The great German sociologist Max Weber once made an important distinction between universities on the one side and religious seminaries and political parties on the other. Seminaries and parties upheld a particular ideology, and made it mandatory for their members to believe in it. Howewer, universities were emphatically not centres of indoctrination. Its professors could not, or at least should not, propagate their own political or religious beliefs. Rather, they should teach the student ‘facts, their conditions, laws and interelations’, serving in this manner to ‘sharpen the student’s capacity to understand the actual conditions of his own exertions…’. Weber added that ‘what ideals the [student] should serve—“what gods he must bow before”—these they [the teachers] require him to deal with on his own responsibility, and ultimately in accordance with his own conscience’.
The Indian teacher of my acquaintance who most nobly upheld this intellectual credo was Anjan Ghosh, who died earlier this month in Kolkata. Anjan took a first degree in English Literature, before doing an M. A. and M. Phil in Sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He then commenced a Ph D, taking as his topic of research the life and labours of mineworkers in Dhanbhad. He taught briefly at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, before moving to a position at the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata.
In 1980 I joined IIM Kolkata to do a doctorate in Sociology. Anjan Ghosh was one of my teachers. He was, like many thoughtful Indians those days, a Marxist. As a college student, he had attended the famous founding rally of the CPI (M-L) on the Kolkata Maidan. He believed the Naxalities were more engaged with the peasantry, as well as more sympathetic to questions of culture, than the ruling CPI (M). However, he was a fellow traveller rather than a fully paid-up member of the new party. He cherished his intellectual independence too much for that.
Anjan was formidably well-read in the Marxist scriptures. That, and a goatee he wore, led to his being named ‘Lenin’ by his JNU friends. However, as my own experience showed, Anjan kept his political beliefs completely out of the classroom. He knew that there were great social theorists other than Karl Marx. With him I read both Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ and Emile Durkheim’s ‘The Division of Labour in Society’. While never a narrow patriot, Anjan believed that the contributions of Indian scholars had been ignored by a West-obsessed academy. He admired M. N. Srinivas and André Béteille in particular, both for the elegance of their prose and for the subtlety of their arguments. Through him, I came to admire them for those very reasons.
Among the gifts Anjan bestowed on me was an introduction to the charmed circle of intellectuals that hung around the journal Frontier, then edited by the lapsed poet and lapsed Marxist Samar Sen. From the IIM campus in Joka I made a weekly journey to the Frontier office in central Kolkata, where Samar babu and his devoted asistant, Timir Basu, discussed the contents of the forthcoming issue and allocated tasks to each of us. Intellectuals are a selfish, solitary species; this, on the other hand, was an exercise in collective, collaborative, work, that enriched all those who participated in it.
Many left-wing intellectuals take great pride in their social commitments, but their words generally speak louder than their actions. Not Anjan Ghosh. Aside from his involvement with Frontier, Anjan was also active in the film society movement, and in the human rights movement. He had a close association with the Peoples Union for Democratic Rights, based in Delhi; and with the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, based in Kolkata. His work outside academics was undertaken with a characteristic lack of fuss, and with no self-advertisement whatsoever.
As a Marxist, Anjan Ghosh was also unorthodox in his appreciation of caste as an organizing factor in Indian society. In 1979 he wrote a precocious essay in the Delhi journal Seminar with the innocuous title ‘The Seventh Indian’. This dealt with the social predicament of the Dalits, who, despite being 1/7th of India’s population, had been largely ignored by sociologists and Marxists, and largely condescended to by political parties. A little later he wrote a longer essay in a Bangla journal on how, and why, caste was not simply an ‘epiphenomena’ of class. These ideas are now widely accepted by Marxists, but, in articulating them in the late 1970s, my teacher was roughly twenty years ahead of the curve.
In 1984 Anjan Ghosh joined the faculty of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSC) in Kolkata. By now, his disenchantment with left-wing orthodoxy had led him to abandon his research on the working class, who are considered by the Marxist catechism to be the advanced guard of the revolution. Some years later, he took leave from the CSSC and went to the University of Michigan to do a Ph D, in their famous History and Anthropology programme. He wrote an elegant thesis (sadly, never published in book form) on the social role of rumour in intensifying communal violence in 20th century Bengal.
A bibliography from 2007 available on the Web lists some forty scholarly essays published by Anjan Ghosh—on topics ranging from caste and religious violence to ethno-nationalism and the environmental impact of coal mining. But Anjan also had a profound influence on the writings of other scholars. He was a born teacher, who for family reasons (an aged mother to whom he was an only son) had to be based in Kolkata, a place deeply inhospitable to sociological enquiry. One reason for this is the long stranglehold on the city’s universities of a somewhat mechanical variety of Marxism. Since Karl Marx spoke of ‘political economy’ and ‘historical materialism’, his followers have allowed a honourable space in the academy for the scholarly disciplines of economics, politics, and history, They have not been so well disposed to sociology, which their twin Fatherlands, the Soviet Union and Communist China, both dismissed as a ‘bourgeois’ science.
Had Anjan Ghosh been permitted to teach in Delhi or Bombay he would perhaps have more fully come into his own. Even so, he influenced very many young sociologists and anthropologists, whom he met at conferences or at the annual ‘Cultural Studies’ workshop he helped organize. I myself owe more to Anjan Ghosh than to any other scholar. He taught me in the lecture theatre, but also in the tea shop. Every morning, I would meet him as he got off the staff bus that conveyed the IIM’s faculty to the Joka campus. Every evening, I would walk with him to the bus stop to catch some last remarks before he went home. Through those addas he encouraged me to be less parochial, by reading scholars not prescribed in my syllabus and by venturing into disciplines that I was not formally trained in. And he never, ever, imposed his ideas or beliefs on me. The conclusions I eventually arrived at were my own responsibility, a product of my own conscience.
Marxism and Marxists can be crude and strident. Anjan Ghosh, on the other hand, was a gentle, cultured, and utterly civilized human being. He humanized everything he touched; and made every student he taught more curious as well as less egotistic. By the end, Anjan may have stopped calling himself a ‘Marxist’. But even in the days he wore the label proudly he was, in the classroom, remarkably undogmatic. In not seeking to impose his beliefs on his students he was so very unlike most social science professors in Kolkata, and beyond.
(published in The Telegraph, 19/6/2010)
THE ECUMENICAL MARXIST
by Ramachandra Guha