Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 35

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

In both ISI and DSE there was one problem I faced in my research that was something I did not fully anticipate before. Some of the major international journals had a submission fee for research papers which was equivalent to something that would exhaust most of my Indian monthly salary. In the US authors mostly charged the fee to their research grants, which was not a way out for me. I once wrote about this to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association (AEA), and suggested that for their journals they should have a lower rate for authors from low-income countries. I got a reply, saying that after careful consideration in their Committee meeting they had decided against my suggestion. Their rationale was a typical one for believers in perfect markets: since an article in an AEA journal was likely to raise significantly the expected lifetime earnings of an author, the latter should be able to finance it. (I visualized the dour face of an Indian public bank loan officer trying to comprehend this).

I also found out that using Indian micro-level data for a research paper in a mainstream American journal in those days was considered so exotic that more often than not the editors, even before reviewing the paper, would immediately suggest sending it instead to an Indian journal or at best a field journal.

The other journal-related problem was their limited availability in India. Indian libraries could not afford some of the high-priced technical journals, and for those they could, by the time they’d arrive in the library shelves, most of the articles had gone rather stale research-wise, as researchers abroad who had seen their working-paper and pre-print versions years before, had already advanced the research frontier in that area, before we in India even came to know of the original article. (Today internet and social media have largely done away with this research barrier that we had faced).

Meanwhile in the political front in India things were reaching a boiling point. Many of us were dismayed by the arbitrary authoritarian actions of Indira Gandhi. The strike by 1.7 million railway workers–the largest recorded industrial action in the world– was brutally suppressed, with thousands sent to jail. After massive student protests in Gujarat and Bihar, the veteran politician, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP)—one of the few surviving leaders then of the freedom struggle, once associated with the Congress Socialist Party, who after Independence had declined Nehru’s invitation to join his cabinet– called for an all-India resistance movement now against the policies of Nehru’s daughter. The leftists were divided, some of them looked to Indira Gandhi, supported by Soviet Union, as the bulwark against ‘right-wing reaction’, other leftists along with liberals protested the encroachments on liberty. I think it was early in 1975 JP came to Delhi, and asked our friend Lakshmi Jain to organize a closed-door evening meeting at his home with some Delhi journalists and academics to discuss some of the burning issues, and JP mainly wanted to listen to get ideas for leading his resistance movement. Mrinal and I were invited, and went together in Mrinal’s car.

In the meeting the gloom about the future of the country was quite palpable. JP, a sick septuagenarian, seemed despondent, spoke softly and briefly, and then others spoke. After some time one or two garrulous journalists started dominating the discussion. Mrinal and I decided to go home. As we came out and Mrinal was having a smoke standing in the garden outside, he quietly pointed me to something near his parked car. I saw a man crouching near the front of his car, trying hard in the darkness to write down his car license plate no. This hapless plain-clothes policeman had probably been sent to trace the invitees to this sinister meeting. As Mrinal and I approached the car the man quickly disappeared in the darkness.

Then late night on June 25–the day after the Supreme Court upheld a decision of a lower-court against Indira Gandhi, and the day on which JP called for police to disobey orders they regarded as immoral—an Emergency was declared, suspending constitutional rights, and a massive crackdown on most political opposition took place, jailing tens of thousands. There was a blackout on information. Mrinal and I used to get together every day to collate and sift through all the information (much of it rumors) we could garner.

Every evening a diplomat friend of ours, Sisir Gupta (who was a somewhat mysterious character, it was a bit difficult sometimes to figure out which side he was on), used to come to Mrinal’s place, and after imbibing his whiskey, he’d unburden the stories (‘from the horse’s mouth’) and intrigues that he had collected in the day from different political camps. He used to relate his stories in a conspiratorial whisper, I did not believe all of them, but many of them later checked out right. Some of the stories were about Indira’s rowdy younger son, Sanjay, and his evil doings, and also how the rest of even the ruling party was resenting the overbearing antics of what was called Sanjay’s ‘Punjabi mafia’—they lacked the social grace of the earlier ‘Kashmiri mafia’ around the mother.

Most people in the academia I knew were cowering in fear. Mrinal in this context showed a good deal of courage. One day I was chatting with him in his office when a group of louts with allegiance to Sanjay unceremoniously barged into Mrinal’s office and loudly demanded that the major auditorium in DSE was to be used by them for a forthcoming symposium on Sanjay’s ’20-point program’ (this was an ad hoc collection of sanctimonious programs to alleviate poverty, unemployment, etc. just to cover up the odor of their high-handed activities) for which the permission of Mrinal as the head of the Economics Department was needed. Then they also threateningly demanded that all of the Department’s faculty had to attend the symposium. Mrinal coolly responded by saying any organization could apply for using that auditorium, and they’d have to go to the office next door for the formal application; and no, he could not attend the symposium as he had already called a faculty meeting at the time they mentioned, but if any faculty member wanted to attend the symposium it was up to them. The louts were not fully happy, but after some grumbling they left the office, chanting slogans like “Long Live 20-point Program”.

Humor was one way to help us spend those dark days. Ashis told us about a friend who was making a call on his phone, and suddenly someone in the background who was tapping the phone said gruffly in Hindi, “Speak up, we can’t hear you”.  Mrinal, Ashis and I used to say that Indian authoritarianism would be characteristically inefficient, messy, showy, and farcical—more like that of Mussolini. There was a cartoon around that time by India’s best cartoonist, Laxman, on the order issued to all government officers on a pledge of loyalty to the 20-point program: one officer was heartily singing out the pledge, when someone rushed to point out that there was a typo in the office order, he was to ‘sign’ the pledge, not to ‘sing’ it!