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Sunday, August 01, 2021

Anirban Bhattacharya, my PhD student

Anirban Bhattacharya’s enthusiasm for historical documents is infectious.

Written by Tanika Sarkar |
Updated: March 14, 2016 7:27:25 am
Bhattacharya JNU student Umar Khalid who has been arrested on the charges of sedition

JNU students have unflinchingly expressed their solidarity with Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and others now in custody, in order to defend the unfettered freedom of forming opinions and of articulating them fearlessly on the campus. That had always been their birthright as students of this university. They defend, in the process, fundamental democratic values of freedom of thought and expression, which our Constitution guarantees. But behind their commitment to these ideals, there is also their love for these students and there are good reasons for that.

The supervisors of Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid have already written about their research students. Anirban Bhattacharya wrote his MPhil thesis and then began his PhD dissertation under my supervision. Since I retired, a co-supervisor looks after his work along with me. Let me write a few words about how I think of him after all these years.

The son of a professor in a West Bengal university, and of a mother who is a homemaker, Anirban has always been a serious and quiet student, reluctant to show off his academic credentials or capabilities or to hog the limelight to impress his teachers. His questions in class and in seminars were, nonetheless, pointed and incisive, coming out of a genuine engagement with intellectual issues. His academic record is very good and recently, he came first in the junior research fellowship examinations conducted by the Indian Council of Historical Research.

I have always found him to be an extremely bright and thoughtful young research scholar. He is open to criticism, however harshly put, and he listened attentively to my doubts and objections when he presented his chapter drafts. But then he would make up his own mind and argue his case cogently, abandoning some of my suggestions and incorporating some others. That kind of intellectual independence is precisely what most JNU teachers expect from their students. He works on north Bengal tea gardens in colonial times and he is deeply committed to his research.

Anirban loves the dusty archives. I have often met him at the West Bengal IB archives where he would arrive far earlier than all others and stay on longer. When he found something interesting in his files, he would rush over to my table in great excitement to share the material and to tell me why he found it significant. His enthusiasm for historical documents is immense and infectious and sometimes he collected more material than he could possibly process within a single chapter. His rage against planters’ exploitation and against the colonial regime’s collusion with it, his sympathy and concern for the miserable lot of the coolies, are vivid and passionate, as if all this is happening in the immediate present.

When I asked him to apply for an excellent programme on labour history in a German university, he refused. He said all his archival sources are in Delhi, Kolkata and north Bengal, so why should he go abroad.

At JNU, supervisors meet their research students collectively as well as singly, and in these long, free-flowing discussions, students help one another with comments and suggestions almost as much as the supervisors do. Anirban was particularly good at this. With his quick understanding and his keen interest, even in themes that were remote from his own, he always came up with the most helpful suggestions. I particularly enjoyed his sense of humour and quiet fun that enlivened these sessions. I remember how unfailingly gentle and polite he has been in his interactions and exchanges, even when our intellectual disagreements were, at times, sharp.

The last chapter that I had discussed at length with him happened to be one on the punishments that were meted out to labourers who protested against injustice and exploitation. It contained a detailed and passionate description of the tin-roofed cell where such workers were incarcerated in blistering heat.

Anirban is now in the last year of his PhD programme — will he be allowed to finish the work that he loves, that he invested so much in, despite his frail and delicate health and bouts of illness? And will JNU be allowed to preserve its tradition of intellectual freedom?

 

The writer retired as professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU

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