Kumar, Dharma 1928-2001

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KUMAR, Dharma 1928-2001

PERSONAL: Born 1928, in Lahore, Pakistan; died, October 19, 2001, in Delhi, India.

CAREER: Worked at the Reserve Bank of India, Bombay, India, the Ministry of Finance, Delhi, India, and the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi; Delhi School of Economics, Delhi, professor of economic history, retired, 1993.

AWARDS, HONORS: Ellen MacArthur Prize for the best work in economic history, for Land and Caste in South India; Newnham College, Cambridge, England, honorary fellow.


Land and Caste in South India, University Press, 1965, revised edition published as Land and Caste in South India: Agricultural Labour in the Madras Presidency during the Nineteenth Century, Manohar Publishers (New Delhi, India), 1992.

India and the European Economic Community, Asia Publishing House (New York, NY), 1966.

(With S. P. Nag and L. S. Venkataramanan) ResourceAllocation in the Cotton Textile Industry, Asia Publishing House (New York, NY), 1965.

(Editor, with Meghnad Desai) Cambridge EconomicHistory of India, Volume 2: c. 1757-c. 1970, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1983.

(Editor, with Dilip Mookherjee) D. School: Reflections on the Delhi School of Economics, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Colonialism, Property, and the State, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Editor, Indian Economic and Social History Review, beginning 1963.

SIDELIGHTS: Dharma Kumar was born in Lahore, Pakistan and grew up in Bombay, India. She was a renowned economics historian and the first woman to hold a position at the Reserve Bank of India. Since its founding in 1963, Kumar was editor of the Indian Economic and Social History Review, the journal that became a standard in its field because of her dedication and devotion to its intellectual excellence.

Kumar and Meghnad Desai were the editors of the second volume of The Cambridge Economic History of India, which covers the period from 1757 to 1970. The first volume studies the years beginning 1200, and together they follow the changes that occurred in India's economy from the thirteenth century to the last half of the twentieth century. For the volume edited by Kumar, thirty scholars and historians contributed essays, many of which are recent, and a number of the authors were instrumental in the renewed interest in India's economic history toward the end of the period covered.

Fritz L. Lehmann said in the Business History Review that "fascinating though the contemporary struggle for economic development may be, the real strength of this book is in its analysis of the colonial economy. Part I, 'The Land and the People,' sets the stage." Part II, "The Beginnings of the Modern Economy," opens with Morris D. Morris's "The Growth of Large-Scale Industry to 1947," called by Lehmann "'the best and most interesting' piece in the entire volume." The final section is titled "Post-Independence Developments." Lehmann wrote that "the work as a whole is surprisingly readable, which must be taken not only as a credit to the individual authors but to the hard work of the editors. They have not imposed any artificial unity of approach or treatment on the authors but have let each one make his or her own judgments, one of the strengths of this excellent book."

The American Historical Review's Amiya Kumar Bagghi felt the lack of imposed unity by the editors to be a weakness, rather than a strength, and wrote that "the contents must be judged in terms of the quality of individual chapters. It seems that a revisionist view of Indian history is peeping out of a straggly empiricism in many of the chapters. Essentially, according to this view, it is possible to ignore the presence of a foreign power as rulers in India before 1947 and write India's history as just that of a primitive, semicommercialized economy."

Marc Jason Gilbert wrote in the Journal of Developing Areas that "the skills and talents of the contributing authors are equal to the challenges posed by the volumes' overlapping spatial, thematic, chronological, and topical organization. . . . For the most part, statistical information is discreetly kept in the background, leaving the historical narrative remarkably clear."

Kumar's Land and Caste in South India was first published in 1965. The 1992 edition is little changed, save for an expanded introduction and the addition of a subtitle. Kumar examines institutional changes that took place with British rule in the beginning of the nineteenth century, including population shifts, distribution and use of land, and the social and economic status of labor. She then studies the statistical evidence on the factors that led to landlessness during the nineteenth century and whether British rule was responsible—which she has found it was not, and concludes rather that the primary influence was the dynamics of the caste system.

In this edition, Kumar addresses some of the controversy that developed after the first edition, including the reservations by some reviewers who felt she had relied too heavily on the census, for which definitions of categories in the agricultural labor caste were constantly being changed. She admits to an over-reliance on official records. Peter Harnetty commented in the Journal of Economic History that "on the institution of bondage, she goes no further than discussing the problems connected with defining it. Finally, she takes up the matter of her estimates of the numbers of agricultural laborers, and her insistence on the connection between caste and occupation. On those two issues, which comprise the core of her book, she concedes little ground." Harnetty posed the question of whether the reprinting of this volume is justified, and concluded that, "Yes. The issues this book raises are enduring ones."

Kumar is coeditor, with Dilip Mookherjee of D. School: Reflections on the Delhi School of Economics, about the school where Kumar taught in the 1960s with other notable economists, including Jagdish Bhagwati, A. L. Nagar, K. N. Raj, Sukhamoy Chakravarty, and Amartya Sen. The school, which is essentially the postgraduate social science department of the University of Delhi, also houses departments of sociology, commerce, and geography. Contributors to the collection offer a variety of essays, including one by P. N. Dhar about the school's founding in 1952 by K. R. V. Rao. "The editors have shown exquisite good sense by asking a wide range of people to contribute," noted Partha Dasgupta in the Times Higher Education Supplement. "So we get a glimpse of the place not only from those who taught there, but also from those who studied there and went on to do things other than economics or sociology."

Dasgupta noted that the school attracts the best students in the country, who graduate to become government leaders, writers, editors, and businessmen and women. "It continues to provide an infrastructure that enables students to face the intellectual world anywhere," said Dasgupta.

Colonialism, Property, and the State is a collection of fourteen articles Kumar published over thirty years, and which is divided into five sections, titled, "Madras Presidency," "Land," "Comparative Studies," "The Colonial State," and "Miscellaneous." Choice's R. D. Long felt that "this robustly written collection of essays is a provocative treatment of topics of interest to the specialist."

"Professor Kumar is pleasantly unusual for an economic historian of India," wrote Maurice Zinkin in Asian Affairs. "She is not trying to prove a Marxist, or a secular, or a nationalist, or a pro-British point. . . . She is not even trying to make a great new generalisation. . . . She merely tries to get at the facts, and she recognises that the facts are often vague, contradictory, nonexistent, or simply not true. This gives her collection of essays an exciting flavour."

On hearing that Kumar had died in Delhi, Walter Hauser, professor emeritus of Indian history, noted in the Newsletter of the Center for South Asian Studies, University of Virginia, that Kumar frequently visited that school while she was in the United States, recently in 1997 when she participated in the symposium "Power, Agrarian Structure, and Peasant Mobilization in Modern India." Hauser commented that Dharma would be missed for her "penetrating questions . . . but more than that we will miss her personal warmth, the ambiance of her Sundarnagar dinner table, and most of all the humanity that expressed Dharma's very being."



American Historical Review, June, 1984, Amiya Kumar Bagghi, review of The Cambridge Economic History of India, Volume 2: c. 1757-c. 1970, pp. 829-831.

Asian Affairs, June, 1999, Maurice Jinkin, review of Colonialism, Property, and the State, pp. 218-219.

Business History Review, winter, 1983, Fritz L. Lehmann, review of The Cambridge Economic History of India, Volume 2, pp. 619-621.

Choice, July, 1999, R. D. Long, review of Colonialism, Property, and the State, p. 1996.

Journal of Developing Areas, April, 1984, Marc Jason Gilbert, review of The Cambridge Economic History of India, Volume 2, pp. 395-397.

Journal of Economic History, September, 1993, Peter Harnetty, review of Land and Caste in South India: Agricultural Labour in the Madras Presidency during the Nineteenth Century, pp. 675-676.

Times Higher Education Supplement, April 26, 1996, Partha Dasgupta, review of D. School: Reflections on the Delhi School of Economics, p. 22.



Independent, November 2, 2001, Mary Kaldor, "Dharma Kumar," p. S6.

Newsletter of the Center for South Asian Studies, University of Virginia, fall, 2001, Walter Hauser, "Dharma Kumar, 1928-2001."*