On January 15, four months before sociologist Yogedra Singh died, he was interviewed by two scholars from another generation. In his conversation with Biswajit Das and Dev Nath Pathak, the founder professor of Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi recounted his of intellectual journey. The conversation was marked by nostalgia, reveries, repartee and moments of self-critical realisation.
“India must generate its own sociological tradition, intellectual orientation in social sciences and it must relate this knowledge to the actual problems in the country and offer solutions,” said Singh, who died on May 10.
Biswajit Das: What kind of vision did you have initially when you came to Delhi and you were asked to set up the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University [which was established in 1969?
Yogendra Singh: Various centres in JNU were envisioned as multi-disciplinary centres. The focus of the disciplines in the school of social sciences was regional studies. Professor Moonis Raza and his team emphasised geography and regional area studies; the second important center was CSSS.
My coming was an interesting story because I was not in Delhi. I was at Jodhpur University and G Parthasarthy, the first Vice-Chancellor, was looking for someone to head the centre dedicated to sociological studies. The JNU ordinance provided for founding new centres in the university only if there was a competent group available. This was around 1971, or perhaps 1972.
Parthasarthy sent me a postcard saying he wanted to see me. When I went to meet him, he had the books authored by me on his table. Parthasathy was a very meticulous person. Some peers had recommended my name to him, but meanwhile he wanted to explore and ensure my eligibility.
Dev Nath Pathak: Modernisation of Indian Tradition, your famous book, had come already?
YS: Yes, it had come. That book was a product of my frustration with the social sciences at that time. I was teaching social change in Jaipur in Rajasthan University for four to five years. I used to look for material to teach about India.Most of the available materials came from America. There was no single writing which could encompass the entire India as a unit. As a result, a long-standing understanding was that India was a fragmented reality, not an organic whole.
This was perpetuated by the colonial influence. Primarily, the British influence and the census of India only enhanced this mistaken idea (of a fragmented India). There was some rethinking around the corner, and we developed a criticism of the Chicago approach to India.
DNP: I am glad to hear of the frustration of a sociologist about sociology and against sociologists, a rare thing these days unless one risks being called institutionally outlawed.
YS: My orientation was from the department of economics at Lucknow University. There was no exclusive department of sociology at that time. There was however a department of social anthropology which Prof D N Majumdar was heading. So sociology was taught as a part of economics. Sociology unfolded through rural economics and village studies.
My own interest was in literature. It was my first preference. But I grew unhappy with lectures in English because they were more dramatic than intellectual. A floor down the stairs was where DP Mukerji, the famous sociologist and legendary teacher, was the head of the department of economics. I came down, figuratively, and told DP all my travails and he said, “Ok young man, I will admit you though not to pure economics.”
Economics had two branches: pure economics and economics with philosophy and sociology. I joined economics, with sociology as my major. Other than DP, AK Saran was a teacher. I took a course taught by Professor DN Majumdar in anthropology as well as another course with Dr Kali Prasad in psychology.
DNP: In those initial years at CSSS, JNU, what was it like for you to establish a brand new sociology?
YS: There were very few people at that time. JS Gandhi and TK Oommen were there in the school. Others joined too. They were not like-minded because their orientations were different and they had autonomy. Diversity in methodology, courses and empirical traditions of work influenced the faculty.
However, we were free to formulate courses under the framework of the overall development of India. India had a vision and the vision about intellectual progress. All interpretations of India were colonial as the only source was the census. I was aware of that limitation and the idea was to liberate it.
Liberation to me, and to our small group meant not disassociation but creative association: that is, we have to offer you something and you can offer us meaningful things. It is not only one way that you give us knowledge and we go out peddling and saving it.
India must generate its own sociological tradition, intellectual orientation in social sciences and it must relate this knowledge to the actual problems in the country and offer solutions.
DNP: You were telling me that you also at some point of time engaged with the idea of South Asia in social sciences. Was there some kind of consciousness at CSSS that one had to go beyond India in sociology? I am not referring to the hollow claims of internationalism.
YS: Well, I think the idea of taking sociological studies beyond India did not gel much in India because there was so much within India itself. One reason that I can easily think of is the politics of Partition. It biased the mindset and the way one looked at the region.
Region, instead of being seen as a sociological entity, began to be seen as a communal entity. This communal orientation of the Hindu-Muslim, distorted the trajectories of integrating regional realities with all India national-sociological reality.
Sri Lanka has a very different problem and because I have worked in Sri Lanka, I know the coastal areas. The coastal Sri Lanka is more westernised. The Kandyian area is typically Buddhist and beyond Kandy, you have Buddhist-tribal mix, which goes up to the end of Jaffna side.
There is variety of orientations among the scholars of Sri Lanka. They look at India as an alleged big brother. They were extreme isolationists. When I worked for one week in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Radio Ceylon published an editorial, something like, “What are the Indian anthropologists doing in Sri Lanka?” Such suspicion. Why have they come?
DNP: This still could be an exception few and far between. Nobody wants to take up the devil’s perspective or new field of studies beyond the safe national territory. You seem to be however hopeful that one can still continue to believe in the dream of decolonising sociology in India?
YS: Well, two or three things happened lately. One, what we call colonial influence has weakened so much that it really does not matter, and secondly, scholars are not interested. There were always such scholars accepted by the West as per the western interest. Now even that is declining.
DNP: Lastly, how did you respond to the political situation in which JNU was implicated in the early years? What kind of response emerged from CSSS? Was JNU considered anti-national even then?
YS: JNU was never anti-national. It could not be because right from the beginning, JNU has been built on the base of nationalism and internationalism. The political situation in JNU during the national Emergency of 1975 was interesting. During that time my faculty and staff were very supportive of me and felt that whatever I was doing was in the goodwill of everyone and they were very cooperative of it.
I was in the administration at that time. I was given the deanship and there was a problem in terms of admission of the students. The protest was due to the involvement of the government in the selection of the students for admission purposes. The students started protest and house arrested the registrar and the vice chancellor and many others. I made sure during my time that both the students and the administration reconciled and agreed to re-admit the students because of which the protest was taking place.
Yogendra Singh died on May 10.
Biswajit Das is founding professor at Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, in New Delhi.
Dev Nath Pathak teaches sociology at South Asian University.
Namit Singh, Yogendra Singh’s grandson, assisted in the transcription of the interview.