Nationalist anthropology

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Avijit Guha

In the reckoning of noted anthropologists, Indian anthropology is the product of a colonial tradition. As early as 1971 the eminent Indian anthropologist, Surajit Sinha, who was Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University, had written in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society that despite considerable expansion of research publications and professional ability in the spheres of social and cultural anthropology during the past 100 years, Indian anthropologists were largely dependent on western and colonial traditions.
Sinha in his ‘Foreword’ of the precious book, Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (1974) written by Shyamal Kumar Ray remarked that there was general reluctance among Indian scholars to take note of the research publications of Indian pioneers and contemporaries. As a result, research endeavours in this country tend to be derivative, leaving the responsibility of breaking new ground exclusively to western scholars.
Next to Sinha came the critique of Amitabha Basu and Suhas Biswas in the 1980s. Both were associated with the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata. In their article, “Is Indian Anthropology Dead/Dying” published in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society, they raised the question of social relevance of anthropology in India. They concluded that the subject was either ‘dead’ or was ‘dying’ in the post-colonial period.
The distinguished social anthropologist and sociologist, Andre Beteille, in an article published in the Sociological Bulletin in 1997 wrote: “In India, each generation of sociologists seems eager to start its work on a clean slate, with little or no attention to the work done before. This amnesia about the work of their predecessors is no less distinctive of Indian sociologists than their failure to innovate”.
On the reverse side of the critiques there is a perception that an Indian form of anthropology could be discerned in many ancient Indian texts and scriptures before the advent of colonial anthropology introduced by the European scholars, administrators and missionaries in the subcontinent. As early as 1938 Jogendra Chandra Ghosh in his interesting article, “Hindu Anthropology”, published in the Anthropological Papers (New series) no. 5 of the University of Calcutta tried to show that before 6th Century BC, the Hindus innovated various measurements on the human body and its parts, which in European terms may be called Anthropometry, an important branch of Physical Anthropology. Ghosh pointed out that the earliest record of these anthropometric measurements was found in Susruta-Samhita, a medical treatise written by the ancient Hindus. Ghosh also noted that the ancient Hindus had their own notion of Ethnology. Ghosh was hinting at the fact that ‘racial theory’ became a major theme in latter-day western anthropology.
Another later proponent of Hindu anthropology was Nirmal Kumar Bose, who was once Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary. Bose in his earliest textbook entitled Cultural Anthropology, published in 1929, made a novel attempt to show that the ancient Hindus in their scriptures classified the desires or needs of human beings into artha, kama, and moksha (spiritual) almost in the fashion of functional anthropologists of the west. Bose probably held that the Hindus like the western anthropologists had their own scheme of understanding human nature and behaviour.
Both the colonial critique of Indian anthropology (Sinha, Basu and Beteille) and the proponents of Hindu anthropology (Ghosh and Bose) ignored the materialistic, socially committed, secular and nationalist trends of Indian anthropology which was growing in the hands of some noted anthropologists before and after Independence. The critics have only followed the fashionable way to criticize the pioneers instead of studying the socially committed works of the latter. That is one of the reasons why we failed to honour our predecessors and depended more on the wisdom of the western scholars. But the critics have only paid lip-service to these nationalist pioneers of the discipline.
These anthropologists learned the methodology of the discipline from the west, but did not become blind followers of Europe and America. Furthermore, they did not want to derive their anthropology from the religious scriptures of the ancient Hindus. Instead, they tried to apply anthropology in nation-building, a task which ironically was finally nipped in the bud by their successors. There were outstanding scholars of early Indian anthropology.
Though they had worked during the colonial period, they had tried to build up a nationalist tradition of anthropology. All of them were born in India in the 19th century and had applied their knowledge in anthropology and sociology for the cause of the marginalized and exploited tribals and other underprivileged and deprived sections of the Indian population. Although, these anthropologists were influenced by the theory and methodology of the western anthropologists, they used the western experience for the cause of the exploited tribals and marginalized communities of India.
For instance, Sarat Chandra Roy (1871-1942) is regarded as the father of Indian anthropology. He was deeply moved by the plight of the Munda, Oraon and other tribal groups, who were subjected to oppression by an apathetic colonial administration and by a general contempt towards them in the courts of law. The “upper-caste” Hindu lawyers had little knowledge of their customs, religions, customary laws and languages. His keen interest and sympathy of the oppressed tribals inspired him to study their culture and Roy always stood for their cause.
Bhupendranath Datta (1880 -1961), who was the younger brother of Swami Vivekananda, joined the anti-British struggle and was sent to prison by the colonial Government in India. His books, Dialectics of Hindu Ritualism (1950) and Studies in Indian Social Polity (1963) can be regarded as pioneering works on Indian society and culture from a Marxist perspective. Panchanan Mitra (1892 -1936) was the first Professor of Anthropology in India. He was the Head of the Department of Anthropology of Calcutta University and is known for his pioneering book, Prehistoric India as early as 1923.
This book examined the antiquity, richness and diversity of the culture of humankind long before the advent of scripts. He is still the lone Indian anthropologist who wrote a book on the history of American anthropology in 1930. Biraja Sankar Guha (1894-1961) was the founder of the Anthropological Survey of India and was known as a Physical Anthropologist who classified Indians on the basis of their physical features.
KP Chattopadhyay (1897-1963) was not only the Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta, but was also a fighter for civil liberties in West Bengal. Tarak Chandra Das (1898-1964) made an excellent empirical study on the Bengal famine of 1943, one that is still unparalleled in global and Indian anthropology.
The writer is former Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore in West Bengal
(Courtesy: TS)

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