Anniversary – 125th birth of C. D. Deshmukh
This year marks the 125th birth anniversary of C. D. Deshmukh.
In 1918, Lokmanya Tilak went to England after the end of World War 1, to fight his libel case against Valentine Chirol. A young Indian who had stood first in the ICS examination that year went to see him. He was wondering whether he could serve his country better by joining Tilak rather than working in the colonial government. Tilak told the young man that he should not take any hasty decision. India was bound to get freedom in the coming years, and the country would need experienced administrators to make swaraj meaningful. Quitting the ICS was not a good idea.
The young man was Chintaman Dwarkanath Deshmukh, or C. D. Deshmukh as he is better known. The story tells us a lot about both Tilak’s political vision as well as the trajectory of C. D. Deshmukh’s subsequent life. The details of Deshmukh’s long career are well known. The poet Govindagraj wrote a poem to celebrate his success at the matriculation exam in 1912.
C.D. Deshmukh was the winner of the first Jagannath Shankarseth award for Sanskrit that same year. Deshmukh studied botany at Cambridge. He stood first in the ICS open exam in London. He was at the Second Round Table Conference in London as a secretary assisting the work there.
Deshmukh was the first Indian governor of the Reserve Bank of India in 1943. He represented India at the conference that helped establish the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 1944. He joined the Nehru government as finance minister in 1950. Deshmukh was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1952. He resigned in 1956 to protest against the raw deal that Maharashtra was getting during the linguistic reorganisation of Indian states; and the firing in Mumbai that killed 105 activists of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement.
The list can go on. However, the more important question is what contemporary India can learn from Deshmukh in his 125th anniversary year. I think the most relevant lesson his life teaches us is the importance of building institutions, and protecting their independence. Since he had stood first in the ICS examination, Deshmukh could have chosen to join the civil service in his home state. However, since he thought that would expose him to pressures from people he would now, he specifically asked for a posting in either CP and Berar, or United Provinces — today’s Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh — far away from Mumbai.
Soon after he resigned from the government, with an angry letter to the Prime Minister after the firing in Mumbai, Deshmukh was asked whether he would accept the job of managing director of the International Monetary Fund. The British and the Americans were keen on him. He later learned that Nehru had backed the idea despite their recent clash. Education minister Maulana Azad had in the meantime asked Deshmukh whether he would head the new University Grants Commission as its first chairman.
Deshmukh and his wife Durgabai chose to stay in India despite the opportunity at the International Monetary Fund. “Here was high international prestige with one of the world’s most lucrative jobs, the salary of which was free of income tax, beckoning to me. But I somehow failed to feel enthused. I had given my word to Maulana Saheb and in any case, I felt attracted by the work awaiting me as Chairman of the University Grants Commission, I also had to consult Durgabai and asked for a day to consider. After taking counsel together Durgabai and I felt that our work lay in India and not abroad, howsoever prestigious and lucrative,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The UGC was only one among many institutions that Deshmukh nurtured. By one count, he was involved in 34 public institutions over the years, though he would later voice his regret that the quality of institutions had begun to decline by the 1960s. Deshmukh was vice-chancellor of Delhi university, first chairman of the National Book Trust, president of the Indian Statistical Institute, founder of the Indian International Centre, head of the Indian Institute of Public Administration. And, since he was an avid gardener, Deshmukh was also for some time president of the All-India Federation of Horticultural Societies. He also founded the Rose Society in New Delhi. The institution builder is just like a gardener in one important way — what they plant today serves future generations.
Deshmukh’s life also tells us about his commitment to knowledge as one of the building blocks of a good society. He built the first proper economic research team at the Reserve Bank of India. As finance minister, he collaborated with his friend P. C. Mahalanobis to set up the Central Statistical Organisation. These two initiatives still provide the backbone of statistics about the Indian economy. He wanted universities to be the crucibles of knowledge. In his convocation address at Delhi University in 1957, Deshmukh said: “If the State was the instrument of the society’s will, the university must be the mind and conscience of the society. If the demands of the State and the society upon the university contradict one another, the university must be able to stand by the society rather than the State.”
There is another story that tells us a lot about Deshmukh’s commitment to knowledge. In 1939, Deshmukh joined the Reserve Bank of India in Mumbai. That allowed him to reconnect with Marathi cultural life. At a meeting of the Mumbai Marathi Granth Sangrahalaya, he called for the setting up of a sanshodhan mandal, which was later to be headed by A. K. Priolkar. Deshmukh never lost touch with his mother tongue despite being away from Maharashtra for most of his life. During his tenure in the Lok Sabha, Deshmukh would often go to his constituency in today’s Raigad zilla to explain in Marathi to ordinary voters the economic policies he was pursuing as finance minister. However, as his secretary in the finance ministry P. D. Kasbekar wrote, Deshmukh would rarely use Marathi when on official business, unless he wanted to tell Kasbekar something that he did not want others to understand.
There is one personal story I wish to share here. In 1946, my father published Paach Kavi, an edited anthology on five Marathi poets — Keshavsut, Reverand Tilak, Vinayak, Govindagraj and Balkavi. Deshmukh was then governor of the Reserve Bank of India. He called my father over for tea, and had a long discussion on the Marathi poets. Many years later, the badminton champion Nandu Natekar gifted me Deshmukh’s personal signed copy of Paach Kavi. The margins of the book are filled with comments by Deshmukh, written in pencil and black ink.
Besides Marathi, Deshmukh was fluent in six other languages. He translated some of Tagore’s Bengali poems into Marathi. However, his first love was clearly Sanskrit. His translation of Kalidasa’s Meghdoot into Marathi has been widely praised. Deshmukh never seemed to lose an opportunity to use Sanskrit. He tells us in his autobiography that when a Congress member of parliament quoted a Sanskrit shloka on how debt was a danger, Deshmukh replied with another Sanskrit shloka on how public debt was different from private debt, and could be beneficial. The historian Rudranghshu Mukherjee has written how Deshmukh and communist leader Hiren Mukherjee conducted an entire Lok Sabha debate in Sanskrit. The Shankaracharya of Puri composed 39 Sanskrit verses to mark the marriage of Deshmukh with Durgabai, who he married a few years after the death of his first wife Rosie, an English girl he had met as a young man. anniversary
In 1952, K. G. Ambegaonkar was finance secretary under Deshmukh. He was keen to turn down a proposal to reintroduce the old pie coin into circulation, and wanted the finance minister to take the final decision. The request he sent was in English verse. Not to be outdone, Deshmukh also sent his reply as an English poem. Deshmukh and Ambegaonkar were close friends, and the latter would for some time be an interim governor of the Reserve Bank of India.
One of his younger associates — the economist S. L. N. Simha — would later write that Deshmukh was a synthesis of the old and the new, of culture and science, of idealism and realism.
“C.D Deshmukh was eminently successful as an administrator because he selected his people carefully, delegated authority to them, trusted them and took the blame on himself when things went wrong. C.D always expressed praise for good work, gently and gracefully, and admonished with necessary, but mildly and yet effectively. Deshmukh never lost his temper or shouted at anyone. He had no favorites, stooges or sycophants. He was absolutely impartial and just.
Deshmukh could not be bullied or bamboozled by anyone: cabinet colleagues, chief ministers, civil servants, employees or businessmen,” Simha wrote in a special issue of the India International Centre Quarterly to mark the CD Deshmukh centenary in 1996. anniversary
The boy who began his journey in a small primary school in Roha went on to make a mark on a much larger stage. C.D.Deshmukh clearly took the advice given to him by Tilak very seriously. Deshmukh turned down prestigious international offers to work in India. He built institutions both within government as well as outside it. He effortlessly moved between different cultural worlds, while never losing touch with his mother tongue. C. D. Deshmukh was an extraordinary man by any standards.
This is his 125th anniversary year. Maharashtra should recognize his contributions, not by the usual easy way of building a statue or naming a road or instituting an award. The lesson we need to learn from Deshmukh’s life — as with so many of our great men and women — is to build strong institutions, protect their independence, and invest in the creation of new knowledge.