Irfan Habib, Peoples Democracy, Vol. XXXVIII No. 37, 14 September 2014
BIPAN Chandra, one of India’s leading historians and an uncompromising defender of secularism and the scientific spirit, passed away in the early hours of August 30, 2014. His death was widely reported both in the newspapers and the electronic media, where there were also a spate of obituaries and commemorative commentaries. This is how, indeed, it should have been because Bipan Chandra’s death has been a great loss not only to the academic community but to the thinking part of our nation.
Bipan Chandra was born at Kangra (now in Himachal Pradesh) in 1928. As used to be the case in old Punjab, his early education was in Urdu, and, as he once told me, he was best at home in his early years with an Urdu novel by his side. He graduated from Forman Christian College, Lahore, which the Partition forced him to leave. Thereafter he went to the United States where he studied at the Stanford University (California), presumably for his master’s degree. He established contact with Communists there, and, caught in the net cast under Senator Mc Carthy’s anti-Communist crusade, he was deported to India.
Back in Delhi in the early 1950s, Bipan Chandra was appointed lecturer in History at the Hindu College, Delhi. I met him, first not in Delhi, but at Aligarh, in 1959. He had come looking for support for the journal Enquiry, which he and some Marxist scholars were planning to issue. It was to open its pages not only to Marxist-oriented articles, but also to other serious studies mainly in subjects of social science.
Bipan Chandra himself was then working on his Ph.D. thesis, which was published in 1966 by the People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, under the title Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, 1880-1905. It was pioneering work of its kind in that it examined in detail the wide range of economic issues on which the early nationalists took issue with British imperialism. The immense data he collected from journals and newspapers from different regions in different languages, is astonishing; and so is his capacity, as displayed here, of clear-cut analysis. Comrade E M S Namboodiripad, a critic, usually hard to please, wrote a very favourable review of it in People’s Democracy (dated August 14, 1966). He did comment that Bipan Chandra had not paid enough attention to the class-basis of many of the nationalist positions. It may be said in Bipan Chandra’s defence that he did so when the connection between class and protest was clear, as in some nationalist critiques of Factory legislation. But in other aspects, he does not raise such questions since the connections are too distant and would be speculative. His major purpose was to show that Indian critiques of imperialist economic policies covered an extensive ground and provided the Indian national movement with an ideological apparatus that enabled it not only to make an appeal to the Indian middle classes, but also to the Indian poor across all regional and religious barriers. It is this well-documented message of his book, which, I think has made it so important.
One of the major concerns of early Indian nationalism was the process of de-industrialisation that colonialism had generated in India. When an American scholar Morris D. Morris wrote an article raising doubts over colonial exploitation and especially over de-industrialisation, Bipan Chandra wrote a hard-hitting reply in the Indian Economic and Social History Review, 1968. This was a very influential piece, and, speaking for myself, I can say that for all my modest studies of nineteenth-century Indian economic history, this was the original source of inspiration.
Throughout the 1960s Bipan Chandra remained the main spirit behind the journal Enquiry, which, during a period of acute division among Marxists, played an important role in clarifying issues.
Bipan Chandra moved to the Jawaharlal Nehru University soon after its foundation, as Professor at its Centre for Historical Studies. He told me he wished to see at JNU a community where professors and peons could sit at the same table. Real life is much more complex than our dreams; but if JNU has a greater spirit of democracy and equality in its campus than many other similar institutions, tribute must be paid to its first utopian generation to which Bipan Chandra belonged.
One major enterprise that Bipan Chandra undertook in the 1970s was his school textbook on Modern India, written for NCERT. It is an ideal History textbook with a clear delineation of the impact of colonialism and of the national struggle. Other aspects of history, economic, social and cultural are also surveyed, with no region neglected. Published in 1977, it was violently attacked by the RSS and others, and removed from the syllabus in 2001 under the first BJP regime. It has, however been republished (2009).
In the 1970s, Bipan Chandra became increasingly concerned with the growth of communalism, to whose slightest manifestation he had always been opposed. His essays on the subject were collected in Communalism in Modern India (1984). Simultaneously, he began a re-interpretation of the national movement, which can be seen in its initial formulation in his presidential address at the Indian History Congress, Amritsar, 1985. It is clear he was here contesting the standard, communist criticism of the Gandhian leadership for its proneness to compromise. Bipan Chandra posited in defence of the latter, a hypothetical Gandhian strategy of S-T-S (struggle-truce-struggle at higher level). Such a defence is open to the charge of being an after-the-event justification, but as an actual listener to the address, I can testify that there was obvious sincerity in Bipan Chandra when he expounded it.
This was also the time when his parting of ways with the Left became obvious. I was surprised when I saw a special volume on ‘The Left in India’ of the JNU’s journal Studies in History, issued in 1981, in which practically all papers, eight in number, including a very long one from Bipan Chandra (140 pages) were highly critical of the Indian Communists throughout their history. When I protested, over a Chinese meal that he and his wife Usha were giving me, that he should at least have invited some scholars on the Communist side too to contribute to the volume, he did not out of politeness argue with me. A more balanced approach, however, was adopted in India’s Struggle for Independence, 1857-1947, which Bipan Chandra edited in 1987, the work is particularly commendable for its comprehensive coverage in a readable style.
Bipan Chandra always related the past to the present and so was acutely sensitive to contemporary events. He was much troubled by the Emergency declared by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1975, but equally concerned at the Jayaprakash Narayan’s ‘Total Revolution’ movement preceding it, because of its unconstitutional nature and the support it was obtaining from communal forces. This dilemma is well reflected in the chapter (18) he contributed on the theme in the volume India After Independence, 1947-2000, published in 1999 and in the monograph In the Name of Democracy: The J.P. Movement and the Emergency, 2003. It is therefore, wrong to hold that Bipan Chandra was in any sense an apologist for the Congress party. To the last he opposed every concession given to communalism.
In 2004, Bipan Chandra was appointed chairman of the National Book Trust, an office he continued to hold till 2012. Until ill-health affected his activity, he showed great drive and imagination in expanding NBT’s publication programme.
Bipan Chandra won many honours as an academic. On retirement, he was appointed Professor Emeritus by the Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was awarded Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. As already mentioned he was general president of the Indian History Congress (1985).
When I first met Bipan Chandra at a fly-filled tea house in Aligarh in 1959, I was struck immediately by the degree of his commitment to the larger intellectual cause, an irrepressible enthusiasm, and an infectious sense of humour which included the ability to laugh at himself. Friendship once formed with him lasted, since he did not let differences of opinion interfere with it. My wife Sayera and I developed deep personal bonds with him and his gracious wife Usha. The sudden passing away of Usha Chandra darkened the last days of Bipan Chandra, despite the care and support he received from his colleagues and former pupils.
Bipan Chandra did much to oppose colonial and neo-colonial interpretations of modern Indian history, and for the defence of Marxism against its detractors. If there were differences later, they were on secondary issues. His memory deserves a salute from all of us.