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Remembering Bipan Chandra, My Teacher

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.

Bipan ChandraThe 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.

Prof Bipan Chandra

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
Email pritishacharya0123@yahoo.co.in


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