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Monday, November 29, 2021

Retired JNU History prof, an expert on the 18th Century, dies at 65

Rajat Datta had retired from JNU in January and travelled to the US to visit his daughter where he was diagnosed with cancer in September.

Written by Aranya Shankar | New Delhi |
Updated: October 31, 2021 6:57:16 am
Rajat Datta (65)

Rajat Datta (65), retired professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, known as much for speaking truth to power as his expertise on 18th Century Indian history, died of throat cancer Saturday morning. He was being treated at a private hospital in Pune.

Datta had retired from JNU in January and travelled to the US to visit his daughter where he was diagnosed with cancer in September. He did his graduation from St Stephen’s College, and his post-graduation from JNU. He then went to King’s College, London for his PhD.

Professor Najaf Haider of the Centre for Historical Studies, where Datta taught, said he was “a very conscientious teacher” with expertise in the Economic History of the 18th Century. “He was also an active member of the centre. Every Wednesday, we have a meeting and important decisions are taken after detailed discussions, not solely by the chairperson. Rajat’s role was very prominent in that. He never compromised on his principles. In the last five years, with the new administration, he had taken a strong stand against what he said was a compromise in academic excellence and spoke out many times against them. He also paid the price for it,” said Haider.

Datta was among the six teachers whose seniority was bypassed by the administration in appointing Dean of the School of Social Sciences in 2017. In 2019, he was one of the 48 teachers against whom disciplinary proceedings were initiated by the JNU administration for a one-day strike. Due to this, his retirement benefits were blocked earlier this year against which a case is pending in the Delhi High Court.

“We had approached the HC to provide a stay on the decision (disciplinary action). The single bench and division bench both provided us with a stay…,” said lawyer Abhik Chimni.

In the last five years, Datta spoke several times against the “attack” on JNU. His politics was expressed as much in his speeches and protests, as in his witty comments on Facebook.

Samim Asgor Ali, a PhD student and chronicler of teachers and student protests at JNU, remembers how Datta had helped him in collecting funds to buy a new camera when his broke during a protest: “He personally contributed Rs 5,000 and also got others to donate. Later when I was under economic stress once my scholarship had ended, he pitched in some funds and asked others to help as well. He was always there during any humanitarian crisis.”

For Historian Harbans Mukhia, Datta started out as a student during his MA and MPhil days, later a colleague, and then almost a family member: “He was a bright student who was constantly questioning any notion or theory he came across, including from me. He was a historian in the sense that he never accepted anything just because it was written in books or said in lectures. He had an inquisitive mind. He was recasting the whole image of the 18th Century in India, in terms of modernity. The economic, social and cultural dynamism is what he was recapturing.”

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