Sadness gripped me when I heard of Prof Bipan Chandra’s passing on August 30, 2014. Before it could settle in, however, images took over, memories from the 1970s when I was a student and Bipan saheb a teacher at the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS), JNU.
I remembered the not-very-large man that he was, armed with big ideas and a mountain of historical data, arguing, persuading and speaking passionately, loudly and with conviction. In my mind’s eye he is still a bundle of energy, bouncing along on the balls of his feet, the heels barely touching the ground, the words tumbling out of his mouth in an incessant stream as if he felt that everything existed in the word, fearing almost, that if he stopped talking, the life-breath might slip out of him. I got the feeling sometimes that he wished he had more words at his command to be able to say all that he wanted to say, or, that he had the skill to catch them in mid-flight and string them together into innumerable simple sentences that might help as many people as possible make sense of the past and the present. Urgently at that, because for him, the contours of the future seemed to depend upon this!
Bipan Chandra’s writings and his seminal contributions to the historiography of Modern India, so eloquently outlined by Professor Romila Thapar at a memorial meeting held in his honour at Teen Murti on September 2, are cherished and will be valued by many across lands, languages and generations. I hope he shall also be remembered as a teacher, because he brought to teaching a meaning, quality and charge that was singular, even life-altering. This, almost none of us, even though we came from diverse social and educational backgrounds and from different parts of the country to become students at the CHS in the ’70s, had ever experienced before.
History came alive, becoming as much about other times and other people as about our own lives and times, whenever Bipan Chandra lectured. Our classroom on the fifth floor of the Social Sciences building ‘down-campus’, far from being a boring space, came to be animated with his teaching, inspired and inspiring, learned and passionate, intellectually provocative and nourishing. I clearly remember the quickening pace of the flick of index cards between his fingers as the hours went by, the sweat drenched him, the shirt came off his back sometimes, and body and soul came together in an incredible effort to methodically explain historical events and processes, urge us to carefully consider different interpretations, encourage us to think for ourselves, and convince us of the importance of what he was trying to say.
It did not matter what he spoke about. It could have been Naoroji’s economic nationalism or Tilak’s --‘Tilk’ as he called him – politics, Congress’ Pressure-Compromise-Pressure (P-C-P), or Hindu and Muslim communalism, Bhagat Singh’s atheism, Gandhian nationalism or the history and politics of popular movements and the left, capitalism, colonialism or the history of Marxism and world communism. Everything he chose to speak about was deserving of new ways of seeing, of the sweat of his brow, of all he had, and he left no stone unturned in making sure that he was conveying to each one of us, what we had never heard before, with clarity, and in ways that redefined the meaning of lectures and teaching.
Worlds were turned upside down, new questions arose, disagreements surfaced and were articulated with frankness. There were moments when it felt that the act of learning stood emancipated as student-teacher hierarchies dissolved in impassioned arguments with Prof Bipan Chandra, both inside the classroom and outside, at any time of night or day, arguments that seemed to carry within themselves, the power to determine, for instance, the fate of global capitalism or the future of world socialism! These were audacious moments, made by Bipan saheb as much as by lots of us, by other teachers at the JNU, and by the times that we inhabited. They live on in the work many of us do and in the lives we lead, as does the memory of Bipan’s insistence, through the sound and fury of endless discussions and political interventions, on the significance of method, the need for ‘concrete materialist analysis of specific situations’, and on the importance of evidence to the historian’s craft. ‘Dates’, he would say, ‘are very important.
Don’t forget the dates. When did something happen?’ Decades went by with next to no contact with him. The last time I met with Bipan Chandra was at the memorial meeting for his wife, Usha Chandra. Sad and broken though he was, he met me with characteristic warmth. My last conversation with him happened when, during the peak of the Anna agitation I called to tell him that his analysis, almost 40 years ago, regarding the fascist potential of the anti-corruption movement led by JP, had helped me recognise and understand the similar dangers posed by the Hazare movement. I thanked him for being a teacher who gave life to my own immersion in the teaching of History and strength to my commitment to secularism, democracy and the fight to create an equally shared, more beautiful world, a teacher who helped me engage critically and passionately with the past and the present at the same time, and with my own students in as non-hierarchical and attentive a manner as possible.
At some point I heard a barely audible, ‘thank you’. When I hung up I was sure there would be another occasion for me to sit with him and reflect critically on the JNU students’ agitation of 1983 over which he and I had fiercely disagreed at the time. I had also hoped to convey to him my appreciation of the fact that he had remained, despite everything, ever the teacher. I regret that such a moment never came, but I do hope that many of us shall do all we can to defend critical inquiry and further the best in the legacy that we have inherited from historians and teachers like Bipan Chandra, especially in these times, when everything that they have painstakingly created, is besieged and under attack.
The author teaches history in Ramjas College