Bipan Chandra: The Historian of Modern India

Bipan Chandra
Bipan Chandra (27 May 1928 – 30 August 2014)

It is natural for Bipan Chandra who died last week on August 30, to be best remembered as the author the NCERT text book “Modern India”, but his work as a historian went far beyond that.

His PhD thesis, later published as “The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India: Economic Policies of Indian National Leadership, 1880-1905”, as well as “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” and “India’s Struggle for Independence” provided new vistas for research and understanding of modern Indian history.

The latter two works were particularly significant and hotly debated. “The Rise of Communalism in Modern India” was the first work dedicated to the study of communalism, and “India’ Struggle for Independence” used Antonio Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution and counter hegemony to understand India’s struggle for Independence.

It is less known that Bipan Chandra started out as a volunteer of the righ- wing Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. It was only when he went to the United States that he was exposed to other schools of historiography and evolved into a Marxist historian. He helped discover the now seminal tract by Bhagat Singh “Why I am an Athiest”

He was also perhaps the only one among other Marxist historians of his generation who studied in the US and not in Europe. He moved on from the RSS worldview to researching on the radical left and revolutionary terrorist movement during the British rule. I heard that he had, at one time, supported the Naxalite movement. He later swerved towards what came to be known as Left Nationalism.

The shift came with his research work on the economic nationalism of the late 19th century. In this work, he showed that the economic critique of imperialism by Dadabhai Naoroji, MG Ranade and others formed the bedrock of Indian response to colonial rule. He went to formulate that an essentially anti-imperialist movement that culminated in the Indian Revolution. This was quite different from what the Indian Marxists, particularly the two communist parties that believed that Indian Independence in 1947 was at best a transfer of power.

Bipan Chandra was a fine orator and an engaging conversationalist. My first meeting with him on a late winter evening in 1995 ended in his learning more about what I thought about the economic reforms then being ushered in by the Narasimha Rao government than in my getting to know and learn from him, which had been the reason for my meeting him. He not only read but also remembered whatever little I wrote in the late Mohit Sen’s paper Communist Consolidation (and later New Thinking Communist). In some cases it was quite embarrassing for me because I would often forget the details of what I had written even as I heard him taking some of those points to their logical conclusion.

I found some of his verbal observations quite interesting, even if a bit farfetched sometimes. He once called the CPI ideologue Mohit Sen India’s Lenin. Even as someone who was quite close to Sen, I found the comparison difficult to digest. At another time, he mentioned that a JNU student leader in the CPI(M) (who now occupies an important position in the party), had been planted by the CIA to wreck it from within.

Perhaps this reflected a tendency on his part to explain away what could not be accounted for within his framework of history, not just as an aberration but as a conspiracy.

The last I met him was over ten years ago. He mentioned he was working on a book on Mohandas Gandhi. At the time he was fast losing his vision, and I don’t know whether he completed that work or not. I had by then lost my enthusiasm for the positions held by the Left Nationalists, and no longer lived in Gurgaon, where he, too, lived after retiring from the JNU.

The key notions on which Bipan Chandra’s writings were based on were class, nation and communalism. This understanding had gone on to become the nearest to what may be called the common-sense understanding of the students of modern Indian history through the 1990s when it began to be contested by political forces that did not conform to these notions. Even Marxist historians like Sumit Sarkar had started to incorporate such categories, particularly that of caste and gender, to the study of modern Indian history. Bipan refused to budge- indeed, his adulation of Gandhi only increased over time as he remained ensconced in the categories of class, nation and communalism.

The kind of historiography he enunciated may have reached its limits well within his own lifetime, but whether one agrees or disagrees with Bipan’s ardently-held positions, it will be not be possible to ignore his writings. If nothing else, one has to admire the dexterity and restlessness that made him traverse such a long distance–from the wooly-headed notions of a young RSS worker to the path-breaking work that contested those.

It may not be too long before we retrieve some of the wisdom inherent in his works. As the cliché about India goes–it is a place where, if something is true, the opposite will also be true. Sometimes, it may just be a matter of time.

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bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

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