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Scaling Ideology in Bipan Chandra: A Tribute to Late Prof. Bipan Chandra

Shaan Kashyap

Shaan Kashyap

M.A. (History), Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru Uniiversity.
Mobile no- 94500 59538, email- shaan.kashyapp@gmail.com

Abstract- For any Historian writing in the post-empirical age, the question of ideology is supreme. Late (Prof.) Bipan Chandra has been called a Marxist- Nationalist or more sympathetically a Left leaning Nationalist. His opponents both professionals (Historians) and non- professionals (who all may have not even read him) denounced him as a Historian of the Congress Party. But what really he talked about, and how his ideas of history should be placed in an historical ideology? This paper attempts to scale his ideology by a comparison with different strands of Marxist historiography of modern Indian history. And try deducting out how Bipan Chandra evolved as a Nationalist from a Marxist.

Significance of the Question of Ideology

A radical relativist in E H Carr announced, “When you read the historian, always listen out for buzzing. If you detect none, either you are tone deaf or your historian is a dull dog.” [1] This imperative commences the age of ideology in historical writing. And surely it has evolved to become more discordant, even after Fukuyama’s much celebrated polemics which claimed- The End of History. [2] Every Historian agrees that objective history is not possible, but even then subjectivity of thoughts is always denounced for what suits us. Some of us may not even bother to read Marx, because he is still mockingly a Marxist, and who all should be nailed in a coffin. But still we may be decent enough by civilizational compulsions to admit that Marxism is also a historical interpretation.

Now, since we are examining a popular Marxist historian, who became a Nationalist, I have certain considerations to propose. Firstly, one needs to understand the writings and theory building of Left in Marxian terms and not on reader’s condition. And secondly, one needs to examine the ideology of Marx and Engels through two strands of previous critical philosophical thought- critique of religion and critique of traditional epistemology and re-evaluation of Hegel’s idealism. [3]
Having considered the two assumptions, I must submit the sources of this examination and scaling. We will have to understand that Indian Left failed considerably in developing an indigenous critique of Marxism in India. Unlike Russians, Chinese and Latin Americans, we never had a variant of Indian Marxism. [4] One may refer to the Lenin – Roy debate in the Second Congress of the Third International. [5]. There was differences between the two as far as political situation in India was concerned. But the agreement was that ‘nationalism is a bourgeoisie ideology: the proletariat movement must be kept independent of it.’ And in the course the ‘Dutt- Bradley’ thesis helped founding the Communist party of India. Leaving a few exceptions, party line communists failed to produce any significant literature on the nature and course of the Indian national movement. For sources they heavily relied on Marx’s journalistic articles for New York Daily Tribune, which later collectively was called ‘Marx’s Writings on India’. And somehow this continues as primary source till late. [6]

Marxist Historiography in Modern Indian History

Marxist historiography for modern Indian history developed through the pioneering works of Rajni Palme Dutt (RPD) and A R Desai. [7] They drew heavily on Marx’s analysis of colonialism vis-a-vis capitalism and the prominent role of the leadership of bourgeoisie. We may pick up RPD for serving our purpose, because A R Desai with his social analysis somehow remains embedded in the same tradition. I will examine five major issues which remained the development forces and somehow corollaries of the Indian freedom struggle- Indian Nationalism, Indian National Congress, Gandhiji, and legacy of the freedom struggle. And accompany these issues with a Left critique starting from RPD and ending with Bipan Chandra. For an alleviation of analysis, I selectively propose RPD, for his ‘India To- Day’(1940) is now essentially a Marxist classic in Indian case. Then we can move simultaneously to EMS Namboodiripad’s ‘History of Indian Freedom Struggle’ (1986) and Bipan Chandra’s ‘Indian National Movement: The Long term Dynamics’ (1988). The significance of the selection of these three texts will be appropriated in the due course. I would also engage Sumit Sarkar’s ‘Modern India 1885-1947’ (1983), but not in the constructed framework, but for a legitimate support of the arguments.

Indian Nationalism- For What, and For Whom?

The notion of ‘Imagined Communities’ was perhaps the better way to explain the ‘rise of economic nationalism’ or ‘the nation in the making’. But Benedict Anderson appeared with imagined communities lately, and Dadabhai Naoroji and Surendranath Banerjee were writing contemporarily in freedom struggle. As one accepts the axiom that, ‘nationalism creates as many problems, as it solves’. And this axiom is most accepted in Indian case. The way historiography of Indian nationalism has taken turns can be shown for the argument. From Imperialist (Cambridge and Neo- Cambridge) to Nationalist (Reactionary and Rational), from Marxists (Orthodox and Revisionists) to Subalterns, from Brahmanical and patriarchal to Dalits and women, Indian nationalism has seen it all. But our intention is different in here. We need to examine the views of RPD, EMS and Bipan Chandra on Indian nationalism, and this surely will need quoting frequently from the primary sources.

RPD commences the question of Indian Nationalism with a range of enquiries, such as,

“Is there a people of India? Can the diversified assembly of races and religions, with the barriers and divisions of caste, of language and other differences, and with the widely varying range of social and cultural levels, inhabiting the vast sub-continental expanse of India, be considered a “nation” or ever become a “nation”? Is not this a false transportation of Western conceptions of entirely different conditions? Is not the only unity in India the unity imposed by British rule?” [8]
And he starts the survey by quoting and then deconstructing the arguments of a range of imperialists such as Strachey and Seeley. He criticised imperialists for their stand that the struggle is not because of irreconcilable struggle of Indian people against British imperialism. But the commencement of the Indian nationalism is the beneficent handiwork of the philanthropic imperialists themselves. [9] But how RPD saw this process of the “beginning of nationalism” remains rooted purely in Marxist analysis. He provided a critique in length discussing the roles of British conquest and exploitation in India, based on Marx’s commentary. These roles were at first destructive, then secondly it laid a material basis for the new order by the political unification of the country. It did so by linking India with world markets, communications, railways, modern industry and modern education.[10] The third step would have been, as Marx predicted, the coming of Indian people into various organisations against the British imperialism. And developing their strength to “throw off the English yoke altogether”. RPD saw the rise of nationalism as a bourgeoisie ideology. As Manifesto declared that, “the bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part”, and that is what happened in Indian case precisely. [11] Moving on to EMS, from 1940s critique of RPD to 1986 work called ‘History of Indian Freedom Struggle’ we find a little, or perhaps no deviation in the view. At the very onset itself, EMS calls it ‘shoots of bourgeois nationalism’. His analysis again finds refuge on Marx’s commentary of 1850s, and he deliberately talks about contradictions of Indian society. A paradigm shift appears with Bipan Chandra. Prof. Chandra with his ‘The Rise and Growth of the Economic Nationalism (1966)’ remained aware of economic significance but made a leap forward from the previous prejudices of Marxian historians. He remarked in the Preface: “This is of course a study not of the intellectual basis of Indian nationalism- that is of the class and other human relations which lay at its base- but of its ideological prograic aspects……. study of the reflection of the economic reality in the minds of the early national leaders would be found useful, for though social relations exist independently of the ideas men form of them, men’s understanding of these relations is crucial to their social and political action.” [12]

The manifestation of economic nationalism in Bipan Chandra’s work developed into primary and secondary contradictions in the realms of Indian freedom struggle. He commenced the ‘Ideological and Programmatic Dynamics’ as: “The Indian national movement was basically the product of the central or primary contradiction of colonial India, the contradiction between colonialism and the interests of the Indian people. This was its material basis.” [13] The Indian people also pre-occupied a secondary contradiction, which were divisions of class, caste, religion, locality, etc. But as the national movement progressed, people gave up their secondary contradictions, to get unite for the struggle against primary contradiction. Thus a war of position actualised against the British imperialism. And this facilitated the rise of nationalism which was not prejudiced or fragmented in any group. This conclusive remark makes Prof. Chandra a Marxist, who was surely aware of contradictions in Indian people themselves. But he progressed to be a Nationalist who viewed the giving up the divisive forces among Indians to unite in a common struggle against British imperialism. He announced at the very beginning of his collective work along with colleagues of JNU that: “It was (Indian national movement) a movement which galvanized millions of people of all classes and ideologies into political action and brought to its knees a mighty colonial empire.” [14]

Indian National Congress- Party or Movement?

RPD and EMS both begin with the debate over the formation of the Congress Party. Whether it was a British brain child or a consequence of the accelerating and mounting national conscience? RPD claims about the evolution of the Congress Party as: “The history and development, defeating all the original claims of imperialism, is a testimony to the sweeping advance of the forces of the national movement and to the impossibility of confining those forces within the narrow channels which imperialism would have sought to mark out for them.” [15] EMS is equally critical of the bourgeoisie leadership of the Congress in its initial days. He remarked: “It was the clash between these forces that was basic to the critiques of Indian political economy by Naoroji, Ranade and Dutt and the agitations based on these critiques. Basic to the demand raised by the Congress for elected people’s representative and for an administration under their control was the desire to have a government to realize the hopes and aspirations of the Indian Bourgeoisie which was developing gradually.” [16]

Even in the later developments RPD and EMS saw congress as a bourgeoisie party which has a twofold character. At once which as RPD suggests can be traced through all the contradictions of its leadership, from Gokhale in the old stage to his disciple, Gandhi in the new. [17] However later RPD and EMS relaxes this assumption a little when they foresee: “This contradiction can only be solved in proportion as the national movement builds itself fully and completely on the masses and their interests in opposition to imperialism and to all those privileged interests which seek co-operation with imperialism” [18] However, the approach the Bipan Chandra again took a leap forward from this perspective. According to him, “Congress was the leader of the popular anti-imperialist movement of the Indian people; and its activities in the main constituted this movement.” [19] He further states that, “It was the Congress- led movement in which millions upon millions of sexes and all classes, castes, religions and regions to a greater or lesser extent participated. The Congress, being not just a party but a movement, incorporated within itself different political and ideological trends as well.” [20] Moreover, he very systematically defended the opposition to the safety valve theory in the light of new primary souces.

Now this presents a much altered view. Prof. Chandra alleviated the status of Congress from a party to the movement. He denounced any kind of bourgeoisie leadership and amalgated and assimilated all the streams of the national movement within Congress itself. This view was a long departure and deviation from the Marxist critique of the Congress party. Additionally, it also undermined the significance of other trends such as Dalits, Communal and Communists who were always striving hard to have a presence felt outside the Congress hegemony in the course of the freedom struggle.

Gandhi- Mahatma or Bourgeoisie Mascot?

Mahatma Gandhi somehow, remained a major contestation arena within all the respective frameworks of the national movement. His tussles with Ambedkar, Jinnah or lastly with his own party are historical facts. Now Gandhi needs to be examined here critically and not sentimentalizing him. Orthodox Marxists always remained critical of him. A ‘mascot of bourgeoisie’ as RPD saw him, he never allowed the people coming of their own, and thus always prevented a people’s movement, a revolution of the Bolshevik lines. EMS in his, ‘Mahatma and the Ism’ remains very critical of him. As EMS suggests this volume confined itself to a review of Mahatma’s life, and traced the evolution and final collapse of Gandhism as a philosophy and a programme of political action. [21]

Sumit Sarkar saw an evident ‘role of rumour’ in the making of Gandhi as Mahatma. [22] References can also be made to an excellent essay called ‘Gandhi as Mahatma’ [23] which analyzed the role of rumour and the craft of people in assembling their hero as a semi- God.

However, the approach of Bipan Chandra remains more sympathetic towards Gandhiji. In fact it is only he, and later Irfan Habib in a symposium [24] who started calling him ‘Gandhiji’ and not ‘Gandhi’ for these connotations are essentially reflective of how you see the man. He states that, “it was in the Gandhian phase that a better understanding and practice of the dialectic between the masses and leaders or spontaneity and organization were evolved.” [25] He further declares confidently that: “It was above all Gandhi who by and large understood this dialectic, reached out to the masses, mobilized them on the basis of their own political activity, that is,, recognized that only a mass movement can arise and develop and move towards success only when the masses are the subjects and not objects of politics.” [26] Thus Bipan Chandra moved away from the bourgeoisie interpretation of the Gandhian politics to a mass involvement and participation. He also credits Gandhi to understand and inter play as counter hegemonic force against the British imperial hegemony in the avail of constitutional space provided.

Legacy of the Freedom Struggle-

The difference in approach becomes clear as soon as someone flips in the pages of India today to reach to the chapter on Independence, which has been deliberately titled- ‘Independence?’. Marxist Historians saw the process of independence as a mere transfer of power from the white skinned imperialism to the brown skinned Indians, who had an alarming question ahead of them- What kind of free India? RPD saw three main tendencies or types of general social outlook which existed then. Firstly, conservative or the backward looking tendency. Secondly, powerful tendency of the industrial bourgeoisie, which seek to build modernised capitalist India after the Western model. And lastly, the rising tendency of socialism, which RPD suggests, represented the conscious expression of the industrial working class and of the basic transformation of the Indian society. [27] These expressions are a kind of non- acceptance of earlier Marxists who made genuine complains about no structural changes in the social forms of India as a whole. At one side, Nehru was ushering ‘tryst with destiny’ and on the other, Communists were shouting, ‘ye azadi jhooti hai’ (this freedom is farce). The only one optimism they saw lately was some kind of socialist reconstruction of India based on the Soviet model of central economic planning. Still very lately they assumed a pessimistic view of the legacy of the Indian freedom struggle.

Bipan Chandra and earlier Sumit Sarkar saw a more optimistic shades coming out of the legacy of the freedom struggle. Though Sarkar complains of Congress gradually becoming the Raj itself and silent bitterness of Gandhi, he is somehow more adjusting to the glorified struggle coming out as won. [28] Bipan Chandra in particular, and his followers in general are however very proud of the consequences of the freedom struggle and its legacy. He asserts that, “the Indian national movement was perhaps the first example in the world of struggle for hegemony which, by definition, is not a one- time struggle for political power but a long- term struggle for influence over the minds of the people and control of state power through such influence.” [29]

Conclusion: A More Nationalist Historian

As we surveyed above, Bipan Chandra moved a way ahead and switched over established Marxian frameworks to re-write a more nationalist history of modern India. Though his analysis is earlier days remained embedded in an economic base, in later days he expanded the base to culminate it into an anti-imperialist struggle. The primary contradiction between the interests of the Indian people and British imperialism was not only economic, but political, social, cultural and historical as well. Bipan Chandra wrote a history which evolved in the conscience of the people of India as ‘common sense’ and it was widely accepted, though with little reservations, throughout the other historiography schools. What essentially can be a right tribute to the great historian, who was an activist, institution builder and a great teacher? The tribute, I suppose, can be writing and re-writing history continuously with ‘the idea of India’ and heterogeneity of its culture, and resisting communal forces with a fervour of secular history.
Endnotes

  1. E H Carr, What is History, Chapter 1. The Historian and His Facts, Second Edition, Penguin Books.
    2. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, the Free Press, New York.
    3. Tom Bottomore et al, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Ideology, pp. – 247-252, Blackwell.
    4. A commentary edited by David McLellan, “Marxism after Marx” Macmillan publication does not mentions any chapter on Indian Marxism. Though it deals deeply with Russian, Chinese, Latin American variants. It also has chapters on Frankfurt School, British and American Marxism.
    5. It opened in Petrograd on July 19, 1920 and then met in Moscow from 23 July to 7 August.
  2. Marx’s journalistic output in New York Daily Tribune in 1850s is considered primarily the most effective analysis for Indian case by Indian Left. His ‘The British Rule in India (1853)’ and ‘The First Indian War of Independence’ are quoted as lately as 1986 in the work of EMS which we are examining. His analysis is basically economical vis-a-vis European colonialism.
  3. Rajni Palme Dutt, India Today, first published in 1940, and then republished in 1947 as a relarged edition. A R Desai’s Social Background of Indian Nationalism (Bombay).
  4. R.P Dutt, India Today, Chapter X, The Rise of Indian Nationalism, pp- 283 (PPH, Delhi)
    9. Ibid. pp. 299
  5. Ibid. pp 304- 309
  6. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, pp- 44, (PPH, Delhi)
    12. Bipan Chandra, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, Preface, (PPH, Delhi) (1966)
  7. Bipan Chandra, Indian National Movement: The Long Tern Dynamics, pp-20 (Har-Anand Publications, Delhi) Reprint 2014
  8. Bipan Chandra, India’s Struggle for Independence, pp- 14, Penguin (1989)
  9. R P Dutt, India Today, pp- 310, PPH, Delhi
  10. EMS Namboodiripad, History of Indian Freedom Struggle, Social Scientist Press.
  11. R P Dutt, India Today, pp- 317 PPH, Delhi
  12. Ibid. pp- 318
  13. Bipan Chandra, Indian National Movement: The Long Term Dynamics, pp- 11
  14. Ibid. pp- 13
  15. EMS Namboodiripad, History of Indian Freedom Struggle, pp- v-vi
  16. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India 1885-1947, pp- 181-183
  17. Shahid Amin, Gandhi as Mahatma, Selected Subaltern Studies, OUP, New York.
  18. Irfan Habib, Gandhi and the National Movement, Social Scientist, Vol. 23, no. 4/6, pp. 3-15
  19. Bipan Chandra, India National Movement: The Long- Term Dynamics, pp- 80
  20. Ibid pp- 80
  21. R P Dutt, India Today, pp- 620-628
  22. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India 1885- 1947, pp- 10-11
  23. Bipan Chandra, Indian Freedom Movement: The Long- Term Dynamics, pp- 14