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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 42 New Delhi October 6, 2018

Nationalist Discourse: Hundred Years of Sociology in India

Sunday 7 October 2018, by Samit Kar


One hundred years have passed since the inception of the Department of Sociology in Bombay University. Here Sociology began to be taught and studied for the first time in India at the University level. Patrick Geddes (October 2, 1854-April 17, 1932), a distinguished Scottish Biologist, Sociologist, Geographer, Philanthropist and Town Planner, took the major initiative to establish the Department.

Geddes turned his attention to Sociology after an attack of blindness while working in Mexico. This hampered his path-breaking biological experimentation. His researches in India, where he served as a Professor of Sociology and Civics at the Bombay University (1920-23), and in Palestine, Mexico and Scotland formed the basis of his conviction that the development of human communities was primarily biological in nature consisting of interactions among the people, their environment and their activities. He coined the term ‘City Connurvation’.

The introduction of Sociology in India 100 years ago was indebted to a Westerner like Geddes. The legacy of indebtedness to the West continues even today. This is, no doubt, a very serious obstacle to the desired growth and development of Sociology and many other branches of social sciences. The crises emanate essentially from the urge of many sociologists and social scientists to remain allegiant to the Western prescription of thought and metho-dology in order to fulfil their cherished professional ambition. Many are of the habit to speak about the relevance to access better infrastructure and all round research facility in the West for their craving to visit and settle there. Seldom do they admit their lust to access the comfort and luxury of the West to settle there and enjoy a materialist life, indeed of a very high refinement compared to what is available to an average academic in our country. This is a great crisis and so far this has been a major reason to attract severe brain drain to the West.

Brain drain not only bankrupts our country by syphoning the talent pool who might have been a great asset to the development of our country. It also impoverishes our country as the national economy has to pay a lot from its coffer to make students, especially students belonging to medical and technological faculties studying in government institutions where the fees structure is highly subsidised.

Sociology as the science of society and a subject providing a road map for the future development of our economy and society has a very important role in the process of nation-building. But the content of mainstream Sociology taught and studied in different countries under the aegis of the West had miserably failed to address the nationalist concerns. The problem plagues almost every country including India. The urge towards patriotism and social commitment to allay pressing social problems like unemployment, poverty, social inequality, land problem, agrarian crisis, social health, criminality etc. had never been addressed by a leading sociologist who had been always found to be more glued to Western preoccupations. Thus, Sociology was unable to become a leading discipline in social sciences.

Morris Ginsberg, a well-known British sociologist, said, Sociology is the Queen of the social sciences. The subject studies all the aspects of society instead of having a piecemeal approach pursued by other branches of social sciences like Economics, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Law etc. But in reality, the subject matter of Sociology was found to be very myopic in nature. For example, in a country like India there had been a beeline for studies to find out the cause of the decline of the joint family and a sudden rise of the small, nuclear families since the late 1950s. Sociologists from India and abroad came to the conclusion that several reasons had been playing the spoilsport to cause the breakdown like: decline of patriarchy, career mobility, rise in the level of aspiration, growing extent of women’s empowerment, industrialisation, urbanisation, rise in the number of family members, limitation of the size of the household etc. But none of these studies had ever cared to consider the socio-economic impact of land reform since two major land Acts, estate aquisition and land reform law to impose higher ceiling limit of agricultural land for a particular household were enacted soon after the establishment of the first government of independent India, happened in 1952. How can the hearth of a family remain common or joint when the joint pool of land ownership of a family got broken? This fundamental social fact had never been discussed in the domain of Sociology. How can a subject develop when the practicioners prefer to sit on the ivory tower or in fool’s paradise to produce tonnes of paperwork instead of making an ounce of solid work!

A major problem of many disciplines of social sciences including Sociology is to harp on non-principal social issues while being blind to look into the principal or the major positive factor. The short-sightedness essentially stems from examining the effect instead of x-raying the cause. For example, there is a very fundamental assumption : Heat is the cause and temperature is the effect. The general practice in Sociology is to analyse the effect, that is, the observable phenomenon instead of the causative phenomenon. As a result, the conviction and pledge to transform the society or to explain vividly the causes of social malady in order to find a remedy had never been comprehensivly addressed by a sociologist. In this way, Sociology had been moving towards oblivion instead of a take-off.

The presence of nationalist concerns and patriotic fervour had been terribly missing among many academics despite notable exceptions. Their life and deeds need to be glorified with more and more replication. Otherwise, how can a nation grow and prosper—materially and spiritually at the mercy of the West? The nationalist discourse that was marginally present in the academia of Sociology, especially in the pre-independence phase, began to frizzle out since the advent of the modernisers. The impulse of the anti-colonial social and political movement across the country and the rise of the new middle class intellgentsia since the early 20th century had created a consciousness to develop a new social wave and education system free from colonial domination. The spread of education became linked with the two great social movements: Swadeshi and Boycott. Mahatma Gandhi said, the year of 1905 when the partition of Bengal was effected, the real freedom movement of India began to gain ground from this point of time.

The writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindra-nath Tagore, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dadabhai Naoroji, Swami Vivekananda, Gopal Krishna Gokhale—all became part and parcel of the manual that preached how India can become truly independent while refraining from taking lessons from the faulty education policy of the colonial government. Their writings were so thought-provoking and enthusing to the people of India that they could hardly draw the line of demarcation about whether those were texts on politics, education or morality. Everything appeared all encompassing and integrated.

Even formal sociologists belonging to the gamut of University teaching like Dhurjati Prasad, Radhakamal and D.N. Majumdar belonging to the Lucknow School of the Department of Sociology, Lucknow University showed a very strong commitment towards questions regarding nation-building. For example, Radhakamal made a pioneering study to find out the root of economic problems plaguing our country. The way he discussed the question of land problem in an agricultural country like India tremendously handicapped by the terrible spread of rural poverty and gross inequality had been a rare example in the sphere of Indian Sociology. Dhurjati Prasad, who preferred to call himself a Marxologist, discussed threadbare various dimensions of colonialism as a diehard patriot. But in modern Sociology, sociologists as dispassionate professionals preferred to keep their heart concealed so that the beating of the heart remains inaudible to the people of our country. In the name of maintaining what they call ‘studied silence’ many of them take this chance to be either ‘fair-weather friends’ or ‘turncoats’ to satisfy their professional ambition. The professionalism in professionals who often behave as safety-seekers or climbers has become a dangerous trend to rob the academic disciplines of a humane and spiritual touch.

Man is not a machine. But the Western model has catapulated us to behave so to achieve rationality and ethical neutrality. A subject like Sociology, committed to be the science of society, has become terribly wounded at the behest of over-zealous professional sociologists. The absence of a nationalist discourse in the body of mainstream Sociology had proved to be a big source of worry in the task of undertaking an indigenous process of nation-building and the making of a Sociology impregnated with the obligation to meet the material and non-material requirements of Indian society. In the last 100 years, Sociology in India could move one step ahead and two steps back.

The author was on the Sociology faculty in Presidency University in Kolkata.

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