Home » Obituaries » A student remembers his guardian and history teacher Bipan Chandra

A student remembers his guardian and history teacher Bipan Chandra


S.K. Pande, blog.tehelka.com, 9 September 2014

Bipan Chandra (27 May 1928 – 30 August 2014) Photo: Anay Mann

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.

First Encounter
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…



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: