A Great Visionary

Nirmal Kumar Bose: A Nationalist Anthropologist

Abhijit Guha

Nirmal Kumar Bose (1901-1972) was a versatile personality in Indian anthropology. His multifaceted interest ranged from temple architecture and prehistory to transformations in tribal life under the impact of Hinduism and modernisation. Bose was a professor at the University of Calcutta, Director of the Anthropological Survey of India and Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Government of India, and he was also a dedicated social worker, a Gandhian political activist, and above all a prolific writer in Bengali and English on diverse topics in professional journals, popular magazines and newspapers. Baidyanath Saraswati viewed Nirmal Kumar Bose as the ‘Gandhian anthropologist’ (Sraswati 2003:1-26) while R S Negi in his 7th N K Bose memorial lecture at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts mentioned that Raj Mohan Gandhi described Bose as a ‘left leaning anthropologist’ (Negi 2013:1).

Bose was a Gandhian nationalist unlike his predecessor Sarat Chandra Roy and contemporary Tarak Chandra Das. The anthropologist successors of Bose, like Surajit Chandra Sinha and André Béteille missed this contradiction in Bose’s personality. The real challenges like famine, partition and development caused displacement encountered by the people and the policy makers of the new nation in the post-colonial period did not find an important place in the anthropology of this great anthropologist of India, although Bose was a committed social worker and non-violent political activist (he acted as the personal secretary to Mahatma Gandhi in the mid-1940s) dedicated towards the upliftment of the untouchable castes and maintenance of communal harmony(Guha 2022).

At the end of his career Bose advocated the crucial importance of the application of anthropology in solving the problems of nation building and here lies the historical significance of re-evaluating the works of the other pioneering anthropologists of India who made solid and inspiring contributions toward nation building in the newly independent country.

The colonial connection of anthropology, particularly British social anthropology virtually began with the publication of the famous book, Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter, edited by Talal Asad, in 1973. Asad noted that ‘social anthropology emerged as a distinctive discipline at the beginning of the colonial era’, although most of the professional anthropologists showed a ‘strange reluctance’ to study the colonial connection of social anthropology (Asad 1973: 14-15). More than a decade later, an Indian social anthropologist and sociologist, Jagannath Pathy, in his article published in the Economic and Political Weekly, critiqued anthropology, in general, and third world development anthropology, in particular, for serving the colonial and imperial powers (Pathy 1981: 623-7). In this context, it would be interesting to note that in India the critical assessment of the colonial legacy of anthropology by the anthropologists had an older beginning than that advanced by Talal Asad and Jagannath Pathy.

Virtually no discussion is found on the role of anthropologists in the writings and commentaries of the scholars on the rise and development of nationalism and nationalist thought in India. Interestingly, Bose wrote an article entitled ‘Social Sciences: Their Role and Scope’ published in the Economic Weekly in 1959 in which he just suggested that social scientists are well equipped not only to provide information on the ‘social attitudes’ for and against planned development in India but also to evaluate the success and failures of development programmes (Bose 1959:141-144). In one of his significant articles published in the ‘Bulletin of the Anthropological Survey of India’ in 1962 Bose discussed briefly on some problems and solutions of national integration without mentioning the role and responsibilities of the anthropologists in the task. In the final section of the article Bose offered the ‘Gandhian formula’ of decentra-lisation through local governments as the ideal solution towards achieving national integration against provincialism and all kinds of sectarianism (Bose 1962b: 57-61). At the end of his life N K Bose in his posthumous article spoke out on the role of anthropologists in nation building in unequivocal terms:

An anthropologist does not merely play the part of an observer in a game of chess. He has a greater and deeper commitment, namely, that in India he has to draw a lesson from what he observes, so that he can utilise his knowledge in the attainment of the egalitarian ideal which our nation has set before itself as its goal. If he also accepts this ideal, then, with his superior analytical apparatus, and the use of comparisons and synthetic thinking, he can suggest many modifications in the ways in which the government or leaders of society are trying to bring about justice where injustice prevails today. And this is where anthropology has a very significant role to play and a heavy responsibility to bear (Bose 1974: iv).

Bose wrote an exhaustive article entitled ‘Progress of Anthropology and Archaeology’ published by the Indian Science Congress Association in 1963. In his address, Bose did not deal with the role of anthropology in nation building. After reviewing the then literature on the three subfields of anthropology he instead dealt more with the possibilities of building an analytical and theoretical anthropology in the Indian context (Bose 1963:1-48).
As early as 1952, Nirmal Kumar Bose, in a significant article entitled ‘Current research projects in Indian anthropology’, published in Man in India enumerated the research projects undertaken by the department of Anthropology, Government of India (the former name of the Anthropological Survey of India) and the anthropology departments at Calcutta, Madras, Lucknow, Delhi, Gauhati and Osmania Universities. Bose’s investigation was exhaustive and based on written replies from the heads of the aforementioned institutions. After reviewing the overall scenario, he concluded:

There does not seem to be any problem which Indian anthropologists have made peculiarly their own. Anthropologists in our country have, on the whole, followed the tracks beaten by anthropologists in the more powerful countries of the West. What they do, we generally try to repeat on the Indian soil (Bose 1952: 133)

Bose, however, ended with the positive note that there were exceptions to the above generalisation and, if Indian anthropologists could work independently on Indian problems, there was still sign of hope. Just 10 years later, N K Bose published another article, ‘Researches in Indian anthropology’, in the same journal in which he turned the attention of the readers from applied to ‘certain fundamental problems in anthropology’ and mentioned about the researches done by social anthropologists on the persistence of the caste system. Along with this, Bose mentioned the anthropometric surveys carried out by physical anthropologists at the all-India level as another type of fundamental research and he found young anthropologists at the Anthropological Survey of India to be ‘first-class workers’ (Bose 1962a: 179).

Peasant life in India
Although, Bose did not write on the notable contributions of anthropologists in dealing with the challenges of nation building in independent India, his own works at the Anthropological Survey of India bear testimony to putting anthropology towards the service of the nation. His position was in order to contribute towards nation building one has to know the country first and one should realise that the greater part of the country lived in the villages. Just after joining the Anthropological Survey of India in 1959 as Director Bose involved all researchers in a mega project to collect data on the socio-economic and cultural aspects of villages covering 311 districts of India out of 322 and the results of this survey was published in a volume entitled Peasant life in India: A Study in Indian Unity and Diversity in 1961. The plethora of data on the material and ideological aspects of rural India contained in the book is one of the best works done by the anthropologists in the government department. This is a book which has tremendous contemporary policy relevance at least for three important reasons. First, this book revealed with empirical information that peasant life in India cannot be improved without understanding its material diversity. Second, it showed the real value of collecting first hand information from the peasants, which should be the guiding principle behind planning and policy formulation from below, not from the top. Third, peasant life in India has an underlying cultural unity of non-competitive tolerance and peaceful coexistence, which shaped the ambition and aspiration of the peasants throughout the centuries. Can one forget these three lessons even today when the government frames its policies towards the development of rural India?

Northeast India
N K Bose’s famous report on the problems of North-East India, written as the Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was published in 1968-69. After reviewing the situation in the northeast as an anthropologist as well as a policymaker Bose lucidly formulated the governmental policy for the newly independent nation, which was summarised by Surajit Sinha in his 1st N K Bose memorial lecture delivered at IGNCA in 1993. Here is a quote from Sinha’s paper:
(a)  The main emphasis should be on building up an economy of unexploitative interdependence between the hills and the plains.
(b)  The cultural policy should be extremely permissive and tolerant, providing facilities for autonomous development from the home base of specific tribes or related cluster of tribes.
(c)  Demand for cessation should not be negotiable and this should be firmly and unequivocally communicated to those leaders who may be involved in such anti-national demands (Sinha 1993:15).

According to Surajit Sinha,
‘...this is perhaps the clearest and most sensible overall policy guideline which has been so far formulated about the unique mountainous tribal regions located at the international frontier of Northeast India’. (Sinha ibid)

For one thing the situation in the northeast of the country since Bose’s formulation of the aforementioned policy guidelines has not improved much but that does not mean that those guidelines have lost their relevance today. With the entry of the cash economy and rapid destruction of forests and the increasing pressure of population both in the hills and the plains the economic inequality between the hills and the plains have increased and the anti-national activities are also on the rise. Has the government been able to formulate any new policy after Nirmal Kumar Bose? Should one not relook at those policy guidelines of Bose in dealing with the problems of Northeast India?

Tribal Welfare
In his sectional Chairman’s speech delivered at the Third Annual Session of the Indian Conference of Social Work on 5th December 1953 Bose did not hesitate to criticise the higher caste Hindu view of assigning a low status to the Adibasis, which resulted in the conversion of the latter to Christianity in many places and thereby gave rise to anti-national and separatist attitudes. In the same article, Bose also expressed his scepticism towards the governmental approach of merely giving economic and educational benefits to the tribals. He stated,

The best course would be to try and build up a caste-free new India, where no occupation is high and none low, and this with the help of those who are within the caste organisation as well as those who stand outside it (Bose 1953: 218).

Bose with his characteristic way of explaining complex problems in a simple and straight forward manner questioned the colonial mentality towards the management of forests in the abovementioned lecture article, which is relevant till today.

In the hills of Orissa, there lives a tribe known as the Kharias. There is another who are known as the ‘Monkey-eating Kols’ or Birhors. These tribes live by collecting honey and wax or the manufacture of ropes, and by selling them to the agricultural population who, live nearby. The members of these tribes have no fear of the jungle; they live in the jungle, and are trained to take care of themselves even when they wander for days on end in the forest territory. In India there are large forests, and men have to be employed in taking care of those forests. Why should one not take advantage of the acquired aptitudes of these Birhors and Kharias; and instead of driving them into the position of settled cultivators living in a crowded environment, why can one not recruit foresters from among those who are in love with the forests? (Bose 1953:218)

A Valiant Bose
It is true that Nirmal Kumar Bose being a great visionary of Indian anthropology, who held important governmental and university positions in post-independent India and was a personal secretary to M K Gandhi did not narrate the specific contributions and role of anthropologists on nation building in independent India in his two important books entitled Problems of National Integration (1967) and Problems of Indian Nationalism (1969) but in these books he treated nation building from a brave perspective. For example, in the second book, which was originally a lecture delivered by Bose in the A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies at Patna, he spoke unequivocally against all kinds of separatist tendencies which was growing in the country. Bose was of the opinion that the greatest danger of nation building lurks behind the policy of reservation:

....[T]he administrative machinery of many of our States will have to be reformed so that men of all States can function with freedom and equality anywhere in India in order to render the best services possible to the ‘masses’, in Gandhi’s sense of the term. The present concern for somehow securing maximum benefits to the ‘Sons of the Soil’ (sometimes nicknamed as the sos) and their protection from open competition, must be replaced before we can turn the corner. Those who are backward may be given every facility for education, if they have been denied this on account of social suppression or poverty in the past. But while seeking employment they must be encouraged, not to seek protection but face competition in the open market (Bose 1969:41).

Bose viewed the problems of nation building in a critical and constructive manner. While admitting the failures of Five Year Plans he recognised the fact that the shortcomings had also been realised by the planners and he came forward with his warnings and suggestions. While welcoming the government’s decision to entrust the community development programmes to locally elected bodies, he cautioned that these bodies might also be successful in manipulating the local organisations to remain entrenched in power (Bose 1967:71-72). What then is the remedy? A committed follower of Gandhi and an anthropologist influenced by British and American anthropology, Bose at the end of his book Problems of National Integration did not hesitate to state his recommendation towards nation building by duly acknowledging the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky:

The supreme task is to turn the country’s mind to the promotion of the interests of those who toil and produce the nation’s wealth. All others can and should exist if they sub-serve the interests of the toiling millions. And the beginnings of this adventure will lie in little things well done, rather than in great things done in an inefficient manner (Bose 1967:73).

Nirmal Kumar Bose’s anthropological contributions towards nation building in independent India have not been adequately explored by the doyens of Indian anthropology. Despite his methodological limitations in propounding the famous idea on the assimilation of the Juang tribe of Odisha into the caste fold Bose made sincere attempts to put anthropology for the service of the nation from a Gandhian perspective of going to the grassroots and putting the poor and the underprivileged first in the task of nation building. ooo

[Acknowledgements : This paper is an outcome of a larger research project on the nationalist trends in Indian anthropology completed under a Senior Fellowship Grant (2018-2020) awarded to me by the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi for which I was attached to the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK). I am indebted to ICSSR and IDSK. I am grateful to Timir Basu, Editor, Frontier for inviting me to write this article in the Autumn Number, 2022. A larger and more detailed version of this article was presented online as 11th Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose Memorial Lecture on 22 January 2022 at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi. I am particularly grateful to Dr.Ramakar Pant, Head of Department of the Janapada Sampada Division of IGNCA for kindly inviting me to deliver the aforesaid Memorial Lecture. I am indebted to the Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India for allowing me to use the library of its institute at Chowringhee, Kolkata. Last but not the least, I am greatly indebted to late Raghabendra Guha, my uncle (Chotokaku) whose invaluable collection of N K Bose’s Cultural Anthropology and Other Essays helped me immensely to write this article.]

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Guha, A. (2022). Nation-Building in Indian Anthropology: Beyond the Colonial Encounter. New Delhi: Manohar & London: Routledge.
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Pathy, J. Imperialism, Anthropology and the Third World. Economic and Political Weekly, 1981, pp. 623-7.
Saraswati, B. (2003). Professor Nirmal Kumar Bose: The Gandhian Anthropologist. In T. Sen (Ed.) Nirmal Kumar Bose: Life, Works and Vision (pp.1-26). Kolkata: The Asiatic Society.
Sinha, S. (1997). The 1st Nirmal Kumar Bose Memorial Lecture, 1993. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022