By: Mridula Mukherjee
The presence of a large number of former students at Bipan Chandra’s funeral, people he taught from the ’60s all the way to the ’90s, and even people who were not his students but may have attended a lecture by him, was heartwarming. There was a diverse lot to bid him goodbye — university teachers, a filmmaker from Paris, writers and ambassadors, political leaders across spectrum, ranging from the left, of course, to those sympathetic to the RSS. His students kept in touch with him and treasured the association so much that each person had a story about him. A former ambassador related how he had helped him dodge science and enrol in history; an academic told us of how he helped her find a publisher. Mukul Mangalik, who was with him in the ’70s, recounted how a two-hour class became a three-hour and then a four-hour class. It became so hot that he took off his shirt and continued. People would not switch on the lights as it grew dark, for fear that he would not stop. This enthusiastic teacher’s tutorial discussions went way beyond the allotted time.
His ability to engage students at every level of their lives was unique — their personal life, love life, marital life, professional problems, everything was his concern. He gave of himself generously, but never imposed his ideas on anyone. I have overheard young students say: “I completely disagree with you.” And he listened. He was not dogmatic and had an unusual ability to look at his own ideas, re-read what he had written five years earlier and examine if he still felt the same way. He said that this ability to revise one’s opinion was the essence of being a scholar. “I would worry if I do not evolve or change my view,” he used to say.
He started out with a Marxist approach to history but over time, as his ideas developed and he explored the Gandhian mass movement deeply, his understanding grew beyond that framework. We undertook an oral history project under his leadership in 1983-87, in which we recorded 3,000 living freedom fighters of all hues, Congressmen, Communists, Socialists, revolutionaries, Gandhians, and this changed him profoundly. This provided the opportunity to broaden perspectives and learn anew the “collective wisdom of the freedom struggle”. We saw ourselves as the storytellers. This was the transformative moment for him, leading to a fresh understanding of Gandhi. He said that it was a schoolteacher from Gujarat who explained to him, in theoretical terms, the Gandhian strategy.
And while he was a Marxist to the end, he grew to admire Gandhi a great deal and called himself a Gandhian too, appreciative of the great value of the strategy of his struggle and the social transformation it wrought continued…