Dwijendra Tripathi. Photo: Mint
Dwijendra Tripathi. Photo: Mint

Opinion | The legacy of a pioneer in business history

Dwijendra Tripathi was one of the brightest scholars in independent India, championing a crucial field that has long been ignored

On 5 September, the great teacher Dwijendra Tripathi passed away. Fittingly enough, this was Teacher’s Day. The few tributes (too few given his outstanding scholarship) that have come after his death have said that an era has passed with him, which is true. He was one of the brightest scholars in independent India bringing original insights in business history—which is rare as much of this space is crowded with Western thinkers.

He was the Kasturbhai Lalbhai professor of business history at IIM, Ahmedabad and his work spanned three decades at the institute. His was the singular voice that chronicled the socioeconomic and political factors that gave rise to India’s business houses. His seminal publication, The Oxford History of Indian Business, was until recently the only comprehensive text on the evolution of Indian businesses, until Tirthankar Roy of the London School of Economics added to his work.

In a panel discussion held at IIM, Bangalore in 2009 to discuss the state of business history in India, Tripathi remarked that his interest in studying history stemmed from an endeavour to understand himself as a part of his surroundings. He even revealed that while social, cultural or political history left him unsatisfied, it was his association with business history that gave him the answers: “Business history gave me the opportunity to look at the experiences of individuals. Individuals who built organizations; individuals who built companies, individuals who responded to situations and responded to change. Then I began to have some kind of understanding of what Indian society is like. What are the forces in the Indian society that egg people on to certain things."

At a time where disciplines are measured by their engagement with quantitative research and data analysis, his approach provides an alternative method that enables a deeper engagement rooted in history, providing a more holistic and integrated approach to business studies. An example of this approach was seen in his 2016 interview on the Tata-Mistry spat (https://goo.gl/5SifnS) where he pointed to the long-standing values of Tata, and how Mistry’s appointment was unusual in more ways than one. This interview gave a perspective that was lacking in other analyses of the affair and required a deeper understanding of organizational history. Even the ongoing frauds in the corporate world, both globally and in India, need to be studied using Tripathi’s framework for thoughtful answers to these disturbing trends.

Despite his extraordinary contributions, it is surprising and disappointing that business history is hardly considered a subject worth studying in the majority of the management and business schools in India. Non-availability of business records caused by the absence of well-preserved business archives is just one of the many reasons that the study of this field remains restricted. In fact, even at IIM, Ahmedabad, the course was not taught for many years after Tripathi’s retirement. It was restarted only two years ago by Chinmay Tumbe. Three years ago, we, the management faculty at Ahmedabad University, had reached out to him to develop a framework for teaching business history. Although unwell, he helped us arrive at a sound understanding of the pedagogy and stressed the necessity of keeping such a course alive.

Although it is unclear as to why his pioneering contributions have been ignored by Indian academia at large, it is time to take his legacy forward. Business history will be more relevant than ever given the ongoing technological changes in society. This is also the reason that Indian universities and institutes should engage more with the subject.

To respond to the rapidly changing global and local economic and business environments, organizations are increasingly revisiting their histories for sustainable solutions. Academia too needs to respond to the demands of the industry and frame discourses on lessons from business history. After all George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

There is also a need to institutionalize business history in academia. If India’s most reputed management school can choose to drop business history despite one of its tallest professors teaching it, one must be realistic while promoting its cause.

The true potential of the subject will be realized only by creating a network of scholars who can extract insights from the past for understanding the present and shaping the future. Along with formal mechanisms such as tenures and research centres, a pledge by business houses to preserve their records and make archival data available to business history scholars will provide much-needed impetus to the subject.

For instance, many corporate houses such as Godrej and Cipla are now committed to preserving their history and making it available for generations to come. Then, firms such as Past Perfect have started in Mumbai that provide archival services to organizations.

Dwijendra Tripathi’s invaluable contributions have paved the way for inroads into the curriculum of management institutes and universities. This will enable an interdisciplinary approach to business studies. As we bid adieu to the foremost business historian of our times, the onus of carrying forward his legacy must be borne by academicians and researchers, as well as entrepreneurs and business houses.

Tana Trivedi and Amol Agrawal teach at Ahmedabad University.

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