Prof Satish Chandra: Historian and academic ambassador

A giant among historians, he made long-lasting contributions to the understanding of medieval India and to academic reforms. University and college teachers have a lot to thank him for

Photo courtesy: Twitter

Rakesh Batabyal

In 2014 when the History Congress was held in JNU, Prof Satish Chandra came to the session straight from the hospital where he was on dialysis. Indian History Congress will no longer be the same in his absence. At a time when Indian academia is getting filled with mean, mediocre and chauvinistic elements, passing away of Satish Chandra is all the more tragic because we seem to have stopped making people like him.

Indian academic world has lost someone who combined in himself the three most creative traditions in modern day historical scholarship in India, i.e., the Allahabad school, the Aligarh school and Jaipur-JNU school, so to say.

He did his undergraduation, post-graduation and wrote his doctoral thesis under the guidance of the doyen of the Allahabad school, Prof RP Tripathy in the 1940s. His thesis, Parties and Poltics in 18th century India, remains our best entry point to the larger poltical world of the 18th century India and more so of Mughal India. Allahabad school famed for its strong nationalistic fervour underscored the point that despite hard feelings and anatagonism in various parts of medieval India, Indian society and polity had undergone progressive integration even under the Mughal rulers and the British. It believed that the tradition of democracy, liberalism and ratioinalism fostered by the British were not contrary to India’s own traditions.

Prof Chadra joined Aligarh in 1953 as a Reader when Aligarh was in the throes of becoming the centre for Marxist historiography under the leadership of Mohammad Habib and Nurul Hasan. Satish Chandra’s work here suggested his growing understanding of the commercial and the financial activities of the British and other companies.

What was also shaping his ideas and work was the examination of the larger social structure and processes that underlay many of the historical problems themselves, i.e., fall of the Mughal empire, the changing religious and regional policies of the Mughals, and the structural reasons of the rise of regional polities like the Marathas and that of the Jats of Bharatpur.

In fact, Satish Chandra’s work remains the most creative and inspiring on most of the three themes. His critique of Jadunath Sarkar’s over emphasis on the religious nature of Aurangazeb’s policies being the reason for the downfall of Mughal empire is of a fundamental nature. He argued that it was the crisis in the Jagirdari system where the seeds of the downfall could be seen. Aurangazeb’s reversal of the religious attitude and policies can be seen more as a result of the crisis than the reason for the crisis. The contemporary politics in India when the religious issues are pitched in to cover up economic failure is a good example of such an explanation. Saish Chandra’s paper on how and why Arungazeb introduced Jaziyah almost 22 years after his accession has remained one of the most instructive lessons of that period

Prof Chandra moved to Jaipur and the famed history department of Rajasthan University took shape under his able leadership. Here Prof Chandra added a very important dimension, i.e., emphasis on the study of the regional language along with Persian to know better the dynamics of the centre and regional power dynamics in the 17-18th century and even thereafter. The vibrant historical discourse in the University also led to diligent archive building activities in Rajasthan and Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Ajmer today boast of some of the finest archives on regional documents.

When JNU came up in the 1970s, he was the natural choice to lead the medieval department. However, he was soon made the Vice Chairman and then Chairman of the UGC which deprived JNU of his active academic presence in those crucial days. However, the Centre was highly influenced by his writing at this stage on the ways regional forces like the Marathas came up and also from his writings on the social background of the Bhakti Movement.

As Chairman of the UGC and someone who had the ears of the erudite minister, Prof. Chandra effected certain changes which had long time impact on Indian academia. The first was the parity of the University and college teachers’ scale of pay at the entry level. It was he who initiated and mobilised opinion for time-bound promotion as coming from Allahabad University of 1950s and 60s, he knew well how people stagnated in one position for years as there were no posts to be promoted to. The third contribution lay in the introduction of the JRF fellowship and the exam.

Prof Satish Chandra played a big role in placing Indian academia at the highest international fora as an independent voice and not like peddlar of some hackneyed Western idea or like a supplicant for power, position or fellowship: a contemporary obsession. He was probably the last academic ambassador, so to say at the level of the UNESCO and other bodies, who symbolised the ideas, concerns and virtues that pulsated our intelligentsia and the leadership since the days of the nation making process began. It is this concern that made him develop the Institute of Indian Ocean Studies, which delved deeper in recent times to the issues and concerns that India has in the realm of Maritime history and politics.

Son of Sri Sita Ram, India’s first High Commissioner to Pakistan, Satish Chandra too remained a giant among intellectuals but remained a thorough gentleman. He had no mean streak and remained Satish Saheb to all his students and fellow historians. The Indian History Congress where he presented one of his first papers in 1946, will no longer be the same in his absence and will miss him.

(Rakesh Batabyal is a historian and is an executive member of the Indian History Congress)

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