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Mainstream, VOL LV No 49 New Delhi November 25, 2017

Professor Satish Chandra and the Making of a Nationalist, Secular Historiography

Sunday 26 November 2017



by R. Mahalakshmi

The passing away of Professor Satish Chandra (November 20, 1922-October 13, 2017) has left a void not only in the world of historical scholarship but also in the academic community as a whole.

A meticulous scholar, fearless intellectual and warm human being, Prof Chandra touched the lives of thousands of people over the last seven decades. His textbook for the NCERT, meant for students of classes XI and XII, had schooled the future citizens from the 1970s to the mid-2000s to appreciate the rich and complex history and culture of the Indian subcontinent. Not one to be swayed by the political dispensation of the day or the fashionable flavours of the season, Prof Chandra was vociferous about the need to uphold the vision of the national movement and contribute to a secular and scientific understanding of history. He was dismissive of the Western academic lamentation that history was dead or irrelevant in the new world order. Instead he saw history, especially in the Afro-Asian context where so many countries had thrown off the yoke of colonialism and emerged as independent nations, as significant for the formation of a national self-image, promoting national unity, modernisation and social change.1 At the same time, he upheld the methodological and interpretative modes of historical analysis that had emerged in the West which had contributed to a scientific understan-ding of the past. This also led him to vehemently critique Eurocentrism,2 ideas of exceptionalism and unique civilisational growth,3 religious and cultural determinism,4 and communal interpretation of history.5

Born in Meerut to the illustrious diplomat, Sir Sita Ram, and Basudevi, Prof Chandra graduated from the Allahabad University in 1942, and went on to receive his doctorate from here in 1948. The Allahabad School of History was particularly interested in highlighting the cultural syncretism and political integration that evolved in the medieval period, due to the influence of Islam and Sufism and more importantly the policies of the Mughal rulers, from Babur to Shah Jahan.6

It was at this institution that he appears to have received his grounding in a nationalist and liberal historiography, evident in his landmark publication focusing on Mughal rule in the eighteenth century. His thesis formed the basis of this work, titled Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court (1707-1740).7 Until then, the period was understood as one of decline and disintegration, caused by the bigoted policies of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.8 Chandra located the Mughal decline in the eighteenth century in the political interference and machinations of the nobility in the Mughal court as well as the Maratha challenge occurring simultaneously.

He cites two positions on the religious policies of Aurangzeb, particularly with regard to the imposition of jizyah in 1679. One of these locates the culmination of the religious bigotry of earlier rulers in Aurangzeb’s shortsighted implementation of this tax. The other view identifies the increasing opposition to the Mughal rule over the preceding century leaving Aurangzeb with no other option but to impose the draconian tax. Satish Chandra criticises both positions for laying the blame at the door of an unsubstantiated claim of Hindu-Muslim conflict and discord in medieval India.9

Concerns regarding the nature of Mughal power and hegemony in India led to the development of two research areas by Chandra. The first was regional history, with particular emphasis on the need to map the political and social transformations in different parts of the subcontinent. This led him to the local archives in Rajasthan, particularly the State Archives in Bikaner.10 Starting from the year 1648, he highlighted the availability of a wealth of material, despite the gaps in documentary evidence, that threw light on various aspects of polity, economy and society. At the time that he began to use the archives, he pointed out that neither cataloguing nor indexing and systematic collection had been undertaken. He specifically highlighted the voluminous revenue records which indicated the cropping pattern, productivity, land relations, and the condition of the peasantry. Further, these threw light on differences in the revenue administration in the Mughal state and territories held by the Chiefs, which opened the field to new researches.

The second interest developed by Chandra was in maritime history. The significance of maritime commerce in the medieval period was recognised by him early on. But specifically, the manner in which the Indian Ocean region became the dominating factor in the political economic transformations of the early modern period in the subcontinent led him to raise questions about the nature of commerce, the flow of commodities, the control over the trade, the networks of commerce and trade, etc. The sub-text for him was always the manner in which these developments affected the state and forms of control in the second half of the second millennium CE. He established the Society for Indian Ocean Studies, which began publishing the Journal of Indian Ocean Studies.

Satish Chandra’s textbooks for the NCERT mentioned earlier came under scrutiny several times, and were withdrawn finally in 2002 after the adoption of a new National Curriculum Framework in 2000. During the several protests and meetings demanding the revoking of this withdrawal by professional historians and school teachers, a common refrain heard particularly from the latter was that the clarity and depth of knowledge revealed by these books afforded the student the best possible insight into their history. Despite their non-continuance, these books continue to be read and used by students and teachers alike. It is ironical that the aspirants for the Civil Services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission have continued to think of these books as their bible, an immediate reference point for the history paper.

The Indian History Congress benefited hugely from the presence and active encouragement of the stalwart historians right from its inception. Satish saab, as he was fondly called by his associates, was one of those stalwarts who not only presented papers at the annual conference, but also often took time during his active years between the 1950s and 1990s to be present and encourage other scholars, especially the young, budding historians. As General Editor of the Comprehensive History of India series brought out by the Indian History Congress, he kept a tight rein on the quality and schedules of publication.

Prof Satish Chandra’s loss will be felt deeply by the academic world, and the community of historians in particular.


1. Satish Chandra, Historiography, Religion and State in Medieval India, p. 13.

2. Ibid., pp. 14-5, 17, 20-22.

3. Ibid., p. 22.

4. Ibid., p. 48.

5. Ibid., pp. 83-88.

6. Satish Chandra, Essays on Medieval Indian History, OUP, Delhi, 2003, p. 2.

7. This was published in 1959 at Aligarh.

8. This was an opinion primarily based on Jadunatha Sarkar’s multivolume study of Aurangazeb—History of Aurangzib Mainly Based on Persian Sources, Vols. 1-5, MC Sarkar and Sons, Calcutta, 1912.

9. ‘Jizyah and the State in India During the 17th Century’, JESHO, 12:3, 1969, p. 322.

10. Satish Chandra and S.P. Gupta, ‘The Jaipur Pargana Records’, IESHR, 3:3, 1966, pp. 303-14.

R. Mahalakshmi is a Professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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