Arvind N. Das 1949-2000
THE late ’60s were a unique period in our social history. And while scholars may quibble over the significance of Naxalbari, the peasant rebellion dramatically altered the social orientation of many of our young students and teachers. Rarely before, or since, at least in post-Independence India, had otherwise comfortably placed students taken the cause of the underdog to heart. Among those who were permanently marked by the experience of the ‘spring thunder’ was Arvind N. Das.
His first serious intervention in public affairs came while still a student at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. As Secretary of the College Union, Arvind with compatriots like Rabindra (Lallu) Ray, Dilip Simeon, Rajiv Kumar, Shahid Amin was responsible for shaking up the cloistered academe through organising study circles, printing and distributing ‘subversive’ literature, organising plays – in brief, bringing the struggle in the countryside to the doorsteps of a cocooned elite. And unlike most, who after a short period of exuberant involvement, returned to the fold, Arvind (and some others) went off to the field. Thus started his career as the ‘outsider’.
Though trained as an academic historian, Arvind in each of his institutional incarnations, stretched the boundaries of history writing. Claiming allegiance to both D.D. Kosambi and E.P. Thompson, he drew upon a multitude of sources and methodologies to present ‘engaged social history’. His early years at the A.N. Sinha Institute in Patna saw the crystallization of the ‘Red Brigade’ of journalists. The group, from seniors like Pradhan H. Prasad to younger colleagues like Nirmal Sengupta, Hiranmoy Dhar, Arun Sinha, Arun Ranjan, T. Vijyendra and Kalyan Mukherjee, provided the most insightful commentary on the state of Bihar in journals like Frontier and the Economic and Political Weekly.
His subsequent involvement with the National Labour Institute (NLI) and the Public Enterprise Centre for Continuing Education ( PECCE) resulted in the focus enlarging from the deprived peasantry to the urban under-class. Both the Future of Asia conference (1981) and the research project on Trade Unions and the Labouring Poor in India owed much to Arvind’s infectious enthusiasm and bewildering range of contacts. So does much of our subsequent interest in the problem of bonded labour.
While maintaining his links with formal academic institutions – Centre for Social Studies, Surat; Asian Development Research Institute, Patna; Centre for Asian Studies, Amsterdam, Arvind moved more directly into mainstream journalism. As Senior Editor in The Times of India and Research Director for its sequecentennial series of publications he put together an interesting group of younger writers, designers and communicators. This phase also saw his involvement with CENDIT, one of the pioneers in the use of AV and video technology for social communication and transformation.
After leaving the TOI in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, he along with some friends, set up the Asia Pacific Communication Associates (APCA) to make television programmes (both news analysis and documentaries). His greater passion, however, was reserved for Biblio, one of our best book review journals.
Throughout his short and intense career, Arvind remained an engaging, endearing, though somewhat controversial figure, probably because of his intrinsic impatience with institutional norms and boundaries. His many books and research papers, newspaper writings, TV commentary and documentaries, as also his interactions with students and activists, amply reflect his unusual experience and wide reading.
All through, his passion about Bihar and the labouring poor remained undimmed. His latest offering, Down and Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism with Jan Breman and photographer Ravi Agarwal bears adequate testimony to his concern for equity, and a belief that some day the toiling masses will win their proper place in society. Equally, unlike many who have given up on Bihar as a ‘dark hole’, Arvind’s conviction about his native state never flagged. ‘Bihar is not only the second biggest state of the Republic, it also occupies the space where the very heart of India is located.’ His book Changel, a social-history of his village, shows how, despite making his mark in a metropolis, Arvind’s heart remained true to his birthplace.
His unexpected death in Amsterdam has snatched away a rare social commentator of the times. At a time when ‘commitment’ and ‘engagement’ are somewhat undervalued qualities, not having Arvind around is a bad blow.