It can be said of him that he sketched the contours of how the mainstream establishment looked at itself and internalised its understanding of modern India. Bipan Chandra was unique among historians not just because of his scholarship but also for weaving a narrative of contemporary reality that became acceptable in spite of the severe opposition he faced in crafting his vision of history. Chandra’s singular achievement lay in emphasising the role of politics and ideology as necessary tools for understanding the social sciences.
Chandra wrote extensively and even his critics were forced to read almost everything he published. From his seminal and eminently useful tract on economic nationalism to important books on communalism, his work always carried his distinct impress. Part of the reason for his incredible success was a sound grasp of politics. He used history as a weapon to subvert what he rejected and his argument invariably carried the day; at the same time, right through his best years when he tried to comprehend the subjective role of the individual in modern Indian history, he tried to create a broad consensus on the terms of reference, and that was by no means an easy task given the deep ideological divide among historians.
He had a definite standpoint on how to look at political history, and subsequently practised history as his ideology. Some say that he often arrived at conclusions a priori. But that was not what he was actually doing. He was, in fact, fashioning and refining a perspective to look at modern India, its personalities and complexities, in a manner that was not attempted before. His elaboration of communal consciousness and his projection of the secular viewpoint occupied much of his time.
All those who came in contact with him were easily convinced about his strong commitment to project secularism as the foundation of his research. He understood that the way the past is presented would have a bearing on the way we look at the future: if the past rested too heavily on communalism, so will the future. For politics was another way of locating the historical narrative. History thus became a grand project to decipher the making and unmaking of men and institutions. He conceived of the past as an interplay of contradictory impulses seeking to negate one another, as a moral drama in black-and-white terms. Often, his critics would accuse him of coming up with a sophisticated apologia for the Congress brand of politics, and this they said was evident from the manner he was soft on, say, Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian politics.
He had his share of heroes and villains among contemporary figures, but the manner in which he defined a new way to understand the role of people starting from Gandhi and Nehru to Bhagat Singh clearly reflected a profound understanding of the fine print of politics. Chandra could never reconcile himself with figures like JP, especially when they gave space to the RSS. This often made him look anti-establishment in intent, but a pragmatic part of it in actual fact. Forces who stood for disorder thus needed to be checked if the secular idea was to survive.
For reasons of survival and sustenance, Indira Gandhi assumed a Left-leaning profile and in order to accomplish what she wanted, she needed intellectuals and public figures with credibility, and Chandra, with his undoubted credentials fell into the schema of portraying Indira as a secular leader, who was an economic nationalist as well.
His view of what history should be like became so overwhelmingly dominant that even his ideological opponents were forced to practise his methodology. The relationship between politics and history governed his thought process and he converted several historians and others to view the world through his prism. His lasting contribution has to be located not just in the several bright academics that he nurtured but also in the manner in which history’s great figures came alive in the way he analysed their role. He has helped us understand the centrality of ideology in historiography, and at a time when the political establishment is all set to effect a paradigm shift in the study of the liberal sciences, he will be sorely missed — the man who came closest to being termed a truly national historian.