The only point we wish to emphasise is that a very large number of persons of Bengal depend on agriculture. It is definite that each and every one of these families could not have had a sufficiently extensive farm to meet all its demands and store something for a period of crisis. Indeed, 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 (Das 1949: page105).
Throughout the book, we find this kind of candid and analytical descriptions by TC Das wherein dry quantitative data, graphs and tables were made alive with human stories of ‘grim struggles between hunger and finer sentiments of love, affection and kindness’. For example, in Das’s book we find the description of a hungry father pouncing upon a bowl of phan (rice-gruel) which his wife had brought for their child on a street of south Calcutta. In another situation, Das described how a mother mercilessly beat up his son for taking a piece of potato from her share. The author had to intervene to save the child from being severely injured by his mother. This memorable book contains eleven heart-breaking photographs of famine victims, six of which were reproduced from The Statesman, the newspaper which has been quoted by the author as one of the most reliable sources. One only wonders why such a seminal work, prepared with scientific rigour, human compassion, social commitment and policy implications has been put into oblivion by Calcutta University.
The second book titled Studies in Social Tensions among the Refugees from Eastern Pakistan (1959) was written by Biraja Sankar Guha (1894-1961). He was the founder of the Anthropological Survey of India and was also a founder-teacher of the department. However, BS Guha is regarded by students of Anthropology as the first Indian Physical Anthropologist after HH Risley, who made a classification of the Indian population on the basis of their physical features. Very few people know that Guha first undertook a thorough field survey on the social tensions among refugees of then East Pakistan for giving suggestions to the government on how to understand their problem and improve their living conditions. The book was based on intensive fieldwork done by an interdisciplinary team of researchers. Most surprisingly, virtually no discussion, let alone evaluation of this book had been done by the successive generations of teachers and researchers of Calcutta University’s department of Anthropology. This book is not available in the library of the department; nor is it recommended in the syllabus. It is basically a solid factual report and analysis of the socio-economic, cultural and psychological data collected by a team of trained anthropologists and psychologists on the refugees who came from East Pakistan to West Bengal under the overall supervision of BS Guha.
In his ‘General Introduction’, Guha first justified his selection of two sample areas of refugee resettlement colonies which he finalised in consultation with Gardener Murphy who was selected by UNESCO as Consultant to the Government of India in the project to understand the underlying causes of social tension in India. After this Guha put the survey in the wider political scenario of the country and mentioned in unequivocal terms the evil effects of the earlier ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British Government as well as the sectarian approach of the Muslim League government of Bengal, which paved the way towards ‘engineered’ communal riots that led to large-scale displacement of the Hindus from what was then East Pakistan. While probing the reasons behind the evacuation of the Hindus, Guha based his arguments not on any sociological theory but on the empirical findings of his multidisciplinary team of field workers. Therefore, according to him, “the loss of prestige and social status which the Hindu community previously enjoyed, and the realisation of the futility of regaining it now or in the near future was a far more potent factor in creating the feeling of frustration than the loss in the economic sphere”. (Guha, 1959).
In the subsequent pages of the ‘Introduction’, Guha analysed the data on the reasons behind ‘tension’ among the Hindu refugees. The data was collected by his research team with the use of social, anthropological and psychological methods. Guha made an excellent sociological analysis by putting the areas of social tension in an hierarchical and dynamic form. He was able to illustrate how the areas of tension played their respective roles and how the affected members of the community shifted their grievance and aggression from one area of tension to another. Like a true social anthropologist Guha also ventured into the variation in the social tension at the level of age, sex and the socio-political situation.
Another interesting finding of BS Guha was on the changing structure of the traditional Hindu joint family and the worsening of the intra-family relationships among the refugees. But here also he made a comparative interpretation of the two refugee settlements which were selected by him for the study. In one place where people depended on the governmental assistance, the traditional authority structure of the family was found to be stronger than in the refugee colony where the uprooted people had to struggle harder to get them resettled. By and large, the most interesting aspect was Guha’s technique of explaining such a complex issue as social tension. In the manner of a seasoned sociologist or social anthropologist, he attacked the problem from a relational and dynamic angle without falling in the trap of a static view of society. While providing economic or psychological explanations he also did not take recourse to either Freudian or Marxian models.
Finally, Guha was able to think ahead of his time. He recommended a participatory and nationalist model for the resettlement of refugees. In his reckoning, the social tension between the refugees and the government arose mainly because they were treated as ‘outsiders’ from the government side. The refugees should be given the responsibility of managing their own resettlement camps so that they could regain their self-respect. This was the view of Biraja Sankar Guha whom I would like to regard as one of the pioneering social scientists of post-Independence India. It would be pertinent to quote the last line from Guha’s ‘Introduction’ to the book on Social Tensions ~ “Once their displaced energies are canalised into well-directed productive sources, there is every reason to hope, that instead of a burden and a clog, the refugees will turn out to be useful participants in the march of progress of this country”. (Guha 1959: xiii).
It is an irony that sitting in the oldest department of Anthropology of Calcutta University, the students and teachers of this heritage institution may not be able to read and appreciate the classic contributions of the founders like TC Das and BS Guha and many others while celebrating their hundred years of teaching and research. There is still time for the university at least to reprint the book, Bengal Famine by TC Das with a foreword by Amartya Sen.
The writer is former Professor, Dept of Anthropoliogy, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore in West Bengal.