Professor Barun De (1932-2013)

Historian and administrator

Print edition : August 23, 2013
Professor Barun De (1932-2013) was a secular historian who ably led many national research institutions.

BY all accounts Professor Barun De was not a Marxist in the strict sense of the term. He was more a leftist in the line of the Annales School of France, a school of history that focussed more on social and economic aspects. In that sense he was close to the French historian Marc Bloch, one of the founders of the school.

Barun De never postulated the Marxist schema of the evolution of history but always believed that geographical and other factors influenced events. He was not only tolerant of other schools of thought, like the Subaltern school for example, and encouraged the study of those schools.

Barun De was a secular-minded person, and had good friends at Aligarh Muslim University as well as in Dhaka in Bangladesh. Until the end, which came on July 16, he was a member of the board of trustees of the Indian Museum, Kolkata; vice-president of the Asiatic Society, Kolkata; and vice-chairman of the Centre for Archaeological Studies and Training, Kolkata, which is run by the West Bengal government. He was also the chairman of the Heritage Commission, Government of West Bengal, until 2011.

He gave his last public speech at the Asiatic Society on June 6 where he also distributed medals to scholars in the absence of the Governor of West Bengal.

Early years

Barun De was born on October 30, 1932. His father, Basanta Kumar De, was a high-ranking official of the Bengal Nagpur Railway. So he spent his childhood in Agra and other places where his father was posted. When his father got a transfer to Kolkata (then Calcutta), Barun was admitted to St. Xavier’s School there. After matriculation, he joined Presidency College, Calcutta, to pursue B.A. (Honours) in History. He then moved to Oxford, where he did a B.A. and later a PhD on Henry Dundas, president of the English East India Company. (The thesis was not published despite several attempts by his students.) This research gave him a lifelong interest in the study of late 18th and early 19th century India.

On his return to Calcutta, Barun De joined the History Department of Calcutta University in 1957 on a leave vacancy. At that time, I was a final-year postgraduate student of history. After a brief stint there, he joined the History Department of Burdwan University, where he taught for a number of years.

There were two principal qualities in him which I noticed when I was a student. He could read books very quickly and he used their principal contents in his extempore lectures. The second was his ability to instil an interest in history in students who came from other branches of study.

Before I could enrol for doctoral research under his supervision, I got a fellowship in France and left in 1964, when Barun De was still teaching at Burdwan University.

I returned in 1969 to find him as the director of the postgraduate programme that was being drawn up for the faculty of Indian Institute of Management Calcutta.

In 1973, when Union Minister for Education Syed Nurul Hasan set up the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, in cooperation with the Congress government in West Bengal, Barun De was appointed as its Director. He held that post for the next 15 years. He was Secretary of the Indian History Congress for three years, then President of its Modern India section, and finally the General President. He was also a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi, and much later of the Indian Council of Social Science Research, also in New Delhi, apart from being a member of the Board of Studies of various universities. Barun De was an expert academic administrator.

At the end of his term at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Barun De joined the Maulana Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Kolkata, as its Director for a five-year term. After that stint, he was sent by the Government of India to Uzbekistan for three years as teacher in history. He published his experiences there as a book titled Secularism at Bay: Uzbekistan at the turn of the century. Before that, he had collaborated with Prof. Bipan Chandra and Prof. Amalesh Tripathi to publish a textbook titled Freedom Movement in India.

He had published nearly one hundred articles on the late 18th and 19th centuries in different journals. He was a member of the Cultural Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

In my 50-year-long association with Barun De, I have never seen him disturbed or worried. He was always at peace with himself and with the world outside. This helped him to maintain cordial relationships with people following ideologies contrary to his.

De is survived by his wife, daughter and son. The scholarly world of India, particularly the younger generation, will feel the loss of this great academician in the years to come.

Aniruddha Ray is former Professor, Calcutta University, and former General President, Indian History Congress.

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