As part of the commemoration of Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) has dedicated an entire issue of its journal, published last month, on what it calls “Gandhian insights into applied anthropology”.
“There was something for Gandhi to approve of in each ritual posture of the Bengali village,” well known anthropologist and an authority on beliefs and practices of rural Bengal, Ralph W. Nicholas, writes in his essay titlted M K Gandhi N K Bose & Bengali Village Society . Professor Nicholas, also known for his work on Gajan (a rural festival of Bengal), added that the “equality and human community of the Gajan, which had so much in common with a Gandhian yatra, embodied the equality of citizens in the democratic India for which he sacrificed his life”. He goes on to suggest that Gandhi would ‘doubtless have been put off by the spectacle of a modern Durga Puja and the occasional rowdiness of its organisers’ but adds in the same paragraph that the “participation of the entire community in differentiated roles, appropriate to their castes, spelled out in ritual” resembled the healthy society that Gandhi visualised.
“So far, Gamdhi’s writings, teaching and life has been the subject of interest of historians and political scientists but a closer look will point out that Gandhi and his life has been centred in anthropology ,” said V. K. Srivastava, director of AnSI and the editor of the journal.
Dr. Srivastava added that the journal had 10 essays dedicated to Gandhian thoughts from the perspective of anthropology. Besides Professor Nichlolas’s essay, there are essays by David R. Syiemlieh, historian and former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission of India, titled Mahatma Gandhi and North East India, Gandhi and the Nagas by G. Kanato Chophy, Nisargopchar Ashram: Gandhi’s Legacy and Public Health in Contemporary India by Joseph S. Alter, Tribe and Tribal Welfare in Gandhian Thoughts by Kakali Chakrabarty and On Gandhi and Sanitation by P. C. Joshi and Prashant Khattri among others.
In his essay, Prof. Syiemlieh points out, “Gandhi was not the only national figure during this phase who visited the North East, but his direction and call was stirring and had a lasting effect more so in the impact his messages had on the Gandhian way of life practised by many in the region”. The essay also highlights the advice Gandhi gave to Angami Zapu Phizo and other Naga leaders who called on him in Delhi on 19 July 1947. “I believe in the brotherhood of man but I do not believe in force and forced union. If you do not want to join the Union of India, nobody will force you to that,” Prof Syiemlieh quotes the Mahatma as having said.
Similarly, cultural anthropologist Kakali Chakrabarty in her essay describes that Gandhi’s idea was that “the tribes should be approached on the basis of non-violence, accepting the principles of a democratic society and the fundamental equality and unity of man.” Ms. Chakrabarty argues that Gandhi had trusted followers like Thakkar Bapa, Jugatram Dave, Indulal Yagnik and Kakasaheb Kalelkar who devoted their life to the cause of tribal welfare. “Gandhians motivated the tribal people to adopt satyagraha as means of protest against their exploitation instead of armed protest.,” she added.
Admitting that anthropologists had so far ignored Gandhi’s writings, his teachings and life, Dr. Srivastava said that the opportunity to explore Gandhi’s contributions came during the sesquicentenary celebration of his birth anniversary. “While working on the journal we realized that the AnSI had already conducted seminars on Gandhi, in our different regional centres in north east, east and south and north,” the AnSI director said.
“Not only that, Gandhi was extraordinarily inquisitive. He would ask umpteen number of questions to have a ringside view of the situation,” Dr. Srivastava wrote in the journal’s editorial. He pointed out that this was similar to what anthropologists do during their fieldwork. “They adopt what is called the ‘dialogic approach’. They ask questions respectfully, listen patiently to the replies, from the latter, they formulate more questions… Gandhi did exactly the same,” he added.