Goodbye Collective Consciousness:
An Open Letter to Emile Durkheim

Abhijit Guha

Respected Professor Durkheim,
I came to know of you and your work through my social anthropology teachers at the Department of Anthropology, University of Calcutta, which happened to be the oldest Anthropology Department in India established in the year 1920, seven years after the publication of your last major and one of the most influential books The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1913). Despite the fact that our British colonial masters founded the oldest Anthropology Department and we were taught to learn more of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and his British structural-functional school, our teachers did not forget to remind us that Brown was largely influenced by you. As a corollary, we were also taught that you the French master were the source of Brown and you undoubtedly enjoyed more intellectual superiority amongst us than our British master. Our hearts bruised by the direct colonial rulers at least got some solace by placing you over Radcliffe-Brown!

My next encounter with you took place during my M.Sc. special paper classes in Social-Cultural Anthropology (a unique hybrid unknown in your country) but this time via one of your modern interpreters, Anthony Giddens. His book was easier for me, although my teacher Biswanath Banerjee suggested reading Raymond Aron! I tried and found it tougher to understand Aron’s chapter on your thought in his classic Main Currents in Sociological Thought. (1967). In Giddens’ Capitalism and Modern Social Theory (1971), I could compare you with Marx and Weber who too bothered with collective consciousness in their own ways and I found them more modern than you. Marx’s idea on ‘class in itself’ and ‘class for itself’ and Weber’s ideas on ‘Protestant ethic’ and ‘bureaucratic rationality’ were more contemporary for me than your ideas on ‘elementary forms of religious life’ simply because your ideas seemed to me too naïve to understand student or peasant unrest of Bengal in the 1970s. No wonder the students of France also did not find your variety of collective consciousness interesting for their famous May 1968 uprising! 

Only in my third encounter with you, I read you in original under the advice of a brilliant Indian anthropologist, Surajit Sinha, my first Ph.D supervisor and who in any case, not your whole-hearted admirer. Sinha preferred to ally with the American culture and civilization school founded by Robert Redfield who might have some interest in your ideas of solidarity. I read your book The Division of Labour in Society and also parts of the Rules of Sociological Method,which I think only helped me to understand how we could argue with the psychologists and economists and additionally they also helped me understand at least theoretically, the difference between tribal segmentary lineage and caste society. The idea of collective consciousness generated no special or original flavour in my mind. Moreover, I was terribly disappointed when I found that your most famous French successor Claude Levi-Strauss had finally transformed your ‘collective consciousnesses’ into the cerebral functions of the human brain which according to the maverick resulted into ‘binary opposites’.

My fourth and final encounter with you began when I was invited to speak in a seminar organized by the premier governmental institute, Anthropological Survey of India on ‘passages through collective consciousness’. I was reminded to speak on your contemporary relevance in India. So, I had to reflect back and forth through my own readings and fieldworks done over the last thirty years and found no other option but to say goodbye to collective consciousness not for the fact that it does not exist in India but that ‘functions’ of your kind of elementary forms of collective consciousness has little or no use as a sociological concept in present day India. I found groups of peasants who got dispossessed by clever politicians and the main task of the latter was to tear apart the collective consciousness of resistance built up around deprivation caused by development. Generating public consciousness against the greed of the capitalists appeared to me as the urgent task for the anthropologists and sociologists and your kind of collective consciousness which you viewed as the superglue for holding the parts of any society seemed to be a kind of false consciousness, which would only help the powerful to tighten their control over the dispossessed. So let me say goodbye to your collective consciousness again. I do hope your followers around the globe would be able to ignore my ignorance.

It is this fourth encounter with you on which I will elaborate my open letter. Let me do it.

Pro-land Acquisition collective consciousness: First Level
Since I began my research on development caused forced displacement with a special emphasis to land acquisition on a particular locale, I also tried to collect public opinion outside my field area. I talked with people of other places who were not affected by land acquisition. For example, I talked, listened and debated with my colleagues, friends, relatives and strangers on the streets and public transport systems on the justification of land acquisition. The people with whom I talked were mostly middle class educated women and men of Bengal. I found most of them had very little idea about the adverse consequences of land acquisition, let alone the intricacies and delay towards the payment of compensation to the land losers. Moreover, whenever land acquisition for industrialisation took place most of the urban and educated women and men were found to hold the view that industrialisation, after all was the sign of progress that would create employment for the staggering number of unemployed youth of Bengal. For many people, Bengal’s declining economic growth was due to the lack of industrialisation. I found very few people who also praised the success of Bengal in agricultural production. Even when somebody showed hopes for agriculture, they talked in terms of high yielding varieties of seeds and chemical fertilizers. The Bengali mind was preoccupied with an image of high technology and growth-oriented development whether it was industrial or agricultural. And, probably for that reason Bengalis were found to admire the state of Gujrat when it came to industrialisation and they praised Punjab when it was about agricultural growth. I hardly found a Bengali educated person who showed any interest for the success of cooperative farming in Gujrat or small-scale industries of Punjab. So, for the typical ordinary educated Bengali urban middle-class citizens, West Bengal needed large industries and since industries could not be established without acquiring land, the impact of industrialisation in terms of displacement was not viewed as major problem. So the only trace of collective consciousness which I found among the middle class Bengali people was a kind of false consciousness around the success of industrialization.

Pro-land Acquisition collective consciousness: Second Level
During the early 1990s the ruling left front leaders  argued that since land reform is a very successful endeavour in the state of West Bengal, which raised the agricultural production and also the purchasing capacity of the peasantry, the state is the ideal ground for the establishment of capital intensive heavy and medium industries. It is also interesting to note that by 2006 the then Marxist government that was in power changed its age-old Leninist slogan “Land to the tillers” to “Agriculture is our foundation, industry our future”(Communist Party of India (Marxist) 2007). In fact, the then CPI(M) leadership argued in favor of huge capital investment in the state by saying that success in land reforms had created the ground for industrialization, although two important government reports during the Left Front regime had recorded very slow progress in the distribution of land to the landless and even a reversal of land reform benefits to an alarming level. One may name it industrialisation-through-land reform argument.

The second line of argument came from more theoretically oriented Marxists of the ruling parties, who claimed that industries would be able to absorb the extra labour force engaged in agriculture in disguised form and also owing to the introduction of mechanization in traditional means of cultivation. The proponents of this line of argument also stated that agriculture owing to land fragmentation caused by inheritance of property rights and hike in input costs have already become non-viable for many small and marginal farmer families. This argument may be termed as employment-through-industrialisation.  Together, these two sets of politico-economic arguments created a kind of collective consciousness among the ruling party workers which acted against the interests of small and marginal farmers of West Bengal since acquisition of land also meant dispossession of the land reform benefitted peasants. So this kind of partisan collective consciousness finally became self defeating for the Left Front Government which was vanquished in the elections and had to leave the position of power they enjoyed for more than three decades. Poor collective consciousness!

Anti-acquisition collective consciousness and its sad demise
The vast rural area which lay between Medinipur and Kharagpur townships was dominated by the two left political parties of the state, namely, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI (M)], the major partners of the Left Front Government. The Congress Party, which was the opposition in the state, had some followers in the area. Congress being the major supporter of economic liberalisation did not raise any objection when the news of industrialisation in this area came to be known. In fact, the Congress welcomed this decision of the Left Government. They only raised doubts about whether the industrialists would at all choose West Bengal as a suitable site for industrialisation.  

 In the study area, Tata Metaliks (a pig iron manufacturing company) was established on nearly 200 acres of agricultural land during 1991-1992. Before the establishment of Tata Metaliks the leaders and cadres of the CPI (M) and CPI organised meetings and continued individual level campaigns on the ‘bright possibility’ of getting jobs by the land losers in the industry. But when the Tata Metaliks started production, the promise for providing jobs did not materialize, and the peasants also experienced a lengthy as well as tedious process of getting compensation from the district administration.

All the aforementioned events caused sufficient disillusionment among the peasants who were once hopeful of positive effects of industrialisation in this region. The decision of the state government to acquire agricultural land in the same area for Century Textiles Company (another pig iron company owned by the Birla group of industries) was taken under this background. The pessimism created among the peasants owing to the establishment of Tata Metaliks inspired some of the inhabitants of this locality to agitate against the acquisition of land for another pig-iron unit. Besides recording objections within the legal framework of the Land Acquisition Act, the peasants of this area also had recourse to extra-legal means to fight against the acquisition of their agricultural land.       

The movement gained popularity under the leadership of Trilochan Rana (a former Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) [CPI(ML] leader) during 1995-1996 who joined the trade union wing of the Congress Party and put considerable pressure on the district administration.

Two interesting incidents may be mentioned in this regard which would throw some light on the grounds behind the popularity of this movement among the local peasantry.

The first incident took place in the month of May 1995 when Trilochan Rana organised a good number of peasants to put a deputation to the Tata Metaliks Company authorities demanding some compensation for the peasants owing to the damage caused by movement of trucks carrying construction materials for the company through the agricultural fields, which were not acquired. At that time, there was no standing crop in the fields, so the company management could not foresee any resistance. The trucks damaged the dykes of the fields (ails) and the soil and protest by the peasants began. Under the pressure of the peasants the company had to pay compensation in kind to 75 peasant families in the presence of the pradhan (elected head of the lowest tier, i.e. gram panchayat of the statutory local self-government) of Kalaikunda GP. Some amount of fertilizer was given to those peasants whose lands were damaged by the trucks.

In the second incident, Trilochan Rana organised a deputation to the district administration about the damage caused to the unacquired agricultural fields of some peasants for putting pillars to demarcate acquired lands for Century Textiles and Industries Limited (CTIL) Company in Kantapal, Mollachak and other adjoining villages. Those cement pillars were erected by digging at about 4 sq.ft. of land to a depth of 3-4 ft. and became permanent structures right on the agricultural fields of the peasants whose lands were not acquired. These pillars served as the boundary of the acquired land for CTIL. About 24 to 25 such pillars were constructed in early 1996. The peasants argued that cultivation of fields over a much wider area around those pillars was not possible owing to physical obstruction. The district administration had to agree with this demand of the peasants and arranged for payment of Rs. 420/- as monetary compensation to those families affected by the construction of those pillars. This compensation payment continued for 2 years but with the decline of the movement, the administration discontinued this compensation .Both these incidents reveal that under the pressure of an intelligent and organized peasant movement, the company authority as well as the Land Acquisition Department had arranged compensation for peasant families having no provision under the existing legal and administrative framework. The movement reached its peak from the later part of 1995 up to April 1996 during which the farmers even resorted to violent means. In the first week of January 1996 hundreds of farmers in the Kalaikunda area stormed into the tent of the engineer who was conducting soil testing and land survey on behalf of Century Textiles Ltd. A leading national daily reported on 10 January 1996:

Land Survey and soil testing work in Mathurakismat Mouzain the Kalaikunda gram panchayat area of Kharagpur rural police station undertaken by Century Textiles – a Birla group of Industries – had to be abandoned following stiff resistance from villagers last week….The farmers also blocked Sahachak for nine hours yesterday…They also lodged a complaint with the police against the firm” (The Statesman, 10 January1996).

On 22 March 1996, the same national daily reported about a mass deputation by a group of peasants of the Kharagpur region before the district administration (The Statesman 22 March1996). In this deputation, the peasants demanded land for land or a job for the members of the land loser families. They also demanded a compensation of 3 lakh rupees per acre of agricultural land. After this deputation, about 100 peasants came to Medinipur District administrative Headquarters on 10 April 1996 and submitted a memorandum to the District Magistrate declaring that they would boycott the ensuing parliamentary election to protest against the acquisition of fertile agricultural land for industrial projects. The peasants stated in their letter that this acquisition would disturb the local economy and destabilise the environmental balance of the region and this event was also reported in The Statesman on 2 May 1996.

It is important to note in this connection that neither the state nor district level Congress leadership, or any Member of the Legislative Assembly of this party showed any interest in supporting this movement of the peasants in Kharagpur region. The local CPI (M) leadership and the elected panchayat members of this area not only remained silent on this spontaneous movement of the peasants but they also made every attempt to smother this agitation by labeling it as a ‘disturbance created by Congress to stall the progress of industrialisation under the Left Front Government’.

Without getting support from any opposition party and facing stiff resistance from the ruling left parties and lacking a coherent organisation, this localised peasant movement against land acquisition gradually lost its intensity and did not last long and finally, lost its vigor and one may recall that this peasant resistance in West Bengal took place about a decade before the Singur and Nandigram movements by the peasants against land acquisition but could not generate any collective consciousness among the Kolkata based intellectuals and political party leaders.

The old man of Kantapal jokes at collective consciousness
The event occurred near Kantapal village from where the huge chunk of land acquired for Century Textiles could be seen. I, with some of my students, was engaged in a discussion with the locals about the condition of the small dykes (ail) raised by the farmers to demarcate the plots of land possessed by different owners within the acquired area. Since no cultivation could be taken up for three successive seasons in the whole area it had turned into a grazing field and the dykes had started to break down.

Two consequences of this situation followed. First, cultivators who still had unacquired land in the vicinity of the acquired area were facing difficulties in protecting their agricultural plots from the grazing cattle. Earlier there were other peasants who also shared the responsibility of driving out the cattle from the fields during agricultural season. Driving out the intruding cattle in paddy fields is always a collective affair in rural areas. After acquisition, the number of cultivators decreased in this area. Moreover, cows and buffaloes of the milkmen of the urban areas of Kharagpur town also ventured to exploit this huge chunk of land. Second, after the breakdown of dykes the poorer people of the area, who used to collect a good quantity of small fishes of various types from those agricultural plots as a common property resource, were not getting any fish in those plots. In the discussion, three or four persons, including one middle aged woman and an old man, were present. All of them were denouncing the government for the takeover of the fertile agricultural land for CTIL which had not yet been constructed. When the question arose, if people of this area had started to dislike the ruling party and the government, then why did they cast their votes at the panchayat and assembly elections to the same party every year? The reply came from the old man, which is reproduced here verbatim and translated freely from Bengali:

“Look babu, we poor people always has to ride on some animal almost blindfolded. After the ride for some time we start to realize whether it is a tiger or a bullock. But very often we have to twist its tail in order to keep it in proper direction”.

All of us, including the old man, burst into laughter but soon I realized that the joke symbolized the rupture even in the false collective consciousness between the elected and the electors in a democracy.

So, I am forced to say again, goodbye collective consciousness. I hope your followers won’t mind much.

Sincerely yours,
Abhijit Guha.


Postscript: After I finished this open letter it suddenly struck me that there are some groups of people in India with a very strong sense of collective consciousness and they are our politicians, who cutting across ideologies have been denying to come under the purview of a democratic law, on the freedom of  information  unknown in your time in France but was part of the Constitution of Sweden in 1766. I find them partly amenable to your concept since they hardly show any solidarity on many other issues but on RTI they are strongly united around the totem of the power god!

I was inspired by Michael Burawoy, Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley by reading his ‘Open Letter to C. Wright Mills’ published in the journal Antipode. (2008)40 (3) 365–375.I sent the abstract of the paper to Professor Burawoy who replied by saying ‘well done’!(Personal communication over email dated 24.09.2017.

I am grateful to Dr. S. S. Barik and Professor V. K. Srivastava for inviting me to present a slightly different and shorter version of this paper in a Seminar on Passages through Collective Consciousness: Homage to Emile Durkheim organized by the Anthropological Survey of India   held 19th November 2017 at the Eastern Regional Centre Salt Lake, Kolkata.

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Jun 30, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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