Bipan Chandra: The man whose view of Modern India is inescapable

For him, past was a moral drama in more black-white than 50 shades of grey, says Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi | Updated: September 2, 2014 2:57 pm
biopin-L CPM leader Sitaram Yechury at the cremation in New Delhi on Saturday. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

It is a measure of Bipan Chandra’s achievement as a historian that he defined the mainstream establishment’s self understanding of Modern India for a very long time. Other historians have been more scholarly or more conceptually innovative. But few historians weaved together a narrative of Modern India in a way that had the power of becoming a default political common sense. Our understanding of Modern India has to, even when we disagree, come to terms with the framework he laid out. Most historians are remembered because they were gifted in some way. Chandra’s achievement was more elusive: he became inescapable.

His influence was a function of his extensive writing of textbooks and co-authoring of two best-selling synthetic accounts. It was also a function of his position in India’s premier history department at Jawaharlal Nehru University. I did not know him well personally, but read nearly everything he published. But by all accounts, his civility and commitment to teaching that was on display in our brief meetings was characteristic of the man.

Much of his work, ranging from the still useful monograph on Economic Nationalism to important books on Communalism, seemingly carried the imprimatur of history. But their success was very much rooted in the politics they articulated. The great International Relations scholar, Hedley Bull, once wrote that “inquiry has its own morality and is necessarily subversive of political institutions and movements of all kinds, good as well as bad.” But Chandra’s sensibility was in some ways the opposite: it was almost as if the task of the historian was to provide a usable narrative; it was a weapon to wield against political opponents, it was to produce a consensus around the common terms.

He was successful in articulating a usable political history, and then openly practicing history as ideology by other means. His assumptions are now so widespread that we forget what an achievement it was to make them hegemonic. One assumption, clearly articulated in Communalism in Modern India, was that while communal consciousness could exist in pre-Modern India, communalism could not. This is not the place to go into the veracity of this claim. But what is striking is that this conclusion is arrived at almost a priori. History is an elaboration of this claim, not evidence for it.

Chandra also managed to tie the project of political secularism to a historiography of secularism. It rested on a claim that the way we represent the past will bear on the way we think of the future: if the past turns to be the site of communalism, so will the future. It has less space for Hedley Bull’s thought that history might turn out to be subversive of all kinds of claims, good and bad. It had the consequence of making all history, political and all politics coterminous with a historical narrative. At one level it raised the stakes in historical inquiry; at another level it made genuine historical inquiry difficult. This is the legacy we are still coming to terms with.

The second assumption is that history as a moral drama is more black-white than 50 shades of grey. This was clearly on display in what was perhaps his most controversial book, In the Name of Democracy: J P Movement and the Emergency, a book that was a sophisticated apologia for Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian politics.

To simplify somewhat, in Chandra’s major works, modern Indian history is broadly on the trajectory of an inclusive passive revolution. But it is subverted by woolly headed political mobilisers like JP, especially when they give space for the RSS. In a sense, strangely for Marxists, history, rather than emerging as a product of a complicated economic, social and even cultural churn, ends up being a drama where forces of disorder need to be curbed in the name of something called a secular order. In some ways, Chandra’s world view captured that of the historical protagonist he subtly defended — Indira Gandhi: secular, economic nationalist but unable to fathom complex process as anything other than a conspiracy. The strange Congress-Left elective affinity was forged less by a fear of the RSS than by the fact that the Congress, during the ’70s, gave up its own complex historical sensibility and substituted it with the Left. Chandra was the key protagonist in that significant historical transformation and therefore dominated like few historians have.

His greatest triumph was to make this view of history so inescapable that even his opponents were forced to practice it. Animating this deep conflation of history and politics was perhaps an admirable ethical impulse: it was the fear that if the past did not tell a comforting story, the future will not as well. Even as we struggle to escape from the limitations of that framework, the questions Chandra asked about the relationship between politics and history will haunt us for a long time.

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First Published on: August 30, 2014 9:26 pm
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    Avijit
    Feb 9, 2015 at 1:47 pm
    One of the greatest historian of ours country's.we loss ours valuable person..
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      amakant
      Aug 30, 2014 at 8:31 pm
      May his soul RIP. However it should be noted that his school of thought was anti-Hindu and pro whitewashing of Indian history to shape it in the Western mould.
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        Bhupender Yadav
        Aug 31, 2014 at 6:04 am
        Mehta is subtly derisive and not evaluative. This obituary, on the front page of a right-wing newspaper, a day after a scholar pes away is sad. We have a better view of the scholar and teacher. An obituary in The Hindu today is more comprehensive and balanced.Bhupendra
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          Siv
          Aug 31, 2014 at 4:27 am
          A commie piece! Bipin Chandra was one of the eminent historians who gobbled up money from the Govt. but never produced anything worthwhile. The following quote shows how much of a damage this man did -- he mis-led 2 generations of students with his tripe plus gobbled an amount equivalent to 6 Crores (taking inflation into account) - nothing less than a scam and still retains his "eminent" tag?"This eminent historian was sanctioned Rs 75,000 for the year 1987-88 for the ignment enled ‘A History of the Indian National Congress’. By 1989, he had been given Rs 57,500 with the balance (Rs 17,500) to be paid after the completed mcript was submitted. He did not receive the balance due because he never cared to submit any mcript. Upon inquiry, Shourie was told by the ICHR that the remaining balance is yet to be received because a “formal mcript in this regard is yet to be received.” In other words, Bipan Chandra had taken whatever money he could without producing anything. This is not the full story however. Shourie writes (pp. 15-16):“Later I learnt that the Rs 75,000/- which had been allotted to this “eminent historian” for this project — “the Oral History Project” — had been but a part, a small part of the total take. Bipan Chandra was given in addition Rs two lakhs by the ICSSR and Rs four lakhs through the Jawahrlal Nehru University. Neither insution received any mcript from him.”"Reference - Eminent Historians - Their technology, their line, their fraud.
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            Gopi Maliwal
            Aug 31, 2014 at 12:26 pm
            A w column to say - Mr Chandra was among the original practionera of "History Re-writing"...:)
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              H.Balakrishnan
              Aug 31, 2014 at 4:42 am
              One of Arun Shourie's " Eminent Historian " - R.I.P.
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                Pat
                Aug 31, 2014 at 2:33 am
                Knowing past errors well help us to take appropriate actions to ameliorate them so that future can be free of them, more or less. For this to happen truth is most important. Without truthful evaluation of history the solutions will be also prone to errors.
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                  nachiket
                  Sep 2, 2014 at 7:39 am
                  please correct a serious error in the tagline of photograph. sitaram yechury is NOT with prof.chandra's son but with prof.prabhat patnaik, professor emeritus,centre for economic studies and planning,JNU
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                    Nevermind
                    Aug 31, 2014 at 4:02 pm
                    Arun Shourie's Eminent Historians should leave no doubt about Bipan Chandra's "legacy".
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                      Pawan
                      Aug 30, 2014 at 11:25 pm
                      What on earth did he said? This piece is for only those who already know it all. What about us , the public. 99.99 percent who did not get a chance to know him
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                        Yatharth
                        Aug 31, 2014 at 7:15 am
                        This is the tragedy of modern India. Post impearilism, an entire gamut of left oriented, English speaking historians hijacked the political narrative of India led primarily by JNU, the breeding place of intelligentsia brought up under impearilist India who unfortunately set the agenda for future historical and political discourse in our country and continue to churn out history analogies that tell us that Vedic Brahmins were beef eaters and curiously, as reference, quote Maxmuller and other English authors, not Vedas themselves. To these, it was British that taught us manners and it were Islamists that gave us "tehzeeb". The rot extends to such reach that for every Mughal ruler, there is a dedicated chapter in our history books eulogizing their"secular" credentials, a period that lasted around 150 years, but only ping reference for more than one thousand years of Hindu period, called as golden period of Indian History, even by biased Western historians. The most chilling part of this bizarre narrative is that insutions like JNU are the window through which the West views our culture and our legacy and forms opinion about us based on these. No wonder West gleefully romanticizes with the idea of India as land of heat and dust and of Indians as snake charmers and naked fakirs, of histerical and low brained people. Modi was probably referring to this malaise when he spoke from ramparts of Lal Qila on Independence day. Bipin and Romila Thapar and their ilk are what ails India. Indian reainance will not happen until we reclaim our real history from these hijackers.
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                          Seema Alfred
                          Nov 28, 2014 at 10:35 am
                          Those are interested to know about Historian Bipan Chandra , must check his 10 books 1. India's Struggle for Independence2. India Since Independence3. History of Modern India4. Freedom Struggle (English) Abridged Edition5. Nationalism And Colonialism In Modern India6. Essays On Colonialism (English)7. Indian National Movement: The Long Term Dynamicsa8. Ideology And Politics in Modern India9. Essays On Contemporary India10. The Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India from Marx to hi
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                            joghonno
                            Aug 31, 2014 at 3:43 am
                            A top notch historian. Read Bipan Chandra's work and understand India.
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