Tapan Raychaudhuri (1926–2014)


Narendra Krishna Sinha, the legendary historian of yester years and the author of the celebrated Economic History of Bengal, introduced a number of brilliant students to historical research. Tapan Raychaudhuri, who died in Oxford on 27 November at the age of eighty-eight, belonged to that galaxy of historians. After a brief period of teaching at the University of Calcutta, he went to Oxford. While in Europe, he studied the original records of Dutch trade in India and produced the book, Jan Company in Coromandal, which shot him into fame. Coming back to India, he taught for some time as the Professor of Economic History at Delhi School of Economics. Then he again went to Oxford and took up a teaching post there. Gradually he rose to become a professor at this world famous institution. He also edited, along with Irfan Habib, the first volume of the Cambridge Economic History of India. His other works on history are Europe Reconsidered and Perceptions, Emotions, Sensibilities.

This writer has not studied his books on history, but had the opportunity to go through his articles in the Cambridge Economic History of India. Although written in an elegant and lucid style, they seemed to contain a few slipshod remarks. On the other hand, this writer was charmed by a longish, but brilliant review written by him of Irfan Habib's celebrated Agrarian System of Mughal India.

One important point about him is that he was a person who could rise above all sorts of communal prejudices and realize the ugly faces of majority communalism in India. He was a witness to the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946, and felt pained to see that political leaders with pronounced Hindu leanings found in brutal killings of innocent Muslims an adequate response to Muslim communalism. His non-sectarian views about social and communal harmony are contained in two books Romantthan Athaba Bhimratigrasta Briddher Paracharitcharcha (Rumination or a Cultivation of Others’ Lives by an Old Man Suffering from Senile Disorder) and Bangalnama (Memoirs of a Native of East Bengal).

Although Professor Raychaudhuri had to settle in West Bengal in the wake of the communal tension in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, he took this outcome not as a result of Muslim communlism, but of communalism in general, and was profoundly shocked at the growing influence of communalism on the Bengali bhadralok. By openly expressing his observation on this phenomenon, he earned the ire of the majoritarians, who are in favour of selling the country's economy to the corporate bourgeoisie and foreign capital in the name of 'development' and 'nationalism'. Real progressives, who want to see a better and more democratic society, should be grateful to him for this reason at least, if not for anything else. He also was angry at the distortions of Indian history made by the forces of Hindutva. In this regard, he had a strong affinity with economists like Amartya Sen and Pranab Bardhan.

His high accomplishments as a historian are worth remembering, but what is more remarkable is his non-sectarian outlook on society, which is gradually becoming rarer among the educated public.

Vol. 47, No. 25, Dec 28, 2014 -Jan 3, 2015