The eternal critic of the self

Bipan Chandra’s life celebrated the virtues of revisionism.

bipin480 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.
Published on:September 1, 2014 1:35 am

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.

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

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