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In Memoriam: Anjan Ghosh

A tribute to Anjan Ghosh, the sociologist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, who for decades matched his devotion to a life of the mind with a daily involvement in the rough and tumble of the political and social world.





A tribute to Anjan Ghosh, the sociologist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, who for decades matched his devotion to a life of the mind with a daily involvement in the rough and tumble of the political and social world.

Partha Chatterjee ( is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta.

In Memoriam: Anjan Ghosh

Partha Chatterjee

Economic & Political Weekly

June 26, 2010 vol xlv nos 26 & 27

njan Ghosh filled the world around him with so much energy and good-humoured enthusiasm that for those of us who saw him at work everyday for the last 25 years it is unbelievable that his presence is gone forever. We had got so used to his unfailing reliability, his ever generous help, his wise counsel, his sonorous voice, his sardonic remarks, his unstinting kindness, that it is hard to imagine life going on without him at the C alcutta Centre (the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta or CSSSC). He was diagnosed with acute leukemia on 4 May 2010, and hospitalised the next day for the first phase of chemotherapy. Apparently, he took the initial round of treatment quite well, but then developed a fungal infection in the lungs that led to a rapid decline. Following a severe cardiac arrest, he passed away on the morning of 5 June 2010.

Born in 1951, Anjan Ghosh graduated in 1971 with honours in English from St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. He then did his MA and MPhil (1976) in Sociology from J awaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He taught in the department of Humanities at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, from 1977 to 1979 and at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, from 1980 to 1984. In 1985, he joined the faculty of the CSSSC. In 1984, he married Sweta Mazumdar, who now teaches Socio logy at St Xavier’s College.

All this time, he was registered for a PhD at JNU, studying the coal mine workers of the Dhanbad region. He carried out his fieldwork in the early 1970s, but was convinced that it was too early to assess the impact of the nationalisation of the coal mines. He repeated his fieldwork in the late 1970s. Those familiar with doctoral fieldwork in India, conducted without financial support or research assist

ance, will realise how much effort and mental strength it takes for a student to do the entire field research twice. But somehow the project was jinxed. Despite writing out virtually complete drafts (which I saw at the time and commented on), he was never satisfied enough with the work to submit it for the degree.

At the CSSSC, he soon became an indispensable part of the institution. He took on major teaching responsibilities in the centre’s research training programme and was a key resource person at all conferences and workshops. He took a very active interest in the development of the CSSSC library and became perhaps its most frequent user. In 1992, he left for the University of Michigan to do a PhD in Anthropology which he completed in 1998. His dissertation was on “Rumour and Communal Riots in South Asia, 194692” in which he worked with the idea that communal violence in India, even when urban, had something of the structure of peasant insurgency and that the forms of transmission described by Ranajit Guha in his classic work might be shown to be present in it. What was striking in his study were the repeated patterns of rumour in riots spanning over almost half a century in places as far apart as Calcutta, Noakhali, Bihar, Punjab and Delhi. In the last 10 years, he also held visiting appointments at Johns Hopkins University, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and the University of Oregon.


Anjan Ghosh published most of his scholarly work in professional journals of sociology and anthropology. In addition,


he was, over the years, a regular contributor to the Economic & Political Weekly, Seminar and Frontier. He co-edited with me the conference volume History and the Present (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002). His published writings cover a wide range of subjects, reflecting his insatiable intellectual curiosity and breadth of knowledge. He wrote on communal violence, which of course was a subject he had researched thoroughly. Particularly striking, I think, was his piece on gossip published in the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society in 1997. Another theme of abiding interest to him was the history of sociology in India. He published several essays on this theme, dealing with the professionalisation of the discipline in the university and other institutions in the early 20th century. He also wrote on Benoy Sarkar and Surajit Sinha. I remember the great interest he took in culling out from old calendars of the University of Calcutta the names of lecturers who taught sociology in various departments long before a sociology department was set up at the university. Most of them had never published, making it difficult to trace their background, and Anjan would ask everyone he met if they could give him any details on any of them.

Another theme that always drew his attention was that of ethnic movements: his writings on the Jharkhand movement in the 1980s and later on the Gorkhaland movement were much talked about. Most recently, he became involved in a project at CSSSC on studying the Durga Puja as the major popular festival of Kolkata. He wrote a very perceptive piece on this subject in Seminar in 2006, looking at the intermeshing of class and power in the social formation of the urban neighbourhood as a community. This project is one that his collaborator Tapati Guha-Thakurta, the art historian, will now have to fi nish on her own.

At the CSSSC, Anjan Ghosh took on far more than a fair share of institutional responsibility. He directed and participated in several research and training projects that were institutionally important but did not yield much by way of academic recognition or intellectual satisfaction. At a m oment of crisis, he even accepted the burden of looking after the entire administration of the centre. In the years when I d irected the centre, I knew I could always count on Anjan to do the most onerous and thankless tasks that I could not ask anyone else to do.

Professional Responsibilities

He was also mindful of his responsibilities towards the professional organisations in his discipline and was active in several sociological circles. He was on the editorial board of Contributions to Indian Sociology and the president of the West Bengal Sociological Association. He also regarded it as part of his calling to offer his services to the teaching and dissemination of sociological knowledge outside the narrow circle of elite universities and institutes. For several years before he left for doctoral studies in Michigan, Anjan would travel once a week to teach in the MA classes at the University of Kalyani, situated in the largely rural district of Nadia. Until the last days of his life, he would make himself available to sociology departments in universities such as Burdwan, north Bengal and Vidyasagar which sought his help with syllabus revision or refresher courses or doctoral examinations. I must confess that I sometimes chided him for travelling so much to run these errands instead of using the time for his own research, only to realise that he regarded it as an obligation to those members of his professional community who were less fortunate than us and that, while I had

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June 26, 2010 vol xlv nos 26 & 27

Economic & Political Weekly


largely ignored such calls, he put them quite high on his list of priorities. He was one of the most active members of the group that put together the new textbooks of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) on social studies a couple of years ago.

Anjan’s bibliographic memory was phenomenal. People called him a walking library. It is difficult for those who have been introduced to research work in the last two decades to imagine the everyday scholarly life in the days before electronic catalogues and online journal subscriptions, especially in a country like India where even in the best institutions collections of foreign books and journals were meagre. We had to rely heavily on people like Anjan who did the hard work of keeping track of what was being published, had a near perfect recall of the information and were generous enough to share it with others. In fact, we had become so used to asking Anjan for bibliographic references that we allowed ourselves to become lazy, not bothering to do the search even after the computers arrived. Hearing of his death, Nicholas Dirks, his PhD advisor at Michigan, sent us a message in which he said, with transparent candour, that he had learnt more from Anjan than what he had been able to teach his ostensible student. And as for his generosity, we were told the other day of the amazing story of the young college teacher Anjan had once met on a suburban train. While chatting with him, the young scholar had m entioned an article he had been asked to read from an international journal. Anjan had noted his address, looked up the article in the library and had it photocopied and sent to him. They never met again.

Caring for Students

Even as a senior and established academic, Anjan had the rare quality of making even the most reticent student feel both comfortable and important. There was something in him that broke the barriers of age and status and allowed those who came to him to feel that they need not be embarrassed by their ignorance or sorry for their failures. All teaching institutions have to do some selective counselling outside the classroom, and a place like CSSSC, because of the relatively small number of MPhil and PhD students, probably has to do it more intensively than the more impersonal universities. Anjan Ghosh mobilised within himself the patience and the sympathy to mentor students, hold their hands when needed, reassure and guide them – on behalf of all of us. We counted on him to act on behalf of the institution. He was equally caring towards our younger colleagues – in many cases, helping them settle down in a new city, advising them on their work and invariably being the first person on the faculty to become their friend.

Anjan Ghosh was also a public intellectual – engaged, passionately articulate and prepared to take risks. As a student and teacher in Delhi, he was closely associated with the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR). After moving back to Kolkata, he became involved with the A ssociation for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) and the movement for the release of political prisoners. As always, he was prepared to do any job assigned to him – from pasting posters on the wall to addressing street corner meetings to raising money or signatures. I remember a civil liberties convention in a packed auditorium where Justice Krishna Iyer was the featured speaker. The organisers chose Anjan to translate Iyer’s speech into Bengali. Even professional translators with years of experience find this job a difficult one, and Justice Iyer’s speech was eloquent, filled with legal technicalities and rapidly delivered. Not surprisingly, Anjan found the going hard, frequently fumbling for words, stopping in mid-sentence, starting again and sometimes trying the patience of the audience. But he was valiant and did not flinch. He stuck to his task until Iyer finally sat down. I greatly admired Anjan that day for his resilience.

Anjan was also closely involved with the Bengali social science journal Anya Artha which created a stir in the 1970s. For several years in the 1980s, he assisted Samar Sen, editor of Frontier, in writing the unsigned weekly editorials that appeared in that remarkable left-wing journal. Not surprisingly, given the intellectual milieu in which he grew up, he also became a film buff. But he was not one to enjoy the cinema as a passive consumer.

He became actively involved in the Cine Club of Calcutta in the 1970s, organised events on its behalf and helped bring out its journal. Over the years, he participated in dozens of movements and causes – organising meetings, writing out statements and offering guidance. Of all the people I have known, he was probably the one who most assiduously insisted on matching his devotion to a life of the mind with a daily involvement in the rough and tumble of the political and social world.

As I write this, I can almost hear Anjan chuckling over what I have written. He could not stand pomp and ceremony and was mercilessly critical of the hyperbolic rhetoric that is so much a part of our public life. But for the same reason, we also loved to tease him, often on pretexts that were quite unwarranted, because we knew he would slip into the mood of the banter and enjoy the joke at his expense. He was an aficionado of street food and loved to take his friends to the most unlikely little holes in the wall in Kolkata and Delhi – the two cities he knew best – for a taste of mutton chop or gobi paratha. One of the reasons why we were so certain that Anjan would recover from the dreaded disease that had so cruelly struck him was that he laughed and joked with us as he always did when we went to visit him in hospital. Except for the last three to four days before the end when, suddenly, he seemed to give up, perhaps realising within himself that the course of nature was utterly random, following no logic of either reason or morality, and that it was futile after a point to try to fight it with the feeble force of human will. Polymath that he was, perhaps he learnt something about life and its limits that we too will learn some day.

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Economic & Political Weekly

June 26, 2010 vol xlv nos 26 & 27

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