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HISTORIAN NONPAREIL - Bipan Chandra's moral courage

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By Prabhat Patnaik The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
  • Published 9.09.14

Professor Bipan Chandra, the outstanding historian of modern India who passed away on August 30, did not just produce brilliant historical analyses based on research and erudition, but he also provided his readers with a whole new Weltanschauung, which reflected his unique intellectual position.

Nobody dwelt more passionately than Bipan, as he was universally called, on the grandeur of India’s anti-colonial struggle. In fact, he used to say that India achieving Independence was one of the three most significant events of the first half of the 20th century, the others being the Bolshevik and the Chinese Revolutions. But, in his intellectual engagement with the anti-colonial struggle, he was rather unique among his peers because he brought to it an unflinching Marxist perspective. At the same time, however, he was also unique among Marxists. His analysis of the anti-colonial struggle, and the significance he attached to 1947, which he saw as India’s “bourgeois revolution”, was very different from the position of several other Marxists, and of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Bipan had a brief association with the CPI(M), whose programmatic understanding was that India’s bourgeois democratic revolution still needed to be completed. This difference never took the form of an antagonism vis-à-vis the party, but it was always there, as is evident, for instance, from E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s laudatory yet critical review of Bipan’s magnum opus, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, in the CPI(M)’s weekly journal, People’s Democracy.

Two kinds of criticism have usually been raised against Bipan’s intellectual position. First, he did not explore the dialectics between the anti-colonial struggle and the social emancipation struggle led by Phule, Periyar, Shri Narayana Guru, Ambedkar and others, implicitly privileging the former. This, however, is a criticism that can be levelled against a good deal of Left analysis and not just against Bipan alone. Second, he over-estimated the anti-imperialism of the Indian bourgeoisie, which is the standard criticism against him from many of his friends on the Left.

These, of course, are issues that would continue to be debated. But even Bipan’s critics would agree that the position he took sprang from a view, which accorded centrality to the phenomenon of imperialism. This view perhaps also reflected the influence upon his thinking of Paul Baran, the renowned American Marxist economist, whose lectures Bipan had attended during his days at Stanford University. And with this perception of the centrality of imperialism one can scarcely disagree.

It is interesting that a senior American Treasury official and Wall Street favourite had said in the 1990s that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic reforms in China, and India’s economic liberalization were the three most significant events of the latter half of the 20th century. This remark, coming from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, but mirroring what Bipan used to say about the three most significant events of the first half of the 20th century, lends credence, ironically, to Bipan’s position.

Bipan’s uniqueness among historians was not just because of his Weltanschauung. But it also arose from his total rejection of the kind of academicism that one comes across in institutions of higher learning. He firmly believed that the products of academic research should not remain confined to a small group of the cognoscenti, but should be widely disseminated, including even to schoolchildren. He wrote text books for schoolchildren and prevailed upon his friends and colleagues to do so. The Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which he founded along with Sarvepalli Gopal, Satish Chandra and Romila Thapar, became a remarkable institution not only because of the excellent quality of its teaching and research, but also because it intervened to raise the quality of teaching even at school level through textbooks written by many of its distinguished professors.

Likewise, during his chairpersonship of the National Book Trust, Bipan got outstanding scholars like Irfan Habib, Amit Bhaduri and Sunanda Sen to write monographs on a range of subjects, for dissemination at extraordinarily low NBT prices to a wide audience. The NBT, to be sure, was already engaged in such a task. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s compilation of the Gandhi-Tagore exchange, for instance, which, to my mind, remains, to this day, the single most important reading for anyone interested in understanding India’s socio-economic predicament and which any renowned publisher would have gleefully brought out and sold at an exorbitant price, had been published by the NBT. But Bipan widened these activities enormously.

Apart from his scholarly attributes, Bipan had, to my mind, three remarkable personal qualities. The first was his charisma, of which I had personal experience as an undergraduate at Delhi University. Like his colleague Randhir Singh, the political scientist, he influenced generations of students at Delhi University belonging to diverse disciplines. When I was a third-year undergraduate at St Stephen’s College, entrusted with the task of organizing after-dinner meetings for a society called the Informal Discussion Group, we decided to invite Bipan, who was then teaching at Hindu College and was already a big name on the campus. I went to his house, and was received with great courtesy, notwithstanding my age, which then was just around 19. Bipan readily agreed to come for a talk, and when I asked him if he would like to speak about the freedom struggle, his prompt answer was: “No, I would rather speak on Satyajit Ray’s new film, Charulata.” He gave a scintillating talk and was engrossed in discussing all kinds of topics with a group of us till well past midnight.

His lectures at Delhi University were always a big draw, and students from diverse disciplines, including myself, would drop in occasionally to listen to them. They were invariably lucid, captivating and suffused with a sense of drama. He ended one lecture, I recall, with the dramatic remark, “… and that is why India has not produced a single genius after Gandhi… [pause] except Satyajit Ray”. He carried all these qualities to his JNU lectures later.

His second quality was the enormous amount of energy that he possessed. He used this energy not just for teaching and research, but also for helping students and colleagues who were facing any personal problems. When my wife, Utsa, and I returned to India in 1973 from Cambridge, where I had been a junior member of the Economics faculty, to teaching jobs at JNU, life on the campus was exceedingly difficult. One could not get a cooking-gas connection easily and cooking had to be done on a kerosene stove. But kerosene, too, was not easily available except occasionally at ration shops, and to buy kerosene there one needed a ration card. The ration card, in short, was a dire necessity, and we did not possess one. One day, Bipan breezed into my office (that was his usual mode of entry), dragged me into his battered Fiat car and took me to some place several kilometres away, where one applied for ration cards. He spent two whole mornings, on that day and on another day, getting me a ration card; and I am told that he did it for other colleagues, too, who had newly joined JNU. His energy simply overwhelmed one, both intellectually and personally. Not surprisingly, younger JNU historians of that time, like Saugata Mukherji and Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, used to refer to him as Borda, or elder brother.

His third remarkable quality was his moral courage. He acted according to his beliefs irrespective of what anybody thought about his actions. I recollect an occasion when the All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organizations had called a teacher’s strike, and a general body meeting of JNU teachers was being held to discuss what our attitude should be. Literally every speaker, barring one, supported the strike; and the one exception was Bipan. He knew he was in a hopeless minority, but that did not prevent him from expressing his views, even when those views were extremely unpopular at that meeting. But his very audacity to be contrary earned him respect, and he was listened to with great attention and in total silence.

Bipan was an altogether larger-than-life figure, who did everything with great passion, was never afraid to court controversy, and was unflinching in his commitment to secular anti-imperialism. The very energy and passion of such people often involve their acting in ways that others may find abrasive, and even objectionable; but their actions are informed with a higher purpose. They are the ones who build institutions, establish schools of thought, and leave behind indelible legacies. Bipan was such a person. His passing away leaves a big void.