant than ever. Reciprocity and solidarity run as central themes throughout Uberoi’s earliest writings. He argued that to grapple with "non-dualism in life and in thought", it is imperative to ponder the definition of interrelations between wholes and parts, as well as the dialectical relationship between the subject and object, or between self, the world and the other.
His non-dualist framework finds expression in his analysis of the kula system, exploring the non-duality of self and other mediated through language, and examining the plurality of languages in the Indian context. Uberoi opined, “[S]ome people have got the idea that one land, one language, one faith, and one state is the best way to be strong, this is the way forward, and anything less than that is a sort of weakness. But against that ... as a student of mankind, we are proposing something quite different. We are proposing that human beings, by nature, are bicultural and bilingual, and I do not know if we are bi-religious, but there may be something like that… So, the argument for pluralism, is not that it is good for something, but it is human nature.” (LUCE Delhi Transcript, pp.45, September, 2010.)
Uberoi's thesis suggests that Indian heritage has always embraced plurality and a variety of traditions, both in medieval and modern times. Its negotiations have differed from the imagined homogeneity, uniformity or the framework of domination and hierarchy beyond majoritarianism and minority. India, thus, presents a significant case for understanding reconciliation of differences with equality, embodying the logic of pluralism.
The Indian pluralist tradition stands in contrast to the Western dualist reconciliation of difference with equality. Uberoi delved into Indian modernity, seeking possibilities that it could offer to the world at large. His discussion on the non-dualist ontological possibility allows for a different logic that permits a continuity of thinking and being, challenging the deterministic constraints of history. “Identity, understood as such, is a continuum between the self and the world, where multiple forms of selfhood namely myself, oneself, herself/himself, and the other unfold.”
This perspective brings back into the discussion the worldview that self-realisation leads to a greater understanding of the “not-self”. Uberoi, in his work Religion, Civil Society and State in India, stated that a nation should be understood “as representing that collective subjectivity which has taken the responsibility to resolve, with or without the state, issues of inequality, difference, and stratification common to human beings everywhere”.
Uberoi’s work does not seek to explain modernity as a disjunction between state, religion and society. Instead, he perceives it as an ongoing dialectical process among the three, mediated not only by religion or state but also by civil society where individuals converge for both their self-interest and the reproduction of society.