Tapas Majumdar who passed away on the 15th of October
was an outstanding economist and teacher. A person of
extraordinary dignity and integrity, he was never one
to thrust himself into the limelight, but he had a profound
influence on several generations of students, first
at Presidency College, Calcutta (where he taught, among
others, Amartya Sen, Sukhamoy Chakravarty and Amiya
Bagchi) and later at Jawaharlal Nehru University, where
he founded the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies,
becoming Emeritus Professor after retirement.
After early education in Calcutta, Tapas Majumdar went
to the London School of Economics where he completed
his Ph.D. under the supervision of Lionel Robbins on
''The Measurement of Utility''. This was subsequently
published as a book and went on to become a classic.
With impeccable clarity and logical precision, it negotiated
what was then a new and complex field, utility theory,
with such mastery, that for numerous students it remained,
for years to come, the best exposition on the subject.
I certainly remember that for me it was The Measurement
of Utility, on which I had to do a tutorial at the Delhi
School of Economics, that first brought some clarity
on the subject with its distinctions between Introspective
Cardinalism, Introspective Ordinalism, Behavioral Cardinalism
and Behavioral Ordinalism.
returned from LSE to teach at Presidency College, Calcutta,
where, after the retirement of Professor Bhabatosh Datta,
he became the Head of the Department. As Head he presided
over a galaxy of remarkable economists, including Dipak
Banerji, Mihir Rakshit, Amiya Bagchi and Nabendu Sen,
who constituted at that time the Economics faculty of
Presidency College. My first meeting with Professor
Majumdar was in 1969, when he was sitting as the head
of a table around which sat this illustrious group.
I had just been selected for a faculty position at Cambridge
and was visiting Calcutta and in particular Amiya Bagchi,
my predecessor in that post at Cambridge. Professor
Bagchi took me along to Presidency College to which
he had returned. Professor Majumdar made some polite
inquiries about me and gave me a cup of tea. The respectful
affection with which he was regarded by his illustrious
colleagues, was obvious to me even at this first meeting.
Of course I had seen Tapas Majumdar once before this.
In the early sixties he was giving a lecture at the
Delhi School of Economics. He was so famous at the time
that just to get a glimpse of him, several of us undergraduate
students had gone along to the lecture. The Lecture
theatre was jam-packed, with scores of people standing
in the aisles. We also stood without following a word
of what he was saying. After he had spoken, somebody
got up from the audience and, to everyone's irritation,
asked him an extremely long-winded and ponderous question.
Professor Majumdar, who had a mischievous sense of humour
(about which his classmate from college days, Ashok
Mitra, would tell me later) simply said: ''could you
repeat that please?'' After the question which had begun
with ''Do you thinků'' was ponderously repeated, he just
Professor Majumdar who had begun his career as a theorist
in Calcutta (he had developed an alternative proof of
Amartya Sen's ''A Possibility Theorem on Majority Decisions''),
made a twofold switch at the beginning of the seventies.
At the suggestion of his friend J. P. Naik he moved
to Delhi to occupy a chair at JNU and devoted himself
to Education Studies, in which he had developed an interest
earlier. The Zakir Husain Centre was the product of
this double switch.
When the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning was
started by Krishna Bharadwaj at JNU, he was already
in the university and helped greatly in the setting
up of the new Centre. Until the Centre acquired adequate
faculty strength he regularly taught a compulsory course
in the M.A. programme. He was an awe-inspiring but avuncular
figure for younger faculty members like myself (he was
in fact the uncle of my colleague, the eminent economic
theorist, Anjan Mukherji). It was people like Professor
Majumdar who built JNU into the unique institution it
Professor Majumdar had an honest and progressive liberalism
which has become rare these days. His days in Presidency
College had coincided with the Naxalite movement of
the late sixties and early seventies which had drawn
many students. Despite his political views being completely
different from the Naxalite students', Professor Majumdar
was one of the extremely few teachers (Professor Sibatosh
Mukherji, also later of JNU, was another) who defended
the students and came to their personal assistance,
even while making no secret of his political differences
At JNU in the early seventies there was a strike called
by the Students Union, then headed by Prakash Karat,
on the demand that the students should have the right
to get their examination scripts re-evaluated if they
so wished. In response to the strike the authorities
closed down the university and shut the Hostel Mess.
As the situation deteriorated, the Students Union informally
agreed to call off the strike, provided a group of about
30 teachers appealed to them to do so, and it was left
to younger teachers like me to see if this was feasible.
The general mood among teachers was hostile to students,
since the demand on which the strike had been called
appeared to them to question their integrity. So, we
were in a quandary. Taking courage in both hands we
approached Professor Majumdar, who took one look at
the appeal and signed it without a word. With such a
senior Professor being the first signatory, it was easy
to get signatures from other teachers, and the crisis
was averted. All his life Professor Majumdar lived up
to the courage of his liberal convictions.
This is also evident in the excellent report that the
Committee on Education headed by him produced in January
1999, for which the country will remember him with gratitude.
The report stated unambiguously that as a consequence
of the Unnikrishnan judgement of the Supreme Court,
universalization of elementary education had become
a ''justiciable entitlement'' of every Indian child. Hence,
the ''State has to make the necessary reallocation of
resources, by superseding other important claims if
necessary, in a manner that the justiciable entitlement
becomes a reality.'' At a time when neo-liberalism had
become dominant in official circles, with the government
looking for ways to wriggle out of its Constitutional
commitment to universalize elementary education, and
keen instead on privatizing education, Professor Majumdar's
report was a sharp and uncompromising document. His
integrity did not bow to power.
Honest to the core, an inspiring figure for generations
of students and colleagues, Professor Majumdar was a
role model. It is people like him who constitute the
moral core of a society.