Bhupendranath elaborately demonstrates how the origin and transformation of the caste system took place through the myriad conflicts and struggles among the different social classes revealed in the stories of the epics of India. He was also a true political activist and a worker fighting for the cause of the Indian peasantry. In 1921 he went to Moscow to join the Communist International founded by Lenin. He presented his research paper on the political condition of colonial India to Lenin, who requested him to collect data on the peasant organisations in India.
The name of Bhupendranath Datta is not mentioned in the standard history books of anthropology in India. For example, the 859-page Rise of Anthropology in India published in 1978 and written by LP Vidyarthi, the noted professor of Ranchi University and a doctorate of the University of Chicago, does not feature Bhupendranath. Another seminal and rare book, Cultural Anthropology and other essays (1953) authored by Nirmal Kumar Bose, the doyen of Indian anthropology, has no reference to Bhupendranath or his original works on Indian society and culture. His name, contributions and life-sketch did not find place in Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (with life sketches) by SK Ray, published by the Anthropological Survey of India and the Indian Museum in 1974.
Who was Bhupendranath Datta? What were his contributions? Were his contributions so insignificant in Indian anthropology that he did not even deserve mention in the history of Indian anthropology written by the great Indian scholars and published by the leading government institutions in anthropology and related sciences?
In a valuable and unique Bengali biographical dictionary named Samsad Bangali Charitabhidhan (revised fifth edition, 2010) published by Sahitya Samsad, we get a short description of the life and works of Bhupendranath Datta. He was born on 4 April 1880 in Calcutta and died on 25 December 1961 in the same city.
He was the youngest brother of Swami Vivekananda. He passed the then school-leaving Entrance examination from Calcutta Metropolitan School and joined the Bengal Revolutionary Organisation. Notably, at this young age, he became editor of the famous revolutionary weekly Jugantar and was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for one year by the then British government for writing against colonial rule.
After being released from jail he went abroad in disguise and reached the USA , there to secure his undergraduate degree from New York University in 1912. He took his Masters’ degree in sociology from the famous Ivy League Brown University in 1914. While at the USA, he got in touch with the Ghadar Party and the Socialist Club and became interested in the philosophy of socialism.
Then at the start of the First World War he reached Germany and joined the illustrious anti- British Committee organised by the Indians in exile. He was also the Secretary of this organization during 1916-18. But what was most remarkable in the career of this outstanding intellectual was that along with his revolutionary activities, he continued his study and research in sociology and anthropology on India. Bhupendranath earned his PhD degree in Anthropology in 1923 from Hamburg University in Germany and became member of the German Anthropological Society and German Asiatic Society. His scholarship was not limited to his specialised area in biological anthropology in which he did his doctorate but was vast enough to include sociology, history, law, philosophy, statistics and literature.
He wrote books and articles in Bengali, English, German, Hindi and Iranian languages. Some of his remarkable books were Bharatiyo Samaj Padhyati (1958) Amar Amerikar Abhijnata (1933), Baishnab Sahitye Samajtatta (1945), Banglar Itihas (1963), Dialectics of Hindu Ritualism (1950), Hindu Law of Inheritance (1957), Dialectics of Land Economics of India (1952) and Swami Vivekananda: Patriot- Prophet ~ a study (1954).
Bhupendranath Datta was also a true political activist and a worker fighting for the cause of the Indian peasantry. In 1921 he went to Moscow to join the Communist International founded by Lenin. He presented his research paper on the political condition of colonial India to Lenin, who requested him to collect data on the peasant organisations in India. https://www.marxists. org/achive/ lenin/works/ 1921/ aug/26c.htm). As early as mid-1930s he was directly involved with the peasant movements in India and was the president of the Krishak Sabha of Bengal as well as All-India Trade Union Congress. During this period he joined the Quit India Movement of Mahatma Gandhi and was jailed by the British.
Unlike the present-day “specialised” anthropologists, Bhupendranath was equally strong in the two major subfields of the subject ~ physical anthropology and socio-cultural anthropology. We come across several scientific articles by Bhupendranath in various national and international journals, including Man in India, the oldest professional journal of anthropology founded by Sarat Chandra Roy in 1921. I will here briefly discuss his two remarkable articles published in Man in India in 1935 and 1942. The title of the 1935 article is Ethnological Notes on Some of the Castes of West Bengal. It should be noted that the anthropologists of this period were mainly studying tribes rather than castes. Second, he looked at castes from a dynamic and changing perspective which was also new for the anthropologists of his time.
The fact that the same caste could take up different appearances and functions under the influence of changing political and economic conditions were not overlooked by Bhupendranath. For example, like a modern anthropologist he described the Bhumij community of Bankura thus.
The word “Bhumij” means indigenous…The Bhumij of Bankura formerly had been the ghatwals of the Raja of Vishnupur; that is to say they used to serve as his militia and to watch and defend the passes which led to the state of Vishnupur. In lieu of their service, they used to get land rent-free for their maintenance and used to live well. But with the disappearance of the Vishnupur State and the expropriation of their lands by the East India Company, these people have fallen off from their position. (Man in India, 1935, p. 219).
Ironically, a renowned anthropologist Surajit Sinha, who did his PhD on the Bhumij under a Fulbright scholarship in the late 1950s at Northern Illinois University did not mention Bhupendranath’s early observations on the community. His second article, Man in India ~ Origin and Development of Indian Social Polity written as early as 1942 was also significant because in that long article his proposition was that the “Evolution of the society and status of the castes should be evaluated according to the economic and political condition of the state”.
Accordingly, he explained that caste has no biological basis and one of the most interesting subsections of the article is “Class-struggle in ancient India” in which Bhupendranath elaborately demonstrates how the origin and transformation of the caste system took place through the myriad conflicts and struggles among the different social classes revealed in the stories of the epics of India. (To be concluded)
(The writer is a Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research, at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata)