Biswamoy Pati’s passion for social change helped him envision a just and humane society, which he successfully passed on to many generations of students.
“Just try to understand the margins and the history of the centre will automatically fall into place.” These are the words of a man who was a unique blend of a passionate teacher and a far-sighted intellectual – Biswamoy Pati. My association with professor Pati goes back to the year 2011 when I was pursuing my MPhil in History from Delhi University. He taught us a paper on Subaltern Studies as part of our Historical Methods course.
I was particularly struck by his pleasant mannerism, his disarming smile and above all his knack for making history come alive inside the classroom. He would encourage the students to debate, discuss and make us understand the finer nuances of not only the discipline of history but also the ethics of being good human beings. Professor Pati was an organic intellectual in the Gramscian use of the term, in the sense that he believed that scholarship and social transformation go together. He was not just an armchair intellectual but one who was actively engaged in social and political transformation of South Asia through his scholarship. He was deeply concerned with social inequities and it was primarily owing to this that he was influenced by the Marxist historiography. However, even as he wrote within the Marxist historiographical tradition, his engagement with the colonial past of India was far more creative and unorthodox.
He did see the profound impact of culture and mentalities in perpetuating socio-economic inequalities in India. It is out of his concern for the underprivileged section of the society that he extensively worked on the lives and experiences of the tribal communities in Orissa. His concern with the political and ritual marginalisation of the tribal population in India persuaded him to engage with issues of culture in the reproduction of social disparity and inequalities. Social history was his forte and he was one of the pioneering historians who studied medicine within a social context. His work on the social history of medicine brought out intricate connections between government policies on health, social exclusion and the reproduction of various forms of discrimination in the colonial period. Even as he wrote within the rooted leftist historical tradition, his engagement with India’s colonial past largely relied on synthesising a variety of historiographical traditions.
The other major concerns that defined his scholarship and his political commitment was the deep polarisation and communal conflict in the colonial and the postcolonial period. He was deeply concerned with the resurgence of religious intolerance in recent times and combatted it both through his academic writings and his political activities.
In his writings, he repeatedly contested the idea of the historical existence of homogenous religious communities and the persistence of communal identities in Indian history. Instead, he argued that class and caste were far more distinctive markers of difference than religion. His writings subtly demonstrated the ruptures within the homogenous and insular construction of religious identities caused by class, caste and other institutions of social marginalisation. It was his passion for social change that helped him envision a just and humane society which he successfully passed on to many generations of students. His life and works have always inspired me to develop frameworks of intersectionality to understand history from the margins as it were. It was this view of history which was not teleological but encompassed within it human emotions and experiences, that made me understand and appreciate the discipline more.
The major academic spaces in the city of Delhi – in particular, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, National Archives of India or the Indian Council of Historical Research – beamed with his spirited presence. One would always be greeted by a smile with an invite for chai during the break. Even the tea session with Pati sir was no ordinary get-together but this moment of a lifetime where he would always be ready to help out his students/colleagues in times of their professional or personal difficulties. He was always eager to bring the works of his students in conversation with mainstream academics.
In the times that we are living in where people tend to carry their egos on their shoulder and often turn a blind eye to the suffering of others, sir’s caring and compassionate ways cannot be taken for granted. Just like his scholarship, his personal mannerisms and personality were also very genuine and compassionate without a hint of intellectual snobbery. It was probably because of this reason that he was like a father figure, a friend or a guardian for many of his students and even colleagues. Without thinking twice about the time or the place, one would start rattling off one’s concerns and troubles to professor Pati as if he had a magic wand that would rectify things and make them all right.
Now that he is gone, leaving a huge void in the lives of many of us, his scholarship and academic pursuits will still live on through his students. He passed away on my birthday, leaving me shocked and grief struck but I know that I have a promise to fulfil that we as students made to professor Pati – to make this world a more humane and an optimistic place to live in. Dear sir, we needed your inspiring ideas now more than ever.
The song is ended, but the melody lingers on…
Shivangini Tandon is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University and a visiting fellow at Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin.