The National Book Trust has decided to stop printing the historian Bipan Chandra’s book Communalism: A Primer. By ZIYA US SALAM

THE noted historian Bipan Chandra may not be alive today, but his ghost continues to haunt those who are uncomfortable with his forthright views on communalism and the freedom struggle. Attracting fresh attention is Chandra’s book Communalism: A Primer, whose Hindi print order has been revoked by the National Book Trust.

Chandra argued in the book that “communalism is very often equated with religious fundamentalism, it actually represents an ideology. To counter it successfully, communal thinking has to be uprooted from people’s minds. The struggle against communalism has to recognise the century-old heritage of inculcation and spread of communal ideology among the masses. Once the ideological character of communalism is recognised, combating it would require a dual-pronged strategy at both the political as well as the ideational level.” Chandra described members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh as extreme communalists.

The NBT said that the decision to stop printing the book was merely a “routine” one. But historians across the country denounced the move in a signed statement. Describing Bipan Chandra as “not only one of India’s foremost historians, but also one of the most uncompromising defenders of the secular and democratic cause in this country”, the statement was signed by more than 150 academics and artists, including Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, K.N. Panikkar, Prabhat Patnaik, Shireen Moosvi, Vivan Sundaram, Aditya Mukherjee and Mridula Mukherjee.

“We are shocked to learn that the very National Book Trust over which he presided has revoked the reprint order for the Hindi version of his book Communalism: A Primer. It is reported that the English and Urdu versions of the book are also being withdrawn. Such action on part of the NBT is a gross violation of freedom of views. As academics and citizens, we fear that such actions as that of the NBT in respect of Bipan Chandra’s book portend the imposition of an authoritarian regime. We, therefore, demand that the NBT repeal its ban on Communalism: A Primer, and continue to reprint and publish it.”

The NBT’s move comes close on the heels of Delhi University’s decision to ban the sale and distribution of the Hindi version of the book India’s Struggle for Independence, which Chandra had co-authored with Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mukherjee, K.N. Panikkar and Sucheta Mahajan. The university had published the Hindi version of the book, which had become like a textbook for students of history since 1987. D.N. Jha, who himself has been trolled online, puts it succinctly: “Communalists will ban books on communalism.” The noted historian Shireen Moosvi feels the move shows that “communalism has now become the official doctrine of the country”.

The NBT decision has made other academics apprehensive that their works too may meet with the same fate. Calling the move “dubious and disgraceful”, Chaman Lal, an authority on Bhagat Singh, said: “The decision of the NBT to stop the printing of Bipan Chandra’s book is serious. Chandra had remained Chairman of the NBT for eight long years and during his term at least hundred-plus best books on freedom struggle and nationalism were published in various Indian languages with inexpensive price tags. The original English version of the book is still publicised by the NBT as its major publication in its ads! In this context one fails to understand why the present Chairman of the NBT is bent upon literally banishing the Hindi version of the book from NBT stores and sale counters, or is it a testing case? So that they can withdraw all nationalism-oriented publications of the NBT published during Bipan Chandra’s period, including my two books on Bhagat Singh and the Ghadar party hero Kartar Singh Sarabha.”

While Lal worries for other titles of liberal historians, others see in the NBT action a design to muzzle the voices of historians who hold up a mirror to reality. They point out that the decision on Communalism: A Primer is part of a well-thought-out plan to get rid of all writings by liberal or leftist historians. Says Aditya Mukherjee, Chandra’s co-author of India’s Struggle for Independence: “There is a pattern of intolerance. We are fast moving towards countries we used to laugh at. For instance, Pakistan. This is not how a modern, liberal democracy functions. Even during the Vajpayee regime, we did not experience anything of this sort because we were still a democracy, though right-leaning. Today, we are following countries which quell free speech. Worse, as the NBT move shows, they are not only using organs of the state but also pushing autonomous bodies to get rid of uncomfortable facts of history. For India’s Struggle for Independence, they gave a flimsy excuse. For Communalism: A Primer they gave no reason.” Incidentally,India’s Struggle for Independence came under fire for calling Bhagat Singh a “revolutionary terrorist”.

Revolutionary terrorism and terrorism

“Bipan Chandra has explained his use of the term ‘terrorist’ revolutionary terrorism. The term ‘revolutionary terrorism’ got respectability as it was considered as referring to selfless and self-sacrificing acts. The term terrorism was used by British or other colonial powers, whereas the term revolutionary terrorism was used by patriotic, nationalist writers/historians in contrast to the colonial term during anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa. But after the 1990s, with the rise of the Islamic State and other terrorist organisations, even revolutionary terrorism became discredited! When this book was published in English by Penguin and in Hindi by Delhi University, the term had no negative connotation. Certain vested interests unnecessarily attacked this book for political reasons, as the writers/historians belonged to Marxist/liberal or nationalist stream,” said Lal.

Aditya Mukherjee said: “We replaced the term with ‘revolutionary nationalists’ but the book stayed withdrawn because it has several chapters on communalism. Bhagat Singh was an excuse. They are no lovers of Bhagat Singh. They are just uncomfortable with any mention of the freedom struggle because they know the RSS had taken no part in it.”

Shireen Moosvi reiterates the point. “The RSS is always wary of texts in which the national movement’s message is put across to students, since the RSS had really done everything to undermine that movement.”

The historians who feel under attack are not in a mood to retreat. Says Shireen Moosvi: “Historians do not, as individuals, need government approval or disapproval. Nor can every individual expect that he would be called for advice by the government. But yes, the government, by filling the Indian Council of Historical Research with individuals who have not published anything or done any worthwhile research under any criteria, has shown that it is more interested in funding RSS outfits and pet projects than any historical or archaeological research. As for abuse and threats, this is the normal course for people who have no regard for reasoned argument or liberty of thought.”

Shireen Moosvi adds: “Some individual historians’ rightist, centrist or leftist associations, or, indeed, their political indifference, is not the issue here. What is troublesome to the RSS is the history of India as conceived by even G.R. Bhandarkar, R.C. Majumdar or D.C. Sircar, all historians with sound, rightist credentials. This is because what the RSS wishes the country to believe in is sheer myth, which none of the serious historians, of whatever hue, can sanction. It is, however, for all those who pursue history, as well as any other subject, to defend their profession by the spoken and published word as far, and as long, as they can.”

Jha adds a sobering note by way of conclusion: “Historians don’t fear such attacks. They know what happened in Germany under Hitler.”