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Anthropology at 100~I

Abhijit Guha |

The teaching of Anthropology in universities as a holistic study of humankind began in Europe and America late in the nineteenth century. In India the first department of anthropology was established at the University of Calcutta in 1921. Anthropology was introduced in the university in 1918 as part of the curriculum of Ancient history and culture.

In 1920, it was given the status of an autonomous subject for study at the post-graduate level leading to M.A./M.Sc. degree. Thereafter, a separate department of Anthropology was established in 1921.

The teaching of Anthropology at Calcutta University completed hundred years with the start of 2018. What is most significant about the department is that despite its long association it lacks a documented book on its history. There is only a short paragraph of barely 250 words entitled ‘History of the Department’ in the official website of the Department on Anthropology at Calcutta University.

It is a matter of shame that a hundred-year-old academic department, which is devoted to the study of the biological and cultural evolution of human beings for millions of years, could not reconstruct its own history.

One may even wonder how this department will commemorate its hundred years of teaching without recollecting its own past. How will the present generation of students and teachers of this heritage department pay homage to the pioneers without a factual and interpretive evaluation of the contributions of the latter?

Not that the history of academic and research institutions of anthropology are absent in our country. One notable example is the history of the Anthropological Survey of India which is the largest governmental research organization of anthropologists in the world. It was established in 1945 with Dr BS Guha as its founder Director who taught briefly in the anthropology department of Calcutta University in the 1920s.

The legendary British civil servant cum anthropologist, Varrier Elwin who became a follower of Gandhi ,was the Deputy Director of the Anthropological Survey of India. There is a well documented book on the history of this institute entitled The History of the Anthropological Survey of India, edited by the then Director General Dr KS Singh and published in 1991.

The other problem is the dearth of important books by the notable pioneers of the department. I will just mention the names of two such books which have tremendous contemporary relevance and are neither available at the sales counter of Calcutta University nor are recommended for reading to the students in anthropology in their syllabi. The publication division of the University of Calcutta has not yet been able to reprint these memorable books.

The first book was written by Tarak Chandra Das (1898-1964), a brilliant and dedicated teacher who joined the department at Calcutta University as a lecturer in 1923 and retired as Reader in 1963.The title of the book is Bengal Famine (1943) and carries a survey of the destitutes of Calcutta. The survey was undertaken by a team of anthropologists during 1943-44 in the city and the villages across ten districts of undivided Bengal.

The idea of conducting a survey with a team of trained anthropologists was first conceived by TC Das in July-August of 1943 when hundreds of hungry destitutes entered the city in search of food. Das proposed the survey to his colleagues and prepared a detailed questionnaire and a team was formed with eleven trained anthropologists including the teachers and research students of the Department of Anthropology of Calcutta University.

The data thus collected was analysed and a preliminary report was written. A major part of the report was submitted to the Famine Inquiry Commission (constituted by the then colonial government) in 1944 in the form of a memorandum which was placed in the British Parliament.

The report was later written in the form of a book by T.C.Das in July 1948 and was published in 1949 by Calcutta University. Bengal Famine, therefore, is a unique example of team-work under the leadership of TC Das by a dedicated group of university based anthropologists who were driven more by a kind of social and moral commitment than by pure academic quest.

This of course does not mean that the survey was conducted in a loose manner, that methodological rigors were sacrificed in order to conduct a rapid and quick appraisal of the situation. The team had no national or international funding agency behind them, let alone a political agenda. Calcutta University sanctioned Rs 500 only to extend the survey to the rural areas of the 10 districts of undivided Bengal.

In fact, the two chapters on methodology, which are the best portions of the book, reveal its strength. Chapter XI of the book entitled ‘Causes of the Famine of 1943’ is another treasure-house of the book which places Bengal Famine far above the category of a run-of-the-mill sample survey. Jawaharlal Nehru in his book, The Discovery of India (1946) referred to the survey before the publication.

He expressed confidence on the results of the survey in contrast to the one carried out by the government. In the words of Nehru: “The Department of Anthropology of Calcutta University carried out an extensive scientific survey of the sample groups in the famine areas. They arrived at the figure of about 3,400,000 total deaths by famine in Bengal… Official figures of the Bengal Government based largely on unreliable reports from village patwaris or headmen gave a much lower figure (pp. 495-496)”.

Amartya Sen in his famous book, Poverty and Famines: An essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1999) cited TC Das’s book ten times, although Sen did not mention anything on Das’s explanation regarding the causes of the famine.

In chapter X of the book Das made an attempt to understand the various causes of the disaster and more importantly, came up with some concrete short and long-term remedial measures towards the prevention of famine or near-famine conditions in Bengal. Like Amartya Sen, Tarak Chandra Das did consider the question of the availability of rice, but in addition he also took into account consumption figures in Bengal and did not accept the thesis that the decline in the availability of food was a plausible cause of the famine.

With the help of massive quantitative data and based on his intimate field-based knowledge about the agriculture of Bengal, Das argued that the majority of Bengal’s population depended on the cultivation of small and scattered tracts of land which made the peasant families vulnerable to food crisis. In this connection, it would be worthwhile to quote from Das: “The only point we wish to emphasise is that a very large number of persons of Bengal depend on agriculture.

It is certain that each and every one of these families could not have a sufficiently extensive farm to meet all its demands and lay something for evil days. In fact they lived on the narrow margin which separates subsistence from starvation. Whenever there was even a slight disturbance of the balance either through natural or artificial causes a large number of them fell victims of starvation” (page 105).

The writer is former Professor, Dept of Anthropoliogy, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore in West Bengal.