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 in the democratic context. It was a strategy of the future. He also observed the fall of regimes in Korea, the Philippines, the Soviet Union and eastern Europe as examples of new kinds of change.
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A voracious reader, he read Maurice Dobb, Louis Althusser and E.P. Thompson, and was deeply impacted by the Dependency School in his understanding of colonialism and early Indian nationalists. He said that they were the first in the world to understand the economic impact of imperialism. Even before others in Europe who are better known, our early nationalists, such as M.G. Ranade, understood the economics of imperialism and anticipated the model of economic development of India just after it got freedom.
He had the greatest respect for fellow historians like Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, and Romila Thapar. Romila and he were colleagues for the better part of their lives. They saw themselves not only as scholars, but contributors to the transformation of society in general and India in particular in an egalitarian, democratic and secular direction. They saw writing history as part of that struggle, and always tried to translate academic work into popular work. They spent time writing textbooks and had the passion to take the most complex ideas to people in a simple form. Bipan consciously maintained a simple style, saying he didn’t want to impress other intellectuals but wanted to be understood, and did not just aspire to accolades from foreign universities.
He was a team leader who valued critiques even by his students, and urged us to criticise his drafts. He kept eight of us students at work all of one night re-reading a draft for the Indian History Congress in 1985 in Delhi. It was December and we huddled around a heater on his dining table, shivering. He then wrote a pamphlet titled “Communalism — A Primer”, which we sold on the streets for Rs 20. Before it was finalised, he gave the draft to former students and we had to go through it again, and each sentence was reviewed. I haven’t ever seen anyone else working like that. And now, I never will.
The writer is professor and chairperson, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University