Unsung Anthropologists

Indian Anthropology and its Critics

Abhijit Guha

There is a standard critique of Indian Anthropology advanced by some of the Indian anthropologists. The critics say that Indian Anthropology is the product of a colonial tradition and the Indian anthropologists for various reasons followed their colonial masters in one way or the other.

As early as 1971 the famous Indian anthropologist Surajit Sinha in his insightful article published in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society (hereafter JIAS) observed that despite considerable growth in research publications and professional human power in social and cultural anthropology during the last 100 years, the Indian anthropologists largely remained dependent on western and colonial traditions (Sinha, 1971; 1-14). In continuation of his pertinent examination of the colonial dependence of Indian anthropology, Sinha contributed a full chapter entitled 'India: A Western Apprentice" in a book, Anthropology: Ancestors and Heirs, edited by the Marxist anthropologist Stanley Diamond in 1980 published by Mouton. In that article Sinha discussed 'the process naturalization of the different strands of Western anthropological traditions' and finally ended with a pessimistic note:
For some time, the proliferation of trained manpower, random efforts at catching up with the latest developments in the West and a general increase in the number of publications will characterize development of Indian anthropology.

Taking note of his earlier article in the JIAS, Sinha in his 'Foreword' of the precious book Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (1974) written by Shyamal Kumar Ray, made a remark :
....there was a general reluctance among Indian scholars to take due note of the research publications of Indian pioneers and contemporaries. As a result, research endeavours of Indian scholars tend to be derivative, leaving the responsibilities of breaking new grounds exclusively to western scholars.

Next to Sinha came the critique of Amitabha Basu and Suhas Biswas who held professorial positions at the prestigious Indian Statistical Institute at 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 Indian anthropology squarely and concluded that the subject was either dead or dying in the post-colonial period.

Celebrated Social Anthropologist and Sociologist Andre Béteille in one of his articles 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.

Béteille's observation on Indian sociologists however, was not novel. About twenty five years before his pronouncement, Surajit Sinha critiqued Indian anthropologists almost in the same manner which has already been mentioned.

After about two decades of Sinha, another anthropologist, Biswanath Debnath in his article published in the Economic and Political Weekly, castigated Indian anthropologists for tailing to evolve their own tradition and blindly following the footsteps of the colonial masters by studying small, isolated, and marginal tribal communities and their process of integration in the mainstream Indian civilization. Almost the same kind of shrill voice on the purported neo-colonial bias in Indian anthropology was heard in the writings of J J Roy-Burman in 2011.

In a recent article published in Economic and Political Weekly Vivek Kumar, a professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in his article 'How Egalitarian is Indian Sociology'?' observed a higher caste bias in Indian Sociology and Social Anthropology.

Interestingly, none of these critiques were forwarded by any western anthropologist or sociologist and all the critiques were put forward by professionals who earned or are earning their livelihood by practicing Sociology and/ or Anthropology in India.

For one thing criticizing Indian Anthropology or Sociology the critics mostly ignored the studies done by the pioneers of the disciplines which were socially relevant and directed to the welfare and betterment of the underprivileged sections of the country and these studies for the betterment of the  underdog were often conducted by anthropologists and sociologists who belonged to higher castes occupying elite positions in the society. Let me now make a list of some of the remarkable scholars of the early Indian Anthropology who though worked during the colonial period tried to build up a nationalist tradition of anthropology. All of the following anthropologists were born in India in the 19th century and 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 but they used the western knowledge for the cause of the exploited tribals and marginalized communities of India. Here is the list.

1.    Sarat Chandra Roy (1871-1942) is regarded as the father of Indian Anthropology who was a practicing lawyer at Ranchi and began to do research on the society and culture of the tribes of the region not out of ethnological curiosity but driven by his humanitarian passion to deliver justice to the exploited tribals. He was deeply moved by the plight of the Munda, Oraon and other tribal groups, who were subjected to the continued oppression by an apathetic colonial administration, and by a general contempt towards them in courts of law, as "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. His house at Ranchi had a set of rooms prepared for his tribal clients so that those who came from far-off villages could stay on while his case was being fought in court.

2.   Bhupendranath Datta (1880-1961) who was the younger brother of the famous Hindu revivalist social reformer Swami Vivekananda, joined the anti-British struggle and sent to prison by the colonial government in India, and later he earned an MA in Sociology from Brown University, USA and a Ph.D. degree from the University of Hamburg in 1923. His books Dialectics of Hindu Ritualism (1950) and Studies in Indian Social Polity (1963) although published much later, can be regarded as pioneering works on Indian society and culture from a Marxist perspective. Datta presented his research paper on the political condition of colonial India to V I Lenin. Lenin gave a reply to Bhupedranath and requested him to collect data on the peasant organizations in India which was very much appreciated by Datta. His contributions have not yet been included in the curriculum in Indian Anthropology nor the critics of Indian Anthropology mentioned Datta's name in their critiques of Indian Anthropology.

3.  Biraja Sankar Guha (1894-1961) was the founder of the Anthropological Survey of India and was known to the students of Anthropology as a Physical Anthropologist who made a classification of the Indian population on the basis of their Physical features. Very few people know that he first undertook a thoroughgoing field survey on the Social tensions among the refugees of the then East Pakistan for suggesting the government about how to understand their problem and improve their living conditions.

4.  K P Chattopadhyay, (1897-1963) was not only the Head of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Calcutta but was also a life-long fighter for civil liberties movement in West Bengal before and after the Independence of India.. His researches on the jute mill workers and the workers of the then Calcutta Corporation were pioneering in anthropology which broke away from the colonial anthropological tradition.

5.  Tarak Chandra Das (1898-1964) who made a marvelous empirical study, still unparallel in global and Indian Anthropology on the devastations caused by the Bengal famine of 1943 during the colonial period. Das was such a courageous academic that he in his Presidential address of the Anthropology section of the Indian Science Congress in 1941 criticized the colonial government and the Christian missionaries for doing a lot of harm to the tribals of north east India. He had a vision for the application of Anthropology for human welfare but that was forgotten by the Indian anthropologists. The critics of Indian Anthropology also did not care to look at the socially relevant and responsible studies.

This list is not exhaustive. It only highlights the missing strips of research in the history of Indian Anthropology, which has not yet become a tradition in the pedagogy of Indian Anthropology.

Vol. 49, No.8, Aug 28 - Sep 3, 2016