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A man of courage & conviction

Print edition : Feb 01, 2019 T+T-
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya  was Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, from 2007 to 2011.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya was Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, from 2007 to 2011.

Chennai: 25/06/2014: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column:

Title: Indian History Congress Monograph Series: Essays in Modern Indian Economic History.
Author: Sabyasachi Bhattacharya.
Publication: Primus Books Publishers Release.

Chennai: 25/06/2014: The Hindu: oeb: Book Review Column: Title: Indian History Congress Monograph Series: Essays in Modern Indian Economic History. Author: Sabyasachi Bhattacharya. Publication: Primus Books Publishers Release.

Chennai: 26/09/2011: The Hindu: Front Line: Book Review Column:
Title: Talking Backm the Idea of Civilization in the Nationalist Discourse.
Author: Sabyasachi Bhattacharya.

Chennai: 26/09/2011: The Hindu: Front Line: Book Review Column: Title: Talking Backm the Idea of Civilization in the Nationalist Discourse. Author: Sabyasachi Bhattacharya.

In later years, Bhattacharya’s attention turned increasingly to the nationalist side of the ideological struggle against the colonial regime .

In later years, Bhattacharya’s attention turned increasingly to the nationalist side of the ideological struggle against the colonial regime .

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s (1938-2019) writings covered a number of themes and spoke of his vision of the vast expanse of history.

PROFESSOR Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who passed away in the early hours of January 7, in Kolkata, was not only a historian of renown but also a person of great courage of conviction.

A student of Presidency College, Kolkata, he carried out his research on the post-Mutiny British financial system in India under the guidance of the renowned historian Professor Amales Tripathi. 

Bhattacharya’s subsequent teaching and research positions at the University of Chicago (1968-69) and St Antony’s College, Oxford (1969-70), enabled him to enrich the final version of his book The Financial Foundations of the British Raj: Ideas and Interests in the Reconstruction of Indian Public Finance, 1858-1872  (Simla, 1971; 2nd edition, New Delhi, 2005). In this work, he carefully set out data on British manipulations of taxation, budget and exchange during the years when government finances were reorganised after the abolition of the East India Company’s rule. 

Bhattacharya’s grasp of the economic history of British rule was once again on display in his chapter on the economic conditions of Bengal and other parts of India, in the years between 1757 and 1857, his contribution to the Cambridge Economic History of India , Vol. II, 1983, extending to over 60 pages. I remember having to face him in a debate on this volume, organised at the Delhi School of Economics in 1983 or 1984. After my harsh critique of the volume for what I held to be its pro-colonialist bias, he was good-humoured and suave, not disputing my case, but pointing out that the volume has also much information to offer, of use even to critics of British performance in India, and that there were contributors too (like himself) whose chapters had a story to tell more consistent with the nationalist case. Perhaps, he won the honours in the debate in the view of the audience. 

Nationalist discourse

In his later years, possibly provoked by the Namierist and Subaltern critiques of the National Movement, Bhattacharya’s attention turned increasingly to the nationalist side of the ideological struggle against the colonial regime, on which he made a major intervention in his Talking Back: The Idea of Civilization in the Indian Nationalist Discourse  (2011). This book was preceded by The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore , 1915-41 , which contained rich material for understanding two divergent views within Indian nationalist thought, each put forward by its outstanding exponent. 

His own final word came in his Colonial State, Theory and Practice  (2016), perhaps one of his most influential theoretical works. Bhattacharya’s natural sympathies for the poor led him from general economic history to labour history. His was the spirit behind the Association of Indian Labour Historians. He established relations with labour historians from outside India, including Professor Dibesh Chakravarti, whom he invited to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) for a term. It was a welcome move on his part to have a panel on Labour History at the Indian History Congress session in Patiala in 1998. Building on his legacy, we need to revive work in this important field of history. 

When the tilt towards what the press calls majoritarianism increased demonstrably in India during the past three decades, Bhattacharya turned more and more towards exploring the rich unifying experience of the National Movement. He wrote  Vande Matram: The Biography of a Song  in 2003. In 2014, he published his path-breaking book entitled The Defining Moments in Bengal: 1920-1947 . In early 2017  Frontline  published his address at the Indian History Congress, in which he spelt out the Constitution-makers’ espousal of secularism.

The references above have no pretensions to providing a list of his writings, which covered a large number of other themes. For instance, he wrote Buddha for the Young , on the one hand, and co-edited The Past of the Outcaste: Readings in Dalit History , on the other. All his writings spoke of his vision of the vast expanse of history.

Professor Bhattacharya’s final work was Comprehensive History of Modern Bengal: 1700-1950 , in three volumes, which he edited under the auspices of the Asiatic Society, Kolkata, with contributions from renowned authors from all over the world. The fact that he managed to finish this work in spite of suffering from a dreaded disease showed his indomitable devotion to his work.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya joined the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU as an Associate Professor in 1971 on his return from Oxford. He taught at JNU until 2003, when he retired. Besides his teaching assignments at Oxford and Chicago, he also taught at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico. He served as Vice Chancellor, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan, from 1991 to 1995. He was Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research (2007-11), in which capacity, among other things, he greatly expedited the publication of the long-awaited volumes of the Towards Freedom  series, containing documents on the National Movement from 1939 to 1947. He was elected general president of the 65th session of the Indian History Congress, held at Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh) in 2004. 

Liberal and rational outlook

It is no secret that Bhattacharya, given his liberal and rational outlook, was deeply concerned about the outcome of the Lok Sabha election in 2014. In a letter he wrote to me at the time, he expressly supported the view that the Left forces in the country should promote an all-embracing united front against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Affectionately called “Bappa”, Bhattacharya was always affable and considerate in his relations with friends and pupils. His wife, Malabika Bhattacharya, was uniformly gracious to all whom she and her husband met. During the last year or more, Bhattacharya was aware that having been diagnosed with cancer, he did not have much time left. But this did not deter him from work. At the Indian History Congress session in Kolkata in December 2017, unable to walk, he yet delivered a lecture from a wheelchair. It was a triumph of the will over circumstances one cannot control.

Bhattacharya leaves behind a large circle of admirers who will surely cherish both his memory and his cause.