While Mahatma Gandhi was alive, not many intellectuals would willingly identify themselves as ‘Gandhian’. Writers and thinkers treated him, at best, with a kindly indulgence; and, at worst, with unremitting hostility. The first group admired the Mahatma’s asceticism and personal integrity and, were they Indian, his ability to move the masses and draw them into the anti-colonial struggle. However, they were not inclined to take his ideas seriously, viewing them as impractical and idealist. The second group dismissed him as a mystical humbug, an obscurantist who worked malevolently to draw the masses away from revolutionary action into the safe channels of bourgeois reformism. From this perspective, it was hard to credit Gandhi as having any ‘ideas’ at all; or, if one did, to attach to them those damning prefixes, ‘reactionary’ and ‘medieval’.

Scholars and scientists who lived in the time of the Mahatma were happy to call themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘socialist’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘Marxist’. So far as I can tell, there were only two intellectuals who would go so far as to call themselves ‘Gandhian’. One was the economist J. C. Kumarappa. Kumarappa studied in London and New York, and gave up a flourishing career as an accountant to join Gandhi and the national movement. He worked for many years on rehabiliating the agrarian economy on ecological lines. His own legacy, so long forgotten, is now itself undergoing a rehabilitation. The American Gandhian Mark Lindley is about to publish a study of Kumarappa’s economics; and two younger Indians of my acquaintance have embarked on a full-fledged biography of the man.

The other intellectual contemporary of the Mahatma who was not shy of the label ‘Gandhian’ was the anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose. Born in 1901 (nine years after Kumarappa) Bose studied and taught at Calcutta University, his academic career interspersed with spells of service in the nationalist cause. He was arrested in 1931 during the Salt Satyagraha; and spent a year in prison. He was again arrested during the Quit India movement of 1942; this time he spent three-and-a-half years in jail. His last spell of nationalist service was in 1946-7, when he served as Gandhi’s secretary and interpreter as the Mahatma went on a walking tour through the riot-torn villages of eastern Bengal.

In 1934, N. K. Bose published Selections from Gandhi, one of the first, and still one of the best, anthologies of the Mahatma’s thought. The book covered an astonishingly wide range of themes: from Gandhi’s ideas on religion and morality to his writings on the Congress and on self-government more generally. It was an effort both comprehensive and precocious; notably, it had separate sections on ‘Women’s Problems’ and on education.

Selections was the first of three major books by Bose on Gandhi. In 1940 he brought out his Studies in Gandhism, whose analytical chapters focused on the theory and practice of non-violence. Thirteen years later, he published My Days with Gandhi, a moving memoir of the days spent in the field in Noakhali, the book combining a deep appreciation of Gandhi’s work in dousing the flames of communal passion with a skeptical attitude towards his experiments with brahmacharya.

Bose’s contributions to anthropological literature were scarcely less significant. He wrote profusely in English as well as Bangla, on themes as varied as the temple architecture of Orissa, the structure of Hindu society, and the condition of adivasis. He was a gifted lecturer too; forty years after he had heard Bose speak on Gandhi to his class at Lucknow University, the anthropologist T. N. Madan recalled his talk to me, topic by topic if not quite word for word. As his biographer Surajit Sinha has written, he played a formative role in the ‘building [of] an Indian Tradition in Anthropology’. For many years he edited the journal Man in India. Bose also served a three-year term as Commissioner for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The reports he wrote then still repay reading, as models of empathetic and socially engaged anthropology.

Like his master Gandhi, Bose was a man of considerable character and steely will. A friend once told me of a seminar he had attended when Bose was in the advanced stages of cancer. Here, a young man from a rural background accused anthropologists of being voyeurs; their research into rural India, he claimed, was never of benefit to the villagers themselves. Bose urged him to take a more holistic perspective; the results of science and scholarship, he pointed out, accumulate slowly, and help humanity only in the long-term. Suppose a medical researcher wanted to study Bose’s own condition, and suppose he made it clear that the knowledge thus gained would help cure cancer only well after this particular patient had fallen victim to the disease. Should Bose refuse to be examined on the grounds that the research would be of no immediate benefit to him? Or should he instead encourage a growth in knowledge that might actually be of help to other humans in the future? The parable was profoundly Gandhian, as indeed was its unspoken lesson—that the cancer sufferer must submit himself to the experiment even if he did not stand to gain from it himself.

Published in The Hindu, 12/2/2006