The death of BD Chattopadhyaya (1939-2022) is a blow to the community of historians in India. A mainstay of JNU’s Center for Historical Studies for more than three decades, Chattopadhyaya nurtured generations of students who carried his ideas forward. He was elected General President of the 75th Platinum Jubilee Session of the Indian History Congress in 2014, was awarded the HC Raychaudhuri Birth Centenary Gold Medal by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 2002 and was awarded the prestigious Prix Duchalais de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in 1978. He taught briefly at Burdwan University and Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan and was a visiting professor at several institutions around the world such as the University of Chicago, the University of Heidelberg and the University of Leipzig.
A renowned scholar, intimately familiar with literary, numismatic, epigraphic and archaeological sources, Chattopadhyaya is one of those who have paved the way for a secular and inclusive historiography, concerned with the plural traditions of India. He was also unequivocal about upholding modern, rational, and constitutional values in our academic pursuits and personal lives. Beginning with his masterful study of South Indian coins and monetary systems, submitted for a PhD at Cambridge in the 1960s, his rigorous research has been recognized in all his projects. It opened up new themes of analysis such as historical geography, delved into overlooked historical aspects, especially gleaned from epigraphic sources, and presented innovative frameworks for understanding the ancient past. His emphasis on the processual framework caused him to depart from the established wisdom, best articulated by RS Sharma, on the rise of feudalism in the first millennium in India. The Making of Early Medieval India (1994), a collection of essays by Chattopadhyaya, has become a landmark in the historiography of ancient India, and every graduate history student would know his arguments regarding political integration, rise of the monarchical state, religious ideology and institutions, and regional formation between the 6th and 13th centuries CE. Studying Early India: Archaeology, Texts and Historical Issues (2003) showcased his mastery of a wide range of sources and raised important issues related to the decontextualized reading of sources and political and chauvinistic attempts to distort history.
This distortion is clearly the source of one of his most brilliant works, Representing the Other: Sanskrit Sources and the Muslims (1998). Examining the crucial period between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, Chattopadhyaya criticized the position of a Hindu-Muslim binary in Indian history, which he skillfully demonstrated was rooted in a colonial periodization that associated the first with the former and the latter to the medieval period. Not sparing well-known Indologists like Sheldon Pollock, who reiterated the colonial position on the development of “cultural fault lines” in medieval times, Chattopadhyaya revealed from a careful reading of literary and epigraphic sources the myriad of ways in which the Muslim as “other” was represented, religious identity (Musalmana) being only one of many identity markers such as region (Parasika, Tajika, Garjana, Turushka) and generic identities (Yavana and Mleccha).
The main essay of the volume, The Concept of Bharatavarsha and Other Essays (2018) raised concerns about the confusion of identities and the telescoping of the present into the past. From the designation of a tribal identity to a geo-cultural marker with specific territorial boundaries, and later an expansive sub-continental identity to its place in a cosmographic scheme, semantic shifts relating to Bharatavarsha as a conceptual category have been highlighted. evidence by Chattopadhyaya. He was deeply concerned that the collapse of the idea of India with Bharatavarsha fueled the common project of identifying the ancient and medieval periods with Hindu and Muslim rulers.
Chattopadhyaya, like many of his generation, helped develop a strong tradition of academic excellence. At the same time, they were sensitive to trends, interpretative frameworks and methodological challenges arising in different parts of the globe. His passing comes at a time when the community of historians around the world is besieged by forces that seek to invent stories based on their ideological makeup.
The author is a professor at the Center for Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University