Integrationist historians caught between Hindutva activists and non-nationalist academia

Bhagat Singh became one of my heroes when I was a teenager. Bipan Chandra introduced me to him – as a nationalist, an intellectual, a courageous hero of India’s freedom struggle.

In fact, Professor Bipan Chandra’s modern history textbook, which I studied in Class VIII, gave me a fascinating sense of how the Republic of India and its ideals came about. He introduced me to Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, as well as to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Henry Derozio.

Bipan Chandra wrote a history of inclusiveness, of integration, of social reform, of the formation of modern India. Subtly, in the corners of the minds and hearts of young people, that history shaped patriotism, a commitment to an India that nourished, cherished and embraced.

It is perhaps only natural that historians of an integrating, inclusive India are getting short shrift in a time when the divisive politics of Hindutva is on the ascendant. But this is extremely sad, for the recent attacks on Bipan Chandra and other integrationist historians could grievously injure the Indian republic.

Bhagat Singh. PTI

Bhagat Singh. PTI

Chandra has been accused of describing Bhagat Singh as a terrorist. This is plainly mala fide. In fact, Chandra contributed hugely to valorising Bhagat Singh. In his later work (2006), Chandra wrote that `Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues.’

Even when he and his co-authors used the term `revolutionary terrorist’ in an earlier work, they made it clear that they used it without any pejorative intent, and only because there was no obvious alternative to adequately describe Bhagat Singh’s methods.

In October 2007, Chandra gave a clarion call for the word `terrorist’ to be changed. `It was a word of praise then and was used to distinguish Bhagat Singh from the other streams of freedom struggle. But the word terrorism has assumed a very different meaning now. I would not like it to be used now,’ he told The Times of India.

The fact that, despite all this being on the public record, his provisional use of the word in 1988 has nevertheless been used to attack Chandra and his co-authors suggests that the intent is malicious. The most dangerous aspect of this in the long term is that, in attacking integrationist nationalist historians, Hindutva communalists could undermine the integration that has been achieved since the 19th century across the axes of language, caste, sect and religion.

Perhaps the saddest part of the intellectual war that is going on is that the attack against integrative nationalism by the Hindutva-based alternative is drawing its power and ammunition from intellectual streams that question nationalism entirely. The attack against Professor Chandra surely stems from the crisis that enveloped JNU after anti-India slogans were raised there on 9 February.

Chandra is closely identified with JNU, for he was one of the University’s founding professors. He retired as professor emeritus – and was also designated a national professor.

It is tragic that integrationist historians such as Chandra’s successors are caught in a cleft stick. On the one hand, Hindutva ideologues are determined to wrest the narrative of Indian nationalism from them. On the other, non-nationalist streams of scholarship often disparage them even more. The latter have greater salience, if only because streams of scholarship associated with post-modernism have been enthusiastically cheered in the academically dominant West. By contrast, academia generally considers Hindutva communal and xenophobic – and disparages nationalism as statist and passé.

Driven most often by altruism, schools of historiography such as subaltern studies have done valuable work to research the histories of tribal, caste and other groups that may otherwise have been ignored or subsumed in larger narratives. In so doing, some of them have at times supported, either openly or tangentially, movements that critique India’s unity as oppressive for subaltern groups.

They must respect the thin line between highlighting oppressive policies and undermining the constitutionally established system. Recent events in several countries have demonstrated the terrible consequences of weakening a system, even a flawed one.

On the other hand, those who are uneasy about such academic work should see that it adds vital layers and dimensions to our understanding of our country. It presents perspectives from which the project of nation-building can usefully be questioned, analyzed and corrected. It can help us to focus on and validate dimensions of society within the constitutionally established republic in order to minimize threats to the vision of the constitution.

Even though such schools of scholarship have often disparaged what I have called integrationist historiography the most, integrationist historians who worked closely with Chandra took the forefront in defence of those who gave space to Kashmiri agitators at JNU on 9 February – on the ground that, even if the slogans raised were objectionable, it was a University matter that ought to have been dealt with within the University rather than by police, politics and a high-pitched media trial.

It is for that courage to defend principles that they are paying a price – and Professor Chandra is being posthumously attacked. The ruling establishment has seized the opportunity to set upon them with vigour since they have in the past criticized the RSS sharply – not only for communal thrusts that undermine the integrationist project, but over RSS leaders’ timidity during the freedom struggle.

This is a sad and sorry spectacle. For it weakens the country. Nation-building is a constant, relentless process. It is a journey – a difficult one. In the Indian context, it is a journey of a vast and variegated caravan. To carry along all those who participate in this caravan is a tough task. Fellow-feeling and sensitivity are vital.

Attacking and pulling down sections of the caravan slows down and unsettles the entire caravan, and leaves it vulnerable to attack and to dissipation. National leaders must ensure that this does not happen, not try to make it happen.