In Shared Sorrow: Remembering ‘Comrade’ Nirmal da

This tribute to one of India’s finest radical economists first appeared in Analytical Monthly Review, May 2014.  AMR, published from Kharagpur, West Bengal, India, is a sister edition of Monthly Review.

Nirmal Kumar Chandra (1936-2014), referred to by his dear friend, Ashok Mitra, in The Telegraph (April 4, 2014) as “The Compleat Economist”, was in AM’s words, one of India’s “very best economists”.  But the ruling economics establishment couldn’t have cared less.  It must have detested the works he produced, for Nirmal da — that is what we affectionately called him — was, alongside Amit Bhaduri, Krishna Bharadwaj and Prabhat Patnaik, one of this country’s leading radical economists.  The scholarly paths he charted were concerned with (political-economic) aspects of post-revolutionary societies, the Soviet Union and China, in particular; agriculture and the peasant question; and “retarded economies” like India, those with “organic and structural impediments” to their “‘normal’ growth” as a result of “the link between foreign domination and the balance of class forces inside the country”.

It will be foolhardy on my part if I were to even try to cover the depth and range of Nirmal da’s scholarship, but for those of you who would like to get a feel of what all of Nirmal da’s scholarly works add up to, a reliable guide is the account by Amiya K Bagchi in the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW, May 10, 2014).  I would, of course, caution, and I’m sure Amiya da would be the first one to concur, that the brilliance of Nirmal da’s work can only be grasped by an original reading of it.

Upon completing his undergraduate studies in economics at Kolkata’s Presidency College, Nirmal da undertook graduate and doctoral studies at the London School of Economics.  Such studies and researches took him a decade in Europe, mainly in England, France and Poland — he even joined the CPGB and the PCF (Parti Communiste Français) — before he headed back home to Kolkata where he got a job at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIMC), and in a way, continued to work out of there to the very end.

There’s a story behind my coming to IIMC to undertake post-graduate and doctoral studies under the supervision of Professor Nirmal Chandra.  The EPW of October 27, 1979 contained a review article entitled “Political Economy of India” by one N K Chandra.  I was then working as a metallurgical engineer in Jamshedpur in Bihar, and here was an essay, based on Tarimela Nagi Reddy’s India Mortgaged, that in very clear and simple terms posed the right questions — about whether India was on the way to industrialisation, the country’s massive poverty, the hold of foreign capital, dependence on imported technology, Soviet collaboration and Indo-Soviet relations, how Indian the Indian bourgeoisie was, the latter’s expansionist tendencies, and, of course, agrarian relations, and the “white terror” let loose against the Naxalite movement.  I then had an impression of Indian academics, even of those on the left, as politically and socially conservative persons, but here I found someone who was actually a radical!

As it was to turn out, for once, I was absolutely on the dot.  I came to IIMC in 1980 seeking professor Chandra’s intellectual guidance, and with a lag that involved getting to know each other, I got not only all of that in abundance, but also, later on, his political advice, and, I will never forget this — I have been a beneficiary, among others, of the warmth of Nirmal da’s character — personal affection.

In times of personal crisis — and I have been through hell in the worst of Indian academic institutions, dominated as they are by reactionary rightwing, Brahminical academic heads with their “Aryan” superior manner vis-à-vis the so-called lower castes and dalits — whenever I was in the doldrums, Nirmal da was always a solid reservoir of support with his advice, his friendship.  I remember once, when I was particularly downcast, having been thrown out of my job and with the management of the academic institute where I worked directing security personnel to evict me from campus, I travelled far and came to find solace in Nirmal da.  But I found him closeted in his study that day, passionately working at one of his papers, and he told me to come back at 7 in the evening, whereupon he took me to Park Street for a drink, and “with his quiet reservoir of affection”, “magically” revived my “distressed soul”.

Sure the IIMC “took in bright young men and women and trained them in the obscene art of making money”, but even these managers-in-the-making admired the great teacher in Professor Chandra.  He began the first-year, third-semester course on the Indian economy by tracing the roots of underdevelopment, moving from the orthodox view to the radical.  For him, the breakaway from imperialism and the doing away with semi-feudalism were the preconditions of development.  I got one of the clearest expositions of the differentiations of capitalism from feudalism in these lectures, accompanied by an introduction to the Dobb-Sweezy-Takahashi transition debate.  And then, of course, the industrialisation lectures, where even Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and Lockwood & Nakamura on Japanese development were brought in.  Data and the handling of data were particularly given their due.

Why, one might ask, did those managers-in-the-making not only sit through all of this, but got glued into all of it?  Well, here was one of the few teachers we had who loved to be questioned; in fact, he seemed to demand it.  Scepticism and the ability to think independently, bringing in information and data, even those bits that contradicted the propositions one is arguing for, these are what make for critical inquiry.  What we were learning too were ways of reasoning, being exposed to alternative views we “engineers” had never come across in our IIT-REC undergraduate education.

I remember Nirmal da’s elective course on “Transnational Corporations and the World Economy” where I was not only introduced to the large database that the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations was putting together, but also how Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg viewed imperialism, and when I was attracted to the latter, Nirmal da suggested that I read J P Nettl’s moving biography of Rosa.  Today when monopoly capital intrudes into the tribal areas of central and eastern India, and this aspect of India’s capitalist development is so increasingly violent and catastrophic, with the Indian state engaged in a war against its own people, I cannot but remember Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital for her passionate account of the nature and modus operandi of capitalist imperialism, and, of course, what it all stems from.  And, I have Nirmal da to thank for introducing such a perspective to me.

I don’t intend to discuss Nirmal da’s researches, but his “The Peasant Question from Marx to Lenin: The Russian Experience” (EPW, May 18, 2002) comes to mind.  The teacher in him is apparent here too, for instance, in his clear articulation of “the peasant question” right in the beginning: “How can the mass of peasantry be drawn into a revolutionary movement spearheaded by the socialists, representing above all the proletariat?”  And he goes on: “The difficulty, at bottom, stems from the fact . . . that the peasant possesses ‘two souls’, one of the proprietor, and the other of a worker.”  What immediately came to mind as I read this in the summer of 2002 was another difficulty, this in the Indian context.  Here this combination of the proprietor and the worker — the peasant — is imbued with caste consciousness, which drives him/her to strive to give up the use of family labour in tilling the soil and in other manual tasks.  How then will the Indian peasant, even the poor and middle one, develop solidarity with the landless labourer, who, moreover, is most probably a dalit?  Indeed, in the Indian case, the institution of caste impedes class solidarity and class consciousness, and as far as the rich peasant goes, it induces him to behave like the landlord does.

Nirmal da’s papers always provoked serious thought.  Now when I get back to his “Monopoly Capital, Private Corporate Sector and the Indian Economy, 1931-76” (EPW, Special Number, August 1979), and reflect over what he found, that “monopoly capital in India is a very different species from its counterpart in the west”, that “monopoly capital in India bears a closer family resemblance to pre-industrial monopolies than to contemporary monopoly capitalism in the west”, I wonder what he might have thought more recently about this phenomenon, that is, after Indian monopoly capital has been exposed to two decades of constant pressures from foreign institutional investors, this in the presence of competition from and collaboration with transnational corporations, and competition from imports.

Nirmal da often frankly admitted that economics was not a science; the influence of ideology was overwhelming, and yet, he was thoroughly imbued with the values of science.  I remember in the early 1990s when the debate over the Dunkel Draft of GATT’s Uruguay Round was at its peak, the Director of the IIT where I worked asked me to suggest a speaker for an institute-level lecture on the implications of the Dunkel proposals for India, and I suggested Nirmal Chandra’s name.  Nirmal da was really outstanding, for he focussed quite a bit on the implications as regards the likely negative impact on indigenous technological development, discussing the C-DOT and C-DAC cases, and the development of indigenous technological capability in the pharmaceutical industry post the 1970 Indian Patents Act, and the likely impact the Uruguay Round of the GATT might have on these technological successes.

It was a well-attended lecture and the student response was overwhelming — they posed so many questions and Nirmal da dealt with each of those queries, in turn, with more information and data.  The Director, a representative of the Establishment, then got up and admonished Nirmal da: “You are not a scientist.  If only I had the time I could demolish each and every argument of yours.”  Nirmal da just smiled, and then turned to the audience and said: “Any more questions?” to which more students came to the dais and posed ever more questions, and he, in turn, dealt with them.  Nirmal da never claimed the status of science for economics, and yet, his practice of economics was scientific to the core.

I think I’ve said enough, and I’d like to end with this touching note I got from my friend Rajashri Dasgupta the day after Nirmal da passed away:

Dear Bernard,

You must have heard that Nirmal da is no more.  He passed away yesterday [March 19] a little after 6 pm after his fight with cancer.  He died peacefully after suffering the last few days.  There were days when we would sit by his bedside quietly holding his hand as he slept; suddenly he would open his eyes and give one of those heart-stopping charming smiles and ask, “When did you come?”  Then off he would doze off.

We are yet to fully grasp his loss; though we knew intellectually he was sinking, reality is even tougher to accept.  The fact that there will be addas — but without Nirmal da — is chilling.  He was there at his argumentative best in our house, always keenly listening to others and then making his point cogently and sharply.  He allowed non-fellow academics like me to challenge him, unlike many great academics! — And never patronised or was impatient when I asked him to explain so so so many things.  He in fact indulged me all the time. . .  I am so grateful because I learnt the most.  He loved life and enjoyed himself.  His last holiday with us in Cambodia was such fun and he climbed those high temple stairs and drank us out, sitting on roadside stalls ordering the choicest pork.

I know you were very fond of him; we are all together in remembering him.  Take care, Bernard, just feel sad that there is one person less to love us the way Nirmal da did.


I just want to add how grateful we are that Nirmal da had someone like Ruma di (Dr Sharmila Chandra, Nirmal’s wife) to care for him, to be so concerned about him.  I didn’t get to say goodbye to Nirmal da, so let me do so over here.  Farewell, ‘Comrade’ Nirmal da.

Bernard D’Mello is deputy editor, Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai.