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Saturday, May 30, 2020

A social scientist who was always on a field trip

For Yogendra Singh, every encounter was a source of knowledge.

Written by Salil Misra | New Delhi | Published: May 14, 2020 7:00:56 am
Yogendra Singh. (Express Photo)

Yogendra Singh is no more. After having served Indian social sciences for over five decades, he has left it all. How would he have commented on his own death? His USP was his great capacity to sociologise everything. It was also his claim that just about everything could be sociologised. Is it then possible to attempt a sociology of Yogendra Singh? This would be next to impossible for a vast generation of his students or those who came under his spell. For them this news has to be a great personal loss first, not being able to see him, to run to him with questions or for advice. But it still is necessary to record the nature and the profile of the scholar we have lost.

Yogendra Singh wrote on a wide range of themes – India’s modernisation, social stratification in India, social and cultural change, globalisation, profile of Indian sociology in particular and Indian social science in general. He also wrote theoretical accounts such as The Image of Man. But his Modernisation of Indian Tradition (published in 1973) remains to this day a classic and an essential reading for anyone interested in the specificity of India’s encounters with the forces of modernity. He wrote over 10 monographs and many articles. He also edited many books.

It is not entirely clear why Yogendra Singh got the tag of a sociologist. There was nothing exclusively sociological about his scholarly contribution. He used more history in his works than many historians. He had a masters degree in economics, and all his major formulations were always made by keeping economics as a backdrop. One possible reason why he acquired the tag of a sociologist could be that he joined the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS, a euphemism for sociology) in JNU in 1971. And he taught many students who went on to acquire academic degrees in sociology. Apart from this, there was nothing exclusively sociological about his research or teaching. He was a social scientist in the real sense of the term. He also introduced many philosophical elements into his social science. Now that he is no more, we need to attach the correct tag to him: He was a social scientist and a philosopher. We have lost one of our best social scientists.

However, he did belong to the community of sociologists. In India, academic communities are generally formed around specific disciplines. By that yardstick, Yogendra Singh was certainly a sociologist, but one with a difference. By and large, it is not uncommon to find sociologists for whom village is the world, or those for whom world is a village. The first type is too parochial, refusing to look beyond the village, or caste or community. Yogendra Singh coined the word “special constituency social scientist” for such scholars. The second type is disinclined to get into the nitty gritty of the local and prefers the ivory towers of conceptual cosmopolitanism. Yogendra Singh combined the strengths of both the approaches and transcended the limitations of both. He focused on the village but refused to make it his world. He used trans-regional categories. But his categories were internally very rich and included all the nuances and diversity. His sociology was very rich conceptually. And his concepts were rich empirically.

Yet another feature of his scholarship was that he was researching all the time, in a whole range of ways. A historian like me is used to sites such as library, archives, personal library for gathering ideas and information. Yogendra Singh may have visited these institutions in his youth but later he made everything a source of knowledge. When he had visitors from villages (he retained his roots with the villages till the end), he would listen to them with great patience and interest and ask many questions. Later he would sit alone, sift and sort, and incorporate many things from that encounter into his ideational universe. People, of all kinds, were a great source of knowledge and information for him. He was constantly forming his ideas on the basis of multiple sources, both formal and informal. He was on a field trip all the time.

Knowledge acquisition and transmission was both a passion and a vocation for him. He did it in the classroom, in his books and articles, in formal seminars, and also at the breakfast table. His students will recall that many informal conversations with him contained great insights. Those who were in his company were the recipients of warmth, affection and generosity but also extremely useful and important insights on Indian politics and society. In fact, the two – affection and insights – came in a single package which was a great resource to those who had the good fortune to be near him. It was almost a habit with him to shower his affection and insights in a kind of continuum. For this reason alone, meeting Yogendra Singh was always a memorable experience. It was like going to an ocean to fill one’s own little vessel with knowledge and ideas. The ocean was always generous and willing. The other imagery in my mind is that I am sitting in a dark room, searching desperately for light. In comes Yogendra Singh, and starts opening all the windows, one by one. And suddenly, there is light. I experienced it many times in his company. Perhaps one can twist a little and paraphrase what was once said about Newton: “The secrets of India’s modernisation lay hid in night/Then God said ‘Let Yogendra Singh be’ and all was light.” That light has now gone.

The writer is a historian and had the good fortune of knowing Yogendra Singh for over four decades

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