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With Professor Bipan Chandra’s death, India has lost one of the finest articulators of her modern history. Born in Kangra in 1928, and educated in Lahore and the US, he spent a lifetime as a teacher exemplar at Hindu College, University of Delhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru University.
A new nation required a definition that was not rooted in colonial interpretations. And Chandra provided the new nation that definition. The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism brought the likes of Dadabai Naoroji, MG Ranade, GK Gokhale, GV Joshi, NG Chandravarkar, Surendranath Banerjee and BG Tilak alive, as critical thinkers who gave shape to the vision of a free and independent India. He gave us a sense of pride in our intellectual prowess to challenge the might of the colonial system, be it in Naoroji’s ‘drain theory’ or Gokhale’s critique of colonial budgets. Chandra wanted to articulate the early nationalists’ vision of India as a modern, scientific and democratic nation.
He wrote the most popular textbook on modern India and the freedom movement, at a time when there was none, and through this book he placed India on the global map as one of the rare post-colonial countries to have her own historiography. He was one of the fiercest critics of the Khalistan movement for creating a wedge between the Hindus and Sikhs, and also was much against the casteist politics. For him, these battles were to be fought at the level of ideas and not at the level of personalities.
Chandra started as a Marxist and by the 1970s he reinterpreted Marxism into the Indian realities. So much so that he critiqued even Karl Marx’s ideas on India. It is here in this process of naturalising radical ideas he habilitated Gandhi in the most radical and sophisticated manner. His indomitable courage was matched by enormous energy that had gone in the way he infused any institution that he worked for: JNU and the National Book trust. His goal of seeing India develop and being a country of a united and prosperous people is both being increasingly achieved and challenged, and he till the end was alive to these issues.
Rakesh Batabyal is a historian and teaches at Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University