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Bipan Chandra: The Foremost Scholar, Professor And Historian

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By Author: Srishti
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Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express has paid a unique homage to the great historian. He says “It is a measure of Bipan Chandra’s achievement as a historian that he defined the mainstream establishment’s self-understanding of Modern India for a very long time. Other historians have been more scholarly or more conceptually innovative. But few historians weaved together a narrative of Modern India in a way that had the power of becoming a default political common sense. Our understanding of Modern India has to, even when we disagree, come to terms with the framework he laid out. Most historians are remembered because they were gifted in some way. Chandra’s achievement was more elusive: he became inescapable.”

Bipan Chandra’s writings on modern India are in a way ‘a must-read’ for all those who wish to understand modern Indian history. So our understanding of modern India derives a lot from his books than anywhere else.

Bipan Chandra was born on 27 May, 1928 at Kangra in Punjab, British India (now in Himachal Pradesh). He was educated at Forman Christian College, Lahore, Stanford University, USA ...
... and the University of Delhi, where he completed his Ph.D.

Concentrating on economic and political history of modern India, he specialized in the Indian independence movement and is considered to be one of India’s foremost scholars on Mahatma Gandhi.

He authored several books like The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India: Economic Policies of Indian National Leadership, 1880-1905, In the Name of Democracy: The JP Movement and the Emergency, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India and The Making of Modern India: From Marx to Gandhi and many others. He was also founder of the journal Enquiry and was a member of its editorial board for many years. The History of Modern India written by him is an indispensable book for modern Indian history students. More than 250,000 copies of this book in English have been sold. It is an NCERT textbook published in the late 1970s for secondary schools. It covers substantially almost every aspect of modern Indian history in its limited number of pages. It ran into several editions and was republished in 2012. It is also one of the history books recommended to students for UPSC preparation.

He collaborated with historians like R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Satish Chandra, Barun De and Arjun Dev, whose text books were prescribed in Indian schools for a long time.

“Bipan became increasingly concerned with the rising tide of communalism, sharply criticising both its Hindu and Muslim variants. He carried out surveys of texts used in religious and quasi-religious schools. This concern also led him, I believe, to focus on writing for a popular readership. Many of his essays are for the general reader…He also undertook, with his colleagues, more detailed studies of the national movement and of India since Independence.” (Irfan Habib, The Indian Express).

Some of his other writings on history are in the form of these books:

Communalism: A Primer,

Essays on Colonialism,

India since Independence, (jointly with Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee),

Ideology and Politics in Modern India,

Essays on Indian Nationalism,

Essays on Contemporary India,

The Epic Struggle,

India’s Struggle for Independence, 1857-1947,

Indian National Movement: The Long Term Dynamics,

Communalism in Modern India,

The Indian Left: Critical Appraisal,

Freedom Struggle, (jointly with Amalesh Tripathi and Barun De).

For many years, he was a Lecturer and then a Reader at Hindu College, Delhi. He became a Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, a little after the university was established. After his retirement in 1993, JNU made him professor emeritus. He founded the journal Enquiry and was a member of its editorial board for a long time. He was also a Sectional President and then the General President of the Indian History Congress in 1985. He was Chairperson of the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He became a Member of the University Grants Commission in 1993. He was the Chairman of the National Book Trust, New Delhi from 2004 to 2012.

He was at the forefront of the communist struggle in India for some time but later gave up the cause. In fact the criticism that was levelled at him by many was that of possessing a pro Congress outlook. For his works like “India after Independence” and “India’s struggle for Independence”, he was said to be a pro-Congress historian.

Irrespective of his political leanings Bipan Chandra was very popular among the students. The Telegraph says Chandra’s reputation as a “students’ professor” is what generations of students will remember primarily, even those who never agreed with his political ideology.

An outstanding scholar, Bipan Chandra was appointed as National Research Professor in 2007, and awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian honour, by Government of India in 2010.

Chandra is survived by his two sons, Bikash and Barun. His wife, Usha had passed away a few years back and her death had been a great blow for Chandra from which he found it difficult to recover.

The leaders and scholars of the nation have expressed their heartfelt grief at his death. The sad demise of a brilliant scholar of his high calibre is indeed an immense loss for the nation. President Pranab Mukherjee in his tribute to this great scholar, professor and historian said that the country had lost one of its “foremost scholars on modern India” who had an immense contribution towards the study of Indian history.

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