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An extraordinary academic

The late Dr. Sripati Chandrasekhar

The late Dr. Sripati Chandrasekhar  

The story of a distinguished Indian scholar in public policy studies

Few Indians know about the huge and poignant tribute that the United States has paid to their distinguished compatriot: the late Dr. Sripati Chandrasekhar (November 1918-June 2001). And, by extension, to India. Indeed, the University of Toledo (UOT), Ohio, has preserved papers documenting Sripati’s life and research for the benefit of other scholars. Sripati’s collection is housed at UOT’s Carlson Library’s Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections.

“Chandra,” as Sripati was known to his friends, wore many hats. A former Vice-Chancellor of Annamalai University, he was a prolific scholar/demographer and wrote 32 books. Indeed, he fell in love with the subject of demography (population studies) as a teenager. He started contributing to The Hindu on Indian demography and other themes. And his undergraduate essay on India’s population problems won the Papworth Prize. He founded the Indian Institute of Population Studies and the academic journal, ‘Population Review,’ which he edited for over 40 years.

As a Cabinet Minister

However, he is best known for his work as Union Minister for Health and Family Planning in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet. In this position, he played an important role in popularising birth control methods, advocating for smaller families, for women’s biological emancipation, and for a cleaner India. Chandra was a charismatic conversationalist, and an eloquent orator. He persuaded President Lyndon B. Johnson to continue supporting India’s family planning programme. This way, he brought the subject to the attention of policymakers abroad, and to the attention of many non-specialists. A passionate social scientist, Chandra was 83 and still working on half a dozen projects, including his autobiography, when he died in La Jolla, California.

How did Chandra’s papers achieve the privilege of being archived at UOT in 2002? Chandra’s family members had previously agreed that they would gift his materials to the University of California, Berkeley. In fact, karmic connections between Chandra and his earnest shishya (student) and colleague, Dr. Daniel Johnson, who at the time of his death was the University of Toledo’s president (vice-chancellor), best explain this.

Karmic ties

But first, a little about Chandra’s karmic ties with the U.S. With Mahatma Gandhi’s blessings, Chandra set sail for the free world at the end of 1940. He took his M.A. in economics from Columbia University, then went to New York University to take his Ph.D. in 1944. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on India’s population problems. His advisers were Professors Harold Hotelling and Henry Pratt Fairchild. In 1945, under the auspices of Pearl S. Buck’s East and West Association, Chandra criss-crossed the U.S., lecturing passionately for India’s freedom. (Founded during the Second World War, the East and West Association sought to mobilise American public opinion in favour of the Allied Powers’ war effort in Asia).

In 1947, Chandra married Anne Downes, an American Quaker, at the St. Peter’s Church in New York. The priest who solemnised his marriage was Mahatma Gandhi’s American disciple. From 1947 to 1994, Chandra lectured at various institutions in the U.S., India, and Europe. Indeed, he is the first Asian scholar that the University of Washington, Seattle, invited to deliver the John and Jezzie Danz lecture on the problem of abortion, with special reference to India. Over the years, Chandra accumulated several awards and honours, including honorary doctorates from the U.S., Hungary, Canada, and India.

Chandra last taught demography from 1993-94, at the University of North Texas, Denton. He was invited by Daniel Johnson, Dean of the School of Community Service at Denton. A distinguished urban sociologist, Johnson had first learned of Chandra when he wrote a paper for an advanced graduate seminar in demography, in which, he compared the populations of India and Japan. However, it was only in 1993 that Johnson first met Chandra, when Professor Vijay Pillai, a mutual friend and colleague brought him to Johnson’s office. “What was intended to be a 10-minute introduction turned into a four-hour conversation about world population,” says Johnson. And it morphed into a lasting and meaningful friendship. This culminated in securing a permanent home for Chandra’s collection at Toledo, since 2002.

The project

Having persuaded Chandra’s family to gift his materials to the University of Toledo, Johnson oversaw the move from start to finish. The Rockefeller Foundation in New York co-funded this project. Barbara Floyd, a veteran archivist, drove to La Jolla to take possession of the library materials and bring them back to Toledo. Floyd, with Kimberley Brownlee, a manuscripts librarian, readied the materials for public use. Chandra’s collection reaches over 78 linear feet. It is a veritable treasure trove. It comprises materials on family planning, birth control, and human rights with special reference to women. It also includes materials on other related subjects, such as migration, Indian culture and history, environmental and health issues, and food production and nutrition. Also included are photo albums documenting special events in Chandra’s life, and audio-visual materials of his speeches with Martin Luther at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and his appearance on the Today Show, the American TV programme. Chandra’s awards, honours, personal papers, and correspondence, including correspondence with public figures, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Hillary Clinton, complete this collection. Finally, at Johnson’s initiative, Chandra’s books, including Hungry People, Empty Lands and Red China: An Asian View, have been re-published.

Chandra was a pioneer in his field, demography. Moreover, demography intersects with many areas including sociology, economics, statistics, global health, human rights, women’s rights, international law, peace and security, and the history of medicine. Small wonder that his collection continues to attract scholars from the U.S., Canada (Professor Ian Dowbiggin) and the U.K. (Rebecca Williams, Warwick University and Cathryn A. Johnston, King’s College, London. The latter’s doctoral dissertation submitted in January 2016 focusses on the “problem of population in India, 1938-74”).

(The author was S. Chandrasekhar’s research assistant in the U.S. and later an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Toronto)

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 10:21:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/An-extraordinary-academic/article17083735.ece

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