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A death in the family

Chandra was a passionate historian, but he never let political affiliation get in the way of personal and professional ties.

September 1, 2014 1:26:11 am
biopin-L CPM leader Sitaram Yechury with Chandra’s son at the cremation in New Delhi on Saturday. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

By: Irfan Habib

When the news came of Bipan Chandra’s passing away on the morning of August 30, my mind went back to an afternoon in a fly-ridden tea shop at Aligarh, where our long friendship began 55 years ago. I was instantly drawn to him for his commitment to the cause he had taken up (a journal at the time), his infectious enthusiasm and a quite irrepressible sense of humour.

Born in 1928 in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, Bipan Chandra was quite the mature scholar at the time we met, having studied at the Forman Christian College, Lahore, and then at Stanford University, US, where he was harried, he told me, by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his crew, for Bipan had decidedly leftist views. He was now teaching at Hindu College, Delhi. While he conscientiously performed his duties as a teacher and pursued relentlessly the cause of his journal, Enquiry, he carried out an astonishingly massive amount of research that resulted in his Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, 1880-1905, published in 1966. This work brilliantly illuminated a neglected aspect of early Indian nationalism, and is plainly a great achievement.


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Given his approach, Bipan was naturally impatient of the search for individual motivations in the national movement by the post-1947 historians of the Cambridge School, as well as of the attempts to refute the nationalist case against an exploitative Britain. He penned a fiery article in 1968 against Morris D. Morris, an American scholar who had doubted the reality of de-industrialisation under British rule.

Bipan became increasingly concerned with the rising tide of communalism, sharply criticising both its Hindu and Muslim variants. He carried out surveys of texts used in religious and quasi-religious schools. This concern also led him, I believe, to focus on writing for a popular readership. Many of his essays are for the general reader. The most outstanding work of this genre is his “Modern India”, an NCERT textbook published in the late 1970s for secondary schools. It manages to cover, within a limited size, almost all aspects of modern Indian history. It ran into several editions and was republished in 2012.

He also undertook, with his colleagues, more detailed studies of the national movement and of India since Independence. These efforts resulted in two major works edited by him, India’s Struggle for Independence (1989) and India Since Independence (1998).

For reasons I could never fully understand, he turned increasingly critical of the Left after the 1970s, as was revealed in a whole volume he edited in 1983. But, characteristically, he never let this come in the way of our friendship or bar cooperation between us in other fields.

Bipan Chandra was an enormously popular teacher, as one might expect. He became professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, soon after it was established. After his retirement in 1993, JNU made him professor emeritus. From 2004 to 2012, he was chairman of the National Book Trust, in which work he showed the same zeal and drive as he did in everything else. (By constant telephoning, he made me write a book on medieval India within a set time-frame!)

His later years were marred by ill-health. The death of his gracious wife Usha some years ago was a great blow to him. It was a blow to my wife Sayera and me as well, since Usha and Bipan had always treated us as members of the family. One can now only offer condolences to the two sons, Bikash and Barun, they have left behind.

The writer is professor emeritus at Aligarh Muslim University

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