Scholar of society

Print edition : June 30, 2006

Kumar Suresh Singh's stewardship of the People of India project yielded an excellent anthropological profile of the country.



THE People of India (POI) project, an undertaking of the Anthropological Society of India initiated in 1985 and running into 43 volumes - all documenting the tremendous diversity that is India - would not have taken off without the determined efforts of its then Director-General Kumar Suresh Singh. An Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer of the 1958 batch, K.S. Singh graduated with a first class first in History from Patna University. He completed his master's degree in the same subject and went on to do a Ph.D on Birsa Munda, the revolutionary.

K.S. Singh passed away in quiet anonymity on May 20 this year. He was 72. It was the end of a long battle with a stroke that left him paralysed partially. However, his immobility did not deter him from writing a report for the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) - he was a National Fellow - which he submitted in February.

K.S. Singh was assigned the monumental task of preparing the POI project. Commending K.S. Singh on the methodology of using micro studies of communities, the acclaimed sociologist M.N. Srinivas wrote in the foreword to the POI: "Those who have read Dr. Singh's work on tribes of Bihar are grateful to him for the contributions he has made and this great enterprise of his has placed all of us further in his debt. I would like to thank him on behalf of all scholars."

The POI was launched on October 2, 1895, with the objective of generating an anthropological profile - biological, linguistic and cultural - of all communities in India. The detailed profile was also about examining the linkages between the communities as well and the impact of change and development in them. It was presupposed that communities were not disparate islands but were engaged in the process of, as K.S. Singh described it, "vibrant interaction". Over a decade, the scholars involved in the project, 470 of them, identified 4,694 communities in all States and Union Territories of the country. The findings were subject to rigorous evaluation. Of the 43 volumes, 12 have been published and the remaining will be published over the next three years.

It is the findings of the project, as well as the guiding spirit behind it, that of K.S. Singh, that have drawn out the compositeness in Indian society. He wrote in a yet-to-be-published report for the ICHR, titled "Diversity, Identity and Linkages: Explorations in Historical Ethnography", that "an Indian is a migrant par excellence" and that "communities have settled in different ecological and climactic regions of India and derived their identity from hills and valleys, the plains, islands and villages - particularly the ancestral villages". The largest number of communities are found in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

K.S. Singh wrote in the ICHR paper that probably nowhere in the world have there existed so many communities. Similarly, the linguistic diversity is as wide-ranging. There are 325 identified languages, which are divided into five language families and use 25 scripts. One refrain in K.S. Singh's writings as well as in the POI project is that there is a greater biological diversity among the people of India than among people elsewhere. Yet, at the regional level, the likenesses, he wrote, appeared to be more than their differences. Communities, he asserted, ought to be seen in the context of ecosystem and eco-cultural zones and the identities are derived from their environment and occupations based on their resources. On a more general note, he observed, while writing in the Hindi magazine Janadesh in 1997, that there was no nation, state or community that could claim itself to be pure, complete and fully superior to others.

He wrote the introductory volume to the POI project and condensed some very interesting details. These are some of them:

There are at least 35 communities that observed the tenets of both Islam and Hindusim; 116 communities who share Hindu and Christian traits; 16 communities that simultaneously believe in Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism; and 94 communities that have traits similar to Christianity and tribal religions. The traits that are shared by people are far more than those that are not shared. In spite of the higher value attached to vegetarianism, only about 20 per cent of the communities are vegetarian. There are vegetarians who eat eggs, fertilised or non-fertilised. There are also vegetarians who abstain from onion and avoid garlic. Men, however, are mostly, non-vegetarian. Women have traditionally consumed alcohol in a number of communities. Smoking is common, chewing of tobacco and the use of snuff is also very widespread, and the chewing of betel is common in several communities.

So K.S. Singh wrote: "We are, therefore, largely a drinking, smoking and meat-eating people." There are very few communities that follow any one single occupation. The POI project made a very important observation regarding the exclusion of communities from some regions in the social spectrum. Even the most remote communities have to be drawn into Indian politics, as they are participants in the political process. K.S. Singh wrote that this process has to move forward so as to encompass all in order that our democracy - the social base of which is widening - becomes truly and fully a participative one. K.S. Singh an empathetic administrator, a bureaucrat, a scholar and a humanist.

Diversities are intrinsic not only to human evolution but also to human existence, he wrote. For him, this is not a cause for alarm. He came from a privileged background in Munger, Bihar. He grew among the Santhals and interacted with them closely when he got an opportunity to work among them as an administrator. He also learnt Mundari, the language of the Mundas, and wrote of the revolutionary Birsa Munda in The Dust Storm and the Hanging Mist. Tribal rights campaigner and noted litterateur Mahashweta Devi has always acknowledged that her Aranyer Adhikaar was based on K.S. Singh's book.

He had the ability to understand the problems of people by just reading their faces, said P.K. Shukla, Member-Secretary, ICHR. K.S. Singh used to speak in the language of the local people and never let bureaucratic hierarchy get in the way of interacting with people. He recalls that K.S. Singh used to frequent the Patna University library. Even as an IAS officer, he stood in queue with other students and refuse special treatment.

In 1966-67, he was posted in Palamu, Chotanagpur district. Those were the years of the terrible Bihar famine. Muchkund Dubey, former Foreign Secretary, said that K.S. Singh would ensure that cartloads of foodgrains reached the affected people. Such was the management during his administration that the media, both national and international, wrote admiringly about his work.

Muchkund Dubey said: "Kumar Suresh was a kind of a rare person among Indian civil servants. He was of a scholarly bent of mind right from his university days. He had a deep knowledge of a number of disciplines. His monumental contribution People of India will remain as a kind of tribute to his multifaceted talents. His empathy for and commitment to the weaker sections of society will always be remembered. He was among one of the three intellectual fathers in the creation of Jharkhand. Two years ago, I collaborated with him on a book published by the Council for Social Development. He wrote two chapters of the book Jharkand Matters." The historian D.N. Jha, who also collaborated with K.S. Singh, said that the famous mathematician-historian D.D. Kosambi used to come for fieldwork in Patna and K.S. Singh was part of the team. "Kumar Suresh seems to have been influenced by D.D. Kosambi's views on Indian people," said D.N. Jha. The combination of tribal historian and anthropologist was a rare one to be found and K.S. Singh had these qualities.

On the personal level, he was known to be an extremely warm, generous and "ready to help" personality. He lived very modestly, surrounded by books and paper during his last days.

In the foreword to the POI project, M.N. Srinivas wrote about the complexity of Indian culture and "our" ability to handle it. He also said that the important thing was that this was being managed not only by intellectuals but by the ordinary people of our country. This was perhaps the common strand that ran through the POI project and reflected simultaneously in much of K.S. Singh's writings and vision.

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