Facing famine, refugees and displacement: Anthropological Encounters

Abhijit Guha

One of the important areas in which anthropologists in India have consistently contributed is the biological and cultural study of ethnic minorities, variously labelled as tribes, aboriginals, autochthones, indigenous communities and adivasis. A related area of focus of the anthropologists is the marginalised condition of these communities and also about how to ameliorate the condition of these communities and integrate them in the mainstream of the Indian nation in the post-independence period of the country. It is important to note that the contributions of the anthropologists towards nation building in the post-independence period of India were hardly considered to be important by the planners and policy makers partly because of the nature of the discipline and in part owing to the avoidance of the anthropologists in situating their micro-level studies in the wider macro context of the nation.

Therefore, the detailed empirical studies on particular tribes, castes and villages were not of much use to the planners of mega five-year plans of the country. Although, anthropologists were undeniably regarded as experts on tribal policy at the national level but compared to economists their presence in nation building or national planning was marginal.  Even when the value of anthropological methodology of conducting in-depth field based studies were understood, it was practically not feasible for the government to engage sufficient number of trained anthropologists to make plans for displaced persons affected by famine, partition, industrialisation or dam building in the country by properly assessing the micro-level social impacts of these mega events occurring in post-colonial India. Anthropologists were also largely satisfied with their position as experts on tribes, pursuing their professional and technical research on particular communities across the length and breadth of the country long after Independence.  As a consequence, the Indian anthropologists, like the adivasis remained on the margins of nation building, pursuing their micro-level studies on tribes and some caste populations sometime almost in the fashion of their colonial masters either from the Anthropological Survey of India or from various university departments. In a calendrical account  on ‘Some Landmarks of Indian Anthropology’ published in 1986 in Human Science, the official journal of the Anthropological Survey of India, only three events were recorded under  the year 1951, which were thought to have a direct bearing on national level planning, namely, (i) application of anthropological research findings in the implementation of Community Development  Projects, (ii) application of anthropology in the formation of Panchayati Raj system and, (iii) creation of separate departments and agencies in the governments  for the study of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Communities(Bose 1986).

The foregoing narrative, however should not lead one to conclude that Indian anthropologists did not think about situating their subject and findings in the context of nation building. As early as 1941, Tarak Chandra Das, a Calcutta University teacher in his Presidential address in the Anthropology section of the Indian Science Congress dealt with the application of anthropology in almost all the important sectors of a modern nation, namely, trade, industry, agriculture, legislation, education, social service and administration. The lecture was a 28 pages full-length paper entitled ‘Cultural Anthropology in the Service of the Individual and the Nation’. In this lecture, Das’s major objective was to convince his readers about the immense potential of social-cultural anthropology as an applied science for the overall development of the Indian population (Das 1941). The message concerning the role of anthropologists in nation building delivered by T.C. Das was carried forward by S.S.Sarkar, another doyen of Indian Anthropology from Calcutta University, and he was a biological anthropologist.  His presidential address in Anthropology section was entitled ‘The Place of Human Biology in Anthropology and its utility in the Service of the Nation’. It was delivered in 1951 in the Indian Science Congress and later published in the journal Man in India. In the lecture Sarkar mentioned Das’s strong recommendation towards turning the Widow Remarriage Act from a ‘permissive’ to a ‘coercive’ one in the interest of ‘national welfare’. Throughout his lecture Sarkar cited example after example from various studies conducted by the Physical Anthropologists and Human Biologists all over the world, which have had enormous policy implications towards nation building in India (Sarkar 1951).

Under this general scenario of anthropological discourse around nation building a specific focus could also be discerned in the works of the anthropologists in India. This focus was centred towards the (i) displacement and resettlement of populations caused by famine, (ii) refugee influx caused by the partition of the country on religious grounds during Independence and (iii) displacement caused by industrialisation and dam building by the State in the initial years of mega-planning under the first and second five years plans. All the three events, i.e. faminepartition and mega-development efforts (industrialisation and dam building) were inseparable from nation building, and policy makers  felt the need of anthropological advocacy and insight to deal with the problems arising out of displacement caused by partition and mega-development efforts.  Definitely, the anthropological interventions in these mega events of nation building were miniscule in proportion to the nationwide magnitude of those episodes. I just give an example. On 6 May 2020 the total number of deaths caused by Corona virus was 261,243 ( accessed on 06.05.2020) while around 3 million people died in Bengal Famine in the then undivided Bengal (Sen 1981:52).   

In terms of the intensive nature and quality of the micro-level findings, the anthropological studies on refugee resettlement and rehabilitation of development caused displaced persons offered a new area around the discourse on nation building, so far untouched by historians, economists and political scientists (Guha 2020).

For the purpose of this study towards the exploration of anthropological discourses and encounters around resettlement and rehabilitation of famine affected destitutes, refugees of partition and development project affected populations, I will mention five pioneering studies conducted by eminent Indian anthropologists who made important contributions in solving the aforementioned problems encountered by the policy makers of Independent India. All the studies were published after the Independence of the country and except the study on Bengal famine by Tarak Chandra Das the rest of the studies were conducted  within the span of the first four five year plans of India during 1951-1974.  I enumerate the studies below in their chronological order.

  1. Bengal Famine (1943): As Revealed in a Survey of the Destitutes of Calcutta (1949) by Tarak Chandra Das. The University of Calcutta.
  2. Resettlement of East Pakistan Refugees in Andaman Islands: Report on Survey of Further Possibilities of Resettlement (1955) by Surajit Chandra Sinha. Govt. of West Bengal.
  3. Studies in Social Tensions Among the Refugees From Eastern Pakistan (1959) by B.S.Guha. Department of Anthropology. Govt. of India.
  4.  Social Processes in the Industrialization of Rourkela (With Reference to Displacement and Rehabilitation of Tribal and Other Backward People) (1961) by B.K. Roy Burman. Office of the Registrar General, India.
  5. A Survey of the People Displaced Through the Koyna Dam (1969), by Irawati Karve and Jai Nimbkar. Deccan College: Poona.

The first common feature of these anthropological studies was that except the study done by T.C.Das on Bengal Famine, all of them were commissioned and sponsored either by the central or the state government of Independent India which engaged anthropologists on matters related to displacement and resettlement. Das’s study was funded partly in its later stage by the University of Calcutta.   

The second feature of these studies was that they were not specifically directed to any particular ethnic minority or community, as had been done by the anthropologists by following the colonial tradition, but to the populations affected by partition and development processes.

The third common denominator of these studies was their solid empirical database. In all these studies the main objective of the authors was to collect, organise and analyse quantitative and qualitative data on the problem, which they wanted to investigate. 

Fourth, the analyses of the data were also done not to test or generate any theory or hypothesis as regards the human populations, societies and cultures involved in the processes but to collect concrete factual materials on the ground realities of displacement of human populations in the newly Independent nation.

Fifth, in all the studies we find that the anthropologists innovatively employed their traditional methods (participant observation, genealogy, case study etc.) to large populations.  

Finally, these studies were done not for seeking pure knowledge but to generate policies around the major challenges encountered by the planners of the newly Independent country in the post-colonial period.

In short, these studies can be viewed as sincere attempts by the anthropologists towards the making of a new nation and that still remains outside the mainstream debates and discussion around nation building by the social scientists and even by the anthropologists themselves.

Bose, S. (1986). Some landmarks of Indian anthropology. Human Science. 35(1): 74-76.

Das, T.C. (1941). Cultural Anthropology in the Service of the Individual and the Nation.Pp.1-29.Presidential Address delivered in the Section of Anthropology in the Twenty-eighth Indian Science Congress. Benares.

Guha, A. (2020). Nation building on the margins:  How the anthropologists of India contributed? (Forthcoming in Sociological Bulletin).

Sarkar, S.S. (1951).The place of human biology in anthropology and its utility in the service of the nation. Man in India. 31(1): 1-22.

Sen, A. (1981). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Clarendon Press: Oxford.

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May 10, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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