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A Legendary Teacher, Scholar and Activist


Aditya Mukherjee (The Hindu, 31 August 2014)

A legendary teacher, scholar and activist, Prof. Bipan Chandra, is no more.

Over nearly half a century,since the mid 1960s, Chandra haddone path-breaking work in areas as diverse as the emergence of economic nationalism in India under the early nationalists,the specificities of the colonial structure, the possible paths of transformation from the colonial to an independent structure, the nature of the Indian capitalist class and its relationship with imperialism and the national movement, the long term strategic perspective of the Indian national movement and particularly the theory and practice of the Gandhian phase of Indian nationalism, a critical appraisal of the Indian Left from the communists to Jawaharlal Nehru, Marx’s writings on Asian societies, the emergence and growth of communalismin India, a re-evaluation of Bhagat Singh and the revolutionaries, making of India since independence, the JP movement and the Emergency and so on. His last book, The Writings of Bipan Chandra, The Making of Modern India from Marx to Gandhi, which came out as recently as 2012, in many ways showcases his phenomenal scholarship over the years. It particularly shows how his scholarship evolved, striving to break free of any dogma, including those he himself may have been a victim of in his own writings at some stage. The two books he completed after this, a biography of Bhagat Singh and his own auto-biography unfortunately could not see the light of day before passed away.

Such has been the range and depth of Chandra’s writings in the area of Modern and Contemporary history 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.

As one of his studentsin the first MA batch of JNU in the early 70s I recall his repeatedly stating 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 can boast of another major achievement. Over the decades he succeeded in creating a team of dozens of scholars around him who filled out, expanded, innovated on and amended the breakthroughs in ideas that he sparked off and have on occasion broken new ground. One example of the intellectual output of this team is the series of 15 monographs that have already appeared under his general editorship called the Sage Series in Modern Indian History.

Another reason why he was able to create a school and build a team was that for him intellectual enquiry was not aimed at simply making a professional career but was inseparably linked toa deep engagement with and commitment to participating actively in the process of social change in a progressive direction. 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 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 intellectual trends that promoted them, emanated from his deep commitment to anti-imperialism and secularism.

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 communalists to attack secular and scientific history writing in India and replace it with communal interpretations of history with the active support of the then government.

His last major ‘activist’ role was to transform the nature of the National Book Trust of which he was the Chairperson till 2012. He created a new social science series and got some of the country’s tallest scholars to write for the common people of this country.

Bipan Chandra will be sorely missed among those who are struggling for a secular, humane and pro poor country in the face of the current neo-liberal onslaught coming with a deadly mix of communalism.





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