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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 22, New Delhi, May 16, 2020

In Memoriam: The Significance of Being the Sociologist Prof. Yogendra Singh

Sunday 17 May 2020

by Naren Singh Rao

Prof. Yogendra Singh, one of the iconic Indian sociologists and founder of Sociology department at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, passed away on May 9. He was 87.

Prof. Singh was one of those rare, visionary sociologists who toiled untiringly to establish sociology as a stand-alone, respectable discipline within the realm of Indian social sciences. His social imagination and understanding was deeply imbued in pure sociology, in contrast to several of his fellow-travellers who essentially derived their learning from the allied disciplines including social and cultural anthropology and social psychology. He made relentless scholarly efforts to Indianise as well as modernise the Indian sociology which was in the shackles of deep-rooted hegemony of colonial, anthropological scholarship. His long-standing colleague at JNU and distinguished sociologist, TK Oommen befittingly remarks, ‘‘Indian sociology was for quite some time under the shadow of British social anthropology. He [Prof. Singh] extricated it from that orientation and made it what we call modern sociology in Indian context.’’

Prof. Singh was one of those rare homegrown sociologists who, unlike many of his contemporaries, was not trained at Oxbridge under the tutelage and intellectual surrounding of classically-trained British anthropologists. He was an ordinary being who was born and brought up in a small town of Uttar Pradesh and studied at Lucknow University, and later started his teaching career in modest, state universities in varied small towns of North India including Agra, Jodhpur and Jaipur. Through sheer academic rigour and promising writings, over the years, he rose through the ranks and finally made it to JNU in the early 1970s. It is needless to stress that, in more than one way, his modest background played an important role in the shaping of his profound, non-elitist sociological imagination.

Prof. Singh produced important sociological literature on varied subjects ranging from Indian modernity, social stratification, social change, sociology of culture, identity and globalisation, to communication and media. Over the decades, his seminal sociological magnum opus ‘‘Modernisation of Indian Tradition: A Systematic Study of Social Change’’ has achieved a cult status. Originally published in 1973, this work posed new and critical questions with regard to the complex processes operating in the realm of social, political and cultural spheres, and in turn, provided critical, fresh insights into social change and modernity in India. His other important work ‘‘Social Stratification and Change in India’’ is widely considered a seminal text for understanding the structural contradictions functioning in the domain of social stratification in India.

Though Prof. Singh was not a Marxist sociologist in the sense that his choice of methodology was never strictly Marxist, however, his progressive mooring and scientific approach towards the discipline was in place and was never really questioned as such. His sociological imagination was imbued in the wide-ranging streams of progressive thought systems. He indiscriminately and unreservedly utilised varied theoretical frames keeping in view their suitability to the context and data, and, in turn, produced insightful sociological literature.

During his long teaching career at JNU, he was widely loved and respected for his humility, compassion and forthcoming personality. He was fondly called ‘‘Y Singh’’ by the students in the campus as he was quite a student friendly teacher who always went beyond the call of his duty. He supervised scores of doctoral and pre-doctoral theses which opened new vistas in the discipline. For instance, Late Comrade Naveen Babu’s excellent M.Phil dissertation on ‘‘From Varna to Jati: Political Economy of Caste in Indian Social Formation’’ which critically looks at the question of caste from radical, Marxist perspective was supervised by Prof. Singh. The dissertation was later published as a book which received widespread critical acclaim.

As the founder of the Sociology department (officially known as Centre for the Study of Social Systems) at JNU, he ensured that the character of the department becomes egalitarian, democratic, diverse and field-work oriented. To this effect, he consciously recruited faculty members belonging to varied social groups and geographical regions.
As the first president of JNU Teachers’ Association, he laid the foundation of egalitarian culture within the association, which, in turn, paved the way for friendly and democratic teacher-teacher and teacher-student relationship in the campus. It is one of those rarest of rare qualities which JNU continues to nurture and cherish quite dearly and takes pride in. Indeed it is one such great characteristic which is seldom found even in the world’s best universities.

Prof. Singh remained a committed academic of integrity and intellectual honesty in contrast to a couple of his contemporaries who while pursuing their academic career at JNU remained self-proclaimed Marxists and milked their progressivism, and post-retirement, in the spring of their life they silently turned soft towards the reactionary ruling regimes. It is a matter of public record that some of them even went to the extent of receiving awards from the hands of ministers belonging to the downright reactionary and communal political formation of the RSS-BJP.

It is on record that Prof. Singh declined several offers of Vice-chancellorship at various Indian universities. Surely, it was quite a rare and courageous thing to do, in view of the fact that most of the Indian academicians have a penchant for hankering after administrative positions in the corridors of power. For them this temptation is hard to resist. Many a times, they even go to the extent of making grave, monumental compromises of various hues. Indeed, to his credit, Prof. Singh did never give two hoots about the so called powerful positions and protected both his academic and personal honesty with dignity.

One more rare quality that stands out about Prof. Singh is that he was not really conscious about the clout or so called standing of the publication houses, when it came to the publication of his books. His several books were published by non-elite Indian publishers. It was indeed quite courageous, provided the fact that there were several of his contemporaries who, for all their lives, carefully worked towards their so called ‘‘publication credentials’’ and invested much energy in making sure that their academic works were published only by powerful publication conglomerates which have an international clout. No doubt, there have been very few social scientists of Prof. Singh’s calibre and league who could muster up the courage to negate such careerist approach.
Indeed, it is quite disheartening to witness that no substantial coverage was given to the news of his passing by the mainstream Indian news media. There were only a couple of newspapers and online portals which provided some space to the news of his demise. Clearly, it reflects upon the poor social imagination and misplaced priorities of the owners and editors of Indian news media. A sociologist of Prof. Singh’s stature who spent more than half of a century trying to understand and analyse the society, which the Indian news media claim to represent and understand, did not feel the need of telling their society about the demise of a sociologist of Prof. Singh’s calibre. It is a pity that the news platforms have all the space and air-time for frivolous, small-time and clownish characters of all hues but not for the eminent social scientists whose work goes a long way towards making the society and the world a better place to live in. The stereotypical answer given by the editors is: The common people are not interested in knowing about social scientists as they do not understand and connect with their ‘‘complex’’ thoughts and writings! Is it so? Not really.

It is high time when social scientists pondered over this question: Why do the social scientists who passionately study and write about society all their lives fail to reach its members so tellingly? If we can reflect upon this question honestly and candidly, it would be the best tribute to the rich, uncompromising and grassroots-oriented legacy of Prof. Yogendra Singh.

(Naren Singh Rao is a Delhi-based media critic.)

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