Farewell Baldev: From a child of India’s partition to a leading South Asian scholar

Professor Baldev Raj Nayar (born 1931)  Professor Emeritus of Political Science, McGill University who passed away in Ottawa, Canada at 89 of metastatic cancer, will be long remembered for his distinctive contribution to South Asian studies

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Professor Baldev Raj Nayar (born 1931)  Professor Emeritus of Political Science, McGill University who passed away in Ottawa, Canada at 89 of metastatic cancer, will be long remembered for his distinctive contribution to South Asian studies.

Author of 20 books, 27 book chapters, and numerous articles in international journals, Professor Nayar was the epitome of the dedicated, diligent scholar. Academic the rigor of high quality was reflected in his first book ‘Minority Politics in the Punjab’ published by Princeton University Press, which received the Watumull Prize in 1966. This prize was established in 1944 to recognize the best book on the history of India originally published in the United States and was derived from Baldev’s doctoral thesis awarded by the University of Chicago.

His academic guides and supervisors at the time included the legendary Hans Morgenthau (whom he accompanied  to India for a visit), Morton Kaplan and Myron Weiner who was his Ph.D. advisor.  

He joined McGill in 1964 as an assistant professor and was instrumental in creating a South Asian studies program of global repute.  Over the decades, he  worked on various aspects of  India,  and the manner in which globalization impacted  the South Asian region. His last book relating to his academic discipline  Globalization and India’s Economic Integration  was  published in 2014.  

Personally, I would list this along with his 2009 The Myth of the Shrinking State: Globalization and the State in India  as distilling decades of scholarship that wove multiple, complex strands into a lucid tapestry that illuminated inter-disciplinary linkages with admirable lucidity.

Profesor TV Paul, a colleague at McGill recalls Baldev as “one of the rare Indian scholars who combined political economy, comparative politics and security studies.”   

Professor Nayar’s final book, published when he was 88 was his autobiography, a poignant story of the trajectory of his life subsumed in the title: Overcoming Tragedy: The Story of One Refugee Before and After the Partition of the Punjab.

Born in October 1931 in Saro Chak in the undivided  Punjab of the Indian sub-continent (now in Pakistan), his family was forced to flee across the border in 1947 and hence his education was disrupted.  As Paul recalls, “Baldev was  a child of the partition of India, fleeing Rawalpindi with his pregnant mother at a young age (who delivers his brother in a railway clinic  in Indian Punjab), seeing extraordinary violence on the way (escaping narrowly when a mob attacked his train),  and then living in Delhi as a refugee, getting an education on his own while working odd jobs to support his family.”

Further  tragedy struck when he lost his father in 1948 and a young 17-year-old Baldev became the breadwinner for his mother and four siblings. His stenographic skills proved to be valuable and from working as a railway clerk and a job-typist,  he got that providential lucky break when he was selected to join the staff of the American Embassy in Delhi.

At the embassy he was spotted by the ambassador, Chester Bowles who in his characteristically empathetic manner encouraged the young man to pursue his academic dreams and enabled him to enroll at the University of Chicago on a scholarship. Once he went to the USA and later Canada,  there was  no looking back and the transformation into Professor Nayar began.

I met him first at the IDSA (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses) in the late 1990’s when he visited Delhi for his research on security related issues. Meticulous and courteous to a fault,  he wanted to ‘better understand’ (as he termed his queries) India’s security  compulsions and one gradually got to know not just an accomplished scholar but a truly modest and sincere person with a deep commitment to India.  Despite the awards and recognition conferred on him abroad, he retained his Indian citizenship, and out of deep conviction – Baldev  lived  in North America for almost six decades but never owned a car !  He chose to live  his eventful and rich  life in his own simple and principled manner.

In his autobiography, Baldev  ruminates: “I believe I have also done my duty to my country (both the one into which I was born, as well as the one where I spent most of my adult life), and as well to the world (not only through the promotion of knowledge) but through keeping any addition to the world’s pollution to a minimum – through never smoking, never owning or operating a petrol-driven vehicle - which, as a consequence, forced me to walk quite a bit.”

Baldev Raj Nayar’s life is one that is to be celebrated  - for the stoic manner in which he overcame the daunting challenges caused by the vicissitudes of history and carved a distinctive niche in South Asian scholarship that he enriched with such commendable diligence.

Farewell  Baldev Sir!

(The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies - SPS)

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