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Historian of Courage

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.



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