Friday, September 18, 2015

‘There should be no borders’

Economist Amiya Kumar Bagchi speaks in an interview with Vikalp team member Suchetana Chattopadhyay.
Interview date: 8 September 2015
Time: 7.30 PM
Place: Kolkata

SC:  Professor Bagchi, could you please tell us about the social and intellectual climate which prompted your turn to Marxist political-economy?
AKB:  It is difficult to answer this question fully. I first became an atheist at the age of fifteen or so while studying at Ramkrishna Bidyamandir at Belur. A very good teacher taught us religion in the manner of Christian theology. After this, I lost whatever faith I had in God. The Belur Math authorities allowed me to use the excellent library, with an impressive collection of books. From there, I borrowed Communist Manifesto and Capital Volume I.  I then came to Presidency College. Gradually, I became convinced that in order to understand the society of our country, I have to study economics. I studied science at the intermediate level and changed stream when I obtained admission in the Economics honors course. At that time it was called Honours in  ‘Economics and Political Science’. My general perspective on the world became more and more Marxist as an undergraduate. Though none of my teachers were Marxists, they exerted a different kind of influence. They encouraged dissent among students. I wrote an essay challenging the idea that a multi-party system of government was the best under all circumstances. Professor U. N. Ghoshal, a Roman Catholic convert and then Head of the Department, positively encouraged me!

Some unconscious influence of senior students, perhaps, also moved me towards the Left. The most famous students senior to us, Amartya Sen, Sukhamoy Chakraborty and Partha Sarathi Gupta were active supporters of the Students Federation, the student front of the undivided Communist Party of India.

SC:  Please tell us about your early research and work-related experiences.
AKB: One of the problems that puzzled me was why industrial investment in India, particularly by Indian capitalists, was so sluggish under British rule. I found that economic historians did not even ask this question. My thesis was on private investment in India during the first two plan periods. I never published it because I thought it was badly structured.

The question that I raised on industry and Indian capitalists had been bothering me when I returned to India. Again, one of my teachers, Professor Tapas Mazumdar, played a positive role in this. He knew that I was troubled by not having the time or resources to work on what I wanted to do. One day, he showed me an advertisement in The Economist. The Faculty of Economics and Politics, Cambridge University, had invited application from people who could teach the economics of developing countries. I wrote a letter to my first thesis supervisor. He was then the Secretary, Faculty of Economics and Politics. I got the job. My other (and main) supervisor, Richard Goodwin was a communist. He became a wonderful friend for both me and my family throughout his life but I don’t think I was directly influenced by him.

The most powerful intellectual I have come across was Piero Sraffa. He was most definitely a communist and a close friend of Antonio Gramsci. He influenced Wittgenstein powerfully. He showed me the uselessness of obtaining quick fame by writing a commentary on an economist who was not of the very first rank. The second person who may have influenced me was Moses Finley, a communist denied employment in the United States for his convictions. With him, I discussed the lack of a proper method in the way economics and political science were  taught in the universities at the time.

SC:  How did you begin working on the history of the State Bank of India?
AKB: The work on the State Bank came to me through my teacher, Professor Bhabatosh Datta. Dhruba Narayan Ghosh was then working in the Department of Economic Affairs, Government of India. When Ghosh came to consult him about a person who could take on the task, Professor Datta mentioned my name. I think he may have also added, from his  experience, as a member of the first committee formed to write the history of the Reserve Bank of India, that no committee should monitor my work. The first history of the Reserve Bank had been turned into a hagiography of Chintamani Deshmukh, the first Indian governor of the bank. I also would not have accepted a committee looking over my shoulder. I also made it a condition that if the State Bank did not like what I wrote and refused to publish I, I would accept that.  But I could not be compelled to write something I did not agree with. On the whole, the SBI kept to that condition. R. K. Talwar, the SBI Chairman under whom the contract was made  and a later Chairman, P. C. D Nambiar, were very supportive. I wanted to write the bank’s history in the backdrop of society and politics in India and not just as a business history. The work took a long time since many of the documents had vanished. The first consultants they had appointed had failed to do the work. A great deal of time was required to search the archives, read census and other reports, to understand banking procedures, including the ways in which the Bank of Calcutta, the Bank of Bengal, the Bank of Bombay and the Bank of Madras operated in the Indian money market and how the money market itself worked.
The late Tarapada Santra, who travelled from one village to another on foot to collect material on folk culture of Bengal, paid me a complement when we met for the first and last time. He told me that before reading my work he had not realised that there was so much social history behind the history of banking.

In the early 1990s, I had a fight with the SBI Chairman and managing directors. They did not want such an elaborate history. I may say, parenthetically, that all of them lost their jobs by becoming involved in the housing corporation scam. P. G. Kakodkar, who then became the Chairman, was extremely supportive of detailed scholarship. During his chairmanship, an official decision was made to open a separate SBI Archives in Calcutta. It is now located at Samriddhi Bhavan, Strand Road where the Imperial Bank of India used to be located.

SC: What are your current engagements?
AKB:  It was while working on the colonial economy that I realised India underwent major famines during the First World War. These were generally brushed aside as ‘scarcity’.  I wrote about this in the Social Scientist last year. This requires intensive archival work. I can’t do this any more. I hope others will take it up.

Among my many current assignments, a work which I really must do is being delayed. I signed an agreement with Pluto Press to write a book on democracy. I must finish this work. I wish to compare democracy in Athens with the models prevalent in the US and in India. To this I hope to add the experiments taking place in Latin America. Aristotle provided the templates which people still use. This will not be an easy job.

SC: A related question: what is your reading of the current world situation?
AKB:  As far as the subcontinent is concerned, my long-term projection is that there should be no borders. Partition has immensely harmed this region. We should have a people’s union. As for the current refugee crisis in Europe, the Mediterranean and West Asia, it is the US Government and its NATO allies who are responsible for so much misery and dislocation. Desperate people are pouring into Hungary, Austria  and Germany. I don’t think the imperial powers will draw any lesson from this. I had earlier thought that China will act as a bulwark against US imperialism. The Chinese economy is doing very badly, much worse than expected. They are reaping the consequences of allowing Stock Markets to operate. They have huge reserves but in the course of the last two weeks they have lost billions of dollars. Managing capitalism under the aegis of a communist party has proved to be a tricky affair. Though Maoists don’t read him, we have to draw lessons from the works of Mao Tse Tung along with Lenin and of course, Marx.

SC: Thank you for a riveting conversation, Professor Bagchi.

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