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Former NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya’s book on his father is also an insightful account of 20th-century Indian history

Researcher, historian, author and a civil servant Baloo Lal Panagariya lived a life that exemplified balance, discipline and good values

Written by Geeta Gandhi Kingdon |
January 7, 2022 10:36:40 am
maharana pratapOf particular interest was the section about Panagariya’s challenge to the views of scholars about the figure of Maharana Pratap as portrayed in history books. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

My Father: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man is an interesting, personal story of Baloo Lal Panagariya, straddling the pre- and post-Independence period, and spans most of the 20th century. While largely biographical, it is also a political and social history of Rajasthan.

The author, Arvind Panagariya (former vice-chairman NITI Aayog), poignantly showcases his unlettered, widowed and indigent grandmother’s uncanny understanding of the benefits of education, and her heroic sacrifices to educate her son, which dramatically alters not only the course of her son’s life but also that of the next generation. The author shows how his studious father — the subject of the biography — acquired his education under extreme privations and setbacks, bailed out sometimes by the patronage and munificence of the local rajah, who was impressed with his academic brilliance.

The story covers the birth, childhood and education of the senior Panagariya, his time as a writer/journalist for a magazine and newspapers, and for the newsletter of the praja mandal (a people’s movement started by those who lived in princely states), his long stint as a bureaucrat in the government of Rajasthan, and after retirement, his substantial period as a researcher, historian and author. Despite it being written by an adoring son, this biography maintains a high level of objectivity and avoids being a hagiography.

Alongside this personal story, one reads the fascinating history of the freedom movement in Rajasthan in the late raj period, through the eyes of Panagariya, who was a young man at the time. It is particularly interesting to read about the various pulls and pressures behind the integration of the princely states of Rajputana into the newly formed state, the stance of Congress towards rajahs and maharanas, and their encouragement of the praja mandals.

The book also presents the unfolding of India’s administrative order in the post-independence period, through the lens of this one state, Rajasthan. As one fascinated by the history of people and places, but unfamiliar with that period of history, this biography was a treat. It was interesting to read the stories of Panagariya’s integrity and efficiency — preventing 200 acres of land going to an individual who had no provable title to it, and winning the war against powerful and corrupt liquor barons, among others. Of particular interest was the section about Panagariya’s challenge to the views of scholars about the figure of Maharana Pratap as portrayed in history books. This shows Panagariya as a man of courage and justice, passionate and emotional, very determined to rectify what he regarded as mistaken interpretations of history, which he argued through reason and logic. I loved that he enjoyed playing Bridge (I like it, too) and followed cricket. A life exemplifying balance, discipline and good values is worthy of admiration.

At a critical juncture in his life, soon after independence, Panagariya confronted the choice between continuing as a civil servant in the state government and joining politics. Though the latter option carried the prospect of reaching even the highest office of the state, he chose the former in the interest of his family and the children’s education — something I regard as exemplary because, to me, it represents the right values. My ambitious and indefatigable father, who at age 34 had become an independent MLA in the Uttar Pradesh legislature in 1969, left politics in 1975 to join the Baha’i faith, and devoted his life to the education of children (his own and others), a decision which he says “saved his soul”.

The legacy of Panagariya and his supportive wife, Mohan Kumari, continues beyond their lives through the distinguished services rendered to the nation and the world by their three offspring.

(Geeta Gandhi Kingdon is chair of Education Economics and International Development, University College, London)

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