Saturday, September 20, 2014

A friend reminded me yesterday that I have not posted anything here for many many months now. Here is one. Thanks Satya for reminding me this!!!

Bipan Chandra (1927-2014)

                Bipan Chandra, historian, activist, teacher and above all a human being, did not wake up from sleep in the morning on Saturday, August 30, 2014. Author of many publications, beginning with his Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India (1966), Bipan was not just another of those in the procession of historians who blazed the trail during the fifty years since the 1960s. He dominated the discourse. His contribution to the historiography of Indian Nationalist thought was decisive and unparalleled. His works were such that one may disagree with him but not ignore.
                Economic Nationalism, based on his Doctoral thesis, indeed raised a debate; Bipan belonged to a generation of early Marxists (in a manner as Marxists have sought to place Karl Marx and his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844) and his argument there marked a departure from R.P.Dutt’s India Today (first published in 1940), held for long as the fundamental text for A Marxist interpretation of India’s struggle for freedom. Bipan’s text raised some questions and more importantly seemed to provide the framework for a Marxist approach to nationalism. Rather than sticking to the conventional understanding that the idea of nationalism belonged to the bourgeoisie, Bipan’s prefix – economic – to it laid a basis to a new thinking. Note that he did that in the 1960s, at least a decade and half before Benedict Anderson’s exemplary work: Imagined Communities or Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism.
                Bipan will be remembered for having chaffed out the husk from the grain. He set a paradigm from which it is possible to distinguish concerted attempts to render to nationalism a right-wing sense by defining it on mere cultural terms. For Bipan, nationalism was not an imagination; it was rather the response of the colonized people. He disagreed with Marx’s views (in the aftermath of 1857) on the British rule in India like Marxists of his own times but differed with them on locating the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi as merely the representatives of the nationalist bourgeoisie. One must, however, add that Bipan did not stray away from the Marxist approach o history. His Presidential Address to the Indian History Congress session in Amritsar (December 1985) established this most clearly; notwithstanding the kneejerk reaction from among a section of the mainstream Marxist scholars to that.
                The 1985 address, best known for the Struggle-Truce-Struggle (S-T-S) strategy, was attacked then. Bipan did not wilt. In due course, it sunk in that the address was not only about the strategy. Bipan built on his 1966 position and established a continuity between the pre-Gandhi phase of the struggle and the movements after Gandhi emerged the leader. Bipan traced the evolution of the nationalist strategy to the moderate and the extremist discourse long before Gandhi arrived in India. He said: ``Historians and other social scientists, as also contemporary political commentators, have tended to concentrate on Gandhiji’s philosophy of life. But, in fact, his philosophy of life had only a limited impact on the people. It was a political leader and through his political strategy and tactics of struggle that he moved millions into political action.’’
                Between Economic Nationalism and the 1985 address and after that, Bipan’s works sought to established the objective reality in which nationalism emerged in India: He underscored the nature of British rule and the colonial state in India (semi-hegemonic and semi authoritarian) unlike Hitler’s Germany or Czarist Russia or Batista’s Cuba; and this reality shaping the struggle against colonialism. In this and elsewhere, Bipan’s approach was drawn from Marx’s classic statement on history that ``mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve,…’’  (K.Marx, A Contribution to the Critique ofPolitical Economy, 1859),  Bipan thus put in place a Marxist historiography of the Indian National movement which until then was guided by Dutt’s work that argued that Gandhi and the Indian National Congress were simply handmaidens of the national bourgeoisie.
                This is not to say that Bipan glossed over the class approach in his study. He did stick to that. In discussing the movement as a crucible where the different classes contested, Bipan invoked the concept of hegemony. India’s Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947 (first published in 1988) which he authored with K.N.Panikar, Mridula Mukherjee, Aditya Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan, was a wholesome study indeed where the contribution of the working class, the peasantry and the various other subaltern groups in the struggle for freedom was fore-grounded.  The book was based on a scrutiny of official records, private papers and most importantly on a number of interviews that the team conducted with men and women who participated in the struggle and had gone un-recorded hitherto. This work will remain a text as much as Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India: 1885-1947 (first published in 1983) will remain texts for students of history for long. Bipan set the trail in the attempt to challenge the Cambridge school of historians as much as he contributed to unraveling the infirmities that R.P.Dutt’s work suffered vis a vis the Marxist approach.
                His analysis of Gandhi was clinical. Describing the post-1918 phase, Bipan holds that the basic task of the movements in that stage ``was to destroy the notion that British rule could not be challenged, to create among the people fearlessness and courage and the capacity to fight and make sacrifices, and to inculcate the notion that no people could be ruled without their consent.’’  (The Long Term Dynamics of the Indian National Congress, Presidential Address, IHC, 1985).  Bipan, in this, had sought to dispel a notion that Gandhi contributed to the dampening of the struggle.  This indeed had been told earlier in another context by Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia. Addressing the conference of the Socialist Party in 1955, Dr. Lohia said: ``A sterile Gandhism has come into existence which concentrates almost exclusively on changing the heart of the well-placed to the utter neglect of change of the poor-man’s heart.’’ Well. Bipan would have protested if he had heard me associate him with Lohia in any manner!
                 History, for Bipan was not just a project meant to be used by professional historians or students of the discipline. He made this clear in his 1985 address: India’s struggle for independence, in his view, was ``the only actual historical example of a semi-democratic or democratic type of state structure being replaced or transformed, of the broadly Gramscian theoretical perspective of a war of position being successfully practiced. The study of its experience can yield many insights into the processes of historical change and state transformation, both in the past and in the present, both to the historian and the political activist.’’ This idea of history led Bipan foray into the history of India post-1947; an area that many established historians refused to enter into. India After Independence (first published in 1999 and subsequently renamed India Since Independence) took Bipan to comment on contemporary events and living personalities; this exposed him to some criticism because he was seen defending the Congress party and its leaders. Some draw a link between his position on the Indian National Congress and the struggle for freedom and his prognosis on the Congress as a party that ran the establishment.
                Bipan himself did not protest. He found Lohia to have contributed to the decimation of some of the institutions that were built on the foundations of the freedom struggle. And his view on JP and his campaign was critical for the same reason. Bipan’s In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and the Emergency (2003) was a product of this thinking. He had, by this time, moved away from his peers from his younger days. Among them was Prof. Randhir Singh, with whom Bipan used to ride across Delhi to organize the school teachers and mobilize them to fight for their demand; Prof Singh too had taken a contrary view on the mainstream Left and associated with platforms that were identified as the far-left while Bipan remained an associate of S.A.Dange and Mohit Sen to whom the Congress party’s socialist bloc offered a ray of hope. Bipan did not find the Emergency of 1975-77 to be detested.
So much so, he blamed JP for attempting to destroy institutions by refusing to wait for the general elections (due in the normal course in March 1976) and Indira Gandhi for not having stepped down after the Allahabad High Court disqualified her election to the Lok Sabha. But then, Bipan did suggest that Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha was part of a conspiracy to destabilize the constitutional democratic institutions. The Constitutional edifice was sacrosanct for Bipan simply because it was raised on the foundations laid by the freedom struggle. It is another matter that the historian seemed to think alike with Indira Gandhi and her cheers leaders on the Allahabad High Court verdict or on the decision by the Supreme Court in the Golaknath case, where the bench sought to forbid legislations that intended to put certain socialist principles in place.
Bipan’s position in these, then, was guided by the Nehruvian imprint in the Constitutional scheme and he did not conceal this at any time. India Since Independence, indeed, was thus a sequel to India’s Struggle for Independence and even while he was attacked by erstwhile friends, Bipan stood firm.  But none can accuse Bipan of insisting that his students agreed with him. He did not expect implicit obedience; he would argue and do that with all the force and insist that one should agree to disagree. He was more than just a teacher to his students and as someone put it, Bipan was a teacher not only to those who sat in his classes in Delhi University or in JNU. He taught history to a generation and left behind a school of thought.
One may have found it difficult to agree with Bipan when he criticized the anti-Congress consolidation as brought about by Dr. Lohia. It was based on a certain apprehension that such a movement would eventually lead to the consolidation of the right in our political space. Madhu Limaye, a socialist and follower of Dr. Lohia, expressed this in the context of the Janata Party in 1978. Bipan persisted with this a decade later when he refused to celebrate V.P.Singh and his crusade against corruption. Well. The historian was right and stood vindicated on May 16, 2014. Bipan did not live long to tell his critics and score a point. But then, for those who knew Bipan, he would not have wasted time to score a point. It is just that he had lost the will to live because with his health deteriorating, he knew that he could not fight the battle for secularism any longer.
Bipan will be remembered for being a human being and a teacher who refused to let down his students apart from his work as a historian and a political activist.  I must add here that Bipan taught me at JNU.