Nationalist Anthropology of Sarat Chandra Roy

Abhijit Guha

In an important book entitled Anthropology in the East,  Patricia Uberoi, Nandini Sundar and Satish  Deshpande in the subsection ‘Nationalism  and the Nation-State’  of the ‘Introduction’ commented.

We are yet to form a detailed picture of the ways in which nationalism exerted its influence in shaping Indian sociology and social anthropology. To be sure, almost every historical account of the discipline, whether it concerns an individual, an institution or the discipline at large, makes mention of this factor…. (Uberoi, Sundar & Deshpande 2007: 38). (Italics mine).

In the discussion that followed the above quoted opening statement, the authors admitted two important points, first, the question of nationalism occupied a ‘very wide spectrum’ and second, no Indian anthropologist or sociologist could oppose nationalism. I do not claim that I have been able to cover the whole range of the nationalist spectrum of Indian anthropology but I could only discover some of the notable nationalist anthropologists and highlight their works in some detail just as a beginning.  

Along with the colonial tradition, a nationalist trend in Indian anthropology could also be discerned which was growing during the pre and post-independence periods in India and this trend was characterised by the works of the anthropologists who were socially committed and contributed to nation building through their analytical writings and research(Guha 2018:8). These anthropologists learned the methodology of the discipline from the west but did not become blind followers of Europe and America, and they also did not want to derive their anthropology from the religious scriptures of the ancient Hindus. Instead, they visualised an Indian character of anthropology, which according to them could be used in nation building, a task which finally could not develop into full maturity by their own successors.

Under this background, I will narrate the case of Sarat Chandra Roy (1871–1942) who can be regarded as the first nationalist anthropologist of India.  He 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, administrative need or evangelical mission like the Europeans, but driven by his humanitarian passion to deliver justice to the exploited tribals(Guha 1937:307). He was deeply moved by the plight of the MundaOraon 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 their case was being fought in court (Ghosh 2008).

In 1938, the same year in which Jogendrachandra Ghosh wrote the article ‘Hindu Anthropology’ in a Calcutta University journal (Ghosh 1938) Sarat Chandra Roy wrote an article entitled ‘An Indian Outlook on Anthropology’ in Man, the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. This article can be regarded as one of the pioneering ones in the nationalist tradition of Indian anthropology. Because, in this article Roy not only critically evaluated the major theories developed in the then western anthropology, like evolutionism, diffusionism and functionalism with much scepticism but he also made a novel attempt to synthesise  the ideas of ancient Indian philosophers with western anthropological concepts. According to Roy, the essence of Indian thought lay in the subjective process of ‘sympathetic immersion’ with other cultures and societies and this could be combined with the objective approach of western anthropology. I quote Roy:

Thus the objective methods of investigation of cultural data have to be helped out, not only by historical imagination and a background of historical and geographical facts, but also by a subjective process of self-forgetting absorption or meditation (dhyana) and intuition born of sympathetic immersion in, and self-identification with, the society under investigation.
The spread of this attitude by means of anthropological study can surely be a factor helping forward the large unity-in-diversity-through-sympathy that seems to an Indian mind to be the inner meaning of the process of human evolution, and the hope of a world perplexed by a multitude of new and violent contacts, notably between Eastern and Western civilizations (Roy 1938:150). (Italics mine).

One may note that Roy did not bring in any Hindu religious connotation to this method. For him, the Indian way of reaching the Universal through a sympathetic understanding of particular cultures through tolerance and love could build up a national character which would not try to shape the different peoples and cultures in a uniform pattern. Again, in Roy’s words:

The better minds of India are now harking back to the old ideal of culture as a means of the progressive realization of the one Universal Self in all individual- and group-selves, and the consequent elevation or transformation of individual and ‘national’ character and conduct, through a spirit of universal love. The anthropological attitude while duly appreciating and fostering the varied self-expression of the Universal Spirit in different communities and countries, and not by any means seeking to mould them all in one universal racial or cultural pattern, is expected to help forward a synthesis of the past and the present, the old and the new, the East and the West (Ibid).(Italics mine).

Sarat Chandra Roy’s approach to develop a nationalist anthropology in India was not a   simple theoretical exercise. One should remember that he was the first Indian who founded the second professional journal of anthropology in India named Man in India in 1921. The first professional journal of anthropology in India was Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay which was founded in 1886. Its first editor was Edward Tyrrell Leith, a British national and professor of Law at the Government Law College, Bombay (now Mumbai). This journal continued up to 1973(Shah 2014:363).  Roy’s aim was to develop an Indian School of Anthropology. In an editorial of Man in India published in 1985 the then editor Surajit Chandra Sinha commented:

Sarat Chandra Roy’s enterprise in Man in India was motivated by the national needs of his times and his personal pride in nationalism. As for lines of scientific enquiry he also wanted Indian scholars to seek suggestions from Western scholars and so was adopted a policy…. It also transpires that practically all the Western and Indian path –finders in the anthropology of India have contributed to this journal (Sinha 1985: iv-v). (Italics mine).

Suffice it to say that Roy was not a blind nationalist. He was open to suggestions and contributions from western experts in the pages of Man in India and quite a good number of western anthropologists had contributed their original research findings on India in this pioneering journal. Sangeeta Dasgupta’s perceptive comment in this regard is useful:

Roy’s long and varied career witnessed the rise of Victorian evolutionism, then diffusionism, and the eventual displacement of these by functionalism: at different points in time he applied all these concepts to the Indian context. At the same time, as a professed Hindu and nationalist Indian, particularly in the later phases of his career, Roy sought to methodologically establish an ‘Indian view-point’ for anthropology, believing that anthropology would help in the integration of national life (Dasgupta 2007:144).

Roy’s nationalism, despite his professed Hindu background was basically Indian. In this connection one may recall a 1933 article written by Panchanan Mitra who was Roy’s contemporary and the first professor of anthropology in India(Bose 2006: 1439). The article was published under the editorship of Roy in Man in India under the title ‘Research leads in anthropology in India’. In this article Mitra justified not only the importance of cultural studies in India but also pointed out the relevance of Indian philosophical thinking in developing modern anthropological theory. I quote Mitra:

It is a far cry yet from the India of the day when it would not merely echo the modern West but would try its own methods to interpret anew the laws of nature and the predominant culture pattern of India would lead it to its time old probing of all the secrets of creation through the introspection and scientific investigation of microcosmic man (Mitra 1933:12).(Italics mine).

I will conclude by saying that one may find a similarity in the thoughts of P. Mitra and S.C. Roy who had their hopes to synthesise Indian philosophy with Western anthropology. What was ‘introspection’ for Mitra was ‘sympathetic immersion’ for Roy and none of them invoked the idea of a ‘Hindu anthropology’ or seemed to believe that modern anthropological concepts were already present in the ancient Hindu period in India.

Bose, K. (2006). Panchanan Mitra. Current Science.91 (11):1439.
Dasgupta, S. (2007). Recasting the Oraons and the ‘Tribe’ Sarat Chandra Roy’s anthropology.In P. Uberoi, N. Sundar, & S. Deshpande (Eds.), Anthropology in the east: Founders of Indian sociology and anthropology (pp. 132–171). Ranikhet: Permanent Black.
Ghosh, A. (2008). History of Anthropology in India.
Ghosh, J.C. (1938). Hindu anthropology. Anthropological Papers (New Series).Calcutta University Press: University of Calcutta.
Guha, A. (2018). In Search of Nationalist trends in Indian Anthropology: Opening a New Discourse.  Occasional Paper No. 62. Kolkata: Institute of Development Studies.
Guha, B.S. (1937). Progress of anthropology in India during the past twenty five years. Calcutta: Indian Science Congress Association, pp.300-335.
Mitra, P. (1933). Research leads in anthropology in India. Man in India. 13(1):1-16.
Roy, Sarat, Chandra. (1938). An Indian outlook on anthropology. Man. 38(171-172):146-150.
Shah, A.M.(2014). Anthropology in Bombay, 1886-1936. Sociological Bulletin.63 (3):355-367.
Sinha, S. (1985).Editorial of Man in India. 65(4): i-v.
Uberoi, P., N. Sundar and S. Deshpande. (2007). ‘Introduction: The professionalisation of Indian anthropology and sociology – People, places and institutions’, P. Uberoi, N. Sundar and S. Deshpande (eds.): Anthropology in the East: Founders of Indian sociology and anthropology (1–63). Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

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Jun 5, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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