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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 30-31, July 22 & July 29 2023

Dissenting Life of D. D. Kosambi | Arup Kumar Sen

Saturday 22 July 2023, by Arup Kumar Sen


D. D. Kosambi is quite well-known in India and abroad for his unique contributions to the writing of Indian history. His dissenting professional life as a mathematician is relatively lesser known. Kobad Ghandy’s entry on the D. D. Kosambi Research Foundation (Mainstream, July 8, 2023) propels us to revisit his dissenting life, embedded in the narrative of his scholar-daughter, Meera Kosambi. (‘D D Kosambi: The Scholar and the Man’, RESONANCE, June 2011)

D. D. Kosambi started teaching mathematics at Banaras Hindu University in 1929 immediately after returning to India after finishing his study in the USA. Although he enjoyed teaching in the institution, “he was not in tune with the ideological ethos of the founder and vice-chancellor, Pandit M M Malaviya.”

After a short stint at Aligarh Muslim University, Kosambi taught mathematics at Fergusson College, Pune, for about 14 years. He left this institution “because of a serious difference of opinion with the authorities.” In fact, his colleagues in Mathematics at Fergusson College, “…though highly qualified, had given up research and focused on institutional matters.”

In 1946, Kosambi joined the newly established Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. However, very soon he clashed with the eminent scientist and the director, Dr. Homi Bhabha:

“Their initially warm collegial relationship soured after a few years, mainly due to a clash of personalities. A major divergence was ideological – the capitalist-Marxist divide apart, their perspectives on atomic energy were contradictory. Bhabha was involved in developing India’s atomic energy, with full support from Pandit Nehru, while Kosambi repeatedly articulated his vision of solar energy as most appropriate for a developing country like India. Additionally, Kosambi’s lack of sole concentration on Mathematics served as an excuse. His contract at TIFR was not renewed in 1962…”

No doubt, D. D. Kosambi earned his fame as a Marxist historian. However, he was not a blind follower of Marx’s reading of Indian History. Again, to put it in the words of Meera Kosambi: “Kosambi disagrees with Marx’s thesis of the small unchanging and self-sufficient villages, and his argument that the villages produced only what they required and not commodities for exchange. Kosambi finds this analysis ‘misleading’, because the self-sufficiency of Indian villages has been exaggerated.”

It is expected that the D. D. Kosambi Research Foundation will carry forward his heretical legacy.

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