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A Respected Teacher of History


V. Krishna Ananth

Economic and Political Weekly, Volume XLIX No. 41, October 11, 2014

Bipan Chandra’s contribution to the historiography of Indian nationalist thought was decisive and unparalleled. A scholar who saw immense value in a Marxist reading of history, his sorties into India’s post-1947 political history laid him open to the slur of being a Congress sympathiser. Yet he remained true to his principles, a stand that time has vindicated. Above all, he was a teacher who loved the thrust and parry of the classroom, and the framework he devised for a Marxian approach to nationalism will endure.

Bipan Chandra (1927-2014), historian, activist, teacher, and, above all, a human being, did not wake up on Saturday, 30 August 2014. The author of many publications, beginning with Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India(1966), Bipan was not just one of the historians who blazed a trail in the 50 years after the 1960s. He dominated the discourse. His contribution to the historio­graphy of Indian nationalist thought was decisive and unparalleled. His works were such that one could dis­agree with him, but not ignore him.

Economic nationalism, based on his doctoral thesis, stirred a debate. Bipan belonged to a generation of Marxists who had to reckon with Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which came out in print later, and his argument marked a departure from R P Dutt’s India Today (1940), which had long been held as a fundamental text for the Marxist interpretation of India’s struggle for freedom. Bipan’s position raised some questions, but notably seemed to provide the framework for a Marxian approach to nationalism. Rather than sticking to the conventional understanding that nationalism belonged to the bourgeoisie, Bipan’s prefix – economic – laid the basis for a new thinking. Note that he did this in the 1960s, at least a decade and half before Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities or Edward Said’sOrientalism.

Bipan will be remembered for having separated the husk from the grain. He set a paradigm from which it was possible to distinguish attempts to attribute a right-wing character to nationalism by defining it in only cultural terms. For Bipan, nationalism was not imagination; it was the response of a colonised people. He disagreed with Marx’s views (in the aftermath of 1857) on British rule in India, like Marxists of his time, but differed with them on locating the Indian National Congress and M K Gandhi as representatives of the nationalist bourgeoisie. One must, however, add that Bipan did not stray away from the Marxist approach to history. His presidential address to the Indian History Congress session in Amritsar in December 1985 clearly established this, notwithstanding the knee-jerk reaction by a section of mainstream Marxist scholars.

The 1985 address, best known for the struggle-truce-struggle (S-T-S) strategy, was attacked. Bipan did not wilt. In due course, it sunk in that the address was not only about strategy. Bipan built on his 1966 position, and established a continuity between the pre-Gandhi phase of the struggle and the movements that came after Gandhi emerged as a leader. He traced the evolution of the nationalist discourse, from the moderate to the extre­mist, long before Gandhi arrived in India. He said,

Historians and other social scientists, as also contemporary political commentators, have tended to concentrate on Gandhiji’s philosophy of life. But, in fact, his philosophy of life had only a limited impact on the people. It was as a political leader and through his political strategy and tactics of struggle that he moved millions into political action.

A Marxist Historiography

Between economic nationalism and the 1985 address and later, Bipan’s works sought to establish the objective reality in which nationalism emerged in India. He underscored the nature of British rule and the colonial state in India (semi-hegemonic and semi-authoritarian), unlike Adolf Hitler’s Germany or Czarist Russia or Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, and of this reality shaping the struggle against colonialism. In this and elsewhere, Bipan’s approach was drawn from Marx’s classic statement on history that “mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy 1859). He thus put in place a Marxist historiography of the Indian national movement, which until then was guided by Dutt’s work arguing that Gandhi and the Indian National Congress were simply handmaidens of the national bourgeoisie.

This is not to say that Bipan glossed over the class approach – he stuck to it. In discussing the freedom movement as a crucible where different classes contested, he invoked the concept of hegemony. India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947 (1988), which he authored with K N Panikar, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee, and Sucheta Mahajan, was a wholesome study in which the contributions of the working class, the peasantry, and various other subaltern groups in the freedom struggle was foregrounded. The book was based on a scrutiny of official records, private papers, and, most importantly, a number of interviews the team conducted with men and women who participated in the struggle but whose experiences had been unrecorded till then. This work remains a text as much as Sumit Sarkar’sModern India: 1885-1947 (1983), and will continue to be one for students of history for long. Bipan initiated an attempt to challenge the Cambridge school of historians, as much as he contributed to revealing the infirmities Dutt’s work suffered from in relation to a Marxist approach.

Bipan’s analysis of Gandhi was clinical. Describing the post-1918 phase, he held that the basic task at that stage “was to destroy the notion that British rule could not be challenged, to create among the people fearlessness and courage and the capacity to fight and make sacrifices, and to inculcate the notion that no people could be ruled without their consent’’ (“The Long Term Dynamics of the Indian National Congress”, Presidential Address, IHC, 1985). In this, he sought to dispel the notion that Gandhi contributed to dampening the struggle. This had been mentioned earlier in a different context by Ram Manohar Lohia. Addressing the conference of the Socialist Party in 1955, Lohia said, “A sterile Gandhism has come into existence which concentrates almost exclusively on changing the heart of the well-placed to the utter neglect of change of the poor man’s heart.’’ Well, Bipan would not have taken kindly to it if he had heard me associate him with Lohia.

History, for Bipan, was not just a project meant to be used by professional historians or students of the discipline. He said in his 1985 address that India’s struggle for independence was

the only actual historical example of a semi-democratic or democratic type of state structure being replaced or transformed, of the broadly Gramscian theoretical perspective of a war of position being successfully practiced. The study of its experience can yield many insights into the processes of historical change and state transformation, both in the past and in the present, both to the historian and the political activist.

This idea of history led to his foray into the history of post-1947 India, an area many established historians have been reluctant to enter. India After Independence (1999; renamed India Since Independence) saw Bipan commenting on contemporary events and living personalities, which exposed him to some criticism because he was seen as defending the Congress Party and its leaders. Some draw a link between his position on the Indian National Congress and the struggle for freedom, and his prognosis of the Congress as a party that of the establishment.

Bipan found Lohia to have contributed to the decimation of some of the institutions that were built on the foundations of the freedom struggle. And his view on Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and his campaign was important for the same reason, articulated in In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and the Emergency (2003). He had by then moved away from his peers of younger days. Among them was Randhir Singh, with whom he used to ride across Delhi to organise schoolteachers to mobilise them to fight for their demands. Singh took a contrary view of the mainstream left and associated with platforms that were identified as far left, while Bipan remained with S A Dange and Mohit Sen, seeing a ray of hope in the Congress Party’s socialist bloc.

Bipan did not repudiate the Emergency of 1975-77 very strongly. He blamed JP for attempting to destroy institutions by refusing to wait for the general elections (which was due in March 1976), and Indira Gandhi for not stepping down after the Allahabad High Court disqualified her election to the Lok Sabha. But Bipan suggested that Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha had been part of a conspiracy to destabilise constitutional democratic institutions, which were sacrosanct because they had been raised on foundations laid by the freedom struggle. It is another matter that he seemed to think like Gandhi and her cheerleaders on the Allahabad High Court verdict, and on the Supreme Court decision in theGolaknath case, where the bench sought to forbid legislation that intended to put certain socialist principles in place.

More Than a Teacher

Bipan’s position in these was guided by the Nehruvian imprint on the constitutional scheme, and he did not conceal this at any time. India Since Independence was a sequel to India’s Struggle for Independence, and even while he was attacked by erstwhile friends, Bipan stood firm. But none could accuse Bipan of insisting that his students agree with him. He did not expect implicit obedience; he would argue, and do that with force, but insist that one should agree to disagree. He was more than just a teacher to his students. As someone put it, Bipan was not just a teacher to those who sat in his classes in Delhi University or Jawaharlal Nehru University – he taught history to a generation and left behind a school of thought.

One may have found it difficult to agree with Bipan when he criticised the anti-Congress consolidation brought about by Lohia. It was based on the apprehension that such a movement would eventually lead to the consolidation of the right in our political space. Madhu Limaye, a socialist and Lohia follower, expressed this in the context of the Janata Party in 1978. Bipan persisted with it a decade later when he refused to celebrate V P Singh and his crusade against corruption. The historian was right, and he stood vindicated on 16 May 2014 when the general election results came. Bipan did not live long enough to score a point. But then, those who knew Bipan well knew he would not have wasted time doing so. And with his health deteriorating, he knew that his battle for secularism would have to cease.

Apart from his significant contributions as a historian and a political activist, Bipan will be remembered as a human being and a teacher – one who never let his students down.

V Krishna Ananth (krishnananth@gmail.com) teaches history at Sikkim University and was Bipan Chandra’s student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


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