Karela Fry

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Bikram Keshari Roy Burman

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The Hindu carries an obituary of one of India’s pre-eminent anthropologist:

B. K. Roy Burman, 1922-2012

Bikram Keshari Roy Burman, described variously and accurately as a ‘walking encyclopaedia’ by S.C. Dube, an ‘anthrophile anthropologist’ by L.K. Mahapatra, and a ‘savant and humanist’ by Bhupinder Singh, passed away on Tuesday night at his home in Chittaranjan Park in Delhi. He was born in Sylhet, now Bangladesh, in 1922 and it was clear right from his childhood that there was something unusual about him. At the age of 16, he ran away from home to go to China to fight against the Japanese aggression. In 1942, when he was in college, he led a students’ procession to Raj Bhavan, broke the police cordon, and later hid himself in a village in 24 Parganas to avoid arrest.

When he came of age he changed jobs numerous times, starting out as a lecturer at Seth College in Silchar, Assam and retiring as a professor of anthropology at Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. He also served as Deputy Registrar-General of the Census.

Although he was a professional academic only for a brief period of five years (1977-82) he left an indelible mark in the field of scholarship. Roy Burman’s academic contributions include his concepts of ‘bridge’ and ‘buffer’ communities, ‘infra-nationalism’, ‘proto-nationalism’ and ‘post-primitive’. Methodologically, his ‘ethno-history’ and ‘holistic’ approaches have been well received by scholars in India, although a few of them did not like his Rapid Rural Appraisal type of fieldwork method.

The tribal societies of India in general and those of Northeast India, in particular, were his forte. His doctoral work on the Totos, a little known tribe living near the Jalpaiguri-Bhutan border, aroused a lot of interest among other anthropologists who later visited Totopara to take the study further from where he had left off.

Roy Burman drew his intellectual inspiration from Erich Fromm, the German sociologist and social psychologist, and Jayaprakash Narayan. There was hardly any district in India he had not visited and that he could not speak about with some authority. This gave him an unprecedentedly rich comparative perspective on Indian societies and cultures.

In one seminar on indigenous peoples’ movements held at Uppsala University in Sweden about a decade ago, he even sat on a dharna protesting the double standards of the developed nations when it came to their own policies towards indigenous peoples. Professor Andre Beteille — who did not entertain the idea of mixing academic work with activism and who was present on the occasion — somehow managed to make his ‘Bikromda’ give up the dharna. Roy Burman was, however, fully pacified only after he was promised that arrangements would be made for him to visit the Sami territory in Sweden, so that he could bring home to the Swedes their own discriminatory policies.

The incident referred to here resulted in a long article by Roy Burman, which is worth reading because it not only shows his sensitivity to what is now called “hegemonism”, but also because it illustrates his impatience with political correctness. The article is awash in the spirit of the independence movement, and serves to remind us of the great intellectual and political legacy which was lost when political power was cornered by the post-independence Congress party.

Another example of Roy Burman’s writing is his extremely clear, but detailed, article called “What has driven the tribals of central India to political extremism” in Mainstream, which begins:

[It] seems from the report of the Expert Group constituted by the Planning Commission to examine the development challenges in extremist affected areas that the epicentre of the upsurge “is the region in Central India with concentration of tribal population, hilly topography and undulating terrain”. This may not be fortuitous.

On August 18, 2009, addressing a meeting of the Chief Ministers the Home Minister of the Government of India, P. Chidambaram, stated that the Maoist challenge would be met by development activities and police action. This was an utterly unrealistic approach; he was silent about the most important issue, namely, the systematic dispossession of the tribal people from land resources, which they have been holding for generations.

Here it would be noted that the dispossession I am referring to is very much different from development related displacement. Conceptually at least, project related displacement is not dispossession. Displacement is the unwanted outcome of particular type of development, and the government accepts the right of the displaced persons to be compensated. It is a different matter that compensation may not be adequate, or only notional.

As against involuntary displacement, in many predominantly tribal areas the tribal people are deliberately dispossessed of their lands and resources thereon in a meticulously planned manner. This is a serious charge. But this is true. I shall now give the relevant information in support of what I have stated.

Read the rest if you are interested in India’s present political situation.

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