In the death of one of its most eminent historians, Bipan Chandra, at age 86, Indian scholarship has suffered a heavy loss. Those who knew him well are saddened also because they have lost a fine human being. Although, together with Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Irfan Habib and several others of equal stature, he was accused of giving historiography in this country a Marxist twist — he, of course, never denied his ideological leanings — the fact is that he cared for objectivity as much as for ideology. This should explain why several of his many works remain textbooks in schools and recommended reading in universities. Before proceeding further, I must declare interest. Bipan, his equally distinguished brother-in-law V. P. Dutt, who was one of India’s leading Sinologists and passed away two years ago, and I had been friends for more than 60 years and broadly, though not entirely, shared the same worldview.
Few people know that the man who was to make a huge impact as a professor and writer of history had initially chosen, like me, journalism as his career. He joined Delhi Express, the precursor to the Delhi edition of The Indian Express. In 1950, soon after the commencement of the Constitution, he and I were together covering in the Supreme Court the famous A.K. Gopalan vs the State of Madras case relating to preventive detention. One evening, the two of us decided to call on the highly respected Sham Lal — Bipan’s boss at that time and much later mine — at his flat in Connaught Place. It was he who advised Bipan not to waste his time in journalism but to join the academia that was his forte. Soon enough, Bipan joined Hindu College as a lecturer and was promoted to reader.
He then became professor of history in Jawaharlal Nehru University almost since its inception. All the time, of course, he was writing books, delivering lectures across the country and serving the Indian History Congress in various capacities, including as its head.
In the early Nineties, he was a member of the University Grants Commission. For eight years (2004-12), he was chairman of the National Book Trust. In no other period did the NBT publish so many books of such high quality as during his tenure. He could persuade even those authors to write who had earlier refused to have anything to do with a government-owned entity.
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Bipan Chandra had specialised in the freedom struggle and his India’s Struggle for Independence was widely welcomed, as was Essays on Colonialism. Bipan abhorred communalism in any shape and form. Although an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, he criticised Panditji for deploring “only the communalism of the majority” for too long.
What surprises me is that hardly anyone has mentioned his remarkable book on the Emergency that appeared after of the end of 1980s. Contrary to the Communist stand, he blamed both Indira Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan, better known as JP, for the 19-month nightmare. The two leaders should have agreed to settle their struggle through the democratic instrument of elections that were due, in any case, in February 1976, but didn’t, he concluded. He also refused to call JP a “fascist” but described him as the “nation’s conscience”. May more and more historians and commentators be equally fair.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator