In memoriam

Bipan Chandra (1928-2014) - The Gandhian Marxist

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His relentless argument for a secular Idea of India will live on

His relentless argument for a secular Idea of India will live on

In the passing away of professor Bipan Chandra on 30 August 2014 the nation has lost one of its finest historians. He was an activist scholar who was not satisfied with contributing only to rarefied academic circles but wrote popular books, which sold in the millions in English and several Indian languages. He was particularly proud of having written school level textbooks. In fact throughout his career, (including during his tenure as Chairman of the National Book Trust) he was instrumental in persuading some of the tallest scholars in India to write for children and the common citizen. Through his own massive contribution over nearly half a century Professor Chandra made major breakthroughs, which changed the way we, from school children to senior academics looked at critical aspects of our modern and contemporary history. I will here highlight some of these as a tribute to his memory.

His very first book Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India which came out in the mid 60s led to a total revision of the way the early nationalists were looked at. He showed that the early nationalists or the so-called ‘moderates’ were not loyalist, petitioners before the British or ‘mendicants’, as a very influential scholar had once described them. On the contrary, he argued, they were among the first in the world to evolve a detailed economic critique of colonialism. Through intense intellectual activity over nearly half a century, using the press, pamphlets, books and speeches, etcetera, the early nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji, Ranade, Gokhale and many others destroyed the imperialist argument that colonialism was beneficial to the colony and demonstrated that India’s economic ills were a result of political subjugation. Over time they performed the critical and necessary task of eroding the imperialist ideological hegemony over the Indian people deserving ‘a high place among the makers of Modern India.’ He also showed that the foundations that they laid of Indian nationalism were secular and based on the political and economic critique of colonialism as a system. It was not ‘cultural’ based on religion race or ethnicity.

Second, in his major work The Long Term Dynamics of the Indian National Movement included in his last work published in 2012 called Writings of Bipan Chandra: The Making of Modern India from Marx to Gandhi, Chandra demolishes the view among many colonial and post colonial scholars that the Indian national movement represented narrow prescriptive groups (such as upper caste Hindus, babus, elites, bourgeoisie, landlords or brown sahebs, etcetera) and not the Indian people, or that it was not genuinely anti-imperialist but compromising and sharing power with it (as some would put it ‘sharing a common discourse’ with colonialism). He forcefully argued that the Indian National Movement led by the Indian National Congress was as much a people’s struggle for liberation and had as much to offer to the world in terms of lessons in social transformation and bringing about change in the state structure as the ‘British, French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions.’ He maintained further that the ‘strategic practice of the Congress-led and Gandhi-guided national movement [has] a certain significance in world history’ being ‘the only actual historical example of a semi-democratic or democratic-type state structure being replaced or transformed, of the broadly Gramscian theoretical perspective of a war of position being successfully practiced.’ This significance cannot be exaggerated: the celebrated Italian Marxist, Gramsci saw this ‘as the only possible strategy’ for social transformation ‘in the developed countries of the west’.

Chandra also made very important contributions in the sphere of economic history, particularly in providing a comprehensive and incisive critique of colonialism as a structure. He argued that colonialism did not lead to ‘partial modernization’ or ‘restricted growth’ and whatever little spurts of growth the colony witnessed during the colonial period were not a result of colonialism but were a product of the breaks or the ‘loosening of the links’ from the colonial stranglehold, caused by various crises faced by the metropolitan countries such as the two World Wars and the Great Depression. Chandra’s constant warning that colonialism was neither the route nor a transitional phase to the emergence of capitalism, industrialisation or modernisation but that its overthrow was necessary is relevant even today in determining how India positions itself vis- a-vis the advanced capitalist countries, or the so-called core countries in the core-periphery continuum.

Apart from being a lifelong critic of colonial domination in all its avatars including contemporary ones Chandra was a relentless fighter against communalism and a communal interpretation of history, which he saw as the chief ideological weapon of the communalists. He minced no words in his critique of colonialism whether it be minority or majority communalism, Sikh, Muslim or Hindu. His major work Communalism in Modern India, became a standard text for anyone who wished to understand how and why communalism took root and grew in India beginning with the second half of the 19th century, and for those who wanted to struggle against it. In one of his more recent writings Gandhiji, Secularism and Communalism Chandra rescues Gandhi from the pervasive and ill-informed attacks of a section of the ‘secularists’ who saw his secularism as weak or even conducive to the growth of communalism. Chandra on the other hand argues that ‘it was because of Gandhiji’s total opposition to communalism and strong commitment to secularism that both Hindu and Muslim communalists hated him and conducted a virulent campaign against him, leading in the end to his assassination by a communal fanatic.’

Chandra brought fresh insight into our understanding of India in several other areas whether it be a re-evaluation of Bhagat Singh and the revolutionaries or critical issues in the making of India since independence, including the JP movement and the Emergency. He was honoured widely; the Padma Bhushan, Emeritus Professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, National Research Professor for life and so on.

Most important however is the legacy he left behind as a staunch fighter against imperialism and communalism and a defender of the Idea of India, an India that would be independent, secular, humane and pro-poor; an India for which millions of our people fought in our national liberation struggle. While he will be sorely missed among those who cherish this idea of India, the enormous response generated all over the country to his passing away as seen in numerous newspaper reports in multiple languages and dozens of memorial meetings celebrating his life in various parts of the country from Itanagar in Arunachal Pradesh to Kakatiya in Telengana, suggests that his legacy will live on.

(Aditya Mukherjee is a professor of Contemporary History at the Centre for Historical Studies, and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University)