contemporary political language, a constitution is generally considered a
neutral document, one that sets forth fundamental ground rules for how persons
and organizations should conduct themselves politically but stands outside of
the push and pull of quotidian politics itself. It is also understood as a
stable, almost timeless framework that exists outside of the many changes of
ordinary political life. Think of the mechanisms for amending itself the US
constitution sets out, these emphasize an aspiration to enduring currency. Therefore,
most people tend to understand a constitution as both an unbiased arbitrational
document and as something essential to moving about effectively in the world.
Dasgupta, the new Assistant Professor of Politics at The New School for Social
Research, has a different perspective. A political theorist, he explores the
historical relationship between political institutions, like constitutions, and
political transformation, taking a broad look at the variable historical
composition of political paradigms, from constitutionalism to postcolonialism.
His findings challenge some of the most conventional beliefs we have about the
connection between revolutionary upheaval and political institutions. As he
demonstrates, constitutions are not always the neutral means of closure and
containment, but are sometimes the very tools of genuine political
A Global Academic Journey
native of Calcutta, Dasgupta began his career with tentative intention of
become a lawyer. He graduated from the National Law School of India University,
the country’s first such school, and worked as a clerk at the Supreme Court of
India. During his studies, Dasgupta discovered that he was especially curious
about the theoretical underpinnings of the law — the historical and
philosophical assumptions that were as fundamental to the legal curriculum as
they were unexamined. “I wanted to look at the legal language more critically
and from a distance,” Dasgupta said.
interest led him on a global academic journey, first to Columbia University,
where he earned a PhD in Political Science in 2014. “New York was very
fundamental in shaping me as an intellectual subject,” he says. “I was there in
very interesting political times [Occupy Wall Street], all these new journals,
people talking to each other. I was a shaped as a scholar by these moments
outside the classroom and the library, as much by anything that happened within
them. It also helped me, I think, move beyond India, linking my questions up
with those that resonated globally.”
also studied at NSSR as part of the Inter-University Doctoral Consortium, sitting
in on Politics classes with Andrew Arato and Andreas Kalyvas, and a class on
Hegel with Jay Bernstein, which he remembers as going late into the night and
often continuing at a nearby bar.
then moved on to postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard University and at the British
Academy in London. “It says something about the postcolonial world that its best
archive is actually in the British Library,” he jokes. He has spent the past
three years back home in Delhi, teaching a range of course on political
ideology and political economy at Ashoka University.
to return to New York, Dasgupta views the NSSR Politics Department as the
perfect fit for a scholar such as himself, one interested in “interrogating the
foundations and the assumptions that are built into the discipline,” he says. “The
kind of political theory I do is critical and political. It tries to make
political theory speak to the political life of the present. I always felt that
The New School is the perfect place for that kind of approach.” This summer, he’s
busy planning for “The Political Theory
of Decolonialization,” the first course he’ll teach to NSSR graduate students.
The Role of Constitutions
also been busy wrapping up his first book,
Legalizing the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). In it,
Dasgupta returns to the accepted idea that constitutions act like skeletons for
polities, providing a rigid structure that firm up the basic functions of
administration and jurisprudence alike. He claims that this view narrowly
focuses on and generalizes from a specific period of constitutional writing,
ignoring other roles constitutions might play, especially in bringing to life
the political institutions of a state.
example, we tend to look to and study the constitutions of the 18th
and 19th centuries rather than the ones that were written in the 20th.
In those earlier centuries, the story of constitutions “is the story of
closure,” Dasgupta says. “There’s upheaval and revolution and it comes to an
end with a constitution. Constitutions end revolutions.” In the 20th
century, however, constitutions may do exactly the opposite: They transform,
they kick off revolutions. For the newly decolonized states of the twentieth
century, Dasgupta says that “the revolution was in the future. We have a
constitution through which we can do the revolution, transforming the colonial
subject into a postcolonial citizen.” In this second kind of constitution, the
distinction between the time of revolution and the time of law is undone, and
the two meld together. In other words, these post-colonial states challenge our
received notions of constitutions as instruments of order and closure, instead
exploring their possibilities and limitations as instruments of revolutionary transformation.
has also explored the history of institutionalizing postcolonial visions of
freedom. “When you think about it, the 20th century is this great
moment of freedom, or at least of an image of liberation,” Dasgupta says,
citing the examples of postwar decolonization. “The question that interests me
is, what happens right after? How do we move from an image of freedom to
institutions that help us to build that world?”
one of his articles, Dasgupta takes Gandhi as a vehicle for exploring that broad
question of transition into independence. “This is the paradox: he is this enormously
influential figure both within and outside India’s anti-colonial movement, and
yet almost none of his visions of postcolonial India come to fruition.” In this
sense, Gandhi embodies a tension that all postcolonial state leaders must deal
with: What does independence look like, institutionally, if it isn’t a replica
of the European state model?
In Dasgupta’s view, the first three decades after decolonization have witnessed a shift from idealistic potential to a gradual disappointment. This perspective leads him to yet another question: how to construct an account of decolonization that is alive to both its expansive aspirations of emancipation as well as the eventual exhaustion of hope. Gandhi can be seen as case study in what happens when the vision fails to find a way to implement itself, when the anticolonial spirit fails to translate itself into a postcolonial one.
These sorts of issues, along with other recurring questions that newly independent states and leaders grapple with, will be explored in Dasgupta’s Fall 2019 course. “I’m am really looking forward to being at The New School, being back in New York,” he said. “What I look forward to about these graduate seminar is the opportunity to explore interesting questions together with the students. From the conversations I had with my colleagues and some of the students already, I believe that it will be an exciting journey!” he says.