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may 10, 2014 vol xlIX no 19 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
Nirmal Chandra (1936-2014)
I An Appreciation
Sushil Khanna, Mritiunjoy Mohanty
Two tributes to the life
and work of Nirmal Kumar
Chandra, the Kolkata-based
multifaceted scholar.
irmal Kumar Chandra, former
professor of economics at the
Indian Institute of Management
Calcutta (IIM Calcutta) passed away on
19 March 2014 after a brief illness. A
heterodox economist and socialist thinker,
he was rst and foremost a legendary
teacher who inspired his students to
take the road less well travelled. A pro-
lic contributor to the pages of the EPW
he also belonged to a generation of het-
erodox scholars who encouraged stu-
dents and researchers to publish in Indi-
an journals rather than those in the west
which were hegemonised by liberal and
then neo-liberal academia.
Of the large number of students he
taught at IIM Calcutta, many, inuenced
by his unorthodox arguments about the
problems plaguing Indian economy and
society, chose to pursue higher studies
in economics. This includes two editors
of this journal and dozens of others
who gave up corporate careers to pursue
doctoral studies in economics, many
under his guidance, while others stud-
ied at universities in India and abroad.
Inuenced by his research there were
also those who came to IIM Calcutta to
specically work under his supervision.
Nirmal da (Chandra hereafter), as
he was fondly called by his numerous
students and younger colleagues, joined
IIM Calcutta in 1966 and in a way never
left. Even after his retirement, he had a
small room where he would beaver away
on his computer, producing another two
dozen papers, most of them published in
the pages of EPW.
Descended from a rich North Calcutta
family with land and property littered
over its business districts, Chandra often
mischievously described his background
as semi-feudal and comprador. He left
for the United Kingdom (UK) immediately
after his graduation from Presidency
College in 1955 and, reluctant to take
support from his family, worked and
taught in night schools to pay part of
his way.
It was in England that he seriously
turned to socialism, studying under
several renowned left-wing scholars at the
London School of Economics (LSE). While
in England, he joined the Communist
Party of Great Britain and later France.
He nished his doctorate from the LSE
under the supervision of G Morton and
Alec Nove on Investment Planning in
Poland and USSR. Alec Nove, dubbed by
I D Thatcher as one of the most signi-
cant scholars of Soviet Studies, was
a great chronicler of Soviet economic
strategies and problems, and encouraged
Chandra to take to studying problems of
actual planning in Eastern Europe. Gather-
ing material for his thesis, Chandra lived
and worked in Poland for more than a
year. Over the 10 years that he lived
in UK and in other parts of Europe,
Chandra picked up three new languages
French, Russian and Polish. He also met
and was inuenced by Maurice Dobb
and Michal Kalecki. After brief stints in
Paris and Delhi, he joined IIM Calcutta
as an assistant professor.
Chandra was one of the early recruits
to IIM Calcutta. The rst director of
the Institute, K T Chandy had, in his
short ve-year tenure, assembled a motley
group of bright and heterogeneous
scholars at what was Indias rst man-
agement school. It included economists
like Ashok Mitra, Paresh Chattopadhyay,
N Krishnaji, Anjan Mukherji, Yoginder
Alagh and Ranjit Sau, anthropologists
and sociologists/psychologists like Ishwar
Prasad, Kamala Chowdhury, Ravi Mathai,
and Surajit Sinha, historians like Barun De,
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya and Amalendu
Guha, along with Laxmi Mohan and
Krishna Mohan (who was to succeed
Chandy as the Director). Ravi Mathai
and Ishwar Dayal would soon leave to
set up the IIM at Ahmedabad and Kamla
Chowdhury would join them. Surajit
Sinha would leave to head Anthropological
Survey of India and later Vishva Bharati
University. Almost all others distinguished
themselves as scholars and institution
Sushil Khanna ( and
Mritiunjoy Mohanty (
are on the faculty of IIM Calcutta.
Economic & Political Weekly EPW may 10, 2014 vol xlIX no 19
builders. It is a mark of Chandys vision
as an institution builder and his persua-
sive powers that he was able to recruit
such a stellar bunch of individuals.
This diverse and heterogeneous group
would shape the values and objectives
of Indias rst management school. To
them, management was not to be con-
ned to the narrow realm of corporate or
business life, but encompassed the entire
challenge of managing development
and modernisation of a postcolonial
economy and society. It was this motley
group that Nirmal Chandra joined in
1966 and distinguished himself.
Early Publications
His early publications were several papers
on Soviet planning and on China in
journals like Soviet Studies, Revue d
Economie Politique, etc, but he soon
turned to writing and publishing on
India as well as the challenges of deve-
lopment in neighbouring countries. One
of the early articles he wrote in EPW
was Class Character of Pakistani State
(Chandra 1972) and on agrarian classes
in both India as well East Pakistan (later
Bangladesh), in Now and Frontier. One
of his rst works on the grip of foreign
capital on the Indian economy (Western
Imperialism and India Today, 1973)
became much quoted and the study of
multinational corporations remained an
abiding interest. To him, third world
countries could only develop if they
charted a successful path of technologi-
cal development, independent of foreign
capital and its grip on markets and tech-
nology. Market power and its use and
abuse was therefore of great interest to
him and another area of his research
was the corporate monopolies and con-
glomerates and the nature of capitalist
class in India.
During the next 40 years Chandra
published more than 120 articles and
two books. His attention was focused on
three broad themes: (i) the problems
and contradictions of building socialism
in USSR and China; and the relationship
of both USSR (and later globalising
China) to developing countries like India,
(ii) the question of an agrarian transi-
tion in India, and (iii) market reforms in
China. The rst and third themes are
discussed by Amiya Kumar Bagchi in the
accompanying tribute to Chandra. We
discuss here his work on the agrarian
transition and related aspects of the
Indian economy
On the Agrarian Transition
Nirmal Chandra was the organiser of an
important seminar at IIM Calcutta and
Presidency College on the Capitalist
Agriculture in India in the 1970s, many
of which were subsequently published in
the pages of EPW. He was excited with the
Left Fronts land reform policies, efforts
to strengthen panchayats and transfer
resources for decentralised planning
and travelled into the countryside with
some of his students to see the actual
process of implementation. He felt that
the left could actually chart a new path of
industrial development (Chandra 1978).
Hence, the Left Fronts shift to imitating
capitalist industrialisation, inviting foreign
capital, saddened him greatly and perhaps
somewhat disillusioned him as well.
Related was his engagement with the
constraints and possibility of an inde-
pendent industrial development strategy
for India independent of giant multi-
national corporations that controlled
global markets. This is where he asked his
students to undertake doctoral studies.
All his students worked on themes like
foreign direct investment, both inwards
and outwards from India, technology
transfer and dependent industrialisation,
role of the public sector in the struggle
to establish a self-reliant industrial base
in India, problems of small and tiny
industry, and appropriate technology.
He celebrated both major and minor suc-
cesses in development of indigenous
technology, national and rm level R&D
efforts and the challenges of absorbing
these efforts. His students turned out
studies on industries like steel, petro-
chemicals, electrical equipment and phar-
maceuticals, spanning both questions of
technology and market control.
Nirmal Chandras contestation of
hege mony and power meant that he
supported the nation state as it ranged
against the hegemonic tendencies of
globalising capital, but within the nation
state he supported institutions of feder-
alism, decentralisation and autonomy.
His engagement with hegemony and
power also led him in other directions:
associations with efforts of contesting
power from the margins. This led to his
lifelong association with two Calcutta
political weeklies Now and Frontier
and with their late editor Samar Sen; with
the Bengali cultural magazine, Ekshan;
and most recently with Ar Ek Rakam, a
magazine of political and cultural debate;
with the Association of third world econ-
omists founded in 1976; and with various
trades unions, small and large, both to
contest capital and to devise alternate
means of organising economic activity.
A Bon Vivant
If he was, as in Ashok Mitras characteri-
sation, the compleat scholar he was
also a bon vivant and an epicurean. In
many ways then Bengals culture of
addas and Chandra were made for each
other and were an important part of his
social world. Addas used to happen for
some reason (in the honour of a friend
passing through town) or for no reason
(a few friends were together and the time
of day, or night, was right). And it was at
these that Chandra was truly in his ele-
ment, even more so than while in class
and teaching. The fusing of an erudite
scholar with a bon vivant made for an
engagement that was incisive, occasion-
ally sharp and argumentative yet always
non-judgmental, inclusive and expansive.
These addas then occasioned many
memorable arguments (and even the
odd ght!) and if hard words were said
(as they were) tomorrow was always
another day. For even as he loved a
good argument it was always to per-
suade and never to bludgeon. Fuelled
by whatever was the liquor(s) that was
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may 10, 2014 vol xlIX no 19 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
on the menu for the day and great food,
these addas were truly convivial spaces
of camaraderie and comradeship. In
the cut and thrust of debate and argu-
ment about food, cinema, politics, history
and, yes, economics, lessons were learned,
nuance appreciated but never ever in a
didactic sense. But rather in a collabora-
tive and participatory exploration in try-
ing to understand the world we live in a
little better.
Chandras fondness for addas had a
quotidian avatar in the gathering of some
colleagues for lunch every working day at
IIM Calcutta. Of this motley group which
had a few regulars but whose composi-
tion changed over time, Chandra was
the fulcrum. Again if there were guests/
friends from out of town visiting IIM,
they were invited to lunch where food
from different kitchens was shared
among members present for an abbrevi-
ated lunch adda. It is one IIM Calcuttas
longest lasting informal institutions.
Finally, Chandras ability to not talk
down and engage in a non-judgmental
fashion meant that he established inde-
pendent relationships with many of the
children of his friends. And this was
reciprocated with love, affection and
respect for a person they knew was truly
special. God speed Nirmal da. You will
be missed.
Chandra, N K (1972): Class Character of Pakistani
State, Economic & Political Weekly, Annual
Number, February.
(1973): Western Imperialism and India Today,
Economic & Political Weekly, Annual Number,
(1977) : USSR and Third World: Unequal Dis-
tribution of Gains, Economic & Political Weekly,
Annual Number, February.
(1978): Industrialisation and the Left Movement:
Some Strategic Questions in West Bengal,
Social Scientist, No 73-76.
(1995): Chinas Tryst with Globalisation , Eco-
nomic & Political Weekly, 28 January.