Special Correspondent


Eminent `Modern India’ historian Bipan Chandra died on Saturday morning after a prolonged illness. He was 86. Survived by two sons, he left behind an unfinished work on Bhagat Singh and an “army of students’’ of varied ideological persuasions mourning the end of their animated discussions.


His death was mourned by politicians also. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his condolence message to the bereaved family “expressed grief on the passing away of the noted historian’’. Congress president Sonia Gandhi described him as an “erudite chronicler of modern Indian history and the nation’s struggle for independence’’ whose books left a lasting impression on millions of students in their formative years. “He symbolized the best of Left-nationalism: anti-colonial, egalitarian, secular, modernist and passionately political,’’ said Aam Aadmi Party’s Yogendra Yadav.


Communist Party of India – with which he was closely associated — said he used “Marxist methodology’’ to restructure the study of Indian history to bring out the role of economic factors in historical events. “His work on the definition and character of communalism was an original contribution to the subject…. His works provide effective ammunition in the struggle against communalism.’’


Despite his political leanings, Prof. Chandra took a more positive view of Gandhi and the freedom struggle than the Left had traditionally done. His textbook on Modern India for the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) was used by history students for nearly three decades before it was removed by the BJP-led NDA in 1999. It was reprinted by others, translated into several languages and remains a ready-reckoner for Civil Service aspirants.


Eminent historian Romila Thapar – along with whom he, S. Gopal and Satish Chandra founded the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS) at the School of Social Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – recalled how Prof. Chandra encouraged her to write the Ancient India and Medieval India textbooks for NCERT by saying that “ writing textbooks was a national duty of academics’’.


Her association with Prof. Chandra goes back to the 1960s when she was teaching at Delhi University’s History Department and he at Hindu College. They moved together to JNU. “It was a lovely relationship of constant discussion. We had our differences but that made our conversations rich,’’ she recalls; adding that he was also a great supporter of women. “I was the only woman faculty member in the Department at DU and there was a tendency back then to push me around. He used to be very supportive.’’


His colleagues and students alike remember fondly the energy he brought to the classroom. Be it retired NCERT professor Arjun Dev – among his oldest students from the late 1950s in DU – or historian Nonica Datta of Miranda House who studied at JNU’s CHS years later, both recall his teaching as engaging. “A nationalist historian who influenced a generation of students, he was quite a performer in the classroom with his distinctive style of teaching interspersed with wit and personal anecdotes,’’ said Ms. Datta while Prof. Dev said even back then everyone only called him `Bipan’.


(The Hindu August 30, 2014)


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