Bipan Chandra: When Party Line becomes History
It is wise and polite to follow the adage De mortuis nil nisi bonum meaning, “of the dead speak only good.” I believe that is the reason fulsome praises were heaped upon historian Bipan Chandra who passed away on 30 August. Most major newspapers mentioned his death as ‘a loss to the nation’ highlighting him as a razor-sharp writer of Indian history whose books are a must in almost all school textbooks on Indian history.
The intellectual PB Mehta’s obituary on Chandra has correctly assessed this historian’s influence, as understood from the title ‘The man whose view of Modern India is inescapable.’ With the exception of Mehta,most other editorials explicitly praise Bipan Chandra as a nice human being, a passionate speaker and most importantly, a fervent believer of the Marxist school of thought.
Regarding his standing as a historian, most obituaries cite his textbooks which are widely used in academic institutions even now. But more than research on facts and sources, Chandra gets credit for his incisive interpretation which made his writings worthwhile to read. I am neither a writer nor a historian, but as far as I’ve learned, a genuine historian presents the past primarily through in-depth, well-rounded research of reliable primary sources, subjects his own work to critical scrutiny and stays faithful to these sources.
However, if a historian only stops at presentation that makes him/her a good writer, not a historian in the true sense of the word. And if that presentation itself is based on the writer’s selective interpretation and neglects reliable sources, it becomes anything but history. This then is the brief but accurate description of Bipan Chandra. Sample this quotation from his Modern India (a textbook widely used in the twelfth standard as a history textbook) on India’s freedom movement:
“The speeches and writings of some of the militant nationalists had a strong religious and Hindu tinge. They emphasized ancient Indian culture to the exclusion of medieval Indian culture… They tried to abandon elements of composite culture. ….The Terrorists’ oaths before Goddess Kali and the initiation of the Anti-Partition agitation with dips in the Ganga could hardly appeal to the Muslims.”
We often hear secular scholars like the late Bipan Chandra waxing eloquence on ‘Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb’ as a hallmark of the country’s secular polity. This is supremely ironical—because there’s really no known record of any number of Muslims who considered a dip in the Ganga as an act of piety. Indeed, the ‘Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb’ is perhaps one of the greatest misnomers ever devised and perpetuated to mythical proportions.
Another point to notice would be the text identifying freedom-fighting revolutionaries like Khudiram Bose as terrorists. Indeed, a faction of these same scholars raise hostility to Bhagat Singh being called a terrorist but in the case of Khudiram Bose, aren’t they responsible for doing the same? None of our revolutionaries selectively fought for freedom but scholars like Bipan Chandra slot their freedom struggle efforts selectively.
In another notable work of Bipan Chandra titled In the Name of Democracy: J P Movement and the Emergency, he portrays Indira Gandhi as a secular, economic nationalist whose inclusive passive revolution to change the nation was weakened by imprecise leaders like Jay Prakash Narayan. Since Narayan was assisted by the RSS in his struggle against Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian politics, it is but natural for Bipan Chandra to call the former imprecise. This book presented the 1975 Emergency-empowered dictatorship as inevitability where forces of turmoil had to be restricted by a secular order. This is a well-known tactic of Marxist scholars where they provide a form of delicate apologia for dictatorial politics as long as it is secular in their scheme of things.
If young students learn this confused, contradictory and agenda-driven version of the past, how can we expect them to learn the truth of their own past, and how can we expect their future to be any better? The answer lies with the admirers and followers of Chandra. Much credit is given to Bipan Chandra for changing the Left’s established view on Mahatma Gandhi around 1980s. However, there is every reason to believe that there was generally a revival of interest in Mahatma Gandhi owing to the sensation created by the late Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winning film ‘Gandhi.’
There is one scholarly work for which Bipan Chandra deserves praise. It is his voluminous work entitled Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, 1880-1905, published in 1966. But as this piece admits ‘early nationalists, such as M.G. Ranade, understood the economics of imperialism and anticipated the model of economic development of India just after it got freedom.’ Indeed a lot of inquiries on India’s economic past were done by the likes of Ranade, Romesh Dutt and Dadabhai Naoroji. But we hardly find extensive work done on these ‘nationalists’ by the historians/scholars of the Marxist school (of which Bipan Chandra was an ardent follower). I suppose it is because these nationalists also spoke highly of the heritage, and achievements of ancient Indian culture.
One also wonders the omission of the pre-1880s period of India’s Economic History. As far as I know, the most pedantic work on India’s, indeed Asia’s pre-colonial economy is ‘The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective’ by Angus Madison. Most of India’s Marxist historians like to view pre-colonial Indian economy as a tale of class exploitation, a concept which does not apply in the Indian historical context.
More fundamentally, why limit anyone to one category of history? Surely, Bipan Chandra must have done considerable research in other areas of Indian History. However, this excerpt from Arun Shourie’s Eminent Historians tells a different story:
This eminent historian was sanctioned Rs 75,000 for the year 1987-88 for the assignment entitled A History of the Indian National Congress. By 1989, he had been given Rs 57,500 with the balance (Rs 17,500) to be paid after the completed manuscript was submitted. He did not receive the balance due because he never cared to submit any manuscript. Upon inquiry, ICHR stated that the remaining balance is yet to be received because a formal manuscript in this regard is yet to be received…..Later I learnt that the Rs 75,000/- which had been allotted to this “eminent historian” for this project — “the Oral History Project” — had been but a part, a small part of the total take. … The ICHR commenced a National Movement Project to document the freedom struggle from the mid-1850. Bipin Chandra took Rs 12000 to produce the volume covering 1885-86. Result? Nothing has been heard of it since….To assist him to shoulder his onerous load in this regard, the ICHR has employed over the years, one regular staff member plus eight staff members on consolidated salary. Result? Not submitted.
In which case, what exactly is the late Bipan Chandra’s legacy? To quote PB Mehta:
He was successful in articulating a usable political history, and then openly practicing history as ideology by other means. His assumptions are now so widespread that we forget what an achievement it was to make them hegemonic.
Also going by the contents of numerous obituaries, it is accepted that he was a nice human being, a very good writer, and of course a devoted Marxist. But a historian? Nah!