‘Bipan Chandra thought Bhagat Singh would be the Lenin of India had he lived’
‘India’s Struggle for Independence,’ a book co-authored by Bipan Chandra, Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee K N Panikkar and Sucheta Mahajan published 28 years ago is considered to be one of the seminal studies on India’s national movement. Recently, the Delhi University decided to remove the book from its syllabus. This was done after some people protested against what they called derogatory remarks about Bhagat Singh in the book . The term ‘terrorist revolutionary’ is used in the book to describe Bhagat Singh and his associates. This, some say is objectionable. But historians say this is a term Bhagat Singh himself used to articulate his political ideas. Mridula Mukherjee, professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi, a co-author of the book, in a conversation with N K Bhoopesh, goes beyond the obvious and explains the political exigencies for the orchestrated controversy
What do you think is the real reason behind this controversy about “India’s struggle for independence” authored by Bipan Chandra, Aditya Mukherjee, K N Panikkar,Sucheta Mahajan and you ?
That is any body’s guess. This is perhaps the most popular book which gives the most substantial interpretation of the Indian national movement. The different strands of the national movement, various political movements involved, including the Hindu Mahasabha, RSS, Muslim League, Akali Dal, all the different communal strands are also dealt extensively in this book. Who played premier role and who did not, all these comes out very clearly in this book. Anybody who reads it, I think will have fairly objective account of what actually happened. I also think lay man or student who reads this book will get to know that the struggle for freedom was not just for winning the independence from the British. But it was also aimed at bringing in economic and social change in India.
What you are saying is that the idea of the Indian national movement was not just confined to attain political freedom?
Yes economic freedom, social freedom, ending caste oppression, women emancipation, issues of independent economic development, egalitarian development, all these were integral component of the Indian freedom movement. And, of course it fought for political freedom. The nationalism that it espoused was a very modern construct. It has clearly enunciated the vision of independent India as democratic secular republic. The Motilal committee report on fundamental rights, and the Congress’s Karachi resolution made it very clear that civil liberties, right to free speech, right to form trade union. All this has been clearly mentioned in all these documents. It was a vision for modern egalitarian, progressive secular India.
The kind of nationalism that is being projected today is not the nationalism of our freedom struggle. Those who espouse the current ideas of nationalism or I would say those who want to project communalism as nationalism are rightly worried about this book which deals with genuine article. If you know the genuine article then you would be able to understand and differentiate with the fake article that is being presented. Indian nationalism did not hark back to reviving the ancient glory of India. It does not see the medieval period as dark age after the arrival of the Muslims. It of course had a very positive understanding of Indian culture and civilisation as representing the very best in philosophy. It did not have fanciful idea of ancient India in which it says Indians have achieved all scientific achievements. For them there is no need to have any scientific experiment more. All we need to do is to revive the ancient achievement. The Indian national movement does not have a revivalist idea.
Now the communalism that is masquerading as nationalism does not have vision for future, it can only talk about imaginary glory of the past. They do not have even an idea of economic development. Sometimes they copy American model, talk about mythical Gujarat model. They would one day talk about Swadeshi Jagaran Manch. Today the most important idea in India are about deepening democracy. Bring the advancement to the most depressed sections of the society. But these people does not have a political idea for this. They are having a retrograde ideology. These are broadly the reasons why books like this are attacked.
Ideological opposition should have been fought on another level. If they do not think that our ideas are not right, they can write another book and prove that we are wrong. But that is not happening. We don’t approve colonial Cambridge historians. We criticise them. But I never said Judith Brown’s books should be banned. Because she calls Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad sub contractors. Though I think it is derogatory, I teach it in my class, make my students read it and critique and teach them how to reject it ideologically. Let there be more intellectual critique of our books. That will demolish our books, people will not buy it then. Produce better books. Don’t try to ban Bipan Chandra’s book by spurious arguments.
Now the objection that is raised on a particular term that was used to describe Bhagat Singh –the revolutionary terrorist. How would you explain that?
Bipan Chandra himself has said that he want to change the term used. Three days ago we said we will change the term. We talked to the publishers and said we want to change the word. So where is the controversy? Where is the issue? There is no issue.
What was the logic behind using the term in the first place?
Those two chapters were written by Bipan Chandra himself. This was term that was used by Bhagat Singh and others to describe themselves. It was not a derogatory term. It was an analytical term. There is difference between analytical term and a derogatory term. We have all studied in school books about moderates and extremists in Indian national movement. Some people have objection with the word extremists especially after the terrorists attacks and insurgencies started. After 1980s the term extremists are used to explain certain category of people. So today in the popular mind the meaning is something different from what it was. During the freedom struggle Jawaharlal Nehru, Lajpat Rai all used these terms. Bipan Chandra is first historian who challenged the term moderates, His research was on the economic ideas put forth by the moderates. He then told that it was very wrong term for them, because they were very radical in their economic ideas. So he dropped the term and started using the word ‘early nationalists’. They laid the foundation for the critique of colonialism.
As we go along we find certain term used not suitable then we critique. If some people think the use of the word extremist is not suitable to describe certain freedom fighters. But we can say these people were referred as extremists, though the understanding of that term is now different. Would you use the term Negro today to describe the Black people in the US? No. But it was perfectly respectful term early. Nothing was derogatory about that term then. Then the term Black was used. Now it is Afro-American to describe these people. Because the term white and black smacks of racism. The word Harijan was given by Gandhiji to substitute the derogatory caste term to describe the untouchables. Some years later it was seen as patronising term. Then Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes were used as constitutional term. Even that is not accepted today because there is a certain derogatory element in calling section of the people SC or ST. So the word Dalit came in to use. Large sections now use the term Dalit. Certainly in few years time the word Dalit will also get rejected. Because that means oppressed, since once you have fought oppression, you may not want that label after some time. Some derogatory meaning may get attached to it by then. Then they will find a new term. So this happens in history. Terrorism was used by Bhagat Singh himself to explain his methods. It was very respectable term. At that it was terror against oppressors. Today terrorism meaning killing innocents. Bombing markets and railway stations.
At that time it was targeted violence. Shooting British officers who were oppressive. These were acts of individual violence. Individual means, these are done by individuals. The term revolutionary was used. Bipan Chandra used the term revolutionary terrorism.
How did Bipan Chandra rate Bhagat Singh?
You ask anybody here about Bipin Chandra. His real hero was Bhagat Singh. He recovered Bhagat Singh’s famous article “Why I am an Atheist.” He found it in the British Archives. He published at his own expense. When I was student in 1971 at Delhi University, we sold that book standing at street corners in Delhi. That was what we did. The only pamphlet I distributed was Bhagat Singh’s “Why I am an Atheist,” handed over to me by my teacher Bipan Chandra. He is the first historian who have done serious analytical ideological analysis of revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. He brought into prominence Bhagat Singh’s ideology. Till then he was revered as a hero. Because they were involved in heroic activities.
Bipan Chandra brought out the fact that how people like Bhagat Singh were influenced by Marxists ideas. He moved deep into their ideas and showed this. Nobody else has done a critical analysis of Bhagat Singh as an ideologue, as a thinker as Bipin Chandra did. He said Bhagat Singh had the finest mind among the nationalist leaders. His last public lecture was about Bhagat Singh. In that lecture he said if Bhagat Singh had lived, then he would have become the Lenin of India. He was writing a biography of Bhagat Singh which he could not complete due to illness. He regarded Bhagat Singh as an intellectual.
Then why is the book is targeted now?
This book is not just about the freedom struggle. The book explains the growth of communalism in India. The stand they took during the Indian national movement. In this book which they are seeking to ban it is a comprehensive book on modern Indian history. It deals with all political strands during that period. There are three chapters in the book written by Bipan Chandra himself on communalism. He wrote a separate book on rise and growth of communalism in India later. Everybody knows he was indefatigable fighter for secularism. He wrote and spoke and campaigned for secularism. I think there would be obvious discomfort with these chapters for communalists. His work was an analytical critique of communalism. He dissected the phenomenon of communalism.
This person from Bhagat Singh family went to meet Delhi University vice-chancellor with ABVP leaders. If he has not joined BJP, he will. Punjab elections are coming. We know the person who shouted loudly for Subhash Bose, is now with the BJP.
By taking up these non issues, do you think Hindu communalists want to conceal their role in Independence movement?
Actually, their non-role in the national movement. How can they find a role for them when actually they did not have one?.
What is peculiar in this controversy is that Parliament has intervened and said the book should be taken out?
To be fair, I have read the statement made by Dy. Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. What he said was these references should be removed. No where have I seen him saying to take out this book from the syllabus. Other people are using his words to get a blanket ban on the book. Ourselves have already said that we also want it. Bipan Chandra also said that he no longer want to use the word terrorist with revolutionary tag to describe the ideas of Bhagat Singh. But the book was not revised. Only reprinted, so changes could not be made. We have written to the Delhi University. We wrote to the publishers Penguin seeking to remove the term ‘terrorist.’ So the purpose is not to remove these references, but to get this book banned. Prof. Aditya Mukherjee on behalf of the authors met the V-C of Delhi University and communicated our willingness to change the references. But despite this, order was issued stating the sale of the book is banned. This is blanket order. Who is going to see that order is reversed after the changes are made in the book?
The real intention will be rolled out in days. Now a case has been filed against us in a Kanpur court charging with defamation. Is this democracy? Where is freedom of expression. If I am going to be intimidated by court cases how can I work? I am an author, a professor from where do I have the means to fight the case of defamation in Kanpur court? It is harassment. Do I have the right to live in this county peacefully? And write and teach? But I have great respect for the wisdom of the Indian people, they can distinguish between what is right and wrong. what is political manipulation and what is genuine intellectual efforts.