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Mainstream, VOL LII No 37, September 6, 2014

Tribute: Remembering Bipan Chandra

Saturday 6 September 2014

by Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee

Professor Bipan Chandra, affectionately called Bipan by his students and friends, legendary teacher, scholar and activist, passed away peacefully in his sleep on the morning of August 30, 2014 at his residence at the National Media Centre in Gurgaon, where he had moved since his retirement from the Jawaharlal Nehru University more than twenty years ago. As news spread of his demise, his house was flooded by former students, colleagues, neighbours, relatives and friends. His funeral the same afternoon was attended by hundreds of mourners, again including large numbers of former students who are now professors, ambassadors, film-makers, journalists, and social and political activists. His death was reported by the visual media and spread rapidly on the social media as well. Next morning, all major dailies carried news reports and obituaries, and this continued the following day. The Indian language press also carried the news. The President, the Vice-President, the Congress party President and Vice-President, the Prime Minister—all sent condolence messages. Colleges and universities in places as far removed from each other as Arunachal Pradesh and Anantpur in Seemandhra and Chennai and Varanasi, Manipal, Patna, Cuttack were among those who met to condole his death and share their memories of him and his work. The response was something out of the ordinary. He was no political leader, or sports star, or film actor, or artist. He was not even a Nobel Prize winner. Neither did he owe his fame to the backing of a political party. Nor was he a darling of the Western academic establishment; on the contrary.

The puzzle can only be solved if we realise that he had in his inimitable way become, as a student of his said at his memorial meeting in the JNU,

the people’s historian

. This was because he not only wrote scholarly works, but also books that became extremely popular and have sold in lakhs for school and university students and the general reader. He also spoke incessantly at colleges and universities across the country, and having accompanied him on some of these, we can testify how the formal lectures in the day were invariably followed by long late night free-wheeling question and answer sessions, organised by the (usually Left-leaning) students, which he really enjoyed. In this way, he came into direct contact with thousands of people, apart from the thousands he taught in his 43-year-long teaching career. What was unique about him was his ability to combine the popular and the scholarly, the writing for school children and the high-level research.

Bipan Chandra’s intellectual enquiry was inseparably linked with his deep engagement with and commitment to participating actively in the process of social change in favour of the oppressed. In his student days at Stanford in the late 1940s, he was deeply influenced by Marxism and the Left movement. This made him shift from pursuing an engineering degree to becoming a student of Economics and History. On returning to India, he became a part of the communist movement in India. He saw his intellectual work as part of the process of trying to understand the reality in order to be better equipped to change it. His study of colonialism and communalism and developing a powerful critique of these forces, in particular the intellectual trends which promoted them, emanated from his deep commitment to anti-imperialism and secularism. Bipan Chandra remained till the end an activist-scholar and it is impossible to understand his scholarship if one does not understand his commitment to social transformation.

The range of his scholarship was formidable. Since the mid-1960s he had done path-breaking work in areas as diverse as the emergence of nationalism in India,1 the specificities of the colonial structure, the possible paths of transformation from the colonial to an independent structure, 2 the nature of the Indian capitalist class and its relationship with imperialism and the national movement, 3 the long-term strategic perspective of the Indian national movement and particularly the theory and practice of the Gandhian phase of Indian nationalism, 4 a critical appraisal of the Indian Left 5 from the Communists to Jawaharlal Nehru, Marx’s writings on Asian societies, the emergence and growth of communalism 6 in India, a re-evaluation of Bhagat Singh and the revolutio-naries, making of India since independence, 7 the JP movement and the Emergency, 8 and so on.

It is impossible to analyse at length his massive scholarly contribution; for the purposes of this piece we shall focus on his major writings on the Indian national movement and Mahatma Gandhi, in which he made major breakthroughs. In his magnum opus, Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, published in 1966, Chandra demonstrated how the early nationalists, far from being mendicants, were among the first in the world to evolve a detailed economic critique of colonialism. 9 Through intense intellectual activity over nearly half-a-century, using the press, pamphlets, books, speeches, etc., they 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 succeeded in eroding the imperialist ideological hegemony over the Indian people. Thus, argues Chandra, they “laid strong and enduring foundations for the national movement to grow” and therefore “deserve a high place among the makers of Modern India”.

Around twenty years later, he wrote another path-breaking book, Indian National Movement: The Long-term Dynamics. If his first major work10 liberated the early nationalist, or the Moderates as they were called then, from the description of being ‘mendicants’ who allegedly merely appealed to the colonial state to make concessions to their narrow class or caste interests, then this work liberated the Gandhi-led national movement from the decades-old stranglehold of being described as ‘bourgeois’, ‘class-collabora-tionist’, ‘non-revolutionary’ and even anti-revolutionary. He challenges the various strands which denied the legitimacy of the Indian national movement including of its mass phase under Gandhi. In greater or lesser degree, this denial is common to the colonial, neo-colonial and subaltern historiography as well as to some strands of the Left approach. The national move-ment is seen by these variously as representing narrow prescriptive groups (upper-caste Hindus, babus, elites, bourgeoisie, landlords, brown sahebs, etc.) and not the Indian people. It is seen as not being genuinely anti-imperialist but compro-mising and sharing power with it or, as some would put it, ‘sharing a common discourse’ with colonialism. The ‘subaltern school’,11 taking the worst elements from the Left and the Right, sees it as a movement that suppressed the real, popular urges of the Indian people with Gandhi being the major exponent of this strategy.

Bipan Chandra, on the other hand, argues 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 maintains 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 practised”. This significance cannot be exaggerated: Gramsci saw this “as the only possible strategy” for social transformation “in the developed countries of the West”.

He sees the Indian National Movement, like any other national liberation struggle, as “a multi-class movement which represented the anti-imperialist interests of all classes and strata” of the state that it sought to overthrow. A key aspect of the long-term strategy of the Indian national movement, especially under Gandhian influence, was what Chandra called S-T-S (Struggle-Truce-Struggle), that is, “phases of vigorous extra-legal mass movements” were combined with phases of truce where the movement paused, regenerated itself through mass programmes like Gandhiji’s constructive work, so that another phase of struggle could be launched at a higher level. The movement would thus keep growing and strengthening itself in an upward spiralling circle till victory was achieved. Chandra argues that the movement adopted the S-T-S strategy not because it was ‘bourgeois’ and hence did not want a continuous struggle and kept retreating, but because it was suited to a multi-class, mass movement against the semi-democratic, semi-hegemonic British colonial state. Gandhiji himself had clarified that suspension of a movement did not mean surrender or compromise with imperialism. Chandra quotes him: “Suspension of civil disobedience does not mean suspension of war. The latter can only end when India has a Constitution of her own making.” Here Chandra makes a major break from his 1972 position where he described the Congress strategy as one of P-C-P (Pressure-Compromise-Pressure), a strategy which was non-revolutionary and suited the bourgeoisie.12

The choice of non-violence as a form of struggle, argues Chandra, also had nothing to do with any class bias in favour of the propertied classes, as is often argued, but was a form which became necessary in a hegemonic struggle, ‘a struggle on the terrain of moral force’. Also, if the movement was to be a mass movement involving millions, including the poor, and not a guerilla movement or a movement led by a revolutionary army, then non-violence would be the suitable form. A non-violent mass movement defying the government put the colonial state on the horns of a dilemma. If it suppressed the movement it lost ground on the moral-hegemonic terrain, being seen as using brutal power to suppress peaceful protestors, and if it did not suppress the movement it lost again as the state was seen as incapable of asserting its authority.

Chandra here makes a major departure from existing historiographical positions of all hues including his own. Not only does he see the national movement as open-ended and capable of being transformed in a radical direction but he now sees Gandhiji as a brilliant leader of this popular movement who far from being bourgeois or non-revolutionary played a critical role in trying to ensure that the class adjustment that necessarily had to happen in a multi-class movement, happened increasingly in favour of the poor and oppressed. Gandhiji not only met all the three criteria Lenin13 had outlined for declaring a national liberation movement as revolutionary, that is, (i) struggling against imperialism, (ii) politicising the masses and bringing them into mass movements, and (iii) not opposing the Communists’ effort at educating and organising... the broad masses; he did much more. Gandhiji’s critical role in promoting the first two is now increasingly acknowledged. It is regarding the third criteria, Chandra argues, that not only did Gandhiji not prevent Communists from organising the masses, he created conditions favourable to the increase in Left ideological influence. In fact Gandhiji himself increasingly moved in the Left direction. As Chandra argues, Gandhiji’s “popular ideological positions ... and his dominant position in the national movement were quite favourable to the socialist ideological transformation”. His ideas and actions in favour of the oppressed and against injustice of any kind “created constant openings for any pro-poor, socially progressive ideology”. Interviews with a large number of Left leaders of the national movement from all over India conducted by Chandra and his team repeatedly confirmed the positive correlation between the spread of the national movement and the possibility of the emergence of the Left. It was another matter that many on the Left rather than build on the Gandhian legacy dissipated the advantage by positing themselves against it and even demonising it. Perhaps the tallest from among the Left who did not do so was Jawaharlal Nehru.

As Bipan Chandra began to get a better grasp of Gandhiji, his position on Nehru also underwent a fundamental change. In an essay written in 1975, 14 Chandra argued that during 1933 to 1936 Nehru had reached the high water-mark of his radicalism as a Marxist, where he showed the capacity to break out of the Gandhian framework into a revolutionary mould. But after 1936 his Marxist radicalism slowly watered down to a “mild form of Fabianism” and he gradually surrendered to the ‘non-revolutionary’ Gandhian strategy. By 1986 Chandra had a totally different understanding of Gandhiji (as discussed above) and in a masterly piece on Nehru written in 1990, “Jawaharlal Nehru in Historical Perspective”, he completely reassessed his evaluation of Nehru. Evidently an understanding of Gandhi was the key to an understanding of various aspects of the Indian national movement. Once one got the former right, the rest seemed to fall in place readily.

Chandra now characterised the shift in Nehru’s position as his abandonment of the sectarian, dogmatic Marxism of that period, which he termed Stalin-Marxism. The failure of the Stalin-Marxist position, which was beginning to marginalise the Left, and the success of the Gramscian path of war position pursued by Gandhi made Nehru re-evaluate the Gandhian strategy. He no longer saw the Congress as a structured bourgeois party but one which was not only capable of being transformed in the socialist direction but was actually gradually shifting Leftwards. Chandra in this piece and elsewhere brilliantly details the process of Nehru gradually discovering Gandhi and, as predicted by Gandhi, beginning to speak his language over time. He also shows how Nehru was among the first in the world to break out of Stalin-Marxism, to emphasise (somewhat preco-ciously) that while there could be no true democracy without socialism there would be no socialism without democracy. Nehru began to veer towards the position that socialism could not be brought about by coercion or force. The socialist transformation required societal consensus, the consent of the overwhelming majority of the people. To succeed, it had to be socialism by 95 per cent. Nehru was anticipating what later events were to validate and what was to be slowly accepted globally. In this very important comprehensive essay Chandra also tries to examine why Nehru, despite his “gigantic” achievements, failed to bring about in full measure the social transformation that he aimed at.

In another essay, ”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 demonstrates how Gandhiji had a holistic understanding of secularism encom-passing all the four terms in which secularism has been defined in India and elsewhere. That is, for Gandhiji secularism meant separation of religion from politics; neutrality of the state towards all faiths or equal regard for all faiths including atheism; state treating all citizens as equal and not discriminating in favour or against anyone on the basis of his or her religion and finally, emerging specifically out of the Indian situation, secularism meant uniting the Indian people against colonialism, which meant secularism in India would involve unambiguous opposition to communalism.

Chandra shows how Gandhiji’s repeated statements saying that for him there was “no politics devoid of religion” or that “politics bereft of religion are a death trap because they kill the soul” have been often misunderstood as his ‘secularism’ being in some ways compromised. He clarifies that Gandhiji “often used the word ‘religion’ in two different senses: one in its denominational or sectarian sense, that is, in terms of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, etc., and the other in the traditional Indian sense of dharma, that is, the moral code which guides a person’s life and the social order”. Almost every time he asserted that politics must be based on religion, he clarified that what he meant was that it should be based on moral foundations, dharma. For example, in 1940 he reiterated: “Yes, I still hold the view that I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion.... Here religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the universe.... This religion transcends Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc.”

However, realising that religion in a denomi-national sense was increasingly being used to promote communal politics, Gandhiji on numerous occasions began to explicitly make his position clear, leaving no room for any confusion. In August 1942, he stated: “Religion (now meaning in a denominational sense) is a personal matter which should have no place in politics.” Again in November 1947 he warned: “Religion is a personal affair of each individual, it must not be mixed up with politics or national affairs.” His warning in August 1947 has a contemporary relevance when he said the independent Indian state “was bound to be wholly secular” and “no denominational educa-tional institution in it should enjoy state patronage”. He also argued that the state was not to get involved in religious education, leaving it to religious institutions.

The fact that Gandhiji often used imagery or idioms from Hindu mythology or scriptures has often been used by both his secular and Muslim communal critics to argue that he was catering to Hindu communalism. His use of the term Ramrajya to define what Swaraj in India would mean was the most cited example. Here again Gandhiji was being misrepresented. As Chandra shows, Gandhiji was certainly not using Ramrajya to mean Hindu raj but as a just, humane, moral and egalitarian system of governance. He reassured his Muslim brethren: “By Ramrajya I do not mean Hindu Raj. I mean...Divine Raj, the Kingdom of God. For me Ram and Rahim are the same deity.” He said that just as he used the concept of Ramrajya to reach the millions among the Hindus, he would, when addressing Muslim audiences, use the concept of Khudai Raj to convey the same meaning.

Chandra shows how Gandhiji’s secularism was based on an extremely firm ground and would brook no compromise on this front. In fact, the positions taken by him consistently could be a sterling example to his ‘secular’ critics till today. Gandhiji was totally committed to civil liberty, freedom of speech and expression, liberty of the press, etc., calling this “the breath of political and social life...the foundation of freedom. There is no room there for dilution or compromise. It is the water of life. I have never heard of water being diluted.“ Yet, he was to make one exception. He advocated the banning of literature spreading communal hatred. He said in 1936: “If I had the power I should taboo all literature calculated to promote communa-lism, fanaticism, and ill-will and hatred....” More than half-a-century after independence, with all the powers one needed, secular India still permits communal poison being taught to tender minds, to children through school texts, leave alone the rampant vicious communal propaganda permitted in the public sphere.15

The essay ends with a critical discussion on why Gandhiji, and indeed the Indian national movement as a whole, despite having a firm commitment to secularism, still failed to contain communalism and prevent the partition of the country. Of course, this was not to deny the massive success of the movement in ensuring that, despite the almost holocaust-like situation caused by the partition riots, India succeeded in a very short time to build a secular democratic state.

What distinguishes Bipan Chandra from a large number of scholars that emerged among the Left, and ranks him among the tallest intellec-tuals within this tradition globally, was his refusal to surrender to any kind of dogma while pursuing his intellectual queries. While steering clear of and severely critiquing the colonial and communal orthodoxies, Chandra was careful not to become a victim of the ortho-doxies of the Left. Leave alone surrender to the so-called ‘party line’ of the various Communist Parties in India, he did not hesitate to question widely held orthodoxies within the global Left tradition, even while rooting himself firmly within it. It often meant he had to plough a lonely furrow, standing against the mainstream.

As would be expected, from one who refused to be a prisoner to any dogma, Chandra had no hesitation in abandoning orthodoxies created around his own work. He readily re-evaluated his own formulations, often modifying and sometimes completely overthrowing them.

It is this courage to stand by his own convic-tions against powerful currents, if necessary, which enabled Chandra to make major breakthroughs in the understanding of modern and contem-porary India. Such has been the range and depth of Chandra’s writings in this area that an entire school of thought is now associated with his name.This is no mean achievement in an age when schools of thought almost always tend to be associated with Universities or individuals in the Western ‘First’ World.

Chandra used to tell his students repeatedly that a school of thought does not generally get established by the work of an individual. It requires a team effort. It is here that Chandra could boast of another major achievement. Over the decades he succeeded in creating a team of scholars around him who filled out, expanded, innovated on and amended the breakthroughs in ideas that he sparked off and on occasion broke new ground. One example of the intellectual output of this team is the series of monographs that have appeared under his general editorship called the Sage Series in Modern Indian History. Much other work, apart from the fifteen monographs that have so far appeared in the Series, bears the imprint of the school of thought inspired by Bipan Chandra.16

Scholars who rallied around Bipan Chandra on a common intellectual platform often joined hands with him on the plane of political and social activism as well. A good example of this was the formation and activities of the Delhi Historians Group with Chandra as its key inspiration. The group was formed in the first years of the new millennium to combat the massive efforts made by the Hindu communa-lists to attack secular and scientific history writing in India and replace it with communal interpretations of history with the active support of the BJP-led NDA regime.

From 2004 till 2012, he steered the National Book Trust as its Chairman and advanced his own and the Trust’s agenda of reaching mean-ingful literature to the people at low cost. He started a new Social Science series and got the country’s renowned experts to write for it. Friends and colleagues remember fondly how he would spot a potential author and then make sure through persistent persuasion that the work was completed.

He leaves behind an unfinished manuscript on the biography of Bhagat Singh, whom he had saved from being appropriated by the reactio-nary communal forces in the 1970s by recovering and publishing in pamphlet form his seminal essay ‘Why I am an Atheist?’ Delivering the Bhagat Singh Memorial Lecture in the JNU some time ago he characterised him as ‘a Marxist in the Making’, thus giving us a peep into the direction in which his thoughts were moving.

The multi-faceted legacy of this remarkable human being who is no longer with us can only be furthered through the efforts of all those who share his ‘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.


1. Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India,

 People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1966.

2. Essays on Colonialism, Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2009.

3. Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1979, second edition, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2010.

4. Indian National Movement: The Long-Term Dynamics,

 Vikas, New Delhi, 1988, reprinted, Har Anand, New Delhi, 2008. This important work was first presented as the Presidential Address to the Indian History Congress in 1985 and has been reproduced in this volume as The Long-Term Dynamics: Gandhiji and the Indian National Movement.

5. For example, “A Strategy in Crisis—The CPI Debate 1955-1956” in Bipan Chandra, ed., Indian Left: Critical Appraisals, Vikas, New Delhi 1983.

6. Bipan Chandra, Rise and Growth of Communalism in Modern India, Vikas, New Delhi 1984, last revised edition, 2008, Har-Anand, New Delhi.

7. Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee, India Since Independence, Penguin, New Delhi, 2008.

8. Bipan Chandra, In the Name of Democracy: JP Movement and the Emergency, Penguin, 2003.

9. We will see later below how the early Indian intelligentsia made the same errors as Marx in 1853 and the early nationalists made a shift from Marx’s erroneous formulations at that stage.

10. Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, People’s Publishing House, New Delhi, 1966.

11. A school, which claims to give voice to the Indian poor, largely from the safe and sanitised environs of the First World.

12. See “Elements of Continuity and Change in Early Nationalist Activity” in Bipan Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 1979, second edition, Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2010.

13. See Bipan Chandra, “Lenin and the National Liberation Movements” in Nationalism and Colonialism..., Ibid.

14. “Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian Capitalist Class”, in

Nationalism and Colonialism..., Ibid.

15. Foreword by Bipan Chandra in Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee and Sucheta Mahajan, RSS School 

Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi: The Hindu Communal Project, Sage, New Delhi, 2008.

16. It may be in order to list the titles in the Sage Series to give an idea of the kind of work promoted by Bipan Chandra. Sucheta Mahajan, Independence and Partition: The Erosion of Colonial Power in India, Salil Misra, A Narrative of Communal Politics: Uttar Pradesh, 1937-39, Aditya Mukherjee, Imperialism, Nationalism and the Making of the Indian Capitalist Class, 1920-1947, Visalakshi Menon, From Movement to Government: The Congress in the United Provinces, 1937-42, Mridula Mukherjee, Peasants in India’s Non-Violent Revolution: Practice and Theory, Rakesh Batabyal, Communalism in Bengal: From Famine to Noakhali, 1943-47, Shri Krishan, Political Mobilisation and Identity in Western India, 1934-47, Tan Tai Yong, The Garrison State: The Military, Government and Society in Colonial Punjab, 1849-1947, Mridula Mukherjee, Colonialising Agriculture: The Myth of Punjab Exceptionalism, Gyanesh Kudaisya, Region, Nation, “Heartland”: Uttar Pradesh in India’s Body Politic, Pritish Acharya, National Movement and Politics in Orissa, 1920-29, D.N. Gupta, Communism and Nationalism in Colonial India, 1939-45, Chandi Prasad Nanda, Vocalising Silence: Political Protests in Orissa, 1930-32, Raj Sekhar Basu, Nandanar’s Children, The Paraiyans’ Tryst with Destiny, Tamil Nadu 1850-1956, Tadd Fernee, Enlightnment and Violence: Modernity and Nation-Making, Apart from these publication in the Series, the works of Mohinder Singh on the Akali Movement, Bikash Chandra on the growth of communal politics in Punjab, Neerja Singh on the Congress Right: Patel, Prasad and C.R., Amit Mishra on Mauritius and on the Indian Diaspora, to name a few, have been deeply influenced by Chandra.

Professor Mridula Mukherjee is a Professor of Modern Indian History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Professor Aditya Mukherjee is a Professor of Contemporary History, Centre for Historical Studies and Dean of the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Both were favourite students of Professor Bipan Chandra and remained close to him till the end.‘