In Memoriam

Bipan Chandra

Barun Das Gupta

Bipan Chandra, an outstanding scholar and chronicler of modern Indian history, passed away on August 30. He was a life-long crusader against communalism and rewriting of history by giving it a false communal twist. He had died at the age of 86. His vast learning did not make him proud or arrogant but humble, soft-spoken and easily approachable.

Here is an instance of his humility. Many years ago this writer had once asked him whether it is true, as is asserted by some people, that there were no Hindu-Muslim communal riots or clashes during the Mughal rule, that communal riots were the direct result of the divisive politics played by the British imperialists. He paused for a few seconds and replied quietly, "You see, my field of study is modern Indian history. It would not be proper for me to comment on anything during the Mughal period. Kindly put your question to Ms Romila Thapar." I did not know Prof Thapar, nor did I have any occasion to meet her. So I never got the answer to my question.

I shall be going far beyond my depth if I try to make an assessment of his contribution or place as a historian. But from my very limited study of India's freedom struggle, I had a strong impression that Bipan Chandra was the only historian to bring out an important aspect of that struggle, namely, that though the struggle for independence was, to use a Marxist term, a National Question that united all classes and though the main leadership of that struggle was provided by the Indian National Congress, the party of India's colonial bourgeoisie, there was a contradiction between them and the peasantry and the working class all through that struggle. The national bourgeois leadership ignored the interests of these two classes and played down their role in the anti-colonial movement. Bipan Chandra brought out this neglected facet of that struggle and focused on it. This makes him different from all other historians of the freedom struggle.

For instance, when the provincial elections were held in 1937, under the Government of India Act of 1935, the Congress won in many of the provinces including Bihar and the United Provinces (the present Uttar Pradesh) and formed the government. The year before, 1936, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) was formed with Swami Sahajananda as president. The newly formed Congress governments in Bihar and UP immediately came into conflict with the AIKS over the two major demands of the latter, namely, abolition of the Zamindari system and liquidating the farmers' debts. This was inevitable because both the feudal and the nascent national bourgeoisie had a very strong influence on the Congress and its top leadership.

The pro-feudal—and consequently anti-farmer—attitude of the Congress leadership became manifest again at the time of the Ramgarh Congress of the party in 1940. Swami Sahajananda led a huge peasant rally to the venue of the Congress session to apprise the Congress leaders of the problems of the farmers and to solicit the former's support for their struggle. But no Congress leader, from Mahatma Gandhi to Vallabhbhai Patel, Babu Rajendra Prasad, C Rajagopalachari and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (who was elected president of the party at Ramgarh) agreed to come out and address the peasants to express their sympathy for the struggle of the exploited peasantry. The only Congress leader who did come out of the session to meet and address the peasants was Jawaharlal Nehru.

In his book India's Struggle for Independence: 1857-1947, Bipan Chandra has focused on the contribution of the parallel stream of the movement of the peasantry and the working class to the mainstream of national liberation movement. He has devoted two chapters of the book, The Rise of the Left Wing and The Peasant Movements in the 1930s and ’40s to bring out the distinct contribution of the two neglected classes to India's battle for freedom.

It is from his book that the present writer came to know that there was a school of historians known as the Cambridge school which denied that there was ever an anti-imperialist movement in India. To quote Bipan Chandra: "Colonialism is seen by them primarily as foreign rule. They either do not see or vehemently deny that the economic, social, cultural and political development of India required the overthrow of colonialism. Thus, their analysis of the freedom movement is based on the denial of the basic contradiction between the interests of the Indian people and of British colonialism and the causative role this contradiction played in the rise of the national movement. Consequently, they implicitly or explicitly deny that the Indian national movement represented the Indian side of this contradiction or that it was anti-imperialist, that is, it opposed British imperialism in India. They see the Indian struggle against imperialism as a mock battle ('mimic warfare')."

To revert to the attitude of the Congress to peasants on the one hand and landlords on the other, Bipan Chandra dwells on the fact that for the Congress governments in the provinces to pass any legislation it was necessary to have a bill passed in both the lower and the upper chambers of the legislative bodies. But the upper houses of these bodies were "dominated by landlords, capitalists and money-lenders, with the Congress forming a small minority." Faced with such a situation the Congress decided not to force the issue with these entrenched vested interests but chose to compromise with them to continue in power. "Thus the Bihar Government negotiated a compromise with the zamindars on its tenancy bills while the UP Government conciliated the moneylender and merchant members of its upper house by going slow on debt legislation so that their support could be secured for tenancy legislation." (India's Struggle for Independence, p. 329)

Three chapters of the book, The Rise and Growth of Communalism, Communalism—the Liberal Phase and Jinnah, Golwalkar and Extreme Communalism trace the origin and development of the process of communalization of the Indian polity that began before independence. In fact both this book and the other one The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India are 'must reads' for every serious student of the contemporary history of India.

The void created by his death will be felt acutely by all those who are in the struggle against the rabid communal forces which are now, having won a majority in the parliament and having formed the government at the Centre, are trying to transform the secular, democratic polity of free India into a fascist Hindu Rashtra and targeting the religious minorities. But the wealth of historical research that Bipan Chandra has left us will continue to provide us with the ammunition needed to combat these forces which are out to supplant history with pseudo-history.

Vol. 47, No. 17, Nov 2 - 8, 2014