In memoriam

Remembering Kumar Suresh Singh: scholar, administrator and friend

back to issue

IT was a friendship that began in Patna in 1963. Kumar Suresh Singh was a young IAS officer, who had in the meantime also completed a first class first in History from Patna University, followed by an M.A. in the same subject. From August 1960 to December 1962, Singh was a subdivisional officer in the Munda country of Chotanagpur, in what was then south Bihar. It was there that he encountered the Munda celebration of their Ulgulan or Great Tumult, the late nineteenth century millenarian movement led by Birsa Munda. Singh would memorialize the man and the movement in his dissertation for the PhD, awarded by the Patna University in February 1964.

It was during those months and after, from August 1963 to July 1965, that Singh and I met frequently and informally at my home on Anta Ghat Road, in the compound behind the B.N. College where I was then living with my family and on my first research leave from the University of Virginia. We talked over many cups of tea about the meanings of his tribal research on Birsa and my work on Sahajanand Saraswati and peasant activism in Bihar during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a happy coincidence of time and interest that would be renewed many times over the years in our respective efforts at knowing and understanding the world of human experience in which we lived. Dr. Singh generously remembered those early engagements in the acknowledgments of his book, The Dust Storm and the Hanging Mist: A Study of Birsa Munda and His Movement in Chotanagpur, 1874-1901 (Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1966). The published version of Singh’s dissertation was his first, and arguably most important book. Its ethnographic richness set a standard for much of his work and that of others to follow.

I was especially pleased to remember the vibrant enthusiasm of our many encounters and to reciprocate Dr. Singh’s kindness by dedicating the recent paperback edition of my Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941 (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2005) to this remarkable historian. In adding this new dedication I wrote: ‘No one among our academic friends and colleagues has been more committed to the welfare of Jharkhand and its people, or to understanding their history and their lived experience than has Dr. Kumar Suresh Singh. It pleases me to dedicate this paperback edition of Jharkhand ke Kisan to Kumar Suresh Singh.’ And it apparently pleased Suresh Singh to be reminded again of the intellectual give and take that defined our friendship over the years. His body and mind were traumatized by his last illness, and his voice was virtually gone, as it was when we last spoke in December 2004, but the ideas he conveyed in the written word remained as subtle as ever before.

So the question is, how best to remember this remarkable man and what can only be described as his monumental achievement as scholar and mobilizer of ideas par excellence? It is in his ideas and the manner in which he chose to pursue them that we can begin to get at the mind and person of Kumar Suresh Singh, historian, ethnographer and anthropologist. He was all of these things and more than any of them, because he understood the inter-relatedness of these social disciplines and their collective value in defining the human experience. And for Suresh Singh the arena of his inquiry was no less than the social fabric of the very idea of India in its contemporary 20th and 21st century manifestations. Or as he put it so often and so graphically, his goal and that of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI), of which he became the Director-General on 2 March 1985 was no less than to survey the human surface of the entire country. It was a mind-boggling concept that had embedded within it two fundamental sub-texts that we must keep in mind in considering the dimensions and full meaning of Suresh Singh’s career trajectory.

I have already referred to the cross-disciplinary nature of his ideas, a central concept in Singh’s scholarship and his administration. The intersection of anthropology and history and its value to our scholarship is, however, not an idea unique with Singh. But most often the formulation has come from the side of anthropology and seldom from that of the historians. I have in mind for example the reflections of British social anthropologists like Evans-Pritchard, or in the United States the work of Bernard S. Cohn, among others. Cohn’s first essay on the subject was published in 1961, and others followed in 1980 and 1981. And while Singh read widely in the British anthropological literature, and encountered Cohn during a brief term as a post-doctoral fellow at Chicago in 1972, his intellectual grounding as a trained historian who imbibed deeply the insights and techniques of anthropology, came most significantly from his encounter with British anthropologist administrators and from Indian anthropologists. In some instances these were personal connections, as in the cases of M.N. Srinivas, N.K. Bose and W.G. Archer; in others they were more formal academic influences as in the cases of B.S. Guha, S.C. Roy, G.S. Ghurye, J.H. Hutton, R.B. Seymour Sewell, and Verrier Elwin, among others.

It is also important to know that this broad-ranging intellectual engagement was an element of Singh’s thinking from his earliest scholarship, literally to the end of his life. Writing in the conclusion of his 1966 Birsa Munda book, Singh noted that some sects of the revitalization movements of Chotanagpur retained and zealously preserved ‘scraps of paper and manuscripts’ dealing with these movements. He then urged, ‘[that] a combined methodology of historical research and anthropological field-work should be worked out in order to process these materials’ (p. 206). This was in 1966. Then forty years later, in 2006 and only months before his death, Singh is reported to have completed an essay for the Indian Council of Historical Research titled, ‘Diversity, Identity, and Linkages: Explorations in Historical Ethnography’. The important cross-disciplinary idea as the central organizing principle of his work was still very much present in this formulation, but the substance had now been dramatically amplified.

Singh himself referred to the subtle changes that were at work in the profession and in the Anthropological Survey of India, changes that were almost certainly happening under his influence and direction. Writing in the introductory Volume I of the People of India (POI) project in 1992, Singh noted that the period from 1980 to 1985 had seen ‘a new dynamism in cultural policy [which] formed the background of new thinking in the field of anthropological research.’ Whereas heretofore the ASI had confined itself to tribal studies, its policies were revised in 1985, committing it to surveying the entire human surface of India. It would henceforth become ‘the repository for information on all of the people of India.’ (p. 13.) These themes, restated in the ICHR paper, it would seem, sound very much like Dr. Singh’s final reflection on the massive People of India project, reinforcing, as he would want, the idea that India is a complex and diverse social and cultural space, but that within that diversity there is found an inherent connectedness. That connectedness or unity, was for Suresh Singh the ultimate definition of what it meant to be Indian.

It was then a short step from this concept to that of service to the people, which gave unity and meaning to everything K.S. Singh did as administrator and scholar. He made the point simply and directly, as he did in so much else that he wrote, in the opening sentence of the POI introductory volume in 1992: ‘Those of us who have spent a good part of our lives in the service of, and studying, the people, have often felt the need for an ethnographic information system covering all the communities of India’ (p. 13). Essentially, the question Singh was posing was, ‘Who are the people of India whom we serve?’ It is in answering that question and engaging in that service that Kumar Suresh Singh’s career trajectory is defined.

Suresh Singh pursued his career objectives from the day he became an IAS officer in 1958 to the day of his death, with a degree of commitment, determination, and zeal that in my experience is simply unparalleled, and certainly helps account for his many remarkable achievements. But more importantly, Suresh Singh knew exactly who he was; there was no personal or academic posturing in this man. He believed in what he was doing; he felt it had merit as scholarship and that it had value for the people and the nation he served. If he was tireless as a scholar-administrator, he was in truth a person of ultimate integrity, and it was this sense of decency that earned him the reputation and respect that were his as historian, anthropologist and civil servant. It was a rare combination. Indeed, it is a combination that places Kumar Suresh Singh, in my view, in a direct line with the brightest and the best of his colonial predecessors as scholar administrators. For Bihar, I have in mind no less than those intellectual giants of the 19th and 20th centuries, George A. Grierson, L.S.S. O’ Malley, and W.G. Archer. It is a lineage of achievement and service into which K.S. Singh fits comfortably. And it is a comparison not likely to be often repeated.

Singh’s is a career that falls easily into a series of systematic categories of scholarship and service each of which reveals the many qualities I have described in the foregoing pages. And where the potential for service to the people was immediate and real, the relationship between Suresh Singh the administrator and the people he served was intimately symbiotic. I have already written about his encounter with the Mundas of Khunti in the early 1960s and what this meant for Singh’s commitment to the tribal idea in Chotanagpur and all of India. It was a sentiment, indeed an affection reciprocated by the Munda, as indeed by all the tribal citizens of Chotanagpur, for years to come. It turns out that opportunity came more quickly than anyone might have hoped. It was 1967 and Kumar Suresh Singh was Deputy Commissioner, that is District Magistrate of Palamau district in Chotanagpur, the most scarcity-prone area of south Bihar, at a time when all of Bihar was suffering from the first (and last) serious famine in post-1947 India. That this painful experience was converted into what is widely recognized as a model of famine relief was clearly a function of the sensibility, hard-hitting candour and administrative brilliance of the Deputy Commissioner. With the perspective of time, K. Suresh Singh reported on the event, its history and its resolution in his classic The Indian Famine, 1967: A Study in Crisis and Change (New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1975).

It would in effect, be Singh’s last full-scale book, for now he turned to the essay format and would become by definition the quintessential essayist, editor and organizer, first of tribal issues and then of broader ethnographic issues, including as I have noted before, the people of India as a whole. In 1976, for a period of two years, Singh became the Director of the Anthropological Survey of India, and immediately planned a series of surveys and seminars intended to generate an all-India profile of tribal society. The result was three volumes edited by K.S. Singh, Tribal Movements in India, Vols. I and II (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1982 and 1983); and Economies of the Tribes and Their Transformation (New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1982).

Singh’s initial encounter with the ASI was followed in 1978-1980 by his appointment as Commissioner of Chotanagpur. Apart from that major administrative responsibility, he also held charge during this time, as Commissioner-Secretary, of the Department of Rural Development and Welfare, Forests and Environment of the Government of Bihar. And amazingly in those same years, he was named Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University. It was during his term as vice-chancellor that the linguist Dr. Ram Dayal Munda was invited to set up the Post-Graduate Department of Tribal and Regional Languages at Ranchi. In the words of the respected journalist Uttam Sengupta, this was among a number of visionary appointments in these years, ‘and the [post-graduate] department a landmark that has contributed immensely to building up not just a tribal but a "Jharkhandi" identity.’ (The Telegraph of Calcutta, 18 July 2005.)

In these years, and after, there were a continuing series of prominent fellowships and important publications. The early fellowships of the Indian Institute for Advanced Studies (1970), and the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund (1970-72), were clearly in recognition of Singh’s dramatic achievements in dealing with the 1967 famine in Palamau. There followed a brief term as post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago in 1972. Later, in 1981-82 Singh was named Senior Fellow of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. And then, very much in keeping with the quality of his mind, Dr. Singh was engaged in serious reflection and writing, literally, until shortly before his death. This is when he was a National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research.

For Singh these fellowships were not only opportunities for research, but also for writing, which was for him a lifetime commitment. A collected volume appeared in the mid-eighties under the title Tribal Society in India: An Anthropo-Historical Perspective (New Delhi: Manohar Publications, 1985). Apart from the essays appearing in the 1992 and 2002 introductory volumes of the People of India project, and the introductory essays in many of the other POI volumes, this 1985 collection (of eleven essays) is perhaps the most consistent representation of Kumar Suresh Singh’s intellectual output. A number of the essays had appeared previously and were revised for this compendium. While all the essays are important to our understanding of 20th century India and the thinking of Suresh Singh, in terms of the issues raised in this remembrance, the ideas appearing the first essay, ‘History, Anthropology and Colonial Transformation’, are especially relevant. And a particular gem, not appearing in the 1985 volume, is the twenty-page introduction by Singh to the important W.G. Archer, Tribal Law and Justice: A Report on the Santal (New Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1984). This three-volume report prepared by Archer in 1946, and unpublished since that time, almost certainly falls into the category of classic tribal literature. K.S. Singh’s introduction does much to draw crucial meanings from this important report, while at the same time giving us a rich personal reflection of Archer’s complex civil service career in Bihar from 1931 to 1946.

Briefly, and before concluding with observations on the People of India project, the best short description of that project and especially of the history of the Anthropological Survey of India where the POI project is housed, is the essay of K. Suresh Singh, ‘A Perspective on the ASI’ (Seminar 495, November 2000, pp. 40-44). This is a particularly useful treatment of the origins of the ASI and it’s founding in December 1945, with B.S. Guha as Director and Verrier Elwin as Deputy Director.

As noted earlier, K.S. Singh became Director-General of the ASI on March 2, 1985 and the People of India project was inaugurated on October 2, 1985. Its goal was straightforward but at the same time dramatically complex, namely ‘to produce the first-ever national ethnographic profile of the people of India’ (See Seminar 495, ibid.). A more explicit statement of purpose was provided by K.S. Singh in ‘A Note on the Series’, in the revised and updated 2002 edition of the Introduction, Volume I of the POI project (pp. xxiii to xxvii), to wit: ‘The objective of the project was to generate a brief, descriptive, anthropological profile of all of the communities of India, the impact on them of change and development processes, and the links that bring them together.’ It was in every respect a massive effort, projected to be published in 43 volumes, most of which are by now presumably in print. The dramatic scope of the project is laid out at length and in explicit detail by Dr. Singh in the two introduction volumes of 1992 and 2002, and to a lesser extent by M.N. Srinivas in a ten-page foreword to the 1992 volume, reproduced as well in the 2002 edition. Srinivas was involved throughout as an academic consultant.

There have, of course, been many evaluations of the POI project, one of the more balanced of which I cite as an example of the range of professional reactions. This comes from the cultural anthropologist Christopher Pinney of the University College, London, to wit: ‘These volumes were assembled by an extraordinary man as part of a remarkable project. In recent years the Anthropological Survey of India has become his atelier from which an endless series of texts has emerged bearing his imprimatur. K.S. Singh, the recently retired director general of the Anthropological Survey of India, is one of a long tradition of administrators turned anthropologists, having started his career in the Indian Administrative Service.

‘The circumstances of the project’s inception help make sense of these volumes’ peculiar qualities – social idealism mixes with an uneasy legacy of Victorian social science against the background of statistical giganticism. The stress on the accumulation of a vast body of data will clearly appeal to the project’s bureaucratic funders.

‘Future evaluations of the People of India project will depend on whether it comes to be used as a summation or, as K.S. Singh himself hopes, another starting point for further investigation’ (The Times Higher Education Supplement, 2 September 1994).

This is hardly the place to respond to Pinney or other more pointed critics of the POI project, except perhaps to say that Suresh Singh always seemed to be entirely comfortable with the dual role of scholar administrator which he exercised happily for a life-time, and more specifically with his term as Director-General of the ASI and the lead administrator of the POI project. He certainly achieved what he wanted to achieve in that effort, and while he conceded much that his critics said, he was also entirely realistic about the nature and meaning of scholarship in a government-funded agency. Not only did he accept the charge of social idealism as a defining element of the project, he celebrated it as a central goal of the effort, explicitly reflecting the social meanings of the Constitution of free India itself. I suppose it goes without saying that this was not an issue in similar projects in pre-1947 colonial India.

And it strikes me that Singh was equally candid on the matter of policy and politics interfering with scholarship in executing this project. He wrote in 2000: ‘In fact, the ASI, like other survey organizations, has been criticized for peddling sarkari [that is, government] stuff. All survey organizations, whether as subordinate or autonomous organizations, are structurally part of the government and of the concerned departments and ministries. They are closely tied up with the policies and programmes of the government as laid down from time to time in policy and plan documents. But there is also considerable autonomy in matters of research, planning and operations. It is not correct to assert that [this] is sarkari anthropology all the way’ (Seminar 495).

Finally, the POI project has been criticized for relying too heavily on colonial categories, what Pinney may have had in mind when he referred to a ‘legacy of Victorian social science.’ Singh’s reactions to this concern is that the POI project has been infinitely more broad-ranging in space and in substance than any of its colonial predecessors, and ‘While the continuity of [the colonial and Indian] ethnographic tradition was stressed by using the previously gathered information as a benchmark, the focus of the POI project was on change’ (ibid.). In other words, if previous data and categories were relevant in view of the POI team of investigators, they were used, but not to skew or override the much broader definitions of the 1985 project.

So far as Singh was concerned, the proof is obviously in the results, that is in the data generated by the project since its inception in 1985. If those results led critics to observe on the gigantic scale of the effort, Singh and his colleagues were obviously prepared to accept that criticism, while noting, with Pinney, that the POI project was a beginning, not an end in itself. Or to put it in Singh’s own words, ‘I hope we have laid the groundwork for a more comprehensive ethnography of the people of India that needs to be continually updated and built upon by successive generations of researchers and scholars’ (see ‘A Note on the Series’, POI, Introduction, Vol. 1, 2002, p. xxvii).

This strikes me as a legitimate goal, and if the published and computer data bases of the POI project builds on the many data bases of its colonial and Indian predecessors, it will be a boon to many generations of historians and anthropologists, among other social scientists. I speak here as a historian of modern India, who with many generations of students has benefited from the data bases left by the British and their Indian successors. Anyone who has spent time in libraries, archives and record rooms working long hours with pre-computer pencil and paper in the revenue materials, settlement reports, gazetteers, and census records, will perhaps understand and appreciate what Kumar Suresh Singh and his colleagues have wrought. If some of the methods, or even the results of the POI project have been controversial, it should perhaps be said that any seminal piece of scholarship, whether of one volume or 43, is bound to generate a varied and critical response, as this one certainly has. For that reason alone, it is a tribute to Dr. Kumar Suresh Singh and his associates at the Anthropological Survey of India.

M.N. Srinivas has perhaps put it best: ‘Rarely has a project as important as this from the national point of view and from the scholarly point of view been pursued with such determination, vigour, attention, and speed, and I must congratulate Dr. Singh, his colleagues and collaborators and all the staff of the ASI. [He] has been working with energy, zeal, dedication, and above all, love and concern for the people of India. Dr. Singh could complete this gigantic task because he is not only an anthropologist but also a high-level administrator. He has done a marvellous job, which will go down in the history of anthropology. Let me congratulate him again. I would like to thank him on behalf of all scholars’ (See POI, Introduction, Vol. I, 1992 and 2002, foreword).

I conclude this reflection with two personal vignettes; the first going back to 1974 when one of my post-graduate students, James R. Hagen, now also deceased, was completing dissertation research on the social history of Patna district. I had introduced Hagen to Kumar Suresh Singh, most importantly to meet a working professional historian, and second to work with Dr. Singh in preserving papers and manuscripts of Sahajanand Saraswati and the Kisan Sabha housed in the Swami’s Sri Sitaram Ashram at Bihta. I remembered that Suresh Singh had been instrumental in preserving important documents of tribal history in Chotanagpur, and hoped that he would do the same for the materials at Bihta. And this he did. Those materials were collected by Dr. Singh and Jim Hagen, and then shipped to New Delhi and the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML). There they were duplicated and the originals returned to Bihta. Few scholars who use those materials in the NMML are aware of this history. Dr. Singh facilitated this important effort not because it was a tribal issue or one of anthropology, but because as a sensitive scholar-administrator, he understood the value of preserving the past, much as he understood in everything else he did, the importance of identifying the social present.

Kumar Suresh Singh was born 15 March 1935 at Nayagaon in the Jamui subdivision of the Monghyr district in Bihar. It is a place in the southern reaches of the district, near the hills and forests of Chotanagpur to whose people Suresh would commit a lifetime. He died at his home in Saket in New Delhi on 20 May 2006. Suresh Singh is survived by his wife and three sons, and a host of friends and admirers.

Walter Hauser

top