Andre Beteille on K. N. Raj

When I joined the University of Delhi in 1959 as a young lecturer, the dominant presence at the Delhi School of Economics was that of K.N. Raj. Everyone at the School talked about him, and he was well known and well liked throughout the university. Part of Raj’s attraction lay in his youthful spirit. He was specially liked because he did not throw his weight about, but, on the other hand, was always ready to stand up for the underdog. It is this instinct to stand up for the underdog that gave Raj his aura of a radical in the best sense of the term.

Raj’s appointment as full professor at the age of 29 was something of a sensation in the university. The circumstances under which he was appointed are worth recounting because they tell us something about methods used for attracting talent to the universities that can now be no longer used. He was brought to the School by V.K.R.V. Rao, who, at the time of Independence, was fired by the idea of establishing a first-rate institution for teaching and research in economic science and policy. In 1947, the institution that was to become the Delhi School of Economics existed mainly in Rao’s imagination.

On one of his trips to England, Rao decided to track down I.G. Patel, about whom he had heard great things. But when he knocked at I.G.’s door in Cambridge, he discovered that I.G. was not free to accept the offer. As it happened, his friend, K.N. Raj, was then visiting him, and I.G. suggested that Rao might consider making the offer to Raj. Rao made up his mind after a brief interchange with Raj and offered him the position which Raj accepted happily.

Immediately on his return to India, Raj took the train from Bombay to Delhi and presented himself to Rao, and asked when he should join his duties. But Rao had to tell him that he could not be given the appointment as the post was still to be created. So Raj was sent back to Bombay carrying a warm letter of recommendation for C.D. Deshmukh. Through Deshmukh he found his way into the Reserve Bank of India, and from there he moved to Delhi to join the Planning Commission. By 1953, though only 29 years old, Raj had begun to make a name for himself through his work on the first five-year plan, and the Delhi School of Economics had become a reality. Rao called him over and told him that he was now in a position to offer him not just a readership but a professorship, and this time it was a firm offer. So Raj left the Planning Commission and joined the Delhi School of Economics.

In 1959, when I came to Delhi University, only three post-graduate departments had more than one professor each. The department of economics had three, but one of the positions remained vacant after Rao became the vice-chancellor. The two professors of economics were B.N. Ganguly, who was the director of the School, and Raj. Ganguly was a scholar and a gentleman of the old school. He was full of kindness and courtesy, and never raised his voice when he spoke. We all noted his great affection for Raj for whose talent and ability he was never short of praise.

When Ganguly left the Delhi School in 1962 to become the pro-vice-chancellor of the university, Raj replaced him as the director of the School as well as the head of the department of economics. He lost no time in following the example set by Rao in attracting young talent to the School. He played the main part in attracting Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati and Sukhamoy Chakravarty to the School and appointing each of them a full professor at the age of 29. Having Deshmukh as the vice-chancellor and Ganguly as the pro-vice-chancellor must have helped. Later, as vice-chancellor of the university, he appointed Manmohan Singh to the School to occupy the chair vacated by Jagdish Bhagwati.

Everybody in the Delhi School knew Raj, and most of them sought his company. But the person who was closest to him was Amartya Sen. In my long association with Sen, I had never communicated with him by e-mail. When Raj died, I thought I should send him an e-mail to express my grief. Within a few hours, he wrote back, “I keep thinking of the great years we spent together in our interconnected apartments in Chhatra Marg — we were in almost one household then.… I think of what Raj did for his friends and for the world, and the vision that informed his life, which moved and inspired us so much. Those of us who gathered around him at the Delhi School of Economics under his stewardship would not have come but for the inspiration and the quality of his personal magnetism and leadership.”

I cannot assess Raj’s contribution to economic science, nor is this the place or the time to do so. But he certainly was an inspiration to many both within and outside his own discipline. P.N. Dhar, who was both his friend and his rival, was bemused by the admiration Raj was able to attract. Shortly after he joined Indira Gandhi’s office as her adviser, he prepared a note for her with great care and some satisfaction. When he went to see her about the note, the first question she asked him was, “What does Dr Raj think of this?” It mattered to many people what Raj thought of them and their work. It certainly mattered to me.

In 1968, I was awarded a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship for two years. I chose as my subject the study of agrarian social structure, at that time a somewhat unusual choice for a sociologist. My choice was influenced to a large extent by my association with Raj. I was determined to show him that sociologists had something to say about class and not just about caste, but that they had their own approach to its study. My colleagues in the department of sociology were a little puzzled by my choice of subject, and some even thought that Raj was turning me into a Marxist.

Raj was very earnest about his public responsibilities. But he also had a strong sense of fun, and his youthful appearance and manner made it easy for him to mingle with the students. He took an active part, along with his friend and admirer Putul Nag, in organizing plays for Founder’s Day. He has himself written about a School play when the formidable V.K.R.V. Rao was director. “I recall vaguely a play we jointly produced depicting Napoleon and slyly imputing some of his qualities to V.K.R.V. Rao, but it failed in its purpose because he saw no such parallel and enjoyed the play more than anyone else!” Which person who knew Raj in his prime will not miss him today?



About Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.
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One Response to Andre Beteille on K. N. Raj

  1. Pingback: Great individuals on institutes : Andre Beteille | Fragments of time

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