Mainstream, VOL LIII No 50 New Delhi December 5, 2015
Ramkrishna Mukherjee [November 14, 1917-November 15, 2015]
Sunday 6 December 2015
Ramkrishna Mukherjee, a distinguished scientist of the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, founder of the Sociological Research Unit at the ISI at the behest of P.C. Mahalanobis, one of the designers of the National Sample Survey of India in the 1950s and Adjunct Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York, Binghamton, passed away in Kolkata on November 15, 2015 at 12.55 pm at the age of 98 from multi-organ failure arising from ascitis. His publications included works on genetics, village studies, historical sociology, social classification, problems of acculturation, social indicators and quality of life.
An M.Sc. in 1941 from Calcutta University and a Ph.D from Cambridge in 1948, he was the Chief Research Officer to His Majesty’s Social Survey, London (1948-49), Consultant, Government of Turkey (1949), Consultant, London School of Economics (1952), Guest Professor of Indian Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin (1953-57) and Research Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, until 1979. His research experience spanned India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, France, Germany, Sweden, the UK, Czechoslovakia and Turkey. With over a hundred research papers in internationally reputed journals, Mukherjee was a member of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and of the Executive Committee of the International Sociological Association (1974-78), President, Indian Sociological Society (1972-74) and adviser to institutions and journals in the social sciences in India and abroad.
His monographs are: The Ancient Inhabitants of Jebel Moya, Sudan (1955), The Problem of Uganda (1956), The Dynamics of a Rural Society (1957), The Sociologist and Social Change in India Today (1965), Six Villages of Bengal (1971), Social Indicators (1975), Family and Planning in India (1976), West Bengal Family Structure: 1946-66 (1977), Explorations in Inductive Sociology (1978), What Will it Be? (1979, Sociology of Indian Sociology (1979) and Classification in Social Research (1983). His The Rise and Fall of the East Indian Company (1958) remains a landmark contribution to South Asian economic and social history. Why Unitary Social Science (2009) applied inductive reasoning to the study of society and social formations. His last publication, The Measure of Time in the Appraisal of Social Reality (2009) contained a scathing critique of the return to caste-based politics in India with the implementation of the Mandal Commission report.
Mukherjee has been characterised as a lone wolf who was increasingly marginalised in an intellectual landscape dominated by notions of brahmanisation and sanskritisation. Yet, the significance of his work did not escape his contemporaries and students. To former TISS Director sociologist Partha Nath Mukherji, he was a ‘profound scholar and intellectual with indefatigable energy, with a penchant for provoking any scholar, whatever his or her academic stature, and yet commanding respect and admiration from them’. Willem Van Schendel wrote: ’He was a great thinker and a most influential sociologist. I am very indebted to him and I remember my meetings with him—and his advice—with fondness.’ While Immanuel Wallerstein mourns the death of a good friend, sociologist Amit Bhattacharya writes from New York: ‘I feel fortunate to have come in close contact with him and admired his uncompromising study habits sitting at his desk.’
Puja Mondol noted that under his direction at the Indian Statistical Institute, his team investigated agrarian class structure, class relations and agrarian social change through large scale sample surveys. Through his work in the late 1960s and the 1970s, the theme of agrarian social structure and change re-appeared in Indian sociology after a gap of nearly two decades. T.N. Madan writes: ‘He used to say that I was the only person who recognised the fact that he was indeed the first Indian sociologist to lead in the area of village studies.’
Mukherji notes: Ramkrishna Mukherjee’s contributions cannot be easily described under some straight-jacket nomen-clature. His concern for the peasantry led to his interest in agrarian relations and conflicts; his humanitarian sensitivities prodded him to join the study on the disastrous Bengal famine; his early recognition of the importance of history isreflected in his study on the East India Company; his recognition of the importance of substantive study of social institutions resulted in the comprehensive study of the familyand also castein West Bengal; his thrust on the attributional approach to empirical reality led him to work on socialmobility,quality of life and social indicators; his penchant for philosophy of social science, methodology and sociology of knowledge can be seen in his questioning, cast in a futuristic frame,of the role of sociology/social science; he analysed the trends in Indian sociology; and dived deep into the relationship between society, culture and development. The sweep of his interests, theoretical, methodological and substantive, are too broad to be easily encompassed by any specific category or school. At best one could perhaps describe him as a non-doctrinaire Marxist.
Mukherjee lived a full life with varied interests. He started life as a geneticist, took a keen interest in gardening and architecture, loved classical music and played the sarod. Mukul Dube writes: ‘While primarily known as a sociologist, Mukherjee did many other things in the course of his life. His first major work was to do with the Bengal Famine of 1943. He left the Communist Party of India, yet he never lost his commitment to the Left. He once told me that one of his job-titles was “computer”, that is, one who calculates and computes. It is not so well known that he was a competent photographer who, at least in his younger days, earned money from photography. From my experience I can say that he liked good brandy, good cooking, and (not the least) babies.’
A devoted family man, Mukherjee felt very lonely after the death of his wife, Prabhati, in 2008. He leaves behind two daughters, one son-in-law, three grandsons and numerous students and colleagues. An international conference, to be held in 2016, is in the making to evaluate and honour the work of Mukherjee.