The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, October 27, 2002

What makes Indian culture tick
Rajiv Lochan

Indian Culture: A Sociological Study
by Dhurjati Prasad Mukerji, with an introduction by Ashok Mitra. First published 1948, this reprint, Rupa, Delhi, 2002. Pages 220. Rs 195

DHURJATI Prasad Mukerji, one of the ancestors of present-day sociology in India, first came out with a draft of the book under review in 1942, at a time when Indian society was undergoing a considerable amount of ferment. The war in Europe that claimed a large number of Indian resources had been going on since 1939. Wartime shortages had begun to have a negative impact on the quality of life, such as it was in those days. News about the famine in Bengal had created panic in the hearts of Indians that the government, in order to feed its war effort, would not hesitate to deprive Indians of the essentials of life.

Resentment prevailed. In Lahore, since January 1942, student unrest had disturbed the peace and quite of the city. It was in this context, in the early 1940s, that sociology as a subject attracted serious attention in Punjab. This was in 1942, as a response to the troubles that shook the university and the town of Lahore that year. At Panjab University it was not nationalist fervour but resentment against the examinations that was causing unrest. They walked out of the examination hall to protest at the office of the Vice-Chancellor. Among them was, some sources say, a young law student named Satya Pal Dang along with his friend, senior and communist student leader, Inder Kumar Verma. Both of them were to do great things subsequently in life. A later inquiry discovered that they were in the morcha to ensure that it did not become disorderly and that they did not support the rather unfair cause espoused by the student morcha. The university faculty sat down to figure out what had gone wrong. Why did the students resort to such an unfortunate kind of agitation? The collective answer was that the university did not have a clue of what the young people wanted of it. What could possibly be the solution? It was suggested that the university needed to start a department of sociology so that it might be possible to obtain some insight into the working of society. The example of Lucknow was given repeatedly. Dhurjati Prasad Mukerji’s work was mentioned as an example of the kind of insights that might be obtained through a sociological study. Some of the insights of Professor Mukerji were published later that year in the form of a long essay on the sociological understanding of Indian culture.


Professor Mukerji conceded that Indian culture was complex. That the parts did not necessarily represent the whole and that merely an understanding of all parts would not automatically allow one to have a holistic understanding of the Indian culture. Today such statements might seem platitudinous. In the 1940s they were insightful. What was brave about Professor Mukerji was, however, his statement that Indian culture was essentially "the artifice of an unreal class-structure, unrelated to societal principles". More than half a century since those ideas came up we know that we are still substantially clueless as to what makes Indian culture tick. Ergo, in a sense Mukerji’s insights were faulty. Yet when we look at his ideas in the context within which they were generated, it becomes possible to appreciate their value.

Those were the times when sociology was considered to be something of an objective science which reported about humans and their culture just as scientists reported about plants, rats, fruit flies and sundry other lowly beings. To use the words of a committee that was constituted at Panjab University to prepare a draft syllabus for a course in sociology, "the object of the sociologist is to study human society just as objectively and scientifically as the botanist studies plant life." Parochial thinking was the bane of those days, as it is today. Those who understood sociology then, however, insisted on teaching students about the "indispensability of family life", "bright spots and weak spots in village life, and in a city", "racial conflict: British Indian, Northern Indian vs. South Indian", "sectional rivalries: Bengal vs. Punjab; Panjab vs. UP" and the like.

Professor Mukerji, in contrast to such established orthodoxies, sought to identify the essential basis of Indian civilisation, even if meant investigating the mystical underpinnings of our society and trace their links to everyday experiences of the various classes. He ranged around the literature of those times as also insights that could be provided from a study of music and other popular arts. His one lasting complaint remained that India could not evolve a distinct class structure in the Marxian mould. One can also notice him making surreptitious complaints that Indian society was not organised in the manner of European society. On balance he was percipient enough to notice the emerging English educated middle classes, which were to contribute substantially to society in the coming decades while, contrarily, being considerably parasitical. Many today would disagree with the kind of analysis provided in this book. But that does not matter.