Closure, Transformation, and the Law: NSSR Welcomes Political Theorist Sandipto Dasgupta

Within 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.

But Sandipto 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 transformation.

A Global Academic Journey

A 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.

This 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.”

Dasgupta 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.

Dasgupta 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.

Excited 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

He’s 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.

For 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.

Dasgupta 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?”

In 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.