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Writing the history of the State Bank of India

Monday 1 August 2005, by BAGCHI*Amiya Kumar

The books are not a mere history of the State Bank of India. They contain much about the social and legal history of India that had not been brought out earlier.

IT WAS almost exactly 30 years ago, in the year 1975, that I was approached by the State Bank of India (SBI) to write the history of the bank. Apparently, R.K. Talwar, the then Chairman of SBI had requested D.N. Ghosh who was then in the Ministry of Finance, Government of India, to find a suitable person. Mr. Ghosh consulted the late Professor Bhabatosh Datta, and Professor Datta kindly suggested my name. (My first book, Private Investment in India 1900-1939, published by Cambridge University Press, was then three years old and had been well received by the profession: that may have prompted Professor Datta’s recommendation). After that, a meeting was arranged with Mr. Talwar and it was agreed that I would be in sole charge of the history, with no committee to breathe down my neck. If the bank authorities disliked my handiwork, they would be free not to publish it, but they could not dictate to me what I wrote. I would not have agreed to take up the assignment on any other condition. But Professor Datta had also suggested this arrangement because of his dissatisfaction with the first history of the Reserve Bank of India under the direction of a committee, of which he had been a member.

The first idea was that a history would be brought out in 1976 to mark the centenary of the Presidency Banks Act that brought the Banks of Bengal, Bombay, and Madras under the same regulatory system. But since that was obviously impossible, it was decided that three earlier histories of the SBI family would be re-published by the bank. Two were written by Bank of Bengal officers and the third by a British civil servant. I knew that we would write the history from an Indian point of view, focussing on Indian as well as European customers, and bringing to light the labours of the low-paid Indian clerks and poddars, and even worse paid manual workers of the Presidency Banks. Incidentally, the SBI authorities had made an earlier attempt to get its history written by appointing a special officer to write it. That officer gathered a host of materials from different main and branch offices but failed to write the history. On my research trip to India while teaching at Cambridge, I had visited his office. But when I took up the project, most of those materials had been scattered and lost. So I (and the team working with me) had a hard time reconstructing the basic archives needed to write the history.

Under Mr. Talwar’s direction, the bank provided all the facilities needed to write the history. I knew that one of my major tasks would be to gather the enormous amount of records lying neglected and uncatalogued in the major and minor offices of the bank. So the bank created four history cells in Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, and Madras, to cover the headquarters of the three presidency banks and the capital in which the National Archives was located. At later stages, the Delhi and Madras cells were wound up and the personnel at the Calcutta and Bombay cells were also drastically reduced. The bank also put at my disposal a set of excellent officers who sincerely gathered and sent to me documents from the bank’s holdings and other archives and libraries needed for the history writing. One of that early batch of officers, Abhik Ray, I am glad to say, was put in charge of the project when my connection with it was severed. And he has shown his mettle by producing a workmanlike third volume of the history of the SBI, bringing the story up to the nationalisation of the Imperial Bank of India.

The best part of the writing of the history and gathering the materials for the archives of the bank was guiding and working with the teams that the bank had deputed for the project. I told the officers when they were interviewed for deputation to the project that I only wanted volunteers and not conscripts. Most of them proved to be excellent workers and suggested to me sources that yielded rich materials. In one case, the management sent a woman as a possible researcher for the project. She told me that she really wanted to be an arbitrageur for foreign exchange. I sent her back at once because I knew that she would not be able to fulfil her ambition if she did not start young at her chosen specialisation.

There were troubles as well as amusing moments in carrying out the task assigned to me. At the very beginning, when I was being introduced to senior officers in different circles, at a dinner meeting at the magnificent quarters of the chief general manager of the Madras circle, some officers pointedly gossiped about how the special officer in charge of the earlier history project had travelled to foreign countries on bank money. I had to hint gently that I did not need bank money to travel abroad, since I never went abroad except to attend seminars or give lectures as a visiting professor, at the host institutions’ expense.

The difficult moments came when some of the senior management questioned the utility of the history project. Some of them lacked any sense of history and could not grasp or properly value the fact that the history of the SBI was virtually the history of modern monetary institutions of India and was an integral part of modern India’s history. Historically blind bank officers destroyed much valuable material even after a Central Office directive had been issued asking them not to destroy materials without consulting me or other members of the history team. (The British controllers of the bank in its earlier incarnation did have a historical sense: way back in 1838, the Bank of Bengal was collating materials for writing its history).

Some of the senior management complained that the project was taking too long to complete. They did not appreciate that a proper history had to be based on materials scattered throughout the length and breadth of India. Moreover, some materials could be collected only from London or the branches of the bank that had been located in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka. The history of the old Bank of Bombay that crashed in 1867 had to be built up entirely on the basis of materials in the Maharashtra State Archives and the National Archives of India.

Rich archive

But with the solid support of Mr. Talwar, the SBI chairman who had first initiated the project, and P.C.D. Nambiar, D.N. Ghosh, and P.G. Kakodkar, among his successors, the history team built up an archive that can count as one of the richest on the financial and economic history of India. The pivotal role of the three presidency banks and the Imperial Bank of India in India’s economy demanded that we put the economic background as a general setting for the working of the banks. Apart from working on the archival material in India, we managed to send an officer to Sri Lanka to gather materials from the Bank of Madras branches at Colombo and Kandy. Abhik Ray spent about five months in England gathering materials with indefatigable energy from all the major archives in London, Cambridge, and Oxford. I have a feeling that he could not use most of those materials in writing the third volume of the history of the bank because of the undue pressure put on him by the management to finish the volume as quickly as possible. (I severed my connection with the bank in 1999 because of irreconcilable differences with the management about the scope and publication dateline of the third volume).

Officially, the history of the Imperial Bank is styled as the third volume chronicling the SBI’s evolution. But it was preceded by four tomes, the first volume in two parts, The Presidency Banks and the Indian Economy 1876-1914 (1989), and the official vol. 2 of the history. Even serious students of Indian history have neglected these books because of a preconceived idea that they are part of a mere history of a bank. But the books contain much about the social and legal history of India that had not been brought out earlier. Volume 1 of the history, for example, shows how the business community of Bengal was devastated by the agency house crisis of the 1830s whereas the Bombay business community was not so badly damaged by a similar crisis in the 1860s. In the Presidency Banks, I provided a new analysis of India’s industrial growth during the last quarter of the 19th century. That volume did not even reach libraries because the publishers, who had been fully subsidised by the bank, simply refused to distribute it.

I was happy, however, that Professor Datta wrote a glowing review of the first volume as his fortnightly column for the Business Standard and that Mr. Talwar thought very well of the product he had promoted.

In spite of periodic conflicts with the bank management (which accelerated in the period of neoliberal reforms), I remained associated with the project, because with the help of the devoted history team I wanted to see the rich archives of the bank preserved for posterity. Fortunately, in 1997, Asim Dasgupta, Finance Minister of West Bengal, formally laid the foundation stone of SBI Archives, and I have been told that the Archives would be opened to the public by the time the SBI celebrates its bicentenary. That will give me far greater satisfaction than the authorship of the initial volumes of the SBI story did.

See online : The Hindu

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