Remembrances – Dr. Ajit Singh, Professor, Cambridge University, England

11 September 1940 – 23 June 2015

By Dr. Shamsher Singh

Liberal intellectual, mildly Marxist, path setting radical economist, Dr. Ajit Singh taught at the prestigious Cambridge University, England, for half a century. He was the much loved and deeply respected Don and tutor for cadres of Ph. D. students who now hold sway over seats of power in several countries and institutions. He served as an Advisor to Governments and international Organizations and lectured around the globe. He held the Dr. Manmohan Singh Chair at Punjab University, Chandigarh, named for the former Prime Minister of India.

Ajit’s achievements have been widely reported. These include an obituary by Lord John Eatwell, a co heart of Ajit and now President of Queen’ College, Cambridge, in the 7 July 2015 issue of the Guardian. It includes a portrait of his familiar flowing beard and red turban. His treasure of Ajit’s work includes about 200 books, papers, monograms, journal articles and unpublished papers. These will continue to be referred to and retold and his life celebrated in times to come.

This rendering covers the rooting of Ajit in the United States and the refreshing social network that he created during his student days in the period 1958-64. He continued to nurture these, and subsequently added, bonds through frequent forays from his Cambridge base.

Ajit obtained his Bachelor’s degree from Punjab University, Chandigarh before he was 18. He was keen to go abroad for higher studies. But his father S. Gurbachan Singh, a Sessions Judge, was a bit concerned that Ajit was yet too raw to trek an alien land on his own. So was his mother who still washed his long hair every Sunday. His father consulted his friend S. Balwant Singh Kalkat who had recently returned to India after a three year tenure as an independent Director, India Supply Mission (‘Associate Ambassador’) in Washington. He confidently advised Ajit’s father to send him to Washington D.C. Mr. Kalkat ever prided in planting me in Washington in 1955, and wrote to me to take care of Ajit. Thus, he landed in Washington in 1958, initially staying with me. I was then working as an Assistant Economist with the International Cotton Advisory Committee and pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics at the American University. Ajit had a magnetic smile and twinkling eyes. He was so loving and lovable that he instantly became an integral part of me and the life that surrounded me.

Ajit enrolled at the Howard University to study for a Master’s in Economics. My house mate Dr. Amarjeet Marwah had finished his DDS at Howard earlier in 1958. The discovery of relatively low cost Howard led Indian undergraduates to flock to Howard in early 1960s’. Amarjeet and Ajit were in this way pioneers of sorts at Howard.

The first person that Ajit befriended in Washington was Sati (Satwant Singh Greawl). They roomed together in a guest house on Massachusetts Avenue near the Indian Embassy where Sati was working as an Assistant Transportation Officer. Ajit established a fraternal association with the well known among the Indian community including the lustrous couple Mandev and Kanti, Professor Raghbir Basi of Kent State University who used to visit me regularly, and Rajinder Bajwa. Ajit became an active participant in organizing Gurpurabs (Sikh festivals) at the houses of Sikh officials at the Embassy including Ratra and Ardaman Singh. His affectionate nature was so contagious that soon he came to know all Punjabis in Washington.

Ajit honored the promise made to his mother before leaving India that he will never cut his hair or drink. He did not even trim his hair nor did he have a sip of wine at University or Diplomatic gatherings. His pastime in Washington was playing bridge, hiking and going to the movies. He spent a whole night on the street with us to get tickets to the first ever US one night show by the legendary Bolshoi ballet. After his straight A Master’s in Economics which he completed in 1961, Ajit was admitted to the University of California, Berkley, for a Ph.D. in Economics.

Ajit blossomed at Berkley in the midst of many intellectuals. His first rewarding contact was with the renowned Physicist Dr. Narinder Singh Kapany and his wife Satinder of Palo Alto. They stayed in touch ever after. The circle that Ajit created included Shyamla, mother of Kamla Harris now Attorney General of California, Jane Singh from one of the oldest of Sikh families in California, now Librarian at Berkley, Don Harris, Iqbal Singh and Boor Singh Bal, to name a few. Saddened by “the loss of a treasure”, Dr. Kapany remarked that in this day and age, financially well placed Ajit did not have to go that early. He pointed out that his wife, much senior to Ajit and also long afflicted by Parkinson’s, enjoys an alert and articulate life because she is attended to day and night by four nurses and regular visits by family members who routinely come and go cheering her up.

Ajit’s professors too admired his sharp mind and devotion to academic work. Robin Marris had come from Cambridge to Berkley as a Visiting Professor. He was so impressed by industrious Ajit that before returning, Marris offered him a research appointment at Cambridge. Ajit gladly moved to Cambridge in 1964 even before getting his Ph.D. He was appointed a Lecturer in 1965, Reader in 1991 and Professor in 1995. He fell in love with the intellectually challenging environment of Cambridge; the two became inseparable.

Ajit visited his Washington nest at every opportunity, most recently in 2012. Periodically he spoke at the Military Road Gurdwara founded in 1972 and the successor, on Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row which opened in 2005. In one of his early 1970s’ talk, emotionally strained by the atrocious Vietnam War, he compared the Viet Minh with the brave Sikh peasantry who confronted head on the inhuman atrocities of the mighty Moguls and plundering Afghan invaders in the eighteenth century, defeating them in a guerrilla warfare in Punjab and ultimately establishing their own kingdom.

Ajit followed the growth path of each of our five sons from birth to settled professional careers. He gave Amrit to the youngest Harjodh born in Oxford in 1976. At family gatherings, they all recall his fond memories. Ranjit summed up that “he always brought happiness to my father when he would visit us. We never heard him complain. Helping others was a distinction of his character”. Sponsored by Ajit, some of his students headed to Washington, notably Dr. Manmohan Singh Kumar, Fellow of Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge, and former Senior Economist and Manager, IMF. He prided in that his traditional Washington nest had thus been swelled. Recalling “the extraordinary spirit”, Dr. Kumar observed that Ajit was “a towering intellect, immensely creative, kind and helpful”.

Ajit was proud of the originality of his economic work. He often shared with me his dream of becoming the first Sikh Nobel Laureate and the first Sikh Member of the British House of Lords. He reached the threshold. Fate has eclipsed his dreams and aspirations and the shared hope of his friends who loved him dearly.

Ajit’s love life has on the other hand been tragic, in my eyes. I knew several of his girl friends. His mother longed for him to marry one of his Sikh scholarly, intellectually ripened and culturally endearing friends and often sought my intervention. Ajit just smiled away such pleadings. He shared with my wife that “he had no time for a married life”. Later on, marry he did. He frankly and crudely put it to me, so that ‘someone can have the benefit of his pension’. His second marriage, just two days before he ceased to be, was seemingly engineered by his shrewd partner. Some of us feel that by then the physical and mental toll of his disease had so weakened the state of his mind that Ajit probably did not know what was going on. He had no children of his own; he proudly loved his nephews and nieces as his children. But lately they had been in the dark about him. Even his younger sister, his ward and protégé in nearby Oxford, who loved him intensely, sadly was kept off limits from Ajit. Pointing out the irony of it all, my wife remarked that had he married one of his other friends with whom he had a common heritage, he might have lived much longer or at least breathed his last surrounded by his loved ones.

Fate has robbed the friends around the globe of the soul that they loved and whose character and contributions they admired. Viewed on a different canvas, Punjabis have lost a gem.

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Dr. Shamsher Singh, ex-Policy Advisor, The World Bank
Visiting Fellow, QEH & Nuffield College, Oxford, 1975-76
4452 Springdale Street NW, Washington DC 20016

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