Calcutta Notebook


It is a bit disingenuous to write on somebody whom the writer knew, but did not know well enough. Yet from the point of view of one associated with Frontier, writing on Professor Nirmal Kumar Chandra, who passed away on 19 March at a private hospital of Kolkata at the age of seventy-nine, is some sort of a moral compulsion. He was one of the few personalities who, ever since Samar Sen launched Frontier in 1968, consistently took an active and positive interest in its affairs. This interest he retained till death. Born in an aristocratic family of North Kolkata, Professor Chandra received his education at Presidency College, Kolkata and London School of Economics, and received his PhD degree from the latter. He finally settled in his home city as a member of the economics faculty of the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata.

About him, one point must be emphatically mentioned. Although in possession of a good command of the tools of economic theory, he did not belong to that genre of economists who revel in developing abstract models based on severely restrictive assumptions. His predilection was for empirical work, mainly focusing on the economic problems of India in particular and third world countries in general. He was one of the academics who tried to study the impact of the western world on Indian economy. One of the early studies made by him in this regard was entitled ‘Western Imperialism and India Today’ published in the distinguished social science journal Economic and Political Weekly. His study of western imperialism, however, did not turn him into a staunch supporter of the Soviet Union. In a well-researched article published in early 1977 (USSR and the Third World: Unequal Distribution of Gains), he showed with enough clarity how the trade relations of India as well as of East Europe with the Soviet Union were benefiting the latter at the expense of the former. Some of his papers on the economies of the third world, first published in the EPW, were compiled later in a volume entitled 'The Retarded Economies', brought out by the Oxford University Press.

The other major aspect of Professor Chandra's intellectual pursuits was investigation into the agrarian relations and peasant organizations of Bengal. For as many as ten or twelve years, he undertook a number of research projects on this theme and summarized the results in the form of papers. These papers were instructive and contradicted much of the conventional wisdom on the subject.

He was a professed leftist, but was not a member of any party. In the seventies of the last century, he played a role in publicising abroad the gruesome events of extra-legal state violence in West Bengal, and was a firm supporter of the movement for the release of political prisoners. His championship of the cause of civil liberties and democratic rights was genuine, and in as late as 2009, this writer met him in a large convention held in Kolkata demanding the release of Dr Binayak Sen and ban on the notorious salwa judum.

When the Left Front Government was installed in power in 1977, he was very much optimistic about it and was on the economic advisory committee headed by Ashok Mitra. Subsequently, however, he could not retain this optimism. He was also concerned about the post-Mao developments in China and in 1986, wrote a long and richly informative piece on this subject, which was published in Frontier in three instalments. His apprehensions were, it may be said, vindicated by later developments. After the infamous Tiananmen massacre of 1989, he wrote a long essay on it and other related issues in the well-known Bengali quarterly, Anustup. This essay discussed the question of democracy in post-revolutionary societies, a subject hitherto neglected in the Indian communist movement. He, however, did not deviate from his faith in socialism or socialist democracy. This writer heard him speaking on this subject in a seminar held in Kolkata in 1996 on the occasion of the release of the Bengali translations of two books, William Hinton's The Great Reversal and Samir Amin's The Future of Maoism. The seminar was addressed also by Manoranjan Majanty, Hari Prakash Sharma, Vaskar Nandy etc. One important trait of his character was that he was aware of his limitations as an academic and never tried to assume the posture of a soi-disant theoretician.

To return to his association with Frontier, one may say that he never snapped his ties during the long, arduous journey of this paper amidst tremendous odds. Samar Sen, in his famous autobiography, Babu Brittanta (A Babu's Tale), referred to Nirmal Chandra, Asok Rudra etc who sometimes contributed editorial pieces to Frontier. That reference was to the earlier period of the weekly. But even after Samar Sen's death, this association continued. Probably his last contribution to this weekly as a writer was a trenchant article criticising the imposition of VAT (value added tax) by the Left Front Government of West Bengal. It was published about four years ago in the Autumn Number of the weekly.

This writer met him last in 2012 in the canteen of the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata. While lunching with this writer and some others, he raised the subject of a more efficient running of this weekly and offered some sincere suggestions. This was remarkable because, in course of time, a large number of erstwhile admirers of Frontier ceased to take any interest in it and some of them even came to treat it with slight and scorn. It may be a matter of speculation whether and how far this was due to Frontier itself or to their degeneration as human beings. Professor Nirmal Chandra was perhaps the only noted economist—with the exception, perhaps, of Ashok Rudra—to maintain such a long association with Frontier, although he had nothing to gain from it in the form of academic reputation, let alone power and pelf. It may be pointed out that before Frontier, he was an occasional contributor to the English weekly Now, edited by Samar Sen.

One may note with sadness that notwithstanding his high ability and painstaking research works, he did not receive from the intellectual-academic world of Kolkata the recognition that was his due, although he was a life-long inhabitant of this city. Possibly he did not have the quality of salesmanship that sometimes becomes necessary in order to acquire fame in this field.

Vol. 46, No. 40, Apr 13 - 19, 2014