Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, Economic and Political Weekly, Volume XLIX, 11 October 2014
Few historians of modern India have had as much widespread influence as did Bipan Chandra. A popular and engaged teacher, history research and writing was never a dispassionate exercise for him. His contributions to Marxist and nationalist interpretations of modern India remain important markers of historiography. This article traces his long intellectual journey and flags the important shifts.
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (firstname.lastname@example.org) taught history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University along with Bipan Chandra. He is the General Editor of the Towards Freedom documentation series of the Indian Council of Historical Research.
When Bipan Chandra passed away on 30 August 2014 an era came to an end. That was the era which saw in post-Independence India the growth of the Nationalist School of historians and the rise of the Marxist school as well. Among the foremost in that generation of historians, Bipan Chandra played an important role in constructing and reconstructing both these schools or styles of thinking. His first and his best work of research, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India (1966), remains unsurpassed, a locus classicus. The empirical richness of that work was not to be matched later, but in general his contribution to and critique of both Marxist and nationalist historiography constituted a set of readings no student of history can do without.
There is another reason why he ranked among the foremost of historians. He was an admirable teacher who brought to each lecture he delivered an infective enthusiasm and a passionate commitment which influenced a huge number of students at Hindu College and the University of Delhi, and later at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. While Bipan Chandra’s work of research or his lectures might have been influential, there is a third reason why his name spread beyond the circle of his professional peers and the walls of his classroom and became a household word. He was the author of a textbook on modern Indian history which was read by hundreds of thousands of people. Written for the National Council of Educational Research and Training for the senior secondary schools, the book was read by students ranging from those in schools to those in graduate courses, aspirants for government jobs through competitive examinations, and all manner of people who are described in publishers’ argot as general readers. For all these reasons, Bipan Chandra became one of the most widely recognised historians of his generation.
Since Bipan Chandra was a colleague of mine for a score of years or more at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the temptation is great to draw upon personal reminiscences and experiences. But that will be inappropriate here for more reasons than one. I choose to observe the usual conventions of writing an obituary and address his life and work as a public intellectual.
The Historians’ Business
Bipan Chandra spent his boyhood and youth in British India and he was already on the verge of adulthood when India obtained Independence. Possibly in the minds of many people of his generation that experience might have been a formative factor in shaping their attitude to colonialism. Their approach to the so-called modern period in India was deeply coloured by not only the history but the memory of colonialism. Perhaps this is one of those things which those of the next generation need to be reminded of. Further, young Bipan’s experience of being in politically and culturally vibrant Lahore as a student in Forman Christian College – after his early schooling in his birthplace in Kangra, then in Punjab – was also an intellectually formative factor. He earned the MA degree at Stanford University but he returned to India to do his PhD under the supervision of Bisheshwar Prasad at Delhi University and to teach at Hindu College. As far as I remember he lived with his charming wife Usha and two children on the campus. This privilege which he enjoyed as the warden of the hostel, allowed him to interact with students and indeed with visitors from distant places who sought him out.
In the somnolent Department of History at that University he caused a stir by organising a Marxist study circle. His lectures were attended by hordes of students, some of them came from other colleges and departments. The generation of Marxist intellectuals Bipan Chandra interacted with included Mohit Sen, Randhir Singh and Sulekh Chandra Gupta in Delhi, Baudhayan Chattopadhyay and Satyesh Chakravarty in Calcutta, A R Desai in Bombay, R S Sharma in Patna, Khaliq and Shafiq Naqvi and Irfan Habib in Aligarh. These are some names which readily come to mind. Some of them and a great many others contributed to the Marxist journal, Enquiry, which this college teacher edited; some articles were contributed by his colleagues in other disciplines, like Amartya Sen. Today we tend to forget those years in the obituaries of Bipan Chandra which underline that he was awarded the Padma Bhushan (2010), the national professorship (2007), and his elevation to the chairmanship of the National Book Trust (2008) and so forth. This signified recognition from the government in power; but at one time Bipan Chandra was way out of line with the establishment. He was at that time a leading Marxist historian. However, in the long run the trajectory of his intellectual life was such that his contribution to nationalist historiography was greater.
Today when we look back at the Nationalist School of historians in India we tend to overlook and take for granted the studies and argumentation that led to the formation of the nationalist approach to overcome colonial intellectual hegemony. That school of history writing produced great persuaders and so great was their success, so much of their ideas were widely accepted, that those ideas became commonplaces of political thinking in India and hence taken for granted. Their very success has taken away the credit that was due to them.
Arguably Bipan Chandra emerged in the 1980s in the front rank in that school of historians. And among them he stood out for the passionate commitment he brought to narrating the history of India’s growth towards nationhood and freedom. His emotional involvement was intense. In this respect I saw a difference between him and our colleague Sarvepalli Gopal. In what Gopal wrote or said there was no great effort to persuade his reader or interlocutor; he seemed to pursue his own train of thought regardless of the effect he produced, almost as if he was talking to himself. While, true to his vocation and style of thinking, he developed arguments to establish the probability of his interpretation being right, he left open the possibility of uncertainty, the possibility of alternatives.
Bipan Chandra’s style of exposition and argumentation on the ideological implications of historical issues was different because there was an activist in him, persuading his readers mattered to him, because that mattered in making an intervention in the evolving history of the nation. This difference was not irreconcilable, they supported and endorsed each other, but there seems to be an undeniable difference in this regard.
To my mind, these are two different paradigms, two different approaches to the frequently unasked question: What is the historians’ business? Generally academic persons do fail to ask that sort of question, we forget the words attributed to Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues that a life unexamined is not worth living. Bipan Chandra was quite certain what the historians’ business ought to be.
If one looks at the trajectory of the evolution of historiography in Bipan Chandra’s writings one might see three distinct phases. From the publication of his doctoral thesis in 1966 to the early 1980s, by and large his work was generally within the Marxian framework and certainly Marx-inspired, provided one allows into one’s Marxian interpretation a special case for India on account of its own historical specificities. His doctoral thesis and first published work, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India (1966), was infused with a strong nationalist spirit; at the same time his exposition of the growth of economic nationalism was qualified by a Marxian perspective. The question of the class character of that discourse was therefore inescapable to him, unlike earlier authors who visited the site of his research such as Biman Bihari Majumdar, or B B Misra, or the venerable S R Mehrotra.
Chandra argued that the spokespersons of only Indian nationalism, roughly from 1880 to 1905, were not only “basically anti-imperialist”, which was obviously beyond question, but also that “they tried to represent the interests of all classes of Indian society”. Further, “they were intellectuals, their thinking was guided, at the level of consciousness by thought and not by interests”. While no doubt a mechanical interpretation of class interest in terms of personal origins and class location was rightly rejected by Chandra, there were sections of left historians who remained unconvinced of the non-class position of nationalist leaders heading a multi-class movement. Despite such difference with some sections of Marxist opinion, Chandra’s approach by and large approximated to the Marxian position.
In his presidential address to the Modern History Section of the Indian History Congress, entitled “Colonialism and Modernisation” (December 1970), he pushed beyond the arguments he had made in his monograph of 1966. He castigated the then fashionable “tradition-modernity model”, promoted by the Chicago School among others, as irrelevant because that bypassed the essential historical features of colonial India. At the same time he was also critical of the infirmities of the “initial conditions approach” which many economic historians considered to be the key to understanding the “Great Divergence” between the West and the Rest (that phrase, however, remained to be coined by the best-selling pop historian of our times, Niall Ferguson).
Five years later, in an essay on “Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian Capitalist Class” (1975), Bipan Chandra expressed the view that in the mid- 1930s Nehru was able to break out of the Gandhian framework towards a radical path, though his Marxist radicalism sadly tapered off to assume the form of some sort of Fabianism. Three years later we find that Chandra was deep in the most esoteric of Marxian discussions in a long essay “Karl Marx, His Theories of Asian Societies and Colonial Rule” (1978). This was partly in response to E J Hobsbawm’s edition of Pre-capitalist Economic Formations, extracted from Marx’s hitherto untranslated early writings, as well as Chandra’s perception that at least a beginning should be made in the “scientific analysis of Marx’s views on colonial rule and colonialism which has yet to be made”. His dissatisfaction with orthodox Marxism was already evident. Although some of Marx’s observations were insightful, he concluded, “Marx’s over-all analysis of Asian societies and colonialism has proved to be inadequate and does not stand the test of hind-sight”.
In the middle of the 1980s a new phase is marked by the long essay which was originally delivered as his address as the general president of the Indian History Congress, entitled “The Long-Term Dynamics: Gandhiji and the Indian National Movement” (1985). One can see here a radical departure from an earlier position he had taken, a revision of his previous approach which comes out more clearly in a revised version of this paper in 1988. In anticipation of the criticism that the essay tended to be reductionist in equating the nationalist movement with the Indian National Congress (INC), and the Congress with Mahatma Gandhi, thus taking out of the core of the narrative alternatives and concurrent forces at work within the freedom struggle, it was stated:
The study of the INC before 1947 has to be ….at the heart of centre of the study of India’s anti-imperialist struggle, though it need not occupy the sole position.…There were of course many other strands in India’s struggle for freedom….[However] at no stage did these become alternatives to the main stream of the national movement, nor were they ever quantitatively and qualitatively of the same class [as the INC].
It will be wrong to think that the message was that the Left and the rest were, so to speak, among those who “also ran” – they played out their role but the inevitable winner in the race was the Congress. To focus on the INC was on the agenda of research or generalisations from research in this second phase, roughly from the mid-1980s to the end of the 1990s. The erstwhile Marxian links appear to atrophy and this is when the claim of the Nationalist School to acknowledge him as one of their own begins to look plausible and substantial.
His essay on “Colonial Rule, Transformation from a Colonial to an Independent Economy: A Case Study of India” (1989) heavily underlines his differences with Marxist scholars. He begins with his perception of the errors in the assumptions which flawed the approach of the Comintern at its Sixth Congress in 1928, he criticises what he calls the “CBF Model”, i e, the perspective of the Comintern, Paul Baran and Andre Gunder Frank, and rejects clearly their view that no independent economic development in the ex-colonial countries was possible unless they are delinked from the world capitalist system and take the socialist path.
In the early 1970s Chandra would have argued that to break away from the world capitalist system towards socialism was the way out, but now he believed that the Indian economy might and indeed did succeed in taking to the path of independent development while being within the capitalist system; he saw straws in the wind indicating that the postcolonial state would succeed in the path it had taken to reach the goal of independent development. (Incidentally, Bipan Chandra did not take part in the debate on the class character and potentials of the “intermediate regimes”; possibly he was put off by the theoretical nature of the debate set off by Kalecki’s writings and the response from K N Raj and others in India and he scarcely gives any attention to it.) He concluded that “India has been successfully developing along the path of independent capitalism” and that “a major reason why socialist forces have not grown” has been their failure to focus on its capitalist character rather than its dependent character.
The revision of his own earlier views were made in several essays in this phase in the 1980s and an essay written at the end of the decade contained this statement:
People like me were harsh critics of Nehru when he was alive and active, partially because we wanted him to go farther and faster on his own road. But with hindsight and with the experience of nearly twenty-five years since he passed away, we can say that Nehru’s life and work, his legacy, his social vision and his achievements are a great strength to us ….
This was his conclusion to a remarkable essay, “Jawaharlal Nehru in Historical Perspective”, which was Chandra’s D D Kosambi Memorial Lecture at Mumbai University delivered in 1990 but published in 1994. In this essay, reminiscent of his empirically rich earlier writings, he argues quite contrary to his earlier essay of 1975 on Nehru. Chandra now held up Nehru’s approximation to the Gandhian strategy as the true way forward for the national movement. Bipan Chandra argued that Marxists, including D D Kosambi, were wrong in adopting an “economic deterministic and class-reductionist approach” and in holding the view that “through Nehru it was the Indian bourgeoisie which was ruling India”. Although the very phraseology used here in criticism of Kosambi is redolent of the stuffy cell meetings of the Communist Party as they were or are at certain times, the rejection of the Left approach was loud and clear. Chandra’s sustained critique of the left, in evidence through this phase, was topped up in this essay of 1994 with this summing up:
Unfortunately both the Communists and the socialists failed to understand the Nehruvian efforts and strategy ….making crude class-political analysis and basing their politics on the belief that Nehru was the political representative of the capitalists and landlords.
These positions taken by Chandra in the second phase instantiate the great distance Bipan Chandra had travelled since 1975.
Engagement with Communalism
In the third phase from the mid-1990s till the last pieces of writing which Bipan Chandra managed to complete despite immense health problems, the trend of his thinking is not so clear, partly because many of these writings of the last 15 years have not yet been properly collected and edited. Most of the writings I have referred to were collected in a series of volumes: Nationalism and Communalism in Modern India (1979), Communalism in Modern India (1984), Indian NationalMovement: The Long-term Dynamics (1988), Essays on Contemporary India (1999).
Some of his later writings have been collected in The Writings of Bipan Chandra (2012, edited by Aditya Mukherjee). In the third phase, from the mid-1990s, Bipan Chandra continued to write occasional pieces, fighting bravely old age and ailments, of which the worst perhaps was the macular degeneration of his eyes. He was working on two long-term projects, his memoirs and a biography of Bhagat Singh. Only a fragment of his work on the latter project appeared in the form of an introductory essay on a new edition (2006) of Bhagat Singh’s tract, Why I am an Atheist. Among the occasional writings in this phase were the texts of several lectures on “Gandhiji, Secularism and Communalism” (2004) and the Patel Memorial lecture on pre-Gandhian political thought (2007). On the whole, he believed,
Gandhiji’s usually inspired understanding proved to be shallow where communalism was concerned….To fight communalism successfully it was necessary to have a deep comprehension of communalism in all its complexity and opacity – its ideological elements, its sources and social roots, its social base, reasons for its growth, and stubbornness in the face of the nationalist attack. Gandhiji and other nationalist leaders as well as the nationalist intellectuals failed to meet the intellectual challenge in this respect.
There is one insightful essay on “Fundamentalism and Communalism” (1994) where he makes a very useful conceptual distinction between fundamentalism and communalism. Fundamentalists look back to the past, communalists may pay lip service to the glories of the past but their gaze is fixed on the modern world and the future. He points out that “in our country the communalists have often not only not been fundamentalists but have not been even religious”, and “to confuse fundamentalism with communalism is to provide the latter with an alibi”. The essay on Gandhi is also remarkable for the clarity with which Bipan Chandra reviews that deeply religious thinker’s approach to secularism.
It is probable that these reflective writings are not as widely read as Bipan Chandra’s writings on communalism in the polemical vein. In fact it is discouraging to reflect on the trend to oversimplify Bipan Chandra’s thoughts, sometimes in formulas such as “S-T-S” (struggle-truce-struggle) or “S-C-S” (struggle-compromise-struggle), etc. Such a trend is inconsistent with and unjust to the inner complexity and structure of a system of thought. Both his admirers and his critics might bear in mind what Bipan Chandra wrote, in the ripeness of wisdom at the age of 77, in a rare reflective essay, “Enlightened History” (2005): “the social power of intellect and the importance of ideas” must be given due weight and value and it is incumbent on intellectuals “to remain humble…for the world is too vast to be grasped in an arrogant manner through claims of superior wisdom”.