Village studies

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Chennai: 08/07/2014: The Hindu: Front Line: Book Review Column: Title: Inside-Outside, two views of Social Change in Rural India. Author: B.S. Baviskar and D.W. Attwood. Publisher: Sage Publlications Press Release.

Sugarcane arriving at the Malegaon sugar factory in Baramati, Maharashtra. D.W. Attwood sees the sugar cooperatives as instances of class cooperation and the failure of cooperatives as essentially the result of external political interference. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Reflections on the structure of and changes in the social life of rural India.

THIS book is a rather unusual compilation, consisting of the autobiographies of the two authors, an account of the field studies they conducted, and a discussion of the relative advantages that insiders and outsiders have in exploring life and social issues in rural India. There is no clear separation of these three strands, but the autobiographies, going back at least to three generations, including their own, take much of the space.

B.S. Baviskar (who passed away in 2013) was Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi. He had also held academic positions outside the country. What he emphasises in his autobiographical account is his rural background, which he claims was a major factor in his sociological orientation. He was born and brought up in Pilkhod, a small village beside the Girna river in present-day Maharashtra. The village, situated on the eastern side of the coastal mountains, was basically in a drought-prone area, and his father was a small farmer. The family belonged to the Mali caste and observed most of the caste customs, including joint families and cousin marriages, which kept the family fairly homogeneous. Baviskar was born in 1930 as the eldest son. The normal practice would have been for him to follow in his father’s footsteps into agriculture. But because he was a sickly child and there were other sons in the family, he was sent to school. Unlike many other children in the village, Baviskar was a good student and hence found favour with his teachers and was encouraged by them to go beyond primary school. This meant moving out of the village along with three or four others and getting used to a way of life very different from what he was used to in the village. After completing middle school, he won a monthly scholarship of Rs.4 to go to high school, which meant being further away from the village and the pattern of life in the village.

During his high school days in the latter half of the 1940s, Baviskar came under the influence of the Indian National Congress and its student wing, the Rashtra Seva Dal (RSD). He was also closely associated with Shahir Sable, Maharashtra’s leading folk singer and poet. These diversions probably affected his studies and in the final examination in 1949 his performance was below the expectation of his teachers. However, he had won the first place in an elocution competition in which students from all parts of Maharashtra had participated. The prize money of Rs.250 enabled him to join Fergusson College in Pune. There he was exposed to a cosmopolitan atmosphere, which he enjoyed. He came to have contacts in high circles, but failed the final examination of the Intermediate Course. That was a great shock and disappointment. He taught in a high school for a while and finally took the B.A. degree in economics in 1955 through Wadia College. He made his way to Delhi where, through the influence of some leaders whom he knew, he got a job as news reader in All India Radio.

In 1958, Baviskar had what he describes as an “unorthodox” marriage. He married not one of his cousins, and indeed, outside his caste. He met his future wife, Kusum, in high school. When he was in Fergusson College, she was in a college nearby and they used to meet occasionally, though there was no romance involved. However, after he moved to Delhi, she found a job in the Social Welfare Department and they decided to get married. Neither of the two families was happy about this, but they did not oppose it either. Baviskar and Kusum had a registered marriage.

Later in the year, Baviskar joined the Delhi School of Economics and took the master’s degree in economics, but passed in the third division. He then switched over to sociology and took his second master’s degree in that subject, this time with a first class. He met Professor M.N. Srinivas and registered for the PhD programme, working on Maharashtra’s cooperative sugar factories, for which he became famous subsequently.

D.W. Attwood, son of an engineer and a music- loving mother, hails from Oak Park near Chicago in the United States. Neither of his parents had grown up in happy families, and their marriage, too, ended in divorce. The family was “on a tight budget”, according to Attwood. They were WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants), the dominant religious and cultural group in the U.S., but were aware of various forms of social exclusion, especially one based on race.

Born in 1943, young Attwood did not show any interest in his father’s engineering activities, but was fond of reading and was academically oriented. He was “shy, clumsy”, awkward among strangers and did not shine in any team sports. From early days, he was interested in literature which, in turn, turned to an interest in human affairs in general. In his fifth grade, his teacher set an assignment for which he had to select a country, collect facts about it and make a scrapbook using all the information. He chose India. After high school, he joined a special pre-collegiate programme in an institution in California, which provided a full scholarship and a good deal of outdoor activities. From there he moved to University of California, Berkeley, where he took part in the civil rights movement and the students’ revolution, largely as a passive participant.

It was at Berkeley that Attwood first turned to anthropology, which introduced him to village studies in India. His early interest in India was revived and as part of the requirement for the honours degree he wrote a thesis on Gandhi’s civil disobedience and satyagraha in Champaran district in Bihar.

Attwood records that this thesis was his first attempt to combine research on rural conditions and historical change. It also brought to his notice the need for active involvement in social issues. The Peace Corps was an option, but he preferred the opportunity provided by the Fulbright Programme to go to India as a student-tutor. This programme was designed to give American graduate students a chance to learn about India through direct experience, while also teaching, on a part-time basis, Indian students spoken English. He made his first visit to India in 1966 through this programme, but for a variety of reasons it proved to be something of a fiasco, particularly “the bumbling attempts” to teach English to students in India. Attwood, however, records his experiences of life in a country other than his own.

In 1969, Attwood was back in India determined to do fieldwork combining anthropology and history. He was formally affiliated with the Delhi School of Economics’ Department of Sociology, of which Professor Srinivas was still the head. Srinivas advised him to go to Pune where Baviskar was already doing his fieldwork. The two met there and thereafter kept in touch as their work had much in common.

Sugar cooperatives
Baviskar makes it clear that his “background as a village boy who had direct experience of caste, factionalism, leadership, rituals, joint-families, and so on” was greatly influential in his orientation as a sociologist and fieldworker. He did not have to spend much time in coming to grips with the village realities. This enabled him to take up the study of sugar cooperatives, “a strange subject”, for his doctoral work. After preliminary enquiries, he selected the Kopargaon Cooperative Sugar Factory in Ahmednagar district for detailed examination, concentrating on the connection between cooperative management and local politics. The interest of political leaders in cooperatives was because those connected with a cooperative, such as cane growers, traders, management and workers, constituted a vote bank. The directors of cooperatives were often political leaders and as such they could use the facilities of the cooperatives, such as jeeps, for electioneering. Their political position was helpful to the cooperatives as well. Factionalism, not surprisingly based on caste considerations, played a part in the cooperative-politics link-up. Baviskar, however, felt that at least in the initial periods of his study, factionalism prevented corruption within the cooperatives. “But starting in the 1980s, the political context changed, and the cooperative sector in Maharashtra sank into corruption and political manipulation.”

Attwood’s fieldwork in Maharashtra was influenced by two specific factors. The first was the belief held by many scholars in the West that rural areas in India (and the “East” in general) were basically static societies. On the other hand was Scarlet Epstein’s well-known 1962 publication, Economic Development and Social Change in South India, which showed that changes were taking place in rural India and that whether a village was wet or dry was a major determining factor. Attwood, therefore, decided to locate two villages in the neighbourhood of Pune, one with canal irrigation and the other relatively dry. Sharad Pawar, then a young elected representative of the State Assembly, helped him to locate two such villages, Malegaon, a large one with a population of some 14,000, and Supe close to it, but Attwood found the rapid change in the former fascinating and hence concentrated on it. He started with a village census, but soon ran into difficulties as it was not easy to identify the basic units, the households. He soon discovered that his expectation that village life would fall into neat, orderly categories was wrong, and that “structures such as ‘caste’, ‘class’, ‘household’ and even ‘village’ are variable, often have ambiguous boundaries that shift over time, and have meanings subject to contestation by the participant”. He was also puzzled that class categories were not exactly what he had been taught them to be.

The third part of the book is a discussion between Baviskar and Attwood reflecting on their field studies and raising several issues on social change, mainly of interest to academics. However, some of them deserve reflection by the general public as well. Of these, the most prominent is the role of caste and class in social life, especially in rural areas.

The two authors have come to the conclusion, no matter what their initial position was, that the role of caste has changed enormously. Baviskar has experienced it in his own life; Attwood’s contacts with village life have shown him that the manifestation of caste has changed. Transportation, technical change, markets and migration are seen to be the factors that influence the transformation of caste. However, the authors concede that the caste factor is still dominant in marriage and politics. If it is so entrenched in intimate personal affairs and in the most influential public sphere, caste has to be accepted as very much part of social life in India. Another area where caste manifests itself clearly is in the various shades of untouchability openly practised in most rural areas even today.

Class and caste

The authors tend to treat class at the same level as caste, forgetting that while caste is essentially an overt social category, class is basically an analytic construct, although deep down it has a greater bearing on social life. It also leads them, particularly Attwood, to describe the planning era in India as a period of socialism, which has been replaced by capitalism and markets after 1991. He also sees the sugar cooperatives as instances of class cooperation and the failure of cooperatives as being essentially the result of external political interference.

The discussion on the relative advantages of insiders and outsiders in conducting field studies of village communities is more meaningful. The anthropological tradition has been one of outsiders (from “modern” societies) conducting studies of isolated or “primitive” communities. Baviskar has shown that his insider knowledge of village life has been a great asset for him in his research and studies.

However, Attwood points out that an outsider has some advantages as well: his lack of familiarity may direct enquiries into issues taken for granted by insiders and by raising unconventional questions he may be able to probe deeper into social life. He admits that “Western anthropology was confused and nervous about many things”, including the “philosophical uncertainty about whether one was making any sense, whether anthropology had any ground to stand on…?” “Can one really understand what it’s like to live in another culture?” For that matter, can one claim to understand fully one’s own culture? Indeed, how much does one understand someone with whom one lives, or even one’s own self? These are questions worth pondering over.