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Dwijendra Tripathi (1930–2018)

Remembering India’s Foremost Business Historian

Howard Spodek ( teaches history at Temple University, Philadelphia, the United States.

It was Dwijendra Tripathi’s pioneering contributions that demarcated the fledgling field of business history in India. His lifetime of scholarship distinguished him as an academic entrepreneur, and set the pace for future engagement in the discipline.

Through his scholarship, persistence, and dedication to task, Dwijendra Tripathi, fondly called Dwij, earned universal respect as the founder of business history in India. His 20 published books—several of them co-authored or co-edited—demarcated the field. As he wrote thoughtfully and extensively of business entrepreneurs, he found his own defining niche as an academic entrepreneur in a career in research, teaching, and service, mostly at the Indian Institute of Management–Ahmedabad (IIM–A), where he served from 1964 to 1990. For six years afterwards, at the Entrepreneurial Development Institute, also in Ahmedabad, he taught the children of business entrepreneurs how best to proceed with their family legacies.

Among Tripathi’s early books were histories of specific firms: Larsen and Toubro and, more fully, the Bank of Baroda. In his introduction to Towards a New Frontier: History of the Bank of Baroda (1985)—co-authored with Priti Misra—he lays out his lifelong vision of applying the wisdom of the past to the needs and opportunities of the present. He also makes clear the centrality of the human side of business practices.

Business professionals are becoming increasingly aware that an insight into the strategies, along with their contextual setting, pursued by the predecessors would provide useful input of understanding and tackling the problems that they face today. After all, the past is nothing but a backward integration of the present. (1985: xi)

At IIM–A, he began an engagement with Ahmedabad and its business leaders that would mark the heart of his monographic research. As the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Professor of Business History, he had special access to Lalbhai, the great Ahmedabad industrialist, philanthropist, and institution builder. Dwij wrote one book on his businesses, The Dynamics of a Tradition: Kasturbhai Lalbhai and His Entrepreneurship (1981), and edited another, Tribute to Ethics: Remembering Kasturbhai Lalbhai (1983). Equally, he analysed the family’s civic contributions, which they took quite seriously as a branch descendant of Ahmedabad’s nagarsheth, the historical head of the city’s business community. Alliance for Change: A Slum Upgrading Experiment in Ahmedabad (1998), and Change after Alliance: Sequel to Alliance for Change (2001) chronicle and analyse an innovative slum-upgrading experiment in a workers’ colony adjacent to one of Kasturbhai’s mills, an experiment undertaken with the dedicated participation of the sheth’s equally civic-minded descendants.

Life in Academia

Born in 1930, in a village near Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, to a father owning a few acres of land, and deeply committed to the Congress struggle for independence, Tripathi went on to earn his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin (1963), where he wrote his dissertation, “The United States and India: Economic Links 1860–1900.” He focused largely on the economic effects of the American Civil War, and its aftermath, on the world trade in cotton, an exchange that linked the United States and India. Later, he co-authored Themes and Perspectives in American History: Essays in Historiography (1978), and spent a year teaching at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. He also spent a year from 1985–86 in Japan, as a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies, Tokyo, and later wrote Historical Roots of Industrial Entrepreneurship in India and Japan: A Comparative Interpretation (1997), again using his personal experience to inform his scholarship, while placing the experience of his own nation in comparative perspective.

Dwij joined IIM–A in 1964. (He frequently noted with a smile that he and I had arrived in Ahmedabad in the same year, initiating a lifelong friendship.) IIM–A had been established in 1961 with the assistance of the Harvard University School of Business, and in 1964–65, he travelled to Cambridge to participate in Harvard’s International Teachers Programme. The experience helped cement his, and IIM–A’s, centrality in the developing field of business history.

At IIM–A, he served on a multitude of committees and, for four years, as dean. His care and concern for all those he encountered, low and high alike, made him ideal for the post. He sat on the thesis advisory committees of at least four students. (Their theses form a section of a special display currently mounted in Dwij’s honor at IIM.) In the 1980s, at IIM–A, he hosted a series of international seminars on business history that brought together leading scholars and helped give shape and definition to the emerging field. He served as President of the Indian History Congress in 2002–03.

Pioneer of Business History

Dwij’s magisterial overviews of his field, The Oxford History of Indian Business (2004), and The Oxford History of Contemporary Indian Business (2013)—co-authored with his friend and long-time colleague, Jyoti Jumani—came several years after his retirement from IIM. In these books he sought to present the world of Indian business not only through individual firms and entrepreneurs, but as a whole, in their full social and political settings. For the most part, he continued to see the contours of the present emerging from those of the past, with “family-centric management … likely to remain the rule rather than the exception in small businesses” (2004: 335). But he recognised that big business was already being managed differently, and the future might be still more different:

There is no doubt that under a more liberalized economic regime, the Indian private sector has embarked upon the most progressive, creative, and competitive course in its entire history. And the sky will be the limit for its growth, if it continues on this course. (2004: 335)

Dwij’s scholarship and service were grounded in deep purpose, outside the campus of the IIM as well as inside. By 2000, he saw the India that he loved, the India of Gandhi and Nehru, slipping away, its institutions eroding, its Constitution under attack. On 11 March 2000, in the pages of this journal, Dwij rose to their defence publishing “Crisis of Indian Polity: A Historical Perspective,” where he stated,

It requires no great insight to conclude that India at present is passing through a deep crisis … Nothing seems to be working right. Practically all the instruments we had created to insure the unity and progress of the nation are under great deal of stress—almost to the breaking point.

With his historian’s tools, he followed this bleak assessment with a sketch analysis of Indian regionalism, unification, and dissolution from Aryan times to the present. For Dwij, the optimal culmination had come in the early 20th century. Then, “Gandhi for the first time in Indian history laid the foundation of a nation” (p 942).

The elections of 1967, however, had brought that golden era to an end. They “heralded the entry of a new generation of Indians into politics for whom … electoral success and the power that came with it was too tempting a goal to be risked by undue concern for the means employed to achieve it” (p 943). They used President’s rule to undermine elected state governments. They tampered with the original intent of reservations by expanding them to new groups and effectively eliminating terminal dates. They amended the Constitution 83 times between 1950 and 1999, including 67 times after Nehru’s death in 1964. Dwij feared further constitutional changes that might undermine India’s basic democracy (we had many serious, private conversations about these apprehensions). Dwij was a lifelong patriot who criticised India’s current political leadership for leading his country astray.

Service through Scholarship

As I reflect on Dwij’s many outstanding characteristics—he was thoughtful, caring, generous, a superb listener and thoughtful respondent, elegant, gracious and graceful—the bedrock qualities that come to mind are integrity and commitment. For Dwij, research had to be relevant to current issues; administration had to build and sustain relevant and vital institutions; teaching had to lead students to seeing the world in new ways; travel had to broaden and intensify a global perspective; and all of it had to be dedicated to a life of participation and truthfulness as a citizen of the nation and
the world.

Dwij’s beloved wife Sarla, not modernly educated, not a child of the university, but a quiet, insightful, and trusted life companion, passed away in 2012. Now, with his death on 5 September 2018, Dwij leaves behind accomplished and loving children and grandchildren, and a host of colleagues and friends, both junior and senior, diminished by his passing, but enriched by his life and work.


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