This post reviews the proceedings of ‘The International Conference on Indian Business and Economic History’ held at IIM Ahmedabad on 29-31 Aug 2019. The conference was held in the memory of Prof Dwijendra Tripathi, who taught business history in IIMA for four decades. Prof Tripathi passed away last year on Teacher’s day!
It was a tragedy that the course was not taught for next 25 years before Chinmay Tumbe started teaching it once again in IIMA. This conference was organised by a team led by Chinmay which wanted to take the legacy of Prof Dwijendra Tripathi forward. No words are enough for the team which put a stellar effort to make this event a reality.
How does one react meeting and hearing the four stalwarts of Indian business history- Tirthankar Roy, Medha Kudaisya, Gita Piramal and Lakshmi Subramanian – in one day? Well, this is what happened in three days of pure magic at the recently held Conference on Indian Business and Economics History at IIM Ahmedabad.
These scholars had embarked to the city of Ahmedabad to pay tribute to another doyen of business history, Dwijendra Tripathi, who taught the subject at IIMA for four decades and unfortunately passed away last year. The four scholars not just paid homage but also discussed their research and encouraged young minds to take up the field. In the conference, one saw past, present and hopefully future of scholarship of India’s business history.
Before discussing the ideas at the conference, I must mention it was really nice to hear Ms Jyoti Jumani, long time collaboarator of Prof Tripathi. Jyoti shared some memories with the Prof. and how she ended up collaborating with him. This goes onto show how the team organisers thought and paid attention to
The conference started with a workshop for PhD students who came from all across the world to present their work connected to business history and got encouragement from the above mentioned scholars. The unique feature of the conference was that it was open to all kinds of scholars (economics, management, sociology, history etc.). It was promising to see students pursuing wide-ranging themes like dalit capitalism, state entrepreneurship, history of Crawford market and so on (know about the budding scholars and their research areas here).
The workshop was followed by paper presentations on diverse topics as Bombay business, diaspora, commodities, currencies, history of advertising etc. It is not often that you come across a buffet where most dishes are not just tasty but healthy too!
I had the good fortune to moderate a session named ‘Money Matters’. The first paper by Shweta Banerjee of Univ of Toronto showed East India Company (like all modern States) ‘imagined sovereignty’ by monopolizing money markets, currency and banking systems. There was a paper by Sukhalata Sen of JNU which featured this fascinating tale of a Kathiawari goldsmith named Jhalla Vijayanand who counterfeited coins and gave headaches to British with his antics. One could easily see parallels with today’s times where governments are trying to ensure their monopoly by banning cryptocurrencies and creating fear over counterfeiting.
Tirthankar Roy in his later remarks said we need to move beyond the usual narrative of colonialism to cost of capital. The low cost of capital which in turn is a result of organisation of money and banking systems, is crucial to any development. Even the recent book by William Dalrymple on history of East India Company shows how Indian financiers were central to establishment of British Empire in India.
There was a full session devoted to commodities was absolutely fascinating where one learnt about evolution of Darjeeling tea, role of Syrian Christians in Kerala’s coffee market, History of Indian tobacco/cigarettes market and usage of chicory in Indian coffee.
Nationalisation is the flavor of the day. India recently saw completion of 50 years of bank nationalization, a topic which remains highly contested until today. Ahmedabad University is organizing a conference reflecting on the 50 years of banking in an upcoming conference.
In the IIMA conference, two scholars discussed nationalization of airline industry (Aashique Iqbal of Krea Univ) and evolution of coal markets (Rohit Chandra of CPR). The events that enfolded airline nationalization were quite similar to those in bank nationalization and yet quite different as well. One has a feeling that there are patterns in India’s several nationalization exercises which needs attention from scholars.
The keynote lecture by Kudaisya was on evolution of India’s planning and how it created several conflicts amidst policymakers. The Planning Commission (PC) was not a constitutional body but gained significant importance, leading to early frictions with Finance Ministry which even led to resignation of FM John Mathai. Later, frictions emerged between PC and Finance Commission, as former gave grants to states which was a function of latter. We usually pay attention to history of frictions between Government and RBI but there were frictions elsewhere too. Good friend Aparajittn Ramnath, on the sidelines of the conference summed up all history in two words: “people fight” J
A related paper by Aashsish Velkar of Manchester University pointed how the once mercantile capitalists turned towards swadesi capitalism where seeking political alliances was a central strategy. The tacitness of these capitalists allowed in realization of the national planning, a fact often ignored by critiques of planning. Gita Piramal’s lecture on evolution of Bajaj group also showed the close relations of the group with the polity for much of its history.
The one session which was really important was how to teach business history (or how to bell the cat?). It is ironical that despite quite a few business historians, they are hardly able to teach the subject in business schools. One major reason is that most B-schools see history as a soft subject and one that does add skills. Nothing could be further from truth as history is vital to understanding evolution of businesses. History also has episodes of failures which teaches students to be patient and humble.
The few professors who teach the subject shared their experiences and it was telling that history is actually sneaked in via courses such as Hitchhiker’s Guide in IIMA! In an earlier panel discussion held at IIM Bangalore in 2009, which was attended by Prof Tripathi, it was suggested to include history in such ways! Ahmedabad University is perhaps one of the few places which runs a course by the name ‘Business History’ (taught by Tana Trivedi).
Most conferences end with papers but this one also wanted to lay a path for future scholars. It invited archivists of Godrej Group & Sarabhai Business to share how researchers can benefit from their archives. The conference ended with launch of IIMA Archives (https://archives.iima.ac.in) which is going to be a great digital historical resource on both the institute and the business houses.
To sum up, Prof Tripathi would be happy to see the conference not just celebrating his legacy but making efforts to take forward the scholarship in business history. It is time for the business history ecosystem (universities, b-schools, businesses) to join the efforts and give India’s business history the dues it deserves. Indian businesses are going through a transition of their own and need several historians to analyse and chronicle this transition.
It is only when we have this ecosystem, will we see a hundred Diwjendra Tripathis bloom.