In November 2019, Christophe Jaffrelot, CNRS Senior researcher at Sciences Po, CERI, was elected member of the prestigious French Académie des sciences morales et politiques. He accepted to answer our questions on his career as a researcher and teacher at Sciences Po.
This interview was conducted by Miriam Perier.
You have recently been elected a Member of the French Académie des sciences morales et politiques. Does this election bear a special meaning for you?
It does indeed! Mainly because this recognition not only touched me, but also moved my friends and my family. I come from a modest family, from what is generally called the lower middle class. I was the first of my family to sit the Baccalauréat exam. My parents always encouraged me to study, however, and they even gave me the Encyclopaedia Universalis as a present when I was a student, which represented at the time one month’s salary for my father. My mother was a typist and she typed my PhD dissertation before taking care of the works of my colleagues at the CERI… For my parents, my joining the Académie des sciences morales et politiques bears a special meaning, as it also does for my wife, Tara, and my children.
On the occasion of this election, I would like to come back to your career as a researcher. First of all, your research interests. What is the genealogy of your research on India? When and how did it start, and why?
The first time I became interested in India was during my last year at high school (in Terminale class) in the town of Poissy, a Parisian suburb. My Philosophy teacher, Elisabeth Andrès, who later became a close friend of mine, initiated me to India’s philosophies. When I came to study at Sciences Po after my Baccalauréat, I combined this interest with social sciences— mostly history—to study how Hindus reacted to Christian missionaries during the 19th century. My PhD—supervised by Professors Jean Leca and Bruce Graham—begins with this period but analyses mostly the trajectories of Hindu nationalists from the 1920s to the 1990s. The PhD being 1,793 pages long, I could only publish the second as a book form and not the most historical one, unfortunately. When I joined the CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research) I started examining the politicization of castes and the first leader among the ex-untouchables, Ambedkar. I wrote his biography, and it has just been published in Hindi and Tamil, twenty years later! I also have been studying Pakistan and the issue of Indian Islam since the end of the 1990s, in particular through the lenses of the ghettoization of Muslims in the “ethnic democracy” that India is becoming, a theme I have explored in my latest book published with Fayard.
You defended your PhD (“Nationalists in Quest of a Nation: Twentieth Century Hindu Nationalist Parties”) at Sciences Po in 1991 under the supervision of Professor Jean Leca, and your career as a researcher started the same year as you were recruited by the CNRS. Since then, you seem to have been a tireless researcher and teacher! What are the great moments of your career and what keeps you going?
The first great moment dates back to when I discovered the field. I have been travelling to India several times a year since 1984. But 35 years ago, the country was so different! Many roads resembled tracks, particularly in the region I studied during my PhD, Madhya Pradesh, the capital city of which, Bhopal, fascinated me. I spent months in the field, inquiring in cities and villages, with the help of Jean-Luc Chambard who since 1957 studied a village that was cut off from the rest of the world. This immersion into a semi-rural society was a journey through time! I discovered alterity, in particular through the social system of castes—the transformation of which I have studied in one of my books published by Michael Dwyer at Hurst, my publisher for 25 years.
I do not have a romantic vision of fieldwork, however. Doing fieldwork is exciting, but it is an ordeal. Not only is it difficult physically (especially when it is 45 degrees Celsius) but it is also hard psychologically, especially in countries subject to xenophobia and police surveillance. At CERI, we have an acute consciousness of the dangers of fieldwork: two of our colleagues, Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal have been detained in Iran since June 2019. I will dedicate my election at the Académie des sciences morales et politiques to them during my first meeting at the Académie, on 25 November.
The other great moment was my entry to the CERI where I succeeded Violette Graff in a post as FNSP researcher in 1989 thanks to Jean-Luc Domenach, the director of CERI, and all those who welcomed me and guided me intellectually: Marie-Claude Smouts, Denis-Constant Martin, Guy Hermet, Jean-François Bayart, and of course Pierre Hassner, to cite a few of my elders! I invested myself in the CERI through research groups but also through the administration of research, to the point that I became vice-director in 1996, when Jean-François Bayart was director, and then director in 2000, at too young an age. I did it by duty as much as by choice, but I do not regret it: being an academic means making research institutions work and that’s also why I was a member of the CNRS Section 40 (dealing with political science and aspects of sociology) as early as 1995 before presiding over it more recently for four years, from 2012 to 2016. The eight years I spent at the head of CERI (four together with Christian Lequesne who then succeeded me) allowed me to achieve great things—such as creating book series, including some in English with Hurst Publishers—thanks to a wonderful staff, many of whom are still part of CERI: Ewa Kulesza, who joined CERI as my deputy, Judith Burko, Grégory Calès, Corinne Deloy, Karolina Michel, Dorian Ryser, Miloud Tazibt, Roxana Vermel, and my last recruit: Miriam Périer! Without forgetting my fellow travellers, like Cynthia Schoch.
What are your current research interests?
The project funded by the French national research agency ANR (Agence nationale de la recherche) that I co-chair with Aminah Mohammad from EHESS (École des hautes études en sciences sociales), Laurent Gayer (my colleague from CERI) and Grégoire Schlemmer from the IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement) is called Shared Sacred Sites. This project has led me back to Sufism and allows me to study, with Jusmeet Singh, one of my PhD students, the attraction the mausoleum of a great master of the 12th century still exerts on non-Muslims.
Last but not least, at the CERI, Elise Massicard and I organise a research group on populism that has already resulted in the publication of a volume that Elise and I co-edited with Alain Dieckhoff in the series I created with the Presses de Sciences Po 12 years ago, l’Enjeu Mondial. I am devoting more and more time to the study of populism because it is a major concern for me as a citizen, because it is a multifaceted social science subject and because the issue has become a priority among institutions I am associated with, such as CAPS (Centre d’analyse, de prévision et de stratégie at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the Institut Montaigne. I have started a website on this topic and its ramifications in terms of authoritarianism.
What classes do you teach at Sciences Po, and do you consider teaching an integral part of the work of a researcher?
I started teaching when I was 23. It was Jean-Luc Chambard who had asked me to give a class on Indian History at Inalco at the time, where I studied Hindi myself. My own students were my classmates in the language courses! Invited by Pierre Birnbaum, I taught at the University Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne, then at University Nanterre with Olivier Herrenschmidt. I started teaching at Sciences Po in 1991 thanks to Bertrand Badie and later with Guy Hermet in DEA classes (former Masters II).
Being a teacher also means supervising PhD students, a very important activity that I thoroughly enjoy. Many students have become colleagues and friends with whom I have co-authored articles before they found a job (as I did recently with Malvika Maheshwari, Virginie Dutoya, Jules Naudet, and Jean-Thomas Martelli).
Guiding PhD students also means that I continue the chain of knowledge I have inherited from and this is why I look at myself as a teacher as much as a researcher, even though I’m only the latter, technically speaking.
 India’s Silent Revolution – The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India, London/Hurst; New York/Columbia University Press and New Delhi/Permanent Black, 2003, 505 p.