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A Tribute to Dr K.N. Raj

Friday 19 March 2010, by Lalit Uniyal

I was never a student of Dr K.N. Raj; yet he was my teacher.

This curious circumstance came about in the following manner. Driven by an irresistible urge to work for the poor, I resigned my job with the eventual aim of working in a village. But I felt an overwhelming need for deeper social understanding, and as one influenced by Marxism, economics was an indispensable tool for this purpose. But I had never studied economics at any stage. I was in the South (to avoid my unhappy parents) where someone advised me to contact Dr.Raj.

So I met him in Thiruvananthapuram, and asked just two questions (which regrettably I do not remember). He responded by saying: “These are very relevant and fundamental questions. I cannot give you a scholarship, but if you wish you can stay here and seek answers. I will be willing to guide you.” I replied that I didn’t want a scholarship, since absolute moral independence was a prerequisite of my quest.

In this way I shifted into the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram (then Trivandrum). Atop Prasantha hill in Ulloor (probably a village), the Centre had been constructed by Laurie Baker, an architect of genius. The room I occupied in the Hostel was, like all the others, airy and spacious, with a huge in-built table. The monthly rent was Rs 40, and the food (which included fish) cost just Rs 160.

This was towards the end of 1975.

After settling me in the Centre, Dr Raj advised me to obtain a letter of introduction from some known person. In Delhi I had been meting Prof K. Swaminathan (Chief Editor, Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi) to seek clarification on certain aspects of Gandhiji’s thought. I was also in correspondence with him, referring to him my criticisms of Gandhiji’s ideas. It was the period of the Emergency. Prof Swaminathan was a Gandhian and a devotee of Ramana Maharshi, hence the most neutral person from whom one could get a letter of introduction. So I wrote to him. He promptly sent a very positive letter, thereby revealing his large and generous heart. I delivered the letter to Dr.Raj.

I remember my days in the Centre as though it was just yesterday. The reason is that no new impressions of a similar kind have overlaid the original ones. When I left the Centre, I went to Aau village and was subject to altogether different experiences. So the impressions of the Centre have remained fresh in my mind.

It was a wonderful place to be in, very alive intellectually, with an outstanding Faculty and exceptional Visiting Fellows. So far as I know, all the students who were in the Centre during my time have made a mark in life, some acquiring eminence. But the most brilliant among them was Chandru (C.P. Chandrasekhar) who writes for Frontline. I benefited much from discussions with him.

The fact that I was inwardly driven to seek knowledge led me to study all the time. Even Chandru once remarked: “You study too much.” “I may never get the opportunity again,” I had answered. On the other hand, my odd personal history made me extremely reluctant to talk about myself. In the Emergency environment, the presence of a studious, reclusive, constantly questioning yet personally uncommunicative person created doubts in the minds of the other students. A couple of them went to Dr Raj and told him that perhaps I was a spy of some sort. He just laughed his loud, frank, lovely laugh and sent them back to their rooms.

It was a very small community. The Faculty, the Research and M.Phil students, and the library and office staff put together perhaps totalled less than 20. So I felt the pressure of others’ doubts, and gradually began to change my conduct.

Dr Raj was one of our topmost economists, but he never sought to overawe. He was all encouragement. I felt very free with him and constantly interacted with him. I once told him I saw each ‘subject’ of study as a mode of appropriating reality. There was a historical way of looking at the world, a geographer’s way, a sociological way, and so on. I didn’t want to become an economist but merely wished to add the economist’s vision of social reality to my intellectual repertoire. He suggested I read Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis some day, but advised me against taking it up straightaway. It was huge, it dealt with famous as well as many obscure economists, but always moved at the level of fundamentals and was a great work by a great economist. I accepted his advice because, even in the case of Myrdal’s Asian Drama (which was more directly linked to my immediate concerns), I had only read the abridged single volume edition. But I never forgot his suggestion and eventually managed to obtain a copy. I have not read it cover to cover but turn to it for intellectual stimulation, treating it as an intellectual thriller.

I was constantly questioning Dr Raj. Often he would answer my questions himself, at other times he would refer me to some book or the other. But he never pushed me in any particular direction. I told him I found D.R. Gadgil’s writings very stimulating. I had read not only his earlier The Industrial Evolution of India in Recent Times but also his Planning and Economic Policy in India, which to me had the ring of truth. He praised Gadgil as an outstanding economist and as a man of integrity. But he also told me of his sad end. He was invited to take charge of the Planning Commission (as Deputy Chairman) at a time of crisis, and he had responded as a patriotic Indian; but because he opposed Sanjay Gandhi’s small car project, he was humiliated and sacked. He died on his way back to Pune.

I recall an occasion when, finding me sitting alone at lunch, Dr Raj picked up his thali and joined me. I always had hundreds of questions to ask, and the questioning process began. When we were done with lunch, I pursued him with my questions right up to the door-step of his office. Eventually he said: “Do you think I would be here if I knew the answers to all your questions?” and laughed that loud, frank, lovely laugh of his.

During lunch Dr Raj would stand in queue to be served his meal at the counter. Academics who visited the Centre from the other great Institute in the South (Institute for Social and Economic Change run by Dr V.K.R.V. Rao in Bangalore) remarked with amazement that they couldn’t tell who the boss was, and contrasted this with their own Institute where the boss was all over the place. In fact Dr Raj did not even take up the post of Director of the Centre, which was held at that time by the Head of the Economics Department in the University. Yet everyone called it K.N. Raj’s Centre. He once explained to me that he wanted to concentrate on academics, so he had relieved himself of routine matters. His mild manners were all the more remarkable when one considers that Achutha Menon, the Chief Minister of Kerala, was a personal friend of his and a frequent visitor to the Centre. But Achutha Menon himself was like Dr Raj, not one bit like a pompous North Indian Chief Minister. Perhaps the Malayalis are a very decent people. However, from the Chief Minister’s visits, I got a sense of the power of leading academicians.

Despite his mild manners, I had inside information that Dr.Raj was very firm in his decisions, which is what strength really signifies. Throwing one’s weight about is tantamount to bullying.

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I was reading and reflecting on a wide range of issues. One issue I discussed with him was the question whether it was possible to reconcile the basic concerns of our civilisation with Marxism. “No one has made the attempt,” he said, “but it should be possible.” He told me that Sartre had sought to reconcile a highly individualistic Existentialism with Marxism, and referred to a book of his which he possessed and which he was willing to lend me. “But it is difficult,” he added. “Nothing is difficult, sir,” I declared with the arrogant self-confidence of youth. But he didn’t mind my remark. He lent me his book.

Not merely was Dr.Raj happy to discuss any and every issue with me, he also encouraged me to meet the Visiting Faculty. When Joan Robinson came on a week’s visit, he advised me to put my questions to her. She was a Nobel Prize-quality economist. She was considered a formidable personality because she had no small talk, and no one dared discuss economics with her! But I had no small talk either. On the contrary, I had hundreds of questions. Moreover I had read her book Economic Philosophy. So I went to the lioness’ den and spent three fruitful hours with her. Once I started on my questions, I discovered that she was essentially a teacher, and not at all the forbidding personality she had been made out to be. At one stage I apologetically said that I was asking simple questions because I was not from an economics background. She replied that not being from an economics background was a help. It enabled me to focus on the right issues and to ask fundamental questions. She added that not many economists understood the fundamentals.

It was from her that I learnt about Kalecki, the curious case of an economist who was an independent co-discoverer with Keynes of the General Theory, and whose model was more rigorous than Keynes’, but who nevertheless remained relatively unknown. This has happened before in Science. Newton and Leibnitz discovered the calculus independently, but Newton got all the credit. Similarly, Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently discovered evolution by natural selection, but Darwin got all the credit. It happened again with poor Kalecki. But Joan Robinson, a student of Keynes, did her best to do justice to the greatness of Kalecki.

Dr Raj was kind not merely to me; he had the same sympathetic attitude towards all students. Appropriate technology was quite in vogue in those days, and A.K.N. Reddy was a big name in that field. I recall a lecture by him on appropriate technology. At the end of the lecture, Chandru got up and asked a penetrating question from a Marxist perspective. For some time Dr Reddy was stumped, though he eventually managed an answer. Dr Raj was in the front row, but he immediately shifted to where Chandru was sitting. It was an instinctive act of appreciation.

Similarly, when the anthropologist Marvin Harris delivered a lecture propounding his theory, a history student in the Centre (Michael Tharakan) presented certain historical facts which disproved Harris’ theory. Harris got away by saying that, according to Kuhn, a theory was not proved wrong unless it was replaced by another. But I later read Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) and found that his meaning was slightly different from what Harris had suggested to secure his escape. Kuhn’s thesis was that scientific theories did not develop incrementally but through paradigm shifts. When a theory could not account for significant facts, it was considered to be in a state of crisis. It was finally set aside when another theory was able to explain the previously inexplicable facts. In other words, Kuhn recognised an intermediate condition (that of crisis) between a valid theory and a rejected one. The moment Michael raised his objections, Harris’ theory had entered the state of crisis. But by the time I read Kuhn, Harris had left.

After this lecture Dr Raj remarked in appreciation of Michael: “We have a fine historian in Michael.”

I left the Centre in 1977, well after Indira Gandhi’s defeat and the lifting of the Emergency. I had spent two years there. Not once did Dr Raj hint that I was prolonging my stay. Quite the contrary. When a student once mischievously asked me whether I planned to spend my entire life in the Centre, I felt so upset that I went to Dr.Raj offering to leave at the earliest. He assured me that there were no conditions attached to my stay and I need not leave until I had been able to get answers to some of my central questions. Towards the end I was engaged mainly in writing, for my own clarification. I asked Dr.Raj whether I had to leave a copy of what I wrote. He repeated that there were no conditions attached to my quest. He was glad to have been of help.

When I left the Centre, a new phase began in my life—that of work among landless labourers in Aau village. I lost contact with Dr Raj. But I recall a debate in Mainstream between Dr Raj and Amartya Sen, perhaps on famine in China. Dr Raj was worsted in that debate. Though I appreciated Amartya Sen’s arguments and considered myself a seeker of truth, I was conscious of a certain antipathy for Amartya Sen. Of course I overcame those feelings, but the fact that such feelings had arisen spontaneously made me realise how dear Dr Raj was to me.

In 1989 I wrote an article for the India International Centre Quarterly, which was based largely on my researches in the Centre and titled A Search for Alternatives with the sub-title Beyond Democratic Decentralisation, Gandhi and Marx. Some time later, Dr Raj visited Delhi and stayed in the India International Centre. He sought me out through the Editor. Fortunately I was in Delhi at that time, so I went to meet him. “This is a very fine piece of writing, Lalit,” he told me. “This is what we need—people who have sympathy for opposing schools of thought and can rise above them towards a new synthesis. You must write more often.”

Since I never met him again, I take this as his last word of advice to me. And I hope that this little tribute to his memory will be a step towards following that advice.

The author is a social activist working among the rural populace in UP.

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