Doyen of secular history

A historian who represented Indian academia as an independent voice at the highest international forums, Prof. Satish Chandra (1922–2017 )upheld the values of courage, conviction and secularism in his life and writings.

Published : Oct 25, 2017 12:30 IST

Prof. Satish Chandra  in 2013.

Prof. Satish Chandra in 2013.

WITH the passing away of Prof. Satish Chandra on October 13, the Indian academic world has lost someone who combined in himself the three most creative academic traditions in modern-day historical scholarship in India—the Allahabad school, the Aligarh school and the Jaipur–JNU school. It was in Allahabad University that Prof. Satish Chandra did his undergraduation (1942) and postgraduation (1944), and also wrote his doctoral thesis under the supervision of the doyen of the Allahabad school, Prof. R.P. Tripathi, the degree for which was awarded in 1948. His thesis on “Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court (1707–1740)” remains our best entry point to the study of the decline of Mughal India. The Allahabad school, famed for its strong nationalistic fervour, underscored the point that despite hard feelings and antagonisms prevalent in various parts of medieval India, Indian society and polity had been undergoing progressive integration of different communities and cultures under the Mughals and subsequently, even the British, and that the tradition of democracy, liberalism and rationalism fostered by the British were not contrary to India’s own traditions.

It was the history department of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU)— which Prof. Saiyid Nurul Hasan, himself in many ways the product of the Allahabad school, had joined and developed, along with the stalwart, Prof. Mohammad Habib, into a centre for advanced studies—that beckoned the young Satish Chandra. He joined the department in 1953 as a Reader and published his modified PhD thesis through the University Press. A delicate shift towards studying the larger societal processes took shape in his treatment of the time period under study. What emerged was a very refreshing interpretation of the later medieval period, with the basic postulate of an idea of India remaining a powerful motif but the replacement of the teleological assumptions of the evolving unity of India by a determined push to explain societal processes. This led Prof. Satish Chandra to examine the fall of the Mughal empire, the changing religious and regional policies of the Mughals, and the structural reasons for the rise of regional polities like the Marathas and the Jats of Bharatpur. Even today, Prof. Satish Chandra’s work retains its significance for providing an overarching framework for the study of the Mughals. His critique of Jadunath Sarkar’s overemphasis on the religious nature of Aurangzeb’s policies as the reason for the downfall of the Mughal empire is of a fundamental nature. He argued that the reasons for the downfall could be seen in the crisis of the jagirdari system itself, whereas Aurangzeb’s reversal of the religious attitude and policies of his predecessors could be seen as a result of the crisis than the reason for it. Contemporary politics in India, when religious issues are pitched to cover up economic failure, can be a good example of such an explanation. This further led him to a detailed treatment of the reimposition of jazia, the discriminatory tax imposed on the non-Muslim. Prof. Satish Chandra’s paper on how and why Aurangzeb introduced jazia almost 22 years after his accession has remained a seminal piece of research.

Subsequently, Prof. Satish Chandra moved to Jaipur, and the famed history department of Rajasthan University took shape under his able leadership. Here, he added a very important dimension, that is, emphasis on the study of the regional language along with Persian to better understand the dynamics of the centre and regional power relations in the 17th–18th centuries and thereafter as well. The vibrant historical discourse in the university also led to hectic archive-building activities in Rajasthan, which to date boasts of some of the finest archives on regional documents despite the unfortunate downhill trend in historical research in the university.

When Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) was established in the 1970s, Prof. Satish Chandra was the natural choice to lead the department of medieval history, and overall, his influence in the direction of research on medieval India has been sustained. He was soon made the Vice Chairperson and then Chairperson of the University Grants Commission (UGC), which deprived JNU of his active academic presence in those crucial days. However, the Centre for Historical Studies (CHS) was highly influenced by his writings on the ways in which regional forces like the Marathas emerged as also on the social background of the Bhakti Movement.

The UGC days As Chairperson of the UGC and someone who had the ear of the erudite Minister of State for Education (independent charge) Prof. Saiyid Nurul Hasan, Prof. Satish Chandra effected certain changes that had a long-term impact on Indian academia. One of his most important contributions was to draft a code of conduct for university teachers, which remains valid even today and which gives teachers the right to criticise the governance of their university. At the height of the Emergency, this proved a silver lining for teachers; and there are instances in later years, too, when university teachers have used this code to indicate to the university authorities that their punitive actions against teachers were personal acts of vengeance and were not sanctioned by the code for teachers prepared by the UGC in 1975–76. It is a pity that the institutions Prof. Satish Chandra was himself a part of have, in recent years, fallen behind on such crucial policies relating to teachers’ rights to protest and dissent that he had helped formulate several decades ago.

When the Janata Party government assumed power in 1977, Prime Minister Morarji Desai allegedly insinuated that Prof. Satish Chandra was close to the previous dispensation since he had been personally appointed by Indira Gandhi. Prof. Satish Chandra’s reply was typically crisp, scientific and with the authority of a teacher: “Who else could have appointed me!” Thereafter, the Prime Minister did not disturb him throughout his tenure. But that was the era of civilisation and maturity, where people in the highest offices conducted themselves with grace and dignity.

Historians and nation-making Since the late 19th century, and more so in the 20th century, Indian historians have played a central role in the key issue of nation-making as well as societal movements. They contributed to central debating issues on the nature and implications of India’s developmental trajectories. Contemporary efforts by the neoliberal regime to diminish this contribution have led to all sorts of caricaturing of Indian historiography. This did not escape Prof. Satish Chandra’s keen eye. Having worked extensively on the possibilities inherent in Indian society and economy with regard to capitalist development, in 1961, Prof. Satish Chandra saw that the 17th century witnessed no such development. In a detailed analysis, he showed how the agrarian economy had not produced the kind of mercantilist capitalism which had emerged elsewhere. This debate, which was later shaped by the arguments of his younger colleague at Aligarh, Prof. Irfan Habib, and his JNU colleague and professor of modern Indian history, Bipan Chandra, on the possibilities of capitalist development and proto-industrialisation of the Indian economy in the 17th and 18th centuries. This also led to a critique of the understanding of colonialism as a rescuer or a liberator as it developed not a capitalist economy in the colony but rather a “spit image” of it, as pointed out by Bipan Chandra. Evaluating the new trends of colonial history writing, Prof. Satish Chandra was always very alert and quick to put them to the critical test:

The only persistent point in the theology of those who have a soft corner for colonialism is the belief that British colonial rule in India was in the nature of an act of rescue, which was welcomed by the broad masses for the beneficent rule they introduced and by moneyed classes for protecting their ill-gotten wealth and continued exploitation and extortions.1

Prof. Satish Chandra connects this to the increasing induction of non-Western societies into the ideological matrices of a history where the debate has been shifting from asking why an industrial breakthrough did not take place here to asking why it took so long for “industrial capitalism to spread to these formerly developed regions, once a breakthrough already had taken place”.2 He had no hesitation in expressing his sharp critique of intellectual trends and the historians who valorised them.

Prof. Satish Chandra played a major role in placing Indian academia at the highest international forums as an independent voice, not as a peddler of hackneyed, hegemonic or worn-out ideas in new garb from metropolitan academia, and particularly not a supplicant for power, position or fellowship—which is unfortunately a contemporary obsession. He was probably the last academic ambassador at the level of UNESCO and other bodies that symbolised the ideas, concerns and virtues that have pulsated our intelligentsia and leadership since the days the nation-making process began. In fact, his detailed understanding of India’s historical place in the larger international arena, particularly since the early medieval times, made him the most suitable ambassador in international forums. His detailed analysis of the institutional legacy and other contributions of Timur, for example, was an excellent demonstration of India’s westward inclination, towards Central and West Asia from where many of the cherished ideas of society and governance had come in the past, the foremost being that of a secular state—a very ingrained Timurid idea brought to be experimented by his Mughal descendants. It was again Prof. Satish Chandra who, in a brilliant paper, underlined his opposition to the term “Silk Road”, as for him it was Indian textiles that typified the vibrant trade along the south-west of the route and therefore more indicative of the trading network than the appellation of Silk Road.3

It was also Prof. Satish Chandra’s detailed examination of the forces from outside and their contest with the local powers that made him understand that since the 18th century, the Mughals and other Indian powers were defeated not through any conventional warfare; their major weakness was in the naval sphere. This, and his later analysis of the maritime trade and its importance, led him to take on and institutionalise Indian Ocean studies. The institute that he started, the Centre for Indian Ocean Studies, has delved deep in recent times to raise India’s issues and concerns in the realm of maritime history and politics.

Seminal textbookMedieval India , the textbook that Prof. Satish Chandra wrote for the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), is a monumental contribution, as it brings to the younger generations a rich and nuanced understanding of history based on primary research. Generations of school children who read the book understand both how history operates and how Indian society historically evolved from the eighth century onwards until the arrival of the British. There were wars, there were good kings, not-so-good kings and a few bad kings, both Hindu and Muslim; there was bloodletting and there were conversions as well as religious persecution and discrimination by Muslim rulers against Hindu subjects on some occasions. But there were also inexorable processes of adjustment and give-and-take, and learning and indigenising processes that resulted in the prospering of language, literature, art, culture and religious forms.

This essential composite culture, revealed by a close study of Indian history, comes across beautifully, without either proclaiming itself as the essence of Hindustan as many others had done, or belabouring the point to the extent that other historical elements of contestation and conflict would get obfuscated.

The removal of the textbook under the Janata regime in 1977 and the National Democratic Alliance regime in 2002 was essentially an attack on the study of the processes of Indian history leading to the constitution of a composite sociocultural identity in the present. Such attacks continue today, and we may draw upon the academic strength and legacy of such enlightened scholarship, which represents the civilisational ethos of India, to combat these attacks.

Courage and conviction Courage and conviction have marked the scholarship of Prof. Satish Chandra and his contemporaries such as R.S. Sharma, Bipan Chandra, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar and D.N. Jha. Responding to national crises, resisting the communal interpretation of history and upholding the values of secularism and national unity are the hallmark of their lives as public intellectuals. Notwithstanding the criticisms of Westward bound Indian radicals, Satish Chandra did not mince words when he delineated his task as a historian: to counter the distortions of the Indian past, be they by the British, the nationalists or the communalists and identity-based chauvinists.4

His concise, clear writings on Jodhabai and Padmavati, among others, whose historical and legendary images have been rendered fuzzy in some sections of scholarship, his denunciation of the binaries of Aryan and Dravidian based on a racial, “distorted” interpretation of history, and his firm reiteration of the value of secularism and the vision of the freedom struggle have strengthened the independent historiographical tradition of post-Independence India. His response to the current controversy created by historical ignoramuses on the significance of the Taj Mahal would no doubt have been as sharp and rooted in the secular, scientific historical tradition that he so unequivocally espoused.

The son of Sir Sita Ram, a giant of a political personality and India’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan, Prof. Satish Chandra also had a reputation as a giant among intellectuals. He remained a thorough gentleman, had no mean streak, and was, on the contrary, inordinately generous to even those of us who had only a recent acquaintance and limited academic interactions with him. He remained Satish Saheb to all his students and fellow historians.

The Indian History Congress (IHC), where he presented one of his first papers in 1946, will no longer be the same without the patronage of Prof. Satish Chandra. In 2014, when I was the local secretary of the IHC and organised it for the first time in JNU, Prof. Satish Chandra who was extremely happy and proud of the fact that “his” institution was hosting the event came to the session straight after a stint at the hospital where he was undergoing regular dialysis. As the General Editor of the Comprehensive History of India series, whose volumes are published under the auspices of the IHC, he remained actively engaged, reading and commenting on papers, and providing direction to the project.

At a time when academia is getting filled with mean, mediocre and chauvinistic elements, the passing away of Prof. Satish Chandra is all the more tragic because we seem to have stopped making people like him any more.

Rakesh Batabyal is a historian trained at the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, and is the author of JNU: The Making of a University (HarperCollins, 2014).

References 1. Chandra, Satish (1982): The 18th Century in India: Its Economy and the Role of the Marathas, the Jats, the Sikhs and the Afghans, Calcutta.

2. Ibid.

3. Chandra, Satish (1997-98): “State and Economic Development under Timur: With Special Reference to the Silk Road and Great 5 Asian Land Routes”, in Essays on Medieval Indian History, Delhi.

4. Chandra, Satish (1996): Historiography, Religion and State in Medieval India , Delhi, pp. 31-34.

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