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‘Call me Bipan, not prof’

- Historian Bipan Chandra dies in sleep
Bipan Chandra

Medical records will blame ill health but, to many who knew him, it was the mind that gave up in the end.

A mind that authored some of the classics of modern Indian history, built fledgling institutions and revived dying ones, and was open enough to revisit its own conclusions. But for students spanning five decades, it was the intellectually hyperactive mind of “Bipan”.

Veteran historian Bipan Chandra never woke up on Saturday morning, passing away in his sleep at 86, leaving behind a legacy with multiple identities. An authority on India’s freedom struggle, a voice against communalism, the writer of textbooks millions of school and college students across the country have read, a doting husband: Chandra was all these and more.

Yet it is his reputation as a “students’ professor” first and foremost that generations of students — even those who disagreed with his political ideology — remember Chandra by.

“He was fundamentally a professor who loves his interactions with his students,” said historian Aditya Mukherjee, who studied under Chandra at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the early 1970s and remained a close friend. “And it was his inability to interact intellectually the way he liked — right at the end — because of his old age and illnesses that I believe took him. He lost the will to live.”

Chandra studied in Lahore and Stanford before joining Delhi University where he taught at Hindu College. In the early 1960s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had created a team of experts in multiple subjects to draft post-colonial era textbooks for Indian school students. The handpicked history team had Chandra and other eminent historians like Romila Thapar and S. Gopal, under the leadership of Tara Chand. The textbooks they wrote then for the National Council for Educational Research and Training continue to shape today’s textbooks across Indian schools, even after multiple revisions over the years.

In 1959, historian Arjun Dev was pursuing his MA in history at Kirori Mal College — also a part of Delhi University — when he heard about Chandra, who used to then teach a class in Chinese history at Hindu College.

Dev attended some of Chandra’s classes and, in those staid, formal years, was stunned by what he saw.

“He never allowed students to call him professor saab or Professor Chandra to his face — he was adamant they call him Bipan,” Dev recalled. “And the amazing thing is, he continued that way right till the end, even when he was in his 80s.”

Chandra’s PhD thesis from Delhi University — titled The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India — is widely viewed as a key marker in India’s historiography. The work credited moderates in the Indian National Congress like Dadabhai Naoroji — till then considered insignificant in their role in the freedom struggle — as important contributors in shaping India’s battle for independence.

After Delhi University, Chandra moved to what was then a brand new institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Chandra is credited with helping establish JNU’s history department, a period when he wrote other significant tomes on India’s freedom struggle.

But in JNU in the 1970s, Chandra’s decrepit Fiat car was as famous — or infamous —as the historian himself, his students and friends recall. Chandra would frequently offer rides to students.

“Once you were with him in the car, he would get so animated in intellectual discussions and debates that he would remove his hands from the wheel and start waving them in the air,” Mukherjee said. “It was scary.”

The car would also frequently break down — the unlucky students in the vehicle would then need to push it.

Chandra’s forgetfulness was also legendary — on several occasions, he would invite students home, then forget to inform his wife Usha, and himself forget about the invitation.

“The students would turn up, and he would ask: So how come you’re here?” Mukherjee said.

An open Marxist, Chandra till the early 1970s held views akin to his ideological brethren on the role of Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian freedom struggle: the Father of the Nation was bourgeois, and responsible for crushing true revolutionary movements.

But Chandra was never averse to reviewing his understanding of modern India. He critiqued the Indian Left in 1983, and separately revised his views on Gandhi. He concluded Gandhi was actually a far more revolutionary figure than the Indian Left had ever acknowledged.

His critique of the Left and praise for Gandhi initially threatened to make him a pariah among Marxists, but CPM leader Puchalapalli Sudarayyah later acknowledged that Chandra’s work had contributed to a rethinking on Gandhi within the Left. Later, Chandra’s History of Modern India would become a bible for modern Indian history students, selling over 250,000 copies in English alone.

Under the UPA government of Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi — who offered condolences today — Chandra was appointed chairman of the National Book Trust. As NBT chairman, Chandra was credited with reviving a Nehru-era organisation that many argued had lost its relevance in a post-reforms India.

By then though, Chandra’s eyesight was already failing him — and the history professor increasingly relied on wife Usha to read out to him, and on a device that magnified text placed under it and that was a fixture in his office.

Usha’s death in 2009 was a major blow to Chandra, his friends said. “That set him back a lot,” Dev said.

But Chandra — who lived with one of his two sons — continued meeting friends, teachers and students, and began writing an autobiography that is “almost complete”, Mukherjee said.

Chandra was also writing a book on Bhagat Singh — the revolutionary he admired but whose intellectual evolution as a Marxist, he argued, had been exaggerated — Dev said.

“Bipan thought Bhagat Singh could have become India’s Antonio Gramsci, but that he hadn’t gotten there yet,” Dev said, referring to the Italian Marxist theoretician from the early 20th century. “He was keen to nuance the popular perception of Bhagat Singh.”

What Chandra would not revise his views on till the end was communalism. After the BJP government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee came to power in 1998-99, Chandra teamed up with several historians and activists to protest what they called the “saffronisation of education”.

Chandra and other historians with him were in turn accused of a Left bias and a lack of objectivity. And in recent years, some of Chandra’s critics labelled him “pro-Congress”.

But even those who disagreed with him ideologically viewed him as an intellectual giant.

“Rest in peace Professor Chandra: we may have often agreed with you and sometimes disagreed, but we all learnt our fundamental lessons in India’s recent past from you,” wrote journalist and now media studies lecturer Vikas Pathak on Facebook.

Pathak, who in the late 1990s belonged to the BJP’s student arm ABVP — which he subsequently left — in JNU, today recalled an incident from a meeting organised by the Congress student body NSUI.

“My proudest moment as a student and right-wing activist in those days was when he personally tore to shreds a pamphlet of mine on (VD) Savarkar at a public meeting the NSUI had invited him to,” Pathak wrote. “To be intellectually questioned by Prof Chandra was a shot in the arm for a young researcher like me.”