by Kuldeep Kumar
Remembering historian Bipan Chandra, whose definition of communalism has recently come under attack
When a number of eminent historians including Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib termed the National Book Trust (NBT) chairman’s decision to revoke the orders to get “Sampradayikta:”, the Hindi version of historian Bipan Chandra’s book “Communalism: A Primer” reprinted as “a gross violation of freedom of views” that “amounts in effect to the assumption that communalism is now the official doctrine of the country and no criticism of it or its practitioners can be permitted”, they were not wide off the mark.
This is not the first time that books of Bipan Chandra ( 1928-2014) have come under attack. His school textbook written for National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in 1977 was attacked by a section of the then Janata Party government headed by Prime Minister Morarji Desai. However, as the government proved to be short lived, the book survived. When the BJP formed its first coalition government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, it withdrew the book in 2001.
While Bipan Chandra built a reputation of being one of the front-ranking historians of modern India on the basis of his “Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India, 1880-1905”, he began his investigation into the problem of communalism during the 1970s and emerged as the foremost theoretician of communalism by the early 1980s. He came out with his major work “Communalism in Modern India” in 1984 offering a full-fledged theoretical account. The primer that he wrote for NBT put forward his theoretical formulations about communalism and secularism in a succinct manner and, in fact, went a step ahead of his earlier work. In this slim volume, he summed up the essence of his life’s work in a simple, straight forward manner as he was aware that the book was primarily aimed at educating the lay reader.
What is communalism? In Bipan Chandra’s view, “Communalism is based on the assumption that Indian society is divided into religious communities whose interests not only differ but are even opposed to each other. Communalism starts with the belief that in India people can be organised and grouped together for secular, that is, economic and political as also social and cultural purposes, only around their religious identities.” (Emphasis added) He called this “liberal communalism” represented by leaders such as Madan Mohan Malaviya in the Hindu Mahasabha and Muslim League and Akali Dal leaders. This kind of communalism prevailed in India till 1937. Here, secular interests of religious communities could be negotiated.
However, an extreme or fascist communalism based on lies, hatred and violence took over after 1937 and described Hindus and Muslims as two different and distinct nations that could not peacefully coexist within one nation state. Muslim League led by M. A. Jinnah, RSS led by M. S. Golwalkar and Hindu Mahasabha led by V. D. Savarkar articulated and spread this extreme communalism which resulted in the vivisection of the Indian subcontinent. Bipan Chandra maintained that after independence extreme communalism had been represented by the RSS and its front organisations, the extreme Sikh communalists such as Bhindranwale and his followers, and the Jamaat-i-Islami. Making a distinction between the BJP and the RSS, he held that most of the members of the BJP were liberal communalists while its organisers and ideologues, trained by the RSS, belonged to the latter category.
Bipan Chandra was also the first historian who brought Bhagat Singh to the centre of the freedom struggle. He wrote an introduction to his article, written in 1930 when Bhagat Singh was merely 22 years old, published it as a booklet and got it distributed. Till then, Bhagat Singh was known as a revolutionary who sacrificed his life for the freedom of his country but people were not familiar about his views.
Bipan Chandra in one move established Bhagat Singh as a progressive thinker who could understand and analyse contemporary problems in a very clear manner. The world also came to know that by the time he was hanged at the age of 23, Bhagat Singh had almost become a Marxist.
Therefore, it was ironical when in April, Bipan Chandra’s book “India’s Struggle for Independence” that he had co-authored with three others, came under attack from the BJP because it had used the term “revolutionary terrorist” for Bhagat Singh. It speaks volumes about how well versed our political leaders are in history that the attack drew support even from other parties and K. C. Tyagi of the Janata Dal (U) led the charge in Parliament. Interestingly, Bipan Chandra had always had close relations with the members of Bhagat Singh’s family and none of them ever found anything remotely objectionable in his writings.