In the history of the development of sociological thought in India, the contribution of Akshay Ramanlal Desai is indeed significant. A R Desai was born on April 16, 1915 at Nadiad in Gujarat and died in 1994 at Baroda. He consistently advocated and applied dialectical-historical model in his sociological studies. He closely studied the works of Marx and Engels and the writings of Trotsky.
Desai was also one among the students of Dr . Ghurye at the Bombay University who later got the privilege of serving it as the Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology. He was one of the founding members of the “Indian Sociological Society” and a life member. He had the opportunity of serving the society as its president between 1978 and 1980. He is known to the academic circle of India as one of the renowned rural and urban sociologists and also a political sociologist.
A R Desai – Works & Writings
- Social Background of Indian Nationalism (1948)
- Rural Sociology in India (1969)
- Slums and Urbanisation of India (1970, 1972)
- State and Society in India (1975)
- Peasant Struggle in India (1979)
- Rural India in Transition (1979)
- India’s Path of Development (1984)
Methodological Approach of A R Desai
- When the other Indian sociologists were concentrating on analyzing the micro (the village), Desai’s sociology studied the macro Capitalism, nationalism, classes, agrarian structure, the state and peasant movements among other things.
- A.R.Desai is one among the Indian Sociologists who have constantly advocated and applied dialectical-historical model in his sociological studies.
- He may be regarded as one of the pioneers introducing the modern Marxist approach to empirical investigations involving bibliographical & field research.
A R Desai on Indian Society
A.R.Desai makes an attempt to understand a political and economic history of Indian society. He considers that history is no sociology but sociological understanding of reality cannot be complete without interpretation of historical data. As a Marxian scholar he considers foundation to Indian history is based upon the modes of production that evolved during different points of time. Hence, he divides economic history of India into three distinctive stages:
- Pre-colonial stage;
- Colonial stage;
- Postcolonial stage.
Marx considered that prior to colonialism Indians lived in villages. Every village had control over specific quantum of agricultural land. Every family irrespective of their caste were using this land on the basis of their need, technology was simple, family labour was used and production was made for consumption. Land was not mercantile commodity. Hence, control over means of production and common use of labour was making in villages egalitarian classes in character.
Conforming to Marxism view, British scholars like Sir Henry Maine, Charles Metcalf, Boden Powell indicate that village communities were ‘Little Republics’ and were self- sufficient in character. This self-sufficient/self-sustaining community were little affected by change in the leadership in the larger nation-state. They indicated that rulers may come and go but village communities stood undiluted forever.
A R Desai collected historical data on village communities in India to contradict these positions. He finds out that Marx and colonialists failed to understand India effectively because they had romantic view of India. Marx took into consideration ownership as the main criteria to understand inequality and exploitation.
However, Desai points out that in case of village India artisans class like barbers, oilmen, carpenters, ironsmiths, Goldsmiths etc., didn’t had any association with land. They were engaged in manufacturing commodities meant for selective buyers present within the village and local communities. These selective buyers were belonging to upper class usually operating as village headman who have the prerogative of allocating village land to different families. These headman were reserving fertile land for themselves and using the labour of marginalised groups who are not culturally entitled to claim their rights over village land. These people were mostly untouchables and lower division of Shudras hence, rural labour were the exploited lot.
In village India multiple classes were present and these class division was neatly hidden under the blanket of caste which Marx and colonial scholars failed to identify. Hence they glorified classless and egalitarian character of village community.
A R Desai figured out that it is premature to consider that caste was a static organisation. Different caste groups internalize the values and develop hierarchical relationships. Natural calamities leads to distress migration as a result people belonging to higher caste compromise with the rules regulating diet, rituals and occupation and thus caste gets converted into class. Old caste get segmented into new class. New affluent class challenged old dominant caste. Village Indian historical gone from this process of dialectics but nationalists, colonialists and Marxist scholars failed to understand this.
The early scholars indicated village India was land bound, classless and egalitarian. These studies ignored the presence of the 3 kinds of cities in traditional Indian society, such as:
- Cultural cities that developed surrounding the great religious places like Benaras, Rshikesh and Puri.
- Administrative cities that developed in different parts of the country where the rulers kept their administrative staffs and Warriors.
- Economic cities where traders, businessmen and manufactures were present.
Therefore, in pre-colonial India a large body of non-agrarian urban classes were present and these classes did not manifest the integrative relationship ,likewise in rural India different classes were present and class divisions were determined on the basis of occupation, excess over agricultural produce and market value of non-agricultural product. Thus conceptualising precolonial India as an egalitarian social system is a neglect to empirical fact.
Finally Desai draws a distinction between feudalism in Europe and in India. He considers pre-colonial India as a feudal system because all the rulers who invaded India from 9th century onwards controlled the political power of the state but until colonialism none of them made an attempt to evict the indigenous people living in the villages from their right over agricultural land.
Feudal lords in case of Europe first control agricultural land then developed a political and religious system to safeguard their needs. However, the indigenous farmers in India had the limited liability towards the political state which was confined to:
- payment of taxes;
- supply of warriors, architects as and when their services were needed by the ruling classes.
Therefore village committee in India manifest invisible feudalistic character that early scholars failed to notice. It was feudalism for the reason:
- tax policy was determined by the rulers;
- no measures were taken to improve the condition of agriculture;
- product from agriculture was not sufficient to address to basic needs of local community living with hunger, malnutrition and forced migration in village India.
Desai considers that condition of rural people in village India and mediaeval Europe was no different as both manifest attributes of feudalism .European feudalism was monaural feudalism but in case of India it was cooperative feudalism. In case of monaural feudalism state legitimises to feudal relationship between lords and the serfs but in case of pre-colonial India landlords were not present and people dependent on land were non-emotive, culture bound, prefer recreation and state is not concerned with improving agriculture condition leading to mass poverty and marginalisation.
In conclusion one can indicate that the Desai looks Indian society from the standpoint of production to arrive at the conclusion that it is not the exploitative a system of production rather it can be ignorance of the people that can generate the seeds of exploitation and inequality in social life. Hence pre-colonial India living in villages was not the manifestation of classless society.
Capitalism is expensive and expansive; colonialism in India is a product of demographic and technological compulsion in Britain. Stakeholders of capitalism fight with each other in their own country but when had overseas they use common symbols to promote spirit of nationalism, hence unified.
A few thousand British could control over millions of Indians because the presence of British nationalism and absence of Indian nationalism. British came to India driven by economic necessity therefore at first they carried the products meant for the use of targeted body of buyers to gratify their economic interest and control over power. Technologically developed weapons were used , indigenous rulers were financed, military support was given to them to fight war against each other.
Desai writes when indigenous rulers were fighting with each other British got them to sign various friendship treaties and accept their domination and sovereignty. Those indigenous rulers who didn’t accept the sovereignty of British were alienated or defeated. This way imperialism was established in India which further promoted capitalism.
Zamindari system was introduced driven by capitalist interest leading to the rise of absentee landlords, big landlords, sub landlords, sub sub landlords intensifying the exploitation of rural poors. The growth of commercial cities introduce a standard currency, expansion of Railways and transport for economic purpose, introduction of education to gratify British interest gave rise to the emergence of Indian middle class who offered loyalty to British and distinguished themselves from the rural and urban poors.
Trade monopoly act, salt act, industrial labour act, Corporation act were introduced by British to systematically demolish cottage industries, manufacturing units and Indian industries that gave rise to handful of industrialist controlling Indian market emerging as big bourgeois.T hus polarised class structure developed both in urban India and in rural India, manifesting the exploitative character of capitalists
Desai’s reflection on India is not just a critique to public policy rather it explains the dichotomy between ideology of developmental planning and the results attribute to public policies. He finds out that green revolution appeared but it did not kill rural poverty, rather it created petty bourgeois in rural India. He studies on rural cooperative, PRI’s indicate how in different states these modern institutions have offered legitimacy to the traditional dominant caste to control over modern institution to gratify their political interest.
Landlessness in rural India is a fountainhead of naxalite movement. Eighty percent of Indian industries are controlled by 12 families and state has taken interest in those industries which are left out by private enterprise. State has emerged not as a savior of masses but as a promoter of big bourgeois. Therefore the dominant caste and dominant class developing juxtaposition have control over agrarian mode of production and industrial mode of production as a result trade union movements are getting momentum in modern India.
Thus industries are not a solution to poverty, Green Revolution is not a solution to backwardness of rural community. The irony of India is that it follows socialist policies
with commitment to protect capitalist interest because these capitalists are present everywhere in the form of dominant caste, in the form of upper-class, powerholders and in the form of traders in India. Therefore modern India is not structurally different from Colonial India because intensity of inequality and marginalisation of masses are identical in both the conditions.
Criticism Of A.R. Desai
Desai expects that peoples movement in India can drive Indian society truly in the direction of socialism through the glorification of people’s consciousness. His approach is considered as stereotypical by S.C Dubey who in his book “community development” indicates that how community program development have transformed the structure of agrarian economy in Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh rejecting AR Desai’s understanding of India. MN Srinivas indicated that Naxalite movement started in West Bengal when communist government was in power. He considers that there is no guarantee if socialist group came to power they can bring in an egalitarian society as suggested by A R Desai.
KL Krishna indicates the development planning in India is studied by Sociologists from ideological perspective wherein they select their field research that can simply fit into their ideology. To its contrast economists goes for a larger sample and their studies indicate in which area policies are largely successful, partially successful and unsuccessful. Thus an economist tries to find out the reasons behind the failure or success of developmental programmes. Therefore sociological analysis of rural development should be supplementaries to analysis done by economists.
MS Gore in his book “Public Policies and Social Development” writes that cooperative movements have been highly successful in Maharashtra and Karnataka that these movements are yet to take a start in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and certain pockets of Uttar Pradesh.
Likewise community development programmes have achieved differential results in various parts of the country. Thus Desai’s study of postcolonial India is not driven by empirical merit.
Despite these limitations one can still be empathetic to Desai who rebelled against Oriental understanding of India, Nationalistic understanding of India and Indological understanding of Indian to advocate what looks so romantic from outside is so greatly different in reality. It is true that he studied India from the standpoint of modes of production ignoring other important factors like ideology, power, culture, education. But he was the first sociologist who didn’t mechanically applied Marxian model to understand the economic history of Indian society. Therefore rightly Yogendra Singh considers that sociology of A R Desai is foundation to modern sociology of India.
Relevance of Marxist Approach
In the fifties and early sixties, American structural-functionalism and British functionalism dominated social sciences, in general and sociological researches, in particular. However, Desai undeterred by these imperialistic influences continued to write on Indian society and state from the Marxist perspective.
He finds that the dominant sociological approaches in India are basically non-Marxist, and the Marxist approach has been rejected on the pretext of its being dogmatic, valueloaded and deterministic in nature.
According to Desai, the Marxist approach is the relevant approach. It could help to study of government polices; the classes entrenched into state apparatus and India’s political economy.