Bipan Chandra and His Times

Salil Misra

If Bipan Chandra – the Marxist, Nationalist, Gandhian, Liberal, all
rolled into one – did not exist, he would have to be invented. His life, both
as a teacher and historian, is so crucial for us to have a sense of our current
accomplishments and predicaments. His life is a parable of five decades of
historical thoughts on modern India. However as luck would have it, Bipan
Chandra did exist, in flesh and blood, till 30 August 2014 at any rate. So
there is no need to invent him. All that needs to be done is to tell his story,
a brief intellectual biography.

Bipan Chandra was a historian of modern India. He wrote mostly in
the five decades from 1960s till 2000s. His works were addressed to three
different phases of Indian history – late 19th century, the early
decades of the 20th century till independence, and independent
India. He wrote scholarly pieces, essays at popular level and school textbooks.
Through his writings he addressed an amazingly large and diverse audience. He
was around 15 books and many articles old. He taught Indian history to many
generations, firstly in Hindu College, then in Delhi University and finally in
the new Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) where he taught till he retired in
1993 and became a professor emeritus.

As a historian, Bipan made his contribution in different themes and
sub-themes of modern Indian History. In each sub-theme his contribution was in
the nature of an intervention. It provoked a dialogue and often a chain of
responses. Around five of such interventions deserve mention here.

1. Economic Nationalism:
When Bipan did his Ph.D on the economic ideas of the 19th century
political leaders (which was subsequently published as a book The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism
in India
in 1966), the dominant view of the moderate leaders was that they
were petitioners and collaborators. The historical writings just stopped short
of calling them loyalists. Bipan spent five years of rigorous research to
demonstrate how false these ideas were. He demonstrated that the 19th
century leaders such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Ranade, Gokhale, Tilak, R.C.Dutt and
many others prepared a comprehensive economic critique of the British rule.
They delineated the functioning of the Colonial rule – Drain of wealth, heavy
taxation of the peasantry, Home Charges, imperialism of free trade, the
uneconomic spending done on maintaining a large army, unfavourable pattern of
foreign trade, destruction of traditional handicrafts (though they did not use
the word ‘De-industrialization’; that happened later in the 1940s), and
obstructing the modern industrial development of India. All these were the
axial elements in India’s relationship with Great Britain. In other words, the
19th century leadership provided a minute and a comprehensive
understanding of the functioning of imperialism and the motives behind it. And
all this happened a few decades before Hobson, Hilferding and Lenin gave us the
theory of imperialism. Bipan also highlighted that among the intellectuals in
various colonies, Indians were probably the first to subject the alien imperial
rule to such rigorous scrutiny.

Thus came a new concept ‘economic nationalism’ and was applied to 19th
century India. It implied the role of economic ideas in feeding into Indian
nationalism. On the scale of acceptability, the thesis of economic nationalism
was welcomed and accepted readily by the community of scholars. It was
developed subsequently but not critiqued or dismissed in India. Economic
nationalism was one of the more uncontentious ideas that have emanated from
Bipan’s pen. Some other ideas were not so lucky and many of them were subsequently
contested. But contentious or consensual, Bipan’s ideas could never be ignored
and set the stage for stimulating debates.

2. Gandhi: This was yet
another major intervention from Bipan that was not very contentious. Till very
late in his life, Bipan did not write any monograph or even an  article on Gandhi. May be he was waiting to
grow older so as to truly appreciate Gandhi’s politics and personality. But he
had begun talking and discussing Gandhi a great deal since the 1980s onwards.

Till then the general understanding of Gandhi lacked depth. The Left
had not gone beyond R.P.Dutt’s characterization of Gandhi as a leader of the
Bourgeoisie. In the non-Left circles, Gandhi was generally understood in terms
of austerity, village economy, Brahmacharya
(celibacy) and spinning. The Gandhians had begun deifying him as a saint and a
semi-god. In short, plenty of mist had gathered around Gandhi, so as to make
him invisible and unintelligible. And this mist came from diverse sources.
Bipan did not directly engage with these positions, but constructed a picture
of Gandhi which was different from all of these. He looked at Gandhi primarily
as a strategist. Gandhi’s main role in the nationalist movement was not just to
lead the struggle but also to create a strategic framework within which the
struggle was to be fought. People missed out this aspect of Gandhi’s politics
because Gandhi never consciously theorized his strategy. It existed in a
diffuse form, scattered through his writings and activities. The strategy had
therefore to be extrapolated, by the historian. Gandhi’s strategy existed but
in an uncategorized form. Bipan demonstrated that this strategy existed; that
there was enough evidence for it; and that it had just not been imagined into
existence by the historian. The strategy was as follows: The British did not
rule India by naked force. They ruled India by creating a support system and by
trying to capture the minds and hearts of Indian people. In other words, they
ruled India and Indians through hegemonic control. They were therefore to be
expelled by eroding this hegemony and by establishing the counter-hegemony of
the nationalist movement. In other words, it was not necessary to defeat the
British but to make it impossible for them to stay in India as rulers. If
Indians stopped supporting the British rule, there was no way in which British
imperialism could remain in India. The British did not need a push, but only a
withdrawal of support and cooperation from people in India.

This was the broad picture. Bipan also provided the details, the
veins and arteries of Gandhi’s strategy against British imperialism (Indian National Movement: The Long-Term
, presidential address at the Indian History Congress, 1985).

This indeed was a new view of Gandhi. Bipan’s Gandhi was not the
Gandhi of Hind Swaraj (a book Gandhi wrote in 1909, prior to his involvement with
the nationalist movement), an uncompromising enemy of Modernity. He was also
not some otherworldly transcendental saint. Nor was he a scheming politician
and a power-broker. Bipan’s Gandhi was a constantly growing political leader
who was transforming politics around him, even as he was being transformed by
it. This Gandhi was not card-board figure. He was human, albeit an exceptional
and unique one.

Bipan’s ideas on Gandhi would not be considered consensual, even
though they did not quite provoke adversarial reactions, as some of his other
ideas did, namely the ones on communalism and on the Left.

3. Communalism: Bipan’s
book on Communalism (Communalism in
Modern India
, 1984) was borne out of his commitment to secularism. He saw
communalism as a major obstacle to the establishment to a secular polity and
society. He wrote a pamphlet (along with Romila Thapar and Harbans Mukhia) on
Communalism and the writing of Indian history. In the late 1970s, he started
taking a few lectures on communalism and came out with a full-fledged
theoretical account in 1984. This book was a major intervention at two levels:

a) It debunked any naturalization of communalism in India, a
favourite theme in some of the sociological writings from the US, which saw
this as natural in all modernizing societies. ‘Ethnicity’ and ‘ethnic conflict’
became the generic terms to identify all such phenomena. As against this Bipan
argued that communalism was not naturally
a part of Indian society and politics. It was a product of social conditioning.
Given as alternative set of social conditioning, it might well have not
emerged. Likewise, given a different set of social conditions, it should be
possible to get rid of communalism. If communalization of Indian society was a
possibility, so should be a de-communalisation of Indian society.

b) It argued that Communalism was not a hang-over of India’s
medieval past. It was not the mere presence of Hindus and Muslims against each
other that produced Hindu and Muslim communalism, respectively. Communalism was
a modern, 19th century phenomenon and a product of the new
socio-economic forces unleashed by the British imperialism.

Both these inputs were important and were accepted without much
fuss. What however provoked adversarial reactions was his characterization of
communalism as a ‘false consciousness’. This was really critiqued by many. One
historian wrote in an article published in the EPW (I quote from memory): “Historians will go on dismissing
communalism as a false consciousness. And yet it will go on increasing.” This
was an extra-ordinary statement and based on a complete misreading of the generic
idea of false consciousness and the manner in which Bipan applied it to
communalism. Bipan did not use ‘false’ as against ‘real’. He did not dismiss
communalism. He did not consider it unreal or non-existent. Far from it. You do
not write a whole book on things which, according to you, do not really exist.
Bipan considered communalism false in the sense that it was not a natural or an
organic outgrowth of Indian society and history, but only its distorted
manifestation. He fully recognized the ‘reality’ of communalism and considered
communal ideas as extremely powerful. It is certainly possible for false ideas
to become powerful and acquire a hold on peoples’ minds and hearts. But for
that very reason, they don’t become genuine. It is in this sense that it is
quite possible for some ideas to be powerful and false at the same time. I
might add here that it should still be possible to disagree with Bipan’s
characterization of communal consciousness as a false consciousness. But one
must understand his thesis correctly before disagreeing with it. As Bipan would
himself say: “Even the incorrect positions have got to be understood
correctly.” By this I do not mean to suggest that Bipan’s characterization in
his book was incorrect. I am only highlighting that some of his ideas were misconstrued
and it was the misconstrued version that was repudiated.

I am personally of the view that Communalism
in Modern India
is his most under-rated book. It is the most theoretical
work he produced. It combined a grand sweep with minute details. It was one of
the very few attempts to produce a fully rounded, well worked out theory of
communalism. The book also highlighted the functioning of communal politics.
The theory was not simply stated, but also empirically demonstrated. The book
had the big picture and also the minute details. In other words, it supplied
both the telescopic and the microscopic view. While conceptualizing the book
Bipan had made good use of authoritative works on Fascism in European history
and also the contributions of Indian Marxist scholars (R.P.Dutt, K.B.Krishna,
W.C.Smith, Jawaharlal Nehru, K.M.Ashraf) made in the 1930s and 40s. To this
day, it remains the most structured and comprehensive explanation (and not
simply a description) for the emergence of communalism in Indian politics.

4. Left in Indian Politics:
Perhaps the most contentious ideas to have emanated from Bipan’s pen were the
ones pertaining to Indian Left. He received the maximum flak for his criticism
of the Left during the nationalist movement and of the official Left in
independent India. Bipan had been a member of the undivided Communist Party of
India but did not renew his membership after the split. I think his view of the
Left as it developed in the 1970s was being shaped by three different factors:
i) His disillusionment with the politics of the official Left both at the
national level and in JNU where he taught; ii) His evaluation of the Congress
as a historical necessity for the Indian society. This inevitably distanced him
from official Left; and iii) A slight diminution in reliance on Marxian
categories of analysis (particularly from 1970s onwards) and a search for
supplementary (not necessarily alternative) paradigms for understanding the
nationalist movement.

It all started with an extremely important article “Marxism in
India: Need for Total Rectification” written in 1974. It was the most serious
indictment of the role of Left in Indian politics. Unfortunately the article
did not receive the kind of attention it deserved. Someone from the Left should
have engaged with his position, not necessarily to settle the debate, but
certainly to advance it. The article was simply dismissed as the standard
anti-Left garbage generally in fashion. It should have been clear to the
official Left that far from a standard Left-bashing exercise, the article was a
very serious attempt to raise some crucial questions pertaining to the historic
role of the Left in Indian politics. Let me take the liberty of quoting one whole
page from the article to demonstrate the seriousness and earnestness with which
the article was written: 

“They [Indian
Communists] have many an achievement to their credit which should not be
ignored. One need not therefore be carried away by the ‘twisted’ dictum:
nothing fails like failure.

Against heavy odds and facing
the full repression of the colonial State and the ideological opposition of
both the traditionalists and the modern bourgeois political leadership and
intellectuals, the Indian Marxists succeeded in popularising basic Marxist
ideas, in laying the foundations of organized peasant and trade union
movements, in establishing the idea that social revolution cannot be made
without a revolutionary party, and in creating a viable Communist Party,
however weak.

The Marxists have been the only
consistent propagators of rationalist and humanist ideas in India. Here, they
have tried to make up for the absence of a genuine and widespread and committed
liberal bourgeois movement of rational and humanist thought. In addition, they
have fought for genuine secular ideals, which rise above the unscientific and
syrupy Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai

They have contributed most to
the wide propagation of that internationalist outlook which has been to an
extent characteristic of Indian politics since the 1930s. Even the errors in
the application of the notion of People’s War from 1942 to 1945 and the
resulting heroic facing up to the widespread popular nationalist hostility had
this aspect: it revealed the Marxist commitment to internationalism. Increasing
weakening of this commitment since the 1950s has of course to be noted.

In the intellectual and
cultural realms, the Marxists have given a basic turn to several social
sciences. In history, they have succeeded in focusing attention on the role of
social classes, on the mode of production as the basic characteristic of a
social system, on the social analysis of religious and philosophic ideas, on
the nature of colonial economy and colonial system, on the class character of
all nationalist and other popular movements. In economics, the Marxists have
had to face the full force of the most advanced bourgeois ideological
formation, which has, moreover, its own attractive left-wing variations. Yet,
in spite of their thin ranks, they have succeeded in rivetting attention on
agrarian relations, the role of foreign capital, and the basic characteristic
of Indian industrial and commercial capital. Stray Marxist scholars have also
made contributions in political science, sociology, and philosophy, which are
in general dominated by bourgeois outlook. Ever since 1936, when the
Progressive Writers’ Association was founded, the Marxists have been a major
force in literature and in literary criticism in almost all the Indian
languages. Their contribution in the field of drama and cinema is also
significant.” (“Marxism in India: Need for Total Rectification” in Bipan
Chandra, Ideology and Politics in Modern
, pp. 198-99)

The rest of the article is a serious criticism of the thought and
activities of the organized Indian Left. Going by the passage quoted above,
should this article have been considered a standard Left-bashing exercise and
dismissed? The article should have provoked a dialogue, not a dismissal.
Instead, Bipan began to be dubbed as a ‘Congress historian with a Marxist
footnote’ and a ‘bourgeois historian’. This was simple denigration and I do not
know how Bipan took it. It should however be added here that unsympathetic
Left-bashing was quite common those days and Bipan’s criticism of the Left may
have been clubbed along with the standard Left bashing.  Still a distinction should have been made
between a healthy though severe criticism and vicarious Left-bashing. Bipan’s
was the former.

In the year 1986, there was an interesting panel discussion in Teen
Murti library on the nationalist movement in the 1930s. E.M.S.Namboodiripad and
Bipan Chandra were the only two speakers. The combination was heady and stimulating.
One was a Leftist practitioner of politics, active in the 1930s. The other was
a Leftist historian, increasingly disillusioned with the organized Left. And
the two had been good friends in the past. Namboodiripad was very fond of
Himachali dish Madra (Rajma prepared
in a particular way in Himachal Pradesh). When he visited Bipan’s house, Usha
(Bipan’s wife who passed away in May 2009) would make Madra for him.

At the panel discussion, Bipan spoke first. His position was stated
clearly and lucidly: nationalist movement in the 1930s retained an
open-endedness. It was still in a melting pot and it should have been possible
to turn it in the leftist direction. The Left however made a mistake in not
trying hard enough. An ideological transformation of the Congress and of the
nationalist movement was still possible and on the cards. The Left should not
have abandoned it but transformed it from within.
It was a case of opportunity surrendered.

After Bipan had finished, it was Namboodiripad’s turn. He spoke not
so much as a professional historian but as a practitioner of politics during the
times under scrutiny. He was there and saw it all. The transformation of the
kind Bipan was suggesting was simply not possible. Patel and Rajendra Prasad
had prevailed upon Gandhi and that had sealed the fate of the Left within
Congress. Bipan was speaking on the basis of sources and record. Namboodiripad was a source and record himself.

The talk was followed by discussion. It was quite clear that the
house was evenly divided. Namboodiripad had a slight advantage over Bipan in
that the audiences attached greater credibility to his account. It came
straight from the horse’s mouth without the mediation of the historian. The
quality of the discussion was interesting without being enlightening. But a
little encounter between the two speakers raised it to new speculative,
literary heights. It started with Namboodiripad commenting on Bipan (I quote
from memory): “I would only like to tell Professor Bipan Chandra that the
Indian Left is not all that bad. It
may not be very good, but it certainly is not as bad as he would like us to
believe.” Bipan replied: “I would like to tell Comrade Namboodiripad that, not
only is it [Indian Left] not all that bad, it’s
the only one we
have. I am not
going to Mars to search for a good Left. What I critique is the only one we have – good or bad.”

The encounter was very instructive and summed up the position well:
Bipan was not anti-Left but disillusioned with the organized Left. A more
meaningful dialogue might have moderated Bipan, but would certainly have
brought the two closer. That unfortunately was not to be. Bipan continued to
evaluate Congress not as it actually was, but for its objective historical role
in independent India. Given the Left’s aversion to Congress, Bipan became a
persona-non-grata for the Left. Through the late 70s and 80s it remained a troubled

5. Indian Society after 1947:
The next major intervention by Bipan was on the nature of Indian society in
independent India. It was almost inevitable that during the 1990s and 2000s
Bipan should have turned to independent India. He had retired from JNU and was
no longer teaching history to students. The historical questions that engaged
him always had a ring of contemporaneity. And so, Bipan, along with his
students and colleagues – Mridula and Aditya Mukherjee, turned to a systematic
scrutiny of politics in independent India. And here also Bipan chose his
sources very carefully and then relied upon them. Just like Gandhi had been his
‘Guide’ during a tour of the nationalist movement, for independent India, it
was Jawaharlal Nehru. Bipan paid great attention to Nehru and concluded that
Nehru had embarked upon the historically unprecedented task of promoting
economic growth within a parliamentary democratic framework. This was a unique
Nehruvian practice which needed to be theorized upon. Just like Gandhi had
practised his strategy during the nationalist struggle without theorizing it,
so had Nehru practised his model in independent India without theorizing it.

On the whole his appraisal of independent India was that it was a
vibrant and dynamic society, not a static one. It had many accomplishments, but
lots more needed to be done. Bipan’s (and also of Aditya and Mridula
Mukherjee’s) appraisal of independent India was in a way an extension of his
approach to the nationalist struggle. He clearly saw independent India as a
product of the nationalist struggle. The administrative apparatus of
independent India (bureaucracy, army, laws) was derived from British
colonialism. But the ideological apparatus (making of the Indian nation,
democracy, mass participation in politics, civil liberties, foreign policy,
etc) was built almost entirely on the foundations created by the nationalist
movement. It was almost as if the nationalist movement had cast its shadow
ahead of itself.

Bipan’s positive appraisal of independent India was partly a
response to an unsympathetic and dismissive treatment meted out by some of the
foreign commentaries on India. Perhaps negligent of the complexities involved
in transforming a huge and plural society like India, with long continuing
traditions and two centuries of colonial rule, some of these commentators took
recourse to denigration while describing Indian society. Obviously unhappy with
this portrayal, Bipan set out to showcase the accomplishment of the Indian
society after 1947.

After writing the last two books on independent India, India After Independence
(co-authored with Mridula and Aditya Mukherjee) and JP Movement and the Emergency, Bipan became a lot less active
intellectually. He still met his students regularly, discussed various themes
with them and encouraged them to write more and work harder. His own personal
writings virtually came to an end, given his bad health and deteriorating
eye-sight. With old age, he became more and more nostalgic about his lived life
and wanted to share it with a larger audience. He thus started writing his
memoirs towards the end of the decade. His method of writing his memoirs was
quite characteristic. He would sit with his close students and tell them
chronologically about his childhood days spent in Kangra, early student days in
Christian Foreman College in Lahore, the three years spent in Stanford
University in USA, lectureship at Hindu College, the shift to University of
Delhi and finally, the move to JNU. As he spoke about his life, various facets virtually
got organized as chapters in a book. He also added an extremely moving,
personal and romantic chapter on Usha, his wife, how they met and spent their
life together. Predictably, JNU occupies the largest space in his memoirs.

After a particular narration was over, we asked him questions and he
relished answering them, as always. I personally discovered that he had an
amazing memory. In particular he remembered his interactions with his students
very well. As he spoke about his students, you couldn’t miss the joy on his
face and pride in his tone! His memoirs, when they are published will tell a
story of Bipan’s life but also the times he lived in. It’s a wonderful story,
narrated wonderfully.

The last published piece he wrote was interestingly a pamphlet on
the life of P.C.Joshi, the pioneering Communist leader. It is a pamphlet
written with fondness and admiration. Bipan’s deep entanglement with the Left
never quite left him. How does one define this relationship? Was it a love-affair
gone sour? Or a mutual love-hate relationship? Or a peculiar entanglement in
which both the sides attracted and repelled each other at the same time, and
after a while you couldn’t really distinguish one from the other? Bipan paid
his compliment to the Left by writing his final piece on P.C.Joshi. Bipan was
also paid a compliment from the Left. At an informal and friendly meeting held
in December 1997 to celebrate Bipan’s 70th birthday, Mohit Sen, a
quintessential Communist and a friend of Bipan, paid what I thought was the
nicest possible compliment. He said: “As a communist I thank Bipan for giving
us back our own freedom struggle.” At the party many nice things were said to
Bipan but I know for a fact that he enjoyed this one the most.

Looking back, how does one make an assessment of all that Bipan
said, did and wrote? During the last two decades and more, a whole paradigm
shift has occurred in the writing of Indian history. The change is not simply
in degree or in kind. It is much more pervasive and fundamental. The
perspectives, the building blocks, the vantage points and the cognitive grounds
on which we stand have all undergone a metamorphosis. Where do Bipan and his
writings fit into in this new cognitive universe?

At a superficial level it may look like the writing of modern Indian
history had moved on, leaving Bipan behind. Indian nationalist movement does not
quite evoke the same interest; Colonialism has become a thing of the past;
Communalism has been neatly re-arranged in a different conceptual box called
“Identity Politics”. And of course Bipan did not write anything of substance on
caste, gender, and the environment. The focus on the big picture and the big
questions appears to be over: the microscope has replaced the telescope; representation
has replaced the phenomenon. What matter now are the social constructions of
reality more than the reality itself. Can Bipan’s intellectual legacy be
re-invented to adjust to the new challenges?

That would neither be possible nor necessary. Bipan’s writings may
not fit the new climate. But they essentially cater to the basic spirit of the
Social Sciences, which is to make the human life, its encounters, activities,
conflicts, relationships, institutions, changes and continuities, connections
in time and space, more and more intelligible with the help of data and
methods. This is the world of Social
Sciences. This is the big picture that has remained intact. It is to this world
that Bipan belonged and contributed. He was an important player in the game. He
matters because of the way he played the game of trying to unravel the
mysteries of the social world and taught hundreds of his students the same. The
questions he raised still matter. And the answers he provided will keep finding
enthusiastic supporters and vehement dissenters.

[Salil Misra teaches history
at Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD).He became Bipan Chandra’s student from 1979,
first as an MA student, and then went on to write his doctoral thesis under his
supervision. He got an opportunity to see Bipan from very close quarters. The
last time they met was on 15 August 2014 when some of Bipan’s student went to
his house, as part of an annual ritual, to offer him greetings on independence

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