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Mainstream, VOL LII No 28, July 5, 2014

Tribute to Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis | Panchsheel and After

Saturday 5 July 2014, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

June 29, 2014 marked the 121st birth anniversory of Prof Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. On this occasion we reproduce the following piece by N.C. that appeared at the time of Mahalanobis’ birth centenary. This is particularly important now that the Narandra Modi dispensation has decided to completely devalue and destroy the Planning Commission which was painstakingly built during the days of the Nehru-Mahaalanobis model of development that charted out the path for the country’s self-reliant regeneration.

Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis: A True Bharat Ratna

With Chandraswamys and Harshad Mehtas, Dawood Ibrahims and Bal Thackerays, the seamy side of political life has today come out in full view. One wonders in despair if these are the characters that will figure in the history books of the future, edging out others who in their own way contributed to the shaping of the country’s destiny.

It is not unnatural for such thoughts to come up today as we find that there has been hardly any effort to tell the new generation about the persons who helped in the building of modern India. Great names stick on because these cannot be easily effaced. Even if all the history text books are destroyed, the names of Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Azad and Rajaji, not to speak of Gandhiji and Pandit Nehru will not be forgotten. But what about the whole host of others who, with all their shortcomings, brought their quota of contributions towards the making of this nation, its politics, economy and cultural life? Not that any of them was above any controversy; in fact, most of them welcomed controversy since they in their respective spheres were path-breakers and helped towards shaping the outlook of the nation as a whole. When Homi Bhabha pressed for atomic research, many shrugged it off as a luxury which an impoverished country could not afford to dabble in.

Another personality of that age is today remem-bered mostly by his critics. That was Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis. Incidentally, his birth centenary falls this week, on June 29. Today his name is recalled mostly by the new and enthusiastic worshippers of the Free Market ideology who blame Mahalanobis as one of the evil geniuses who forced the concept of planned economy on our political leaders, particularly Nehru.

If Mahalanobis had been living today, he would have relished that charge and got into an intense debate with gusto. Because, he believed like a true scientist that it is only through intensive debate and discussion one can work out a path of advance. Those of us in our young days, who had the good fortune of knowing him at close quarters, were always struck by his insistence on listening to and examining a contrary point of view. For Mahalanobis, active interaction was imperative in any quest for truth. In other words, what the Greeks called dialectics in its untrammelled form.

Mahalanobis was really a multi-faceted personality. My earliest encounters with him were in my Presidency College days in the early thirties. I was not a student of science, but we had special regard for him because he always stood out among his colleagues as a proud Indian, a nationalist who while commanding respect as an outstanding teacher, never towed the line of the Raj. Every time there was an upheaval among the students—for Calcutta has always been the traditional centre of the militant youth—he was sent for. Mahalanobis commanded their esteem not because he subscribed to their creed but because he was never tired of trying to understand their viewpoint and acknowledged their motivation and dedication.

Mahalanobis was really a restless soul. It is, of course, widely known that starting as a brilliant student of physics and later as an honoured teacher of the subject, he turned to statistics and came to be internationally recognised as one of the pioneers in establishing statistics as a science necessary for the present-day world. Starting from a small room in the Physics Laboratory, the Statistical Institute grew before our very eyes into the giant complex which it became in twenty years, through the sheer grit and irrepressible urge of one man.

Even in his young days, Mahalanobis was known for his remarkable capacity to set people in motion. Many would not remember today that he in the twenties figured prominently in the Brahmo Samaj as the leader of the young radicals who tried to rejuvenate the movement. More conspicuous, of course, was his role as the builder of Tagore’s Visva-bharati. One of the young adherents of the poet, Mahalanobis was the real organiser of the Visva-bharati from its inception. He was not part of the literati around Tagore, but he devoted himself towards building the great edifice that embodied his vision of making Santiniketan the seat of a truly universal culture—Visva-bharati.

The quality of Mahalanobis that I thought was truly great was his infinite urge to familiarise himself with all the currents of thought prevailing in his times. Like Homi Bhaba, I found that Mahalanobis on his own initiative established rapport with the leaders of the Left, and that included the entire spectrum from Yusuf Meherali to the Communists, whose party was then banned by the Raj. He was not excited by the day-to-day slogans of any moivement but tried to understand the thought-process behind the public position of any party or trend. And I have seen Mahalanobis taking pains to engage in extensive discussions with Acharya Kripalani and many others about the thrust of the Gandhian school of economics.

Mahalanobis might have known Nehru personally through his involvement with Tagore. I have personally seen how the links between the two were forged. Soon after his release from prison in 1945, when Panditji came to Calcutta and the overtures for the transfer of power could be heard for the first time, he spent a whole day with Mahalanobis at his residence, exchanging ideas about designing the future of the country about to be free. It was at that meeting that a regular link between the two was forged with the drafting of Pitambar Pant, then a young favourite of Panditji just out of prison, to Mahalanobis’ Statistical Institute, but really acting as the liaison between the two. This endured for two full decades and more. In fact, Pitambar became a permanent landmark in Mahalanobis’ establishment, making signal contributions in the quest for planning on which the scientist and the political leader set out from those early days.

Mahalanobis’ eagerness to build bridges with other schools of political thinking was not confined to his relationship with Nehru. He took the initiative in establishing such a relationship with others as well particularly of the radical school. If one were to look up the list of those who joined his establishment in those early days, one would fine that quite a few found their way there as Pitambar did. As a thinker concerned with designing the country’s economic set-up, Mahalanobis wanted input from all sections seriously engaged in the same pursuit but from diverse points of view. As always, Mahalanobis was insistent on active interaction among them all.

This brings one to the current impression about Mahalanobis’ contribution towards evolving a model of development for our country having just thrown away its colonial shackles. It is fashionable nowadays to brand him as having imported the totalitarian Soviet model of development in our country, the evil genius who misled the gullible Nehru Nothing could be farther from truth. An unmitigated rationalist, Mahalanobis was no advocate of any imported model. To him, there had to be a rationale of development based on the neeeds and perceptions of our own people; at the same time the rich variety of experiences of other countries had to be understood and assimilated by us.

Even without being economists some of us used to argue with him on the question of planning and its objective in our specific condition. Mahalanobis was clear in his outlook that a country of such diverse levels of development and perceptions of the people could not be put into the straitjacket of a highly-centralised authority, what is now called the command economy. Throughout Mahalanobis was an ardent advocate of mixed economy, a term which in our pristine Leftist ebullience we used to run down. For Mahalanobis, the classical model of the Industrial Revolution needed to be tempered with the experience and specific requirements of our country with its huge rural hinterland and a heavy burden of destitution perpetuated by the retreating colonial order.

As a scientist, he never subscribed to a dogmatic approach and as a rationalist he never imposed a line; he always strove for a solution through active interaction of different view-points and experiences. It was precisely on this score that Mahalanobis made a unique, historic contribution towards the methodology of evolving a strategy of development. With the ready support that he enlisted from Nehru, he took the initiative in inviting economists and social thinkers from practically all parts of the world. They came from the US, Britain, Poland, France, Russia and from China. In fact, the distinguished Chinese economist, Dr Chan Hanseng, did not belong to the Communist Party but was active in Madam Soong Chinling’s Democratic Party which took to Sun Yatsen’s enlightened ideals. A well-known specialist on agrarian problems, he spent quite some time in the Statistical Institute.

Such expansive discussions in which participants from abroad interacted freely with our economists of diverse schools, both official and non-official, led to the drafting of the plan-frame for the Second Five Year Plan. And the plan-frame itself was thrown open for national debate for one full year before the government finalised the Second Plan. Compare this democratic approach to reach a national consensus on the country’s economic strategy with the manner in which the free-market brand of economic reforms is now being hustled through. Under cover of the panic created by the balance-of-payments crisis, structural adjustments have been introduced as per the Fund-Bank prescription without caring for a national debate.

Here lies the difference between the genuine democratic urge of a truly scientific mind like Mahalanobis and the smart operators of the economic establishment of today. No wonder the greatness of a Homi Bhaba or a Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis is bereft of any protocol recognition. No award for these true Bharat Ratnas of our times.

(Mainstream, July 3, 1993)

On June 28, 2014 was observed the sixtieth anniversary of the Panchsheel, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistance. We are reproducing the article N.C. wrote on the occasion of the Panchsheel’s fortieth anniversary.

Panchsheel and After

It is interesting to find that a fairly high-level of delegates from the government-sponsored Think Tanks in China had interactions with their Indian counterparts recently in New Delhi under the aegis of a seminar devoted to Panchsheel and Global Diplomacy. The event marked the fortieth anniversary of the coining of the Panchsheel, that is, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (June 28, 1954). As a matter of fact, no specific declaration on the five principles was soleminised in a formal document at that time. The five principles were in the form of an affirmation of respect for territorial integrity, non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence by both China and India. This formed part of the preamble to a formal agreement on India’s recognition of the Autonomous Region of Tibet being part of China while the Chinese agreed to traders and pilgrims using six passes in the middle sector of the far-flung frontier.

The negotiations for this accord had started three months before in Peking, in which our distinguished diplomat, then a middle-level Foreign Service officer, T.N. Kaul, played a key role. What was rather intriguing about the accord was that while the six passes in the middle sector were specifically mentioned for use by traders and pilgrims, the border itself was not delineated, not to speak of having been demarcated. The present writer once asked Kaul why the demarcation of the border itself was not undertaken in those sunshine days of India-China relations. He said that the suggestion for it was dodged by the Chinese at the time. Jawaharlal Nehru himself had expected that the 1954 accord would eliminate the possibility of a border dispute. In his customary fortnightly letter to the Chief Ministers on July 1, 1954, he wrote: “Two important aspects of this agreement are: (1) that indirectly the question of our long frontier is settled; and (2) the principle of non-aggression and non-interference, etc., are laid down.” The hope was blighted in about five years.

Meanwhile, the Panchsheel got wide publicity far in excess of what the two signatories could ever dream. Next year in April 1955, twenty-nine countries of Asia and Africa met at Bandung, where an enlarged version of the Panchsheel was adopted. The Indonesian President, Soekarno, who hosted the Bandung Conference, made it the Ten Principles of Peaceful Coexistence; the five new ones were: respect for human rights and the UN Charter; recognition of racial and national equality; the right of any nation to defend itself singly or jointly under the UN Charter; abstention from using a collective defence arrangement for the benefit of any big world power; settlement of international disputes by peaceful means. In a sense, this was virtually the take-off point of non-alignment as a movement.

Actually, it was the original Five Principles, and not Soekarno’s Ten, which got international currency. After his visit to West Germany in 1956, Nehru wrote: “A day or two after I had left Germany, he (Chancellor Adenauer) came out with a statement approving of our Five Principles of Panchsheel, much to the surprise of many Germans who did not expect this of him.” When in 1956, Bulganin and Khrushchev visited the UK, the joint statement mentioned the Five Principles approvingly. The Panchsheel thus got international currency even in the battlefields of the Cold War.

However, it was wearing out in the relation-ship of the two original signatories. The diplo-matic skirmishes over the border claims started long before the angry rhetoric that came from Peking with the revolt in Tibet and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in the summer of 1959. Border clashes followed and in 1962 came the full-scale Chinese aggression along both the eastern and western sectors of the long frontier. Many speculations have been ventured about this volte face in the Chinese policy towards India in this period. It may perhaps be worth keeping in mind one particular factor which might have largely contributed to the Chinese abandonment of the Panchsheel during this period not only in relation to India but many other friendly countries as well.

Since the late seventies, that is, with Deng Xiaoping’s modernisation drive, whoever has gone to China (as did the present writer more than once) has had to listen to the whole catalogue of havoc wrought to the country’s economy, politics and social fabric by the Cultural Revolution and its precursors such as the Rectification Campaign, the Back-to-the-Village drive, and the Great Leap Forward. No doubt this high-temperature politics at home had its inevitable repercussions on foreign policy and this was precisely the period of China’s angry posturings and armed attacks on India. Significantly, tempers began to cool down with Deng’s rise to supreme power with his moderni-sation drive, and it is this cooling down at home that has brought back China to a sober frame of mind, so much so that the Panchsheel which had been cast away has again been restored.

One got a revealing sidelight in quiet discussions in China with old hands who could be regarded as Zhou Enlai’s boys and girls in the Foreign Office at Beijing, most of them now hibernating in retirement. Few in our country know that when Zhou visited Delhi in 1960, he came a desperate man hemmed in by extremist bigotry in the Chinese leadership; it was obvious his adversaries in the establishment were trying to denounce him for his soft policy of Panchsheel towards Nehru’s India. And so Zhou, according to this version, came to Delhi frantically trying to ward off his adversaries and so desperately looking out for a settlement of the border dispute; he was reported to have been heartened by Nehru’s reference to Aksai Chin as a place where “not a blade of grass grows”. But at that moment, Nehru was in no position to make any concession, incensed as his own party members along with the rest of the country had been by the clashes along the border together with angry polemics from Peking, while Zhou could not possibly have made any positive move which would be disowned by the hot-heads in the Chinese Government. The Delhi meeting in April 1960 was tense and angry, climaxed by Zhou’s marathon press conference touching the midnight at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It was like the unfolding of the inexorability of a Greek tragedy. Zhou Enlai, who was perhaps the most popular and most impressive of all our VIP guests from abroad in the first decade of our Republic, looked grave and grim as he boarded the plane next morning for Kathmandu.

Then followed six months of protracted official level examination of the border claims on both sides. The Indian side argued like competent lawyers as if they were establishing their claims before a Hague tribunal. The Chinese side concentrated on cross-examination questioning in detail the Indian side about the terrain that they claimed as their own which the Chinese were contesting. When the actual Chinese armed aggression in October 1962 pushed along the border, it was found that the points where they made the breakthrough were the points about which they had asked the largest number of questions at the border talks two years earlier, thereby acquainting themselves with our side of the disputed terrain. There were military experts in the Chinese team in the border talks. In other words, the official level talks in 1960 were used as preparatory to the armed attack two years later. In contrast, the Indian side was totally unprepared for the armed attack in 1962. This is now brought out very effectively by Major General D.K. Palit’s magnum opus. Palit can by no means be branded as a Krishna Menon-baiter—which reinforces the authenticity of his account.

In 1989, when the present writer went to China, he met an old friend who was close to Zhou Enlai’s circle. He narrated an amusing incident. In the 1962 attack, the Chinese had taken quite a large number of Indian jawans as their POWs. An exhibition of war pictures was put up in Peking to show how the valiant PLA had routed the forces of “Indian expansiorism”. The photographs displayed showed ill-clad Indian POWs without boots and without great coats fighting on the high Himalayas. Instead of Indian expansionist designs, these proved how unprepared was the Indian Army to meet the Chinese aggression. When this was brought to the notice of Zhou, he at once ordered the exhibition to be closed down.

Those bizarre days are now over. Such was the fall-out of the politics of the Cultural Revolution on one hand, and the ceaseless US propaganda of the Dulles-McCarthy type on our side on the other that after the debacle of 1962, proud Jawaharlal Nehru was forced to write anabject letter to the President of the United States beseeching American arms. And soon after, the CIA planted a nuclear pack on top of the Nanda Devi to monitor the Chinese troop movements in Tibet—a hush-hush operation which came to light only in Morarji’s time.

In the new world liberated from the Cold-War mentality, it is but inevitable that the message of the Panchsheel has to be revived. And it is but appropriate that facing the pathetic imbalance of President Clinton’s foreign-policy forays, the Panchsheel should be recalled by its original authors. Li Peng speaking in Beijing and Narasimha Rao in New Delhi—the two govern-ments over which they preside, representing two billion of the world’s population, have the solemn responsibility of undertaking structural reform of the international polity as the obsolescence of the Cold War complex has to be discarded.

We had bhai-bhai fraternisation with the Chinese, and in less than ten years they denounced us and attacked our frontiers and occupied territories beyond their own claim lines. And in another sixteen years, they wanted to restore normalcy in our relations with them. This is nothing to be surprised at. After all, as the wise among politicians say, there are no permanent friends, nor permanent enemies. There are only permanent national interests.

The five new points that Narasimha Rao has added to the Panchsheel reflects the concerns and urges of the entire developing world which constitute the massive majority of humanity as distinct from the minority of the G-7 trying to corner the wealth of the planet. In fact, Narasimha Rao’s five extra points for the Panchsheel deserve to be inscribed on the agenda of G-15. Here is the opening for redesigning the world order for the well-being of all its citizens and not just for the tiny minority overburdened by the venality and arrogance of power.

(An abridged version of this article appeared in The Hindu, June 29, 1994)
(Mainstream, July 16, 1994)