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How a group of scholars threw new light on India's political economy

Meghnad Desai recounts the origins and ambitions of a collective of economists, who came together to study South Asian society, economy and history in the 1980s

Representational image of an Indian farmer in Guwahati, Assam.

I had always been interested in India’s history and political economy. During my stay in Delhi in 1970–71, there was considerable debate around a paper written by Morris David Morris on the costs and benefits of British rule. Morris had argued that there were more benefits to colonial rule than the independence movement allowed for. I had written a short article examining his claims about the impact on the handloom industry using econometric methods. In 1979, I received an invitation to comment on a proposal to have a series of conferences on Indian political economy and society. The proposal was obviously written by Morris David Morris and argued that the tools of modern economic analysis had to be used to throw new light on Indian history and society. I had a lot of work to do, but I knew if I did not comment on the proposal, I would regret it later when I saw books coming out of the idea. So, I wrote what can only be called a screed. I pointed out that while economic theory was useful, it should not be simple textbook theory but a somewhat sophisticated version of what we had arrived at. In any case, I was subsequently invited to join the Executive Committee of the South Asian Political Economy (SAPE) programme.

The origins of SAPE were fascinating. After early interest in India studies in the 1950s and 1960s, interest and especially research funding had waned in the US. The SSRC [Social Science Research Council] had, however, put forward the proposal regarding SAPE to the Ford Foundation, and Ford had agreed to fund conferences on the programme. I flew to New York to join the first meeting of the Executive Committee. As a member, I made new acquaintances who were both academically and personally a delight to get to know. The other members included Suzanne Rudolph, who, along with her husband Lloyd Rudolph, had established a formidable programme of research and writing on Indian political economy at Chicago. There was also Veena Das, who was a leading star of sociology at Delhi School. Ashok Rudra, who was stern and demanding as a statistician and a leading thinker of the Left, was a member of the committee as was Michelle McAlpin, who had done some good work on Indian economic history and was married to Morris David Morris. Finally, there was Ralph Nicholas, who was a distinguished professor of Indian sociology at Chicago.

We hit it off as a group immediately. We were all argumentative and passionate about our ideas, but also quite capable of learning from each other. Our SSRC host was David Szanton. We came to a very innovative decision: for each topic we tackled, there would be two conferences. At the first one, scholars would get together and do stock-taking of what the outstanding issues were. No doubt, many solutions would be proposed. The second conference was for those who had proposed solutions or analyses to deliver their answers. Thus, when the group met the second time, we would not have to go over familiar ground or get to know each other, as we would have already done that before.

Being a part of SAPE was a great learning experience for me. Until then, my reading of these matters had been somewhat confined to Marxist analyses. I was also virulently secular and an atheist: I did not and could not appreciate the role of beliefs and religious practices in holding societies together, thinking of them as reactionary. But the world had moved on. There was a lot of what came to be called postmodernist research that I needed to get familiar with. There, I was in the midst of some challenging people. I recall once getting into trouble for saying death was unproblematic; I suggested that when one was dead, there was no doubt. I was told that matters were not that simple even in modern medicine, let alone traditional beliefs. We subsequently spent an hour, where I was taught the nuances of death as a cultural and not just a physiological issue.

As a group, we decided to tackle two topics to begin with: one was agrarian power and agricultural productivity. The other was family and social welfare. Originally the four themes were going to be separate topics, but money was tight so we had to couple them up. This was an advantage because every topic then became interdisciplinary. From 1979 till 1982, I was able to go to India around Christmas time for these conferences—it was a nice way of catching up with my reading on India and visiting my family at the same time.

Rebellious Lord: An Autobiography is published by Westland.
Rebellious Lord: An Autobiography is published by Westland.

Each time the committee met, we had a terrific debate with lots of arguments. But there were also good dinners together and much camaraderie. I was mainly in the group studying agrarian power. It had young scholars like David Ludden as well as senior scholars like T.N. Srinivasan. To my great joy, Sukhamoy Chakravarty was a part of our conference. He brought to bear his immense reading on agrarian relations in Marx and Indian revenue history plus much nineteenth-century European writing. In the other area of family and welfare, Ralph Nicholas and Veena Das were the main protagonists. There was also T.N. (Loki) Madan, whom I got to know, to my great benefit.

By this time, Indira Gandhi was back in power in India. I was not surprised to see a pervasive suspicion of all things American. At our first meeting with the Indian Council for Historical Research, our Indian hosts, the chairman of the council, Nurul Hasan, asked David Szanton if he could assure them that no CIA money was involved. I was amused that the question was asked and a truthful answer could be expected—if there were CIA money involved, the CIA were hardly going to tell David Szanton or any other academic. If the Government of India could not find out from its own sources, they must be pretty incompetent, I thought. But that was my cynicism, having lived abroad. What I did not appreciate was that this was a ritual performance to establish the anti-imperialist credentials of the new government.

At the end of the day, after meeting twice on each topic, we were able to bring out an edited collection on agrarian power and agricultural productivity. It was jointly edited by Suzanne Rudolph, Ashok Rudra and me. The publication of the other volume was delayed, and I cannot recall now if it ever came out. I managed to write what I think is quite a good article on the measurement of power relations in an agrarian context. The collection got some good reviews too. The group met and more topics were considered after that, but I had by then dropped out.

My re-engagement with Indian history and political economy, however, stayed permanent after my stint with SAPE. This is reflected in my collaboration with Dharma Kumar. Dharma, whom I had met during my first stay in Delhi, was a brilliant and very independent-minded historian. She had been asked to edit the second volume of the Cambridge Economic History of India, which would cover the British period and later. The first volume was to be edited by Irfan Habib and Tapan Raychaudhuri. I started helping Dharma by reading the chapters as they arrived. I got seriously involved in editing the manuscript, and I offered to use LSE [London School of Economics] facilities for photocopying and posting it. Dharma soon asked me to become a joint editor. I said I would rather be called an assistant editor as this was her project and I was just an amateur interloper. She agreed and the book came out in 1984.

History writing in India is a very politically charged affair. As our volume touched the sensitive area of imperial power and its economic impact, there were bound to be controversies. We had even included an article by Morris David Morris, which was like a red flag for the Left. Dharma dismissed such Manichaean arguments and cheerfully ignored the criticisms. My friend Amiya Bagchi came to my LSE office once and said almost pityingly to me, ‘Why did you do this?’ It was as if I had betrayed a great cause by collaborating with someone who was thought to be right-wing. I said I did not think it a problem as Dharma was a friend, and the aim was to bring out a good collection embodying the latest knowledge. I don’t think I convinced him.

The volume was reviewed in many Left periodicals and roundly criticised. Yet, even after thirty-five years, it is used by students and was recently reissued in paperback—I receive a small royalty each year from the Public Lending Right scheme in the UK, which rewards authors whose books are borrowed from any public library.

Excerpted with permission from Rebellious Lord: An Autobiography by Meghnad Desai, published by Westland.

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