Prabhat Patnaik, Frontline, 3 October 2014
Bipan Chandra (1928-2014) was an outstanding historian with a passion for making quality academic work available to a wider public and an indomitable fighter in the cause of secular anti-imperialism.
BIPAN CHANDRA, Emeritus Professor of the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who passed away on August 30, was an outstanding historian, a major figure in the country’s intellectual life, and an indomitable fighter in the cause of secular anti-imperialism.
Born in Kangra in pre-Independence Punjab (now in Himachal Pradesh), he had his education in Forman Christian College, Lahore, and later at Stanford University, California. Forced to leave Lahore during Partition, he was, like many sensitive intellectuals of his generation, drawn to Marxism, which made him give up his pursuit of an engineering degree in favour of a study of economics and history. While at Stanford, he attended the lectures of Paul A. Baran, the renowned Marxist economist and author ofThe Political Economy of Growth, a pioneering Marxist analysis of the genesis of “underdevelopment”. He also came into contact there with communist activists. Because of his communist associations, he was forced to leave the United States, which was then gripped by the McCarthyite anti-communist witch-hunt.
Back in India, he was appointed to teach history at Hindu College in the University of Delhi, where he completed his doctoral dissertation, subsequently published as The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India. In it, he recovered the sophistication that had characterised the economic-theoretical thinking of early nationalist writers such as Dadabhai Naoroji, R.C. Dutt and G.V. Joshi. His work restored to the early nationalists, usually dismissed as “petition-wallahs” who only appealed to the British government to treat its Indian “subjects” better, the status of being the theoretical pioneers of India’s anti-colonial struggle.
No struggle can take off until its basic theoretical foundations have been built, and the early nationalists, Bipan (as he was affectionately called) argued, not only provided that foundation but also developed a theoretical corpus that was, notwithstanding the personal mildness and moderation of its individual authors, implacably opposed to the colonial regime in an objective sense. The “drain” theory developed by Naoroji, for instance, showed the systemic exploitation of India under colonial rule and led to the inescapable conclusion that the “drain”, which constituted the basis of the poverty of the Indian people, could come to an end only with the end of colonial rule.
While at Hindu College, Bipan started a journal called Enquiry, which drew in several outstanding academics of the country of that time as authors and where some of the most thought-provoking pieces of Professor Irfan Habib, Bipan’s long-standing friend, were first published. Among these were Habib’s critique of Karl Wittfogel’s theory of “Oriental Despotism”, his assessment of the potentialities for capitalist development in Mughal India, and his remarkable analysis of the agrarian causes of the downfall of the Mughal Empire. I recollect, as a student, the sheer excitement with which we used to await the forthcoming issue of Enquiry.
He also engaged in 1968, along with Tapan Raychaudhury and Toru Matsui, in a debate in the pages of The Indian Economic and Social History Review with Morris D. Morris over the latter’s attempt at a “reinterpretation” of 19th century Indian history that sought to portray colonial rule in a more favourable light. Bipan’s rejoinder to Morris constitutes to this day in my view the most succinct and forthright indictment of the economic consequences of colonial rule in India that one can find in any academic article.
Approach to National Movement
After his doctoral dissertation on the early nationalist writers, Bipan moved on to a study of the national movement at its apogee and the role of leaders such as Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, a task that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. In fact, he became the historian par excellence of the national movement. He not only studied it but invested it with a meaning and historical significance that no other historian had done. In his view, the national movement and its culmination, India’s achievement of Independence, was one of the three most significant historical events of the early 20th century, the other two being the Bolshevik and the Chinese Revolutions. And he perceived the national movement in a manner that was different not only from the way that “imperialist” and “subaltern” historiographies do but even from the understanding of the traditional Left with whom, notwithstanding all his differences and all his explicit criticisms of its conduct, he always had a close and non-antagonistic relationship.
Unlike the traditional Left that saw the national movement as being led by the bourgeoisie through the instrumentality of the Indian National Congress, which it considered to be a bourgeois party (because of which E.M.S. Namboodiripad had even characterised Gandhi, notwithstanding his outstanding personal qualities and unique philosophical positions, as a bourgeois leader in his book The Mahatma and the Ism), Bipan came to view the Congress as an open-ended organisation that was potentially capable of being changed in a socialist direction and was even actually moving Left-ward.
He saw the national movement not as a “structured” movement of different classes, each having its contradictions with imperialism, each standing on a different footing in terms of the degree of its antagonism vis-a-vis imperialism, and each occupying and maintaining, more or less, a particular position within the movement; he saw it rather as a movement of the nation as a whole that stood in an antagonistic relationship with imperialism but with the relative strengths of the different classes within the movement having a degree of fluidity and malleability.
Whatever one may think of Bipan’s position, which will surely be a subject of much debate in the years to come, it was both sui generis and displayed enormous courage. Standing alone, remaining true to one’s convictions, not only vis-a-vis the Cambridge School of historians of India or the historians of the “subaltern studies” school but evenvis-a-vis the traditional Left, which included most of his friends, required immense courage. Likewise, highlighting nationalism, even of the anti-imperialist variety, as a positive historical phenomenon at a time when it was fashionable to frown on all nationalisms, including even anti-imperialist nationalism (and when the term itself is used in a portmanteau sense to cover both anti-imperialist secular nationalism and Hindu communalism), required immense courage. Bipan however was never lacking in courage.
His own views on the national movement underwent a change in the course of time. He had the courage to revise his views and admit his own earlier errors, as he saw them, without flinching. While he was closer, despite differences, to the traditional Left position of seeing the Congress as a predominantly bourgeois party in his earlier writings, he came to the afore-mentioned understanding of a fluidity in that party in his later writings.
And what changed, along with this changed understanding of the national movement, was his perception of Left praxis itself, which moved increasingly in a Gramscian direction, away from what the Comintern under Stalin had come to inculcate. The fact that his changed understanding of the national movement paralleled a changed understanding of Left praxis reveals, in my view, a very important facet of Bipan’s intellect.
Whenever Christopher Hill, the renowned Marxist historian of 17th century Britain whose theoretical endeavours had unearthed the “English Revolution”, was asked by eager young students in the radical days of the early 1970s what he thought of Stalin or the Soviet Union or any such burning topic that attracted attention at the time, he would invariably reply: “Read my book on the 17th century.” Hill, in other words, had tried to develop a unified understanding in which his historical research, his politics and his views on contemporary political issues figured together. Bipan sought to achieve a similar unity of understanding. It was not just a question of his politics informing his research or his politics deriving its basis from his research; it was a question of unity between his general understanding of political praxis and his historical research. Very few historians seek to achieve the unity of thought that Bipan attempted.
He disseminated this understanding through his lectures and writings with enormous energy, passion and intensity. Never a person to shy away from controversy or debate, he simply overwhelmed one with the passion and vigour of his intellect and personality. Even when it was difficult to agree with him, it was even more difficult to disagree with him: such was the force of the argument with which he put across his position.
He was a charismatic teacher, whose lectures, whether one agreed with him or not, were always an intellectual treat. In his Delhi University days, he, along with Randhir Singh, his friend and colleague in the Political Science Department, influenced generations of students. Students from diverse disciplines, not just young historians, would flock to hear him; most of them owed their radicalism, even their interest in a life of the intellect, to the hours they spent listening to his lectures.
And he continued to wield this charisma when he moved to Jawaharlal Nehru University to set up the Centre for Historical Studies there, along with Sarvepalli Gopal, Romila Thapar and Satish Chandra. The faculty members of that centre, notwithstanding their different areas of research and intellectual positions, were unified in their commitment to a secular anti-imperialist nationalism, one manifestation of which was a little pamphlet, but highly influential at the time, that Bipan, Romila Thapar and Harbans Mukhia brought out critiquing communalism in the study of Indian history. The centre was to continue this struggle against communalism in its later years. It stood tall in its opposition not just to the communal act involved in the demolition of the Babri Masjid but, in particular, to the entire historiographical justification that was advanced in defence of that horrendous act of vandalism.
Bipan’s contribution to the building of that centre, and to the university within which it is located, did not come only from his academic work or his organisational ability or his enthusiasm for collective praxis on academic projects. It came from his extraordinary personal generosity towards students and colleagues; he unstintingly provided whatever help they needed, a fact I can vouch for from personal experience.
Textbooks for children
Bipan shunned “academicism”. He did not want to be read only by a handful of “experts”; he did not want the whiff of academic discourse to remain confined only to the cognoscenti. He wanted quality academic work to be accessible even to schoolchildren, which is why he exhorted all his colleagues and friends to write textbooks for them. As a result, we had the remarkable spectacle of the most distinguished professors in some of the most outstanding institutions of higher learning in the country writing textbooks for schoolchildren in a bid to raise the quality of school education.
Bipan carried both his immense energy and his passion for making quality academic work available to the wider public to the National Book Trust (NBT) when he became its executive head. He greatly expanded its publication programme, pored personally over papers and manuscripts despite failing eyesight, and roped in some of the finest academics of the country, such as Irfan Habib, Amit Bhaduri and others, to write monographs for the NBT on subjects of their choice, which were then distributed at extremely low prices. It is a common presumption in the Left that making ideas available to the people is a necessary condition for progress, which is why Bertolt Brecht had written: “Hungry man, reach for the book.” Bipan completely shared this presumption.
The loss of his wife, Usha, some years ago had left him forlorn, and he himself had been ailing for some time. Even so, his passing away comes as a shock. It is difficult to believe that such a helpful, generous, intense, brilliant, passionate, and energetic person, such a tornado of a man, is no longer amongst us.
Anand K. Sahay, The Asian Age, 31 August 2014
Professor Bipan Chandra, who passed away at 86 on Saturday, was a glorious historian of the Modern India period who steered three generations of students at Delhi University and JNU to a grasp of the colonial era in India, and its consequences.
Several of Prof. Chandra’s students, themselves fine practitioners of the craft, went on to question some of their guru’s understanding of the forces that moved history in the field of which he was an acclaimed authority. This was particularly true of those who allied themselves to the subaltern school of study.
Nevertheless, Bipan Chandra’s reputation for providing us insights into colonial history, as evidenced in India, always rested on firm foundations. His findings could be built upon or moderated, but not repudiated.
Prof. Chandra’s students can be found in virtually every college or university campus in India and in leading centres of historical study overseas. Through the ‘80s and the ‘90s, even school students benefited from his impressive scholarship through his book written for the CBSE’s high school syllabus on Modern Indian history.
The late professor went from links with the RSS in his own school years to Marxism as he matured as an intellect, but the wide spectrum of his intellectual acquaintance and acceptance perhaps settled on Gandhi as the prime mover of anti-colonial transformation, with Nehru as a protégé who offered a modernistic ideological foil to his master.
This can perhaps be a useful starting point to refresh discourse in the period of Bipan Chandra’s interest at a time when those presiding over the governance destiny of the country have sought to appropriate other stalwarts of the freedom movement.
To Prof. Bipan Chandra “Bipan” to his students and admirers goes the credit of engendering an appreciation of Gandhi and his stupendous contribution to the anti-colonial struggle among subscribers of Leftward thought.
The late professor also rightfully claims our attention for proposing in his works that India’s freedom struggle against colonial rule was no less than a multi-class “revolution”, an aspect of revolution study overlooked by Marxists and non-Marxists alike.
Professor Bipan Chandra wrote extensively over a 50-year span, with deep knowledge and sympathy for India’s “revolution” by standing up against anti-colonial and anti-communal mores. These are aspects of his tradition of historical work that seem especially valid today.
Barun Das Gupta, Frontier (a weekly edited by Timir Basu), founder editor Samar Sen, 4 September 2014
Bipan Chandra, an outstanding scholar and chronicler of modern Indian history, passed away on August 30. A life-long crusader against communalism and rewriting of history by giving it a false communal twist, he left us at a time when his presence in our midst and the flow from his pen we needed most. I was surprised when I read the news that he had died at the age of 86. He used to address me as Barun-da, which gave me the impression that he was younger than me. But in fact, he was full six years older. It bespeaks of his innate humility, civility, gentility and modesty. His vast learning did not make him proud or arrogant but humble, soft-spoken and easily approachable.
Here is an instance of his humility. Many years ago I had once asked him whether it is true, as is asserted by some people, that there were no Hindu-Muslim communal riots or clashes during the Mughal rule, that communal riots were the direct result of the divisive politics played by the British imperialists. He paused for a few seconds that replied quietly, “You see, my field of study is modern Indian history. It would not be proper for me to comment on anything during the Mughal period. Kindly put your question to Ms Romila Thapar.” I did not know Prof Thapar, nor did I have any occasion to meet her. So I never got the answer to my question.
I shall be going far beyond my depth if I try to make an assessment of his contribution or place as a historian. But from my very limited study of India’s freedom struggle, I had a strong impression that Bipan Chandra was the only historian to bring out an important aspect of that struggle, namely, that though the struggle for independence was, to use a Marxist term, a National Question that united all classes and though the main leadership of that struggle was provided by the Indian National Congress, the party of India’s colonial bourgeoisie, there was a contradiction between them and the peasantry and the working class all through that struggle. The national bourgeois leadership ignored the interests of these two classes and played down their role in the anti-colonial movement. Bipan Chandra brought out this neglected facet of that struggle and focused on it. This makes him different from all other historians of the freedom struggle.
For instance, when the provincial elections were held in 1937, under the Government of India Act of 1935, the Congress won in many of the provinces including Bihar and the United Provinces (the present Uttar Pradesh) and formed the government. The year before, 1936, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) was formed with Swami Sahajananda as president. The newly formed Congress governments in Bihar and UP immediately came into conflict with the AIKS over the two major demands of the latter, namely, abolition of the Zamindari system and liquidating the farmers’ debts. This was inevitable because both the feudal and the nascent national bourgeoisie had a very strong influence on the Congress and its top leadership.
The pro-feudal – and consequently anti-farmer – attitude of the Congress leadership became manifest again at the time of the Ramgarh Congress of the party in 1940. Swami Sahajananda led a huge peasant rally to the venue of the Congress session to apprise the Congress leaders of the problems of the farmers and to solicit the former’s support for their struggle. But no Congress leader, from Mahatma Gandhi to Vallabhbhai Patel, Babu Rajendra Prasad, C. Rajagopalachari and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (who was elected president of the party at Ramgarh) agreed to come out and address the peasants to express their sympathy for the struggle of the exploited peasantry. The only Congress leader who did come out of the session to meet and address the peasants was Jawaharlal Nehru.
In his book India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947, Bipan Chandra has focused on the contribution of the parallel stream of the movement of the peasantry and the working class to the mainstream of national liberation movement. He has devoted two chapters of the book, The Rise of the Left Wing and The Peasant Movements in the in the 1930s and “40s to bring out the distinct contribution of the two neglected classes to India’s battle for freedom.
It is from his book that the present writer came to know that there was a school of historians known as the Cambridge school which denied that there was ever an anti-imperialist movement in India. To quote Bipan Chandra: “Colonialism is seen by them primarily as foreign rule. They either do not see or vehemently deny that the economic, social, cultural and political development of India required the overthrow of colonialism. Thus, their analysis of the freedom movement is based on the denial of the basic contradiction between the interests of the Indian people and of British colonialism and the causative role this contradiction played in the rise of the national movement. Consequently, they implicitly or explicitly deny that the Indian national movement represented the Indian side of this contradiction or that it was anti-imperialist, that is, it opposed British imperialism in India. They see the Indian struggle against imperialism as a mock battle (‘mimic warfare’).
To revert to the attitude of the Congress to peasants on the one hand and landlords on the other. Bipan Chandra dwells on the fact that for the Congress governments in the provinces to pass any legislation it was necessary to have a bill passed in both the lower and the upper chambers of the legislative bodies. But the upper houses of these bodies were “dominated by landlords, capitalists and money-lenders, with the Congress forming a small minority.” Faced with such a situation the Congress decided not to force the issue with these entrenched vested interests but chose to compromise with them to continue in power. “Thus the Bihar Government negotiated a compromise with the zamindars on its tenancy bills while the UP Government conciliated the moneylender and merchant members of its upper house by going slow on debt legislation so that their support could be secured for tenancy legislation.” (India’s Struggle for Independence, p. 329)
Three chapters of the book, The Rise and Growth of Communalism, Communalism – the Liberal Phase and Jinnah, Golwalkar and Extreme Communalism trace the origin and development of the process of communalization of the Indian polity that began before independence. In fact both this book and the other one The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India are ‘must reads’ for every serious student of the contemporary history of India.
The void created by his death will be felt acutely by all those who are in the struggle against the rabid communal forces which are now, having won a majority in the parliament and having formed the government at the Centre, are trying to transform the secular, democratic polity of free India into a fascist Hindu Rashtra and targeting the religious minorities. But the wealth of historical research that Bipan Chandra has left us will continue to provide us with the ammunition needed to combat these forces which are out to supplant history with pseudo-history.
Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, Mainstream, Vol. LII No. 37, 6 September 2014
Professor Bipan Chandra, affectionately called Bipan by his students and friends, legendary teacher, scholar and activist, passed away peacefully in his sleep on the morning of August 30, 2014 at his residence at the National Media Centre in Gurgaon, where he had moved since his retirement from the Jawaharlal Nehru University more than twenty years ago. As news spread of his demise, his house was flooded by former students, colleagues, neighbours, relatives and friends. His funeral the same afternoon was attended by hundreds of mourners, again including large numbers of former students who are now professors, ambassadors, film-makers, journalists, and social and political activists. His death was reported by the visual media and spread rapidly on the social media as well. Next morning, all major dailies carried news reports and obituaries, and this continued the following day. The Indian language press also carried the news. The President, the Vice-President, the Congress party President and Vice-President, the Prime Minister—all sent condolence messages. Colleges and universities in places as far removed from each other as Arunachal Pradesh and Anantpur in Seemandhra and Chennai and Varanasi, Manipal, Patna, Cuttack were among those who met to condole his death and share their memories of him and his work. The response was something out of the ordinary. He was no political leader, or sports star, or film actor, or artist. He was not even a Nobel Prize winner. Neither did he owe his fame to the backing of a political party. Nor was he a darling of the Western academic establishment; on the contrary.
The puzzle can only be solved if we realise that he had in his inimitable way become, as a student of his said at his memorial meeting in the JNU,
the people’s historian
. This was because he not only wrote scholarly works, but also books that became extremely popular and have sold in lakhs for school and university students and the general reader. He also spoke incessantly at colleges and universities across the country, and having accompanied him on some of these, we can testify how the formal lectures in the day were invariably followed by long late night free-wheeling question and answer sessions, organised by the (usually Left-leaning) students, which he really enjoyed. In this way, he came into direct contact with thousands of people, apart from the thousands he taught in his 43-year-long teaching career. What was unique about him was his ability to combine the popular and the scholarly, the writing for school children and the high-level research.
Bipan Chandra’s intellectual enquiry was inseparably linked with his deep engagement with and commitment to participating actively in the process of social change in favour of the oppressed. In his student days at Stanford in the late 1940s, he was deeply influenced by Marxism and the Left movement. This made him shift from pursuing an engineering degree to becoming a student of Economics and History. On returning to India, he became a part of the communist movement in India. He saw his intellectual work as part of the process of trying to understand the reality in order to be better equipped to change it. His study of colonialism and communalism and developing a powerful critique of these forces, in particular the intellectual trends which promoted them, emanated from his deep commitment to anti-imperialism and secularism. Bipan Chandra remained till the end an activist-scholar and it is impossible to understand his scholarship if one does not understand his commitment to social transformation.
The range of his scholarship was formidable. Since the mid-1960s he had done path-breaking work in areas as diverse as the emergence of nationalism in India,1 the specificities of the colonial structure, the possible paths of transformation from the colonial to an independent structure, 2 the nature of the Indian capitalist class and its relationship with imperialism and the national movement, 3 the long-term strategic perspective of the Indian national movement and particularly the theory and practice of the Gandhian phase of Indian nationalism, 4 a critical appraisal of the Indian Left 5 from the Communists to Jawaharlal Nehru, Marx’s writings on Asian societies, the emergence and growth of communalism 6 in India, a re-evaluation of Bhagat Singh and the revolutio-naries, making of India since independence, 7 the JP movement and the Emergency, 8 and so on.
It is impossible to analyse at length his massive scholarly contribution; for the purposes of this piece we shall focus on his major writings on the Indian national movement and Mahatma Gandhi, in which he made major breakthroughs. In his magnum opus, Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, published in 1966, Chandra demonstrated how the early nationalists, far from being mendicants, were among the first in the world to evolve a detailed economic critique of colonialism. 9 Through intense intellectual activity over nearly half-a-century, using the press, pamphlets, books, speeches, etc., they destroyed the imperialist argument that colonialism was beneficial to the colony and demonstrated that India’s economic ills were a result of political subjugation. Over time they succeeded in eroding the imperialist ideological hegemony over the Indian people. Thus, argues Chandra, they “laid strong and enduring foundations for the national movement to grow” and therefore “deserve a high place among the makers of Modern India”.
Around twenty years later, he wrote another path-breaking book, Indian National Movement: The Long-term Dynamics. If his first major work10 liberated the early nationalist, or the Moderates as they were called then, from the description of being ‘mendicants’ who allegedly merely appealed to the colonial state to make concessions to their narrow class or caste interests, then this work liberated the Gandhi-led national movement from the decades-old stranglehold of being described as ‘bourgeois’, ‘class-collabora-tionist’, ‘non-revolutionary’ and even anti-revolutionary. He challenges the various strands which denied the legitimacy of the Indian national movement including of its mass phase under Gandhi. In greater or lesser degree, this denial is common to the colonial, neo-colonial and subaltern historiography as well as to some strands of the Left approach. The national move-ment is seen by these variously as representing narrow prescriptive groups (upper-caste Hindus,babus, elites, bourgeoisie, landlords, brown sahebs, etc.) and not the Indian people. It is seen as not being genuinely anti-imperialist but compro-mising and sharing power with it or, as some would put it, ‘sharing a common discourse’ with colonialism. The ‘subaltern school’,11 taking the worst elements from the Left and the Right, sees it as a movement that suppressed the real, popular urges of the Indian people with Gandhi being the major exponent of this strategy.
Bipan Chandra, on the other hand, argues that the Indian National Movement led by the Indian National Congress was as much a people’s struggle for liberation and had as much to offer to the world in terms of lessons in social transformation and bringing about change in the state structure as the “British, French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions”. He maintains further that the “strategic practice of the Congress-led and Gandhi-guided national movement (has) a certain significance in world history” being “the only actual historical example of a semi-democratic or democratic-type state structure being replaced or transformed, of the broadly Gramscian theoretical perspective of a war of position being successfully practised”. This significance cannot be exaggerated: Gramsci saw this “as the only possible strategy” for social transformation “in the developed countries of the West”.
He sees the Indian National Movement, like any other national liberation struggle, as “a multi-class movement which represented the anti-imperialist interests of all classes and strata” of the state that it sought to overthrow. A key aspect of the long-term strategy of the Indian national movement, especially under Gandhian influence, was what Chandra called S-T-S (Struggle-Truce-Struggle), that is, “phases of vigorous extra-legal mass movements” were combined with phases of truce where the movement paused, regenerated itself through mass programmes like Gandhiji’s constructive work, so that another phase of struggle could be launched at a higher level. The movement would thus keep growing and strengthening itself in an upward spiralling circle till victory was achieved. Chandra argues that the movement adopted the S-T-S strategy not because it was ‘bourgeois’ and hence did not want a continuous struggle and kept retreating, but because it was suited to a multi-class, mass movement against the semi-democratic, semi-hegemonic British colonial state. Gandhiji himself had clarified that suspension of a movement did not mean surrender or compromise with imperialism. Chandra quotes him: “Suspension of civil disobedience does not mean suspension of war. The latter can only end when India has a Constitution of her own making.” Here Chandra makes a major break from his 1972 position where he described the Congress strategy as one of P-C-P (Pressure-Compromise-Pressure), a strategy which was non-revolutionary and suited the bourgeoisie.12
The choice of non-violence as a form of struggle, argues Chandra, also had nothing to do with any class bias in favour of the propertied classes, as is often argued, but was a form which became necessary in a hegemonic struggle, ‘a struggle on the terrain of moral force’. Also, if the movement was to be a mass movement involving millions, including the poor, and not a guerilla movement or a movement led by a revolutionary army, then non-violence would be the suitable form. A non-violent mass movement defying the government put the colonial state on the horns of a dilemma. If it suppressed the movement it lost ground on the moral-hegemonic terrain, being seen as using brutal power to suppress peaceful protestors, and if it did not suppress the movement it lost again as the state was seen as incapable of asserting its authority.
Chandra here makes a major departure from existing historiographical positions of all hues including his own. Not only does he see the national movement as open-ended and capable of being transformed in a radical direction but he now sees Gandhiji as a brilliant leader of this popular movement who far from being bourgeois or non-revolutionary played a critical role in trying to ensure that the class adjustment that necessarily had to happen in a multi-class movement, happened increasingly in favour of the poor and oppressed. Gandhiji not only met all the three criteria Lenin13 had outlined for declaring a national liberation movement as revolutionary, that is, (i) struggling against imperialism, (ii) politicising the masses and bringing them into mass movements, and (iii) not opposing the Communists’ effort at educating and organising… the broad masses; he did much more. Gandhiji’s critical role in promoting the first two is now increasingly acknowledged. It is regarding the third criteria, Chandra argues, that not only did Gandhiji notprevent Communists from organising the masses, he created conditions favourable to the increase in Left ideological influence. In fact Gandhiji himself increasingly moved in the Left direction. As Chandra argues, Gandhiji’s “popular ideological positions … and his dominant position in the national movement were quite favourable to the socialist ideological transformation”. His ideas and actions in favour of the oppressed and against injustice of any kind “created constant openings for any pro-poor, socially progressive ideology”. Interviews with a large number of Left leaders of the national movement from all over India conducted by Chandra and his team repeatedly confirmed the positive correlation between the spread of the national movement and the possibility of the emergence of the Left. It was another matter that many on the Left rather than build on the Gandhian legacy dissipated the advantage by positing themselves against it and even demonising it. Perhaps the tallest from among the Left who did not do so was Jawaharlal Nehru.
As Bipan Chandra began to get a better grasp of Gandhiji, his position on Nehru also underwent a fundamental change. In an essay written in 1975, 14 Chandra argued that during 1933 to 1936 Nehru had reached the high water-mark of his radicalism as a Marxist, where he showed the capacity to break out of the Gandhian framework into a revolutionary mould. But after 1936 his Marxist radicalism slowly watered down to a “mild form of Fabianism” and he gradually surrendered to the ‘non-revolutionary’ Gandhian strategy. By 1986 Chandra had a totally different understanding of Gandhiji (as discussed above) and in a masterly piece on Nehru written in 1990, “Jawaharlal Nehru in Historical Perspective”, he completely reassessed his evaluation of Nehru. Evidently an understanding of Gandhi was the key to an understanding of various aspects of the Indian national movement. Once one got the former right, the rest seemed to fall in place readily.
Chandra now characterised the shift in Nehru’s position as his abandonment of the sectarian, dogmatic Marxism of that period, which he termed Stalin-Marxism. The failure of the Stalin-Marxist position, which was beginning to marginalise the Left, and the success of the Gramscian path of war position pursued by Gandhi made Nehru re-evaluate the Gandhian strategy. He no longer saw the Congress as a structured bourgeois party but one which was not only capable of being transformed in the socialist direction but was actually gradually shifting Leftwards. Chandra in this piece and elsewhere brilliantly details the process of Nehru gradually discovering Gandhi and, as predicted by Gandhi, beginning to speak his language over time. He also shows how Nehru was among the first in the world to break out of Stalin-Marxism, to emphasise (somewhat preco-ciously) that while there could be no true democracy without socialism there would be no socialism without democracy. Nehru began to veer towards the position that socialism could not be brought about by coercion or force. The socialist transformation required societal consensus, the consent of the overwhelming majority of the people. To succeed, it had to be socialism by 95 per cent. Nehru was anticipating what later events were to validate and what was to be slowly accepted globally. In this very important comprehensive essay Chandra also tries to examine why Nehru, despite his “gigantic” achievements, failed to bring about in full measure the social transformation that he aimed at.
In another essay, ”Gandhiji, Secularism and Communalism”, Chandra rescues Gandhi from the pervasive and ill-informed attacks of a section of the ‘secularists’ who saw his secularism as weak or even conducive to the growth of communalism. Chandra, on the other hand, argues that “it was because of Gandhiji’s total opposition to communalism and strong commitment to secularism that both Hindu and Muslim communalists hated him and conducted a virulent campaign against him, leading in the end to his assassination by a communal fanatic”.
Chandra demonstrates how Gandhiji had a holistic understanding of secularism encom-passing all the four terms in which secularism has been defined in India and elsewhere. That is, for Gandhiji secularism meant separation of religion from politics; neutrality of the state towards all faiths or equal regard for all faiths including atheism; state treating all citizens as equal and not discriminating in favour or against anyone on the basis of his or her religion and finally, emerging specifically out of the Indian situation, secularism meant uniting the Indian people against colonialism, which meant secularism in India would involve unambiguous opposition to communalism.
Chandra shows how Gandhiji’s repeated statements saying that for him there was “no politics devoid of religion” or that “politics bereft of religion are a death trap because they kill the soul” have been often misunderstood as his ‘secularism’ being in some ways compromised. He clarifies that Gandhiji “often used the word ‘religion’ in two different senses: one in its denominational or sectarian sense, that is, in terms of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, etc., and the other in the traditional Indian sense of dharma, that is, the moral code which guides a person’s life and the social order”. Almost every time he asserted that politics must be based on religion, he clarified that what he meant was that it should be based on moral foundations, dharma. For example, in 1940 he reiterated: “Yes, I still hold the view that I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion…. Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe…. This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc.”
However, realising that religion in a denomi-national sense was increasingly being used to promote communal politics, Gandhiji on numerous occasions began to explicitly make his position clear, leaving no room for any confusion. In August 1942, he stated: “Religion (now meaning in a denominational sense) is a personal matter which should have no place in politics.” Again in November 1947 he warned: “Religion is a personal affair of each individual, it must not be mixed up with politics or national affairs.” His warning in August 1947 has a contemporary relevance when he said the independent Indian state “was bound to be wholly secular” and “no denominational educa-tional institution in it should enjoy state patronage”. He also argued that the state was not to get involved in religious education, leaving it to religious institutions.
The fact that Gandhiji often used imagery or idioms from Hindu mythology or scriptures has often been used by both his secular and Muslim communal critics to argue that he was catering to Hindu communalism. His use of the term Ramrajya to define what Swaraj in India would mean was the most cited example. Here again Gandhiji was being misrepresented. As Chandra shows, Gandhiji was certainly not using Ramrajya to mean Hindu raj but as a just, humane, moral and egalitarian system of governance. He reassured his Muslim brethren: “By Ramrajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean…Divine Raj, the Kingdom of God. For me Ram and Rahim are the same deity.” He said that just as he used the concept of Ramrajya to reach the millions among the Hindus, he would, when addressing Muslim audiences, use the concept of Khudai Raj to convey the same meaning.
Chandra shows how Gandhiji’s secularism was based on an extremely firm ground and would brook no compromise on this front. In fact, the positions taken by him consistently could be a sterling example to his ‘secular’ critics till today. Gandhiji was totally committed to civil liberty, freedom of speech and expression, liberty of the press, etc., calling this “the breath of political and social life…the foundation of freedom. There is no room there for dilution or compromise. It is the water of life. I have never heard of water being diluted.“ Yet, he was to make one exception. He advocated the banning of literature spreading communal hatred. He said in 1936: “If I had the power I should taboo all literature calculated to promote communa-lism, fanaticism, and ill-will and hatred….” More than half-a-century after independence, with all the powers one needed, secular India still permits communal poison being taught to tender minds, to children through school texts, leave alone the rampant vicious communal propaganda permitted in the public sphere.15
The essay ends with a critical discussion on why Gandhiji, and indeed the Indian national movement as a whole, despite having a firm commitment to secularism, still failed to contain communalism and prevent the partition of the country. Of course, this was not to deny the massive success of the movement in ensuring that, despite the almost holocaust-like situation caused by the partition riots, India succeeded in a very short time to build a secular democratic state.
What distinguishes Bipan Chandra from a large number of scholars that emerged among the Left, and ranks him among the tallest intellec-tuals within this tradition globally, was his refusal to surrender to any kind of dogma while pursuing his intellectual queries. While steering clear of and severely critiquing the colonial and communal orthodoxies, Chandra was careful not to become a victim of the ortho-doxies of the Left. Leave alone surrender to the so-called ‘party line’ of the various Communist Parties in India, he did not hesitate to question widely held orthodoxies within the global Left tradition, even while rooting himself firmly within it. It often meant he had to plough a lonely furrow, standing against the mainstream.
As would be expected, from one who refused to be a prisoner to any dogma, Chandra had no hesitation in abandoning orthodoxies created around his own work. He readily re-evaluated his own formulations, often modifying and sometimes completely overthrowing them.
It is this courage to stand by his own convic-tions against powerful currents, if necessary, which enabled Chandra to make major breakthroughs in the understanding of modern and contem-porary India. Such has been the range and depth of Chandra’s writings in this area that an entire school of thought is now associated with his name.This is no mean achievement in an age when schools of thought almost always tend to be associated with Universities or individuals in the Western ‘First’ World.
Chandra used to tell his students repeatedly that a school of thought does not generally get established by the work of an individual. It requires a team effort. It is here that Chandra could boast of another major achievement. Over the decades he succeeded in creating a team of scholars around him who filled out, expanded, innovated on and amended the breakthroughs in ideas that he sparked off and on occasion broke new ground. One example of the intellectual output of this team is the series of monographs that have appeared under his general editorship called the Sage Series in Modern Indian History. Much other work, apart from the fifteen monographs that have so far appeared in the Series, bears the imprint of the school of thought inspired by Bipan Chandra.16
Scholars who rallied around Bipan Chandra on a common intellectual platform often joined hands with him on the plane of political and social activism as well. A good example of this was the formation and activities of the Delhi Historians Group with Chandra as its key inspiration. The group was formed in the first years of the new millennium to combat the massive efforts made by the Hindu communa-lists to attack secular and scientific history writing in India and replace it with communal interpretations of history with the active support of the BJP-led NDA regime.
From 2004 till 2012, he steered the National Book Trust as its Chairman and advanced his own and the Trust’s agenda of reaching mean-ingful literature to the people at low cost. He started a new Social Science series and got the country’s renowned experts to write for it. Friends and colleagues remember fondly how he would spot a potential author and then make sure through persistent persuasion that the work was completed.
He leaves behind an unfinished manuscript on the biography of Bhagat Singh, whom he had saved from being appropriated by the reactio-nary communal forces in the 1970s by recovering and publishing in pamphlet form his seminal essay ‘Why I am an Atheist?’ Delivering the Bhagat Singh Memorial Lecture in the JNU some time ago he characterised him as ‘a Marxist in the Making’, thus giving us a peep into the direction in which his thoughts were moving.
The multi-faceted legacy of this remarkable human being who is no longer with us can only be furthered through the efforts of all those who share his ‘Idea of India’, an India that would be independent, secular, humane and pro-poor, an India for which millions of our people fought in our national liberation struggle.
- Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India,
People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1966.
- Essays on Colonialism,Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2009.
- Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India,Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1979, second edition, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2010.
- Indian National Movement: The Long-Term Dynamics,
Vikas, New Delhi, 1988, reprinted, Har Anand, New Delhi, 2008. This important work was first presented as the Presidential Address to the Indian History Congress in 1985 and has been reproduced in this volume as The Long-Term Dynamics: Gandhiji and the Indian National Movement.
- For example, “A Strategy in Crisis—The CPI Debate 1955-1956” in Bipan Chandra, ed.,Indian Left: Critical Appraisals,Vikas, New Delhi 1983.
- Bipan Chandra,Rise and Growth of Communalism in Modern India,Vikas, New Delhi 1984, last revised edition, 2008, Har-Anand, New Delhi.
- Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee,India Since Independence,Penguin, New Delhi, 2008.
- Bipan Chandra,In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and the Emergency,Penguin, 2003.
- We will see later below how the early Indian intelligentsia made the same errors as Marx in 1853 and the early nationalists made a shift from Marx’s erroneous formulations at that stage.
- Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India,People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1966.
- A school, which claims to give voice to the Indian poor, largely from the safe and sanitised environs of the First World.
- See “Elements of Continuity and Change in Early Nationalist Activity” in Bipan Chandra,Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India,Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1979, second edition, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2010.
- See Bipan Chandra, “Lenin and the National Liberation Movements” inNationalism and Colonialism…, Ibid.
- “Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian Capitalist Class”, in
Nationalism and Colonialism…, Ibid.
- Foreword by Bipan Chandra in Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan,RSS School
Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project, Sage, New Delhi, 2008.
- It may be in order to list the titles in the Sage Series to give an idea of the kind of work promoted by Bipan Chandra. Sucheta Mahajan,Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India,Salil Misra, A Narrative of Communal Politics: Uttar Pradesh, 1937-39, Aditya Mukherjee, Imperialism, Nationalism and the Making of the Indian Capitalist Class, 1920-1947,Visalakshi Menon, From Movement to Government: The Congress in the United Provinces, 1937-42, Mridula Mukherjee, Peasants in India’s Non-Violent Revolution: Practice and Theory, Rakesh Batabyal, Communalism in Bengal: From Famine to Noakhali, 1943-47, Shri Krishan, Political Mobilisation and Identity in Western India, 1934-47, Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State: The Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947, Mridula Mukherjee, Colonialising Agriculture: The Myth of Punjab Exceptionalism,Gyanesh Kudaisya, Region, Nation, “Heartland”: Uttar Pradesh in India’s Body Politic, Pritish Acharya, National Movement and Politics in Orissa, 1920-29,D.N. Gupta, Communism and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1939-45, Chandi Prasad Nanda, Vocalising Silence: Political Protests in Orissa, 1930-32, Raj Sekhar Basu, Nandanar’s Children, The Paraiyans’ Tryst with Destiny, Tamil Nadu 1850-1956, Tadd Fernee, Enlightnment and Violence: Modernity and Nation-Making, Apart from these publication in the Series, the works of Mohinder Singh on the Akali Movement, Bikash Chandra on the growth of communal politics in Punjab, Neerja Singh on the Congress Right: Patel, Prasad and C.R., Amit Mishra on Mauritius and on the Indian Diaspora, to name a few, have been deeply influenced by Chandra.
Professor Mridula Mukherjee is a Professor of Modern Indian History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Professor Aditya Mukherjee is a Professor of Contemporary History, Centre for Historical Studies and Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Both were favourite students of Professor Bipan Chandra and remained close to him till the end.‘’
The Indian Express, 30 August 2014
It is a measure of Bipan Chandra’s achievement as a historian that he defined the mainstream establishment’s self understanding of Modern India for a very long time. Other historians have been more scholarly or more conceptually innovative. But few historians weaved together a narrative of Modern India in a way that had the power of becoming a default political common sense. Our understanding of Modern India has to, even when we disagree, come to terms with the framework he laid out. Most historians are remembered because they were gifted in some way. Chandra’s achievement was more elusive: he became inescapable.
His influence was a function of his extensive writing of textbooks and co-authoring of two best-selling synthetic accounts. It was also a function of his position in India’s premier history department at Jawaharlal Nehru University. I did not know him well personally, but read nearly everything he published. But by all accounts, his civility and commitment to teaching that was on display in our brief meetings was characteristic of the man.
Much of his work, ranging from the still useful monograph on Economic Nationalism to important books on Communalism, seemingly carried the imprimatur of history. But their success was very much rooted in the politics they articulated. The great International Relations scholar, Hedley Bull, once wrote that “inquiry has its own morality and is necessarily subversive of political institutions and movements of all kinds, good as well as bad.” But Chandra’s sensibility was in some ways the opposite: it was almost as if the task of the historian was to provide a usable narrative; it was a weapon to wield against political opponents, it was to produce a consensus around the common terms.
He was successful in articulating a usable political history, and then openly practicing history as ideology by other means. His assumptions are now so widespread that we forget what an achievement it was to make them hegemonic. One assumption, clearly articulated in Communalism in Modern India, was that while communal consciousness could exist in pre-Modern India, communalism could not. This is not the place to go into the veracity of this claim. But what is striking is that this conclusion is arrived at almost a priori. History is an elaboration of this claim, not evidence for it.
Chandra also managed to tie the project of political secularism to a historiography of secularism. It rested on a claim that the way we represent the past will bear on the way we think of the future: if the past turns to be the site of communalism, so will the future. It has less space for Hedley Bull’s thought that history might turn out to be subversive of all kinds of claims, good continued…
Pritish Acharya, Odisha Sun Times, 17 September 2014
Prof. Bipan Chandra (1928-2014) has been a renowned and noted historian. His writings on the economic foundations of the national movement and the contributions of Early Nationalists to the making of India as a nation, his analysis of the issue of communalism, his relentless fight against the menace and his writings on the ‘history of India after independence’ are undoubtedly seminal contributions to the writing of history in India. Hence, his passing away on 30th August 2014 was an irreparable loss for the intellectual world in general.
Apart from being a truly path-breaking historian, Bipan Chandra was a great teacher, as each one of his students would fondly remember. As a student of the Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), I had been his pupil for many years (from 1982 to 1988), while pursuing my post graduation, M.Phil and Ph.D there. Even after leaving JNU, I remained his student and always solicited his guidance and advice in moments of crises.
The sad news of his death reminds me today of the many incidents which I have encountered while being with him. In all those personal encounters, I, as an individual,l have been a character no doubt; but each one of these seems to have social relevance to the larger teaching–learning community of our country. They taught me how a teacher could immeasurably help a student overcome the sense of pessimism, depression and complexes he suffered in those early years of student life in JNU and Delhi.
In 1982, after my graduation in a small town (Sambalpur) of Orissa, I went to JNU for pursuing my post graduation. During those days, Prof. Bipan Chandra, widely known as ‘Bipan’ in the student circle, often used to be a point of reference even in our general talks. This was so because he had a point to make on almost every issue, right from hostel administration and admission policy to Assam student agitation. One could disagree with him, as many did, but overlooking his point of view was not easy. This had made him quite well known in the University campus.
While addressing him as ‘Bipan’, students like me, coming from smaller towns and a traditional learning environment, enjoyed a sense of being on equal terms and a feeling of liberation that minimized the generational gap.
When I joined JNU, many of his students had also started teaching there. Then there were many former students, who were teachers elsewhere. Many of his former students serving in ICS and other places would also regularly visit him. Bipan, as a teacher to all, would see to it that the ‘gap’ and the social and professional hierarchy was superfluous between all of us. He might not remember the students’ names, but he would never disown all these old and new students and would to love to interact with them at home or on road side or in his chamber at the Centre.
As a young student who had gone from a remote village of western Orissa and without the background of any in-depth history reading or any exposure to the intellectual trends and currents of the time, I felt quite depressed and frustrated in those early days of JNU. Inability to communicate in English or Hindi, the languages of the academic and social world there, had added to my discomfort.
More difficult was to take part in informal debates and discussions even at small gatherings due to my unfamiliarity with the issues, and to a certain extent, the spoken language. In such a situation, Bipan’s class lectures were a great source of solace. They were simple, lucid and full of passion and anecdotes. Unlike many other lectures, his were comprehensible and convincing and his generalizations appeared to be plausible. They did not ‘bounce over the head’, as we used to say those days.
‘National movement in India began as an intellectual movement. But with the passage of time and with the sharpening of the contradictions between the Indian people and British colonialism, it grew as a mass struggle for nation making. It was an open movement where everyone, irrespective of one’s ideological moorings, was welcome. Further, it was one long and continuous movement with a number of phases. Mahatma Gandhi with a clear political vision and long term strategy was like a coordinator and conductor of the movement, not its dictator, who ran the show whimsically. As a leader, he did not possess any magical wand for ‘switching on’ or for ‘switching off’ the mass movement.
Communalism as an ideology is a great deterrent to the growth of India as a modern nation. It is not specific to any particular religion. Attacking only one particular religion or religious fundamentalism would not result in its defeat. Further, fighting the ideology of communalism is fundamental to the uprooting of the menace.’
These were some of the ideas, I thought I had gathered from his class lectures and other public speeches in my early days in JNU. Though what I stated above may sound very simplistic today to serious readers of history, to beginners like me, they were not only basic, but different from whatever I had learnt until then. Secondly, though many other scholars had also been saying this or somewhat similar things, Bipan’s lectures were straight, simple and free from jargons and thus easy to comprehend.
However, in those early PG days in JNU, what attracted me to Bipan was neither his greatness as a historian, nor his great thoughts, but his ‘concern’ for a backbencher student like me. He was teaching Colonialism and Nationalism in the first semester, but he devoted nearly half his first general lecture explaining what JNU was, what its History centre was and how different the syllabus was from that of many other Universities and institutions.
While explaining the logic for maintaining no Attendance Register in class, he had said, attending a class is useful, but if one feels that sitting in the Library would be more useful, one should do so. Many of these points merely stated the obvious. However, the new students greatly required them to be told. He would say that all those who were new to such a system and were unaware of the new socio-economic approach in history would gradually be able to adjust with it if they sincerely put in the required effort.
With regard to communication in English, he said we are no English fanatic. But, one has to have a grip over the language, the medium of instruction in the Centre, for articulating the thoughts. Students, who were good in their mother tongue, would not have much problem in switching over to this new language. This is not English chauvinism, but a need! As usual, he gave many examples and anecdotes to differentiate his point of argument from English chauvinism.
Then came his first Tutorial class that consisted of a fewer number of students. He said the tutorial class had been designed to make students feel comfortable in the class and with the teachers. Students of similar background were put in one tutorial group so that they have no inhibition in speaking out their minds.
His idea of giving a rationale for all these University decisions not only helped us understand the system better, but also helped in owning it. It was a lesson in accepting something only when it has a rationale. Then he asked us to introduce ourselves. When I said that my father was a farmer, he asked many questions regarding the crops ‘we’ (i.e. my father) grew, how much land ‘we’ had, whether the land was irrigated, how many tractors my village had, how much was the earning of the farm hands, etc. I was giving the answers very enthusiastically, comfortably and convincingly, because I knew them. Though the languages (both Hindi and English) I used for communication were full of errors, I confidently gave the statistics that I had with me from my observations and experience. It was like a class to which I was speaking and my teacher and others were very attentively listening to. Finally he concluded, “Here is a boy, who could teach us in our discussion on the agrarian history of Orissa. Now he has problems in articulation, but gradually he would be able to overcome it.” Second time he asked, ‘kya naam hai bete?’ (What is your name, son?) Probably he wanted to register my name in his memory.
That was a great day for me. For the first time I learnt that my understanding of my father’s cultivation could be useful in the learning of history. Besides, it infused in me a great sense of self-confidence and self-respect which I never had in JNU until then. The feeling that I did not know much history, nor could I speak English, melted down at least for the time being. English had such an invisible domination in JNU then! Nobody would say it in open, but, everybody could feel it. Bipan’s words had really helped me in overcoming it.
When I pursued my research under his guidance, I had thought of finding out from him whether he really meant it or said it just to make me happy. But I could never enquire. He might not even remember the incident. Probably, he had ‘lied’ to boost my confidence, for he might have sensed that students like me felt very depressed and laid back during the initial days. Hence, they needed such psychological therapy. However, when I look back today, it was that lie, which really saved me from a deep sense of poor self-esteem.
As a teacher now, I feel teaching in class room and overseeing the students at such moments of crises are equally important responsibilities. Besides, both these roles and responsibilities complement each other. To a teacher, the first day of the session may be like any other day. But, to the student, it is a new day and an alien moment. If he/she (student) finds that the teacher’s protection is there for him/her in some form or other, the school or college soon turns into his/her natural home. I feel proud that my teacher Bipan knew it very well from his experience without undergoing any formal teacher training course.
There were many incidents, when he would be so protective of us! I remember, while defending the claim of one of our batch mates, how he had to fight with another senior teacher in the centre once resulting in a strained relation. Similarly, he was a very hard task master.
Once I had to present a seminar on the Quit India Movement in Orissa. The date was fixed. But, before the due date, as the guid,e he found my preparation to be lacking academic rigour and was below his expectations. It was because I had not taken the task seriously and sincerely. This made him so angry and harsh that it became a kind of nightmare for me for many days. He was always on time and would be very angry on us if we were not. If he was late, he would beg apology like a small child. If he could not see the draft as per his promise, he would say ‘sorry’ like a guilty man. Then he would narrate why could not keep his word. All these would make a student so free that debating and arguing with him was no issue.
Many of the meetings and small size seminar classes were held in his residence at 3, Dakshinapuram in JNU. Then, getting tea for us would be the minimum there. Sometimes two-three students would volunteer to prepare it.
In 1986, my first story collection (in Oriya) got published. The same year, I also got an award from a little known literary organization in Orissa for short story writing. By Delhi standards, they were not really great achievements. Why Delhi? They were no graet achievements even by our vernacular standards. Besides, the joy of achievement had died in me because I had failed to qualify the National Eligibility Test (NET) for UGC Fellowship, something very un-common in the academic environment of JNU.
The financial sources from my home had dried up. Added to that there were pressures to assist people at home, a very common story among the students with a background like that of me. All in all, the scene then was quite depressing for me.
Since it was a question of my self-respect, I had not shared these with Bipan though he had told us more than once to share all our problems with him in our small sized seminar classes. He had got the news of me not qualifying the NET. In the meantime, a friend told him about my literary interests and publications.
One day when I visited him, he hugged and congratulated me for writing short stories and for achieving a literary award. He even felt bad that I had not shared this with him. Next moment, he not only introduced me as a writer to the visitors to his home, but asked a series of questions: how much would I get as royalty from publication, how many copies of the book had been printed, what new short story I had written recently, how much they would give me as reward money, etc. Finally, he concluded, ‘getting a literary award and publishing creative works at such young age are not a smaller achievement than qualifying the NET.’ This was so soothing to my heart, for, to me, my not qualifying the NET was more a blot on him as my teacher than on me. I was feeling ashamed of myself.
Further, I felt, probably, he knew every detail of me, though I had tried to hide them from him. The feeling that my teacher was overseeing me with caring concern gave me great hope and instilled in me a new energy and liveliness.
As such, not many bright and brilliant students are attracted to the discipline of history. But after getting into the job in my institute, I realized that all educational and political controversies centered on history.
While working professionally, many times I have personally suffered due to this. Personal relations become strenuous and incurring the wrath of the higher ups becomes common. Unlike the problems of the student days, these were different, but serious and complex problems, which I could not handle myself. Once when it became very serious, I rushed to Bipan seeking his advice.
He heard everything and concluded, ‘I see you as a writer. Fighting the battle in the interest of the discipline is important. But more important is to not to betray your conscience. Had you been not a writer, but anybody else, one could afford to advise you to take a position that suits you best at personal level. For you not listening to your conscience would be a kind of self-killing. My advice is, you listen to your conscience fearlessly and act accordingly. Don’t bother about the consequences. There lies your strength.’
These were great words for me from my teacher Bipan Chandra. I knew I am not a very creative person, nor am I a renowned writer. But Bipan considered me to be a writer, neither small nor great. The faith that my teacher had in me was a grand feeling. Even when he is not there, it ensures me, one of his scores of students, of his advices and guidance at the time of my need. It gives me the feeling that Bipan was invaluable as a teacher. Never did I feel that I wanted to say something, but could not for fear of him.
Like freedom of opinion, security was never a scarce commodity when one was in his company. Instead of giving it from his personal ‘account,’ he would ensure that the students draw it from their own inner sources. That was the greatness of Bipan’s teachership, which had never blocked his position as a noted historian. Remembering it is like nothing but exploring one’s own inner self and inner strength.
*Pritish Acharya is a short story writer, columnist and essayist in Odia. He has four short story collections and three essay collections to his credit. He has edited the selected writings of Madhusudan Das, and of Gopabandhu Das for NBT, New Delhi. His translations into Odia include: Bipan Chandra’s History of Modern India, and Communalism: A Primer, and Romila Thapar’s Penguin History of Early India. His ‘National Movement and Politics in Orissa: 1920-29’ has been published under (Bipan Chandra edited) the SAGE Series in Modern Indian History. He is Professor of History at the Regional Institute of Education (NCERT) and could be contacted at 09937400923
S.K. Pande, blog.tehelka.com, 9 September 2014
What Bipan meant to me, said historian Romila Thapar, was a friend one could look upon… for down-to-earth answers; nice straight answers, broad degrees of agreement always -differences notwithstanding. It was a 50 year association. She was one of the several speakers at a memorial meeting in Teen Murti House last week. She ended with a reminder. ‘It is left to very few of us to continue with the tasks begun by him.’
It was a gathering of scholars, historians, deans and dons, students, bureaucrats; at least one military person in uniform and students of not only history but of sociology and economics and what not! Not surprisingly even some elders sitting on the ground – one in the eighties as the hall were full to the brim. A. few even came in crutches; in sum what the function provided was a wee bit of diversities that was Bipan. There’ was music, Faiz and Kabir as a tribute to a teacher by Madan Gopal Singh Of course an amalgam of historians from nationalists, to Liberals, new historians, to subalterns, Marxists to marxiologists, environmentalists, journalists, and politicos and a wide spectrum of persons who believe that secularism has to be defended today more than ever before.
I knew Bipan as my guardian-by-compulsion, besides being one of his student in the sixties and then as a press reporter in the late sixties and early seventies I came to know him in a different capacities later. He was to ensure my ensure my admission in Delhi though my first priority, on the nudging of my Christian school teachers, was to try at Bombay’s, what they called prestigious St Xaviers College. I suppose, my close relative may have mentioned it in his letter to Bipan that I was a stubborn boy to be handled with care.
Picked up in Delhi from what was called the annexe of a house of a connoisseur of music and art in Karol bagh , in the then East Park road, by a waiting scooter of uncle Devraj Chanana who I later learnt was Devraj the famous author of “Slavery in Ancient India.” It was close to the last day of admissions both to college and hostel chances were rather slim. There seemed to be a plan to keep me in Hindu college for I was immediately put into the waiting scooter of uncle. ‘We are teachers and friends,’ he said, ‘your brother in law, me and Bipan and you have to make sure that your first preference is history. You keep on telling us that you detested Math, so now go for history’.
In those days, when there were no queues, I was affectionately hustled into Bipan’s flat, with a family towel affectionately slung at me to dry myself from the drizzle by a smiling Bipan, obviously in a hurry to be with his fellow waiting teachers. In the evening, a brief visit just to see if I was settled a brief remark-‘be in touch with me, with questions on your subject’ Bipan left, but not before looking with some contempt at smelly drying clothes and some comics. He added from the door “You know western cowboys are glorified gwaalas”. We have the toiling simple counterparts here. You must come to know them too.
Bipan was adored by several, and abhorred by select rabid rightwing teachers, In Delhi he had a fan following cutting across DU colleges. But his house, I was later told and saw, was often the house of ideas from history to pitched battles with ideas and often to provoke ideas not only on history. While he conscientiously performed his duties as a teacher and pursued relentlessly the cause of his journal, Enquiry, he carried out an astonishingly voluminous amount of research that resulted in his ‘Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, 1880-1905’, published in 1966.
As reported to me from village folks in Bhainsori village, Post office Basauli, District Almora. In the seventies, a professor walking a top the Binsar Valley on a three mile trek from the valley back to his one month sojourn in village Bhainsori. He was huffing and puffing, vest off, for lighting a fire, lest he be attacked by animals. It was dark and the area was known for wildlife.Behind him his sons and others. The vest and a stick acted as mashaal to keep wildlife at bay Visualize, Bipan in the sixties, still a bit bulky, running down hill with his family heading for the small village of Kumaon where he was settled for a month in my grandfathers crumbling house – called Manipur Estate… deep down in a valley with his books and what not. I was not invited to join them though!
Another anecdote. In the same house atop a hill he calls upon ‘Thakur Madan Singh,’ I need a help in the house. Caste, creed is no barrier – it could be the lowest caste, but I should be able to talk to him. And he should help with the cooking.’ There was no electricity in the house in the late sixties, there was only a broken down generator with colourful old decorated gases and lanterns and an old gramophone and fireplace.
Two months later I enquire from Bipan. How was the visit? His reply on phone: “I could see semi-feudalism all round and the entrance of small time capitalism in the nearby market place. But why do you tolerate so much of the caste system and isolation of Harijans. They are called Dumaraos ‘the doomed ones’. One plays the flute very well. Why don’t you write about them?’ Egged on by him and friends and relatives I indeed did report from this Kumaoni village but not satisfied he said, ‘good as far it goes- just a B plus. Read ‘A Report from a village’ by our sociologists, for more analysis of changing land relations or read the ‘Sociological Imagination’ by C Wright Mills.’
He was the firebrand, crusading editor of Enquiry – virtually his journal with an increasing team of historians and sociologists, economists and what not and above all a teacher who encouraged me to be a student leader, then journalist, one who covered among other things a press conference in the Wengers raising questions with a bunch of historians against the war in Vietnam after paying for an advertisement signed by intellectuals against the war in Vietnam when it was not printed, with one student taking copious notes and he saying with pride ‘I know he will get it printed’. I vaguely remember him at the press meet proudly introducing me to his friends: Randhir Singh, Amit Bhaduri, and some senior deans and dons cutting across the social scientist spectrum; ‘This is S K- the roaming journalist.’ Just a few days ago after his death, I came to know that he was journo Sham lals friend.e. Sham Lal was the first President of the Delhi union of journalists and among its founders, which I am still associated with. It was only later that Shyam lal become the Editor of Times of India and had made Bipan quit journalism, which Bipan joined for a short while… One who believed in Marxist tools and could with vengeance say: in the sixties; “who are these Marxiologists, they are in the West and they can hardly refute Marxism, aid to them notwithstanding.”
Just another quote for the benefit of some of his students – a small group at that.’ Some of you are ‘kala angrezes’ with a training in super English but in Hindu college some of us produce first classes from third classes because we value students who wish to learn and should not suffer for lack of language.’
Those in his first stint in college the Hindu College in Delhi remember him often as a firebrand Left who even went to support, the textile mill strike, to patronises of the Marx club which lived for a while, to activists of the Delhi University Teachers Association they have all have different memories of him. Six Years to eight years and interludes…..
The JNU crowd which saw him as a professor saw his passion as well as his infallibility but all admitted desire to promote history as a social science in a scientific manner. Many recall the first pamphlet sold for a few paise: Communalism and the Writing of Indian History. I still remember School of Economics some professors still remember the penchant for which he along with other professors and teachers carried a signature campaign against the Vietnam war and when Bipan called the Press conference it was blacked out in all papers other than perhaps the Patriot and National Herald. The next day Bipan and some others to tested in the newspapers officers and asked him to print a page.
I feel that just a few historians weaved together a narrative of Modern India in a way that he did. I indeed fully agree that the Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, 1880-1905, published in 1966.was one of his best.
Bipan soon became increasingly concerned with the rising tide of communalism, sharply criticising both its Hindu and Muslim variants. He carried out surveys of texts used in religious and quasi-religious schools. This concern also led him,, to focus on writing for a popular readership. He also undertook, with his colleagues, more detailed studies of the national movement and of India since Independence. His later efforts resulted in two major works edited by him, India’s Struggle for Independence (1989) and India since Independence (1998).
In his later years he even had a tryst with oral history where he travel with his students and colleagues to interview freedom fighters all over the country despite his age and theirs.
Through out his life he had the greatest respect for fellow historians like Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, and Romila Thapar. Romila and he were colleagues for the better part of their lives. They saw themselves not only as scholars, but contributors to the transformation of society in general and India in particular in an egalitarian, democratic and secular direction. Jawaharlal Nehru University and DU teachers remember his a pamphlet titled “Communalism — A Primer”, which were sold on the streets for a pittance
His one time colleague a veteran journalist- Inder Malhotra says in an article that he once worked for, the precursor to the Delhi edition of The Indian Express. In 1950, soon after the commencement of the Constitution, he and I were together covering in the Supreme Court the famous A.K. Gopalan vs the State of Madras case relating to preventive detention. Later he said Sham Lal then in Connaught Place, advised Bipan now to join the academia. Soon enough, Bipan joined Hindu College as a lecturer and was promoted reader.
In the early Nineties, he was a member of the University Grants Commission. For eight years (2004-12), he was chairman of the National Book Trust. In perhaps no other period did the NBT publish so many books of such high quality as during his tenure A few on journalism were also published.. He could persuade even those authors to write who had earlier refused to have anything to do with a government-owned publication..
In and around Teachers Day- I always remember just Bipan sometimes. And today there are just memories sweet, sour of hour long battles, small interludes and so much of affection from the man who taught me more than fifty years ago and maintained a link always. Today-he has left behind two sons, Bikash and Barun, and so many students. Indeed- many of them, he helped them even in personal problems including, problems of the heart, to over generosity with his books, which he noted but forgot who he gave them to. Good Bye Bipan. My salute…