A legendary teacher, scholar and activist

Over nearly half a century, since the mid-1960s, Professor Bipan Chandra did path-breaking work in areas as diverse as the emergence of economic nationalism in India under the early nationalists and the nature of the Indian capitalist class, the long-term strategic perspective of the Indian national movement and a critical appraisal of the Indian Left from the communists to Jawaharlal Nehru.

His last book, The Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India from Marx to Gandhi, which came out in 2012, in many ways showcases his phenomenal scholarship over the years. It particularly shows how his scholarship evolved, striving to break free of any dogma, including those he himself may have been a victim of in his own writings at some stage. The two books he completed after this — a biography of Bhagat Singh and his own autobiography — unfortunately could not see the light of day before he passed away.

Such has been the range and depth of Chandra’s writings in the area of modern and contemporary history that an entire school of thought is now associated with his name. This is no mean achievement in an age when schools of thought almost always tend to be associated with universities or individuals in the ‘first’ world.

As one of his students in the first MA batch of Jawaharlal Nehru University in the early 1970s, I recall him repeatedly stating that a school of thought does not generally get established by the work of an individual. It requires a team effort. It is here that Chandra can boast of another major achievement. Over the decades he succeeded in creating a team of dozens of scholars around him who filled out, expanded, innovated on and amended the breakthroughs in ideas that he sparked off and have on occasion broken new ground. One example of the intellectual output of this team is the series of 15 monographs called the Sage Series in Modern Indian History that appeared under his general editorship.

Another reason why he was able to create a school and build a team was that, for him intellectual enquiry was not aimed at simply making a professional career but was inseparably linked to a deep engagement with and commitment to participating actively in the process of social change in a progressive direction. Deeply influenced by Marxism and the Left movement in his student days at Stanford in the late 1940s, he stopped pursuing an engineering degree and became a student of economics and history. On returning to India, he became a part of the communist movement. He saw his intellectual work as part of the process of trying to understand reality in order to be better equipped to change it. His study of colonialism and communalism and developing a powerful critique of these forces, in particular intellectual trends that promoted them, emanated from his deep commitment to anti-imperialism and secularism.

Scholars who rallied around Bipan Chandra on a common intellectual platform often joined hands with him on the plane of political and social activism as well. A good example of this was the formation and activities of the Delhi Historians’ Group with Chandra as its key inspiration. The group was formed in the first years of the new millennium to combat the massive efforts made by the communalists to attack secular and scientific history writing in India and replace it with communal interpretations of history with the active support of the then government.

His last major ‘activist’ role was to transform the nature of the National Book Trust of which he was the chairperson till 2012. He created a new social science series and got some of the country’s tallest scholars to write for the common people of this country.

Bipan Chandra will be sorely missed among those who are struggling for a secular, humane and pro poor country in the face of the current neo-liberal onslaught coming with a deadly mix of communalism.

(The writer was a student and colleague of Prof. Bipan Chandra at JNU)

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2020 7:37:24 PM |

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