Satish Chandra

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Professor Satish Chandra

The Pioneering Scholar of Medieval Indian History

Prof. Mohammad Sajjad*

For students of history, Satish Chandra (1922-2017) – who passed away on October 13 – was a household name as the author of a wonderful textbook for classes XI and XII. Its revised editions and reprints kept appearing. His lucidity made him very popular among students, teachers and lay readers. This is how he mainstreamed historical scholarship and this de rigueur school textbook still remains a useful resource for civil services aspirants. Not that it was without its limitations, such as ignoring Bihar, despite researches of S Hasan Askari (1901-90).

Later, when this textbook was replaced, its slightly enlarged version re-appeared in two volumes, but it was unsatisfactory. Chandra was not well and needed dialysis. This edition was expected to be eventually re-written in a form which engaged critically with all the modern contending researches on the subject, the way later students of Modern Indian History got textbooks by Sumit Sarkar (1983), Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2004) and more recently by Ishita Banerjee-Dube (2014).

Aligarh, for strange reasons, almost refuses to take up this task of writing such a textbook.
Son of a diplomat, Sir Sita Ram, and born in Meerut, Satish Chandra got enrolled in the Allahabad University in 1940 as an undergraduate student when the department of history was headed by Sir Shafaat Ahmad Khan (1893-1948) and the department had acquired a big repute for the researches in medieval Indian history based on original sources. It was fostering nationalist and liberal School of history writing which underlined the evolving cultures of harmony between different faiths in India since its earliest times. It brought forth that the Turks and Mughals furthers the political and cultural unity of India, and that the colonial subjugation cannot make a claim that such unity was only a contribution of the British.

In 1944, Satish did his M. A., and it was Prof R P Tripathi who persuaded him to give up the idea of preparing for the civil services and instead to pursue research in the Medieval Indian History. Sir Jadunath Sarkar(1870-1958) had brought out his volumes on the Fall of the Mughal Empire (1932), putting greater emphasis on "Hindu reaction" against Aurangzeb as a factor of the decline of Mughal empire. Tripathi therefore asked Satish to investigate the first half of 18th century to scrutinise Sarkar's assertions.

Interestingly, Jadunath Sarkar, extended all kinds of helps to Satish, welcoming him into his own personal library in Calcutta as well as recommending him for other libraries such as the one at Sitamau, in what is now Madhya Pradesh. This is in contrast with some of other tall and highly accomplished historians, who far from helping out the potential critics and dissenters, take recourse to hounding and victimising such young researchers. Such regressive and stifling intolerance on the part of the liberal historians need to be exposed and resisted, as it would be a fitting tribute to Satish Chandra as well as to Jadunath Sarkar.

Having served briefly as lecturer at his alma mater, the Allahabad University, he served as Reader in History at the Aligarh Muslim University, during 1953-62. During his stint at Aligarh, he published his famous book, Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court, 1707-40 (1959), which argued that the growing factional power struggle within the nobility, and for possession of productive Jagirs, the Mughal Empire continued to lose its strength. In this book, he disagreed with Jadunath Sarkar and said that Aurangzeb's narrow religious policies had been given up within 6 years of his death.
[In Aligarh, he also published Balmukundnama, a Persian text on a state-maker of 18th century. This source was first used by him]. Puzzling is the fact that Karam Ali's Muzaffarnama remains largely neglected by the historians of Medieval and 18th century India. Its manuscript in the Khuda Bakhsh Library (Patna) is yet to be rendered into English.
Chandra's study (1959) was admittedly "designed to shift discussion on the fall of the Mughal empire from the acts of omissions and commissions of individuals, especially Aurangzeb, to the larger social, economic, and institutional cum administrative processes" besides, examining the 18th century if it was really a century of anarchy and cultural stagnation. Its revised editions came. However, its fourth edition from the Oxford University Press (OUP, 2002) is significant for the fact that he explained his revisions on his takes on the “Jagirdari Crisis”, and scarcity of Jagir lands, as a factor for the disintegration of the Mughal Empire.

Besides these publications, he also discharged some very important administrative responsibilities in the AMU. He served as the founder Provost, of the Non Resident Students Centre (NRSC; before him the Proctor was the ex officio Provost, NRSC), established the NRSC Club, and was Proctor (1961-62). The AMU's luxurious, Guest House No. 2, earlier known as Old Guest House, was constructed under his supervision. May it be proposed that as a token of gratitude, the AMU may consider naming either the Guest House, or the NRSC Hall, after the departed soul, Satish Chandra.
Satish Chandra often recalled nostalgically that the Marxist School of Historiography in Medieval Indian segment grew in AMU from the 1940s onwards under the stewardship of Mohammad Habib (1895-1971), and Nurul Hasan (1921-93) who joined AMU in 1949, after coming back from Oxford. He says that the “Asiatic Mode of Production”, as put forward by Karl Marx, was criticised in AMU and it was not inclined to accept that the Indian society remained largely static till the advent of the British. He vividly recalls how the titans like Christopher Hill (1912-2003), Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012), E P Thompson (1924-93), D D Kosambi (1907-66), R S Sharma (1919-2011), etc., visited Aligarh and fierce debates on various issues of history and historiography took place here. Nurul Hasan rejected Marxian assertion about absence of private property in land in India. They were here to promote liberal-secular, scientific history writing.
Despite his accomplishments, in researches, publications and academic administration, in AMU, Satish was not promoted to Professor, despite having been recommended by a Selection Committee in 1959-60. A cheap and specious plea was put forward, challenging the composition of the Selection Committee. Tara Chand (1888-1973) being on the board of selection, was questioned, post facto, by a disgruntled, unsuccessful colleague, though he too went on to become one of the best known historians of medieval India. Thus, it was a titanic clash of sorts. The representation was later found out to be quite unfounded and ridiculous by the AMU Official Enquiry (Prof. Chatterjee) Committee Report 1961. Yet, the AMU sat on the recommendations of the report. Except his friend, Nurul Hasan, almost none extended moral and other support to Satish. Having seen his hope of becoming professor in Aligarh dashed, the disappointed Satish Chandra had to move to Delhi in 1962. From there he moved on to Jaipur, explored Rajasthani sources to develop regional histories of Medieval India. He then joined the JNU as its founding faculty. It was only after his pursuits, some other scholars like Dilbagh Singh(JNU) and S P Gupta (AMU) delved into the Rajasthani sources to provide new dimensions to the Mughal and 18thcentury History of India.

It needs to be told that despite all his accomplishments, he was not made Professor Emeritus in JNU. He however did go on to become Vice Chairman and Chairman of the UGC. His friend, Nurul Hasan, in consultation with him had planned to open Delhi School of History which remained an unfulfilled dream as Hasan passed away in 1993. They however succeeded in establishing a centre of the Indian Ocean Studies in 1987. Here is a lesson for some of those big historians who know how to perpetuate upon and exploit an institution but not doing anything substantial to create and build an institution.

AMU remained little less grateful to Hasan too. None of his AMU colleagues wrote his obituary in any leading dailies of the day. It was Neeladri Bhattacharya (JNU) who paid tributes to Nurul Hasan by publishing an obituary in the Times of India. Neeladri stressed that Nurul Hasan should be evaluated less for the research output of his own, and more for what he made his students to churn out. Given Chandra’s historical knowledge in administration, he was asked to head a committee for the civil services reforms (1989). He re-introduced essay, besides enhancing marks for interview.
Chandra kept visiting Aligarh quite often and interacted with the students more lovingly. In 1992, when AMU's Centre of Advance Study in History was celebrating 450th birth anniversary of Akbar, he told us how the Muslim League had opposed the 400thbirth anniversary celebration of Akbar in 1942. Funded by UGC, there was an essay writing competition on Akbar, of which he was the evaluator. On finding it out that the winner of the first prize was pursuing MA in Modern Indian History and that he also knew the Persian language, Chandra regretted that it was a loss to the discipline of Medieval India. Little did he know then that more because of the petty politicking and vindictiveness of some of the tall historians, this discipline would later loose that promising guy to the Civil Services.
Much like Nurul Hasan, Chandra too left out or bequeathed many suggestions to the future students of Medieval Indian History, particularly in his Introduction to the compilation of his 24 research papers compiled in a volume in 2003. Among many other things, he suggested that the "hidebound, unimaginative politician" in Aurangzeb remains a conundrum, who should be studied in a holistic manner but that "a significant point which emerges from his failure as a ruler is that an attempt to institute a politico-cultural system based on religious fundamentalism", in a diversified country like India, is bound to fail and will lead to serious problems. He suggested some sources which should be revisited to find out why Aurangzeb brought about a big change in the Mughal Deccan policy in 1684 and relied on heavy military solution to the problem.

He also exhorted the young historians to benefit from the disciplines of sociology, social anthropology and quantitative analysis. In his last of essays, he challenged Eurocentrism in history writing, and asked to“abandon the concept of centre and periphery, with the West as the centre...History has to come back to the fundamental unity of mankind....Not ethnocentrism, but multi-polarity should be a keynote of history”.
He deliberated on, what is the future of history in India, and asked us all to fight against the political groups and ideologies which held the view that Indian unity can be strengthened only by emphasising the cult of one people (Aryans), one culture (Hindu), and one language (Sanskrit and its derivative, a Sanskritised Hindi). Studying the deeper societal changes should be the constant concern of the historians, emphasised Chandra. Though death is the biggest reality of life, he passed away at a moment when such challenges are looming before us.

Its earlier version appeared on The Wire, November 11, 2017.

*Prof. Mohammad Sajjad is an AMU Alum and a Professor at Dept of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh India. He can be reached at

The above article was also transalted in Urdu by Maarif and published in January 2018 issue. Maarif is oldest surviving Urdu journal which is under publication since August 1916 from Darul Musannefin Shibli Academy, Azamgarh India.

The Maarif can be read at;

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