A perspective on the ASI

K. Suresh Singh




    ONE question always asked about the establishment of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) is why the colonial authorities were in such a tearing hurry to set it up before they departed. The ASI was the last of the survey organisations to be established, starting with the Survey of India, Geological Survey of India, Botanical Survey of India and Zoological Survey of India – all formed by the colonial regime to map the resources of the country for the benefit of British capital and for good governance, as W.W. Hunter put it.

    The Anthropological Survey of India was set up in December 1945, barely 20 months before the transfer of power. The reason for this has to be sought in the intensive lobbying by administrator-anthropologists – including J.P. Mills, J.H. Hutton, W.V. Grigson, W.G. Archer with anthropologists like Verrier Elwin and C. von Furer-Haimendorf – over 15 years to create a special dispensation for the tribes under the Government of India Act of 1935 and through various suggestions and proposals including those for the creation of a Crown Colony in the North East and a protectorate for the tribals.

    Their special interest in the tribes derived from a romantic tradition that presented the tribes in pleasant contrast to castes, the ‘unravished’ hills and plateau where they lived which reminded the colonial rulers of their homeland, and from their appreciation of the strategic location of the tribes and the enormous resources that their lands contained. However, these proposals were shot down by the home office which felt that the British regime would be much too impoverished after the Second World War to commit its meagre resources to such ventures.

    Nevertheless the proposal to establish an Anthropological Survey of India to study the tribal people was pursued despite financial constraints, probably because of the single minded pursuit of the idea by B.S. Guha who headed the anthropological unit located in the Zoological Survey of India from 1927. Guha moved at two levels. First, he persuaded the Zoological Survey to submit a formal memorandum on the creation of an Anthropological Survey of India and pursued the matter officially with the support of his bosses and J.H. Hutton with whom he had worked. Hutton was Census Commissioner for the 1931 census and Guha had prepared the third volume on ethnographic notes which appeared with the All India Reports. Though Hutton had retired and become professor of anthropology at Cambridge, Guha kept him dutifully informed of developments.

    There was in fact an interesting interaction of ideas (Singh 1994) on the formation of Anthropological Survey of India. Academics like S.C. Roy and others emphasised the need to recognize anthropology as a science. These academics and administrator academics like R.B. Seymour Sewell, formerly Director, Zoological Survey of India argued for the establishment of an Anthropological Survey of India as an independent organisation as part of a scheme for post-war reconstruction.

   Sewell, in his letter of 19 March 1945, argued forcefully that an independent India would require the creation of a scientific survey to gain complete knowledge of all the races inhabiting the country. These included some of the most cultured as well as others of the most primitive form of civilization who needed to be protected. The preservation of the social and cultural characteristics of various races and specially of the aboriginal tribes was of great importance, he added.

    At the second level, Guha approached Verrier Elwin who had broken with the Congress and become influential in British official circles (Guha 1999). They had met in Bastar and admired each other. Elwin wrote to the Governor of the Central Provinces, Sir Francis Wylie, formally suggesting in his letter the appointment of a scientific advisor on aboriginal problems. A portion of his letter dated 8th November 1944 (Singh 1994) bears reproduction:

    ‘As usual the chief difficulty would be the man, for India is not rich in anthropologists. But there is at least one man, perhaps the only man who would fill such a post with the necessary distinction and authority. He is B.S. Guha who is indisputably the most eminent of our anthropologists and has the advantage of being both a biologist and a sociologist. He has been formerly 20 years in the Zoological Survey of India; in the 1932 census, when he was Hutton’s assistant, he became familiar with tribesmen in every part of India. Most useful of all, he has had experience of how the Americans handle their problem, for he was engaged by the Smithsonian Institution in the Indian reservations of Colorado and New Mexico. He is a Hindu, but not too much of one, and his scientific integrity as well as his administrative ability is beyond question.’

    Elwin pursued the matter in an editorial in Man in India (Elwin, 1945):

    ‘In the judgement of Man in India the time has come for the Government of India to establish a separate Anthropological Survey of India as part of its scheme for post-war reconstruction. The most grandiose plans for scientific research are being considered. Every aspect of man’s material environment is to be investigated: only Man himself is being ignored. Yet the lesson of history is emphatic; an exclusive emphasis on the physical sciences and neglect of social, psychological and moral side of human life ends only in destruction. In India, both for the credit of science and for the wellbeing of the population – especially of the tribal population – the establishment of the Anthropological Survey is an urgent necessity.’

    However, this proposal seems to have been initially rejected because of the opposition of some officials who did not want an ‘anthropological dictator’ to interfere in tribal affairs which the missionaries, with the backing of an official lobby, had so far been left free to manage. Guha was considered too ‘good’ a Hindu to be trusted with the job. However, neither Guha nor Elwin gave up, and continued to build up pressure. Guha proposed Elwin as Deputy Director. One does not know whether Elwin’s endeavour had any effect. The formal proposal sent through the official channels, however, produced results.

    The Anthropological Survey of India was created in December 1945 and located temporarily in Benaras. It was a small organisation to begin with and had Guha and Elwin as the first Director and Deputy Director respectively. Guha also acted as the Anthropological Advisor to the Government of India, Elwin’s equivalent of a Scientific Advisor on aboriginal problems. From this small but serious beginning, the ASI, which was later shifted to Calcutta, grew into the world’s biggest anthropological organisation with the largest number of professional anthropologists and scholars of allied disciplines working under one roof.

    Guha built on the concept of anthropology as an unified discipline combining physical anthropology and cultural anthropology with inputs provided by various allied disciplines such as psychology, ecology, folklore, and bio-chemistry. This structure has by and large endured. However, some of the colonial ‘trappings’ remained. A number of ‘stations’ were set up during the period 1951-76. Interdisciplinary ‘expeditions’ were sent out to ‘discover’ or ‘find’ people and study them – in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, NEFA, Nagaland, Central Himalaya, Kerala and so on. The research projects were generally sporadic, local and specific and related largely to the study of tribal people, the main concern of colonial anthropology. Other subjects included culture areas, culture traits, religious centres and institutions, nomads, fisherfolk, slum dwellers, minorities and so on. The allied sections undertook osteological studies of historic and pre-historic human remains, tribal languages, carrying capacity of land etc.

    The decolonisation of the ASI was speeded up in the 1960s with projects of national dimensions being taken up. The Ethnographic Survey of India undertaken by the colonial regime in 1901 was basically ‘provincial’ in its area of operation even though it was generally guided by an all India format. While it covered most of British India, only a few princely states took up the survey. The Ethnographic Survey of India (1905-09) also suffered for lack of financial resources.

    In striking contrast, the ASI launched the first All India Survey of Material Culture and All India Anthropometric Survey of all populations. This presented a major breakthrough not only in terms of conceptual framework but also in methodology. The quick, short-term methodology of field work introduced for the first survey resulted in generating an enormous amount of data on material culture including crafts, occupation, food habits and toilet practices. Unfortunately, much of this data remained unpublished until much later.

    While a small number of area/regional studies were undertaken, the ASI remained occupied with micro level studies, mostly concentrated at one or two places. Therefore, a massive restructuring of the organisation was undertaken from the mid-1970s, aimed at decentralisation and devolution of power and functions, redesignating regional stations as offices and later as centres – autonomous so that they could take up both regional and all India projects with speed and efficiency.

    Projects were located all over the country within the framework of regional and all-India studies. Coordination was sought to be established with university departments of anthropology and research centres in order to promote exchange of ideas and experiences. More national projects were designed in order to generate an all-India profile of people and society. In the first phase, surveys of tribal movements, tribal economies and tribal customary laws were taken up. In all these projects the methodology of short-term, quick survey focused on specific issues, was further developed and refined. A survey of linguistic traits was undertaken as well.

    In 1976, the Anthropological Survey of India was entrusted with the task of designing the first museum of anthropology; it remained involved with this project for almost 12 years upto 1988. Both anthropology and anthropological museums, called the Museum of Man, were located in zoological departments which stressed the ‘genetic’ relationship between zoology and anthropology. The early concerns were primarily with the evolution of man. However, in the postcolonial period, the focus shifted to other and new concerns such as biological variation, evolution of culture and civilization and cultural pluralism, identity, ethnicity and interaction. Therefore, the first outline of the National Museum of Anthropology brought out by the ASI in 1977 sought to bring together the perspectives on these subjects generated by physical anthropology, archaeology and cultural anthropology.

    This project was revised in 1982 to stress contextualisation, the linkages with environment, technology and culture. The museum was neither to be a tribal museum (though tribes would occupy an important place) nor an ethnographical one, but a museum that would combine both universal and national perspectives on biological variation and cultural diversities. The Anthropological Survey of India remained closely associated with the establishment of the Rastriya Manav Sangrahalaya, later redesignated the Indira Gandhi Rastriya Manav Sangrahalaya in recognition of her pioneering contributions to its formation. From 1988 onwards, the museum has further evolved, setting in motion a museum movement and fleshing out various dimensions of the original and enlarged concepts.

    This formed the background to the People of India Project (PoIP) launched in 1985 in terms of the parameters of a rapidly emerging postcolonial ethnography extending beyond the territorial limits of colonial ethnography. For the first time the PoIP undertook a survey of the human surface of the entire country. Keeping in mind the provisions of the Constitution of India and the human groups – scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes, linguistic and religious minorities – that it identified for special treatment, the project also noted the provisions of equality and social justice that had to be translated in terms of equal treatment of all people in the survey and anthropological studies.

    Although no policy resolution was adopted by the ASI in its early phases committing it to the study of tribals alone, in essence anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology, remained concerned largely with the study of tribals, just as sociology was concerned with caste. Therefore, to make matters explicit, the policy resolution was drastically revised in 1985 to commit the organisation to the survey of the people of India, both tribes and non-tribes. The PoIP also sought to survey the cultural, linguistic and biological dimensions. For the first time data was generated on languages and scripts used within the community and for inter-community communication for all groups, including those who are barred by the census for reasons of their smallness.

    Unlike Risley’s ethnographic survey, the People of India Project did not generate first-hand anthropometric data but drew on its earlier surveys and studies to cover biological dimensions. In short, it sought to present a composite bio-linguistic, cultural profile of all communities of India. The concerns for environment, resource use, gender relations, impact of change and development, market and technology were appropriately reflected in a 15 point format which was uniformly canvassed for all groups. The project also involved the updating and publication of the old data sets generated by all India projects in the 1960s. While the continuity of ethnographic tradition was stressed by using the previously gathered information as a benchmark, the focus of PoIP was on change.

    The methodology of quick, short-term surveys undertaken by scholars familiar with the terrain was further developed. The objective of the project was to generate brief descriptive anthropological profiles of all communities, the impact of change and the development process on them, and the linkages that bring them together. These short descriptive profiles would add up to the first ever national ethnographic profile of the people of India, going far beyond the exercise attempted by the colonial censuses from 1881 to 1931. Computer technology was used to generate and store information. For the first time an ethnographic software was produced.

    This massive exercise spread over 15 years resulted in 43 volumes running into 40,000 pages. In all 4694 communities were identified. Most of them were concentrated in eco-cultural zones within the states. In fact, the communities could best be seen in relationship to environment, language and regional/local culture. It was also noticed that the communities shared many traits such as language, folklore, elements of material culture, customs, dress and ornaments, cuisine and so on. This project has therefore been described as an exploration of diversities and linkages or affinities among the people of India.

    While the enormous range of information and knowledge generated by the project has been appreciated and absorbed in various ways, there has been criticism that it is a piece of ‘bureaucratic giganticism’. The census is given as another example. In fact, the ASI, like other survey organisations, has been criticised for peddling sarkari stuff. All survey organisations, whether as subordinate or autonomous organisations, 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 the policy documents and in plan documents. But there is also considerable autonomy in matters of research, planning and operations. It is not correct to assert that it is sarkari anthropology all the way.

    Major projects were undertaken by the directors, which reflected their concerns. They were left free to operationalise their projects. The PoIP, both in its conceptual framework and its methodology, represented a continuing tradition as also a major advance in terms of the magnitude of operations, perceptions and insights that it generated. The Director ASI also served as the Anthropological Advisor to the Government of India. The location of the People of India project in Delhi had many advantages, one of them being the close interaction made possible with various departments of the Government of India, with research institutions located in Delhi and with scholars and institutions from all over the country, because of easy communication from the capital.

    This was reflected in the number of cultural projects formulated by the ASI and implemented by the Department of Culture, the organisation of the Rastriya Manav Sangrahalaya as mentioned earlier, and involvement of the survey in conflict resolution processes, whether in Bodoland or Jharkhand. The inputs provided by the survey related to the safeguarding of identity, language and culture, and the formation of autonomous bodies within the framework of existing state governments. In the case of Jharkhand, the autonomous body was supposed to be the first step towards the formation of the state. Unfortunately, the autonomy model collapsed and the movement for the formation of a state surged ahead.

    A major initiative of the ASI related to the survival of the endangered Negrito groups in Andaman and Nicobar islands. The proposal to establish a bridgehead in the Jarawa territory was firmly resisted so that the Jarawas did not suffer the fate of the Onges and the Great Andamanese. Unfortunately, the Jarawas have now started to arrive in Port Blair town which is likely to have consequences that one shudders to imagine!

    To sum up, anthropology as a discipline is developing rapidly all over the world branching out in new areas – there are as many as 120 sub-disciplines – opening up exciting possibilities all around. The impact of the developments in human genetics, particularly through the human genome projects for health, is one such area. Anthropology is also becoming popular as a subject with students and general readers. For a country with such diversities as India, anthropology will continue to remain popular. 

    The task of generating a composite profile of all population groups of India which covers biological, linguistic and cultural dimensions, and of updating the database presented in the People of India project will be one of the major challenges of the 21st century. Therefore, attention needs to be paid to two tasks. The first is to enlarge the area of research and upgrade its quality in close coordination with the departments of anthropology and related research organisations, training of scholars and their exposure to new developments in their discipline. The second involves the writing of anthropology in various bhasas of India. The 1881 census had a strong impact in generating ethnographic accounts, jati puranas etc. A considerable ethnographic literature emerged in Gujarati, Bengali and Tamil, some of which rated even better than the official ethnographic accounts. Currently, there are sporadic attempts at writing anthropology in local/regional languages. However, concerted and well-directed efforts are needed to generate firsthand material in anthropology in all Indian languages, which will make anthropology a truly vibrant discipline.


  • Verrier Elwin, ‘Comments’, Man in India, 25(1), March 1945.
  • Ramachandra Guha, Savaging the Civilized: Verrier Elwin, his Tribals, and India, Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • K.S. Singh (ed), The History of Anthropological Survey of India – Proceedings of a Seminar, Seagull Books, Calcutta, 1991.
  • K.S. Singh, Towards a Documentary History of Anthropological Survey of India, Vol. I, Anthropological Survey of India, New Delhi, 1994 (mimeo).
  • K.S. Singh, Towards a Documentary History of Anthropological Survey of India, Vol. II, Anthropological Survey of India, New Delhi, 1997 (mimeo).
  • K.S. Singh, The People of India: Making of a National Project, Anthropological Survey of India, New Delhi, 1994 (mimeo).

(This article had appeared in the November 2000 issue of Seminar. The permission by Seminar to reproduce this article in the January 2012 issue of The Tribal Tribune is gratefully acknowledged)