The sad demise, on 30th August 2014, of eminent historian Bipan Chandra, at the age of 86, is a great loss for the world of scholarship and the cause of secularism. He had a long association with the University of Delhi where he obtained his Ph.D. (1963) and taught history for several years. Bipan Chandra was one of the most influential historians of independent India, and the most well-known historian of modern India. As a leading authority on the history of the national movement he was instrumental in shaping our understanding of the anti-colonial struggle as being simultaneously a fight for social justice and against divisive communal politics.
Bipan Chandra was part of an illustrious group of scholars who in the third quarter of the twentieth century pioneered the writing of Indian history from a Marxist perspective. This was a history that effectively and decisively broke away from the colonial historiographical framework. His magnum opus The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India (1966) remains the classic study of the subject. In this work he analysed the critique of colonialism developed by early nationalists such as Dadabhai Naoroji. This was a critique that focussed on colonial exploitation which by highlighting the shared experience of economic subjugation provided the basis for an inclusive anti-imperialist nationalism that was different from the cultural nationalisms of the west and their communal variants in India.
Bipan Chandra was born in 1928 at Kangra in present-day Himachal Pradesh. He graduated from Forman Christian College (Lahore) and then went on to study at Stanford University (California) and the University of Delhi. As a teacher of history at Hindu College during the 1960s he acquired a formidable reputation due to his animated lectures. Among his numerous intellectual engagements at this time the most significant was his involvement with the publication of the journal Enquiry. This was a ‘forum of research and discussion’ which published a large number of outstanding articles, many of them by Marxist social scientists, and its editorial board included eminent scholars such as Amartya Sen, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, A.N. Kaul and Lotika Sarkar. Bipan Chandra was the moving spirit of the venture, which lasted till the 1970s.
Bipan Chandra joined the Centre for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the early 1970s, soon after the university was established, and remained associated with it right till the end (he was made Professor Emeritus upon his retirement). He played a major role in the development of the centre.
Bipan Chandra was part of the team of scholars who were entrusted with preparing history textbooks for the National Council of Research and Training (NCERT), first published in 1971. The editorial board which initially invited these scholars to write the textbooks comprised, among others, K.A. Nilakantha Sastri, Muhammad Habib and Bisheshwar Prasad, and had Tara Chand as its chairperson. The composition of the editorial board is worth recording due to the later controversies over these textbooks. Even though the members of the board may not be regarded as Marxists, they had great respect for the scholarship that Bipan Chandra represented. Subsequently his NCERT textbook for schools, Modern India, came under attack in 1977 when the Janata Party came to power. The two other textbooks vilified by the Janata regime were authored, respectively, by Satish Chandra and Romila Thapar. What was objected to was the rejection, by all these authors, of communal versions of India’s past. Bipan Chandra’s forceful defence at that time of the secular perspective embodied in the textbooks, before a massive audience at a public meeting held in the auditorium of the Delhi School of Economics, called forth such an overwhelming response in his support that the main spokesperson for the government’s viewpoint, Dr. Subramanian Swamy, walked out of the hall in a huff. Modern India was again targeted under the first NDA government, and withdrawn.
For Bipan Chandra the task of the historian was inseparable from that of the radical political activist. From the 1980s onwards, with the aggressive communal onslaught of the Sangh Parivar, he devoted himself tirelessly to the battle for a secular India. In his studies of Gandhi and Bhagat Singh he emphasized their commitment to the ideals of secularism, their serious political differences notwithstanding. It was in this context that he considered the role of the Indian History Congress, the main professional body of historians in India, important for promoting historical research that was not divisive, sectarian or vulgar, but sophisticated and secular. He was closely associated with the Indian History Congress, of which he became the general president in 1985. Bipan Chandra was also actively involved in the initiative of the Indian Council of Historical Research to publish documents (covering the period 1937-47) on the history of the freedom struggle, highlighting its popular dimensions and challenging the colonial notion of a smooth constitutional ‘transfer of power’ which ignores the struggles of the people. It is pertinent that some of the volumes of the Towards Freedom series published as part of the project were targeted by the first NDA regime, which virtually put an end to the project itself. The project was later revived and is now nearing completion. At the time of his death Bipan Chandra was in the process of finalizing the volumes containing documents pertaining to the crucial year 1942. The speedy publication of this volume would be a fitting tribute to his scholarship and humanism.